Empires of Bronze
Thunder at Kadesh
By Gordon Doherty
It will be the cruellest war ever waged, and the Gods will gather to watch…
1275 BC: Tensions between the Hittite and Egyptian Empires erupt and the two great superpowers mobilise for all-out war. Horns blare across the Hittite northlands and the dunes of Egypt rumble with the din of drums as each gathers an army of unprecedented size. Both set their eyes upon the border between their domains, and the first and most important target: a desert city whose name will toll through history. Kadesh!
Prince Hattu has lived in torment for years, plagued by the memory of his wife’s murder. Thoughts of her poisoner, Volca the Sherden – for so long safe and distant by Pharaoh Ramesses’ side – have sullied his dreams, blackened his waking hours and driven him to commit the darkest of deeds. Now that war is here, he at last has the chance to confront his nemesis and have his vengeance.
But as the ancient world goes to war, Hattu will learn that the cold, sweet kiss of revenge comes at a terrible price.
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…
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I'm a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction. My love of history was first kindled by visits to the misty Roman ruins of Britain and the sun-baked antiquities of Turkey and Greece.
My expeditions since have taken me all over the world and back and forth through time (metaphorically, at least), allowing me to write tales of the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, Classical Greece and even the distant Bronze Age.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx