Out of the Black Land

Out of the Black Land

PW Pick 2013 "Australian author Greenwood, having made a name for herself with the lighthearted Phryne Fisher series, succeeds brilliantly with this gripping thriller set in ancient Egypt." —Publishers Weekly ...

About The Author

Kerry Greenwood

Kerry Greenwood is the author of more than 40 novels and six non-fiction books. Among her many honors, Ms. Greenwood ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


In the name of Ptah, in the name of his consort Mut after whom I was called and his son Khons who is the moon and time, in the hope that my heart will weigh heavily against the feather and I may live and die in Maat which is truth, I declare that my name is Mutnodjme and my sister is the most beautiful woman in the world.

I was born when she was seven. Her dying mother, the concubine, gave her into the arms of the formidable woman, my mother, Tey wife of Ay. I do not remember the concubine who bore Nefertiti. They say that she was beautiful, pale and silvery and sad, and she died young. Her child was kept apart from Tey’s household, and I did not see her when I was a baby. Tey is a small woman, dark of skin and eye; and those things I have inherited from her.

I am small, measured against Nefertiti’s length of limb; I am dark against her glowing Theban fairness. I am ugly against her almost divine beauty, and I am miserable against her happiness, for they have just told her that she is to marry Pharaoh Akhna- men, and become Great Royal Wife. She is his; no longer mine.

We have pleated the linen garments for her, and I am sitting on the marble floor of the palace of Divine Father Ay in the great city of Thebes—with the sellers of dates and dried fish calling his trade outside, women’s voices, shrill and constant—making wreaths of moonflowers and lotus. I am uncomfortable and cramped, because I have no skill in my fingers for this delicate work, and the flowers will not lie peaceably along the wire frame for me as do those of the other maidens. They are refractory and shed their petals if I force them.

This is the third time that I have had to start again.

# # #

When did I first know her, my half-sister Nefertiti Neferneferu- amen, whose name means ‘The Beautiful One Who Is Come’?

It must have been the river.

I knew that I was being very naughty.

My wet-nurse had been called away on some deep matter involving herbs and childbirth—both female mysteries from which I was excluded—and the servant-girl who was supposed to watch me was flirting with the guard. I was sitting in the garden in Ay’s palace, watching the little boats being dragged ashore as the flood filled the Nile and the banks crumbled.

‘Egypt,’ said Asen my nurse, ‘is called the Black Land, because of the rich soil deposited by the river. Our land is the gift of the Nile,’ she said, stroking my curly dark hair, ‘as you are, daughter, as we all are. And Pharaoh is our Lord and the Gods are above and beneath us, the land our father Geb and the sky our mother Nut, so go to sleep, little daughter. We are cradled in the Nile, nursed by the river,’ she said, and went away to tend a woman who was groaning in the next room.

I tried to follow, but an old woman grabbed me by the arm and hauled me from the door.

‘Not yet, daughter of Ay,’ she grinned toothlessly at me.

I was nettled at being excluded and wandered back to the window, where fascinating debris was being swept down the swollen river. The placid water foamed like honey from Asun. I waited until the girl was entirely engrossed in her guard and slipped quietly out of the window and onto the paved place outside the palace.

The air was full of people crying out and giving orders that no one was listening to. The flood had come down suddenly this year, my sixth in Maat, and early. Little houses which had been made by herdsmen to be dismantled later were being dismantled early by the water, running faster than a running horse. No one noticed me as I wandered through the crowd. Of all the children of Ay I most resembled the common people and apart from the fineness of my amulet and the gold rings in my ears there was nothing to set me apart. A woman leading a mother-goat and carrying a kid almost stood on me and cursed me out of her path in the name of Set, a serious curse. I threaded my way through the people to the edge.

Fascinating. People like ants scurried away from the water, carrying hay and sacks and terracotta pots. A solemn priest of Basht bore away a sacred cat from a grain storehouse which had been inundated. It was soaking wet, spitting and furious, and it scored his smooth pale shoulders with long angry lines, which he did not even seem to notice.

