Dr Dani Hanser stared out morosely at the sodden slopes steeply descending to the tiny rivulet, now in danger of becoming a full-fledged stream. Rain fell in misty swathes, obscuring the craggy rocks on the far side of the valley. She looked up from her position at the entrance of a large cave etched in sandstone cliffs, wiping the rain from her eyes and hair. Scowling, she turned back to her contemplation of the weather and the workers' campsite huddled at the base of the cliffs.
Soft footsteps in the dirt and gravel of the cave floor brought Dani out of her reverie. Turning, she caught sight of a lanky young man in tattered jeans and tee shirt picking his way through the rubble toward her, his face almost obscured by luxuriant growths of chestnut hair.
The man grinned, white teeth flashing in his full beard. "Not joining us, Dani? I thought you'd be eager to get what you can from our last day's dig." A cultured British accent belied his scruffy appearance.
Dani jerked her head toward the rain and the deserted-looking campsite. Despite her despondency, the man's youthful enthusiasm made her smile. "I'm just fed up, Marc, rainy day blues, I guess. And those lazy bastards down there."
Marc flicked his eyes toward the campsite and snorted. "What do you expect? The Syrian government is paying them whether they work or not. Besides, they don't have our lust for knowledge, the desire to wrest information from a few scattered bones and stone tools."
"That's just it, Marc. A few bones and tools is all we have to show for the last four months. I really thought we were going to find something important here. The signs are right; I know the Neanderthal migration route passed through this area. I thought this cave was a sure bet for our excavations." Dani kicked idly at the rubble on the cave floor, her head turning toward the muffled sounds of conversation from deeper inside the cave.
Marc shrugged. "Perhaps the cave wasn't so enticing thirty thousand years ago. Al says there are signs the walls were worked in relatively recent times."
Dani sighed and thrust her hands into the pockets of her parka. "I know. This whole cliff face has been quarried sporadically over the last four thousand years, yet there are Neanderthal remains here. We have evidence that it was used as a shelter."
"Just not the evidence the migration was coordinated rather than random." Marc smiled again and gestured toward the interior of the cave. "Never mind, Dani. This year may be a washout -- literally, but there's always next season. Now come and join us, we have need of the guiding hand of our esteemed leader."
Dani grinned. "Will you be back next year, Marc? You'll have your doctorate by then. Maybe you'd rather be doing your own research rather than following a middle-aged frump into the Syrian Desert."
The young man turned his eyes up to the rock ceiling. "'Frump,' she says. And middle-aged yet." He looked back down at Dani and his face became serious. "Don't you know your loyal team would follow you anywhere, Dr Hanser?" He pursed his lips, considering. "Well, almost all. I can think of one exception."
Dani's grin slipped and she blushed slightly, covering it by turning away toward the cave. "Well, we'll see," she muttered.
Marc ambled along behind her. "Be careful by the wall over there. This rain brought down some earth and stone. I think water must be eating away at a fault in the rock." He reached out and gripped Dani's elbow when she slipped in the mud.
"I'm okay," Dani replied, stepping carefully along the muddy trail. She eyed the pile of rubble spreading out from a crevice in the cave wall. "I see what you mean. Well, it won't worry us this year, but we'll have ..." She broke off and peered into the gloom. "What's that?" She shook off Marc's hand and gingerly picked her way through the mud toward the rock wall. She picked something up and slogged back to the trail before examining her find.
"What is it? Another tool?"
Dani wiped the mud from the small rounded object in her hand and held it up to the light. "I don't believe it," she whispered. "What the hell is something like this doing here?"
"What?" Marc leaned over and took the object from Dani's hand. He turned it over and stared at the little carving wide-eyed. "It's gold," he breathed. "A bloody gold beetle."
"Not a beetle, Marc, a scarab, an Egyptian scarab." Dani shook her head and took the scarab back, peering at it in the dim light filtering back from the cave entrance. "It looks genuine enough. The workmanship is what I'd expect from, say, late Middle Kingdom or early New Kingdom, but ..." She turned the scarab over and picked at the mud caked between the molded golden legs of the insect. "Holy mother!" she murmured.
"Egyptian, eh? Well, I suppose those gyppos got around. I seem to remember some of the pharaohs like Tuthmosis and Ramses got up this far."
