The loud crack of wood on stone where a wheel is missing a piece of its rounded edge and the following slosh made by four pails of water repeat in a frustrating rhythm, reminding me how much easier life was as a priest of Set in Upper Egypt. With followers and offerings aplenty, I could no doubt pay to have my cart fixed; perhaps a skilled carpenter would do the work only for the glory of Set. I may even be the priest over priests and acolytes, delegating to them the task of dousing torches and the brazier at the end of the day. Instead, I preside over a lonely temple built to a very modest standard and maintained poorly, fighting for followers in a land that loves Horus. This near the sea, I find Set contends even with the gods of foreigners.
At last my cart is near enough the brazier, but as I bend down for a pail, I hear a small commotion drawing nearer from the street. Forgetting the pail and stepping outside, I see a helpless drunk carried towards my temple by two men and a wailing boy. A brief glance down the other direction of the street reveals that there are no fires alight at Horus' temple. How can they keep such a following with priests that clearly lack dedication? As the group draws nearer, the stench of death surprises me; I had expected a wine soaked man, not a blood soaked one. I usher them inside, saying, "Place him on the stone table."
"This man is dying of his wound," The boy looks up at me from beside the table, fear and grief stream as tears down his cheeks, skewing his makeup, and between his sobs he speaks, "Call upon your power and heal him."
Firelight mingled with starlight does little to define his features, but it is plain to see from all his makeup and jewelry that this is our so very precious boy pharaoh. He is a child of Lower Egypt, thus predictably favoring Horus; how humble he must feel with no resort save Set. I wonder how it sounds to hear a pharaoh beg. Whatever feelings I have for the Pharaoh and his wretched god, I must tread lightly, lest he lose his temper. I bow egregiously low before I offer reply, "I am but a priest; for all my will to aid you, Pharaoh, I can do naught but last rites. If miracles come, they will be from Set."
"Then I command that Set save him." Oh ho, the boy is as bold as he is young.
"Indeed, it is within Set's power to rescue him from his fate," I slowly rise from my insufferable bow before I continue, "but please understand, young pharaoh, that even though you may be a god among men, gods cannot simply command one another. A bargain must be made and only life can pay for life."
"I do not care, Set may take what he desires." he claims, his tone changed from insolence to trepidation.
It is unfortunate that Set cannot exploit those words so easily. Some terms of a bargain must be made clear before it is sealed, else the pharaoh will later claim to be cheated. "Set may require years from the life of a loved one. Do you have a wife yet? A mother still? Your own life may be the price he demands. Set will make no bargain unless you truly grasp what you offer for one man's life."
"This is not just one man. His line has guarded pharaohs for generations with a talent no one else has. His son has not yet learned these talents. If he dies here, today, then I will have stolen this protection from every pharaoh to follow me," the Pharaoh struggles as he speaks, forcing his words to be heard without sobs, "I will say it again. Set may take what he desires, but this man cannot die."
I find myself conflicted, struck by a wave of sudden admiration; the boy appears surprisingly wise, looking to the future needs of the land, not merely his own. The feeling quickly vanishes as the pity for a desperate boy replaces it. It may be true that this man is worth more than one other, but Set will take that into account and turn this against the boy in ways he cannot imagine. Opening my mind to the words of Set, I hear that he is pleased with his fortune this night, but he says I must choose my words with care, as the verbal contract will dictate what he may do.
"Set is the god of the desert. Set will protect this man with the sands such that no wound may kill him; that is how he will be saved. You are prepared to pay life, yours or that of another, equal to that which will be protected?" the pharaoh nods hurriedly, "Do not forget that Set is also the god of chaos. Your bodyguard will create order, so Set must create an equal and opposite. You accept these terms?" The pharaoh starts, but his jaw hangs open, voice caught in his throat. He hesitates when he should outright refuse; the risk is high and the price far steeper than he realizes. I urge him, "By judge of his face, this man will not last another hour. Set can only save him from death, not bring him back from it, so make your decision quickly. Do you accept these terms?"
The pharaoh, at my subtle suggestion, searches the face of his dying companion for an answer. The flickering light cast down from the brazier serves to highlight the sunken features of a life soon to expire and the pale starlight further drains the waning color from his skin. The man's smokey white eyes are open wide as if they already gaze upon the next world. Occasionally, his chest rises and falls in shallow breaths that are fast becoming his last; each time, a faint, pitiful click sounds from within his throat. I could not ask for a purer vision of death to tug at this pharaoh's heart.
"Yes!" he shouts, "yes, I accept the terms. Just save him."
My lips curl in a slight grin as I reach an open hand out to the pharaoh, "Very well, Pharaoh. You should know that blood is the only ink that can seal a contract such as this," the fool boy's hand trembles as he reaches it out towards me. It takes all of my willpower, but I suppress a scoff and simply say, "His blood, not yours. One of the cloths you dressed the man's wound with will suffice." He fumbles at the poor excuse for bandages and pulls one free to hand it to me. Soaked it may be, but the rich texture of the cloth is still apparent. Doubtless this bandage once hung from the pharaoh's shoulders. How touching. I hold the cloth high above the brazier and wring it out to drip the offering to Set.
The first few drops to land in the pyre merely sizzle, but as the stream thickens the blood itself ignites, a whip of bright blue flame racing up to my hands. Startled, I release my grip on the cloth as a mouth of natural orange flames and ghostly blue tongues swallows it. Gesturing to the pharaoh and his guards, I ask them to turn the wounded man on his side while I take up a jar of sand and approach him. Removing the bandages reveals three deep punctures which still seep, over which I pour the contents of my jar. The sand dyes red as it contacts the wounds until the blood is absorbed, then grows dry piles both in front and behind the man. As the last grains fall, a cool gust rips into the temple, stirring embers up to the ceiling and chasing away the sand.
"Life for life, the price has been paid. Set's gift is bestowed." The now bare skin reveals a miracle from Set; no wound, no scar remains to be seen. The man rolls to his back of his own volition and breathes in deep. Through a fit of coughs and gasps, he sits up quickly, struggling to speak. I place a hand over his eyes and another between shoulder blades as I gently lean him back and whisper, "Quiet now. Relax. You are healed, but still weary. Pharaoh is safe. Rest well."
The man lays back into a calm sleep and I return my attention to the rest of my charming company, all of whom stare aghast. I make a slight bow and turn my open palms upward to prompt a response but receive none. I admit this to be an uncommon sight, but is it truly so difficult to give thanks?
Finding the silence unbearable, I speak once more, "Always remember what Set has done for you this night. Perhaps you should visit his temples more often from now on," then clapping my hands together, "Now, if you would kindly carry him away, Set requires other service of me."
The next grain of sand to fall through the hourglass is here.
Feeling lost in time? Start at the beginning.