TITLE: "True Love Eternal"
AUTHOR: Ardeth Saunders [a.k.a., Cruecial or Cruecial411]
RATING: M [Language, violence, and adult content]
SUMMARY: Ardeth Bay travels to the future to find an elusive woman who holds the key to the new world's destiny. Can he find her before all mankind is destroyed forever?
GENRE: Drama, Suspense, Action, and Romance
DISCLAIMER: "Ardeth Bay, " The Mummy, and The Mummy Returns belong to Universal Studios and Stephen Somers. The author is merely borrowing Mr. Bay to exorcise an unhealthy obsession…HA! NO infringement intended. All other original characters belong solely to the sick, twisted, and vivid imagination of the author.
THE DREAM OF ALL DREAMS
Damn it. Is it already three in the morning, Leven Medlem thought as she entered her tiny apartment. For approximately seven months, she had held down two full-time jobs. One of them was working in a casino hustling drinks to high rollers. The only good thing about that particular job was the huge tips she sometimes received if a bigwig had a particularly good night. However, there were more bad things that far outweighed the good. How many times had she come home at night with bruises on her ass from being pinched by dozens of drunken players? Ugh. Of course, she was expected to grin and bear it, just like the other girls who worked the same shift. She actually considered the bigwigs to be more lecherous than the regular folks. Perhaps the beautiful people felt it their right to act so disgustingly. Her other job was a bit more on the sedate side. During the day, she was a clerk at a pawnshop. There were only a few disadvantages to working that particular job. One of which was the constant threat of armed robberies. She had clerked at the shop for a little over six months and thus far, the store had never been robbed. She considered herself lucky. In her area of town, armed robberies were as common as rain in the jungle. Every day before she went to work, she literally knocked on wood to fend off intruders. She wasn't normally so superstitious, but hell, beggars couldn't be choosers, now could they?
Sighing heavily, she sat down on the foot of her bed. Actually, her bed was more of a cot. Since she lived alone, she couldn't afford anything fancy, even with two paychecks coming in. Her small apartment was an efficiency unit and everything inside was compact, including the bed. Absently, she glanced around the interior of the room and caressed one of her tired feet. She longed for the day when she could let one of her jobs go so she could lead a normal life. She kept so busy that she couldn't find time to date, for God's sake. Then again, the nightly pinches on the ass made her more than a little antisocial at times. She saw lecherous men every day, and she didn't want to deal with them on her free days [whenever she had them]. She needed to jump into the shower, but she had no energy to walk across to the even tinier bathroom. She knew she had to get moving. In less than six hours, she was due at the pawnshop. Her life was wearing her down to a frazzle. Every morning when she rose, she inspected her hair for the first tinges of gray. It always surprised her when she found none. You're feeling sorry for yourself, kiddo. It was true, she was, but she couldn't help it.
At twenty-five, Leven had lived alone at least eight years. She had left her family behind on her seventeenth birthday in the company of her best friend, Diana. The two teens had climbed into Diana's worn out Chevy Nova, and set out to conquer the universe. Or so they thought. Basically, the girls had ditched school, ran away from home, and thought they would find fame and fortune. Diana wanted to go to a large metropolis, maybe New York City, but Leven had no real opinion one way or another. More or less, she was along for the ride. Besides, her home life was as boring as snot, and she was flat out tired of her parents and younger siblings. Her friend had set her sights on becoming some famous fashion designer. Neither girl gave any serious thought as to what they were doing. They were young, stupid, and idealistic. Like many kids their age, they had a false sense of immortality and invincibility. Bad things couldn't happen to them. No way. Bad things happened to other people. Of course, they were given a bitter dose of reality.
As if from some hyped up horror story, the Nova literally fell apart in a godforsaken town called West Memphis. The girls were stuck in Arkansas with no place to turn. Leven immediately wanted to call her parents. It would take them no more than a few hours to fly in from home. Besides, she was more than certain both sets of parents had notified the authorities by now. Leven had no desire to be picked up and thrown in jail, especially not in this town. She had heard some weird shit about West Memphis, and she had no intention of screwing around here any longer than was absolutely necessary. It was one of many fights Leven and Diana would have during their misguided adventure. Eventually, Diana persuaded Leven not to call her parents. She basically won the argument as she usually did. Without a care or a thought in the world, Diana announced that she would leave her broken car and a major portion of her belongings behind. Let the cops and vags have it, she had said. She suggested that the two girls hitchhike on to Memphis, Tennessee. Perhaps once there, they could obtain enough money for bus fare onto another destination. Neither girl knew much about the area, but right away, they noticed that this particular stretch of interstate was a major roadway that connected Arkansas to just about every southern state in the union. Tons of big rigs buzzed past them and the traffic was horrendous. Diana was certain that it wouldn't take them long to hitch a ride, assuming that the cops didn't find them and lock them up. Leven immediately thought that hitching a ride with anyone was the worst idea known to man. However, Diana was stubborn. She intended to keep on trucking, whether Leven followed or not. Bound by duty and guilt, Leven couldn't leave her friend behind. West Memphis was a freaky little town, one that both girls were anxious to leave, even if it did mean hotfooting it until someone showed mercy on them.
The girls might have walked about a quarter of a mile until a trucker picked them up. Leven felt awkward and nervous. Something about the guy bothered her. He seemed friendly and harmless enough, but her gut had told her to stay away. Obviously, Diana had no trouble with the fellow. She hopped up into the cab of the truck as if she had known the man all her life. Again, Leven was duty-bound not to leave her friend behind. She climbed in beside Diana and listened to the trucker as he tried to make idle conversation with them. Leven had no interest or desire to chat up the guy, and she focused her eyes on the road straight ahead. They were no further than a dozen miles from Memphis, and she simply could not wait to get out of this truck. Something was wrong, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Leven said nothing, didn't voice one suspicion. After all, she could have just been paranoid. No big deal. However, it became a big deal.
The trucker took a detour, claiming he needed to refill his coffee thermos before he took them to the bus depot in Memphis. As soon as the big rig came to a complete stop, Leven was out the door first. The trucker was creeping her out in a major way. When she turned to await her friend, she heard Diana's sharp scream before the trucker slammed the door. Before she knew which end was up, the truck squealed its way out of the parking lot. Crazily, Leven chased after the truck, somehow thinking that she could catch it. It took several long moments for her to realize what had just happened. The trucker who creeped her out had abducted her friend. How could this happen to them? This was shit that was supposed to happen to other people, not to Di and Leve. Hell no. After she gained control of her senses, Leven ran back toward the truck stop and ran inside. She called the police and her parents. Her folks demanded that she stay there, to wait for them, and Leven didn't argue. The police came and gathered as much as information as Leven was able to give. Shocked, the girl couldn't remember much of anything; just that the man was clean cut and dressed in jeans and a ball cap. By the time Leven's parents arrived at the truck stop, they found that their daughter had left. Leven continued onward toward Memphis. She never heard from Diana again.
Leven sighed as she dragged her tired body toward the bathroom. She often thought of Diana and wondered if her friend was still alive. Of course, it was a hopeless thought. If she had survived, she would have come back to Leven. The rest of her life story had unfolded uneventfully enough. She made it to Memphis, but never left. Something about the city appealed to her. It wasn't the safest place in the world for a single gal, but she was drawn to the city, seduced by it, and hadn't bothered continuing on with her journey. The first few weeks were a nightmare. She stayed in a homeless shelter where a sympathetic director helped her find her two jobs and a place to live within her meager means [which wasn't very damn easy]. She had reconciled with her family, but didn't return home. By then, she was at the age of consent, and they couldn't force her to come back. Sooner or later [she hoped sooner], she knew her life would change. She had a feeling that it would be for the better. Leven was intuitive to a fault and knew something big awaited her.
Why is it so hot, Leven thought within her dream. She had always been an active and vivid dreamer. Mostly, she seemed to be an observer in her dreams. However, tonight, she was an observer and a participant. The harsh biting rays of strong sunlight blinded her eyes. How weird, she thought as she tromped along what appeared to be a sandy plain. Yet, it wasn't a sandy plain. There was sand, but it was different. The terrain suggested she was in the desert. How odd. She had never set foot on any desert in her life. She made her way through the sand toward a campsite littered with tents. She gazed down at herself and noticed that she was dressed in a weird set of flowing robes. Her head and part of her face were covered. Her body was heavy with child. In the distance, she watched as two men emerged from one of the tents. She seemed to know both of them and she began waving at them crazily. Both men were tall and dark. One had particularly long black hair that fell in waves to his shoulders. Some funky looking turban thing hid the other's head from view.
"Sharîk," the man with the covered head called, "Ya-la!"
The language was strange to Leven's ears, but she understood what he said. It was 'let's go.' Apparently, she was walking too slowly for him, and he was trying to urge her on. "Id-dun-ya Harr gid-dan," she groaned. Amazingly enough, she knew exactly what she said. 'It's very hot.' It wasn't what 'Sharîk' felt; it was what Leven was experiencing. She had no idea who these people were to her, even though she kept plodding toward them.
Leven didn't understand why the men were so insistent that she hurry along. There seemed to be no urgency, no need to speed up. Besides, the child was dragging her down. She ran her hand over her hugely swollen abdomen and could actually feel the child inside her. The baby kicked fiercely and she felt a surge of love rushing through her. She moved toward the men, knowing somehow that one was named Qâtil and the other Ardeth. Qâtil was her husband and Ardeth his best friend. She was Sharîk Fa'inn Abadi. She continued to plod along and she watched as the two men suddenly began screaming for her. What? What was wrong? Why were they yelling? She didn't understand. Suddenly, she became aware of a ripping pain between her shoulders. At first, she thought she might be in labor, but somehow knew that wasn't it at all. She had been shot. She fell to her knees and noticed that the lower half of her body didn't seem to work anymore. What is happening to me?
As was the case in most of her dreams, the scene shifted quickly. She was no longer sprawled out on the hot sand. Seemingly outside her own body, Leven was looking down at herself. It was the strangest thing she had ever experienced. Was she dead? Alive? Injured? Sharîk/Leven was laid out on some type of flat, dark table. The covering on her head and face had been removed and she noted that her hair was a different color. In the dream, it was as black as coal. She didn't see the man she knew as her husband. Instead, the one she knew as Ardeth was standing over her, gazing down at her face with unshed tears in his eyes. Up close, she saw a series of tattoos on his cheeks and forehead. His eyes were deep brown and kind. But oh, they could be harsh. Hadn't she seen them that way? Long, black ornamental robes bedecked him, and he appeared to be grieving. She tried to will her prone body to rise up. She had a great need to sit up and take him into her arms. Why would she feel this way about this man if he were not her husband? Suddenly, she knew. She had loved him once, hadn't she? She had loved him but could not be with him, but she didn't remember why this was so. She couldn't move. Oh Allâh, why can I not move? Why can I not touch him? Why can I not touch this man I love so dearly?
"RâHa. Brîd 'âyiz shâf inti tâni marra," he said softly. ("Rest. I will see you again.")
She wanted to scream out her love for him, to let him know she wasn't dead. I can see you, I can hear you. I am not dead, Ardeth. I am here and I love you. It was no use. After the words were out of his mouth, he turned away and left. A horrid sadness filled her and she cried out, but no one could hear her. She would see him again. She would see him even if it meant searching for him throughout all eternity.
Leven had a rare night off three or four days after her weird dream. She spent it at a crowded district fair. Her mind was occupied by her strange night journeys into some type of parallel universe. All she could remember was sand, heat, and sorrow. It seemed as if she were searching for something or someone in these dreams, but never knew who it was. She hated them, hated when they came to her, because she awakened feeling upset and confused. She grumbled incoherently under her breath as she walked along a crowded midway with one of her co-workers. She had wanted to spend the night sleeping and resting her feet. However, Eva persisted until she agreed to come along. She had been in no mood to have fun, and her shitty attitude hadn't improved much at all since she and Eva arrived. Her friend was like a child, and she ripped into the fair as if she were a wayward ten-year-old. Leven followed grudgingly along. She wondered why she tended to choose friends who enjoyed bossing her around. She supposed she had a bit of sniveling wimp lying dormant inside her and it came out around certain people.
She passed by a strange display that caught her attention. She had lived in Memphis for eight years, but had never gotten caught up in the touristy attraction of the Pyramid arena. It was just another large building built from the sweat of city, county, and state taxpayers. She could count the number of times on one hand that she had actually been inside it. Yet, her eyes were drawn to a display of miniature versions of the arena. There were several different models of varying shapes and sizes. The barker behind the counter had arranged them in a way that vaguely reminded her of some location she had once visited. Ridiculous, she thought. She had never been anywhere outside the US. The only true pyramids were in Egypt. Right? She gazed at the pyramids for so long a time that the barker finally began his sales pitch. She was distracted and didn't hear him say that if she "busted three balloons with them arrows," she'd win her very own pyramid. Her daze continued until Eva's hand fell on her shoulder.
"Come on, Leven," she said with a grin, "I want you to try something."
She walked with Eva over to a booth hidden by see-through silk scarves. Madame Beatrice was written across a piece of cardboard that hung over the entrance to the makeshift tent. Eva believed in everything from Santa Clause to the Tooth Fairy to Area 51. Leven was more of a realist. However, she went along with her friend. Perhaps she would get something out of tonight, even if it were a laugh at Madame Beatrice's expense. She and Eva ducked into the tent and Leven had to hold back a laugh. Madame Beatrice was in her fifties and looked every inch the stereotypical gypsy fortuneteller. She was dressed in flowing robes with lacy veils over her head and face. When she saw her suckers enter, she threw back the veils dramatically and fixed them with the coldest gaze Leven had ever seen.
"You come to Madame Beatrice," the woman said.
Please don't let me laugh in her face. Leven was tempted to ask if she had attended some type of fortune telling training school. "Actually, she comes," Leven said, nodding toward Eva.
"Your friend I saw earlier. Right now, I see you," she barked. "Sit down and I will tell you what your future holds."
It holds work, work, and more work. She didn't need a fortuneteller to give her any ideas about her future. However, Leven decided to humor the old broad and get it over with. She wanted to get home as soon as possible, because she was afraid she'd miss her favorite TV show, UC: Undercover. With an annoyed sigh, she plopped down in front of the woman. "What do you want me to do?"
"Be silent," Madame Beatrice snapped. "I do the talking, you do the listening. Give me your hands."
Sighing, Leven handed them over. Madame Beatrice took them into hers. The woman's wrinkled hands were amazingly strong and her touch seemed electric. Suddenly, she didn't feel comfortable in this stifling tent. The fortuneteller closed her eyes and her lips began moving, but for a moment, no sound came out of them.
"Your soul has lived for many thousands of years," she began. "Before this life, you lost a great love. I see you searching for this man. I see him searching for you."
Madame Beatrice's hands clutched tightly at Leven's. She wanted to snatch them away, but couldn't. The crazy bitch was in some kind of trance, and to spite herself, she didn't want to back away.
"You lost each other before, but I do not know how. You will meet a stranger from a different time, a different place. His soul and yours joined many years ago. He will not know how you connect to him, but he will seek you out. He is your greatest love, your eternal love. There will be no other."
"Okay, I have had enough," Leven cried. She wrenched her hands out of Madame Beatrice's, breaking her trance. Her words were disturbing, harmful. She could listen to no more. It brought back images from her dream.
Madame Beatrice sat back in her folding chair with a little smile on her lips. "I do not remember what I said or what I did, but I see that it touched you. Are you a believer now?"
"You're full of shit," Leven snarled.
Leven backed away from the fortuneteller and bolted away from the tent. She didn't look back nor did she wait for Eva. She had all she could stand.
That night as Leven slept, the dark haired man came to her again. This time, she wasn't yet betrothed to the man she would come to recognize as her husband. She was with the other man, the one called Ardeth. Her body was devoid of its heavy robes and she appeared to be covered in some type of flowing gown. She had come to Ardeth, had sought him out. She could see he wanted to see her, but he was pulling away at the same time. She didn't understand. She touched his warm cheek with one hand as her other plunged into his silky hair.
Before she tasted his exquisite lips, he sighed and whispered, "Mâ lâzim ta 'mil haik. Inti khaSS la âkhar." ["You must not do that. You belong to another."]
"Lâ! Ana khaSS la inta." ["No! I belong to you."]
"Ana maHabbi inti, amma niHna byimkinni kân sawa." ["I love you, but we cannot be together."]
As he drew back and turned away from her, she cried, "Ardeth! Ana maHabbi inta! Ana irâdi khaSS la inta dâymann!" ["Ardeth! I love you! I will belong to you always."]
Leven awoke suddenly with strange, foreign words stuck in her throat. What the hell? She buried her face in her hands. When would these crazy dreams end? She couldn't take it.
Chapter 2: Memories And Pain
MEMORIES & PAIN
Ardeth Bay sat unmoving in the growing daylight. He had been awake for hours. Actually, he hadn't been sleeping well at all. As of late, he had been plagued by dreams, horrible nightmares that broke him away from his peaceful slumber night after night. It was to the point where he had almost tried not to sleep altogether. He knew he could not function without sleep, but the night terrors had a solid hold on him. The one love of his life, the woman who had been promised to another came to him at night, her body detached from her soul. This great love of his, Sharîk, had been swept permanently from his life. She had passed on to another destiny, perhaps, and he didn't doubt that he would see her again, but he ached to see her in this life. He had loved her all his life, from the day he first laid eyes on her until the day she was taken away so viciously. But then, she had been taken away before, hadn't she?
As children, Ardeth, Sharîk, and Qâtil were very close. It seemed as if there was little they did not do as a triad. Ardeth understood that his life would follow a different path than those of his friends, but to him, it was of little consequence. After all, they were children and had many, many years to worry about the future that lay ahead. Since they were so young, the love Ardeth would feel for Sharîk had yet to rear its head, but if he were to be asked, he would admit that he had loved her his entire life. He had simply been too young to recognize it. Within his culture, with his people, arranged marriages were custom. From birth, each child knew who he or she were destined to marry before they even understood what the term meant. The three friends had learned early that Sharîk had been promised to Qâtil. It didn't stop them from acting as children do. The only time it became an issue at all was when they began to grow and to understand the matters between men and women. It was then that Ardeth realized he was in love with Sharîk. Perhaps if he lived in a different time, in a different place, he might have interfered with custom, might have stirred up discord intentionally. He didn't, he couldn't. It wasn't true to his heart. He couldn't dishonor either of his friends. Qâtil was like his brother. So very young, he didn't understand the feelings surging through him. He didn't comprehend that what he felt was okay. As a result, he fought it, stowing it away inside his heart, and locking it up into an unreachable chest. What he didn't realize then was that Sharîk was very much in love with him as well. He would not know this until much, much later as her destiny was nearing its peak.
From afar, Sharîk had admired Ardeth. He had a different path to take in life, and the thought of him being separated from her some day killed her, but it didn't stop her from watching him when he didn't know she was looking. Even at a young age, she loved his spirit, his strength, and she didn't doubt that he would become the leader of a great Medjai tribe. It was in his blood; it was what he had been born to do. Sharîk was a girl of ten when her mother explained that as she grew older, she could no longer be seen with the boys as much. It was strictly forbidden. Only when she reached her age of promise would she be allowed to share company with a boy. At first, Sharîk didn't understand what an 'age of promise' meant. However, she would soon learn, and learn the painful way. A time came when she was forbidden to be seen with Ardeth and Qâtil. She didn't understand and fought against it, but custom dictated her life and very little could be done immediately. At that time, she faced the horrid reality of her 'promised' betrothal. As a small girl, she understood that she was 'promised' to Qâtil, but she didn't really know what it meant. She didn't realize that she had been slated to marry Qâtil from the day she was born. Why had she been promised to Qâtil? She didn't love him, didn't believe she would ever love him. She didn't think he loved her either. Her mother gently explained that love was inconsequential. She was promised to Qâtil and that was that. She could not fight against custom. It was as forbidden as her being seen with her male friends. Her marriage to Qâtil would take place in her fifteenth year. At fourteen, she couldn't see giving herself to him at such a young age. There had to be a way for her to postpone the inevitable. However, she didn't know what she could do to break tradition.
Her answer came in a most unexpected manner. Sharîk's mother fell ill and she was the only child. Since she had never laid her eyes on her father, there was no one else to care for her mother. As the day of her betrothal approached, she escaped tradition [the first woman ever to succeed] and was allowed by the elders to delay her marriage. Once her mother recovered, she would marry as planned. Sharîk cared for her mother tirelessly, never leaving her side. Her mother was a well-respected woman in their clan, and many people came to see about her, including her intended, Qâtil. Sharîk longed to see Ardeth instead, but that wasn't to be. He had been sent on to complete the rite that would lead him to his destiny. She never expected him to show up, never had any idea. She was proven wrong.
Sharîk turned when she sensed his presence. She had loved him so long that she knew immediately when he entered a room. She hadn't seen him in a few years, but her love was alive and as fresh as an oasis in the most barren of deserts. She noticed the marks, the proud symbols of the Medjai. He had apparently moved through his rite of passage and would be sent onward to his sacred duty. She did not know when she would see him again after this. She longed to touch his face, to feel his soft skin beneath her hands. She would never understand why she hadn't been promised to Ardeth. When he laid his eyes on her, she saw something different in them, something she had never seen before. Did he love her? Was that what she had seen in his beautiful, dark eyes? Had he felt the same for her all along? She didn't speak to him. She actually wasn't supposed to interact with him at all, but she could not immediately tear her eyes off his face. He didn't immediately look away from her either. He was fifteen, just like her, but his demeanor was that of a man. He carried himself with an air of dignity, and Sharîk knew he would make a better husband than Qâtil. With such brazen thoughts racing through her, she finally cast her eyes downward. She didn't want him reading her heart or mind.
Ardeth approached her mother's bedside and laid his hand on hers. He had been close to this woman as a child, and his love for her had never faded. It hurt seeing her in such a state. He was highly aware that Sharîk stood very close beside him, and a stray thought entered his mind. He had not only returned to see Taiyib, but he had also wanted to see Sharîk. Such a self-centered thought nearly destroyed him inside, but he couldn't fight his heart. His heart had always led him, and he could not change. He wanted to linger, but he was due back. If he didn't return, someone would come for him. He placed a very brief kiss on Taiyib's forehead and turned to fix his eyes on Sharîk one last time before he made his leave. There was so much he wanted to say, but it was no use opening his mouth. He couldn't say it. Not now, probably not ever. She had been promised to Qâtil, his best friend, and he could not disrupt that. After gazing at her for several painfully long moments, he turned away and left. Sharîk would not see Ardeth again for three years.
Taiyib didn't recover. Whatever illness struck her held onto her stubbornly, refusing to let go. As a result, Sharîk's marriage was postponed time and time again. The elders of the clan were losing their patience. No woman was to wait to marry her chosen as long as Sharîk had. It was completely unheard of. Yet, Taiyib was a respected member and the elders relented to honor her. On Sharîk's eighteenth birthday, Taiyib's condition took a turn for the worse. She begged her mother to allow her to retrieve a healer, but Taiyib wouldn't hear of it. She knew she was about to die, and she had a very urgent message for her only, and much beloved, daughter. Painfully spoken in broken English, she had said: You should have been promised to Ardeth. I wish I had the power to change your destiny. When her mother's words were out of her mouth, she took one last breath and died. Sharîk's world fell apart.
On the day of Taiyib's burial, the elders announced that Sharîk's marriage would take place in three weeks. Although very upset at the prospect of finally having to honor her promise, it did not escape her that the elders thought three weeks enough time to grieve her mother. They only cared about throwing her to a man she did not love so that she could replenish the clan's bloodline. She hated her world, hated the old customs. She longed to escape the life she had been handed. Her only saving grace, the only ray of light that entered her dark world was Ardeth's return. He had traveled many miles by horseback to get to the burial. He would not miss honoring Taiyib in death as he had numerous times in life. He immediately noticed that his love and his best friend stood close together, their betrothal evident in the possessive way Qâtil stood near Sharîk. Of course, custom dictated that she remain behind her man, and he thought it odd for her to do this at her mother's burial. Something was not right about this. Out of respect for Taiyib, he said nothing. Instead, he made it a point to stand as far away from Sharîk as he could. He did not want to look upon her in Qâtil's presence. He would see Ardeth's love for her easily. Sharîk could not keep her eyes off Ardeth. She willed him to look at her, but she knew he would not. He was a very honorable man, more honorable than either she or Qâtil could ever be in twelve lifetimes.
It was very dark the night Ardeth prepared to leave. Qâtil wanted him to stay for the wedding, but he didn't have the heart for it. He could not watch the girl [the woman] he loved marrying another, even his best friend. He wanted to take his leave in the dark of night so that no one would miss him until morning. His people would understand his absence, but he couldn't stop thinking that his act was somehow cowardly. Wasn't he running away? He exhaled a deep breath and continued to ready himself for his long journey back. It would take a few days to reach his destination.
"Ardeth," a soft voice said from behind him. He was every inch a man, but still no more than a boy.
Immediately recognizing the voice, he turned around. Sharîk hadn't spoken two words to him since they were twelve-years-old. He had almost believed she lost her voice then and simply could not speak. She had presented herself in a way that he had never seen before. Her dark hair fell loosely about her shoulders and down her back. It was waist length, thick, and beautiful. She came to him in a gauzy white gown that appeared to float around her body. She was the most breathtaking woman he had ever seen in his life. The ache in his heart was tremendous. How could she come to him like this? Why did she come to him like this? They weren't destined to be together, to love each other as he did right at that moment. She belonged to his best friend and he couldn't interfere.
"Laish imil inti ija," ["Why do you come?"] he asked, seemingly startled to hear the words leaving his mouth. He shook his head. It wasn't right. Nothing was right; not what he felt, what he said, or the custom that had separated them. He knew why she had come to him. It was in her eyes, in his. To give in to his feelings would only bring about sorrow and grief. "Inti mâ lâzim râh qabl inti shuft." ["You must go before you are seen."]
She shook her head stubbornly. "Lâ, mâ brîd mush râh." ["No, I will not go."] She approached him and stood directly in front of him, waiting for him to react. What she had done was risky for Ardeth, and dangerous for her. Stubbornly, angrily, she spoke in English: "In a few days, I will be Qâtil's wife, and I wanted to see you one last time before you go."
Without thinking, he reached out and put his hands on her shoulders. He intended to push her away, to send her back before they were discovered. He knew what he needed to do, but he couldn't do it. Something inside him pushed him to make a confession, one that he had held back his entire life. He gazed at her wonderingly, not understanding when she learned to speak English, unless her mother had taught her. "I have loved you all my life, Sharîk, and tonight, I love you even more. But it is not meant to be. Go back."
"No", she spat angrily. "I love you, not Qâtil. I have never loved him. I have always loved you. Always," she cried.
Ardeth knew he should break away. He knew he should turn away from her, mount his steed, and ride far, far away. It wasn't what he did. He plunged his hands into her hair and pulled her face toward his. He covered her mouth with his, latching onto her lips possessively, crazily. Had he ever tasted anything so sweet in his life? Had he ever felt so completely free? Reality sank in, shattering the beauty of the moment. He hated reality, hated it fervently. He longed to take out his scimitar and slash it to ribbons. Reluctantly, he broke away from her.
"We can not do this," he said softly, keeping his eyes closed. "You must go. You must go now. If you refuse, I will dishonor every vow I hold sacred."
Sharîk drew back and brought her hands down. She clearly saw his love for her burning within him. When her mother died three years ago, she had seen his love then, but hadn't made sense of it. As she stood and gazed at him, she seemed to understand everything. He wanted her; she wanted him. Yet, it wasn't quite that easy. Nothing in her life had been simple, had it? She felt out of place; out of her time, but what could she do? She stepped back further, giving him all the room he needed with which to flee. Although she could not be with Ardeth, she felt secure in the knowledge that he at least knew how she felt, and had shared the same with her. She would be Qâtil's wife, honor him as she was expected, but she would never love him. Her heart would never be his; it would belong only to the man/boy she stood before.
Time passed slowly, painfully for both Ardeth and Sharîk. Ardeth went on to many heroic adventures, his thoughts never straying far from home or his love. Sharîk went on to fulfill her own intended destiny. She married Qâtil, staying faithful and loyal to him as was dictated by the society in which she lived. However, she never gave her heart to him. It would eternally belong to another.
