Empires of Bronze: Thunder at Kadesh - The Prologue
The Road to Egypt
Summer 1275 BC
A Hittite ox-wagon swayed along the Way of Horus, heading deeper and deeper into Egyptian lands. Viceroy Talmi, tall as a pine, stood with one foot up on the driver’s bench, his silver-black hair – gathered in a tight ball atop his head – juddering in time with the wagon, his eyes narrowed and constantly scanning the enemy realm.
Virgin sand hugged both sides of the ancient road, stretching off to the horizon where the pale dunes met the cobalt sky in a chimeral ribbon of heat. It was a strange and suffocating sight. Even here under the vehicle’s thin linen canopy, he could feel the sun’s blistering glare on the back of his neck. Worse, the air was hot and still as a tomb – the motion of the wagon stirring not even the merest cooling breeze – and his sky-blue robe clung to him, heavy with sweat since dawn.
His parched lips moved without sound as he inwardly rehearsed the carefully-crafted proposal that he would soon put to one of the two most powerful men in the world. A proposal that might save the world. The rehearsal halted abruptly, his thoughts caught like a fly in a spider’s web on this stark truth. He felt the enormity of it all crawling over him, gathering around his throat like a strangler’s hands…
‘This heat, it is like a trick of the Gods,’ a voice croaked behind him, mercifully breaking his thoughts. ‘These southern lands are no place for a Hittite. I’m cooking like a crab.’
Talmi twisted to see his brutish bodyguard, Kantuzili, sweeping sweat from his face and bare chest. The young man’s flattened nose and shaggy mane of black hair gave him the look of a lion, and he could fight like one too.
‘Give me the ice-cold waterfalls and windy mountains of the north,’ the young soldier moaned. ‘A chilled barley beer and a whore to rub cold oil into my skin.’
‘When we return to the halls of Halpa, young sword,’ Talmi smiled, ‘I will grant you a bathing pool brimming with beer.’
He tried to return to his rehearsals, but he could feel Kantuzili’s gaze fixed on him, like a child studying an older relative’s age-lines. ‘They say you were with Prince Hattu all those years ago, on the Retenu expedition that caused all this. When Prince Hattu slew the old Pharaoh’s son, Chaset?’
Talmi felt a wry, inner smile rise, recalling his younger days when things had seemed so black and white. ‘Eighteen years ago, young sword, when I was your age and you were but a child, many things happened which should not have happened.’ Memories scampered across his mind: of the Egyptian trap in the Valley of Bones, when Pharaoh Seti, bereaved and enraged by the loss of the loathsome Chaset, had almost obliterated Prince Hattu’s small Hittite band, including Talmi and his men. He recalled the blood, the screaming, the raining arrows, the moment he and Prince Hattu had been pressed up, back-to-back, waiting for death. And then… the escape. ‘But this started long, long ago. Long before Prince Hattu’s expedition, before even the time of our fathers and grandfathers. It began the moment the Hittite and Egyptian Empires first swelled and pressed up like great millstones against the land of Retenu, each desperate to make that middle-ground and its precious tin routes their own. If anything, both have done well to avoid war for so many centuries…’
Kantuzili peered southwards, massaging the blue eye tattoo on his thumb. ‘The new Pharaoh, Ramesses,’ he said with a tune of hope, ‘he will agree to a lasting peace… won’t he?’
Talmi did not reply. Ramesses had been there in the Valley of Bones. A mere boy, driving Seti’s chariot. What had he grown to become? Once more, he began to mouth his rehearsal.
The wagon rumbled on through the great sand sea during the early afternoon. When the track bent southwest, everything changed. The silvery heat mirage ahead bulged, and a mighty shape emerged like a whale suddenly rising from a calm ocean.
‘Goddess Arinniti,’ Kantuzili gasped, rising, clutching Talmi and the driver’s shoulders and staring at the enormous baked-mud bastion ahead, at its soaring towers and monumental pylon gates, thickly patrolled by black-wigged archers. A sparkling moat hugged the foot of the walls like a jewelled collar.