I was so interested in the movement and the voices, crying on a variety of Gods to allow them to get to safety before the water enveloped them, that I did not notice that the water had eaten away the spit of sand which I was standing on and was about to eat me.

I must have screamed as I fell. It was cold water, terribly strong, and I saw the flash of a reptilian tail as a crocodile was swept helplessly past, turning belly-up as it struggled to regain its balance. Ivory teeth flashed in the gaping mouth. I was seized by the Nile, pummelled and thumped. There was no air. A red mist rose in front of my eyes. I struggled to surface, striving against the current, gained the air and gulped, then the fists   of the water thrust me under again, and the scales of another crocodile scraped my legs.

I struggled again, twisting all my slight weight, grabbed at something, and was hauled bodily out by strong hands. I came up red-faced, gasping, soaking wet, into strong arms which squeezed the Nile out of my lungs and shook me bodily.

It was the young man Horemheb, double my age and destined to be a soldier. He was tall and good looking, with long hair as black as ink and the most considering dark eyes. His hair was plaited in locks, each one tipped with a blue faience bead, which bobbed across his bare shoulders as he moved. He tucked me under one arm as though I was baggage and climbed the bank. I did not struggle against this humiliation, because I was still breathless and suddenly conscious of being in very deep trouble. ‘You ran away from your nurse, Mutnodjme,’ he said solemnly, setting me down on wobbly feet. I grasped at him as I felt myself falling and he picked me up again. His body was warm and his arms secure and I relaxed a little. ‘I did,’ I agreed.

‘You will be beaten,’ he added.

I will,’ I said, observing that his fine cloth was stained with river-mud.

‘Now, how are we to get you out of this?’ he asked himself, mounting the next bank and striding towards the palace of Ay. ‘Where is Asen?’

‘Tending to a woman in childbirth,’ I said. ‘Put me down, I can walk.’

He did so, and took my long side-lock in his hands, wring- ing it to spill out the water. He surveyed me. I was a mess. My skin was stained with black mud, my feet and hands filthy, and blood was flowing from the crocodile scrapes along my legs. He wiped at the grazes with a hard hand.

‘Doesn’t this hurt?’ he asked.

‘Of course.’ I winced as he blotted at the blood with his palm. ‘But you haven’t cried, ‘Nodjme,’ he commented.

‘There is no point in crying, Lord.’

He smiled then. Horemheb rarely smiled. It lit up his broad face like Re Exalted who is the sun at noon and I smiled back. ‘We can’t just steal back into the palace as though nothing has happened,’ said my rescuer. ‘I know. Nefertiti will help. Come along, little sister. Climb on my back, we have to hurry.’

Thus I saw her for the first time, the beautiful one.

Horemheb skirted the palace walls, walked carefully through the first hall, then dived through a curtained door into the Princess’ courtyard. I never thought to wonder how he knew the way. A woman was bathing in a pond full of fragrant water. I smelt lotus and jasmine. The air was heavy with scent like spring.

‘Lady, I bring you a little sister in distress,’ he said, putting me down. ‘She was eaten by the river, and faces a beating for being drawn to the Great Mystery of the River, enchanted perhaps by Hapi, God of the Nile.’

There was an odd tone in his voice, which worried me. Hesitancy, from so sure a person as Horemheb? But I forgot all about him as soon as the lady turned and held out her arms to me.

Oh, beautiful, lovely beyond belief, my half-sister Nefertiti. Her skin was as smooth as marble, her features all perfect; long nose, high cheekbones, eyes like almonds, liquid and soft. But it was her gentleness which glowed, which shone. I walked straight into her embrace as she gathered me, mud and weed and all, into her milky pool and I lay on her smooth, rounded breasts as though I had been fostered there.

‘You have done well,’ she told Horemheb, and he bowed and went away.