Months grew to years and before Sharîk knew it, seven long years had passed with no sign of Ardeth's return. She had heard many tales of his and his tribe's deeds as they kept an ancient prophecy from coming to pass. She hadn't been informed of what this prophecy was, but she had heard that many had died, some of them Ardeth's men. He had become a leader, just as she knew he would. She longed to see him, longed for him to return to the fold, but she had doubts. Did he still love her? It had been far too long, but she thought of him every day of her life, often dreaming that it was he lying atop her instead of her husband. Qâtil was very disappointed in her and didn't care to show it. They had been together seven steady years, but she had yet to bare him a child. Of course, the fault fell with her, but then again, she didn't mind taking the blame. Secretly, she had gone to a healer shortly after her marriage and asked for a special potion to keep the babies away. It wasn't that she didn't want a child, didn't long for an extension of herself, but the thought of giving her husband a child made her shudder. She was certain he did not love her; he was simply trying to extend the bloodline. The thought disgusted her. The day came when Qâtil discovered her trick. She had never seen her husband so very enraged. From that day forward, after he spilled his seed inside her, he watched her carefully, cautiously, seemingly guarding his interests. It was apparent that her husband wanted to trap her, to hold her down, having her to reproduce with him until he had a son. It was her lot in life and she absolutely hated it.
Very early one morning, Sharîk was awakened from a sound sleep. Outside, she heard screams, yelps, and cheers. Her heart thumped in her chest. Ardeth had come. She ran out to see him and his presence knocked the wind out of her. He had changed so much. His dark hair had grown long, almost to his shoulders. His face was framed by a neat beard, somehow making him appear much older than he was. A grudging hardness had taken hold of him as well. His eyes seemed to search the crowd for her, and it didn't take long for his to meet hers. Yes. After seven years, he still loved her. The instant he saw her, saw the evidence of her love, he passed out.
Ardeth awoke in a dark room. At first, he had the desire to strike out, but soon enough, he realized he was nestled in the safety of his people. He had been away far too long, and had been intimately acquainted with destruction and death. It was nice to feel secure for a change. He noticed that he was stripped from his neck to his waist. Some kind soul had seen to his injuries, all of which were superficial. He had passed out from sheer exhaustion. His eyes were having difficulty focusing, but he thought someone was in the room with him. He watched as a silhouette drew closer and closer until a face was in focus. Sharîk. He couldn't stop looking into her beautiful eyes, couldn't forget the last time he saw her. He wanted to taste her lips again, wanted to run his hands through her thick hair, but one thought stopped him: Qâtil. He would not dishonor his friend regardless of his great love for her.
"I tended to your wounds," she whispered in English. It appeared to be something they would share privately amongst themselves. "I had to be here for you, Ardeth. I still love you so much."
He didn't speak, only nodded. What good were words to him or her? Nothing they said would change anything. He would have to love her from afar as he had done every day of his life. She turned and left him silently, just as she had come. Neither of them was aware that very jealous ears had overheard their conversation.
Within a few weeks, Ardeth had recovered enough where he could move around and accept much appreciated, but unexpected gratitude. After all, his role in the battle against the creature had been so very small. A noise distracted him, tweaking his ears. It sounded like a sob. He moved toward the sound and came upon the form of a woman who had taken measures to hide her body from view. He wasn't one to ignore the cry of a person in danger or one hurting. When he came upon the woman and placed his hand on her shoulder, he realized it was Sharîk. When her eyes met his, he stepped back suddenly, as if he had touched a hot coal. Why would she hide herself and cry such anguished tears? He wanted to comfort her, ached to, but he hesitated. He couldn't put his hands on another man's wife. It wasn't right.
"Qâtil has what he wants," she spat bitterly, "I am with child." Without lingering near him, she turned and walked away.
Ardeth stood with Qâtil in the hot desert sun. The two men watched as Sharîk moved toward them. Her abdomen was swollen tremendously and childbirth was imminent, probably in a matter of a few days. They watched as she plodded slowly along toward them. She didn't appear well and Ardeth was very worried. However, her husband seemed impatient. He kept screaming for her to move along faster, but her contorted body would not allow it. She struggled along, calling out to her husband to be patient. From out of nowhere, a shot rang out and Ardeth watched, horrified, as Sharîk fell face first into the sand. In Sharîk's last moments, her child was taken from her alive and healthy. Qâtil had his son, the only son he would have. Ardeth cried a little when he saw the infant. He would never know his mother, never know how wonderful she was.
Ardeth remained close to the fold for the next few years, never straying far. He stayed close to his godson and grew fonder of the boy as each day passed. He had taken after his mother, and he was as beautiful as she. With a heavy heart, Ardeth noticed that Qâtil didn't pay much attention to his son. Ardeth thought his inattention was due to grief, but it never faded. It was of no consequence to him. Ardeth simply loved the boy enough for his father and mother.
Three days after his godson's second birthday, Ardeth returned to discover that Qâtil had sent his son to the states to live with distant relatives. Ardeth was shattered, of course, but he couldn't tell his friend what to do with his son. His heart ached fiercely. He had taken all his love for Sharîk and doled it out on her son, the son that should have been his.
Ardeth heard one of his men calling out to him. He had almost not heard it at all. His mind had drifted so very far back in the past that for a moment, he was afraid he would never come back to the present. It had been too many years since he last saw Sharîk and her son. He had all but forgotten what each of them looked like. He had no photographs from which to reflect. All he had were fuzzy scraps of memories buried deeply inside his heart.
Chapter 3: Fate And Dreams
FATE & DREAMS
Leven Medlem was leaned over the counter thumbing through a magazine. She was completely and utterly bored. There were days when no more than three people came into the shop, and today was one of them. Of course, she couldn't close up shop, not with her ogre of a boss. She sighed, suddenly dreading the trip to Tunica. Tonight would probably be the busiest night ever at the casino. It was Saturday and dozens of people would flood in, spending money, and the bigwigs would be more than willing to pinch her ass some more. The thought of setting foot inside the casino turned her stomach. She lifted her body off the counter. If her boss were to find her in such a position, he'd eat nails and shit tacks. A brilliant idea suddenly came to mind. Why couldn't she just call in sick? Of course, her paycheck would be a little short, but who cares? She could sacrifice something for one night of sanity. Checking the front of the store, she ducked into the tiny room behind the counter. The boss used this room as his office [and probably to jack off, too, she thought bitterly]. She snatched up the phone and made a hasty call to Eva. She made up a glorious story of having the cramps so bad she couldn't walk. Eva was very sympathetic. Oh, I'm so sorry, sure I'll tell them you're sick. What a pal that Eva was turning out to be. A few more hours, and the rest of the night would be hers. She had no idea what she would do with the time, of course, but even if she spent it vegging out with take-out Chinese food, it would be tons better than hustling drinks to a bunch of fucked up drunken bigwigs. Big tips or no, she just wasn't in the damn mood. She hung up the phone quickly and darted back behind the counter just in case a customer decided to show his/her face. As if that is going to happen any time soon. She would almost welcome a robbery attempt just to have some type of excitement. You idiot, don't think that. She picked up her magazine and immediately became absorbed in it once again.
She groaned when she heard the annoying wee-ah of the door alarm as a customer entered. She knew something like this was bound to happen. Two more hours to go and the damn place would start jumping. She put down her magazine reluctantly and looked up to see one customer, a man. He stood well over six feet tall with a long, lean body, equally long arms and legs. His dark hair fell to his shoulders in thick waves. As she stared at him, she seemed to sense that she had seen him somewhere before. Perhaps he was a regular at the casino. Was that it? As the fellow began to browse through the hawked electronics and musical instruments, Leven continued to stare at him. She was sure that he would turn around any second and ask her what the fuck she thought she was looking at. Until then, she stared at him, trying her best to place his face. It would drive her crazy until she figured it out. He went around an aisle and was finally facing her. There was something missing on his face, wasn't there? Hadn't he had facial hair the last time she saw him? Damn it. Where had she seen this guy before? Leven wasn't normally a forward girl [you're not], but if he drew closer to her, she was damn well going to ask his name. Although certain she had seen him at the casino, he didn't carry himself with the air of a VIP. Dumbass. Why would a fucking VIP be inside a pawnshop? However, that didn't sway her opinion. Hundreds of people came into the casinos. She thought she might have bumped into him either going to or coming from work. It was driving her nuts and the fucker kept strolling about as if he had all the time in the world. If he didn't approach her in the next few moments, she would go to him. If she didn't find out who he was soon, she thought she might have a screaming hissy fit.
"Do you need any help," Leven asked suddenly. She had grown tired of his browsing without giving her the chance to check him out fully.
He turned and fixed his eyes on her. She couldn't make out their color, but she was more than positive they were dark brown, the color of chocolate. "No, but thank you."
His voice was mellow and friendly. He had an accent of some sort; making it obvious he wasn't from Tennessee. His denial of help pissed her off a little. When he had looked at her, there was no recognition in his eyes at all. Again, that didn't necessarily mean anything. How many men had she seen but didn't speak to? How many men had she dated, for God's sake, who would still remember her? She stood back behind the counter and watched as he moved around fluidly, almost gracefully. When he turned his back to her, she found herself checking out his ass. Oh stop, will you? She couldn't help it. She recognized the man, was pretty damn sure she knew him, and was even surer that she thought he was hotter than hell. She figured it was what fueled her curiosity. Was that the connection? Had they dated before? Hmmm. It was very intriguing and also very annoying. She watched for fifteen minutes or more as this guy kept browsing around, touching something every now and then. Absently, she picked up an ink pen and began working over the cap. Leven watched [chew, chew, gnaw, gnaw] as he approached an encased display cabinet. It was where they stored knifes of varying shapes and sizes. There were also some freaky looking daggers in the case as well. Often, she stared down at those daggers and knifes, somehow feeling an urge to grab one up. In fact, the knives weren't the only things that made her daydream. The boss had bought some type of sword during one of his many 'scavenging' trips and he had hung it up as a display item. When she wasn't reading a magazine or waiting on customers, she often found himself gazing at that thing as well. It was oddly shaped; it almost resembled a gigantic boomerang or something. But that wasn't right, either, was it? Hell, she didn't know. She simply found herself transfixed by it as well.
"Excuse me," the man said.
She hadn't realized she was so zoned out until the dude spoke to her. Embarrassed now, she cleared her throat, "Er…yeah?"
"Could you retrieve one of these daggers for me?"
She worked his request over in her brain. Could you retrieve one of these daggers for me, he had asked. Nope. This fellow definitely wasn't from Tennessee. "Uh, sure," she said. She went back to the tiny office again and retrieved the keys that would open the display cases. Leven came around to the display case where the man stood. She was standing before him, relatively close, and could smell his aftershave. It was spicy more than musky and different than anything she had ever smelled before. It was…nice. He was…nice. No. He was hot. With shaking hands, she slipped the little key into the rounded slot. She popped open the case and looked up at him. Yes. His eyes were definitely dark brown. "Which one?"
"The one with the quartz in the middle of the handle," he said.
Her face nearly pinked. How long had it been since a man made her blush? Never? He had apparently been checking her out as well. He had selected the dagger she spent the most time staring at. She didn't know what it was about this thing that attracted her so, but she loved gazing at it. She laid her hand on the heavy handle. "I'm not sure if the jewels surrounding the quartz is genuine, but my boss must have thought so. He has it priced at one fifty. Is that too much for you to handle?" God. I can't believe I just asked that. Now he'll think I want to sleep with him or something. Don't I? Wherever she had met him before, she knew she had ended up in bed with him. She had gotten that impression the instant she had laid eyes on him.
He smiled a little. "I think so."
She returned his smile [her face pinking even more] and carried the dagger toward the cash register. She watched as he kept pace with her. He was one of the most graceful men she had ever seen. Most men she knew swaggered. They'd die before they even attempted to carry their bodies like this man. Nervous under his watchful, lusty gaze, she screwed up and kept hitting the wrong keys. He waited patiently, not once taking his eyes off her. She couldn't look up at him. She was such a klutz and she didn't want him to think he was dealing with a child. After a few awkward moments, she rang up his purchase and gave him the total. Without a blink of an eye, he dug out his wallet and handed her a credit card. She caught herself glancing at the name on the card: Caldo Usuario. A nice, but bizarre name, she thought. While she waited for the approval on his card, she stood back and looked up at him again. He had held the same unnerving gaze. God, I wish I could figure out where I've seen him before. The name didn't ring a bell. She had thought it was something like Arden or Anthony or Aidan. Damn it, something with an 'A.'
When she handed over his receipt and signature slip, he laid his hand atop hers before she drew it back. "I'm sorry for such a forward move, but I'd like to see you after you leave here tonight. Perhaps we could meet for a drink?"
Actually, she hadn't minded that he touched her hand at all. In fact, she was pretty flipping thrilled, if the truth were known. His hand was large and warm, covering hers neatly. She suddenly had an image of him running those large hands all over her body. Her heart beat hard in anticipation. "I'd love to."
"Great. I'm staying at the Peabody. Do you know it?" He chuckled; the sound seemed to rustle from his throat lustily. "Of course, you know it. You live here, don't you?"
She smiled and noticed that he had yet to release her hand. Again, she found that she didn't care one itty-bitty bit. He was beautiful and sexier than hell. "I know it. I can meet you around seven?"
He nodded. "Sounds fantastic. You'll find me in The Lobby Bar. Just ask for Caldo. And you are?"
Oh God. She had just been asked out, and she hadn't even told him her name. "I'm Leven."
He released her hand, signed the signature slip with flair, and slid it back toward her. She placed the dagger into a velvet case and handed it over. As he made his way out the door, she found her eyes once again roving over his ass. Caldo Usuario. How did she know him? It didn't matter. She would find out tonight. She glanced at the clock and hoped that an hour would give her enough time to get ready.
Caldo looked up when his date for the evening entered the crowded bar. He had reserved a table for them and left his name at the front so she would find him. He hid a smile behind his hand as he looked up at her. She had apparently found time to discard her casual wear of jeans and tee shirt. She had donned a short skirt and a dark silk button-down blouse tied at her middle. Her hair was an inch or three below her shoulders and the color of a fawn. It was a bizarre thing. He had never seen hair that color before. Her eyes were golden hazel and bright. He had seen her lust for him in them. She would make an easy score tonight, especially after a few drinks. When she saw him, he waved her over, standing so that she wouldn't miss him. She approached the table with a smile and was flattered when he pulled out her chair for her. Yes. He was a very gentle man. He wouldn't hurt a fly…unless angered. She wondered how she knew this about him? Wouldn't he have said something if he recognized her? He took his seat, ordered drinks for the two of them, and began his seduction.
Leven was a bit lightheaded. She and Caldo had talked well into the night. Each break in conversation seemed to be met with more drinks. She wanted to stop, but after her third or fourth, she didn't rightfully give a damn. She'd slam one down, get another, slam it down, and then begin the process again. She listened as Caldo told her he collected daggers, that his father was a millionaire, and that he traveled all over the country just looking for artifacts. He talked so much that she wasn't sure what was fiction and what was the truth. After a while, she didn't care what he said. He looked damn good, she knew that, knew that for damn sure. Her uninhibited behavior began to surprise her. At one moment, she was sitting politely in her chair listening to Caldo. At another, she had kicked off her shoe and began caressing his inner thigh with her foot. Yes. She had definitely slept with this man before. He had been a gentle, considerate lover. When Caldo suggested they continue their conversation up in his room, she found herself readily agreeing. What the hell? She wanted to go another round with him. Oh yeah. Who wouldn't?
Caldo and Leven were in his room no longer than five minutes before he began undressing her. Her tipsy brain wanted to tell her this wasn't right. This man wasn't whom she thought he was, but she couldn't get past the booze. He had to be the one. He had to be. Her protests died as his hands began to roam all over her naked body, touching spots that hadn't been touched. Leven was no virgin, but damn, this guy knew what he was doing. He was firing off triggers she never knew she had. But then, hadn't he done this to her before? Hadn't he set her aflame time and time again? He certainly had.
Once Caldo had them both stripped down, he didn't waste time taking her to the bed. He threw her down roughly, momentarily shattering that gentle image. The thought 'oh well' drifted into her mind. Sometimes even gentle men liked it rough once in a while, didn't they? His hands had lit small fires, but his mouth and tongue caused an all out forest fire. Just before he entered her, he leaned over her, kissing her deeply, plunging his tongue into her mouth. She didn't close her eyes; she wanted to see his face while he kissed her. Oh, she finally saw him as he was when knew him before. His dark hair was wavier. Yes. The beard was back, tickling her sensitive flesh. Somehow, funky looking tattoos had suddenly appeared on his cheeks, forehead, and hands. How did he have time to do that? He hadn't stopped and pulled away for one tiny second. Oh, but she didn't care, did she? She plunged her hands into his thick hair and held him against her for as long as he would allow. He broke the kiss and gazed down at her. God. He was so beautiful and she could feel his love for her literally oozing from his pores. She hadn't only made love to this man before, but she had also loved him, hadn't she? He plunged into her deeply, thrusting slowly at first, but began to move frantically soon enough. She brought her thighs up firmly against his hips and dug her fingers into his buttocks. This was the man, this was the only man. At the moment of her release [a moment she would not remember afterwards], she cried out his name: "Ardeth!" Caldo noticed, of course, but it didn't bother him a bit. After all, he had done his own fair share of fantasizing when making love to other women.
Her lover, her beautiful lover, the one known as 'Ardeth' kissed her ever so tenderly before moving a muscle. She begged him to wait before he withdrew. She didn't want the moment to end any sooner than it had to. A time would come when he would leave her and she wanted to stay with him as long as possible. He smiled and whispered something in her ear: Brîd 'âyiz dâyman kâ bâTin inti, Hatta aimta emta ana mâ mush [I will always be inside you, even when I'm not]. She understood every word he said and she wrapped her arms around him as tightly as was humanly possible. She had never thought she could feel this way about a man. She felt tears streaming out of her eyes. Why had he come to her only to leave after she fell so deeply in love with him? Her lips were all over his face, her tongue tripping lightly across his tattoos. When her lips found his, she kissed him deeply, nibbling at his sensuous bottom lip as she broke the kiss. He was spent, but he found the energy to touch her, and she gave way before him, allowing his hands access to any part of her body he wanted to touch. He had been more than reluctant to love her like this, but it was something he couldn't have prevented no matter what he did. It was impossible, completely impossible. His fingers trailed lightly over her flesh, barely touching it, and she quivered in delight and frustration. Oh. How could he be ready to make love to her again? Hadn't they made love twice tonight? Hadn't she lain in the comforting embrace of his arms and cried at the cruel trick fate had played on her? She didn't care, didn't have the time or energy to care. She needed him, needed him more than any man she had ever needed in her entire life. He sat up, bringing her with him, and she wrapped her legs about his waist. He wanted to look at her, to gaze into her beautiful eyes. It had been many years since he had expressed his love for any woman. He felt it in his heart, mind, and soul. He had yet to say anything to her, but he knew she loved him as well. It was plainly written in her eyes.
His heart skipped a beat as he whispered, "I love you."
"I love you," she whispered back.
Having said it and then hearing it repeated back, he felt a deep chill overtaking him. It wasn't a bad sort of chill, but one that came when a man was stunned by some powerful, life-changing news. He groaned in awesome sadness and kissed her again. Their bodies drifted back down to the bed and she discovered that yes, he was ready to make love to her again, more than ready.
Leven jarred herself awake as she goggled owlishly around a strange hotel room. She was in a gigantic hotel bed all by herself. She hadn't remembered much about last night, but she realized that she had gone home with someone. She kept trying to remember his name. Arden? Aidan? Adrian? Damn it. Where was he? She glanced at the empty side of the bed. She tried to sit up, but her head swam sickly. Uh God. She had a fucking hangover. Great. Piece by piece, she began to remember. She groaned aloud. Slowly, she brought her body up to a sitting position. She swung her legs over the side of the bed with yet more deliberate slowness. She saw that her lover for the night had folded her clothing neatly and placed it into a chair. She glanced at the bedside clock. It was almost noon. Goddamn. If she didn't get moving she'd be late for work at the casino.
She grabbed her clothes, horrified that she had no time to shower. She wanted to get dressed and get out of this room as quickly as possible. However, after a moment, she realized that she didn't need to worry a bit. The man who had taken her to bed had left a nice little note for her in the bathroom: Stay and sleep as long as you want. I have the room reserved for two more days, but I needed to get back home. You were wonderful. Caldo. She put her hand on her forehead and grumbled: Oh God. She had slept with a rank stranger. This man was not who she thought he was. What had she been thinking? Without wasting time, she dressed and got the hell out.
That night at the casino, the bigwigs saw a very distracted drink hustler. Usually, Leven was bright and cheery [even when she actually felt like shit]. Tonight, she was morose and brooding. It wasn't that she was upset about sleeping with the man. She was upset because it wasn't the man she had thought it was. It was another man, one who was a seemingly poor substitute. What the hell is happening to me? More than once, she found herself standing in one spot gazing blankly at the wall. Would someone please help me understand these feelings? And more than once, Eva had to bring her back to the real world. Leven was risking her job, her steady paycheck, but the distraction wouldn't let go of her. She wished she had stayed home. But then, the thought of staying home terrified her as well. What if the dreams kept coming back? Whoever you are, please stay away.
Chapter 4: Connections
Ardeth lay down to sleep, but he found he couldn't close his eyes longer than five minutes before they'd spring open again. Something was wrong and out of place, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. A foreboding sense of doom was eating away at him, gnawing his heart. He felt like this only when something bad was about to happen. He had felt this way before, and his intuition had not been off kilter. He was troubled by visions of a woman. Although his thoughts often turned to Sharîk at night, unlike his other visions, these didn't involve her. This woman was one he thought he might have some connection to, but he didn't understand what that connection was. It was strange. Within his dream, he called this woman "Sharîk," but it was more than obvious she wasn't. Her hair was shoulder length and a bizarre shade of blonde or golden brown. It was the color of desert sand. Her eyes were hazel with gold flecks running throughout. Her face had very delicate fine-boned features accentuated by full lips that longed to be touched. Her skin was a peachy hue, and in his dreams, it seemed to glow and create a delectable aura. She was most obviously American, but she never spoke English, even when he used the language. However, neither of them had any trouble understanding each other. When the dreams first began to assault him, he could never remember anything about them. The only image that lay within him was her basic looks, but if he were to meet her, he wasn't sure he would recognize her. This woman, this amrîkâni [American], was nothing like Sharîk, not even remotely close. Yet, in his dreams, didn't he seem to have deep feeling for her? Didn't it feel as if he loved her? He hadn't loved anyone since he lost Sharîk, and he didn't see that changing anytime in the future.
He no longer thought of these night visitations as dreams. They were 'visions.' He was certain they were leading to some great struggle. When the visions first came to him, they were nothing more than rehashed images of his past and thoughts of his lost love. Every now and then, Ardeth would see images of Sharîk's son as well. Eventually, they began to change in duration and content. His lost love became this other woman. Just last night, he had had an even stranger vision. Within it, he awakened, not sure if he were still awake or dreaming. He was sleeping in a strange bed surrounded by darkness. He didn't recognize anything in the room. As soon as his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw strange furniture that didn't fit in his time. The bed didn't fit. Where was he? He wasn't alone in the bed; there was someone next to him. When he glanced at her, he saw the amrîkâni imra'a [American woman] who had come to haunt him nightly. She lay snuggled against him intimately. Neither of them was dressed. He saw himself looking down at her, feeling incredible love surging through him. How could he love this woman? He had never seen her before. Her unusual name was fluid on his tongue, but he couldn't recall it no matter how hard he concentrated. He touched her and ran his hand down her warm arm. It felt like a real touch, as if he were experiencing it as he saw it. She opened her eyes and gazed up into his. Her finger traced lightly over his bottom lip and he responded by kissing the tip of her finger. It felt real, it felt his. Why did this image torment him so? Was it because he couldn't fathom the idea of loving another? Did he think he was betraying Sharîk by feeling this way? He had never touched Sharîk intimately, had only tasted her lips one time. He couldn't dishonor his friend or his marriage. Yet, he had never given his heart to another. While Ardeth brooded over his visions, he fell asleep and began to dream again.
Ardeth came into a room he had grown accustomed to, but still had difficulty understanding its amenities. This was a different time and place. He had no trouble recognizing that, but the thought didn't seem to disturb him much. His clothing was different, drastically so. Instead of the robes he had donned since his early years, he was wearing khaki dungarees and a button-down shirt. He had seen his friend, O'Connell, wearing such clothing, but he never had donned them before. She had insisted that he 'modernize' to fit in to this new world. The woman who would become his lover, Leven, stood in the middle of the room gazing at him. He wasn't certain, but he thought this was before he had ever touched her. He felt reluctant to move toward her, although he wanted to, he wanted to very badly. It was clear to him that she felt the same, but she seemed to be waiting for him to make the first move. He didn't disappoint her. He closed the distance between them in a few swift steps. Although he felt a great urge to grab her and slam her up against his body, he didn't take that route. This woman was special to him and he wanted to take his time, to explore her, and allow her to do the same to him. He kissed her, softly at first, but then it deepened as soon as he felt her lips parting. His tongue entered her mouth and he again found that there was something familiar about her kiss and her taste. He backed away, finally realizing Leven's connection to him. She stood back and gazed at him. He couldn't stand to see the hurt in her eyes. She was plainly asking him if she had done something wrong. He couldn't speak, couldn't move. Her lips, the taste of her mouth, were just like Sharîk. It couldn't be. It could not be.
Ardeth gazed at Leven helplessly. "Mîn? Sharîk?" ["Who? Sharîk?"] He felt as if he were losing his mind. He had touched those lips before, tasted them. This woman stood before him, so unlike his lost love, but with the same sweet, sweet kiss.
"Who is Sharîk," she asked gazing up at him just as helplessly as he gazed down at her.
He couldn't answer. The words didn't come to him. Instead of speaking, he took her in his arms and held her close against him, inhaling her scent, touching her glorious hair. He was lost in her, completely and totally lost. He knew he didn't want to be found, not ever. As his hands wandered restlessly down her back, he didn't care if he ever returned to his own time. However, he knew he couldn't stay with her. If he did, he'd destroy not only his world, but hers as well. He didn't want the weight of that fate resting on his shoulders. For a moment, he despised being sent on this journey. It seemed as if some higher power was trying to test him. In the back of his mind, he heard the protests, heard the whispers. It wasn't supposed to happen, he was not allowed to touch her like this, to fall in love with her. Did he love her because of her connection to Sharîk? Or did he love her for her? It was a great dilemma, one he was not prepared to deal with, not at this moment. All he wanted was to make love to her, to touch her soul as she had touched his. He drew away from her and brushed her hair back from her temple. Her face held the same perplexed look that had consumed her moments ago. She wanted to speak to him, but he wouldn't let her. He placed two fingers over her lips and shook his head. She was completely lost in his eyes. Dark already, they darkened even more as his desire for her went up fifteen octaves. At first, he thought he could deny her, but knew that now, it was impossible. He would eventually have to tell her about Sharîk, but for a moment, he put it into the very back of his mind. As he took her lips once again, thoughts of his lost love swiftly left him. Had she possessed his soul to a degree that she had chased away his grief? Was that possible?