‘Tjaru Fortress,’ Talmi said quietly, eyes narrowing, ‘Pharaoh’s royal armoury and stepping-stone into Retenu.’ A tap-tap of hammers and chisels rang out from within its thick walls – the noise of industry, of the great military factory in Tjaru’s vast grounds. Talmi and Kantuzili stared at the sea of soldiers serried on a dusty parade area north of the fortress: block after block of veteran spearmen and archers, fawn-skinned, clad in bronze headdresses and linen kilts. They marched, turned, twisted, roared and rushed to and fro in mock combat to the rising wail of horns and booming drums. Thousands upon thousands of them, and Talmi knew this was but a scrap of the manpower Pharaoh Ramesses had raised. Rumours were widespread of intense recruitment at Elephantine Fortress far to the south, swelling his three great armies. Some even said Ramesses was constructing a fourth army. There were also whispers of a great chariot factory at Memphis, producing four immense fleets of war-cars to speed alongside each of the armies. An empire prepared. A prelude to war.
A stony-faced Tjaru watchman stepped out from the shadow of the fortress and approached the wagon with a trio of comrades, regarding them with baleful, kohl-lined eyes. Talmi showed the watchman the tablet he carried and the Hittite royal seal upon it. The sentries let them through – but insisted on an escort of twenty menfyt spearmen. These burly Egyptian veterans jogged alongside the wagon, their pale blue and white linen headdresses bobbing in time, their hands never far from the hilts of their khopesh swords. An escort not to protect the Hittite embassy, but to watch them carefully for any signs of treachery.
‘It is them. The Wretched Fallen Ones,’ Talmi heard one Egyptian soldier whisper to a comrade, ‘the cowsons of the north.’
They did not know that Prince Hattu had taught him their tongue, Talmi realised.
‘They clamber across rocks like flies, and eat raw meat in the snow like wolves,’ spat another.
‘What do you think Mighty Pharaoh will do with them?’ said a third. The one he asked merely cast a sly glance back at Talmi, then looked away with the beginnings of a smirk.
A few hours passed, when the dry desert air became spiced with the scent of honey. At first, Talmi thought he was imagining it. But soon after, the moan of the hot desert breeze changed… into birdsong. Talmi and Kantuzili stared ahead in wonder: the golden sands – seemingly infinite – ended abruptly, and everything beyond was green: a land bounteous with date palms and grass, as if touched by a god. They rolled past an infinite patchwork of emmer wheat fields, the stalks swaying and shaking as workers picked their way through the crop. ‘Everything they said about this land, it is true,’ Kantuzili whispered. ‘Enough crop to feed ten million mouths.’
‘All protected by the desert,’ Talmi agreed, ‘a bulwark stouter than any defensive wall.’
The chatter of rolling water rose as they came to the River Iteru – the wide, murky, life-giving artery of Egypt. Rafts and skiffs picked their way up and downriver and along the irrigation canals, white sails billowing. Giant warships glided in the distance, the rows of bronze-clad soldiers aboard gleaming like treasure.
They were almost there, Talmi realised. He tried to calm himself as they followed a bankside track downriver, breathing slowly, studying the bulrushes as they nodded in the pleasant breeze, enjoying the gentle peal of bells on the many river wharfs and the scent of the pale, sweet smoke that drifted across the waters and the flamingos gliding gracefully just above the surface. A hippopotamus rose from the water, shining wet, yawning and displaying its giant pink mouth and stumpy white teeth before sinking back down to wallow. Talmi smiled, intrigued and mercifully distracted from his task. But then he noticed a wicked-looking creature midriver, with a segmented tough hide and a smile of a thousand fangs. Talmi stared at the crocodile – a beast rarely seen in the northern regions, and wondered if it was any fiercer than the great leader he was soon to address. The moment of calm crumbled into nothing.
On through this vast fertile land they went and, at midmorning the following day, they entered the city of Pi-Ramesses, home of Egypt’s Pharaoh. The air was alive with a babel of jabbering voices, whistling flutes and crowing cockerels. A sea of slaves and workers washed to and fro through the markets and around the sun-bleached temples, obsidian monuments and towering statues of Gods and Pharaohs past. Myriad dusky faces peered up at the wagon as it cut a path through the throng: women in flowing linen gowns, men with shaved heads or wigs, earlobes stretched by swinging turquoise pendants.
The crowds thinned near the palace region – a sprawling complex of temples and manors. The centre-most building, with its high walls and terraced upper floors, was clearly the home of Egypt’s King. Bronze-jacketed Strongarms – Pharaoh’s elite infantry corps – patrolled the rooftop, their scales glittering like the wet skins of fish. The wagon approached along an avenue lined with statues of giant jackal-warriors and drew up when the escort twenty signalled for them to do so.
Talmi stepped down from the carriage. When Kantuzili hopped down too, carrying his spear, Talmi prised it from the young bodyguard’s hand and returned it to the wagon. Kantuzili was aghast.
‘We are here for peace, young sword.’