I had fallen in love with my sister. She washed all the mud off me with her own hands, heedless of the blood in the water, then called her women. She called her own nurse to treat the grazes on my legs, and then dried me and dressed me, for concealment, in a woman’s cloth.

When Asen came to find me, my wounds were carefully hidden under a too-big gown and I was sitting like a good little girl, while my most beautiful sister plaited flowers into my hair. ‘Is she not my sister, daughter of my father?’ she asked Asen, who bustled in full of outrage and threatening a beating. ‘Should she not come to me? Let her come again,’ said Nefertiti in a voice like flowing gold, and Asen melted right away in front of my eyes. So I first saw her, the beautiful one who is come, the Great Royal Wife. And so I first saw Horemheb the young soldier, who rescued me from the Nile.


I cannot remember not being able to read and write.

When I was five years old in Maat who is truth, my father Imhotep sent me to the palace of the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak to become as he is. I had taken his stylus and made squiggly attempts at letters all over the whitewashed inner wall of the house, using cooking-pot soot for ink, because I had seen him writing and wanted to imitate it. My mother raised a hand to slap me, because she valued her clean walls, but my father had put her aside, saying ‘Here is a scribe and son of a scribe, should he not practice his father’s profession?’

And the woman my mother had agreed, while I was still naked, while I wore nothing but the amulet and sidelock of childhood.

And here I am now many years later, my legs crossed under me, immaculate fine linen cloth uncreased, the plaster-board laid across my lap, my own palette beside me on the floor. My brushes and styli are carefully selected and meticulously kept and my ink is of the finest, solid black and bright scarlet. I compound and grind my own ink, which I dilute with water if I am writing on papyrus and with painter’s size derived from boiled hoofs if I am inscribing a wall. Beside me are a pile of limestone shards and broken pottery, the ostraca for notes and random thoughts, and my master is reading out the Building Inscription of Amenhotep II, which the whole class is copying, miserably or obediently.

I am bored almost to extinction. Cruel father, to condemn me to this endless toil! Better I had been such as the young men who work in the fields, who care for oxen and fish in the river. Better even to be a slave carrying water or grinding corn, better to be a weaver in his little house or a laundryman beating filthy clothes in the shallows, a messenger on a fast horse, a soldier  in danger of death on the border of Egypt, where the vile Kush lurk in ambush.

Better anything than this: the heat of noon, heavy on the eyelids. The glare outside of sun on marble. The silence except for the droning of a fly, the heavy sigh of some overburdened scholar, the scratching of styli on plaster, the scrubbing of someone rubbing out a mistake with a ball of cloth, the endless, endless droning voice and the never-ending Building Inscription of Amenhotep II, the grandfather of the present Pharaoh who lives, Amenhotep III. And my master goes on, and on:

Live the Horus: Mighty Bull, great in Strength: Favourite of the Two Goddesses: Mighty in Opulence: Made to Shine in Thebes: Golden Horus: Seizing by his Might in all Lands, Good God, Likeness of Re, Splendid Ray of Atum, begotten Son whom he made to shine in Karnak. He appointed him to be king of all living, to do that which his ka did: his avenger, seeking excellent things, great in marvels, creative in knowledge, wise in execu- tion, skilful-hearted like Ptah; king of Kings, ruler of rulers, valiant, without his equal, lord of terror amongst the southern lands, great in fear at the end of the north. Every land comes to him bowing down…’

My fingers know their way. My ears hear the words and write them down. I do not need to pay attention and I find myself wondering, what would it be like, to stand guard outside the palace or to work at one’s own trade and lie down in one’s own bed at night with nothing more to worry about but tomorrow’s labour? All my life I have written other men’s words, made permanent their thoughts.

I began by copying the Maxims of Ptah-hotep, my namesake, and continued through the Story of Sinuhe, who was a man, and the Contendings of Horus and Set, who are Gods.

I have written down accounts of journeys and ventures, of wars and conquests. I have written endless lists of grave goods and marriage contracts and all manner of documents by which men regulate their lives and record their words, and I have done nothing at all for myself.

