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"I'll slay him!" The short, stocky ship's master, his face aflame with rage, glared at the tall, rangy villager standing before him. "I vow to the lord Hapi, I'll take his life with my bare hands!"
Hapi was the god who personified the river flowing below them, for much of its length broad and sedate, predictable. Here, however, its waters were split into a labyrinth of narrow, swift channels forcing their way around black granite boulders and islets, with just a few supporting sparse green growth.
The Medjay sergeant Imsiba took a firmer grip on the seaman's upper arm. Tall and sleek, with dark, glowing skin and the grace of a leopard, he towered over the man he held. "You'll take no man's life today, Captain Suemnut."
"He wrecked my ship!"
"Through no fault but his own, that I swear." The villager Neny, a man burned dusty brown by sun and wind, spouted the words with contempt.
Lieutenant Bak, Imsiba's commanding officer and head of the Medjay police at the fortress of Buhen, a two-hour trek downstream to the north, scowled at the pair. Buhen, the largest of eleven fortresses along this rugged and desolate segment of the river called the Belly of Stones, served as administrative headquarters for the area. Thus, his involvement in their squabble.
Their enmity was long-standing, he had been told, a sore that festered each time Suemnut had his ship hauled upstream through the rapids or eased back down on his homebound journey. Unfortunate, since each needed the other in equal measure. This stretch of rapids could be navigated only when the river was swollen and only with the help of the local men, who, using stout ropes, pulled the ships upstream or guided their passage downstream. Neny was the most influential and skilled headman in the area, able to collect sufficient men from neighboring villages and use his vast knowledge of the rapids to see a ship safely through the rocks. The land on which his and the other villages stood was the most barren along the Belly of Stones, and without the products merchants such as Suemnut exchanged for their aid, the people would have starved.
Certain he would get nothing useful from either man, nothing uncolored by anger and dislike, Bak walked a dozen or so paces to the end of the sandswept promontory on which they stood. The lord Re, well on his way to the western horizon and his descent into the netherworld, glowed bright yellow in a pallid sky. Bak's shadow was elongated, the head and shoulders failing over the edge of the low cliff. A stiff north breeze dried the sweat on his broad, deeply tanned chest, ruffled his short-cropped dark hair, lifted the hem of his thigh-length white kilt. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and waved off a fly buzzing so close to his head he could hear its song above the roar of the rapids at the base of the promontory. The distant honking of geese drew his eyes downriver, where a flock was settling into a reedy backwater, a safe haven for the coming night.
Beyond the broad stretch of rapids, the brownish, frothing water rushed down a narrow, steeply sloping channel clutched between a multitude of black granite crags, bleak and bare, glistening wet. Other than the swiftness of the flow, the passage looked as safe as a stone-paved street leading to the mansion of a god. Its appearance was deceiving. Obstacles lay beneath the surface, concealed by silt and froth: rocks and falls and eddies that could send a ship careening to certain destruction against the boulders. Unless its journey was controlled by men, men like those standing or kneeling on the boulders and islets at either side of the channel.
What, then, had happened to the vessel lying broken and helpless near the lower end of the passage? The modest traveling ship, roughly sixty paces long, lay smashed against a cluster of three craggy boulders rising at the near side of the channel. Water surged through an impressive hole torn in the vessel's hull. The deck tilted at an impossible angle, yet a surprising amount of cargo remained on board. Bundled cowhides lashed in place, soaked by the turbulent waters. What had gone wrong? Bak found it difficult to believe Neny would deliberately destroy a ship, even a vessel belonging to. a man he hated. Other ships' masters would be sure to retaliate, finding a headman who pleased them more, leaving Neny's village to starve.
His eyes raked the rocky outcrops and islets along the channel, where fifty or more nearly naked villagers idled away the hours, awaiting Neny's signal to set to work. Coils of thick rope lay on the rocks at their feet. Other ropes, lifelines attached to the broken vessel, were wound around boulders or heavy poles jammed into crevices, holding the ship in place until the men could swim out and salvage the cargo.
"My beautiful ship," Suemnut wailed, coming up behind Bak. "Why, oh, why did I wait so long to sail north? Why didn't I sail at the highest flood stage, as I should've?"
Bak looked at a man truly distraught. "You were on board when your vessel broke loose?"
The captain nodded. "Only the gods kept me from drowning. Me and my crew."
"Tell me what happened."
"I was standing on deck, as always, but with the fate of my vessel in other men's hands. I don't like Neny, but never once have I had reason to doubt his skill, nor did I this time. I was watching his men laboring to pass us down the channel, taking care not to tangle the ropes. They were working in teams, singing. All seemed well. And then something.. ." He shook his head, as if denying a fact impossible to refute. Bak bit back the urge to prompt, preferring the seaman tell the tale at his own pace and in his own way.
