A MURDER ETCHED IN STONE by Jonathan Edelstein

Abydos, Egypt
Second year of the Pharaoh Khasekhemwy
2704 BC

The physician, Merit-Ptah, had just set the arm of a workman who’d fallen from a scaffold when an apprentice ran up.

“You must come!” the boy said, breathless. “The noble Mesen-ka’s tomb–a priest is badly hurt.”

“A priest?” Merit-Ptah finished tightening the workman’s splint and let the apprentice lead her off. An injury at Prince Mesen-ka’s tomb, especially a priest’s, was no small matter.

The apprentice ran through the maze of tombs and shrines, and Merit-Ptah was breathless herself by the time she reached Mesen-ka’s incomplete mastaba.  She had seen many unfinished tombs, but something felt strange; after a moment, she realized that it was the absence of workers. All of them had gone inside.

The inner room was crowded — so crowded that it took Merit-Ptah a moment to notice the two men holding a third, struggling worker by the arms. The priest was nearby, his body draped over a stone sarcophagus, and he would never finish whatever ritual he’d been performing. He was dead now, and the gaping wound at his temple was plainly the cause. Beneath congealed blood and torn skin, his skull had been shattered: the wound was rounded, as if someone had hammered a dowel into the bone.

Around his neck was an amulet bearing the jackal-like animal of the god Set. That could only mean trouble: the Horus and Set cults were feuding, the former intent on keeping its newfound prominence and latter keen to regain its old supremacy.

Merit-Ptah regarded the struggling worker — a stonemason, from the dust on his body. “Who is he?”

“His name is Djer,” said one of the men holding him. “I, Heryshef, heard a cry, ran inside and saw him standing by the priest’s body with a bloody chisel on the floor.”

Merit-Ptah picked up the copper chisel; it was sharp, with a bloodstained tip.

“He lies!” Djer shouted. “I didn’t kill the priest, and the chisel isn’t mine.”

 “Then what were you doing here?”

“I was cutting out the shaft to the burial chamber and my chisel became dull. I called for the sharpener”–he glanced at a boy holding a whetstone–“and realized that everyone but the priest had gone out for their noon meal. So I went outside, gave my chisel to the sharpener and brought my meal here to eat. I saw the priest’s body, and then this man I’ve never met was shouting that I was a murderer.”

“You’ve never met?” asked Merit-Ptah.

“I came here with the new gang three days ago,” said Heryshef. “I was trimming facing-stones when I heard the cry.”

“And how did you know he was the murderer?”

“Who else could it be?”

“Anyone could have come in when the men were eating,” Djer said.

“But not with a bloody chisel!”

Merit-Ptah regarded Heryshef. “And your chisel? Did you have it sharpened?”

“It didn’t need it yet.”

The doctor nodded. “Seize Heryshef,” she said.

 “What?” Heryshef cried.

“The bloody chisel,” said Merit-Ptah. “It has no hair or brain matter on it, as it would if it had made this wound–”

“He cleaned it up!”

“His linens aren’t stained, nor are the priest’s. But more than that, basalt is hard stone, and when copper tools are used to work it, they need to be sharpened three times a day. If you hadn’t sharpened yours for three days, you’re no stonemason…and your chisel would be blunt and rounded, just like the wound.” She pulled the chisel from Heryshef’s belt and matched its tip to the priest’s forehead. “You must have had a second one which you bloodied so you could blame Djer–”

“What do you know of stonework?” Heryshef said, but his voice carried a tremor.

“I’ve been a building-site physician for three years–and stonework, like medicine, is blessed by the lord, Ptah.”

Suddenly, Heryshef broke away and began to run, but the workmen–Djer first–tackled him to the ground.

“I am a priest of Horus!” he cried. “I cannot be harmed.”

“The king will decide that,” said Djer.

Merit-Ptah didn’t envy the king. The Set cult would howl for blood and the Horus cult would move to protect their own; any decision he made would be wrong.  But she was doctor, not king, and she followed her own calling.

Jonathan Edelstein is 45, married with cat, and lives in Queens.  His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the Lacuna Journal, and other publications.  His literary inspirations include Bernard Cornwell and Ursula Le Guin; when he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

Copyright © 2017 Jonathan Edelstein. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

2 thoughts on “A MURDER ETCHED IN STONE by Jonathan Edelstein

    1. Thank you and glad you enjoyed the story! Merit-Ptah is a historical character and is the first woman known by name to have practiced medicine. What happened during her life, and during the late Second Dynasty in general, is open to much interpretation, but I’ve tried to stay faithful to the existing evidence.

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