His dream shifted and he saw her laying against him, her arms wrapped firmly about his waist. Perhaps it wasn't meant for him to see anything before that. Her skin was warm and soft beneath his hands. He again had the sense of actually touching her, not just dreaming of it. Who was she? Where was he? Why did he feel so out of place, yet so at home? He also had the sense that he would only be with her a short time, but he didn't understand why. He didn't know why he had been sent to her, or had she been sent to him? No, that couldn't be. She wasn't in his time, he was in hers. He had never felt so confused in his life. She slept soundly against him and he found his hand moving toward her hair. He couldn't seem to stop touching it. It felt like a silky fan as it glided over his skin. Although his dream had conveniently skipped over their lovemaking, an image came very clear and strong in his mind. She had been atop him; her head thrown back, her body arched severely. The very end of her hair touched him, seemingly stroking him as gently as he stroked her. MaHbûb Allâh [Dear God]. It was an image that would likely haunt him in his waking hours. It wasn't a bad feeling. It was one that offered comfort and warmth. Ana abadan riRib la Daiya' inti [I never want to lose you], he thought. Ill fated. It was ill fated.Present Day
A sound left Leven's throat [uh] as she awoke. She sat straight up in bed and gazed around at her empty room. Her tiny, compartmentalized bed was empty. She could have sworn there was someone next to her. She had felt the heat from another body. It was the good, comforting heat of a man. Yet, the instant she opened her eyes, there was nothing more than a stuffed animal next to her. She had heard a soft voice whispering to her, speaking a language she had come to recognize but didn't know the origin. Goddamn it. Her mind had been fucked up since she had gone to bed with the mysterious man known as Caldo. She had thought she recognized him, but once she awoke from her spell, she didn't. He wasn't the one she wanted, was he? He wasn't the one named something with an "A." He was a man from out of town looking for a good time and she had played right into his hands. She glanced at the clock and noticed it was just after four in the morning. In another hour and a half, she would have to rise to ready herself for her long, boring day at the pawnshop. However, she couldn't go back to sleep no matter how hard she tried. The dream had left her wide-awake with adrenaline coursing through her veins.
The dream man had been making love to her again, touching her hair. She had seen his face so very clearly. As much as Ardeth had thought before her [in his own time], she probably wouldn't recognize him if he came up to her and bonked her on the head. She thought she would only recognize him by his kiss. There was something about him that she couldn't quite identify. He was special to her; he meant something to her, didn't he? If he didn't, why did she continue to dream about him? He was a man completely unlike any she had ever met in her life. There was something different about his face. She had the image branded in her mind during her dream, but the moment she awoke, it was gone, swept away like so much dust. It had begun to drive her nuts. Her mind stayed preoccupied nearly twenty-four hours a day. She couldn't work, sleep, or eat. When she went to bed at night, she felt terrified and deliciously anxious at the same time. Scraps of images from the dreams had stayed with her, and she began to wonder about the identity of this mystery lover. Who was he? Where was he? Why wasn't he with her at this very moment? His name always seemed to be at the very tip of her tongue, but when she tried to speak it, she could never think of it. She turned to her side and absently caressed the empty space beside her. She drew her hand away in shock. It was warm. No fucking way. She touched it again. Again, she felt a bit of warmth. She shook her head incredulously. She was such a damn dope. Just because her bed was warm didn't mean anything, now did it? It was small with barely enough room for her body. How could anyone else lie with her without being smack up against her? She could have easily rolled over once, in effect, sleeping on the entire bed before rolling back on the side she always slept on. She was losing her mind.
Leven slid out of bed and stepped into the bathroom. Perhaps she could find a sleeping pill or an antihistamine or some shit to knock her out for a little longer. However, there was no sense in that. She had to get up anyway. She figured she might as well start her day early. What the hell. As she gazed at her image in the bathroom mirror, she gasped aloud. Someone was standing behind her. It was the man in her dreams. When she turned toward him, he was gone. Okay. Okay. It was time for her to regroup. She needed to get her shit together before she really did end up institutionalized. Sighing heavily, she went back to her bed. She absolutely had no energy to do something as strenuous as getting dressed. She slid between the sheets and snuggled her pillow close to her. Unconsciously, she wished the pillow were the man. Oh, what she'd give to have him next to her. As she longed for a man whose name she could not remember, she fell asleep and began to dream…
Leven was back at the pawnshop, back behind the counter. It was as if she were forever connected to the damn thing. She looked up as a man entered. Oddly, he came into the shop as much as Caldo had before him. However, this time, she knew this was the man she had been searching all eternity for. This was the one, the one. She whispered his name: Ardeth. Although she hadn't spoken very loudly at all, he heard her. He turned toward her with a beautiful smile. She gazed at him while he browsed around. Was this the man she had seen? The one she had slept with? No. That man hadn't been her Ardeth. What was she thinking? Without waiting for him to speak to her, she moved from behind the counter and approached him slowly. He was wearing some weird looking robes and had a wicked looking sword. It was similar [if not the same] to the one the boss had hung on the wall. She wasn't afraid of this man. She loved him. She had loved him all her life, hadn't she? She went to this beautiful, beautiful man and touched his arm. He turned to her. Without a word, he took her into his arms and mashed his mouth down onto hers. She wasted no time ripping him out of his robes. Her hands seemed to work with a mind of their own. As if by magic, they were suddenly naked and sprawled atop one of the display cases. He was inside her, making love to her madly. She had never felt such intense love or pleasure.
The image shifted and she saw herself walking with Ardeth hand-in-hand. He had donned blue jeans and a button-down shirt. She knew immediately that she had picked out these clothes for him. He simply couldn't walk around wearing robes and his funky sword. Of course, this was Memphis and the city had plenty of weirdoes running about, but Ardeth was no weirdo. He was sweet, loyal, and calm. He would never love her and leave her. Once he was hers, he was hers for life. She had no idea where they were walking, but she could see the looming shadow of the Pyramid nearby. Ardeth seemed as transfixed by the building as she had been. Somewhere inside this gigantic building lay what they both had been looking for their entire lives. She somehow knew he didn't have much more time and the thought of his leaving nearly killed her, so she didn't think of it often. She longed to go with him, but she couldn't.
Ardeth moaned incoherently. He came awake slowly, as if coming out of a long-suffering coma. Something didn't feel right. Sighing, he realized he had been having visions again. The images were so close, but so very out of reach. He didn't think he could survive a sane man if he didn't uncover the mystery behind these visions. Again, there had to be a purpose. Why else would they torment him? He scrambled up to his feet hastily. He stepped out into the new dawn of the day, the fresh air licking his naked chest. This was normally his favorite time of the day, but since he had been plagued with the visions, he often awoke tired and shaken up. He chose a sand-packed outcropping and seated himself. He drew his legs up close to his body and rested his arms on them. The harsh desert sunlight was still an hour or so away, and for now, the air was cool enough to make him shiver, but he didn't bother dressing immediately. He had sat out like this before, but his mind had yet to settle. Sharîk had died four years ago and the pain had dulled a bit, but not enough to totally wash her out of his mind. He often wondered if his visions had anything to do with her. It seemed as if the woman who haunted him was like her in so many ways, but not really her. None of it made any sense to him. Honestly, he couldn't see giving his heart to anyone else. Once his light was put out forever, he didn't see it sparking to life ever again. It was a fatalistic attitude, but he was a fatalistic man. If he wasn't, how could he get through the unbelievable evil forces centered on his homeland? He had experienced enough to send an average man running for the hills.Present Day
Leven stood behind the counter, completely bored out of her mind, as usual. There hadn't been many customers today. It reminded her of the Saturday when she met Caldo. She cursed herself again for going home with the guy. But she had somehow convinced herself that she knew him. Go to hell. She couldn't continue to brow beat herself. She turned to go back into the office for a moment and was once again hypnotized by the funky sword hanging on the wall. She had the greatest urge to reach up and touch it. Another thought struck her. Hadn't this sword appeared in her dream? Had it? It was a disturbing unreal element in her real world. She turned away from the sword. She couldn't look at it anymore. It turned her stomach and made her sick. She was tired of the dreams, the confusion, and the distractions. She wondered if there was anything she could take to keep the dreams away. They didn't scare her, necessarily, but they shook her. She had the sense that something significant was coming her way, but she didn't know if she was prepared to handle it. She had dated many men, had slept with her fair share of them, but she couldn't ever recall if she had truly been in love. In her dreams, she was certain that she was in love with the man she always saw, the one whose name she couldn't remember well enough to speak aloud. She turned once again toward the sword and stared at it curiously, wonderingly. Why do you haunt me so? Why do you come to my dreams but never come to me? Who are you? What do you want?
Chapter 5: The Key
Hazz Haka was a respected member of the clan, an elder if you will, even though most knew him to be somewhat of a soothsayer. Hazz had a special role amongst his people. He kept track of all the ancient documents and scrolls that ruled and led the way for various journeys. He also held legal documents and those of the mystical variety as well. Hazz was the man the clan elders deferred to when certain documents required translation, especially those that predicted prophecies destined to come to pass. As of late, Hazz hadn't had to do much. Basically, he puttered about, checking and rechecking his documents and records. However, he felt that something about his world was out of balance. He had no idea that his feelings mirrored those of a restless Medjai warrior. As the day grew hotter, Hazz grew more impatient and weary. He did not know when these feelings would leave him, but he thought it might take a very long time. Often, he had visions that wouldn't come to pass for months or years at a time. By the time they did occur, he had entirely forgotten that he had seen it already. Hazz wasn't aging well. He often found himself growing more and more feeble and forgetful. Perhaps it was time to hand down his life's work to an apprentice. Yet, he didn't want to do that. He wanted to hold onto his status and to the mystic. Once he turned it over, he would no longer be consulted. He grunted incoherently [pah] as he moved around, touching scrolls, and knocking things over with his shaking hands. He turned when he heard the rapid clocking of feet moving toward him. He hadn't had visitors in a few days. Even his apprentice, Mukhtar, had made himself more than scarce. He often wondered if the clan had decided, once and for all, that he was losing his mind. Ah, so Mukhtar has decided to come back, he thought bitterly as the young boy came rushing his way.
"M'allim, m'allim," the boy cried. ["Master, master."] "You will not believe what I have found. You must see this. You must."
Hazz stepped back from the breathless young boy and glanced at what he held in his hands. It looked like an old case of some sort. It was decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics; they literally covered it. His apprentice presented the case to him, and for a moment, Hazz was afraid to touch it. Evil emanated from the case as if it were noxious steam. The room was suddenly filled with it. He had the greatest urge to take the case and throw it into the fire. He wanted nothing to do with it. "What is this that you have brought to me, Mukhtar," he asked when he could finally speak.
Carefully, cautiously, as if he were opening a sacred book, he popped open the bizarre looking case and revealed what it had hidden inside. Hazz gasped audibly as his eyes identified a small scroll rolled neatly and tucked perfectly in the middle of the case. This document was ancient. The paper was similar to parchment [but wasn't parchment] and the edges were brown with age. The inside of the case smelled musty and rank, as if it hadn't been opened in centuries. He was afraid to touch it, fearing that it might fall apart at the slightest breath. However, as he gazed down upon it, he thought that whatever mystic had created it would ensure it would hold together long enough to send some wary traveler on his journey. He reached out and placed one finger onto the document. If there were a chance it would fall apart, at least the damage would be slight. As he had known [and feared], the paper held together. It felt very fragile, though. His heart began to race as he encircled the document with his hand. He saw that it was no longer than five inches and bound with some type of twine. The moment he touched the twine, it crumbled to so much fine dust. It was unnerving how the twine didn't last a minute, but the scroll held together. You do not want to look at that. Do you? He didn't, but he did. The ancient document called to him and his love for his work pressed him forward. He unrolled the scroll and noted that it was written in Arabic. However, the language seemed slightly more primitive than the Arabic he had spoken since he could talk. They needed a translator.
"Find Abd er Rashid," Hazz commanded. "Only he could read this. Bring him to me. Tell no one."
It took Mukhtar no longer than twenty minutes to find Rashid and bring him back to Hazz. The three men sat together and gazed at the scroll before attempting to translate it. Rashid was the clan's expert of the ancient times. He knew everything about the culture, lifestyle, and language of ancient Egypt. He had spent as many hours studying as Hazz did collecting and archiving. For what seemed like three lifetimes, Rashid stared down at the document, tracing each symbol with his finger. Every now and then, he would sigh and shake his head. It wasn't a good sign and Hazz began to worry even more than before. Something about this scroll was not right. He had felt it the instant he laid eyes on it, and was convinced the moment Rashid began to read it. Rashid had brought his own parchment paper to jot down the sentences as he translated them. He held this treasure protectively, refusing to allow either Hazz or Mukhtar to see it. He didn't want them to know what it said until he finished. However, he didn't hide his discord. The clan was in trouble. The world was in trouble.
Although a leader of a great tribe, Ardeth had moved away from his men. As the days passed and the visions grew in intensity, he had become morose, almost sullen. He didn't understand what was happening to him and wasn't sure he wanted to. As he rode ahead of the tribe, he felt the heavy comfort of the amulet periodically thumping against his chest as if it were a separate heart beat. He supposed he was naïve. He thought it might chase away the images that haunted him day and night. However, it didn't. Absently, he fingered the heavy silver amulet fashioned in the form of Isis. Her wings were spread widely and had joined to form a perfect circle. In the space left by the joined wings was a tiger's eye quartz. Despite the heat of the day, it never grew hot to the touch. It maintained an eerie coolness that he couldn't explain. As darkness fell and the air chilled, the amulet warmed. He believed it was Sharîk touching it, keeping it comfortable for him. The amulet had belonged to her, but he wasn't sure where she had gotten it. She didn't have time to explain. As she had fallen onto the burning sand, dying, Ardeth had closed the distance quickly, getting to her several moments before Qâtil. At the time of her death, she had been wearing the amulet. He remembered that she had taken her last bit of strength to rip it from her throat. Urgently, she shoved it toward Ardeth, imploring him to take it. He didn't want it. In fact, he insisted that she keep it. She would need its protection as she passed on to the afterlife awaiting her. No, she had begged. You do not understand. Take this. You will one day need it. He couldn't deny her dying words. He loved her far too much. He had taken the amulet and hid it within his robe. Later, he would wonder why he had hidden it away as if he had stolen it. He didn't want Qâtil to know she had given it to him. He never knew why he felt such a way. He had carried it with him every day for two years, never quite having the heart to look at it. It was the only item on her person that hadn't been soaked in her blood. He told himself he was keeping it for Sharîk's child, that he would give it to her son. Yet, he didn't get that chance. His friend sent the boy to America as if he had never wanted him at all. Eventually, he carefully dug the amulet out of its hiding place, restrung it with a new cord, and tied it securely around his neck. It was doing nothing for the visions, but it seemed to give him enough energy to lead his men.
Ardeth wasn't aware of it, but they were worried about him. Hardly any of his men wanted to approach him about his recent behavior changes. When angered, Ardeth was fierce and unstoppable. No one wanted to be his enemy. None of them wanted to die young. However, his second in command had mentioned it tentatively. Hashim respected his leader, as did the rest of the tribe. What was Ardeth's issue became one of the whole group. They often moved as one entity, this was no exception. Regardless of that, Ardeth wasn't forthcoming. He didn't want to mention the visions to Hashim or any of the others for that matter. How could he go into intimate detail about the content of his visions? The images that tormented him weren't any he could flat out discuss. He just couldn't. If he said anything, he thought it would be a betrayal to this woman he had never met. It was incomprehensible, unexplainable, and mad. He provided no information, but didn't become angered at Hashim's prying. It was what he would have done. The tribe was three days ride away from the clan. Perhaps he would seek out Hazz Haka once he returned to the fold. He was the only man who might have the answers he sought.
Rashid stared down at his parchment translation of the scroll. He read it three or four times to ensure that he had done a proper job. He didn't want to send his people into an unnecessary panic. However, it was bound to happen. His translation was perfect. He could not lie to himself any longer. He glanced up at Hazz and his apprentice. "This scroll foretells of an ancient curse that Set bestowed upon the old and the new world. It will come to pass within this year. It is written that someone from the future will unlock the gateway to the underworld, releasing Set's minions, destroying the world as we know it to be now, as we will know it then. Summoning the powers of Osiris to send a man to the future can stop the curse. It can't be any man. It must be the man who wears an amulet beset with tiger's eye quartz. It will bare the symbol of Isis. The tiger's eye must be inserted into a slot within a great pyramid to prevent the portal from opening. Only the man with this amulet can be sent. No one else may do this or the curse will immediately come to pass. He has a very limited amount of time in which to stop it."
"Who would have such an amulet," Mukhtar asked. "I have never seen a symbol such as this scroll describes."
Hazz was staring off into space, suddenly realizing that his premonition had come true. The scroll was evil, just as he thought. In the cobwebs of his aging brain, he tried to recall where he had seen such an amulet. It simply wasn't the power of suggestion. Who is it? Who is this man? Where is the amulet? He knew, he could almost reach out and touch the image. He had seen the amulet encircling the neck of a warrior. It came to him suddenly. Hazz looked up at the two men. "I know this man. I have seen the amulet. It is Ardeth Bay. We must find him immediately."
Hazz summoned the elders to pass along the information regarding the curse of Set. The Medjai tribe was expected back into the fold within hours and it was clear that Ardeth Bay would have to be brought to them. They had little time to wait, and even less to convince him that this threat was indeed real.
Ardeth barely had time to eat and bathe before a boy no more than fourteen came to him. He recognized the boy as Hazz's apprentice. In a startled sort of horror, the boy gazed curiously at the amulet circling Ardeth's neck. Hazz had been correct. This was the man who would save the world as foretold in the scroll. "Excuse me, Chieftain," Mukhtar said with a slight, respectful nod. "Master Haka has asked me to bring you to his quarters. The elders need you."
The amulet lying sedately against his chest began to warm suddenly. Ardeth was afraid to look it. He thought it might be glowing. He didn't like the urgency in the boy's voice. Without questioning him, he followed behind him. He thought it quite ironic that he had wanted to seek Hazz's advice, and before he could, the elder had sent for him. He felt nervous and uneasy. Again, the sense of foreboding doom began to enter him and nothing could chase it away. Mukhtar led Ardeth into Hazz's quarters where he was faced with the clan's stoic group of elders. He nodded respectively toward the men and waited expectantly. With a pang, he noticed that all of them were staring at his amulet.
The other elders deferred to Hazz. He and his apprentice had discovered the scroll, so they left it up to him to make the request of the Medjai chief. "Ardeth, I am very glad you came," Hazz began. He wanted to ask the warrior to sit with them, but he would refuse and stay a respectful distance away. "Mukhtar found an ancient scroll that foretells a Setian curse. It was written that a man bearing the amulet you wear must be sent to the future to lock the gateway, preventing Set's minions from entering the portal to destroy our present and future. There is a person in the future who has some control over the gateway. You are the only man who bears the symbol and we are asking that you travel in time to stop this curse from coming to pass."
Ardeth drew in an inward sigh. The creature had been his first test and now Set was his next. He fought to keep his hand from seizing the amulet and ripping it off his throat. It had grown very warm in the short time he had stood before Hazz and the clan elders. There were many questions he longed to ask, but for the moment, he didn't have the energy to ask them. However, the visions weighed heavily on his mind and he would tell them. Perhaps they were related to the curse. "If I may," he began. He was met by seven nods of the head. "I must know if what has been happening to me is somehow related to this curse. I ask for help, Elder Haka. For many weeks, I have had visions of the future and of a woman. I have seen this woman assisting me, and I believe her to be involved in some way." He refused to go into any details regarding the many, many times he saw himself lying with this woman in her bed. "I respect you greatly, Elder Haka, but I know you are a mystic, and I need your guidance. Do you think this woman is real? Is she someone I must seek?"
Hazz shook his head. "Your visions may be relevant, Ardeth, but I do not think this woman has anything to do with the curse. There was no mention of a woman. You are not to seek out any person. You are to take your amulet to a great pyramid and insert the key into a slot that will close the gateway and bring you back to our time. We will have to perform a prayer ritual, summoning the powers of Osiris and Isis to send you on your journey. We have a short amount of time to find this gateway and shut it down forever. If we do not, the curse will be fulfilled by year's end. Set will come to power and rule for all eternity."
This time, Ardeth sighed aloud. He had been reassured his disturbing visions were not part of the curse. With the strain of those thoughts lifted from his mind, he felt at peace. He fixed a determined gaze on the elders and nodded respectively once again. "I will go."
"Very well," Hazz said. "The ritual will be performed tomorrow night. You must fast from now until then."
Without another word, Ardeth turned away and left the elders. He went back to his own quarters, but couldn't immediately find sleep. He fingered the amulet. It was still quite warm to the touch. He began to wonder if Sharîk had known the amulet was significant to his people. Why else would she insist he take it? Perhaps she had known of this curse, but how? She wasn't a mystic. No one in her family had any ties to Hazz Haka. He was the only seer known to the clan. He thought of Qâtil. When he had sent his son to America, he had also disappeared. His whereabouts were never discovered. The elders assumed he had followed his son to the states, but Ardeth wasn't sure. He never loved his son. In fact, he ignored the boy as if another man had fathered him. Qâtil was the answer, but he couldn't find him to ask the questions.
Earlier, his mind had been eased with regard to the woman. She was no more than a representation of Sharîk, a substitute. Finally relieved after many weeks, his eyelids grew heavy. Tonight, he would sleep through, and the thought comforted him greatly. However, he was wrong.
He awakened within his dream and felt a body lying beside him. She slept soundly, her body molded against his. There was only flesh where space should have been. Her legs were entwined with his, as were her arms and fingers. Her nose was very close to his and he could feel her breath puffing out, tickling him.
"You must stop coming to me like this," he said.
Her eyes opened at his plea. "I can't. I'm part of you now," she whispered.
"No. You are my past and I cannot relive it."
"Look at me, Ardeth," she said. "Look at me. I'm your future."
Although he was denying her, he didn't attempt to break their embrace. He couldn't. "No. You are Sharîk and you have come to me in the form of another woman. You do not exist."
"You can touch me, can't you," she asked stubbornly. "You can kiss me, make love to me, and feel love for me. Can you do that with someone who doesn't exist?"
He found the strength to move away. He drew back but didn't bother completely leaving her. She propped up on her elbows and gazed up at him. "You have come to haunt and thwart me, nothing else. I cast you out, Sharîk. I cast you out of my heart, mind, and body."
She refused to listen. She sat up and revealed her gloriously nude body. "You can't cast out what was meant to be."
She reached for him and despite his effort at casting her away, he responded. Ardeth wrapped his arms around her and held on tightly, burying his face into her hair. Before long, he was kissing her, lowering her back down. He was inside her, giving her what she needed, what he wanted. He loved her as she loved him.
"No," Ardeth gasped as he came awake suddenly. He had slept no more than two hours. The visions had never left him. Despite what Hazz said, this woman existed, she was as real as he. She was in the future and he knew he needed her. He didn't know what role she was to play, but she was there, waiting for him.
The man Leven knew as Caldo was actually a servant of Set who had lived for thousands of years as a punishment for an egregious misdeed. His real name was Sharr. He was sent to the future in order to retrieve the key. His lord and master hadn't given him much direction. When Sharr summoned Set, he was guided to search for a fallen woman with hair the color of sand and eyes the color of gold. She would hold the key to the gateway. He had been told that he should look for a tiger's eye quartz. Once he saw the gem, he would know that he had found the key. Set had sent him in the image of a person this woman would know. She would trust him and let him take the tiger's eye. He was not to interact with this woman beyond obtaining his prize. Of course, he could not resist the sins of the flesh. It was what had sentenced him to an eternity of treading the earth. He enjoyed toying with the woman, sampling her, and he had gotten what he wanted. He gazed down at the dagger bejeweled with the red/black swirls common to the gemstone. He would pray to his dark god for guidance. Now that he had the key, he needed to know what to do with it.
Chapter 6: Preparations
"Yes, Mother, I'll go," Leven spat indignantly. "Yes, Mother, I understand." She held the phone away from her ear. She was no more listening to her mother than her mother was listening to her. Her mother never spoke to her, only issued demands and complaints. Her mind began to drift and she was afraid she would nod off. She laughed a little at the thought. Wouldn't her mother just love that? She hadn't been sleeping very well. In fact, she was almost afraid to go to sleep. She no longer wanted to dream of her strange lover. Mother yakked on and on about her grandfather. He was ancient, hovering close to one hundred years of age and had been sent to live in a nursing home close to Tunica. Since Mother lived so far away, she couldn't check on him. Whipping out her guilt card, she told Leven that she had promised her father as he lay dying of colon cancer that she would look after Grandpa Q. Leven knew very little about her great-grandfather, only that he had some weird illness that had left his mind as sharp as a tack, but the rest of his body was useless to him. There was no medical reason for what was going on inside him, and no psychiatrist could find anything mentally wrong. His body was no more than a wasted carcass with a sharp, young mind. Leven had only seen Grandpa Q twice in her entire life. Both times had been when she was a very small child. Even then, he was ancient [to her anyway]. He was probably around eighty or so, but she never took a shine to him. He gave her the creeps. There was something in his black eyes that sent shivers down her spine. Most kids her age dreamed of the boogeyman, not little Leven. She dreamt Grandpa Q was waiting in her closet to jump out and nail her when she least expected it. He had told his granddaughter time and time again that Leven was too independent, much like her great-grandmother. Leven had heard him say more than once that she needed to be 'tamed.' Now, she had promised her bellyaching mother that she would check on Grandpa once in a while before work. It was only a few miles out of her way, but if it kept her mother from nagging, she'd do it.
A sharp, acid voice barked: "Are you listening to me, young lady?"
Leven snapped up suddenly, as if her veins had been injected with a massive amount of speed. Damn it. She had been dozing. "Yes, Mother, I'm listening." No, Mother, actually I'm not. I could care less about Grandpa Q. She loved her parents, but she was afraid her mother was following her grandfather's footsteps, the same footsteps that her father had followed. They had become as evil spirited as Grandpa Q. Leven had never met her own grandfather. He died a few years before she was born. However, she heard her mother speak of him often. As a child, Leven had snuck into her mother's parlor where she took her lady visitors. The conversation had begun lightly [and boringly] enough. Eventually, Jay Medlem brought the conversation back to herself and her life. For some reason, she began speaking about her father, and the fact that he was a great man. Of course, her reminiscing brought on tears. Jay's friends began trying to comfort her as she sobbed quietly. She then told them a very bizarre and horrifying story. According to Jay, Grandfather had ranted and raved at the end, telling his daughter that his whole bloodline was cursed. His body was wasted by cancer, but he kept insisting that it would lose all functioning. He had gained some type of weird strength reserve before he took his last breath, taking Jay by her shoulders, and Leven listened as her mother repeated her father's words, words that haunted Leven her entire life: Betrayal begets betrayal…we will pay for what my father did…we will pay. He said we were cursed, Jay had cried. My poor, poor father. He was so very sick and delusional. Had he been? Had he really been? A million times or more, Leven longed to go back in time to meet with her grandfather so that he could explain his terrifying words. When Leven approached her mother about it years later, she denied she ever said anything about a curse or mentioned betrayal. Why are you lying to me, Mother, she had asked. Why must you lie? I heard you and your friends, Mother. You specifically mentioned a curse. What was Grandfather talking about? Of course, her demanding questions were met with the backside of her mother's hand. After that, Jay Medlem had begun to change. Although she had never met her grandfather and had only seen Grandpa Q a couple of times, she was certain her mother was slowly becoming just like them. Would the same fate befall her? Impossible. I'm nothing like them. I refuse to be like them.
After listening to her mother nag, moan, and spit for another half hour, Leven promised that she would see Grandpa Q today before her shift at the casino. The thought of lying came to her. How would she know? Her mother was over a thousand miles away. However, Jay Medlem wasn't stupid. She knew her daughter and had learned to gauge her moods. Not only that, but her mother would also call and make sure someone had visited poor old ailing Q. If Leven didn't fulfill her duties, she would see and hear the sharp side of Jay's tongue for many months to come. Sighing heavily, she grabbed her bag and made her way out the door. She went out to her piece of shit car, holding her breath as she inserted the key into the ignition. Any day now, she expected the crappy vehicle to fall apart on her. If it did, she had no idea what she would do. She released the breath she held as the engine turned over. Thank you God. She drove in silence, barely paying attention to the wicked traffic and longed to have a radio. It seemed as if nothing in her car worked. She had no interior lights, no radio, nothing. Her car begged to be put out of its misery. Yet, she kept pushing it, as if she were punishing it for costing her a fortune to maintain. She had had to leave home an extra hour early just to check in on her great-grandfather. She wasn't looking forward to it at all. He would only stare at her, cursing her probably, telling her that she needed to submit to a man and live a proper life. She didn't know if she could tolerate hearing that. Not today. Hearing it when she was a little girl was bad enough, but to hear it now? Jesus.