Suemnut frowned, swallowed hard. "I ... I don't know what happened. A noise, I remember, and a rope whipped across the deck. Men went flying overboard, and the brazier and a cage of ducks. The cage broke apart, I recall, and birds flew in every direction." A distracted smile touched his lips and fled. "As you can see, the ship was laden with hides, bundles and bundles of them, all securely tied on deck. The rope struck those at the stern. I felt a mighty jerk and suddenly we rammed into the boulders. The vessel shuddered and I heard the moaning and snapping of wood. Ile next thing I knew, we were swimming for our lives."
"Where'd the rope come from?" Imsiba asked.
"Our hawsers were stowed securely on deck. It had to be one used for the tow." Suemnut glowered at the headman; his tone grew accusatory. "I can't say how it came aboard my ship, but Neny was standing on a boulder close by, shouting orders."
" I'd wager your ballast shifted, Captain." Neny spat out the title as he would a sour fruit.
Bak studied the wreck and the men positioned along the channel to hold the ship in place, their ropes rigid with tension. He had a good idea what had happened. An experienced captain like Suemnut probably did, too, and surely Neny did. But both had closed their hearts to the truth, preferring instead to fan the fire of enmity. He glanced at Imsiba, who nodded agreement. They had no need to air the thought; they had been friends too long.
Bak stared again at the torn and broken ship, squinting to temper the glare on the water. A vessel no different from most traveling ships, it had an enclosed deckhouse painted in a black, white, and green chevron pattern; an open forecastle and aftercastle; a long rudder hanging from the stern of a hull weathered a deep, rich brown; and an intertwined green and white lotus design painted on its high prow. A good, reliable ship, it must have been, but no longer.
"I must go to the wreck and see it for myself," he said.
Neny gave him a doubtful look. "You would risk at best a good dunking, at worst your life?"
Bak's mouth hardened. "I see fifty or more men occupying the boulders on both sides of the channel. Has not each and every man taken a dunking this day?"
"Most have, yes, but. . ."
"Do you think me any less a swimmer than they are?"
"They know the river well-and its hazards."
Bak scowled. "Call one of your men and tell him to guide me across the rocks to the ship. I'll also need a stout lightweight rope."
Neny's eyes flashed resentment at so peremptory a tone, but he bowed his head in acquiescence.
Bak's wait was brief. 'Me young man summoned, fourteen or so years of age, was slim as a reed and seemed always to wear a shy grin. Neny spoke to him in a dialect Bak could not understand, but Imsiba tilted his head, listening closely to words he had known as a child. In the end, he seemed satisfied with the headman's instructions.
Setting off, Bak carried the rope coiled around his left shoulder and the youth, an inflated goatskin used by local people to provide buoyancy in the water. Rather than work their way across the chaos of cracked and broken rock at the base of the promontory, they took a roundabout but less treacherous route, walking ankle-deep through windblown sand, leaping from rock to rock across a swift channel, wading through knee-high weeds and hip-deep water. Beyond a row of islets, craggy and barren of life, flowed the channel through which the ships were pulled. A well-beaten path requiring a modest amount of wading carried them north along the open stretch of swift-flowing water. Bak merely nodded to the men he and the boy passed, certain they would reveal nothing until he had seen the wreck for himself and could question them with the authority of knowledge.
They halted on a high mound of weathered rock adorned with a single tamarisk and dotted with tough, spiky grass. The islet lay slightly upstream, overlooking the wrecked ship. A pole made shiny by the slippage of ropes was wedged between two boulders. The islet was unoccupied, the pole bare of rope. Directly across the channel, a villager sat on his haunches, raising something to his mouth-dates most likely-and chewing with vigor. Close beside him, a taut rope was wrapped several times around a boulder, its far end attached securely to the wreck.
Bak studied the mound on which he stood and the bare pole. "This looks to be a critical place from which to ease a ship down the channel. Why is it not manned?"
The boy shrugged. "Dadu was here. He swam out to the ship with a rope, which he'd made fast to this pole. When last I saw him, he'd come back and was waiting for his team to come help. Then the ship wrecked, and I never thought to look again. Where he's gone now, I don't know."
Bak scanned the channel, the men perched on the rocks overlooking the narrow chute of water, and the calm and safe cove not fifteen paces downstream of the wreck. "Where was Neny when the ship struck the rocks?"
The youth pointed upstream toward a tall granite monolith rising above the surrounding landscape, an ideal place from which to watch the activity all along the channel and to issue orders. A flatter rock beside the monolith was occupied by a balding man who had snugged his rope around a protruding mass of stone. The far end of the rope was attached to the ship.