The escort twenty marched the pair into the shady coolness of a giant hypostyle hall, guiding them through the forest of brightly-painted columns and to an enclosed garden somewhere in the heart of the palace. Grape-heavy vines lined the garden walls, and geckos hid in their shade. At the far side of the garden, wide steps led to a doorway. Talmi stared at the doorway as if it was an open mouth about to speak.
‘They’re gone,’ Kantuzili whispered.
Talmi frowned, then glanced behind him. Indeed, the escort of twenty menfyt had vanished. They were alone. His flesh began to crawl… and then he heard a rising, inhuman chuckle from somewhere nearby. A thunder of feet sped towards them from the side, and his heart almost burst from his chest. He clutched at his waist where normally he would carry his sword, and swung to the sound… only to see a baboon charging towards them. The creature, wearing a golden collar studded with lapis lazuli stones, bared its teeth, shrieked with laughter and sprang past them, then scrambled on up the vines.
‘By the Gods,’ Kantuzili gasped in shock and then relief.
Talmi let a nervous laugh escape his lips… until he turned back to the black doorway.
It was empty no more. With the heavy padding of paws and a low, serrated growl, a lion emerged from the blackness and slunk down the stone steps. Icy terror struck down Talmi’s spine. The creature was huge, with a magnificent mane and scars across its face and body. A beast of battle, he realised, recognising the scars as sword and axe wounds, and the markings of armour straps on its coat. Talmi and Kantuzili backed away as the lion strolled towards them. Both had seen great cats like this in the wild, and knew how noble they were. But if provoked or hungry…
‘Foe-slayer, rest,’ a voice boomed from the great doorway. The lion dropped to the ground and swished its tail.
Pharaoh Ramesses paced from the doorway, halting on the steps to behold his visitors. His eyelids were thickly striped with kohl, his high cheekbones brushed with silver and his lips were set in a thin line. He wore a gold and blue headdress like a cobra’s hood, held in place by a golden scarab circlet. His clubbed beard pointed down like an axe haft, hanging over a magnificent pectoral of silver and gold. Two Strongarms flanked him. A slave – distinct by his unshaved head – fanned him with palm fronds and ostrich feathers, while another carried a cup and a plate of plump dates, and a third man held a soft clay tablet and a stylus. None of them dared to look their master in the eye, or even face him.
The nine-year-old boy who had driven Seti’s chariot in the Valley of Bones was a boy no more, thought Talmi. Ramesses stepped down towards them, seemingly growing a foot’s-length taller with every stride.
Talmi dropped to one knee. ‘Lord of the Two Lands, Son of Ra, Horus of Gold,’ he began the well-practiced words, using the Akkadian tongue – the language of diplomacy – all the time staring at the ground. A pause hung in the air, pregnant and swelling, then…
‘He who rages like a panther,’ another voice added the forgotten epithet from somewhere behind Talmi.
Talmi’s skin crawled as he sensed the figures silently forming an arc at their backs. He rolled his eyes to one side, seeing the leader of this group.
Talmi could not help but twist his head and stare the man full in the face, his mind flashing with memories of the battle in the valley. Volca, the bastard Sherden who had seeded it all: the death of Prince Chaset which had so maddened Pharaoh Seti and then the snare in the valley. Volca’s horned-helm winked in the sunlight. His pale-skinned handsome face – barely marked with age even now – was bent in a smile, his eyes black-lined in the Egyptian way, his fair, collar-length hair tucked behind his ears and large copper hoop earrings. A bitter gall rose in Talmi’s throat as he noticed that the cur still wore the red cloak once granted to him when he had served – and so nearly destroyed from within – the Hittites. Volca patted the haft of his trident menacingly against his free hand, the muscles around his gold bicep band bulging. More, what nightmare was this: fifty or more Sherden in those same horned helms stood with him. People said Pharaoh had taken a band of distant islanders as his personal bodyguard – but these demons?
‘You did not come all this way from your northern homeland to kneel mutely before me,’ Ramesses said in a booming tone that sent the geckos scampering across the walls. ‘Speak.’
Talmi’s head snapped back round, gaze fixing on Ramesses’ feet. ‘I am Talmi, Viceroy of Halpa. I bring a message from King Muwatalli, Labarna of the Hittites, the Sun in human form, my cousin and your brother in divine royalty.’
‘The message is an offer of peace, a chance to set to rest the misunderstandings of the past.’
Talmi, still staring at Pharaoh’s feet, imagined Ramesses’ face curling into a ball of hatred, imagined Volca and the arc of Sherden warriors closing in around his back.