"Not with something like this." Dani held up the scarab, displaying the underside. "See what's inscribed on it?"
Marc peered closely in the dim light. "A spiky ball?" he said doubtfully.
"The sun disc, the Aten," Dani replied, wonder in her voice. "This is the symbol of the Heretic King. The pharaohs after him tried to destroy all traces of him. What's his scarab doing in Syria?"
"Heretic king? Sounds interesting. Who was he?"
"Akhenaten, pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty and possible father of Pharaoh Tutankhamen." Dani shook her head. "Scary times if you believed in the gods of Egypt. He tried to abolish all the old gods and set up a new religion worshiping the disk of the sun."
"Never heard of him." Marc grinned. "I've heard of old king Tut, though. Curse of the pharaohs and all that." He looked over his shoulder at the dark recesses of the cave. "What horror from beyond the grave will come to haunt us?" He broke into a peal of laughter and pointed a finger at Dani. "Beware, Dr Hanser, the mummy always comes for the pretty girl."
"Idiot!" Dani grinned despite herself. She gripped the scarab tightly in her right hand and pivoted slowly, searching the bare rock walls around her. "Get the others, Marc."
"Eh?" Marc sobered and he peered at Dani, his eyebrows coming together in perplexity. "What for? There's nothing here. We went over this section when we first arrived."
"Please, just get them." Dani waited until the squelching footsteps receded into the depths of the cave before relaxing her tense shoulders. She lowered her head and unclenched her hand, staring at the golden scarab. "It is true, then," she muttered. She paused, smiling self-consciously. "Nut, show me that which is hidden."
Several minutes passed in silence as Dani stared, eyes unfocused, at the rough stone walls of the wide cave. She blinked, and then shook her head when the sound of voices intruded on her. Turning, she watched her small group of graduate students negotiate the muddy track that led from deep in the cave system and the anthropological dig. Flashlights bobbed and danced, sending little disks of light skittering over the ground before fading into the gray light seeping from the cave entrance.
A small dark man with long, wavy, black hair sweeping down over his eyes led the group. He stared up at the tall woman standing by the rock wall, a sour expression distorting his features.
"Well, Dr Hanser?" he asked in a singsong voice redolent of Welsh valleys. "Why have you dragged us away from our valuable work? Is it just to look for golden treasure?"
"Damn it, Daffyd," muttered a male voice from the rear of the group of students. "Do you always have to be so objectionable?"
Daffyd turned, his jaw thrust out. "Objectionable is it, boyo? Just because I'm the only one who seems to take this dig seriously. Here we are at the arse-end of the season and everyone is losing interest. Well, I'm not and I resent being pulled away to search for Egyptian shit."
"Please, Daffyd," Dani said, "moderate your language. There are women present."
"Don't mind us," came a clear young voice. A tall blonde girl pushed to the front and stood, hands on hips in front of the tiny Welshman. A man's shirt and faded, ripped jeans covered in mud totally failed to conceal her feminine charms. She grinned, displaying a set of beautiful teeth behind her full lips. "We're used to Daffyd's coarser vocabulary. In fact," she fluttered long lashes, "it's quite a turn-on."
Daffyd flushed and stepped back. "You keep your foul insinuations to yourself," he muttered. "I'll not listen to them." He pushed away and stumbled a few paces back down the track toward the dig, before stopping and standing with hands in pockets, glowering at the group of young people.
Marc snorted. "Now, what's up, Dani? What do you want us to do?"
Dani held out her hand, displaying the golden scarab. "Look at this, all of you. It's Egyptian, end of the eighteenth dynasty or thereabouts and has no business being here."
The students gathered round, the light from the flashlights scintillating from the golden insect. The tall blonde poked a grimy finger at the artifact.
"It's beautiful," she said, stroking the scarab's etched wing covers. "But why shouldn't it be here? Egyptians got up this far into Syria. In fact," her brow furrowed, "didn't the battle of Kadesh take place near here?"
Dani nodded. "About twenty miles northwest of here. But that doesn't explain this." She flipped the scarab over, revealing the sun disk nestled between the carving's legs.
"A circle?" chipped in another girl. "What's exciting about that?" She straightened, pushing back lanky brown hair from her face. "I mean, the beetle is gorgeous but why is a circle so interesting?"