Resting his backside against the pole, Bak stared across a short span of swift, tumultuous water, a dozen paces at most, toward the broken ship. The vessel looked no different at so close a distance than from afar. Rather like a lamb savaged by a jackal. Too badly injured to save.
He focused on the cargo, a hundred or more bundles, probably a thousand cowhides total, lashed to the deck in front of the deckhouse and behind it. Those washed by the river were well soaked, but he assumed they could be recovered and dried with no loss in value. No wonder Neny's men were staying close. To salvage so much would earn them ample reward.
Chiding himself for wasting the last precious moments of daylight, Bak knelt beside the water and looked out at the foaming surface. If he were to learn the truth, he must enter the river. He shuddered at the thought. In the not too distant past, he had come close to drowning; now he feared the rapids mightily.
The boy voiced no objection, but watched with dismay as Bak looped one end of the rope around the pole and carried the remainder of the coil to the water's edge. Trying not to see his own fears mirrored in the youth's face, he shouldered the rope and stepped into the river. Taking a deep breath, shutting down the dread, he dove beneath the surface.
Swimming against the current's tug, he examined in light filtered by silt-laden water the liquid world around him. The rock lining the bottom was an extension of the mound he had just left, a tumble of rough, broken boulders that reached out toward the open channel. During low water, they and the boulders on which the ship lay would form a single barren island. A school of fingerlings-carp, Bak thought-swam among the naked limbs of a drowned bush. He imagined he could taste the fish, the silt, the mustiness of the ages.
Spotting a taller outcrop at what he judged to be midway between him and the wrecked ship, he rose to the surface for air and swam toward the projection. The current pulled at him, trying to carry him downriver. The rope got in his way, hampering the use of his left arm and at the same time breaking his speed as he slowly played it out. Nearing the outcrop, which reached to within a hand's length of the water's surface but was hidden beneath the foam, he lunged toward it.
Without warning, an arm broke the surface. A hand beckoned.
He jerked away, so startled he sucked in water. The current caught him, tore him from the outcrop, and carried him downstream. Froth warned of a maelstrom ahead and he came close to panic. The rope pulled him up short.
Swimming with all his strength, trying not to cough, he regained the outcrop, held on tight, and surfaced for air. The hand-if he had indeed seen a hand-had vanished. He coughed water and at the same time tried to give the boy a reassuring smile. When his breath came easily again, he worked his way around and down the outcrop, taking care not to cut himself on knife-sharp edges of splintered rock. On the far side, he found the hand. And more.
The body of a man, pale in death, wide-eyed with fear, bobbed up and down in the current. A stout rope, snarled and tangled in a crevice, was wound around his legs, holding him underwater. Bak noted the rope's frayed end and a long burn-like injury down the man's right thigh and leg where he had been dragged across the rocks. This, he thought, must be Dadu. The tale he read was clear, but only half a story. To find the rest, he must swim out to the wreck. Sensing the passage of time, he resurfaced, took in air, glanced at the sky. The sun would soon disappear, leaving Wawat in darkness. He must leave Dadu submerged and hurry on.
He swam straight to the wrecked ship, noting as he did the taut ropes rising from the broken vessel to the islets lining the channel, holding the wreck in place. The three boulders on which the ship lay were cracked and pitted, weathered by time. Diving down, he saw the rough-cut sandstone blocks used for ballast spilling around the boulders from the ragged hole in the hull. A school of tiny fish swarmed around the hides. A large perch swam among them, feasting on his smaller brethren, sending them darting in all directions. The frayed end of a thick rope waved from among the blocks, the same rope, he felt sure, as the one around Dadu's legs.
Surfacing for air, he swam around the cargo to the rudder. The hides looked secure on the steeply sloping deck, but for how long? He played out the rope he carried around his shoulder and tied the end to the aftercastle, forming a bridge of sorts between the ship and the islet on which the boy sat. A trio of crows scolded him from the surrounding boulders.
He flung a rock their way, sending them squawking into the air, and dove again. In moments, he found attached to the hull the heavy rope he assumed Dadu had carried out to the ship before his death. Rather than rising toward the islet where the boy stood-as it should have-it curved around the trio of boulders and back toward the ship to disappear in the pile of hides. By prodding and poking, he traced its path through the cargo and back into the water, where all -but the frayed end had been entombed beneath the sandstone blocks. It looked, he thought, as if a mighty being, a god perhaps, had torn the rope free and flung it, sending it around the boulders and in among the hides, dooming the ship.
Copyright © 1999 by Betty J. Winkelman