Instead, a single-word reply hummed like the string of a plucked lyre. ‘Rise.’
‘And look me in the eye. I permit this.’
Talmi dared to look up, saw a measured expression on Ramesses’ face, and realised it was no trick. Slowly, he stood. Ramesses beckoned him over towards a set of timber stairs on one side of the enclosed garden. Talmi’s feet seemed to turn to stone at that moment.
Volca stepped over beside him. ‘Go on…’
When Talmi took a stride forward he heard Kantuzili’s familiar steps behind him. ‘No, young sword,’ he said, holding up a hand.
‘But, my Lord, I am bound to stay by your side. And of all places-’
‘Stay here, faithful friend,’ Talmi reassured him.
‘Aye, stay here and run with the baboons,’ Volca said with a smile.
Kantuzili’s face darkened with anger.
Shepherded by Volca and surrounded by Pharaoh’s two Strongarms, slaves and scribes, Talmi ascended the wooden steps, leaving the rest of the Sherden troop and Kantuzili behind. The stairs led onto a balcony. A low table had been set out with a bounteous feast: jugs of wine, crushed ice brought downriver from the southern mountains, platters of muskmelon and plump dates, salty black olives, baked perch and loaves topped with cumin seeds. Colourful cushions and rugs were dotted around the table. Water bowls at the corners of the balcony gave off a sweet scent of rosewater.
Ramesses stood at the balustrade, back turned on Talmi, gazing out over a vast olive grove near the palace grounds. ‘Your journey must have been tortuous,’ he said. ‘My table is yours.’
A slave handed Talmi a cup of iced berry juice, and as he lifted the cup towards his mouth, the delightful coldness stung pleasantly on his nose and lips. How long since he had tasted anything but brackish water? But just as he was about to take a drink, he noticed something from the corner of his eye. Volca, smirking.
Talmi set the cup down, the drink untouched.
Not thirsty? Volca mouthed.
Talmi’s blood boiled. This bastard had poisoned old King Mursili, and Prince Hattu’s wife too. Did Pharaoh not realise what a monster he had by his side? Pharaoh had to be told this. But only once the talks were complete.
He noticed Ramesses’ head moving, tracking something on the move down in the olive grove. A chariot, speeding nimbly through the woods. The driver guided the vehicle skilfully and the regally-dressed boy on board with him shot a bow at small targets pinned to the trees.
‘My boy, Khepe, will be Pharaoh after me,’ Ramesses said, his voice now soft. ‘Yet the Priests of Amun rumble that he matures too slowly.’ He laughed mirthlessly and shook his head. ‘Still, such talk of succession makes me think of the passage of time. Of fathers fading and sons rising… like blessed Osiris. I miss my father, not the warrior… the man.’ He and Talmi watched as the chariot down below slowed. Young Khepe stepped down and over to a tree. He placed a strip of something on his wrist, then stretched up on his toes to offer the hand to the lowest branches. A kingfisher – back and wings as blue as the ocean – floated down with a chee! and hovered by his hand, pecking tentatively. A faint smile touched the corners of Ramesses’ lips. ‘Sometimes in this game of power, we forget the things that truly matter.’
Talmi felt an unexpected and welcome surge of hope in his breast – this was a promising opening: emotional, frank and sincere.
‘So tell me, Viceroy. What does King Muwatalli offer?’ Ramesses said, half looking back over his shoulder. The Egyptian scribe took up a tablet, stylus hovering, eyes fixed on Talmi’s lips.
Talmi took a deep breath, praying the rehearsals had been enough. ‘In your lands, gold lies everywhere, like dust. But good timbers and textiles are rare. In Hittite lands it is the opposite,’ the dull tap of the scribe’s stylus plunging into the soft clay filled a brief pause. ‘So let us establish a new treaty of trade, a foundation for a peaceful and mutually beneficial future.’
Ramesses said nothing for a time. ‘And what of Retenu?’
Talmi’s heart thumped once. Retenu – the land of a thousand vassals, caught between the two great millstones of empire. Everything that had happened eighteen years ago had happened there. ‘King Muwatalli asks that…’
Ramesses’ ears pricked up.
‘… that you accept the loss of Kadesh. The holy river city was once Hittite before your father seized it, eighteen years ago. And five summers ago, the Kadeshi people were on the edge of revolt – unhappy with Egyptian governance. Ekmaddu avoided a slaughter by usurping his father to become king in his place, bloodlessly ousting your garrison and declaring Kadesh’s allegiance to the Hittite throne once more.’