"Because, Doris, dear," said the blonde, "that is not just a circle. Look at the lines radiating from it. They end in little hands. This is an Aten."
"Very good, Angela." Dani grinned. She looked around the circle of faces. "Next question, guys -- what is an Aten?" Marc opened his mouth to speak and Dani held up her hand. "Give the others a chance, Marc."
"A circle with hands," said a fresh-faced young man, grinning. He caught Dani's eye and blushed. "Sorry, Doc."
"Aside from Will's statement of the obvious," said Dani, "any other thoughts? Bob? Al?" Both men shook their heads. "All right, Angela. Tell us what an Aten is."
"The Aten is the disk of the sun and represents one of the gods of ancient Egypt," replied Angela promptly. "For a while, the Aten was the only god worshipped, then they overthrew his temples and went back to the old gods. I'm sorry, Dr Hanser. That's all I know."
"Not bad." Dani nodded approvingly. "Very little is known of the time or the events surrounding them. What makes this artifact so interesting ..." she held up the scarab, "is the placement of the symbol of the god Aten on the scarab. The scarab was the symbol of Khepri, an aspect of Re who was one of the most powerful gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Someone was making a statement here."
Daffyd, who had moved up to stand at the back of the group, listening intently, grunted his approval.
Al looked around the cave, scratching his unshaved face absently. "You think there might be other stuff here, Doc?"
"I know there is." Dani crossed the mudslide to the cave wall. She ran her hands over the fresh scars in the curved surface of the sandstone and over a vertical surface next to it. "The scarab fell from here. There is more."
Doris glanced at the others. "Er ... that's just a blank wall."
"That's right," agreed Marc. "Perhaps the scarab was just in the mud and we missed it when we searched this area."
"No." Dani shook her head, running her fingers over the smooth rock surface. "There is more here. I know it."
Angela frowned. "How, Dani?" she asked bluntly. "How do you know?"
Bob grunted and picked his way gingerly across the slippery mud to Dani's side. He held the flashlight close to the rock wall, throwing light sideways across the surface in a great yellow cone. Moving slowly he pushed past Dani, murmuring an apology, and illuminated the area on the vertical surface close to the recent rock fall.
"There, see it?" Bob pointed. "A tiny groove."
"Where?" Marc joined him, waving his flashlight around, peering at the rock.
"Not like that," Bob said patiently. "Hold it parallel to the rock face. See how the light throws irregularities into relief. See ... just there ... a thin straight shadow."
"Um, possibly." Marc looked round at Bob, one eyebrow raised.
"You're right," Angela agreed. She reached out and traced the shadow over the rock face from top to bottom. "What do you think, Dani?"
Dani nodded. "I think it's a doorway."
Al frowned. "Bit of a leap, doctor. I mean, extrapolating a straight line in a rock wall to a doorway ..." His voice trailed off.
Bob dropped to his knees, oblivious of the mud, and shone his flashlight directly upward, pushing his face awkwardly against the sandstone. He peered up for a few minutes, angling his head first one way then another. "A line, there." He pointed. "At right angles to the first one. I think you're right, Dani."
"Jesus H. Christ," breathed Al. "We got us a tomb, girls and boys."
"Now who's jumping to conclusions?" Dani asked, a smile on her face. "It's a doorway. Who knows where it leads?"
"So let's find out." Marc turned and started back toward the diggings. "I'll get a couple of pickaxes."
"Hey, hey," Al shouted. "We can't just go blasting into something like this. There are protocols to follow. Tell him, Dani."
Dani looked from one to the other, noting the eagerness on most faces as well as concern creeping across their features. "Al's right, guys. There are protocols to follow. We should report this to the authorities in Damascus."
Will snorted. "Once they hear of it, we'll be packed off home on the next plane. We found it. We should be the ones to excavate it."
"That's true, Dani," added Marc. "They'll hand it over to some government team and we'll be lucky if we ever hear what they find."
"Let's go for it, doc," Angela urged. She looked around at the others. "What do you say, guys? Bob? Doris? ... Dani?"
Dani grinned. "It's tempting." She held up a hand as Al opened his mouth. "I know, Al, we're not really qualified to open an Egyptian tomb but hey, we don't even know if it is one. All we've found are a couple of lines in a rock wall. It may be nothing."