Traffic being the bitch that it was, it took her about thirty minutes to reach her destination. She parked her car in a slot about a billion miles away from the front door. Steeling herself, she got out of the car and slowly approached the building. It looked like any other nursing home, homey on the outside and institutional on the inside. She hated these places and would never put her father here. The automatic door slid open before she could touch the knob. The reception area of the home was nice and comfortable. It was decorated with overstuffed furniture and live plants. She could imagine that the rest of the home didn't look so nice. She moved forward toward a smiling receptionist and signed in; waiting impatiently for someone to tell Grandpa she was here. Finally, after five minutes, she was given the all clear and shown where his room was. Just as she had thought, the rest of the home was more like a hospital. Most of the residents were the oldest and sickest of the elderly. Leven slipped inside Grandpa's room and immediately noticed that dozens of machines were hooked into him, taking care of some bodily function he could no longer control. He was very thin and wasted; there was no way he could eat solid food. He subsisted on IV feeds and liquefied meals given to him through a straw. He apparently couldn't digest anything else. How horrible a fate he had. She couldn't imagine living life as he. She laid her bag into a chair sitting nearby and carefully approached the bedside. It had been nearly twenty years since he saw her last, and she wasn't sure he'd remember her. However, as she drew closer, his eyes followed her progression toward him. He was looking at her with great interest. Oh yes. He recognized her all right. She thought she saw the old man smiling, or what he could manage for a smile. The smile wasn't pleasant; it was vicious and biting. She didn't want to be here anymore. She could clearly see his hatred flooding out through his cruel, bitter eyes. She never understood what she had done to deserve such ire. He whispered something to her, but she couldn't quite make it out. Instead of asking him to repeat it, she leaned closer to him. Wusikh walad. Wusikh walad. [Dirty child. Dirty child]. She backed away with a look of horror on her face. Where had she heard that language before? She knew what he said. He had called her a 'dirty child.'
"Laish kullma 'azzar," she asked before she knew what she was saying. ["Why the insult?"] Even after the words left her mouth, she no idea she wasn't speaking English. She had gone into some kind of weird trance.
She watched as his eyes widened in horror. How would she know the words? Who taught her? Surely, it wasn't his granddaughter. Even she didn't know. Standing before him was a tainted woman, impure, and he couldn't stand the sight of her. She made him think of a woman he dared not think of again. He wondered why she had come to him? He hadn't seen this dirty, dirty little girl in years. He didn't miss her at all. He wondered if she had come to take his life. Would she exact the revenge her bloodline sought? He thought of his granddaughter and son. Neither of them was attached to his lineage [or so he thought], and he didn't understand why he suffered as he did. Shouldn't it be another? Shouldn't it be her? She descended from a long line of fallen women. Her punishment should have been harsher than his. He was very tempted to give her the legacy she deserved, but he remained quiet. His son was weak and succumbed to insanity, blurting out the words he should have carried to his death. He would say nothing. He would allow his great-granddaughter to stumble upon her fate as much as he did. He saw the strength in her; saw that she would live a long, long life. Perhaps she would live longer than he. She didn't know that her children and grandchildren would come to see her in the same type of bed in which he now lay. He would let the dirty child discover her fate on her own and spare her no mercy.
Leven was held transfixed by her grandfather's eyes for a moment. It seemed as if he were transmitting his hatred for her without saying a word. She backed away even more, bumping into a tall chest of drawers, sending little glass figurines atop it crashing to the floor. He was sending a message that she wasn't ready to receive. She didn't understand. It made less sense than her dreams. Normally fiery, Leven would have laid into him, telling him what she thought of his stodgy attitude and caveman ways, but today she was too shocked. The only thought running through her was escape. She couldn't stay with this evil man any longer. Leaving the shattered figurines behind, she ran out the door, zooming past personnel, until she was outside close to the safety of her car. Once inside the vehicle, she leaned her forehead against the steering wheel. An alien thought entered her mind. It came to her in the same strange language she had heard her grandfather speak. Oh maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh love. Where are you?].
After the hurt left her, she sat behind the wheel of her car and wondered where she had gone the fifteen minutes she could not remember. She didn't dream, but words came to her. Alien words. She glanced over her shoulder back at the hospital. When she spoke to her mother again, she would tell her what Grandpa Q had done. She had no intention of returning to this place, returning to the verbal abuse he meted out so cruelly. She keyed the ignition, brought the engine to life with a roar, and pulled away from the hospital, her tires screaming in her wake. By the time she made it to the casino, she felt halfway normal. It was the first work night she had spent actually focused on her job since the dreams began. She made a killing in tips that night.
Sharr's god was very unhappy with him. When he prayed to Set, he presented the dagger to his lord. His task completed, he expected his reward, to finally be allowed to die. Yet, Set wasn't satisfied. Sharr was sent on another mission. He was to take the dagger to the great pyramid to ensure he had found the right key. Why did his god test him so? Why could he not come back in human form and do the dirty work Himself? He was ancient and tired. He wanted to rest in peace. Having eternal life was more of a curse than a gift. The next day at sunrise, he made his way to the great pyramid. He had to be very careful because he knew the place was closely guarded. Set instructed him to seek an opening at the base of the pyramid and step inside. Once the key was introduced to the open space, the portal door would glow, making his task obvious and easy. Glancing around at his surroundings, he checked for the guards he had seen here roaming around. There were none. He found the opening and slid carefully inside. Expecting a great flood of energy he braced himself against a giant metal pillar. He held the dagger by its blade with the tiger's eye pointed away from him, carefully making a wide arc back and forth. The portal door did not greet him, only darkness did. Angered, he swept the dagger out again, and again, nothing happened. With all his infinite wisdom and thousand of years of life, he had chosen the wrong key. It was impossible. His lord had made it plain that the golden-eyed girl would have the key. The dagger was the only ornamental knife in the collection. Perhaps she had it on her person or in her home? He growled angrily. He would have to face the woman again. Set would not be pleased with this slight complication. One way or another, he would find the key and end his curse.
Leven entered her apartment at midnight. When she worked at the pawnshop, she didn't usually get in any earlier than three. However, since she had the day off from the shop, she was allowed to go in to work at the casino early and come in early. She loved those rare days. Of course, the other thing she loved about getting home at this time was that it would allow her to call her mother and thoroughly chew her out. She threw her keys down and dove for her phone. Oddly, she noticed that her message light was blinking. She hadn't expected to have any messages awaiting her. Most of the people who knew her were working themselves and had no time to waste on phone calls. She hit the 'play' button and waited patiently. A silky voice, one she recognized, came over the tinny speaker: "This is Caldo. I'm back in town staying at the Peabody again. I'd like to see you. Please call." She hit the stop button before rewinding the tape. Why would he call her? How had he found her? Of course, when she last saw him, she had been too drunk to remember what they talked about. Perhaps she had given him her phone number sometime during the night's festivities. She had no desire to see the man. She realized that he frightened her almost as much as her grandfather did. A sudden chill began creeping through her and she shivered violently. The unexpected call nearly drove thoughts of calling her mother out of her mind. However, she shook it off and focused her attention back on the phone. Angrily, she swiped it up and dialed her mother's number. Jay answered on the seventh ring.
"Mother," Leven spat.
"Leven? What in the hell are you doing calling so late?" Jay's voice was irritated without the slightest bit of concern.
"Mother, please. It's not as late there as it is here. I saw your grandfather today. Let's say he definitely still has some unspoken grudge against me. I was there barely five minutes before he started calling me names. He said I was…was dirty." There were unwanted tears threatening to leak from her eyes. Earlier, Grandpa Q's words had angered her, but now she was hurt. She was hurt and she wanted her mother. "Why does he hate me, Mother? What did I do to him? I don't know him!" She heard her mother sigh. It was not a sympathetic sound. She had no idea what was wrong with her mother. She had once been so loving and giving. Now, she was selfish and gruff.
"Leven, he's an old man. He probably doesn't know what he's doing or saying. He's ill, you know?" [As if you would let me forget, Leven thought]. "Besides, darling, the way you live your life is different than how he lived his. In his eyes, dirty just means you're not…well…a virgin. Plus, Granddad lived in a time and place where women weren't…like you. They married, became wives and mothers."
She held the phone away from her ear and stared down at it incredulously. Jay had intended the words to be comforting, but they didn't come out that way at all. She sounded as if she was basically agreeing with her grandfather's cruel assessment of her lifestyle. Her mother had never been such a prude before. She could almost see Jay's face pinking. "You mean they gave up their individuality to submit to a man. Isn't that what you really meant, Mother? I can't believe you're defending him. It doesn't matter, Mother. I won't see him again, not after this. If you want to honor your father's wishes, then you'll have to fly down to Mississippi and see him yourself."
"Leven, you completely misconstrued what I was trying to say," she began, sighing again. "I'm not defending him at all. He's a hundred years old, Leven, and he won't live very much longer. My father made me promise and I intend to keep the promise. You're part of the family, Leven, and the one with access to Granddad. It's not feasible for me to fly down there every week. Is this so much to ask?"
"Yes, Mother, it is," she said coldly. "You're making excuses for him, defending him, and I can't believe what you're doing. I'm crushed. I'm really crushed. If taking insults is part of being in this family, I don't want to be in it anymore." Was she crying now? Was she? She didn't care. She couldn't believe she was allowing her fucked up grandfather to hurt her so.
"Daughter, you're being selfish," Jay spat. "Selfish, selfish, selfish. Would you feel this way if it were I in that home? If it were Dad?"
"I'm selfish? Me? Whatever, Mother. So what. I'm selfish. Goodbye."
She stabbed the 'talk' button and hung up on her mother. She shut off the ringer in case she wanted to call back. Leven leaned back and covered her eyes with one hand. What was happening to her mother? What was happening to the family? The thought which had entered her mind earlier came back: Oh maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh love. Where are you?].
Ardeth was in his quarters preparing for the ritual that would send him to the future. He was only a few hours away and he tried to clear his mind of all external stimuli. However, a thought so clear and loud hit him with the force of a hundred fists. It seemed to have been transmitted through time. Oh maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh love. Where are you?]. The voice was that of a woman and the words were more of a plea than a stray thought. Whoever uttered the words was desperate. At first, he thought he was hallucinating. However, he hadn't fasted long enough for it to affect his mental clarity at all. He recognized the voice, didn't he? Hadn't he heard it speaking softly to him for many weeks? Was it the woman who invaded his thoughts, shaking him, and driving him mad with unrequited need? No. He could not think of it, could not summon the images from his vision. He had no doubt she existed, but he had to remember Hazz's words. She had no effect whatsoever on this curse. She had no role to play. She wasn't a significant player. As he thought it, as he repeated the words aloud, he realized he was betraying his own heart. He believed none of it, not one single word.
Chapter 7: The Journey to Discovery
THE JOURNEY TO DISCOVERY
Ardeth came to Hazz Haka as he was instructed. He expected to see the other six elders, but Hazz had sent them away. He only needed his apprentice to summon Osiris and Isis. The fewer people around, the better it would be. Besides, Hazz didn't feel comfortable performing any ritual in front of the elders who did not understand the mystic. When Ardeth came into Hazz's quarters, he led the warrior into a special room he had set up for this purpose. He saw a statue of Isis on one side of the room and that of Osiris on the other. Between the two statues laid a flat stone platform. Ardeth was familiar with the platform. He had seen Sharîk laid out on one four years ago. He didn't know how comfortable he was with laying upon it. However, it was necessary for him to comply to end the curse. He lay back on the hard surface and fixed his eyes unfeelingly onto the ceiling. As if from another planet, Hazz stood near giving him commands every few moments. He was so very tired that Hazz's monotone voice lulled him to sleep as if he were an infant. Close your eyes and clear your mind, Hazz commanded. Do not think of anything but your journey. Ardeth listened and cleared his mind. For the first time in his life, there was absolutely nothing there. You must hold onto the amulet, Ardeth. Place your left hand over it and in your mind, chant Isis and Osiris. Nothing else. I shall take care of the rest. He brought his left hand up and placed it flat on the amulet. To himself, he chanted the names as was directed. The figurine of Isis began to warm beneath his hand and the tiger's eye felt hot to the touch, but he kept his hand still, refusing to break the spell. Although Hazz hadn't said, Ardeth felt the presence of Set, and Set was desperately trying to work in his mind to break the trance. The great powers of Isis and Osiris will flow into the room. Your body will warm and become quite hot. The portal door will open and a great brightness will enter. Despite the temptation, do not open your eyes. You cannot look into the portal. He listened carefully, still silently chanting the names. When you awaken, you will be lying at the base of a great pyramid. This is the pyramid that will bear the portal door for which you will enter and exit back in our time. He felt a trickle of sweat rolling down his chest. Suddenly, the room temperature had gone up twenty degrees or more. The amulet continued to grow warmer against his hand. Introduce the tiger's eye to the portal. Once the door is closed, you will be sent back as you left. With you, you only carry what you need to survive. You will have your scimitar and the scroll. Nothing else. You will not linger in time. You will lock the portal forever and return. If you should lose direction, turn to the amulet for answers. Hazz gazed down at Ardeth. There was nothing there. He was a blank slate with tightly closed eyes. Although the amulet was glowing, he had not removed his hand. His body gleamed with the sweat pouring off it. Behind Hazz, he heard his apprentice gasp. The portal was open and it was time to lead Ardeth onward. The power of Osiris and Isis flow through you. You will walk to the portal now without being aware that you are moving at all. Do not open your eyes. Once you awaken, you are to close the portal and return. Do nothing else. If you become separated from the amulet, you will not return to your time. Guard the amulet. Guard it with your life as you have guarded the Pharaohs for centuries. If you lose the amulet, you will have no more than eight weeks to retrieve it. After that, the world as we know it will cease to exist. Ardeth said nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing. He kept his eyes closed tightly and his hand pressed against the amulet. He took in the instructions without being aware of it. He felt little movement but never doubted Hazz's words. Suddenly, he felt hands on him, touching him, wiping away his sweat. It took extreme control to remain prone. The hands were those of a woman. You may now stop chanting as the great God and Goddess is among us. Let the hands guide you. Do not fight. The hands guided him, but he couldn't feel his body moving anywhere. It felt as if it were still in its horizontal position. Hazz stood back, deep in a trance, and didn't see the Medjai warrior being led by the hand of Isis toward the portal. There was light, a great light, and the heat emanating from it was tremendous. The sweat began to pour again, but he never removed his hand, never allowed a stray thought to enter. Râh ma'a Allâh, a woman's voice whispered. [Go with God] The light died as abruptly as it began and Ardeth felt nothing.
Tap, tap, tap. Nothing. I feel nothing. Tap, tap, tap. Nothing. I see nothing. TAP, TAP, TAP. You will not rouse me, Set. I am immune to your evil. The security guard on duty at the Pyramid Arena stood gazing curiously at the fellow who had obviously tied on one too many. The fellow was wearing the weirdest shit he had ever seen. He was in some strange robe looking getup with a cape. Hell. One minute under the scorching sun and he'd come out of those clothes. There were some funky looking tats on his face and hands. Beeeezare. He wondered how the fellow got down here all the way from Beale Street. This character had to have come from Beale. There was no other explanation. He took his nightstick and tapped at the man's feet again. Jesus. Was he dead? Oh please don't let there be a murder on my watch. Goddamn. Gotta get the hell out of Memphis. "Come on, buddy, get yer ass up. You cain't be loiterin' around here." He kneeled down ready to feel for a pulse. The moment his fingers drew near the man's neck, a hand shot out, hot as fire, and grabbed hold of his wrist. The guard jumped back, tripped over his feet, and fell square on his ass. The drunkard came to his feet suddenly and whipped out a wicked looking sword. The guard held up his hands defensively as he watched the snarling man. "Hey now, hold it, buddy, you don't have to do that!"
"Where am I," he demanded.
The guard gulped and stared at the sword wielding man. "Buddy, yer in Memphis."
Confused, Ardeth looked around him. "Memphis," he spat. "Memphis in Egypt?"
"Naw, man. Memphis in Tennessee."
Thoroughly out of touch, he turned in a wide arc. At the same time, he kept watch on the man. Was this the great pyramid? There was nothing around him but asphalt and tall structures. This wasn't Egypt. He turned back toward the man, recalling that he had spoken English, not Arabic. In the distance, he heard a great rumbling noise. There were automobiles of all shapes and sizes whipping rapidly about. He had never seen so many machines in his life. Overhead, he heard the faraway whoosh of a plane over head. He looked up into the blue, blue sky and saw a very large plane slowly making its dissension. His heart rate and breathing slowed significantly. He was in the future. What year? It surely wasn't 1931. He turned his attention fully on the man. He wore the symbol of a badge on his chest. Was he an authority? Realizing that the man meant him no harm, Ardeth sheathed his scimitar and focused his eyes on the guard.
"This is America," he asked. The man said nothing. He nodded a little and gulped again [He ain't a drunkard. He's a fuckin' nut job, the guard thought]. He had been sent to the future in America. This large hideous structure before him was the great pyramid? It seemed more like an abomination than anything else. What purpose did this pyramid serve? Ardeth's head began to thump sickly. The heat was unbearable and he needed water. However, there was little time for that. As if suddenly remembering why he'd been sent to this place, he reached up to remove the amulet. His hand touched nothing more than his chest. His heart rate went up an octave and he reached for his scimitar again. The guard watched with large, horrified eyes and the nut job came at him with the sword. "Where is the amulet," he demanded. When the guard didn't immediately speak, Ardeth rested the tip of his scimitar just barely under the man's chin. "What have you done with the amulet," he spat.
"Look, Jack, I don't know what the hell yer talkin' 'bout. I ain't seen no amalet. Hell, man, I don't even know what a amalet is."
Ardeth withdrew again, but kept his scimitar at the ready. He went back to the area where he had lain. The amulet wasn't there. Frustrated at his failure and the fact that he was stuck in this Godforsaken heat pit, he growled deeply within his throat. How could he close the portal and get back to his own time without the amulet? He focused his attention on the guard again. He could easily see that he was terrified. As an act of good faith, he sheathed his scimitar once again. He wanted to show the man he wouldn't hurt him, unless he had stolen the amulet, but that would come later if necessary. "Did you see the amulet around my neck when you approached me?" Before the man could sputter that he didn't know what it was, Ardeth held up a dismissive hand. "It is a large pendant, silver, with a tiger's eye quartz. Did you see anything like this around my neck?"
He shook his head violently. "Uh uh, good buddy. I didn't see nothin' on yer neck. Maybe somebody stolt it? Jack, you were passed out hard and heavy. I hit yer foot about a thousand times trying to wake you up. You didn't move. Didn't do nothin.' Look, you can go to the police station and tell the cops. They might be able to help you find it."
Leven stretched and yawned as her alarm clock screamed and screamed. She smacked the snooze button and snuggled back under the covers. After two minutes, she groaned aloud. It was no use. She had to get up, why put off the inevitable? She slid out of bed, cranky and out of sorts. At least she had slept better last night than she had ever slept. As far as she knew, she hadn't had any dreams. Goody for me. She moved around her room and reached over and turned on her small portable television. Suddenly, she heard a reporter say: Early this morning, Memphis police took a man into custody for attacking a Pyramid Arena security guard with a sword. Leven shook her head. Where were all these weirdoes coming from? Memphis was swarming with them now. "Jesus," she sighed as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush. She shivered as she thought of a man wielding a sword. God. Psychos abound! She hoped the creep would stay out of her way. A slight tingling sensation began to prickle down her spine, touching every nerve ending down to her toes. A man with a sword? Why did that tweak her? There were dozens of homeless people, some of them with mental illnesses who wandered the streets of Memphis at all hours. He was probably nothing more than a confused patient not taking his medication. Yet, the image bothered her. Why did she suddenly feel as if she should help this man? She shook her head and spat out a mouthful of toothpaste. She had no time to lament over yet another wild man nabbed by the cops. She had a job to go to, a store to open, and if she were late, the boss would have her ass in a sling.
After an hour or two in a smelly barred room the authorities called a 'drunk tank,' Ardeth was released. The guard had tricked him by bringing him to the police department only to say that he had been attacked. Before Ardeth could explain, there were two or three men coming at him at once. Still shocked from the journey, he was ill prepared for an attack. His hand fell on the scimitar about three seconds too late. The men were on him, seizing the scimitar and the scroll. They threw him into a…what did they call it…drunk tank? His anger burned deeply within him. He had no time for delays. When they released him, they returned the scroll, but held onto his scimitar. How could he defend himself properly without it? He was led from the building by an authority who told him something very confusing: "Take your meds!" Meds? Medication? What did he mean by that? Ardeth made his way down the flight of stairs to the hot concrete. The city was crowded and the sidewalks filled with people. Most of them didn't glance at him twice. However, there were quite a few who stared at his strange style of dress and the sacred marks he bore on his face and hands. He didn't give one thought as to where he would go. He knew he needed to make his way back toward the great pyramid. One of the authorities told him to 'start hitting pawnshops' to find his amulet. He wasn't sure what a pawnshop was, but he thought pawning was some type of bartering. Perhaps these shops were like some type of market or street bazaar. He gazed down at a handwritten list given to him at the police department. Someone, he wasn't sure whom, had made an extensive list of pawnshops. He didn't know where to begin, but he had an amazing sense of direction and didn't doubt he would find what he was looking for.
As he progressed down the sidewalk, glancing at street signs every now and then, the heat began to beat down on him once again. Accustomed to dry, arid heat, he didn't know what to make of the humidity hanging heavily in the air. It was nearly impossible to breathe. Very soon, he would have to find more water and food. He hadn't eaten in almost two days. Before he was released from the holding cell, he had drunk their water greedily, splashing his face, washing away the exhaustion and confusion. He was dehydrated and starving, but he put his physical needs aside to focus on finding the amulet. As soon as he retrieved it, he could leave this place. He was never more ready to leave than he was now. Some nudge, some mental pull forced him to stop and turn in the opposite direction. Where was his intuition leading him? He saw no pawnshops on either side of the street, yet something was telling him to go this way. Not one to ignore his instincts, he followed the commands his intuition gave.
Leven was just a bit on the irritated side. The shop had been jumping busily today. The boss had come by at noon, noticed all the activity and decided to hang around to help. More than one customer mentioned the sword wielding mental case. She blocked out the voices. She couldn't stand to hear them speak so ugly about this man none of them knew. She felt an unexplainable surge of protectiveness toward him. If she had a choice, she would leave. She glanced over at the creep who signed her paychecks, and she couldn't help but wonder why he had stopped by so early in the day. Normally, he never stepped into the joint before two in the afternoon. Oddly, there was a black cord sticking out of his back pocket. She was tempted to tug at it, but the prick would likely think she was hitting on him. She had no idea why her eyes were drawn to that cord, but she couldn't stop staring at it for several minutes. It took the petulant shout of a customer to pull her out of it. When she had a moment to breathe again, her eyes settled on the boss' back pocket again. This time, there was no cord hanging out. He had either tucked it in deeper into his pocket or she had hallucinated the whole thing.
Ardeth walked for miles that day and finally stopped as the sun began to set. He hadn't found the amulet and his spirits began to wane. He immediately began searching for some type of shelter, but had doubts that he would find anything. As the light grew dimmer and dimmer still, the heat began to settle down just a bit, and for that, he was thankful. His stomach growled pitifully and the inside of his mouth was drier than any desert. He had not come prepared for this. However, none of them planned the robbery of his amulet, did they? He stood in front of a fairly modest looking brick building. He had no idea why he had come here. It mattered very little. He leaned against a dark corner wall and slid down. He was so very tired; he had never been so exhausted. He fell into a fitful, restless doze, too tired to notice the mosquitoes nibbling at his exposed flesh.
Leven came around the rear of her building to let herself inside her apartment. A low moan caught her attention. She immediately tensed up. Her neighborhood was relatively safe, but anything could happen. She placed a key strategically between each finger and waited. One moment passed, then two, then three, then a dozen. She had yet to feel the hands wrapping around her throat. Her instincts were telling her to move her ass, to get inside, but she hesitated. Another low moan issued directly behind her. It was the voice of a man. Keeping her keys in hand like crazy spikes, she moved toward the moaning man. The darkness had cloaked him well, but she could see the silhouette of his body slumped against the wall. Don't go over there. Ignore it. Move on. Go inside. She couldn't listen to her conscience, not this time. Some unknown force was drawing her toward this man. As she drew nearer, she saw a large hand with long fingers dangling listlessly over a hidden knee. There were tattoos on the hand that were triangular in shape. She moved even closer and another moan issued forth. He was speaking, but she couldn't make out his words. Dâyi' [lost]. Mayy [water]. Hirz [amulet]. His words were thick and foreign to her ears. Was he delirious? Another thought entered her mind. Was this man the sword wielder? She moved around and drew even closer than before. She had a small flashlight in her purse, and she began to dig for it, hoping that the batteries weren't dead. She clicked the button and the light came to life. She shined it into his face. There were tattoos on his cheeks and forehead and a matching tattoo on the hand she had not seen. His hair was soaked from the water loss through his sweat, but she could easily make out its long length and black color. He was dressed in what appeared to be heavy robes of some sort. In this heat? He continued to moan deliriously, saying the same words over and over. Completely oblivious to the identity of this man slunk before her, she kneeled beside him and smacked his cheek.
"Hey, fella, wake up. Are you okay?"
He heard the soft voice of a woman. Thinking he was dreaming, he didn't immediately open his eyes. When he felt the light slap of her hand, he barely noticed. She smacked his cheek again, this time a bit harder. His eyes came open and he focused them on her face. Completely oblivious to the identity of this woman kneeled before him; he gazed up at her in confusion. Who was she? Another authority? "No. No bars. I do not wish to go back."
She smiled a little. He thought she was a cop. Yes. This was the sword wielder. She had no doubt. However, it didn't seem as if he were unstable at all. He was out of place, but completely lucid. His skin was clammy to the touch and he needed water. "Can you walk? I can help you if you can walk."
He didn't speak. Instead, he nodded. He could walk. He needed water, needed to get away from the humidity. He needed a bed, sleep, and food. If she could help with that, he could walk. He would run if he were pressed. She stood back to give him room to move. He brought himself up to his feet and shook off the fog. He vaguely wondered why she wasn't afraid when the others had been. Would she think him insane? He had trusted the guard and he had taken him to be locked away. He was reluctant only for a brief moment. There was something about her that he trusted. He wasn't sure what, but he didn't care. Her voice, demeanor, and touch were kind. For the time, kindness was all he needed.
Leven stood back as he moved cautiously away from the wall. She thought he felt better than he looked, but if he didn't get some water into him, he might have a heat stroke. He had begun to move forward, seemingly knowing where she was leading him. "Hey," she called out, "Wait. You don't know where you're going."
He stopped and turned toward her. A brief glimmer of recognition flashed in his eyes, but it was lost as soon as it came. "No, I do not." He gazed at the sweet malak [angel] behind him and hoped he wasn't having another unreachable dream. Vaguely, he wondered if he had succumbed to thirst and she was sent to lead him into the afterlife.
Leven approached him and took his arm as if he were escorting her to a fancy party. She grabbed onto him because he was very shaky on his feet, and if she didn't support him a little, he would fall face first onto the pavement. "Come on. You're dazed," she said. "We need to get some water into you."
Water. Yes. Water and sleep. After he had equal amounts of both, he could continue his exhaustive search. He had little time to waste. He walked with the woman toward her building and felt a sense of déjà vu. He shook it off. He had never been here before. The thought was crazy and misguided. He was hallucinating, lost, but driven.
Chapter 8: The Morning After
THE MORNING AFTER
The air around Ardeth was cool and a light breeze was blowing over his body, tousling his hair very gently. For a moment, he lay completely still and didn't immediately open his eyes. Perhaps yesterday was a horrible dream and he would awaken in his time dealing with matters he better understood. However, his unconscious mind was beaten down by realism. He lay beneath cool linens soft to the touch. It was nothing of which he was accustomed. They enveloped him with a lovely floral scent. He didn't want to open his eyes and deal with the reality of his situation. He wanted to lie here for all eternity, never moving another muscle. It would be more than easy. Something about this bed and its smell seemed familiar. He felt more than comfortable here, as if he had known this place all his life.