I have married no wife, begotten no children, though I am fourteen years old and a man, with a man’s seed to give. I have built nothing, made nothing, repaired nothing, created nothing. If I was to write the inscription for my own tomb now, I could say nothing but ‘Ptah-hotep knew all words and three scripts and wrote a clear hand’.

The blow from the master’s staff stings across my shoulders. He is standing over me, and he is angry. He must have spoken my name and gone unanswered.

‘Show me,’ he growls. I hand him my board and rub the weal which is forming across my back. He likes hurting, this Priest of Amen-Re. He has come here to give us instruction in the high script, which only priests use. I can see, turning in my place, the wet lip of the man who relishes pain and I blink hard, determined that he shall not see me weep and drink my tears for his pleasure.

I have written, I observe, most of the chapter of the inscription which he has been dictating. My characters are well formed and flowing and I assume that they are correct, for he drops the board back into my lap and says nothing else, only resumes the droning chant:

He assigned to me all that is with him, which the eye of his uraeus illuminates, all lands, all countries, every road, the circle of water Oceanos, they come to me in submission to my majesty: Son of Re, Amenhotep, Divine Ruler of Thebes, living forever, only vigilant one, begotten of the gods.’

The staff comes down hard on the shoulders of my friend Kheperren, and he gratifies the master’s taste for wailing, so he repeats the blow. I wince for him as I would not for myself.

Who will free me of this misery?

Freedom comes in unlikely guises, says the sage Ptah-hotep, and so it came to me. We were bathing in the sacred lake, washing ourselves free of impurity for the evening prayer. I sluiced cool water over my wounded back, still angry and resentful at my fate. The priests were at their meal, the masters were in their rooms with their wives, and for a little while there was no one watching us. My friend Kheperren embraced me in the water. ‘I hurt,’ he complained, and I stroked the raised weals on his smooth back. ‘I, too,’ I agreed.

‘I made three errors,’ he admitted. ‘But he hit me too hard.’ ‘I made none and he still hit me,’ I replied. ‘Doubtless the monster Apophis will eat his heart in the end but this does not comfort me, brother.’ ‘Hotep, can we run away?’

I swung him around so that we were facing one another, floating easily in the water, legs entwined. Re who is the sun was westering, but there was abundant light, spilling over the temple, making the stones glow like gold. Kheperren’s brow was wrinkled with thought. He had black hair and the smooth olive skin of the countryman, whereas I was pale, almost ivory, and my hair was tinted with the Theban copper. It was unfair that I, whose father was only a scribe because he had been a common soldier in the army, was as fair as one of the Royal House, and my heart’s brother was as dark as a peasant, though he was descended from the high priests of Amen-Re. I liked our contrast as we lay together, his thighs twined with mine.

‘We can’t run,’ I told him. ‘Remember when Yuya tried that. They caught him, beat him, and made him sit for a week with his legs tied together.’

‘I can’t bear it,’ Kheperren wailed, burying his face in my neck. ‘If it wasn’t for thy love, brother, I would die.’

His mouth was hot against my skin; our breath mingled. Floating, we drifted into a bank of papyrus, and the reeds closed about us. We had often lain here, where no man could see us, clutching each other for comfort.

‘We are in a herdsman’s hut on the banks of the river,’ he breathed. It was our favourite of all the stories we told each other. ‘We have stabled our cattle for the night,’ I returned, sliding both hands down his body.  I found the phallus, hard in my palm as I had always found it, in the dark of the dormitory or the cool of the morning.

‘We have left our dog Wolf on guard.’He returned the caress. ‘And we are shutting our door for the night, against the demons of the darkness, against the Goddesses of the Twelve Hours,’ he continued, his breath catching as my hands, wise in the ways of his body, brought his climax near.

‘And sealing our door with the sacred seal of the Brothers,’ I whispered, and then could not speak further as he closed my mouth with a kiss.