"And we'd look awful fools if we reported a tomb and there was nothing there. Do you think they'd let us back next year?" Marc approached Al and punched him lightly on the shoulder. "What do you say? Can we at least see if there's anything there?"
Al scowled and rubbed his shoulder. "I guess, but I don't like it."
"Do you want to go back to the camp or the dig, Al?" Dani asked, her voice gentle. "If we get into trouble over this I'll tell them you protested my actions."
Al stared at Dani. "No way, doc. If you're determined to go ahead, I'm not going to miss a thing." He turned to Marc. "Go get the pickaxes, dear boy. We have work to do."
Dusk fell, the gray light draining away leaving deep pools of shadow. Bob and Will disappeared for a time before returning from the camp with kerosene lanterns that spluttered and hissed, spreading a golden hue over the sandstone walls. Shadows, demonic and distorted, leapt and plunged as Marc and Al swung their pickaxes. Angela and Doris raked back the chips of sandstone, clearing the debris piling up at the foot of the rock wall.
Dani sat on a boulder near the main path, her gaze fixed on the wall, her fingers stroking the golden scarab. Daffyd sat quietly beside Dani, a stubby self-rolled cigarette glowing in his shadowed face.
At last, Marc lowered his pick and stepped back, his flushed features glistening with sweat, his long hair and beard matted and dirty.
"It's a veneer," he said quietly. "A half an inch or so of plaster mixed with rock dust and sand hiding bricks."
Dani got up and dusted off her jeans before crossing slowly to the shattered wall. Her boots crunched in the fragments of plaster and stone littering the mud. She slipped the scarab into a pocket and ran her fingers over the rough serried brick.
"There are no seals," she whispered. "No cartouches, no symbols. Whatever this is, it's not a tomb."
"Damn," said Al. "I thought we were onto something."
"We are. Nobody goes to this length to hide something unless it's important."
"But if it's not a tomb, what could it be?" Angela asked. "And what about the scarab? Where does that fit in?"
"Only one way to find out," grunted Marc, hefting his pick again. "Stand back, guys. Time to make the bricks fly."
"Hang on, boyo," drawled Daffyd. "There's something you should do before you get all macho again."
Marc lowered the pick and swung round. "Yeah? And what might that be? I don't see you contributing much to this enterprise."
"That's because I believe in careful methodology rather than the cowboy antics I've seen so far." He got to his feet and flicked his cigarette stub into the shadows before turning to Dani. "Dr Hanser, at least take some photographs of the wall before you break it down."
"What for?" Al strode to the wall and flung out his hand, gesturing at the rough bricks. "They're only bricks, for God's sake, not some bloody artifact."
Daffyd smirked and pulled out his tin of tobacco and cigarette papers. "Dear, oh dear, Dr Hanser, some of your students are showing a dismaying level of ignorance." He finished rolling his cigarette and stuck it between his lips. He slipped the tin of tobacco into his pocket, lit up and breathed a cloud of strongly-smelling smoke over his unwilling audience. "Let me enlighten you."
He strolled over to the wall, pushing past Marc and Al. "Doris, be a good girl and lift that lantern a bit higher." He crouched beside the wall and regarded Dani and the students crowding round. He smirked again. "Now, I'm an expert on the Paleolithic, not historical times, but even I can see that there are two types of bricks here." He stabbed a finger at the wall. "This is common mud-brick, sun dried, with an obvious straw inclusion. They've been making this type of brick in the Middle East for thousands of years. But this ..." Daffyd brushed some dust loose from the lower tiers of the wall. "This is worked stone. Brick-sized, much the same colour, but definitely worked stone. And a rather distinctive style, I might add."
"So what does that mean, Daffyd?" asked Angela.
"You want to tell them, Dr Hanser?"
Dani nodded slowly. "The dressed stone looks Egyptian. It is similar to the funerary blocks used throughout the Middle Kingdom and early part of the New Kingdom. Whoever started this did not finish it, though. The mud bricks were added later, by unskilled laborers."
"Or else we have a desecrated tomb, repaired by a later generation," added Daffyd. "Either way, we need to photograph this wall before we break through."