Leven entered the bedroom from the living room. She had given the dehydrated stranger her bed and she had taken the couch. He needed it more than her. She stepped up to the foot of the bed and watched the man curiously. He lay sprawled beneath the sheets flat on his back. He had pushed the sheets almost past his navel, but not quite. Although she wasn't sure he would remember, she had drawn him a tepid bath to help alleviate the dehydration and muscle cramps that had seized him as a result. He stood before her, completely exhausted, and literally nodding on his feet. She had helped him undress and he even had the strength to argue with her. His modesty overwhelmed her. She had never been around a man like that in her life. After leaving him with a gigantic insulated mug of water, she stepped outside as he shed the rest of his clothing and sank his body into the tub of water. He stayed in the bathroom so long, she became concerned and cracked open the door. He had fallen asleep in the tub, his head leaned back against the wall, and one arm hanging over the edge as the other rested wearily on a knee he had drawn up close to his body. She noticed that he had completely drained the mug and drops of water on the floor indicated that he had refilled it at the sink. Unable to help herself, she crept into the bathroom and drew closer to him. The florescent light accentuated dozens of small scars scattered near his neck and over his shoulders. There were a few here and there on his arms. She wondered what happened to this man, what his job was, where he was from. He wasn't from the US that was easy to see. The tattoos disturbed her. They felt like mental pokes. When he began to stir, she backed out of the bathroom. He emerged after twenty minutes and had donned the thick terry cloth robe she laid out for him. He had trouble meeting her gaze. She tried to tell him that she hadn't seen anything [just your scars, your dark skin, the hint of the thick hair that would lead…never mind]. She had no idea who this man was, and she was already thinking dirty thoughts. She said nothing to him, only directed him toward the bed. He was too tired to argue about the sleeping arrangements and literally fell face first onto the bed. Leven had then removed the robe and laid it aside. He was naked underneath and she had to look at his naked ass. He was a beautiful, beautiful man, and she knew nothing about him. For all she knew, he could be a psychopathic ax murderer.
Ardeth opened his eyes slowly, finally convinced that he must face reality regardless of the temptation not to. When he looked around the strange room, he realized he hadn't been dreaming at all. He groaned a little and pushed his body into a sitting position with his elbows. He didn't know that he was being watched until the sheets began pulling away from his lower body. The woman in the room gasped aloud and turned around quickly. Startled, Ardeth instinctively reached for a scimitar that was not there. His robes were not there! As modest as an old maid virgin, he quickly covered his body from sight. Who was she? Why was she gazing upon his flesh? He didn't understand anything anymore. After the shock wore off, his breathing slowed down and he didn't seem to feel quite so perplexed. Leven had never felt so flustered in her life. She had been caught gazing upon his nude body as if she were some love starved pervert. Without a word, without a glance back, she left him. Ardeth chuckled a little and shook his head. What an unexpectedly bizarre start to his day. He glanced about the room, searching for something with which to cover his body. His eyes spied the thick garment she had provided last night. He remembered very little about coming in with her, laying his trust at a total stranger's feet. A tad on the weak side, he grabbed the robe and slipped into it, securing it about his waist. He would take time out to thank his hostess, find his own clothing, and then make his way onward. He had to admit that he was reluctant to leave, but he knew he could not linger.
Before he could begin his search, a tentative voice called out, "Are you decent?" He said that he was and she pushed open the door. Her peach-toned skin had reddened the slightest bit. "I'm so sorry I did that," she began nervously. "I came in to check on you. You were so messed up last night and I was worried. I didn't… didn't mean-"
"No. You do not have to apologize. This is your home; you are free to roam wherever you please. I am the intruder."
Lucid and well hydrated, Leven realized that his voice was deep, but mellow. There was a definite accent and a slight rolling of the R's in his speech. Oddly, he sounded like Caldo. In fact, he looked like Caldo. The only exceptions were the tattoos, the beard, and mustache. An image of her dream came sharply into focus only to fade. Leven Medlem was a realist, she didn't believe in prophecies, psychic dreams, or any of that shit. Vaguely, she wondered if this man was Caldo donning a different look. Was he toying with her? Although she had made it through the night without being afraid, she suddenly began to fear this stranger, to fear his interruption in her complicated life. She didn't know what to say or do. "Who are you," she asked, her lip trembling. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
Ardeth immediately noticed the change in her demeanor. She had begun to act like the guard and the police officers. She feared him. How could he tell her who he was without needlessly drawing her into this strange mission of his? There was no way. Yet, he couldn't lie to her, either. He didn't enjoy misleading people or toying with their minds. "Do you know Egypt?" She nodded without speaking and he continued, "I came from Egypt. I have lost something valuable and I must find it. I appreciate your kindness, but if you will tell me where to find my robes, I will be on my way."
She took in a shocked breath. The man had begun to sound as if he were imbalanced. Perhaps she could give him back his weird outfit and shove him out the door, her good deed done for the day. She couldn't move or think. Her eyes were locked on him, unwavering. A spark, a very small cerebral spark nudged her, prompted her. It was telling her she knew this man, telling her that she needed to help him more. Yet, she fought it back. She couldn't allow his sexy dark good looks to seduce her. She had made one mistake with Caldo. She wouldn't make another. Suddenly, she felt as dirty as her Grandpa Q had accused. "Okay," she said. "I'll get your things." She turned away and left him.
Ardeth watched her several moments. Even when she was completely out of sight, he continued to gaze after her. He had a distinct impression that he had hurt her, but he didn't know how. After all, he didn't know her. She was nothing to him [oh, but she is]. Where did that through come from? He dismissed it as the aftereffects of his exhaustion and dehydration. He turned away from the door and moved back toward the bed. He had every intention of plopping heavily upon it, but hesitated. Something caught his eye. He didn't understand how he had missed it earlier. It was a small photo of a woman and her child. It was an older photo indicating that the woman in it was not the one who helped him last night. Yet, it caught his eye and he couldn't look away. Actually, he couldn't move. He was completely stunned and incredulous. It can't be. It cannot be. Carefully, he picked up the small frame and gazed down at the photograph. His finger traced a gentle line over the face of the child. She looked to be no more than five or six years old. The skin tone was different, as was the hair color, but the sweet, cherubic face haunted him, and pricked every sense he possessed. He had ingrained the image in his heart and had carried it with him four long years. The child gazing up at him, her smile eternally frozen in time, was Sharîk, but not she. The child, this young girl, was his malak [angel]. She had found him and gave him shelter. She was the woman who invaded his dreams and thoughts. No. He couldn't accept it despite knowing it was true. He had come to her, knowing that she was someone he needed, someone he wanted. His feet had led him here when his mind did not know why. He placed the frame back onto the small bed stand, unable to look at the photograph a moment longer. Believing she had a role to play, he knew he must tell her about the curse. In his heart, he denied that this woman would become his lover, denied it with every ounce of strength within him. Yet, fate had led him to her and she was a part of this. Hazz had been wrong. Hazz had been wrong about a lot of things, about everything. He looked up when she called out softly again. He had been distracted. How long had he sat here, gazing at that photograph? How would he go about telling her without her thinking he was mad? He even knew her name now. It was an odd name, one he had only heard in his dreams. Leven.
When he didn't immediately answer, Leven cleared her throat to make her presence known again. He sat on the side of the bed in a strange daze. She grew frightened again and hoped she hadn't made a grave mistake by inviting him inside. She checked her wristwatch. Oh great. She was late for work and couldn't leave until the stranger left her. She could tell he sensed her presence, but he refused to look at her. He was troubled and disturbed. She stood with his clothing draped over her arm. It felt alien and heavy. How he had survived in these robes she would never know. After he passed out last night, she had literally picked through his clothing, gazing at it, marveling. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. It didn't seem to be from this time. It had spooked her incredibly and she had discarded the garments, afraid to touch them again. She snapped out of her own daze and noticed that he had yet to acknowledge her. Gone was the gentle nature. It had been replaced by stoicism and shock. Was he in the throes of an episode? No. This man isn't insane. He's someone you know. Go to him. Touch him. When you touch him, you'll know. What the fuck? Where had that come from?
"Excuse me," she said, "Your clothes?"
Ardeth looked up at her and an image zapped him, nearly knocking him back with its force. She was naked before him, her body shivering with the fright of a new experience, but one also so very unexpected and sweet. No. I will not. This is wrong. He sought her out and now he must tell her. He fought the image of her, fought the visions. She was to be some type of guide, an aide, but she would not become his lover. She had some tie to Sharîk, but he didn't know what it was. Why had the Gods and Goddesses decided to be so cruel to lead him to a descendent of his lost love? You don't know that, the rational part of his brain stated. Yet, his life and experiences were never rational, never normal. Why did he expect it to be now? He wanted nothing more than to take what she offered him and make his leave. He couldn't. If he left her, some great disaster would befall her. He stood and began to approach her. She expected him to take his things and disappear, but he didn't reach for them. He stood before her and gazed at her. His eyes were lovely but piercing. For a moment, it felt as if he were reading her soul. Oddly, he was inside her mind, touching her brain. Another image came clear and she almost had it, almost knew who he was.
"Leven, we must talk," he began.
She gasped audibly and dropped his things on the floor. How the fuck did he know her name? She had never told him. There was nothing anywhere in the apartment that would give it away. "How the hell did you know my name," she demanded. "Who are you? Who the fuck are you? If you don't start spilling your guts, I'm going to kick your ass!"
He reached out to her as an act of attrition and she stepped back, hooking her feet in the pile of robes she had created on the floor. She fell down hard on her ass. The jolting pain was more of a shock than his knowing her name. She was clearly frightened of him now. He could see it all over her. He took hold of her arm and she struggled to free it, but he held fast. "Please," he said. "I want to help you." She stopped struggling and allowed him to help her to her feet. Her golden eyes were flashing and angry. He watched as she made a wide berth between him and his discarded clothing. She moved like a mortally wounded animal. In fact, the look in her eyes screamed he has me trapped. He didn't make a move toward her. She was terrified of him now, and he felt low for scaring her so badly. "What I have to tell you is not sane. It does not make sense, but you must trust me." She said nothing. She continued to stare at him cautiously. "I am Ardeth Bay and I have come to your world from the past, from 1931. Calling to Isis and Osiris sent me here. I must find the amulet I was wearing when I crossed into your time. It is more of a key. I have to take this key to a great pyramid to close the gateway that brought me here. If I do not succeed, Set will release his minions and destroy my past, your present, and the future. I believe I was sent to you. I think that you are here to help. I know your name because I heard it in a vision I had."
Dear fucking God, he is insane. He's insane and I'm fucking trapped. The solid wall of his body obstructed her escape. It was the oldest trick in the book and she had fallen for it. Why hadn't he freaked out on her last night? Damn it. Her fucking phone was nowhere near where she stood. She decided to take another approach. "Look, dude, I don't know who you are or why you're here, but I'll do whatever you ask as long as you don't hurt me. People know me; they expect me to be at work. Whatever you want to do won't get you anywhere."
"I mean you no harm," he said calmly. He wanted to go to her, but he hesitated. If he were to touch her, she would strike out. If he had been sent to her, it was obvious she was needed to stop the curse. If he couldn't convince her, he would fail. "You must believe me. I have very little time and I believe you are vital for this curse to be lifted." He made a step toward her and she stepped back. Sighing, he stopped.
"Take your shit and get out," she said shakily. "I don't want you here."
Her plea was one he couldn't deny, but he couldn't leave. From the banks of his memory, he heard words whispered to him by this woman. Perhaps if he were to repeat them, she would know he was legitimate. She couldn't send him away. Feeling as if he were tricking her, he sighed sadly and said, "You can't cast out what was meant to be."
Leven completely lost control of her muscles. Her legs felt like nothing more than boneless pieces of flesh. She fell backward, plopping down on the end of the bed, plopping on her already sore ass. However, the bed was much kinder to her backside. She reviewed the cobwebs of her mind as if it were a complex tape recorder. She had heard those words, hadn't she? Where had she heard them? Hadn't they come to her in a dream? Hadn't she uttered them? Dear God. Am I alive? Am I dead? Has he somehow taken my life and I'm on this weird plane between heaven and hell? Is he God or Satan or… Blessed blackness took her down into a deep pit, holding onto her for dear life.
"MaHbûb, maHbûb malak. IstayqaZa. MaftûH inti 'uyûn." ["Dear, dear angel. Wake up. Open your eyes."]
"Lâ. Mâ byimkinni." ["No. I cannot."]
"Aiwa, mâ lâzim. IstayqaZa. Ana shaHad inti." ["Yes, you must. Wake up. I beg you."]
A small pained moan exited the depths of Leven's throat. She heard the whispered commands, heard herself answering. What more proof did either of them need now? There was still so much she didn't understand. She had no real knowledge that the man was her dream lover, but he had touched her. He had set something off inside her, and she couldn't turn way from it now. The crazed story he told was true. She opened her eyes slowly, feeling her eyelids fluttering weakly. Ardeth had apparently lifted her body and placed her gently onto her bed. He had kneeled beside her and was running his hand through her hair. When he realized she was regaining consciousness, he withdrew and leaned back away from her. She noticed that he had yet to remove the pristine white robe. It contrasted beautifully against his dark skin and hair.
"Oh shit," she moaned. "Oh shitty shit. I am so fired."
She tried to sit up, but Ardeth's hands settled on her shoulders, and he laid her back down. "You can't go, not like this. You have had quite a shock. I think you should stay here."
"You don't understand," she said. "I have to work. I have a job. I can't get fired." She shrugged his hands off her shoulders and sat up. Jesus. She had yet to shower. There was no time. No time for anything.
Determined not to look at him, not to accept what had just happened between them, she stood up and began digging crazily through her closet. Ardeth stood back and watched her. She was trying to deny her fate and it wasn't possible. He could tell her this, but he knew she wouldn't listen. She wanted to go about her daily life as if nothing had changed. "Everything is different now, Leven. If you continue to deny your fate, what you are scurrying after will not matter. You will have no life. No future. Do you understand? I need your help. I need you to stay."
"I don't know what your life is like wherever you came from, but in this world, without a paycheck I can't live. I'll help you, but I have to work."
He gazed at her incredulously. "You still do not believe me?"
She sighed angrily and moved toward a chest near her bed. She flipped open the lid and began to dig around inside it. Impatiently, she threw a button-down shirt and a pair of blue jeans onto the bed. She stood and pointed at the pile of clothing. "I have to survive. To do that, I have to work. I'll help you save the world between shifts. In the meantime, you should put on those clothes I laid out on the bed. You can't go walking around the streets of Memphis wearing that getup over there," she spat, nodding toward his crumpled robes. "You'll have to go with me. That's the only way I can help you."
He nodded. "All right. I will do as you ask."
"Fine," she said huffily before tearing off into the bathroom.
Once the door was closed behind her, she leaned weakly against the door. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't really be happening. But it was.
Chapter 9: Tiger's Eye
Ardeth mutely followed Leven outside to her car. He felt awkward and out of place in the clothes she had given him. They were musty smelling and ill fitting. He had to walk fast to keep up with her. She clearly wanted to escape him, but she didn't realize she couldn't. She had no choice. Why couldn't she understand that? Leven approached her car and stabbed her key into the lock. Impatiently, she turned around and glared at him. As he caught up to her and slid inside the alien vehicle, he glanced at her. Actually, he couldn't blame her for feeling so upset. What else did he expect? She was a rational, thinking being, one living in another world so very different. She was so very different than him. But was she? He brought images of his visions back to the surface for only a couple of moments. She wasn't that different and he couldn't continue to lie to himself, but he didn't want to draw her in, didn't want to hurt her. She is completely unreachable. However, he was wrong. His presence was disturbing her greatly. The sad thing was, she actually believed his story, but she couldn't speak to him. She felt his eyes on her, studying her, and she literally ached to gaze into them. They were a warm, dark brown, so open and beautiful. So familiar. Uh uh. No way. Ain't even gonna go there. She cranked the engine, saying a thankful prayer under her breath, and put the car in gear. Beside her, she heard a gurgling noise issuing from the stomach of this Ardeth Bay. She nearly laughed. Poor guy must be starving to death. She had thought of treating his dehydration and exhaustion, but not his hunger. Some angel I am. Before taking the turn that would lead her directly to the shop, she took a pit stop through a fast food drive through window. Curiously, Ardeth watched as Leven spoke into what appeared to be a tall black box before driving forward only a small distance. She stopped long enough to exchange money for a small bag. Interesting. The smell coming from the window was nice. She continued to ignore him as she drove on. Quietly, she pushed the bag toward him.
"This is yours," she said. "I know you must be starving."
He took the bag from her and noticed that she hadn't looked at him when she spoke. "Shukran," he said. ["Thank you."]
She sighed. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"What," he asked curiously, "Thank you?"
She shook her head, keeping her eyes focused on the wide road ahead of her. "No, not that. Speak that…language."
"Are you saying that you do not wish that I speak my native language?"
Leven was torn two different ways at once. The first, of course, was amusement. While the little interaction between them was occurring, she noticed that he had torn into the bag, glanced curiously at the breakfast sandwich, and began eating it as if he had always eaten them. The second was more complicated. No. She didn't want him speaking his native language. She couldn't explain it, but hearing those words seemed to disturb her, to hurt her. "That's what I'm saying," she said quietly. She thought that if she were ugly with him, she wouldn't be so very damn shaken by his existence.
Ardeth bit into the sandwich, literally demolishing it. It wasn't that appetizing, but it didn't matter to him. As hungry as he was, anything would do. "May I ask why," he asked after polishing off his messy meal.
"You may not," she snapped. If the truth were known, she didn't know why. Or did she? You know why. Don't sit there and lie to yourself. Don't you think he knows that? Wake up Leven, wake up and look at this man. No. Fuck off. Go away. She would not, would not, would not. There were so many questions she wanted to ask, so many things she needed to know, but she couldn't look at him long enough to ask them. Looking at him was worse than hearing him speak. She wasn't prepared to deal with what he had brought to her. It was all incredibly, horridly insane. For a moment, she wondered if he were toying with her as Caldo had. She had believed him, but only because he dug something out of her psyche. Dear Jesus. Why did all the shit have to fall on her shoulders? Stop feeling fucking sorry for yourself, you bitch. She sighed heavily, giving up. "Look, there is a lot going on that I don't understand. I don't mean to snap at you, but I just wish you wouldn't do that. I just don't…don't understand." Shit. What am I saying? Did any of that actually make sense? She finally fixed her eyes on his face and saw that he was watching her carefully, intensely, as only he could. How do I know that? There was a speck of sandwich caught in his mustache. She looked away quickly before she began laughing. "Dig around in that bag and get a napkin. You have leftovers lingering."
Leven parked her car behind the building. She let out a relieved sigh when she didn't see the boss' car parked there. If he had come in, her ass would be pounding the pavement. She ripped out of the car and ran toward the front of the building. Startled, Ardeth followed her lead, not quite running, but trying to catch up. Once he had rounded the corner, he saw her unlocking a barred security gate before unlocking the door. He gazed up at the sign: Roube's. She opened the door and the annoying door alarm kicked on. She held the door open and waited patiently for Ardeth to enter. He stepped into the room and glanced around. There were dozens of things scattered about that he did not recognize. What were these strange things? Why did this building seem to have a massive amount of them? Amazing. He was afraid to touch anything, because he had no idea what would happen if he did. Leven turned and glanced at Ardeth. Somehow, the way he was standing in the middle of the room looking about struck her. She watched his upturned face with its startled expression. She stood and gazed at him for several minutes, even after he began to move around. He didn't touch anything, but he looked at everything he passed. The funky looking sword caught his attention above all else. He seemed fixated on it, longing to touch it, as if he were familiar with it. She tore her eyes off the handsome stranger and focused them elsewhere. They landed on the display case where the daggers were kept. At that moment, an image came to her so very clear that it nearly knocked her off her feet. She saw her body splayed out on top of the display case with this man hovering over her. She could almost feel the touch of his hands, the taste of his lips. Leven Medlem stood no more than two feet away from the lover in her dreams.
The touch of Leven's hand brought Ardeth out of his daze. He didn't realize he had been staring at the scimitar so intensely. When he turned toward her, he barely had time to breathe before Leven's lips were on his. She had to kiss him, she had to know. If she tasted his lips, it would answer the question she needed answered. Startled, Ardeth tried to pull away, but it no use. The moment he tasted her kiss, he knew. When he saw the photograph, he had been shown certain truths, but nothing brought his visions to full swing more than her hungry, yet so surprising kiss. He had kissed her before, many, many times. He was intoxicated by it, by her, his senses reeled, and his head began to spin. As the kiss deepened and he slipped his tongue between her awaiting lips, Leven's arms went around his neck as Ardeth's large hands went to each side of her waist, pulling her even closer [if that was even possible]. He was it. He was il wâHid [the one]. She wanted to go further, to make her dream a reality, but her wits were stronger than her desire [at least for that moment]. Breathing heavily, she broke the kiss and pulled back. She moved away slowly, trying to pretend as if nothing had happened. He was fine with allowing her to do that, because he couldn't quite deal with it himself. His mind kept telling him it was wrong when his heart was screaming that it was right. He wasn't here to seduce this woman. He was here to end a curse before it ended them. She had gone to stand behind the expansive counter, her back facing him. He tore his eyes off her long enough to fix them again on the scimitar. It was different than his. It was older, perhaps used the generation before he began his sacred duty.
"What is this place," he asked suddenly, breaking the thick, tense silence. He couldn't stay quiet any longer. His lips burned from her kiss and he longed to taste it again. If he didn't speak, didn't draw his attention away from it, he would go to her.
His voice startled her. It slit through the fog in the room like a sharp knife. Could she look at him? Could she gaze into his eyes after kissing him? What the hell had she gotten herself into? "It's a pawnshop," she said. "People bring us their things and we give them money for it. We give them their things back once they repay the money."
Pawnshop? Absently, he dug into the uncomfortable denim pants for his list. Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into its perfect slot. He completely understood why he had come to her. He unfolded the paper and looked at it. This shop was on his list. Fate had wrung its hands once again. "I was told to come to a shop like this to find my amulet. Could it be here?"
She turned toward him and noticed he was staring at a piece of paper. "What does it look like?"
"It is silver and shaped in the form of a goddess, Isis. Where her wings join, there is a circle, but it is filled with a tiger's eye quartz. Has anyone bartered with you for something like that?"
Tiger's eye quartz. Where had she seen a stone like that? Suddenly, it came to her. Caldo. "I've not seen an amulet with that type of stone, not yet. But there was a dagger here with one in the handle. A man came to buy it. He…he looked a little like you, without the tattoos and the facial hair. His name was Caldo. I know he's back in town, because he's made contact with me."
Ardeth pursed his lips thoughtfully. "This was no mortal man. He was a minion, a slave sent to do Set's bidding. He is also searching for this amulet. If he finds it before I, Set will control the portal between the past and the present. I must find it." He started toward the door, intent on making yet another journey on foot.
"Ardeth, wait," she called. "I have an easier way." He stopped and turned to face her again. "Give me your list and I'll call them for you. If someone else is out there, won't they know you're here? Doesn't that mean you're in danger? You're defenseless."
He approached the counter and gave her his list. "I am not completely defenseless." He pointed toward the funky sword. "If you'll permit me, I need the scimitar."
"Scimitar? That banana looking thing on the wall? Is that what it is? I can't, Ardeth. If my boss sees his treasure in your hands, he'll strangle me."
"I will not let him," he said, gazing into her eyes intensely.
"Before I risk my job, let me call around first. It might not be necessary."
As Ardeth stood by, Leven called every name on the list and then called them twice. She then went to the phone book and called the ones not on his list. She shook her head and watched as deep disappointment filled his beautiful eyes. She couldn't stand to see him in such a state. If he didn't find the amulet, everything would be destroyed. The entire weight of the world was resting on his shoulders, and he had never felt like such a failure before. Defeated, but not desolate, he rebounded quickly. If he couldn't immediately find the amulet, then he would search for the minion of Set and cast him away before the key fell into the wrong hands. Sensing his anger, seeing the discord eating away at him, Leven felt a bit helpless herself. There was nothing else she could do to help him.
"I shall go now," he announced suddenly, "and find the minion."
He turned and began walking toward the door. Part of Leven's heart told her to let him go, to let him go about whatever mission he had, and then fade out of her life forever. The other pushed her to go after him, to pull him back. He knew nothing of Memphis. Regardless of who or what he was in his time, this was a completely new battleground for him. She underestimated him, thinking that he didn't stand a chance. Of course, she had a lot to learn. She came out from behind the counter and took after him. She grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
"You can't just go out there," she said, gazing up at him. "You don't know this place, this world. Caldo might not even know you're here. He called for me and I know where he's staying. I can help you find him. We have to plan it out, though. Don't go out there unprepared."
He took hold of her forearm with his free hand. She was still holding tightly onto his other arm. "Leven, I will never forget your kindness, but this is something I must do alone." He swallowed hard, preparing to tell her a gigantic mistruth. "You are not part of this. If anyone is in danger, it is you. These events are those that you have never had to deal with, and you are risking far more than you think."
"I may have not been chosen originally to do this, but since I picked you up last night, I'm in it whether you want me to be or not. You said it yourself, didn't you? You came to me because you needed my help. Listen to me, okay? I'm in it." She stepped away from him before the temptation to kiss him again couldn't be ignored. She went back around to the counter and watched as Ardeth approached the glass door. Absently, he began to stare out of it, searching, scanning. She needed to distract him, to keep his mind off his obsessive brooding. "Those tats on your face and hands. Did you do that on purpose?"
Her question threw him a little. He thought it a bit bizarre, but then remembered she wasn't a person from his time. He glanced at her over his shoulder with the slightest hint of a grin on his full lips. "My people call them the sacred marks of the Medjai. Boys destined for duty in his bloodline earn them at the age of his rite. I earned mine at fifteen. They delineate one's status among the tribe. For generations upon generations, the Medjai have protected the Pharaohs of Egypt. Now, we continue that sacred duty and also ensure that ancient curses do not come to pass."
She noticed that he had begun to stare out the door again as if he were distracted. "What status do you have?"
"I am Chieftain of my tribe."
Leven leaned over the counter, propping her chin into her hands. She watched him for a few moments. He seemed transfixed on the activity outside. She was tempted to approach him and plunge her hands into his silky looking black hair. While she kissed him, it had fanned over her hands in a soft cascade. She sighed heavily. She had to stop doing this to him and to herself. Jesus. She had barely known him a day and she already wanted to rip him out of his clothes. "A Chieftain? Isn't that like the boss? The main man?" He nodded absently. "What's it like? Where you're from?"
"Sand, beautiful ancient pyramids, dry desert heat, and an occasional oasis. That is only in the desert, of course, but I spend most of my time there. My world is quite different than yours."
Another image assaulted her. She saw this beautiful man sitting atop a black horse, looking down at her [but not her]. Her curiosity about his world began to change to one regarding other matters. She longed to understand everything. "Ardeth? Did you…did you know a pregnant woman with dark flowing hair?" She noticed an immediate change in his demeanor. His body stiffened just the slightest bit.
Ardeth closed his eyes against the memories. She was speaking of Sharîk. He had thought Leven had a tie to her when he saw the photograph, but her kiss had totally convinced him. Her kiss was as sweet as Sharîk's. She was like her, but not her. Had he not had the same thoughts racing through him before? "I did," he said.
"She wasn't your wife," she asked.
"No. She was my best friend's wife."
Although it was obvious that he'd rather not talk about this woman, she continued to press him. "But you loved her? She loved you? She died, didn't she? I think…I think I was inside her. I've been having dreams, Ardeth, very strange dreams. Some of them are disturbing, but most have been…different."
He nodded, as if understanding. "So have I. You are right, Leven. This woman you have dreamed of was someone whom I loved all my life, but she was promised to another. It is a custom that my people have followed from the beginning of the clan."
She had sensed that and he confirmed it. "Do you have a wife?"
"No." Staring, staring, staring. "No one has touched my heart thoroughly enough until-" He stopped speaking abruptly. He had almost supplied the word 'now' at the end of his sentence. He had nearly stepped into a situation that wouldn't be easy to back away from. There was nothing to this, nothing to this woman behind him other than her role as guide. Nothing more. He wanted to steer their words away from this. "What about you? Who are you?"
