Fantasy Historical ancient dark dark fantasy short story historical fantasy egypt

Kingdom of Dust and Boils

By Wendy Nikel
Jul 1, 2019 · 3,046 words · 12 minutes

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo via Unsplash.

From the author: A boy is bound by magic to keep the secrets of the Pharoah’s son.

I lived in the palace of the pharaoh's son. I kept his secrets upon my skin.

The first one was branded to my forearm when we were but boys, when I was first gifted to the young prince as his confidante. His aabt. The keeper of his secrets.

In the candlelit chambers of the temple, with tears cutting rivers through the dust on my cheeks, the hekau told him my secret name, binding me to his will. As they cast the spell, I blocked out the words, fixating instead at a spot near my feet, a darkened blotch in the stone that looked vaguely sheep-like.

Would I ever see my flocks, my people, my family again?

"Look at me." He spoke the name and my body betrayed me. My neck lifted, my eyelids rose.

His eyes shone, flickered like a cobra's in the darkness, this boy-to-be-king who now owned me. He leaned in and his voice cut through me as the fire-hot tip of his scepter touched my skin. I gritted my teeth, refused to cry out as the secret in his whisper seared me.

The hekau nodded in approval at my willpower. His voice murmured like the Nile, like the grumble of a croc, like a spell. "This boy will be a good secret-keeper, my prince. He's stronger than the last one."

The prince slid his scepter into his waistband of his pure-white kilt. His sandaled feet slapped the temple floor in a manner which would have been irreverent had he been anyone but the future king. I didn't dare examine my arm until he'd melted into the night's darkness, and when I did I was surprised that something so small had caused such dizzying pain.

"The greater the secret, the greater the scar." The hekau's back was to me, his head bent over his papyrus scrolls, yet he must have known that I'd look. "He gave you a small secret to carry first, one known by others besides himself."

The mark had turned from to red to kohl-black to a hieroglyph of shimmering silver.

"Was that a kindness?" I asked, unable to keep the bitterness contained. It tasted like prickly lettuce on my lips.

The hekau's shoulders quivered in a silent laugh. "Not at all. The prince is wise. He learns from his mistakes."

Oil lamp in hand, he brushed past me, stealing the light from the chamber and leaving me alone in the darkness with nothing but the shimmer of the scar upon my arm and the stain upon the stone at my feet. The prince's whispered words echoed in my ear.

"You're standing upon the place where the first one died."

Amaris would visit me sometimes, on days after a long birthing, when her mother would collapse exhausted in their hut and sleep away the hours spent whispering the woman through her labor. Amaris knew that her absence wouldn't be noticed, that her mother would assume she was sleeping as well, recuperating from her tasks of fetching water and tying the cord.

Rather than being fatigued, on those days Amaris bubbled over like the Nile upon its banks. She'd sit with her lean feet submerged in the river and, despite my protests, she'd recount for me the details of the birth until I'd threaten to leave. Her smile would call me out on my bluff; the last thing I ever wanted was to leave her and return to the palace, to the prince and his demands and the secrets he burned into my flesh.

Even focusing too long on any one of them made the corresponding place on my skin tingle, flare, and burn. I rubbed a particularly large design that spider-webbed across the back of my hand.

"My father is a fool to strike me. One day, I will be more powerful than him, and then he will wish he hadn't mistreated me."

"—you'll come with us when we leave, won't you?" Amaris whispered. Her hair brushed against my shoulder and the sweet scent of hyssop on her skin was so distracting, I could hardly comprehend her words.

"Leave? What do you mean? But where—?"

Something in the river caught my eye. I leapt from our hiding place among the rushes, shielding my eyes. Had it been another season, I'd have thought it was the loess that annually stained the river red. A rancid stench reached my nostrils, and I touched Amaris' shoulder to turn her away from the sight.

She brushed me aside and stepped, transfixed, into the rapid-running water, now streaked with the distinct rusty red of blood. A tilapia washed up beside her foot, its mouth opening and closing, gasping for air.

"It's beginning." She turned to me, her eyes sparkling, her voice filled with awe and fire.

I backed away, fearful. I fled to the palace, sand flying from my heels, before she could tell me more, before she could reveal a secret I had no power to keep.

The prince found the frogs amusing. He sat on the floor of his chambers as if he were a child again and tore their legs off, one by one. The poor, deformed creatures flopped angrily about on the floor, their blood spurting from the severed stumps.

"Come here, aabt. I have a secret for you." He drew his scepter like a sword. Sometime in the past year, I'd grown a head taller than him and my arms had thickened to double their size. More and more often now, his commands were accompanied by a smile, equal parts amusement and challenge.