A long silence passed.
‘Kadesh,’ said Ramesses said at last. ‘The stout city that controls the inland route through Retenu. That would be a huge prize to forego, Viceroy. Tell me what your Labarna offers in return?’
Talmi took a long, slow breath. ‘In return, the Labarna will afford you steep concessions on the cedar, birch, elm and cherry wood felled in our lands. This will leave both of our thrones enriched and stable. I ask of you, Pharaoh, to put your seal-ring to this proposal… to bring the world back from the brink of war.’
Talmi felt sweat gather into beads on his upper lip. Ramesses nodded gently for a time, as if locked in an internal dialogue. At last he pushed away from the balcony and beckoned Talmi again, this time towards a doorway that led inside the palace halls. As Talmi followed, the two Strongarms escorted them, their armour shushing and clanking as they walked. He noticed Volca reading some tacit gesture from Ramesses and staying behind on the garden balcony.
‘King Muwatalli already plans further offers in future,’ Talmi continued, flitting down a flight of stone stairs into a lower floor, a few strides behind Ramesses. ‘The rich copper deposits on the vast island of Alasiya could be shared between us. Together, our empires could protect the tin routes for our mutual gain.’
Pharaoh nodded as he walked.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and followed a tight, dark corridor. Underground, Talmi realised. What was this, he fretted as they led him along the barely-lit passageway; the way to the torture chambers or the gaol – where it was rumoured thousands of Hittite war-captives languished, branded and blinded?
But they emerged instead into a high-ceilinged chamber clad in obsidian. The walls and floor were entirely black, just a lone finger of light shining in from an oculus in the ceiling. Statues of ram-headed sphinxes lined the edges of the room. At the end of the chamber stood a tall god statue, bearded and staring. He realised where he was, having seen such likenesses before.
‘A shrine to Amun,’ he said in a low breath, his voice echoing around the enclosed space. Such temples were amongst the holiest places in all Egypt. This one, in Pharaoh’s palace-city, was surely one of the most revered of all. The perfect place to seal a historic settlement, Talmi wondered?
‘I have heard your Labarna’s proposal, and here is my reply.’ Ramesses turned to face him.
Talmi nodded once. ‘I am King Muwa’s ears, mighty Pharaoh.’
Ramesses stared at him for a time in silence, before speaking at last in a low crackle. ‘Oh, this message will need no words.’
‘Pharaoh?’ Talmi said, confused.
Volca entered the temple chamber, smiling. ‘Foe-slayer has been fed, Majesty. He left us a little though,’ he smirked, tossing a bloody hand across the floor.
Talmi’s gut twisted sharply, staring at the hand, seeing the blue eye symbol on the thumb. ‘Kantuzili? No!’
Ramesses glowered at the hand, then returned his darkening gaze to Talmi.
‘Mighty Pharaoh, you stand on the edge of a terrible mistake,’ Talmi raged, all decorum falling away.
‘I spoke before of fathers and sons,’ Ramesses snapped. ‘Well my father Seti now walks with the Gods in the Field of Reeds. With his dying breath he made me swear to hunt down and kill my brother Chaset’s murderer…’ he jolted with fury now, spit flying, ‘to bring Prince Hattu’s eyes to his tomb in a rag!’
‘Hattu did not slay Chaset. You do not know the whole story, you must speak-’
‘Only our swords will speak now,’ Ramesses roared. The temple shook with the ferocity of his proclamation.
Volca bumped his trident haft on the ground twice. From the gaps between the ram-headed sphinxes emerged shaven-headed priests in white tunics. They wore placid looks as they converged upon Viceroy Talmi, and then they drew from under their robes blunt and heavy cudgels. Talmi staggered back, driven into the finger of light as the priests crowded in on him. They erupted in a low drone of prayer as they formed a tight circle around him.
‘Now, for the glory of Amun, for Egypt,’ Ramesses screamed, ‘let this be a clear answer to your king. Kadesh will be mine. Then all Retenu will fall before my four armies and finally your wretched northern heartlands. Let there be war!’
The first cudgel swung down, crunching into Talmi’s forehead. A thick crack of breaking bone rang out and white fire struck across his field of vision. He collapsed to the floor, paralysed. The cudgels continued to rain down upon his body, smashing his limbs and pulverising his ribs, turning his organs to liquid. As he slipped away into the Dark Earth, realm of the dead, he stared up at the shaking, fervent Ramesses, and the triumphant Volca by his side.