"We're still going to do that?" Doris queried. "I mean, if it really is a tomb, oughtn't we to ... er, tell somebody?"
Dani pursed her lips, her forehead furrowing. "I still favor going ahead, at least for now." She looked across at the tiny Welshman leaning nonchalantly against the brick wall. "You agree, Daffyd?"
"Oh, yes. Whatever we find, it should be interesting. Just take a few elementary precautions. Act like scientists for God's sake, not like a pack of children." He walked back to the path and sat down against a boulder. He stretched out his legs and put his hands behind his head.
"I'll get the camera," murmured Bob, hurrying off toward the cave entrance.
Used flash bulbs littered the ground before Dani expressed satisfaction. She called Marc and Al over to the wall and pointed out an area of crumbling mud brick at about waist height. "Keep the hole small, if you can, and if you break through into a cavity, stop at once."
Marc and Al went at it enthusiastically and after only a few strokes, stepped back. "Here's your cavity, Dani," Marc murmured.
A black hole yawned in the sandy coloured wall of brick, sucking in the yellow light of the lanterns. Dani moved closer and brushed the rubble away from the lip of the hole. A loose brick fell inside with a clatter that echoed and rang. She took the lantern from Doris and held it to the hole, peering past the light into the cavity.
"What can you see, doc?" Al asked.
Dani peered through the hole in silence for several minutes. "There's ... there's a chamber. I can't see the far walls, only the closest one, but there are pictures and ... and colours." She pulled back and stared wide-eyed at her students, her face pale. "We've got to get in there. Help me."
Marc stared back at Dani's shocked features for a few moments then shouldered past her and stuck his head through the hole. A heartbeat later he ripped at the crumbling mud brick, pulling it loose in a billowing cascade of dust and dirt. Al joined him, then a moment later, Bob and Angela, jostling at the rapidly growing cavity.
A section of the brick fell away, into the room beyond the cave and a shaft from the kerosene lanterns, filtered through dust clouds, lit up the interior. A whitewashed wall, gleaming as if freshly painted, sent a coruscation of light back. Figures of animals and men danced on the wall as the dust billowed and settled.
Coughing and wiping the grit from their faces, the students stepped aside, letting their leader enter. Dani stepped cautiously across the threshold of dressed sandstone blocks and swept the beam of her flashlight over the walls and floors of the chamber. She let it rest for a moment on a jumble of wood and stone in a far corner before continuing her survey.
"Incredible," she breathed. "I've never seen anything like this."
The students crowded into the chamber, pushing and jostling, their bodies obscuring the lanterns, sending dark shadows leaping over the painted walls. They settled, staring about them, flashlights picking out the details.
"Look," cried Marc, pointing. "A hunting scene." A flight of ducks, wings spread, each feather painstakingly delineated, exploded from the surface of a lotus-covered lagoon. An archer, concealed among rushes and feathery papyrus, took aim. On the far side of the lagoon a skewered bird lay, its head raised in agony as another fell from the skies. The colours of the scene glowed and the shifting shadows lent movement to the hunt.
"My God," breathed Doris. "They look alive."
"And here," Angela said. "Is this the owner of the tomb?"
The others swung round to look at the opposite wall. A young woman, reddish hair cropped in a side lock, her large almond eyes blued and outlined in black, calmly regarded a large scarab beetle. The insect, rather than being a stylized representative of the sun god, was caught in the act of rolling a dung ball across the sand.
The students stared at the woman on the wall, taking in her fine features, her sheer garment and the studied poise of her carriage. Angela walked to the painting and reached up to it, touching the delicately hennaed feet. "She looks like you, Dr Hanser."
"Maybe a little," replied Dani. "My mother was Egyptian after all."
"No, really," said Marc. "I'd swear that was you."
"Whoever it is, we have a bit of a mystery here," Daffyd said softly. "The subject matter is typical New Kingdom Egyptian but the style is not. It is similar to Amarna-style art but with differences. Look how alive these paintings are. It's almost photographic the way the artist has captured movement."
Al spoke from near the entrance. His head bent close to the wall, his flashlight illuminated a small part of the surface. "The wall's covered in tiny hieroglyphics. Can anyone read them?"
