Merew blinked, opened his eyes. They stung with the brightness of daylight, burned in the arid heat of morning. It would only get worse as the sun rose higher. Best to get on with his work before dreaded midday.
It was neither the light nor heat which had woken him. As always, it was hunger. Cold, gnawing hunger which held him on the edge of starvation. Merew stifled a sob of self pity. One tear trickled down his cheek, a waste of precious fluid.
He was only a child, but he owned more than most boys his age. They lived a poor existence, those children. Wet nurses held them back from the outside world, made them fat on honey cakes and almond pastries. They played with wooden toys, learning nothing of life.
Merew was rich. While those children relied on their parents’ charity, he had no parents to dictate how he should live. While they dwelt in lifeless stone houses with white-plastered walls, he had built a snug home in the ruins of a demolished bakery. There was room to curl up, sleep and hide his treasures. It was all he needed.
A tiny nook between two toppled roof beams held his most prized possessions. His heartbeat quickened when he thought about them. One of his father’s tattered shoelaces and an earring his mother had worn.
All memory of his parents had faded, but he could imagine how they might have looked. He saw their faces every time he stared at the small, glittering ruby or fondled the strand of frayed leather. His mother was always beautiful and strong-willed, his father was gentle and noble.
Another pang of hunger, like an iron hook pulling through his belly. Merew whimpered and crawled out into the sunlight. The other children sometimes laughed when they saw him scrabbling out of his home. Let them. They were no more than common beggars, living on their parents’ charity. He was rich and they were poor.
Priests. Four of them were marching down Merew’s street. Their sandals scratched at the hot dust blown onto the cobbles from the distant dunes, a warning to the wary. Merew recognised the sun-bleached yellow robes, the white hoods starched into two points. Seshem, leaders of men through the perils of the afterlife. He made to slither back into his den, but one of the seshem caught his eye.
He could not let them discover his home. Then they would always be able to find him. He would never be safe. His treasures would never be safe.
Merew wanted to cry and plead for mercy. Such behaviour would fit any other child, but he was no beggar. If the seshem wanted something from him, let them take it. He would not run or hide.
“Stand in the eyes of O’seth,” the priest shouted as he raised an accusing finger.
What choice did he have? Merew’s knees shook and his eyes began to stream, but it was not worth his life to refuse. He stood and waited in the hot sun as the priests flocked towards him like yellow crows.
The seshem gathered around him in a tight group, glowering down into his face from beneath their pointed hoods. What did they want? If it was a tithe, he had no coin to pay it. His treasures were worth less than a pinch of grain, although he was rich.
“Where is it?” the seshem asked.
“Where is what?” he replied, praying they did not know about his treasures. How could they know? There was not a living soul he had told about their existence. Still, the priesthood heard whispers from the gods and the dead. Was there anything they did not know? “I don’t have it.”
“We can see you don’t have it, wretch,” the first seshem said, jabbing his crooked finger into Merew’s chest. “Why don’t you wear the emblem of O’seth? Are you a heretic? Do you believe the lies of the sheme?”
Was that what they thought? He was a sheme, a heretic who listened to the priests of Shem. They were lunatics. Everyone knew it. They claimed to be followers of the gods, rather than leaders of men. Did the seshem think he was a madman?
“I believe in O’seth and the teachings of His priests,” Merew said.
An itching sense of fear was creeping up his neck. If he was accused of being a heretic… It did not bear thinking about. There were fates far worse than death. Unthinkable things happened beneath the Temple of O’seth. Cruel artifices which separated a man’s mind, body and soul from each other. Blood gushed from its sewers and tormented spirits soared above its high walls.
“Then you should carry his emblem,” the seshem said. They seized his arms and locked them behind his back. Merew struggled and wailed, throwing away his nobility as he fought to break free. The priests pinned him against the rubble of his home, stripped the tunic from his back and pressed his face against the rough stone. His stomach burned with hunger and his heart raced in terror. “Your punishment pleases O’seth.”
The first priest’s flail, thin branches of desert bush knotted into a thick cord, lashed across Merew’s bare back. He screamed and thrashed against the arms holding him. The flail sent another streak of burning pain ripping through his skin. It was too much agony, too awful to understand. Merew kicked at their shins, trying to escape from the pain as the flail cracked down again.
His face was streaked with tears and he could already feel the first red welt swell on his back by the time the last stroke fell. A heavy chain dropped over his head and hung around his neck. The emblem of O’seth rested heavily against his chest. Beneath it, his heart felt empty. Cold and black as midnight.
“Don’t remove it under any circumstances,” the first priest whispered, ferocious, in Merew’s ear. The strong, bruising hands released his arms and he slumped into to dirt. Merew lay in a foetal ball, praying to an unnamed god for forgiveness, consolation and pity. “There will be a service two days from now. At dusk on the desert road. Anyone who doesn’t attend will be punished. If you aren’t there, your punishment will be far more,” he paused to listen to Merew’s pathetic sobbing. “Agonising.”
Echoing through the cavernous prison of his pain, Merew heard their sandals scratch away down the alley. They had left him, but he knew he had not been forgotten. The seshem took it as their divine duty to lead mankind in all things. It was one of their many aims to learn every face in every town in every place where desert sand blew.
They knew his face now. It would not be forgotten soon. He would be on the desert road at dusk in two days time, if it killed him. There were, after all, worse things than death. His treasures being added to the vast riches in the temple vaults. If that happened, Merew’s soul would die. He could not live without them.
He wished he could saw off his head and still live. His stomach and back burned, as if he had slept on a mattress of red-hot coals. It was a blistering pain. A pain which flared up, receded to numbness and roared back to life again.
Before his injuries healed, he would need to find food. The cramped, shaded confines of his home called to him. Who was he trying to deceive? He was poor. The poorest wretch in the desert. His home was unfit to serve as a nest for rats. Merew shook his head and eased himself up to stand on shaking legs.
“I curse you to die and be reborn into the eternal fire, O’seth,” he swore under his breath.
Merew was not vermin. He was rich. The richest boy in the desert, for as long as his treasures were safe.