I carefully positioned each bare foot to avoid the scattered frog corpses. Though I stood within his reach, the prince beckoned me closer, and when I complied, he jabbed the scepter into my foot. Bone crunched beneath it, but I'd long ago learned to keep my face as smooth and unchanging as the golden faces of the temple gods.

The prince raised his head and hissed his venomous secret.

"If I were pharaoh, I'd kill those insurrectionists on the spot and anyone else who follows that god of theirs."

Gnats swarmed the desert, as numerous and all-consuming as the dust. They crept into the palace through the tiniest slits in the draperies, through the smallest cracks in the stones. They buzzed in my ears, in my nostrils, but — as with the pierce of the prince's scepter — I knew better than to show my discomfort.

The prince confided in me (with a jab of his scepter and a smirk upon his face) that even the palace magicians couldn't duplicate the trick, that they claimed it was the finger of God. He laughed at this claim; he didn't believe in gods, for they'd never done anything for him.

Amaris waited for me beside the riverbank, but by the time I could slip out to meet her, she'd gone home, leaving only footprints and a basket of lotus flowers on the sandy banks.

I peered out of the palace windows through a swarm of flies so thick that they shrouded the land like fog. Men and women draped themselves in veils to keep the flies from crawling into their mouths and nesting in their hair, as they made their way to the temple to beg the gods to lift the plague. Smoke from their offerings wafted through the air from sunup to sundown, but no reprieve came.

Yet on the other side of the river, Amaris stood, unflinching, not a single insect upon her skin nor flying around her ears. She saw me watching and raised a hand, but before I could respond, the prince ordered me from the window.

I hesitated.

"Come away from the window," he said again, irritation buzzing in his voice like the wings of millions of flies. He invoked my secret name, and — unable to resist — I turned away.

The prince ordered a delicate white screen hung over his bed and lazed about throughout the day, ordering food and drink and women to stave off his ennui, but never allowing me far from his side.

"Tell me, aabt," he commanded as he slid his knife through the skin of a mimusops fruit. "What do you know about this god? The one they claim is responsible for all this?"

He didn't use my secret name, so I was able to lie. "Nothing. Nothing at all, my prince."

The day that the prince's favorite horses died, he sought me out. He found me in a lonely storeroom beneath the temple where the ancient records of my people were kept. It was, perhaps, a stroke of luck that he was so enraged at the death of his beasts that he didn't even notice the papyrus unrolled around me, the accounts of how we'd come to be here, how we'd been crushed beneath their feet.

Had he seen what I was doing, the jab to the gut might have been an appropriate punishment for my treason, but as always, the prince was oblivious to me. I was a merely a bowl into which his thoughts could be poured out, magically guarded against betrayal. He had more affection for his dead horses.

Still, he pressed the scepter's tip deep into my side. Pain flooded my body like the river overflowing its banks, but I held it deep within me.

"Tell the hekau to prepare a poison. If my father won't put an end to this foolishness, I shall give my people a leader who will."

The puncture in my side bled more rapidly than the magic spread across my skin. At first, the palace physician attended me, but when the sun arose, he didn't return to dress my wound. I staggered to my feet, clutching the bandage at my side. I slipped the bed cloth over my shoulder to hide the mark of the prince's secret spreading from my ribs to my hip. It was the largest, most painful secret by far, and although none would question me — it'd be futile to even ask — I feared that they might see the truth in my eyes, might read his intentions in the looping design of silver on my skin.

The hekau cursed when he heard my request.

"I don't have time to brew a poison; Pharaoh has ordered all his wise men to find a cure for this plague — whether magical or medicinal." Every inch of his skin was covered with angry boils that matched the red fury of his face. "In the past, our leader would have behaved rationally when confronted with a greater god, would have cared more for his people's well-being than his own pride and wealth. It takes a wise ruler to know when he has been beat.

"Tell your prince that if he wants a poison, he'll have to make it himself. And if I am not mistaken about its purpose—" he gave me a dark look: part warning, part challenge "—then I would advise him to work quickly, before our kingdom is reduced to dust and boils."

He thrust a papyrus at me. My hands unrolled it, as though compelled by my secret name, and I realized then the power — the potential — of the words in my hands. I trembled so hard that the gash in my side reopened, soaking warm and red through the pure-white bandage and creeping out like a thousand tiny scarabs.

I thought of Amaris, of the family I had neither seen nor heard from since the day when the hekau gave the prince my secret name. I pictured them making the pharaoh's bricks in the hot desert sun, reading their sacred scrolls by lamplight. Did I dare defy the one who held so much power over me? Whose words were a dagger against my throat?

I slipped the papyrus into the waistband of my kilt and — for the first time in years — I prayed.

The prince refused any visitors while afflicted. Not for fear of spreading the disease — no, he'd delight in knowing others were as miserable as he was — but because he was too vain to allow anyone but me to see the milky pus oozing from this face, the sick yellow of infection upon his arms.