She almost laughed. He was one of the first few men she had ever met who actually wanted to know something about her that didn't have anything to do with spitting or swallowing. "Who am I? I'm nobody."
Her answer finally brought him out of his daze. He turned toward her. "You think you are nobody?
She shrugged. "Do I think it? No. I know it."
After lingering at the door so long, he slowly approached the counter where she was leaning. "That is not true at all. You are my malak [angel]. You cared for me when everyone else was afraid. I may have died last night if it wasn't for you."
She straightened up as he approached. She didn't want to be any closer than she had to. "I saw someone in need, Ardeth. I'm no angel. Once you're around me for a day or two, you'll see that."
He shook his head. "You may think you are nobody, but you are someone to me."
His eyes gazed into hers intensely. Damn, why was he doing this to her? She couldn't look in them without melting. Again, she reminded herself that she had only known him for one day. One day, Leven. Remember Caldo? Yet, Caldo wasn't Caldo. She couldn't get this shit straight anymore. It was all so unbelievable. Everything. All of it. He stood right against the counter, his thighs likely touching the glass. She wanted to back away even further; to retreat into the boss' office, but his gaze held her captive. Without understanding why she was doing it, she boosted herself up on the counter and slid across it to sit directly before Ardeth. She first thought she done this to make her escape, but that simply wasn't true. Why was she trying to kid herself? Struggling mightily, he didn't reach out to touch her. However, it was one of a few battles he eventually lost. His hands came up and gently cupped her face. Drifting toward her inch by painstaking inch, it seemingly took five lifetimes for his lips to reach their destination. At first, his kiss was soft and tentative, but when she didn't fight him away, he pressed forward, gently tracing his tongue over her slightly parted lips. Her tongue touched his, inviting him to come inside, and he willingly obliged. She finally had her chance to plunge her hands into his hair, luxuriating in its thick silkiness. She sighed against his lips, knowing this was more than right, more than meant to be, but her mind was so realistic and callous. It ruled her, demanding that she stop kissing this beautiful stranger. However, she ignored the messages for the briefest of moments as his hands settled on her knees, pulling her legs apart so that he could insert his body between them. Her legs encircled his waist as the kiss went on and on. His hands moved from her waist upward and the instant his large hands cupped her breasts through her shirt, she moaned against his mouth and leaned into him. At that moment, she wanted him so badly that she ached. One day, Leven. One day. Wake up! One day! He finally broke the kiss but allowed his lips to slide down to her throat.
"Oh God," she sighed. What would she do? She wanted him. He wanted her. It was obvious. One day, Leven. ONE DAY! Hadn't she vowed that after Caldo she wouldn't do that fuck and run stuff anymore? "Ardeth, please. No. Please stop," she pleaded softly.
The trembling quality about her voice broke his spell. She dropped her legs to allow him to back away. He was confused. What had just happened? What was he doing? Dear Allâh. "Leven, I…"
She shook her head. "No, don't."
He backed away even further and resumed his post at the door. Leven's body continually quaked. She had to get rid of this man before she ruined his life as well as hers. As she gazed at him, she wasn't sure she could send him away. She brought her hand up and traced a delicate line over her lips. He had possessed her and he was one spirit that could not be exorcised.
Chapter 10: One Prophecy Fulfilled
ONE PROPHECY FULFILLED
There were too many people inside this place, and Ardeth wasn't pleased. After Leven had locked up the shop, she announced that she had to go to Tunica. He had no idea what this Tunica was, but his patience had begun to wear thin. If she wanted to 'plan' to approach the minion, then he wanted to put it in motion. He had a very limited amount of time to find the amulet, and he vaguely wondered what was going through the minds of the elders. He should have returned yesterday, but didn't. Someone had stolen his amulet and he had no clear idea who did it or why. He knew he should be out searching, not sitting here in this noisy room filled with smoke. Yet, Leven insisted that he come along with her. She didn't trust leaving him alone in her apartment, because she figured he'd go on his search without her, and he would. His head had begun to pound from the noise and the smoke. About five or six women dressed scantily approached him asking what he wanted to drink. Every time, he asked for water, and every time, they stared at him as if he were insane. He wanted out of here. If he could find his way back to Memphis, he'd take his leave. He was a bit irritated with Leven. She had told him more than once that she believed his story, knew he was telling the truth. However, she didn't seem to be taking him seriously. After all, she went to work as if she had few cares in the world. He didn't think she understood the sheer urgency of this matter. If she were to come to his time, she would understand. He heard her voice calling his name and he hoped that it would be time to go soon. When he saw her, his jaw nearly dropped open and dangled to his chest. Of course, he had seen similar clothing on the others, but he hadn't seen it on Leven. Her arms and legs were almost completely bare and he saw her cleavage. He had the greatest desire to approach her and touch the flesh exposed. There was a lot to touch.
Leven stood back as she noticed the way he was looking at her. Surely, he had noticed the other servers in similar getups. He might have come from 1931, but damn, didn't women in his time show flesh? Then again, maybe they didn't. Regardless of his flustered stature, she sighed wearily. When would this night end? "I'm sorry I dragged you here, but when I get a chance, I'll leave. We can go back to Memphis and figure out how to approach Caldo."
He nodded. For a moment, he didn't know if he could speak. "Very good," he muttered. She turned away and disappeared into the crowd. He buried his face into his hands. He was torn. He wanted nothing more than to find the key and leave. He didn't want to stay here or risk bringing his visions into the reality of his world. He was very close to entangling both of them into something neither of them were ready for. Or were they? Ardeth looked up again and his eyes scanned the mass of people in search of Leven. He couldn't see her and he didn't want to get up and try to find her, not in this crowd. He didn't understand why so many people were attracted to this. As they were making their way to this particular building, Ardeth noticed dozens of them, and some were packed closely together. What purpose did they serve?
Right around two hours later, Leven finally returned. This time, she was fully clothed. Ardeth didn't know if he were happy about that or disappointed. Mutely, as he had done earlier today, he followed behind her to the car. Once in the close confines of the vehicle, Leven began to play her ignoring game again. It was killing them both. It really was. They were miserable and upset. Both knew where they needed to go, but they were denying it. Ardeth hoped that once they found Set's minion, it would all be over. Perhaps then, he could go home, she would stay here, and their lives would go back to normal [or as normal as his life could get]. When they arrived back at Leven's apartment, she went directly into her bedroom and to the chest where she had dug out the first set of clothes she had found for him. He stood at the doorway to the bedroom and watched curiously. She dug out four or five pairs of pants and an equal amount of shirts. She gave the armload of clothes to him.
"That should be enough for you to wear for a couple of days," she said. "I'll shower and change and then we can talk about approaching Caldo. If you're hungry, there should be some stuff in the refrigerator." Without a word, she closed her bedroom door right in his face.
Shaking his head incredulously, Ardeth took the pile of clothes and laid them out on the couch. Tonight, he wouldn't take her bed. But then, she probably didn't intend to let him have it again. The couch didn't really look all that comfortable, but he had slept on harder beds before. He ruffled through the pile and wondered how she had managed to maintain so many articles of men's clothing. His eyes fell on a pair of khaki colored slacks and a white button-down shirt. He closed his eyes and sighed. He had seen these in his vision right before he made love to Leven. He left the couch and went toward the refrigerator. He felt like an intruder, but his stomach had begun to grumble again. He found bread and a package with turkey inside it. Turkey and bread would definitely be better than those greasy burger sandwich things. He found a glass in the drainer by the sink and filled it with water from the tap. He couldn't get enough water. It seemed as if he had drunk a gallon since he woke up this morning.
"Wow, you're messy. A man after my heart," Leven said from behind him.
When he turned to face her, she was dressed in a long tee shirt and nothing else. Her hair was still wet and hung in ropes down her back. She was smiling a little and seemed more relaxed than she had all day. He drained the last of the water from his glass and moved to refill it. "I am sorry," he said. "I was looking through them to ensure they fit. The ones I have on are a little tight."
Yes, but they're tight in all the right places, she thought. "Yeah, but the others should fit better. The shower is free if you're interested."
"Yes," he said with a nod. "Thank you."
When Ardeth returned to the living room, Leven was curled up on the couch half asleep. He had dressed in a pair of black slacks and a matching shirt. He had purposely avoided the khaki and white. He had no desire to fulfill that aspect of his vision [or did he]. He chose to sit in a chair near the couch, but not close enough where his body would make contact with hers. It would be a shame to disturb her, but they had to set their plan in motion. He leaned over and touched her shoulder. She awoke and gazed over at Ardeth. His hair was wet and his feet bare, but his body was swaddled in black. Wow. He was fucking gorgeous! She felt like a pervert. She sat up and straightened her tee shirt and smoothed her partially dry hair. She was sure she looked quite attractive. It was obvious he was ready to talk about Caldo.
She gazed at him a moment before speaking. She was very tempted to touch his tattoos. Keeping her hands to herself, she said, "Caldo came into the shop to get that dagger, and he and I were together for drinks that same night." She was too ashamed to tell him she went to bed with him because she thought Caldo was he. "He left the next day and I never thought I'd hear from him again. But I did. He called here and left a message, telling me he was back in town, staying at the Peabody Hotel. All I have to do is call him and set up a date. I could have him to meet me here. If he's after the same thing you are, he'll show up."
Her words haunted him: If he's after the same thing you are, he'll show up. He gazed into her golden eyes, searching them, reaching out to her soul. He wasn't sure he could ask the question lingering on his mind. He knew little of Set's minions, but he had heard of an old legend that told of Sharr, a faithful servant of Set who had also been a shape changer. He had a weakness for sins of the flesh and often failed his lord to quench his need. Set had cursed Sharr to walking the Earth for all eternity. He cleared his throat and sighed. After gathering his courage, he asked, "Did this man take advantage of you?"
"He didn't rape me, if that's what you mean." She swallowed hard, "We were…together, but…" Her words died out totally. She couldn't tell him that she'd only slept with him because she had been mistaken. She looked down, embarrassed, feeling like a slut. After a silent moment, she felt Ardeth's finger beneath her chin, coaxing her face toward his. She looked into his eyes and they were asking 'but what?' Could she tell him? Should she tell him? She had been giving herself so very carelessly to men as of late. It was one reason why she didn't mind holding down two jobs. It kept her out of trouble. She was swiftly becoming the woman her Grandpa Q loathed. "I…I," she stammered. Goddamn, this was so hard. "I let him take me, but the only reason I did was because…because I thought it was you."
At that point, she thought he would drop his hand and pull away from her. It was obvious what kind of girl she was. Hell, he was from 1931, but she was pretty damn sure they had sluts and whores where he dwelled. However, she knew deeply within her heart that he was a man pure of heart. He was a good man, strong, loyal, and fearless. In his world, she was the kind of girl who would be stoned too death in public. She hated herself, hated herself more as each second passed. When he didn't immediately remove his hand from her chin, she drew away and stood. She didn't want him to touch her. She would probably taint him. For weeks, she had dreamed of this man, had dreamed of touching, kissing, and making love to him. She had been inside his mind, had touched his past, had seen his present with her, but couldn't lay a finger on the future. There was no future. He couldn't stay with her regardless of what happened to him. In her heart and mind, she had lived with him day and night for so very long. However, in real time, they had only known each other less than twenty-four hours. She felt closer to him now than she ever had in her dreams. You're mad, Leven. He will be another one time deal, just like all the others. You know that. Don't touch him, don't taint him. You're not good enough for him.
Ardeth came up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. She wanted to shrug them off. He was clean. She was dirty. Leven felt the solid wall of his body behind her and his body heat radiated toward her. He smelled nice. It wasn't the spicy smell of Caldo; it was different. She couldn't describe it, but she was certain that it was his smell. It was in him, not on. She ached to lean into him, to feel that wall pressed against her, but she hesitated. She could hear him breathing evenly and it seemed as if his hands were warming her entire body. God. If she could just move, if she could get away… She couldn't. She didn't want to.
"You have had those dreams," he asked, his voice low and soft. She didn't speak; she nodded. "I have had them as well. I was having them up until yesterday and they stopped. They tormented me because I did not understand. I can't be sure I understand now, but I came to you, I found you. It means something, can you not see that?"
"I don't know," she said softly.
He turned her unyielding body toward his so that she was facing him. "I do. You invaded every waking moment. I thought it was grief, but I was wrong. It was something else, something stronger." He lowered his head ever so slightly and kissed her.
No control. No control. No control. She broke away before the kiss could deepen. "We…I…I can't. I…you…it's only been…a…a day."
He ran the back of his hand over her cheek. "It has been much longer than a day. I count days, weeks, months…our entire lives…an eternity. If it was not meant to happen, we never would have found each other."
Everything he said was so true, so right, but she couldn't give into it. They'd both had dreams about the other, big damn deal. Yet, wasn't it a big damn deal? Wasn't it? Two people who have never met simply didn't just dream about each other. It wasn't an every day occurrence, especially considering the type of dreams they'd been having. She stepped back just an inch or two, just enough to allow his hand to drop away from her cheek. She didn't want him to touch her; it would only serve to make her want him more. "In your time," she began with a harsh whisper, "who you are is someone noble, brave, a warrior, and sacred. That's not who I am now, that's not someone I ever was. I'm not…not…"
He drew close to her again and took hold of her upper arm gently. He gazed down at her with his lovely eyes, consuming her, pulling her into his mind, body, and soul. It was a trip she had taken thousands of times before. "What are you not, Leven? You are not good enough for me? Is that what you are trying to say?" She didn't answer him. She didn't need to. It was written all over her, it was a feeling she couldn't hide regardless how hard she tried. He kissed her again, very, very gently, his lips just barely touching hers. "I am far from perfect, far from sacred. I am merely a mortal man, prone to mistakes and imperfection, as any other." His words were whispered against her lips and he could feel her body quaking before him. "If anything, it is I who is beneath you. Tonight will mark the first time I have ever made love to a malak [angel]."
Ardeth pressed his lips against hers harder, more demandingly. At first, she resisted, thinking he would withdraw and move away. He didn't. Instead, his free arm went around her waist and he brought her body up against his. She sighed tremblingly against his lips as tears began to fall out of her eyes. He drew her even closer, held her even tighter. She broke away from his kiss for half a second to release a shaky sob. She then kissed him back, hard and passionately. Her hands came up and went for his shirt. Almost blindly, she began unbuttoning it. Within moments her hands were on his warm flesh. A moment after that, her hands went down to his pants. Before she had the chance to open them, he broke the consuming kiss and took hold of her wrists. At first, she thought he had changed his mind. She looked at him, confused and a little rebuffed. After all, this was his idea. His eyes were giving her another message, not one of rejection.
"Allow me," he said softly.
She wasn't sure what he meant, but she withdrew her hands and waited patiently, curiously, longing for his touch. He kissed her again, gently, and allowed his hands to move to the very edge of her tee shirt. She finally understood and she wanted to cry again, but she bit down on her lip to prevent the tears from spilling down her face. She was accustomed to being forward, making the first move, and giving more than taking. He wanted her to take, not give, and she had never met a man like that. Although the clock said she had known him for one day, she had begun to see it, to feel it as Ardeth did. It was a lifetime, an eternity. He slid his large, warm hands beneath her shirt, running them slowly from the side of her hips up to her bare waist. They progressed further upward, coming to rest at the side swell of her breasts. He hadn't touched anything else, hadn't moved beyond that point. It didn't matter. Her nipples had grown rock hard and she breathed heavily, longing for the moment he would touch them, touch her. Instead of moving around as she so desperately hoped he would, he continued to slide his hands up, pushing the shirt along as he did. Eventually, she raised her arms up and allowed him to discard the shirt. She was completely naked underneath. She was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. He gave her another brief, gentle kiss on the lips before taking her hand into his and leading her to the bed. She had no idea how he intended for both of them to fit in it, but she was fairly certain they'd find a way.
He gave her another gentle, tentative kiss before lifting her up and laying her down on the bed. He came down on top of her, covering her body with his. For a brief moment, she gazed up helplessly into his eyes. She leaned up a bit and placed gentle kisses where each tattoo adorned his face. She ended her short journey with his lips and plunged her hands into his thick hair. He broke away after a moment and allowed his mouth to move down to her chin before progressing lower to the slope of her throat. His hand came up to cup her breast gently as his thumb made maddeningly slow circles around the hardened peak. Soon, his mouth sought it, found it, and he drew it between his lips, suckling gently before stopping just long enough to run his wet tongue around it. She sighed and writhed beneath him as she felt a gentle push of air from his mouth. He wasn't just breathing. He was doing this on purpose, blowing on the nipple. He had, in effect, declared war on her body, but it was of the passionate variety. He quickly moved to the other nipple and treated it the very same before his lips and tongue went to the valley between her breasts. He left a trail of kisses and heat from her ribcage down to the slope of her flat abdomen before moving back up to her lips. During their deep kiss, she slid her hands inside the opened shirt and began to push it away from his body. He leaned up the slightest bit, breaking contact with her lips, to allow her to strip it away. She raised her head and began running her tongue along his ear, nipping the lobe, flicking it as much as he had done with her nipples. He came down atop her again, luxuriating in the feel of her mouth along his jaw line and throat. He brought his hips down between her thighs and her legs went around him. She felt him against her, even through the slacks. As they kissed again, her hands traveled down his back onto his buttocks and she squeezed the firm flesh, pressing him down, pressing him against her. His hand slid down to the side of her hip and he squeezed her in return, crushing her against him, and she arched her body up, pushing against him for all she was worth.
He chuckled against her lips, the sound emitting from the depths of his throat. "I do assure you I want you just as much," he whispered.
"Mmm," she moaned in his ear, "no you don't. If you did, those pants would be off you, on the floor, and you'd be inside me."
He rose up the tiniest bit, just enough to make a little room. One wrong move, and they'd both wind up on the floor. Before he had the chance to withdraw again, she reached for the snap and zipper, releasing him from his confines. She went to work helping him push them down and away from his body. She didn't know how they managed without tumbling onto the floor, but neither of them was in the mood to analyze much of anything. At the sight of him, she ran her tongue along her lips and her hand reached for him. He stopped her just short of her destination.
"No," he said. "Allow me."
"Aren't you ever going to allow me?"
He nodded and smiled a little. "Next time."
Next time.Leven drew away again as Ardeth's hand drifted to her cheek, gliding down along her body, barely touching her. He kissed her again as his hand drifted even lower. She drew her leg up as he moved to touch the inside of her thigh. He laid his hand upon her and she gasped against his lips. His caress was slow and deliberately torturous. Tired of waiting, tired of longing for him to be inside her, she reached around his waist, guiding him toward her. Her work was almost done until he did the unexpected. He ran his fingers very gently along her, stroking her, driving her mad.
"Please," she whispered. "Oh please." She knew he was ready for her, knew he wanted her. She could feel his tumescent hardness pressing against the side of her hip. It was maddening feeling him against her, but not within her. "Ardeth? Please," she whispered urgently.
"Shh." He moved his hand away from her. His patience was wearing as thin as hers.
Ardeth leaned over her again, running his tongue along her lips, and his arm went around her. He pulled her to her side, facing him, so he could look into her eyes. His hand moved down the slope of her spine and her leg came up over his hip. He kissed her softly, doing something sight unseen with his hand. Her eyes were closed but she could feel him moving. He slipped into her when she least expected it and she gasped aloud at the unexpected, but oh so welcome, intrusion. He pushed her back down to the bed without their bodies losing contact. He moved within her slowly, propping his body on his hands so that he could gaze down at her face. Her thighs pressed firmly against his hips and her fingers dug into his buttocks. At first, he held her captive to his lovemaking. She lay beneath him passively, as if she had never taken a lover before in her life and didn't know what to do. In relative short order, her hands moved from his buttocks as her arms twined around his neck. She leaned up into him, straining her body against his. Sensing her effort, one of his arms slid below to grasp her buttocks as her body came off the bed to thrust madly against his. Her breath came in jagged, quiet little screams. She held onto him for dear life as he filled her, completed her, and rocked her body so very steadily. Holding her tightly, breaking their connection for the briefest of moments, he rose up to his knees. Lifting her body slightly, he entered her again easily enough and her arms and legs enveloped him. One of his arms remained around her while the other reached out. He anchored his body firmly by placing his palm flat against the wall behind her.
Leven's small even teeth nipped at the flesh at the side of his throat. A sound escaped her [huh uh] as she felt strong rhythmic contractions overtaking her, shaking her. Ardeth felt them deeply within her, increasing the friction and pushing him so very close to his own release. She recovered quickly only to experience it again just seconds later. Then again and again and again. Shaking and crying at the same time, her lips met his, and she kissed him deeply, her tongue seeking his, stroking it, and making love to it.
"It's your turn," she whispered against his lips.
"No," he sighed, his breathing coming in quick and heavy.
"Yes," she said as her lips went back to his ear. "Yes, yes, yes."
"No," he moaned. "No, I…"
"Yes," she whispered, exaggerating the 's.'
"Na…oh," he sighed. His fingers dug into her waist and he released his hold on the wall to steady her body against his. He tensed suddenly, abruptly, as waves of euphoria rushed through him. She felt it deeply inside her and it warmed her as he went again and again. His lips found her shoulder and he drank in the salty tang of her sweat. "Yes," he whispered against her skin, smiling a little.
Chapter 11: A Fate Realized
A FATE REALIZED
Hazz Haka was not a natural worrier, but it had been almost two days since Isis and Osiris had sent Ardeth on his journey into the future. He should have come back by now. Something had gone wrong, something had gone totally wrong. There was no way to contact Ardeth without summoning the god and goddess. Yet, perhaps if he concentrated hard enough, he might find Ardeth within his mind to at least ensure that he was still alive. Hazz went into his special room, the room he called his 'prayer chamber,' so that he could meditate. Today, he was alone. His apprentice was out scouting and wasn't due to return until nightfall. It gave him the opportunity to reach out with his mind. He could not do it in the presence of others. Centering himself, pushing all external stimuli out, he closed his eyes and began praying to the gods. When his visions came to him, he never saw complete images, only snippets of activity here and there. He saw a tall, mirrored pyramid standing grotesquely against a blue, blue sky. The scenery whipped around him, surging forth, and he saw the great warrior slumped weakly against a building. He didn't appear dead, but he was exhausted and dehydrated. The image of a woman came then and it was so strong, it nearly knocked him back. There was no mention of a woman in the scroll. What she was doing there? What was her purpose? A voice from far, far away whispered to him, beckoning him. At first, he couldn't understand the words. They were garbled and disjointed. Eventually, he heard the words and they confused him. Curse of Hathos. What was this curse? He had never heard of it before. He knew what Hathos represented, but had never known of a curse perpetrated by her. He saw the woman clearly now. She had been whispering the words. Her golden eyes flashed with sorrow and pain. He understood. He understood everything now. Ardeth had lain with this woman, as a man would lay with his wife. She would be the ruination of his heart. Hazz tried to reach out to him with gentle psychic pokes, but Ardeth's mind was unreachable. He had already given his heart to the woman and it would never be retrieved.
An abrupt slamming noise brought Hazz out of his trance. He opened his eyes slowly, as if awakening from a deep sleep. Throwing an angered glance toward the door, he realized that Mukhtar had returned from his scout. What in the name of Allâh did he think he was doing? He grumbled incoherently, griping at his loss of privacy. His irritation grew when the young apprentice began banging on the door, begging him to come out. Sighing heavily, Hazz gathered his robes and threw open his door. He was close to shouting at the young boy, but the yell died in his throat the instant he saw another case in Mukhtar's hands. The case was identical to the one his apprentice had brought before. More scrolls? More curses? How would he reach the Medjai warrior? How would he tear his mind and heart away from this woman?Present Day
It was a night without much sleep, but neither Ardeth nor Leven were complaining. They lay before each other across the small bed, head to foot. His head propped on one hand, Ardeth's other hand slowly caressed the length of her leg, back and forth in an excruciatingly gentle motion. She had curled her body slightly, giving her the closeness she desired as her mouth placed moist kisses on his flesh. It was fifteen minutes shy of sunrise and they had made love twice, setting off dozens of explosions inside them, neither quite understanding the bond, neither really caring to explain it. Why ruin the beautiful moment with words? Whatever the explanation, they both accepted it as something completely meant to be. Sighing softly, she placed one final kiss on his knee before shifting position. Ardeth watched carefully as she moved to lay against him face to face. He shifted his position slightly to gently stroke her hair as he gazed at her, rendered totally speechless. She leaned up a bit and drew closer to him, almost burying her face in his chest. His hand slid to the back of her head as her lips touched him ever so softly, drinking in the musky droplets of sweat that had gathered at the center of his chest. Her lips moved up and over, trailing a sweet line over his beating heart. They lingered there, and his heart responded by pounding just a little harder, fluttering a bit. They ventured up further and she placed a gentle kiss at the hollow of his throat. She drew even closer to him as her mouth traveled up toward his ear.
"Hâda? SaHîH? 'Ajab qâl aiwa," she whispered into his ear. ["This? Real? Please say yes."]
He nodded. "Aiwa, malak, ktîr khâliS saHîH," he whispered back. ["Yes, angel, very much real."]
A sob ripped out of her throat so suddenly that Ardeth was startled. After a moment, her lips were on his, loving the reality of it, of him, yet so reluctant to grasp it with her own heart. She knew it was only one moment in time. It was a moment that would never see the light of day again. She would never again be certain if she were awake or dreaming. He wrapped his arms around her trembling body, pressing it against his as he cupped her head to his shoulder. In the very back of his mind, he felt a minute prickling sensation, as if someone were calling out to him. Elder Haka was trying to reach him somehow. He ignored the call. For now, it could wait. The only person he wanted inside his head was Leven. It could lie by the wayside for a few moments longer. He thrust it away, drove it out, knowing he would not allow it back in until he loved her for as long as time allowed.
Hazz and Mukhtar were gathered around Rashid, waiting patiently for him to translate yet two other ancient scrolls. The second scroll was related to the first that had foretold Set's curse. However, they gazed upon the translation with heavy hearts. The first scroll had been a malicious trap. Set was quite the clever god. They had sent a Medjai warrior into the future to unlock the portal. If Ardeth succeeded, the minions would rise. The great Chieftain didn't realize he had walked into an ancient booby trap. He had been sent following a false prophecy as his guide. The woman had served as a distraction. Perhaps her presence was necessary. Ardeth needed to be warned, but nothing Hazz tried worked. He prayed to the gods that the woman would continue to act as his fateful distraction. The third scroll foretold the curse the woman had whispered to him during his vision: the Curse of Hathos. Hazz thrust the scroll toward Rashid. When it was transcribed and read to him, Hazz shook his head. It foretold the emotional death of a man pure of heart, one with the markings of sacred duty: Ardeth Bay. He would pray. He would pray to Osiris and Isis, begging them to keep the warrior distracted, begging them to ease his heart through the tragedy awaiting him. There was no way out of this. They would choose the lesser of two evils. Broken hearts could mend, but a broken world could not.Present Day
As Ardeth gazed up at the scimitar hanging on the pawnshop wall, Leven called through the list again, searching for the amulet. It hadn't turned up anywhere, and definitely hadn't shown up here. She went to the back office and searched restlessly through some new shit the boss had gotten from somewhere, but it wasn't among the junk in the boxes. She called around to various police precincts, but it didn't do any good. Nothing. Nada. Zip. When she came out of the office, she noticed that Ardeth had somehow managed to take down the scimitar. If her boss were to walk in… She watched, curiously, as he gripped the handle tightly, feeling its heft. Yes. It was definitely older than his, but still good enough to do the job if it was needed. Tonight, Leven intended to invite Sharr to her apartment to retrieve the key, and Ardeth wanted to have some backup. Of course, Sharr could not be killed, but he could be cast out and sent back to his dark god. He wasn't sure how this could be done, but he would use the scimitar to his advantage. Leven stood and watched him, fascinated. He was swinging the scimitar in wide arcs, almost as if he were practicing some strange type of martial arts. She assumed he was testing the feel of it, getting comfortable. She couldn't imagine standing before him facing that blade. She continued to watch him closely until he felt her eyes on him. He had been in some type of weird trance; perhaps his mind had transported him back to his time. She could almost see him in his native dress, wielding the scimitar, cutting some poor slob to bits. She wasn't frightened by that image, she was captivated by it. He looked up at her and gave her an embarrassed little nod.