Careful not to be heard—though such love was not forbidden, it would give our Masters leverage to play one of us against the other—we spilled our seed into the reeds, shivering and kissing. There was no one in the world whom I loved as much as my brother Kheperren.

And as we came up the bank together, still breathless with release, we found a priest waiting for us. We quickly schooled our features into the blank which gives nothing away, but it was not necessary. He smiled at us.

He was not beautiful, being a little fat. The rolls of his belly spoke of good living and his jaw was deformed, but his smile was enchanting and a little wistful, the smile of a man who has shared such delights and possesses them no longer.

‘I came to seek a scribe, and it seems that I have found two,’ he said politely. I was about to reply when Kheperren grabbed me and dragged me down to my knees and then pushed me onto my face on the paved shore of the sacred lake.

‘What are you doing?’ I protested as I yielded to his hand. ‘Lord of the Two Lands, forgive our insolence,’ he  begged, and I realised that I had just been spoken to by the Pharaoh’s son Akhnamen, Amenhotep IV, co-regent with our own Pharaoh and his only son since Thutmose the Prince died.

And I had almost spoken to a Pharaoh while standing on my feet and looking into his face, for which I could rightly be put to a very nasty death.

‘Forgive us, Ruler of Rulers,’ I agreed hastily, and put my lips to the curved toe of a gem-encrusted sandal.

A number of people laughed. Out of the corner of my eye—I stayed exactly where I was, face down on the bank in an attitude of complete prostration—I saw the hems of delicate garments and small feet in papyrus sandals.

‘Come, let them arise,’ said a gentle voice. I dared a quick glance upward and saw the neat dark wig and painted eyes of a very beautiful older woman. Her hennaed hand almost touched my brother’s head. Patterns were drawn up to her wrists, which were heavy with chains in the form of lotus flowers and buds. The scent of jasmine enveloped us as the others came from concealment under the outer pillars of the temple of Amen-Re. ‘Are they not comely?’ asked the Lord of the Two Lands idly. ‘Comely indeed, but what does His Majesty want with them?’ asked the honey-voiced Queen. She must be the famous Tiye, the red-headed woman, Akhnamen’s mother.

‘I have need of a personal scribe,’ said the King. ‘What say you, Lady of the Two Lands, shall I have this or this?’ He touched first my head and then my dear friend’s.

‘Lord of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the River, take both, since they are brothers,’ suggested another voice. The speaker sounded male and a little curt. I believe that it was the Master of the Scribes. I didn’t know that they knew about us.

‘No. One alone, who will love me, is what I want,’ said the King. My heart gave a startled jolt, as though a hand had seized it. I slid my hand across and grasped that of my heart’s brother, horrified that we were to part.

‘This one,’ said the light, careful voice of the King, and laid the flail of Kingship gently across my shoulders. I shuddered at the touch.

Thus I was given my freedom, though it was bitter at the time with the parting from the only one I loved. Thus I became personal scribe to the Pharaoh’s son Akhnamen, Amenhotep IV, who is called Live the Horus, Mighty Bull, Lofty of Plumes: Favourite of the Two Goddesses: Great in Kingship in Karnak:

Golden Horus: Weaver of Diadems in the Southern Heliopolis: King of Upper and Lower Egypt: High Priest of Re Harakhte Rejoicing-in-the-Horizon, Heat which is Amen, Neferkheprure-Wanre, which means in the common tongue Beautiful One of Re, Unique One of Re.

Reviews of

Out of the Black Land

Australian author Greenwood, having made a name for herself with the lighthearted Phryne Fisher series (Cocaine Blues, etc.), succeeds brilliantly with this gripping thriller set in ancient Egypt.

Publishers Weekly (starred review) (PW Picks)

Three young people living in the time of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty become a force to be reckoned with.~~~As powerful forces fight for control, the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.~~~From the often wildly differing conclusions of professional Egyptologists, Greenwood, best known for her mysteries (Unnatural Habits, 2013, etc.), has fashioned a fascinating, plausible and erotic tale.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)