In the reflection of his silver goblet, I saw my own face as he did: unblemished and smooth, strong and well-fed. He caught me looking and snatched the goblet away, hurling it against the wall. The red wine stained the stone beneath it. I moved to clean it, but he commanded, "Leave it."

Even without my secret name, the tension in the air was enough to hold me back, to keep me from taking another step.

Outside, a heavy hail fell, beating away at the fields of headed barley and blooming flax. The tap of each icy stone set me on edge. Each rumble of thunder sounded like the skies falling down upon us, the stones of the palace and temple and all of Egypt's wonders crumbling into hot dust.

"Tell me what you know about these plagues, aabt."

"Nothing, my prince."

"Tell me." His voice was low, like the growling of a jackal as he added my secret name to his command.

"I know no more than you do." I answered as he commanded, so it must have been true. He, too, must have known the plagues' origins. Must have known, deep down, what they meant.

A flash of lightning lit his skeletal frame, and pain coursed through every silver-toned inch of my skin.

"When will the poison be complete?" he asked.

"Three days, my prince. Three days."

The eastern wind blew in a storm of locusts that settled upon the ground and ate the fruit from the trees. The land, so recently plentiful and good, was now barren and black.

The prince watched me from the couch on which he lounged, and though he didn't press his scepter into my skin, his gaze pricked me just as painfully. Could he read in my face the knowledge I'd gleaned from the scrolls tucked away in my chambers? Could he sense my future betrayal in the way I refused to meet his eye?

The poison would be ready soon. I need only be assured of my escape.

"How much longer?" I called out over the Nile.

It ought to have been midday, but the sky was still as black as night. The priests had fallen into manic fits, throwing themselves upon the temple stones, offering their own blood to their gods. Starving, desperate thieves had broken into the crypts of the recently buried to ransack the dead men's stores of food. Pharaoh had locked himself in his throne room, refusing to set eyes on the shepherds who'd brought this trouble upon him. Or so I'd heard.

Across the rushing river, Amaris stood wide-eyed and straight-backed. She was more frightened, more brave, more beautiful than I'd ever seen her, holding an oil lamp over her head. "The prophet said—"

"Don't tell me!" I shouted, pressing my hands over my ears. "Just tell me how many more."

"Just one." She held up a single finger. "Tonight."

I prepared his cup in the other room, sipping directly from the wineskin to still my hands and give me courage. Though darkness still hung like a shroud over the kingdom, it was nearly midnight, and the prince would be expecting his customary drink before bed.

He was lounging upon his couch again, and though a lovely girl danced in the candlelight to amuse him, his eyes stared right past her twirling, bending, fluid form. When I offered the prince his silver goblet, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

The weight of the cup rested upon his thumb and forefinger. He swirled the liquid within it, and a drop fell to the stone floor.

"You would never do anything to harm me, would you, aabt?"

My voice nearly failed. I choked out, "No."

He set down the goblet and beckoned me to his side, patting the seat as if we were brothers or friends. I braced myself for the pierce of his scepter and reassured myself with the thought that after tonight it would never again puncture my skin.

I leaned in. I closed my eyes as he brought his mouth to my ear.

"I don't believe you anymore."

He thrust the scepter toward my chest. I caught it, halting its progress just as the spear-sharp tip pierced the skin.

 Unthinking, uncaring, unfettered for the first time in years, I grabbed it, pulled it free, and turned it on him. The pain unfocused me, threatened to consume me as the magic wove tendrils of silver up my chest and around my neck, grabbing me, holding me, choking me.

The prince stared at me in horror. His tongue reached for my secret name to still my hand; his treacherous lips formed the letters. Yet somehow, though his throat produced the sound, though my ears heard the word and my skin burned in protest, the scepter buried itself deep in his chest.

I looked down at it in bewilderment, at my hand which had pressed it into that hollow, heartless place. The silver tendrils of magic across my skin faded, as surely as the light from the prince's eyes dulled. Pain poured off my body as the blood poured from his, staining the stones beneath my feet.

"The time has come to flee." A voice behind me rang out, a sound like trumpets and judgment. I knew, somehow, without even looking behind me, that this wasn't the voice of a man — that this was the voice of Him who brought Death, whom I'd read of in my people's scrolls. He was the One to topple the prince, who'd given me the power to resist the binding magic of my secret name.


And as the mothers and fathers of the kingdom woke and wailed at the loss of their children, my hand found that of the girl that I loved and my feet joined the footfalls of my people. I fled, not because I was bound, but because now, for once, I was free.

This story originally appeared in Red Sun Magazine.

Wendy Nikel

Space explorer, time traveler, wanderer of eerie places