"I may need this," he said. "I know your employer will be displeased, but I cannot face Sharr without it. He is not human."
She held up her hands defensively and smiled a little. "It's okay, Ardeth. You do what you need to do. I'll just tell the jerk some crazy wild man came in here and nabbed it off the wall when I least expected it. I hope he won't come in today. If so, I'm going to have a shitload of explaining to do."
He lowered the scimitar, unknowingly reaching down to sheath it, but he momentarily forgot where he was. Chuckling a little, he shook his head and approached the counter where Leven stood. "The instinct never dies," he said. He laid the scimitar atop the counter. "Are you sure about facing this minion? It would only take a moment for him to hurt you." She said nothing, but nodded her response. "You are very brave, Leven."
She shook her head. "No. I'm trying to help you. I don't have a brave bone in my body."
He understood that, he truly did. However, there had been another meaning to his statement. Not only was she brave for wanting to face Sharr head-on, but also because she had willingly laid out her body and soul before him knowing that he couldn't stay with her. "I will not let your deed be forgotten. I promise you that."
She placed her hand over his. "Can we not talk about that? Please."
Both of them were almost positive that once Sharr was defeated, Ardeth would have the key and then escape back to his time. Of course, that meant he would never return to her. It was silly and she didn't understand it. She couldn't be attached to this man. Could she? They had spent most of the night making love, reaching out and grasping the other's soul. The dreams connected them more than anything else, but it still made very little sense. She knew him, had crawled inside his mind and held on with all her might. Tonight, it would be over, and Ardeth would slip away as easily as he came into her life. She didn't want to witness it. She wanted to hide from it. He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it. What had he done to her? To him? It was out of his hands, and had never really been in them. He didn't control fate, couldn't be so arrogant to think that he could try. He was convinced that the visions served a higher purpose, but he had yet to identify it.
She gently took her hand out of his and laid it upon the handle of the scimitar. "Take this and put it in my car. Don't let anybody see you."
If she wanted to avoid it, he could as well. "All right."
Leven had called in sick at the casino to set up everything. She moved about the tiny apartment, stowing away things, and kept glancing up at the clock nervously. When she had called Caldo earlier that day, he had sounded excited about seeing her again. Of course, it had nothing to do with her. He either wanted or had the key and as soon as he was made aware that Ardeth had been sent, the game would become dangerous. She remembered what Ardeth had said about his tastes and she tried to dress accordingly. She had dug out a skimpy slip of a dress that revealed more than it hid. Goddamn she was nervous. She had never been so nervous in her life. If she didn't calm down, Caldo would immediately know something was awry. She could never go into police work, she knew that. Ardeth sat on the side of the bed and watched her pace back and forth. She wouldn't admit it, but she was terrified. It was written all over her. Mixed with that was a splash of sadness. As she made her hundredth pass in front of him, he grabbed her hand. She stopped and gazed down at him curiously. She looked so very sensuous and desirable. He ached to take her to her bed and spend another night making love to her.
"Can you do this," he asked.
She ran her hand along his cheek and caressed the silky fall of black hair that rested against it. "I can. Just don't fall asleep on me."
He smiled a little. "Never."
A knock sounded off from the front of the apartment, breaking their spell. "That's him," she said. "Go."
He stood and cupped her face in his hands. He kissed the tip of her nose. "Call to me. He is not human, you must remember that."
She nodded. "I know."
When she slipped out of sight, he went into the bathroom, leaving the door cracked the slightest bit, just enough to see. Leven straightened her dress and took a deep breath. She cleared her mind of every thought centering on Ardeth. Caldo didn't need to read her thoughts. She went to the door and opened it. As she expected, her guest was the minion of Set. Before she invited him inside, she gazed at him curiously. How in the world could she mistake him for Ardeth? Now that she looked at him, really looked at him, he was nothing like him. What was I thinking? She stepped back with a smile and invited him inside. She noticed his hungered, lecherous gaze as he entered the room. He was already undressing her with his eyes. He noticed that she had gotten a nice bottle of wine and the lights were dimmed. Dare he taste her again before he demanded the key? Oh yes, he dare. He sat down and crossed his legs, waiting patiently for her to join him. She had been an easy score and would likely be so again. He was tempted to ask her about this 'Ardeth' whose name she cried at the moment of her release. Of course, he wasn't here to seduce her, not exactly.
Leven joined Caldo on the couch and reached for the wine. He watched as she leaned over and he ran his tongue over his lips. He could see her naked breasts down the front of her dress. Three or four drinks and she would be his. After she passed out, he would search this place for the amulet. She poured him a glass of wine and passed it to him. He took the glass and sipped at it casually. "Have you any new daggers at your shop," he asked.
She looked up at him and sipped at her own wine. "No, not lately. Are you looking for something specific?"
He shrugged. "That's business. It can wait until later. I'd rather pick up where we left off. Wouldn't you?" She watched as he leaned forward to take her glass from her. He sat it aside with his and then turned toward her. "You are very stunning, even more so when you wear nothing."
Ardeth seethed with anger. Along with that was the slightest, tiniest bit of jealousy. The thought of another man touching the flesh he had touched gnawed at his soul like a persistent fa'r [rat]. If he lay one finger on her, if he even attempted it… Thoughts of torture entered his mind and he had to control it, to squash it before he lost his focus. One false move and Leven would die.
"Caldo, you're very sweet," Leven said.
He smiled. "So are you, both inside and out."
One hand slipped between her thighs as the other guided her body toward his. He tried to kiss her, but she moved her head before his lips could touch hers, and he wound up kissing the side of her mouth. He didn't mind. His hand tried to travel further up between her thighs, but she took hold of his wrist. He pressed forward anyway, regardless of her resistance.
She cried: "Ardeth!"
"Who is this Ardeth that you call to," he asked against her flesh.
"Him," she said.
Before he had the chance to look, Ardeth grabbed him from the back and pulled him away from her roughly. "Get off her," he demanded.
Sharr faced Ardeth Bay. Of course, he didn't know this man by his name. However, he knew of the Medjai. "Who sent you," he asked, amused.
"Not your god," he spat. "What do you know of the amulet?" He wielded the scimitar menacingly.
"The Curse of Set. I know nothing, Medjai. Perhaps the whore knows. Why not ask her? She cried out to you when I took her. If you take her, she may tell you how to find the key. She did it for me."
"Inta kizib," he roared. ["You lie!"]
"'Imil ana, Medjai?" ["Do I, Medjai?"]
"Inta 'imil," Ardeth said softly. ["You do."]
With a sudden swift move, Ardeth released Sharr. Leven screamed when Sharr produced a razor sharp dagger virtually out of thin air. It seemed as if he thought it and it appeared. He brought it down into a severe arc and the blade bit into Ardeth's arm. Unaffected by the injury, Ardeth moved with vicious precision. He brought the scimitar up and out, slicing it across Sharr's chest, the blade digging into his heart. There was no screaming or blood. A great bright light erupted from the slash in his chest and it enveloped him, wrapping him in swirls of blinding brilliance. Ardeth shielded his eyes against it and when the light died, the minion was gone, but only temporarily. As soon as he found another host, another soul, he would return.
Leven went to Ardeth immediately as she noticed the blood dripping from his arm. "Oh my God," she cried, "you're bleeding. Jesus!"
Unaccustomed to someone fussing over him, he gazed down at her curiously. "It does not hurt," he said blandly.
She didn't listen to him. Instead, she dragged him toward the bathroom and held his arm over the sink. She left him only for a moment as she brought in a small cotton pillowcase. Ruthlessly, she ripped it up and began wrapping it around his arm. She was ill prepared and had nothing else to use. It wasn't every day that a Medjai warrior bled in her apartment. "It doesn't hurt," she said incredulously. "Your damn skin is split wide open by a razor sharp knife, and it doesn't hurt?"
"The wound is shallow and clean," he said meekly, as if that would make any difference to her.
Exasperated, she sighed. "Men! I will never understand you." She looked up at him and beheld his bewildered expression. She supposed stuff like this happened to him every day. "You're okay? You're truly okay?"
She was still holding onto his arm. "Truly I am, malak [angel]," he said. She nodded sedately and started to back away, but he held fast. "Wait. And you?"
Leven shook her head and smiled a little. "You're bleeding all over my bathroom and you're worried about me?"
"He touched you…he forced himself on you," he said.
"I'm fine, Ardeth." After a moment, she noticed that the blood loss had begun to taper off and it wasn't soaking the cloth. He would probably need stitches, but she wouldn't be afraid to bet he'd refuse. "I'm sorry," she said with a sigh, "I suppose my hunch was wrong. He didn't have the amulet."
Part of him was disappointed. Yet another part wasn't at all. Thoughts such as these shouldn't have entered his mind, but he couldn't prevent it. He wanted to speak, to say something, but the words wouldn't come. She started to back away again, but he held onto her. Without a word, he drew her close and kissed her as her hand moved up his injured arm. He hissed in pain against her lips and she broke the kiss to look at him.
"It hurts," she said, "doesn't it?"
What, exactly, did hurt? His arm or his heart? "Tremendously," he whispered harshly before claiming her lips again.
Chapter 12: A Second Prophecy Fulfilled
A SECOND PROPHECY FULFILLED
Two weeks had passed, the time passed swiftly, much too swiftly for the lovers soundly asleep with every body part entwined and connected. They had foregone the bed a week ago and made a relatively comfortable pallet upon the floor. This was where they slept and made love most of the time. The span of weeks hadn't been wasted. Every day, Leven called through the list of pawnshops, asking about the amulet. Every day, Ardeth took to the streets conducting his own search. Every day, they came home empty handed. The first few days were difficult for Ardeth. He was greatly disappointed and even more worried. He had eight weeks to find the amulet before Set could begin his reign. However, as each day and subsequent night passed, Ardeth found himself just the tiniest bit thankful he had yet to find the amulet. He hated to admit it. It was a selfish, selfish thought, but after all, he was only a man. He was only a man in love and in no great hurry to leave. If he found the amulet, he would carry out his duty, he would not falter, but he rued the day. As diligently as they were searching, the amulet would turn up. He had little doubt about that.
Ardeth awoke when Leven slipped out of his arms. In the dark, he watched her curiously as she moved around the room and entered the bathroom. Although he had been in this strange world a total of two weeks, his internal clock told him it wasn't close to dawn just yet. She normally didn't rise until five or six. He waited patiently for her to return, already missing her body next to his. He didn't know what he would do once he had to leave for good. He didn't think of it often. He knew it was as wrong as his line of thinking with regard to the amulet, but again, he was completely and utterly ruled by his heart. She returned a bit later, noticing that he was awake and propped up on his elbow. She lay next to him, molding her body perfectly to his, reveling in the feel of the solid wall of his chest and the taut muscled abdomen against hers. He spent most of his time gazing at her, enchanted by her eyes, the soft silky fan of her hair, and the perfect mouth that he loved to kiss. Love. It was a novel word, very simple, one tiny syllable that had the ability to melt the hardest of hearts. It changed lives and ended them. Love was very evident in his heart, in hers, yet it was a word so difficult to utter aloud. It was something he thought of and felt every day, whenever he gazed upon her, whenever he touched her or said her name. They had come together in dreams and in reality, but circumstances beyond his control would tear him away from her, just as he had been torn away from the first woman he had ever loved.
She ran her forefinger down the middle of his chest, stopping at his abdomen where her fingers began a slow, tingling caress. "What are you looking at," she asked with a teasing smile.
"You," he said as he encircled her waist with his free arm.
Leven leaned up into him and kissed his lips gently, but he pressed forward almost brutally, needing her, needing her more than he ever had before. Something inside him told him they had very little time left together and he wanted to love her enough to last a lifetime. She accepted his demanding, possessive kiss and hooked her leg around his lower back. Without the benefit of his being inside her, she began to undulate against him, giving him an obvious indication that she needed him as well. His hand moved from her waist to her buttocks and she sighed against his lips as he grinded her lower body into his. He broke the kiss long enough to lower her to the pallet and he kissed her again, plunging his tongue into her mouth, seeking hers, teasing it, tasting it. She was suddenly enveloped by his scent and the heated weight of his body. His hair brushed against her face and she made a move toward getting her hands into it, but he pulled back.
"Wait," he said.
"Wait? Ardeth? What in the hell…"
He smiled a little. "No, not hell. Heaven."
Definitely heaven, she thought as his lips began a slow descent downward. He placed very gentle kisses from her mouth, down between her breasts, and lower still to her abdomen. She quivered beneath him as much from the erotic torture as the harsh tickle of his beard on her sensitive flesh. He leaned up a bit and glanced at her expectantly. She smiled a little, her lips quivering almost as badly as her body. She parted her thighs to accommodate him and he slid down a bit lower. He took gentle hold of her thigh and covered the inside of it with moist kisses. She moaned in anticipation as his lips drew closer and closer to the center of her. As she felt his warm breath on her, she closed her eyes tightly, waiting for his touch. Instead, he moved to the other thigh and repeated the same process. She moaned again, this time in frustration. He smiled against her flesh and she let out a little sigh. She looked down at him, taking in little hitching gasps. She ached for him, longed for him to fulfill her need, her desire. Only he could do it. No one else could. No other man ever would again. He ran his wet and oh so experienced tongue along the outside of her, not quite touching the heated, aching flesh awaiting him inside. A small nonsensical noise escaped her [mmmnah] as he made several strokes round and round. He stopped suddenly and she let out a rush of air. She had been holding her breath to keep a sharp cry from exiting the depths of her throat. If she screamed out in her apartment, her neighbors would think someone was trying to kill her.
Ardeth leaned up again just the tiniest bit as he ran a finger along her, opening her ever so slightly. His thumb pressed against her, opening her wider. His tongue touched the burning skin inside her. The moist folds of flesh were like the petals of a flower that had come unfurled to reveal its beauty. He drew the petals into his mouth, holding onto them for the briefest of moments. He would release them only to swirl his tongue about them again and again. Her gasping had taken on a panting quality and her entire body flooded with painfully sensual sensation. She was out of her mind, immobile. His tongue and suckling lips sought the little pearl, the trigger of her sex, one of the most precious jewels she possessed. His tongue curled around it, cupping it, as he drew it into his mouth. Her nonsensical moan burst forth again [mmmnah] as he manipulated the tender, swollen nub of flesh, brushing it very gently with his teeth. Without caring one bit what her neighbors thought, she cried out, gasping his name, as his mouth was flooded with the sweet, sweet nectar of her climax. He withdrew slowly, reluctantly. Leven's panting breaths had become hitching sobs. Ardeth placed a very gentle kiss on her lower abdomen, unaware he had implanted a seed inside her, unaware they had created a life.
He moved away from her quivering body to sit up. She went to him without his having spoken a word. It wasn't necessary. His eyes said everything she needed to hear, gave every command she longed to follow. As he slid into her slowly, deeply, he held her captive with an intense gaze. She began moving with him, holding onto him, as he brought his lips up to her ear.
"I love you," he whispered harshly. He had had to force the words out of his mouth. Time and time again, he longed to say it, but couldn't. He could not leave her without her knowing how he felt. He didn't care if she said it back, if she even felt it [but he knew she did].
Buried deeply inside her still, their movements ceased as he throbbed within her, and she drew away to search his face in the dark. Had she heard what she thought she did? This moment had come to her in a dream, had come to him, but it was still so unexpected. "I…I love you, too."
His lips covered hers passionately as he lowered her body back down to the pallet, his solid, comforting weight settling atop her. He began to move within her again, showing his love for her with his body. At the moment of his release, he told her he loved her again, but this time, he whispered it in Arabic.
When Ardeth awoke after sunrise, he noticed that Leven was still asleep beside him. She was normally up and about by now, scurrying crazily around the room, watching a little box she called the TV. He didn't want to wake her, but if he didn't, she would gripe at him for not doing it. She took her two jobs very seriously. It was the only reality she had to hang onto, and he wasn't sure he could interfere with that. However, the temptation was great, and he settled back down for a moment, just looking at her. Could there be a way for him to stay or her to go with him? He sighed. He didn't understand why this was so hard, so heartbreaking. Why hadn't he found her in his time? He thought again of Sharîk. There was some type of connection. Had Sharîk come back in the form of Leven? Did that explain the depth of his love for her? Yet, there were only subtle similarities. Why would the gods take Sharîk away from him only to give her back just to take her again? He drew away from her carefully. She sighed softly in her sleep as if she sensed his departure. He went over to the virtually untouched bed and sat down. Ardeth reached over and took the photograph of the mother and child in hand. He stared down it for a long time, trying to permanently etch the image in his mind.
Leven turned to her stomach, reaching for her lover, but he wasn't there. She propped herself up and saw him sitting on the bed. He was staring at the photo of her and her mother. He had done this before, but hadn't said much about it. She stood up without glancing once at the clock. For now, she didn't give a rip about her two jobs, the state of affairs in Cuba, or the price of coffee in Brazil. Her attention was completely focused on Ardeth. He looked up at her as she approached. He smiled a little, expecting her to begin scolding him for not waking her, but she said nothing. She reached out to him and touched his warm cheek.
"Are you okay," she asked. He seemed troubled and his discord disturbed her.
He nodded and turned the photograph toward her. "This is you and your mother," he said. "What is her name?"
Not quite understanding where his line of questioning was coming from or leading to, she sat beside him, turning her body toward him. "My mother? My dad and her friends call her Jay, but her given name is Jaydra. I think it's a beautiful name, but she doesn't use it much."
"Jaydra," he said, rolling the name off his tongue. It was Arabic. "Her father? Who was he?"
"Grandfather? I don't know much about him. He died before I was born, but his name was Gabe Abnell. It's odd, though. I think he had a different name as well. Mother said he Americanized it years and years ago when he was a young boy. He didn't want to use the name his father gave him."
Ardeth's heart began to pound in his chest. It was coming together ever so slowly, but so very clearly. "Might it have been Gadiel Fa'inn Abadi?"
She nodded, her eyes lighting up. "Oh yeah. It was." She took in a shocked breath when it dawned on her. "Ardeth? How did you know that?"
Gadiel was Sharîk's son, the boy he had fallen in love with, the boy whose father had sent him away at the tender age of two. Gadiel was the boy whom Ardeth loved as if he were his son. He could see him as the sturdy little boy who enjoyed tugging his beard, not a grown man with a family. The reality of his discovery began to sink into him, needling him. He was led to this place, led here to fall in love with Sharîk's great-granddaughter. He did not doubt that Sharîk was behind this, that she had somehow found a way to come back, but not the way he expected. "Your people are Egyptian; you are Egyptian. Your great-grandmother was Sharîk Fa'inn Abadi. Your grandfather was taken from her body before she died. She was married to my friend, Qâtil. I knew your great-grandparents. I grew up with Qâtil and Sharîk. She was promised to my friend, but I was in love with her. We could not be together because their marriage was arranged at birth. In my time, she has been dead four years. Qâtil sent his son to the states two years after he was born. I raised him; his father lost interest. When I first saw you, I thought you were Sharîk in another woman's body." His speech was disjointed, broken.
She covered her mouth in obvious shock. "Oh Jesus," she said. "I…she…you." The images were overwhelming, rushing into her mind, out of control. "I saw the two of you. I saw her die. I…I heard her soul declaring her love for you. She was inside me; she is inside me. She knew this would happen? Did she…would she? She sent you to me?"
"I do not know," he said as he focused his eyes on her face. "I would assume she did, but for what purpose? I no longer believe I was sent here just to close a portal separating my time from yours. There must be something else, something neither you nor I understand."
She took a deep breath and exhaled it. "Grandpa Q," she said suddenly. "He's alive, Ardeth. My great-grandfather is alive."
"Qâtil? Alive? Impossible."
She shook her head. "Not impossible. True. Maybe he can answer some of your questions. His body is wasted and paralyzed, but his mind is sharper than mine. I can take you to him right now. Today."
Since Ardeth had come, Leven had failed to make the trip to see Grandpa Q. She had been ignoring her mother's phone calls. After their argument, she hadn't felt much like speaking with her. She didn't doubt Jay knew she had shirked her duty, but she wouldn't visit an evil old man who thought of his granddaughter in such a negative light. Grandpa Q and Ardeth had grown up together, yet they were such different men. She didn't understand how they could have come from the same time. Grandpa Q was the man in her dream, the one who called out to her [not her,Sharîk] in the desert. Why hadn't she known that? It was coming full circle and she felt as Ardeth did. There was some other great purpose to be served; yet she didn't have a clue as to what it was. She pulled the car into the parking lot and took a deep breath. She wanted to prepare Ardeth for Q's vicious behavior. Q was not a gentle man; he was far from loving, and she never understood why her grandfather loved him so.
"Ardeth, I don't know what kind of man Q was when you knew him, but he's bitter, hard, and cold. The last time I saw him, he said I was dirty and tainted. He probably won't believe you are who you say you are."
"He dared to insult you?" His eyes grew black with rage. "I will not allow him to dishonor you again. He will know me, that I can assure you."
The two of them left the car behind and approached the building. Leven signed them in and they waited patiently. As the last time Leven had come, an employee led them to Q's room. He was sleeping very soundly. It appeared that his condition had neither improved nor worsened. Ardeth gazed upon the wasted body of his childhood friend. He was frail and withered. He had thought of Qâtil as a brother years ago, but now, a bitter slice of coldness had entered his heart. Something about him angered Ardeth, and it wasn't only his hurtful comments directed toward Leven.
She approached Q's bedside and leaned over him. "Grandpa, wake up. I'm here to see you."
The dirty one has returned, he thought. Slowly, he opened his eyes and fixed them on his granddaughter's face. She hadn't come alone. Of course she hasn't. Tainted children such as her are never alone for long. When Leven moved aside, Qâtil's eyes focused on the face of a Medjai warrior. MaHbûb Allâh [Dear God]. Ardeth Bay. He looked the same as he did he saw him last. No. Impossible. His dead wife or the warrior hadn't haunted him in many, many years. He had come back to torture him more. He stood near his tainted granddaughter as if he were her guardian angel. Oddly, he wasn't bedecked in his robes. Ah. He felt a burning sensation in his body, as if it had been asleep and was trying to awaken. Hathos? Had Hathos come to visit as well? No. You're losing your mind, old man.
Before the swift wings of Hathos took him to the hellish underworld that awaited him, he needed to exorcise one final ghost. He fixed his embittered eyes on his granddaughter before looking at the warrior. He understood, or at least thought he did. Ardeth was truly here. His tainted granddaughter had lain with the warrior as she had lain with other men outside the bonds of marriage. He could literally smell it on her. "Hafîda [granddaughter], you have lain with this man. You have sinned greater than ever before. He is your great-grandfather, the grandfather of Jaydra, the father of Gadiel. Sharîk confessed her love to this man, gave her body to him when she should have only given it to me."
The rage came back. Ardeth started toward the old man, but Leven held him back. He had dishonored the woman he loved, and he was startled to realize that it was Leven whose honor he felt the need to defend. Sharîk was secondary in his mind. "Sharîk never gave her body to me," he spat. "We spoke of our love for each other, but never did I lay with her. You are a fool. Gadiel is your son, he could not be mine, not without the benefit of a miracle."
Ah. The warrior spoke the truth. The pins and needles sensation had begun to grow stronger. Qâtil finally understood. "My wife did not love me, Medjai. She loved you and I thought she bore your son, not mine. The bullet that severed her spine was bought and paid for by my hands." Hathos was coming for him now. He could feel it. There was a secret between the warrior and his granddaughter. It was a secret neither of them knew. Hathos had the answers. She had them all. "The tainted woman has found her man pure of heart. I am free. The bloodline is cleansed."
Leven didn't understand what had just happened, but she watched in horror as her grandfather's limbs began to twitch and move. He hadn't moved in fifteen or twenty years. Ardeth was in a trance of rage. He longed for his scimitar, to serve this man swift, harsh justice. He understood no more than Leven, but he realized that Sharîk had died in vain. Both of them watched as Qâtil sat up and yanked the tubes out of his body. He hadn't felt this much alive since he was a young man. Ahead of him, he saw a vision of the goddess, the protector of women and children. She was coming for him. His happiness at the control he gained over his body was short-lived. Hathos reached for him, jerked him forward. Leven gasped aloud as her grandfather's body crashed back down onto the bed. His eyes were wide open and his chest still. She stepped back, suddenly feeling dizzy. Little dots swam before her eyes and she blindly groped for her lover behind her. He took hold of her arm in the nick of time as blackness engulfed her.
"Malak [angel]? Leven?"
The soft-spoken words seemed to be coming from thousands of miles away. Her eyes drifted open slowly. She blinked several times before the room came back into focus. "Where am I?"
There was a woman leaning over her. Leven recognized her as the director. She began looking for Ardeth and didn't settle back until she had located him. He stood off to the side, gazing at her with concern painted on his face and in his eyes. "What happened?"
"I'm sorry dear," the director said, "I'm afraid your grandfather died during your visit. You fainted."
She didn't want this woman's face in hers. "Ardeth? I need you."
The woman stepped aside and allowed Ardeth to come to Leven. He kneeled before her and touched her cheek. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said aloud. Whispered to him: "What just happened?"
"Qâtil was taken for his misdeeds," he explained.
"What…what about the other," she whispered. "What did that mean?"
"I wish I knew, but I do not."
"I want to go. I want to get out of here," she said. "I don't want to be here."
Leven was still a little shaken up, but she felt well enough to drive back to Memphis. She had spoken to her boss at the pawnshop. After he yelled at her for thirty minutes, he forgave her, but only after she told him about her grandfather. The jerk wanted her to come in for work, but that wouldn't happen today. Once inside the apartment, she sat down and made a much-dreaded phone call home.
"Leven, hey baby, what a surprise," her mother said.
Was this the Jay Medlem she had spoken to before? She sounded like her old self. "Mother? Are you feeling okay?"
Jay Medlem chuckled. "Of course, baby, I'm fine. How are you? We miss you."
Had the world gone mad? "Mother? Grandpa Q died today."
She sighed. "May Allâh rest his soul. I hope he's happier wherever he is now."
Allâh? Since when did her mother say that? The world had gone mad. "I'll pick up his things in the next few days."
"Okay, dear. I'll call the home and arrange everything. Don't worry about any of it. I love you, darling. Goodbye."
Leven hung up the phone and gazed down at it. What the fuck? Ardeth sat at the foot of the bed watching her carefully. "That was…was weird. My mother must have gotten hooked up with some good meds."
"Meds? What are these meds," he asked, recalling that he had been told to take his 'meds' when he was released from jail.
She sighed and smiled a little. "I'm sorry. It's slang, meaning medication. It's normally used when you think a person is…well…insane."
Ardeth smiled. "I see." He moved next to her and took her hand. "You do not look well."
"No shit. My crazy great-grandfather killed my great-grandmother. She sent her true love to her great-granddaughter who helped unearth this horrible family skeleton. It's just a walk in the park. Nothing big."
Her words were laced with acid. She was hurt and there were doubts swirling in her mind. He could see it. Leven thought their connection was related only to today's events. Did she think his love for her would fade? "The spell Sharîk held on me has been lifted, Leven. My heart belongs to you. I believe she sent me to you so I could show you that you are worthy of love, that you are not tainted. You found it with me and you will find it again."
She shook her head. "No," she whispered. "I will never find it again. I know this. I know it with every fiber of my being. Whoever sent you did so cruelly. I find someone to love, someone that I cannot imagine life without, and he winds up being this figment of my imagination. You're here, I've touched you, but you're not here. Why, Ardeth? Why? Why can you not stay? Why do you have to go back? Why can't you take me with you? No. There will be no one else. Not ever. Do you believe you were sent here as some interstellar teacher? Do you?"
"No," he admitted. "I believe there is something else. We have not uncovered it and we may never."
"Damn it," she cried. "Damn it all!"