Daffyd crossed over and scanned the surface. "Another mystery. These hieroglyphs are minute. Not at all like a normal inscription."
"Can you read them?"
Daffyd shrugged. "A little. These symbols in a cartouche ..." he pointed to a series of tiny marks surrounded by a lozenge-shaped line. "... represent royalty. If memory serves, this one says 'Ankh-e-sen-pa' something."
"Ankhesenpaaten," said Dani from across the chamber. "And the bit before it probably says 'King's daughter, of his body, his beloved.'"
"How the hell would you know that?" Al asked. "You couldn't possibly see it from over there. I'm standing right by it and I can hardly make out the squiggles."
"Because this is a tomb of someone connected with the worship of the Aten, and Ankhesenpaaten was a daughter of pharaoh Akhenaten." Dani pointed her flashlight at the ceiling of the chamber.
A great golden sun disk filled the ceiling vault, rays extending outward in all directions, becoming tiny hands holding the ankh, the symbol of life. One ray, longer than the rest, swept back into the shadows at the rear of the chamber. Dani's flashlight followed it across the roof and down the far wall to where it touched the head of a kneeling woman. Back turned to its live audience, the painted image regarded an array of beings facing it. Figures of men, of women, of beasts and strange combinations stood in a semicircle around the kneeling figure, their painted concentration focused on the young woman.
"The Great Ennead of Heliopolis," Dani said in a strangely flat voice. "The nine gods of ancient Egypt."
"I thought they had hundreds of gods?"
"They did, but the Nine embody all the others. Three was a sacred number to the Egyptians and three times three even more so." Dani walked closer to the rear wall and knelt down in the dust, her body hiding the painting of the kneeling woman. She raised her hands as if in supplication. "Atum-Re, creator god and sun god; Shu, god of air; Tefnut, goddess of water; Geb, lord of the earth; Nut, goddess of the heavens; Asar, lord of the dead; Seth, god of violence; Nebt-Het, mistress of the underworld and protector of the dead; Auset, queen, protector and sustainer ..." Dani's head slumped and she almost fell, leaning against the wall.
Marc and Angela leapt forward to support her, lifting her to her feet. "What the hell happened?" Marc asked. "Are you okay?"
"You seemed really weird there, Doc," Angela added.
Dani shook her head and disengaged herself from Marc and Angela. "I'm okay. Just a bit dizzy there for a moment. Now, what was I going to do? Ah, yes, have a look at this inscription." She pushed past the students to the wall where Al and Daffyd still stood. "Let's have a look, shall we?" Dani leaned close to the wall, flashlight in hand. She perused the hieroglyphs for several minutes, her lips moving as she muttered to herself.
"Yes, as I thought. This is a description of Ankhesenpaaten entering into the presence of her father at some ceremony or other ... doesn't seem to say which one ... maybe ..." She moved across the wall, her finger tracing the symbols. "... ah, the Great Heb-Sed festival. In the twelfth year of Akhenaten's reign."
Dani stepped back and scanned the wall, her flashlight beam lighting up the columns of tiny symbols covering the wall from ceiling to floor. She shook her head, her brow furrowed and eyes narrowed.
"This wasn't written by a scribe. The words are wrong; the tone is far too informal. It reads as though it's a letter to a friend. I've never seen an inscription like this."
"But you can read it?" Marc asked.
"What does it say?" Al gripped her arm.
"Tell us, Dr Hanser," pressed Daffyd quietly. "Start at the beginning and tell us what it's about." He guided Dani gently across the room to a clear space at the right-hand end of the wall. "The figures face to the right, so we read from the right."
Dani nodded and scanned the first column of symbols. She cleared her throat and traced the hieroglyphs with a finger.
"Know then that I, the last of the line of Amenhotep and mother of the Great House, the Lord of the Two Lands, he who is Seti son of Ramses; to him be Life, Prosperity, Health; do set down this account of my vengeance against the blasphemers and usurpers of the holy throne of Kemet. I, who was once counted as the least of the daughters of the king, have been blessed by the gods. Though I bear the name of the one god who was set above all others, yet have the true gods of my land used me to reassert their authority over all men. Know then that I am Beketaten, youngest daughter of King Nebmaetre Amenhotep, and of his Great Wife Tiye. I was born in a year of tragedy and hope ..."