He reached for her and at first, she turned away. She didn't want his touch or his love. Persistent, he refused to give up. He reached for her again and she didn't deny his second attempt. She went into his embrace and held onto him, clinging to him, cursing her life, fate, and the gods.
Chapter 13: Mixed Blessings
Leven looked up when Ardeth entered the shop. They exchanged a brief, knowing gaze. They didn't exactly speak to each other, only shook their heads. Nothing. The news didn't feel as devastating as it should have. Leven couldn't say much to Ardeth, couldn't come from behind the counter to touch or kiss him. The boss had come into the shop and she couldn't take time out to spend with him. Leven wasn't sure why she kept her relationship a secret from her boss, unless she was afraid he'd find out that she had been with him on occasion and not necessarily working. He gave her a brief nod before leaving.
The boss stuck his head out to look after the customer, but he noticed that there was no customer at all. Strange. He had to stop delving into this Egyptian shit; it was making him paranoid. He fixed his eyes momentarily on Leven and noticed that she stood in a daze. She looked like shit. He ducked back into the office and closed the door behind him. He dug the amulet out of his pocket. He had been carrying it with him since he lifted it off the drunken bastard in front of the Pyramid. The day he 'found' it, he took it to an antiquities dealer and was told it was worth a small fortune. It had been dated back at least a thousand years. The dealer had then told him of an exhibit that would soon make its way to the museum. Perhaps he could take his artifact and sell it to the exhibitors. It would bring a pretty penny. While he was at it, he might as well take them the scimitar. He had run into some wonderfully grand luck lately. He wrapped up the amulet and put it back into his pocket. When he thought of the scimitar, something struck him. He stepped out of the office and noticed that Leven was still behind the counter in her messed up daze. Ignoring her for a moment, he stepped out onto the floor and backed up a few good feet. The scimitar seemed crooked. Had she been touching it? It unnerved him. The drunken man laid out in front of the Pyramid had had a scimitar. While he had been snagging the amulet, he was tempted to swipe the sword, but the man began to mumble incoherently and had scared the shit out of him. He took the ancient amulet and hauled ass. There were a lot of kooks in Memphis, but he had never seen any with Egyptian artifacts on his/her person. There was a lot to lift.
The time was drawing near. Ardeth sensed it. He had also heard it in his head. When his mind wasn't so consumed by thoughts of Leven, he could hear scraps of words running interference in his fuzzy brain. They came from Elder Haka, of course. Although the words weren't clearly spoken, he understood them. They were telling him he was closer to the amulet than he realized. He fought against it most of the time, but he listened to it. He was working toward his third week without the key in his hands. Five weeks remained. Five weeks to secure the fate of the world, five weeks to be with the woman he loved. Yet, there wasn't five weeks. If there were one week, he'd be surprised. He had found his way to Leven's apartment and entered. He immediately sat on the side of the bed. He reached down to the second drawer on the small nightstand. He had known by watching her the last couple of weeks that she kept a small photo album inside. She had never shown it to him, but he had seen her thumbing through it when she didn't realize he was watching. He saw where she had placed it for safekeeping. He dug it out and thumbed through it, lingering a few seconds on each page. He found one photo of Leven that appeared recent. He ran his thumb over the image as if he were caressing her face. He lifted the thin plastic sheet covering the page and removed the photograph. He didn't want to steal it, but he also didn't want to leave her without having a reminder of her beautiful face. He would never forget her, of course, but at least he would have something that would comfort him. He didn't think she would mind. He wanted to leave something behind for her, but he had nothing. However, he wasn't aware that he would, in fact, leave something with her, his child. He had just put the photo album back into the drawer when Leven entered the room. She wasn't due back for a few hours and he was a little surprised to see her.
"What are you doing back," he asked.
Sighing, she dropped tiredly onto the pallet. It was odd how she had just about forgotten she had a bed. "My asshole of a boss got a heart today. He sent me home, said I looked bad. Of course, the creep will dock my pay."
He moved away from the bed and joined her. "You are tired," he said as he stroked her hair. "This has all been too much for you. I wish I had not had to bring you in this at all. For that, I will always be sorry."
She shook her head. "No, Ardeth. Don't be. I have never felt like this before and I never want to feel this way again." She placed a very gentle kiss upon his lips. "I love you so much. Don't ever apologize for bringing that to me." She didn't want to focus on his departure, didn't want to think about it. She, like he, knew it was coming soon. Leven needed to steer her thoughts elsewhere, distract herself. "Tell me, Ardeth. You said my great-grandmother was promised to Grandpa Q. Are you promised to someone?"
He shook his head incredulously. Did she think he could take a wife after her? He passed his hand along her cheek gently and ran his fingers through her hair. "I was, a long time ago, but the elders dissolved the contract at my request. I could not take a wife, not after what happened with Sharîk. Within my culture, it is easier for a man to control his destiny than a woman. I am sure they will continue to push for it, but I cannot take a wife now, either, not unless I wish to be as resentful as Qâtil."
Her hand reached out to him and settled on his face. Her thumb moved back and forth across the mark on his left cheek. "You can never be like him. You're a different type of man altogether. You're a better man, much, much better than he could hope to be in a hundred lifetimes. You could never go the same route as he." She kissed him again. She wanted to say something, but it would bring up the heartache she was trying to avoid. Why hide from it? It would happen regardless of whether or not they spoke of it. She placed her hand over her abdomen on the exact spot where, unbeknownst to her, her unborn child was nestled safely and comfortably. "Right here, Ardeth, I can feel it. In here, it's telling me that our time is almost up. Something is going to happen that will change everything."
He placed his hand over hers. "I feel it, too."
"So…there are two ways this can go. We can continue to stay together like this, like we are, up until the very moment you leave. Or you can leave whenever you want and continue your search without me. You've been here long enough to know what to look for, to know whom to ask. I can accept it either way. I know what I feel, I know what I want, but I can't be selfish."
"You can, because I am. I will not, cannot, leave you until I must," he said.
The next morning, Leven awoke from a deep sleep. She felt out of sorts and off kilter. She had called in sick again at the casino last night because she couldn't go in. She had never felt so physically and emotionally drained in her life. She had always been a fatalistic person, but she had begun to react to all things in her life in much the same way. Little else seemed to matter to her. She realized she had to live, had to go on, but there was something more for her now, something that had made her eyes open wide. There were more things in life other than her bills, her jobs, and her tanked hopes and dreams. She would deal with the consequences later, but right now, she could think of little else that didn't center on Ardeth. Sighing, she left the loving embrace of Ardeth's arms to begin her morning rituals. She had barely gotten two steps from him when his eyes came open. He lay back and watched her silently, unable to move. He watched as she slipped into the tiny bathroom. After a moment, she came out with her toothbrush in her mouth, scrubbing her teeth vigorously. She snapped on the TV and finished with her teeth. She went back into the bathroom after a moment and he heard the distinct gagging noise emitting from her as she spat out the toothpaste.
"Blech," she spat. "Nasty stuff." She came out and noticed his eyes upon her, searching her face curiously. She could read the question in his eyes. "I'm fine. I swallowed some of that nasty ass toothpaste."
She moved toward the closet and began digging around for her clothes. She was keeping her face well hidden from him, because she didn't want him to see her tears. They had made love last night after their talk, and it felt like the last time. She dug around until she found what she needed, but she didn't immediately back away from the closet. She had to control her emotions. She had no intention of letting him see her cry. When she began to move away, she backed right into the solid wall of Ardeth's chest. The soft thud startled her and she burst into tears. He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and drew her closer against him. Softly, he whispered many, many times: "'Imil mâ mush biki [do not cry]." She couldn't help it; she couldn't stop the tears no matter how hard she tried. He held her close until the tears dried. When they began to taper off, he drew her away from the closet and sat down with her on the bed. Her hitching sobs became sniffles and her sniffles stopped completely as she gazed at the television. Both Ardeth and Leven's attention was drawn to the news. Neither of them had heard much, but a few words drew their complete attention: "exhibit" and "The Ancient Curses of Egypt." They tore their eyes off the screen and focused them on each other. The museum exhibit would have the answers they sought, both of them were certain. In two days, the exhibit would arrive. In two days, the portal would be closed. In two days, Ardeth would leave her forever. Unable to handle the enormity of the news, of the discovery, Leven broke out of Ardeth's embrace and ran toward the bathroom. She slammed the door behind her and a moment later, he heard her getting sick. He felt a little sick to his stomach as well.
Sharr had been sent back to the future in another form. He couldn't present himself as "Caldo" now. Both the woman and Medjai warrior knew him. They were aware of his presence, knew that he would return. Somehow, he had to slip around undetected. He was to be sent to the museum exhibit to find the amulet. It was connected to the exhibit in some way. He no longer felt as if the woman or her lover possessed it. If so, the portal would have already been sealed. It was not. Yet, he thought of taking the easy way out. He knew of Set's false prophecy, knew of the trickery his dark god was fond of perpetrating. However, the Medjai did not. Perhaps he would tail the two of them and simply stand back and allow the warrior to open the portal. Nothing could be simpler. As far as he was aware, the false prophecy had yet to be discovered. The Medjai was unaware, distracted, he could not see, think, or feel anything that didn't have something to do with the woman. He could blend in as long as he kept away from direct view of the warrior. He would know. He would see him. Now that the Chieftain had touched the woman, had put her with child, she might also see. Sometimes, it happened that way. Ah yes. Sharr had always been a lazy one and if someone could do the work for him, let him go at it. He would sit back with a smile and wait for the end to come, not only for him, but for the world as well.
The exhibit in the museum was a small one. There were several items on display, but they took up very little space. As the news screamed, it was titled the "Ancient Curses of Egypt." It was hideous, of course, but they were being led to it. Ardeth had brought along the scroll he was given before he came. There were a few ancient books here and there, some of which Ardeth had never seen before. He longed to touch the books, but they were encased behind protective glass. He moved down the exhibit, completely taken by a few of the items. Something caught his eye and he gasped aloud. Leven looked up suddenly, hearing the gasp. It was one of surprise, of course, but it also sounded like one of distress. He had unrolled the scroll he had brought along with him and gazed down at it, then he fixed his eyes intensely on whatever he had seen behind the glass encasement. Slowly, she approached him and stood close enough to focus her eyes on the weird symbols written across the scroll. She fixed her eyes on the glass and saw that there was a small velvet case splayed open before them. It rested against a gold tone easel. Inside the case were two scrolls. One was identical to Ardeth's. The other was only slightly different. The symbols varied just the tiniest bit. Obviously, the second scroll was written a different way. His dark, handsome face had paled and his expression had gone from one of curious wonderment to rage. For a moment, she was afraid to touch him for fear that he would strike out at her. She longed to speak to him, longed to run her fingers over his quivering cheek. What was this? What did it say? What did it mean? He had forgotten that Leven could not read ancient Arabic. He had forgotten that she was standing beside him at all. White-hot rage filled him. Set had played a horrific trick on him and his people. He had almost walked right into the ultimate, eternal booby trap of them all. He shook his head incredulously, amazingly. Suddenly, he understood why Hazz had tried to invade his thoughts. He was trying to send him some type of warning. Leven's hand finally shot out and took hold of his arm. He came out of his enraged trance and fixed a different set of eyes on her face. They had softened tremendously. She was concerned for him and worried. Her golden eyes were searching his face, seemingly asking 'what is it?' He wasted no time glancing at the rest of the exhibit. The amulet was not here. He had been led here to see the scrolls. He took hold of her arm and led her out of the museum. Of course, they didn't realize they were being followed. When Sharr saw what they had seen, he snarled. The Medjai Chieftain knew of the other scroll, the true intention of Set.
Once they were outside in the parking lot, Leven put on the brakes and stopped walking. "Ardeth, you're scaring me. What is it," she demanded.
He drew her over to her car and leaned her against it. He stood directly in front of her as if shielding her from something. "I am sorry," he said. "The scroll, the one I have is wrong. The true scroll, the one behind that glass case inside, was Set's intended prophecy. This is false. The amulet is needed to open the portal, not to close it. We must find the amulet before Sharr. I am to close it forever and ensure that the minions do not enter."
She nodded. "Okay, Ardeth. We'll go back to the shop and figure out what our next step should be."
"I was distracted by you. Our love kept me from searching nonstop. If I had found it, it would all be over," he said incredulously.
"It's okay," she insisted. "You didn't know, but now you do. Let's go. We'll find the amulet, we will."
They returned to the pawnshop and Leven immediately noticed that the boss was there. If it were any other day, she would send Ardeth away. Not today. She led him into the store, holding onto his hand tightly. She had started toward the counter to retrieve the phone. If her boss wanted to bitch at her, so be it. This had to end. It was killing this honorable man she loved so dearly. His back was turned to them when they made their entrance. The boss was on the phone with his buyer. He had secured a nice chunk of change for the amulet.
"I need the phone," Leven demanded.
The boss turned toward his employee, intent on yelling at her, and firing her narrow ass. Yet, when he laid his eyes on the man, the words died in his throat. Dear fucking God. This was the drunken man he had ripped off. He noticed that Leven was holding onto his hand tightly. They were obviously together in the biblical sense. He felt like hiding. Did he recognize him? "What the hell is going on, Leven?"
"I need the phone," she spat through gritted teeth. When he didn't immediately move, Leven reached across the desk for it, and the boss slapped his hand down on hers. It was at that moment they both saw the amulet dangle down from inside his shirt.
Ardeth went for the man. How dare he touch Leven like that. He took a fistful of the boss' shirt. "Release her," he demanded. "Release her and return the amulet to me."
"ARDETH," Leven screamed as she saw a man rushing him from behind. He was wielding the scimitar that had been hanging on the wall.
His released the thief, jerking the amulet along with him, and swung his body around in an almost perfect three sixty turn. The blade dug into the boss' desk, missing Ardeth by mere inches. He looked up at the man. Sharr had returned. He had no weapon with which to fight, but he had faced stronger and more deadly enemies before. Ardeth went into a defensive stance, readying to fight 'til death. Leven ran out of the office and over to the display case. Frantically, she looked around for something to shatter the glass in the display case. She snarled [fuck it] as she ran toward the front counter. She grabbed hold of a giant metal stapler and ran back toward the case. She raised it up high over her head and brought it down viciously. The case exploded inward, sending glass flying down to the floor. As she heard the struggle in the back office, she grabbed up as many daggers as she could manage. She rushed toward Sharr and plunged one of the daggers squarely between his shoulders. As Sharr turned to face the woman, Ardeth called out a panicked Lâ [no]. Sharr brought up the scimitar, readying to split the woman in two. Before he brought the blade down, she threw another dagger at him and watched as it sunk to the hilt between his eyes. Not done yet, he raised the scimitar again as Ardeth removed the knife between Sharr's shoulders in one vicious yank. He grabbed the minion of Set from behind and plunged the knife into the center of his chest. Another burst of brilliant light filled the room before disappearing altogether.
"Medlem," the boss screamed, "what the hell? You're fired, sweet cheeks."
Both Ardeth and Leven fixed a murderous gaze on him. "Fuck off, you prick. I quit," Leven spat. She approached Ardeth and took his arm. He was grasping the amulet tightly in his hand. "Come on, you have a trip to make," she said.
He wasn't ready to go, wasn't ready to leave her, but he knew he must. After two weeks of constant searching, the amulet had been under their noses all along. She sensed his reluctance and pulled him forward. She wanted him to hurry along before Sharr returned for another round.
It was midnight when Ardeth and Leven made the short trip to the Pyramid Arena. The gods were on their side tonight. There was no moon or stars to illuminate their trespassing. There were no guards tooling about, which Leven thought was highly unusual. Then again, Osiris, Isis, and Hathos were protecting them. They walked toward the entrance hand in hand and ducked inside. Leven stood back as far as she dared. Bedecked in the robes he had worn when he first came to her, she had never seen him so handsome, had never loved him so much. She noted that he had secured the scimitar within his belts. She had traded her little TV box for it and gave it to him before they left her apartment. He didn't speak to her, didn't look at her. He couldn't. His heart was breaking and as the pieces fell, he ached miserably. He held up the amulet and an ancient silver door adorned with hieroglyphics materialized out of nowhere. The door came open and a hand shot out. Leven gasped audibly, but Ardeth was lost in a trance. Fingers made of flame red light reached for the amulet, touching the tiger's eye quartz. Holding her hands over her mouth, Leven watched as the quartz melted as if it were butter. The disjointed hand cupped the melted jewel and carried it back toward the door. It then rubbed the melted quartz along the outer edge of the door, creating a permanent, eternal seal. Once the door closed, Ardeth would be taken back to his time. It seemed as if the hand knew this and waited patiently for him to say goodbye.
The trance broke, and Ardeth approached Leven, her beautiful face bathed in the red light, bathed in the incredible brilliance. She was fighting her tears, her devastation, but she couldn't hide it from him, not for a moment. He brought his lips down to hers and kissed her gently. If their kiss deepened any more than that, he wouldn't leave, and he couldn't stay. Time and space would not permit it. He drew away from her, touching her cheek. "I will never forget you," he said. "I will never stop loving you." He placed his hand over his heart. "You live here, inside me. Always." He presented her the amulet. "Take this. When you touch it, think of me. It belongs to you. It belonged to none other. I love you." She couldn't speak, couldn't bring any words to the surface. Her tears came in a rush, but they were painful, silent tears, shaking her essence. He turned away, ready to make the transition and he could feel her eyes on him. She could not stay. She had to leave before the goddess took him.
"I love you, Ardeth. Don't ever release me," she cried.
"Never," he said through gritted teeth. "You must go. You cannot stay here."
She gave him one last look, one last longing look before she turned away and ran outside. The amulet was warming her body with great heat. After a few moments, the heat began to fade and it became the cold hardness of silver. Ardeth was gone. He was gone forever.
Chapter 14: The Cruelty And Kindness Of Fate
THE CRUELTY & KINDNESS OF FATE
Leven groaned as she struggled with the small trunk. You are such a wimp, she thought distastefully. She had retrieved the trunk from the facility where her Grandpa Q had lived. Her mother hadn't forced her to do this task, Leven had volunteered. Her relationship with Jay had improved significantly in the last two weeks. She didn't understand it, but since Q had died, her mother was the same, sweet woman she had been when Leven was a small child. She had no idea what secrets the trunk held, but she had to admit she was curious. Before she had attempted to open the trunk, she began to stare off into space. Her mind had begun to drift to thoughts of Ardeth again. He invaded her mind on an hourly basis. Snap out of it. You will never see him again. Sighing, she dragged the trunk over to the pallet on the floor and settled back. She smiled a little as she ran her hand along the pallet. She hadn't gone back to sleeping in her bed, she couldn't. On the floor, she felt closer to Ardeth, could almost sense his presence beside her, smell his wonderfully natural masculine scent around her. She missed him, ached for him, longed to see him again. She had had no other dreams of him and she hoped that she had not lost her hold on the man she loved. Damn it. She had drifted again. Sighing yet again, she popped open the trunk and began to dig around in it. Most of the items meant nothing to her. There weren't any photographs inside or personal mementos. Mostly, it was filled with useless junk, torn clothing, and broken accessories. She would leave it for the garbage truck in the morning. She started to snap the lid closed when something caught her eye. Curiously, she dug around in the trunk and found a scroll similar to the one Ardeth had had. She peered at it curiously, unable to make sense of the Arabic characters. She found a small wire bound notebook near the scroll. The writing on the inside was the scrawl-like chicken scratch of an old man. Apparently, Grandpa Q had kept a journal. Suddenly interested, she placed the scroll and notebook onto her lap. She opened the notebook and the first page was filled with ardent ramblings and bizarre Arabic curse words. She flipped a page and noticed that the writing was clearer.
Today, I was visited by my dead wife, her son, and the Goddess Hathos, Q had written. They have uncovered a great secret, one that I thought I would carry to my grave. I was so very wrong. Hathos, the protector of women and children, visited me as I slept. She laid her hands upon me and labeled me as a murderer. I am a murderer. I had my wife killed. She dared to lay with another man. Why is it that Hathos visited me and not Ardeth Bay? Why doesn't he receive punishment for tainting my wife? Hathos came with a curse, a horridly vicious curse. She bestowed this upon my entire bloodline. Each member of the family will begin losing his or her sense of self toward the age of fifty. He or she will become poisoned of mind and body as much as I have. He or she will lose the ability to move from the neck down, but have a sharp mind. I am cursed to live with a shell, not a body. The longer I live, the more I suffer. Each person in my family will suffer the same fate. The curse can only be broken if a man pure of heart produces a child with a tainted woman in the family. Then and only then will the blood of our people be cleansed. Then and only then will I be free to move before my own death. There are no such women in my family. My son produced two daughters and a son, but none of them were tainted. Yet, I see it happening with Jaydra's daughter. She calls her Leven and I see it in her eyes. She will grow up to dishonor the family. I can see this, I can tell you this now. She will be the fallen woman, this granddaughter I despise. She will lay with a man like a whore and let him fill her with a bastard child. A bastard child? Why is that just? Why am I so cursed?
Leven abruptly closed the journal. She remembered the last time she saw her grandfather. Hadn't he mentioned a curse and said something about the bloodline being cleansed? Unconsciously, her hand went down to her flat abdomen. No. It couldn't be true, could it? She couldn't possibly be pregnant, could she? She jumped up quickly and threw the journal back into the trunk. Without a moment's hesitation, she left her apartment and made a pit stop at the nearest drug store. As she walked up and down the aisle with dozens of EPT testing kits, she thought it was ridiculous. Her grandfather was insane. However, she had learned to accept and deal with many things she had never believed in before. She stood and began to scour her mind. What was she doing? She didn't have any symptoms. Uh, excuse me. You haven't? She held her hand out and began to count them out one by one. Was she late? Yup. No big deal, though. She had never been regular. Had she been sick in the morning? A couple times. Again, she had been under extreme stress. Big deal again. Was she tired? Very, but she had been tired all her life. It could all be explained away. All of it. Every bit of it. Knowing she was wasting her time and money, she grabbed a kit at random, paid for it, and slipped quietly into the store's bathroom. It came out positive, but she wasn't satisfied. She bought another, a different brand, and received the same result. Nope. Not good enough. She went to the local health department and requested a pregnancy test. It came out positive as well. She asked them to test her again, they refused, she threw a fit, and they relented. It was positive again. How many times do you need to be tested before you believe it, she was asked. You said you performed two OTC tests. We have performed two blood tests. Trust me. You're pregnant.
She was struck by two emotions at once. The first, of course, was happiness. She would have Ardeth's child. What was more beautiful than that? What could be better than that? But then reality slowly began to sink into her mind and the second emotion filled her. Devastation. He would never know this child, never touch it, or love it, or watch it grow. Uh God. The pain was incredibly vicious, biting. How cruel was fate to do this to her? To him? Oh no. Oh God no. Leven went back to her apartment and fell onto the pallet in an exhausted heap. She lay staring at the ceiling for hours. She was pregnant. Pregnant. If said a dozen or more times, it lost its meaning after a while, but it still didn't change anything. The fact remained the same. She would have this baby without the benefit of its father's presence. She dug underneath her pillow until she found the cold silver of the amulet. She grasped it between her hands and held it close to her heart. Oh love? Where are you? I'm having your baby.
Ardeth had been away for two long weeks. He was honestly in no hurry to come back. He wouldn't have come back this time if Elder Haka hadn't summoned him. He wondered what the elder wanted from him. He hadn't spoken of his love for Leven to anyone, but he was certain they knew. Perhaps the elder wanted to scold him for his foolish heart. He had changed again, had grown morose and withdrawn, as much as he had done before. However, this time, it was much, much worse. He often went to sleep at night and tried to dream of her, but the visions had left him as soon as he came back to his time. When the dreams eluded him, he'd take out the photograph of Leven and stare at it until his eyes burned. His love for her had yet to fade. In fact, it grew stronger as each day passed. He longed to touch her again, to love her, but the longing was never fulfilled. It grew painfully, gnawing at him, tearing bits from his heart. Sighing heavily, he rode into the village without much spirit. He didn't stop to speak to the members of the clan, nor did he accept any greetings. He simply rode silently to Hazz's quarters.
"Elder Haka, I am here. Why did you send for me," Ardeth asked as he entered the room.
Hazz turned toward the Chieftain, stunned. "I did not hear you enter, Ardeth. Please. Come. Sit."
Hesitating, Ardeth honored his request. "What is it? Has something happened?"
Hazz looked up at the Medjai and nodded. "Yes. It has." He sighed. There was no gentle way to go about this. "The woman you were with. You laid with her?" Ardeth said nothing, he nodded. "Yes, I thought you had. Hathos, the goddess of protection for women and children, cursed Qâtil. She cursed him and his entire bloodline. It was written that the family would suffer the same fate as Sharîk. She was shot in the back and paralyzed by the bullet. Correct?" Again, Ardeth nodded without saying a word. "All of his descendents were cursed to become wasted and useless, but have sharp minds. However, a man who is pure of heart could end the curse if he fathers a child with a fallen Abadi woman. After that, the bloodline is once again pure, and Sharîk's death will be avenged."
Ardeth stared at Hazz. He, like Leven, recalled Qâtil's dying words. His mouth fell open a bit in shock and then snapped closed suddenly. When he focused his eyes on the elder, Hazz was staring at him sympathetically. "Leven? She is with child? I am to be a father?" He felt the same two emotions at once as Leven had experienced.
Hazz shook his head. "No, my Chieftain. You are only to be a father in your heart and mind. You will never see this child."
His breath came in deeply and heavily. His heart pounded sickly. "No." Hazz kept his sympathetic gaze. He was affirming what Ardeth was trying to deny. "This cannot be…cannot be true." It was. It was so very true. "Does she know?"
He nodded. "She knows." Hazz had never seen the great warrior so very defeated. He watched as the Medjai Chieftain leaned forward and buried his face into his hands. Nothing outside a shattered heart had the ability to bring a great man to his knees.Present Day
In her sleep, Leven didn't realize that the amulet was growing warm between her hands. The figurine of Isis was beckoning the goddess, beckoning her and Hathos. Leven was unaware of everything. She slept and finally dreamt of Ardeth. She saw tears in his eyes, touching his cheeks. She reached out to him, aching to comfort him, but she never quite made it. He knew about the baby, but he also knew he would never see his child. Oh love, what have I done to you? So very deeply asleep, so very drawn into her dream, she wasn't aware of her surroundings. All of her senses had left her. They were pooled together and channeled in her dream. She did not see as two figures appeared in her room, bringing with them a portal. Hathos grasped Leven's left arm, Isis the right. They had heard her prayer and would answer it.
The sunlight was strong and unforgiving. It was so hot and miserable. Her eyes fluttered open and she looked around. She lay at the base of a great pyramid surrounded by blinding sand. She looked all around her at this strange place. Was she awake? Dreaming? She touched the sand. It felt very warm to the touch. Very real. She picked up a handful and watched as it filtered through her splayed fingers. It pattered down onto her legs and then to the ground with a soft hiss. She finally sat up and began to search for the amulet. It lay beside her in two pieces. It was split down the middle, cut precisely and arrow-straight. She picked them up and gazed at them wonderingly. She put them each flat side together, and they connected perfectly, as if they were meant to be this way. Her dream was vivid and confusing. She was in Ardeth's world, but was it only a dream? Could it be real? No. There was no way it could be. Her lover had returned to his time. She would never see him again; he would never know his child. She couldn't continue to fool herself in this way. A short snorting sound drew her attention away from her tormented thoughts. Although she hadn't been around many animals outside domesticated dogs and cats, she knew it was a horse. Shielding her eyes against the harsh sunlight, she looked up and noticed three lone figures sitting astride horses. Neither of the three was Ardeth, but they were bedecked in similar robes with equally similar scimitars. She sensed that these men were the upper echelon of the Medjai tribe, but not above Ardeth. They were peering at her curiously, wondering who she was, and where she came from. One of them said something in Arabic, and she wasn't certain, but she thought he had called her the Chieftain's malak [angel]. If this weren't real, how did he know Ardeth's special word for her? Dazed now, she fell back in a dead faint.
Ardeth had set about making plans to depart. Three of his men had accompanied him back to the village when the elder summoned him. He had sent them out scouting to determine if they could make their leave safely. Although he felt a little at peace within the fold, he didn't have the heart to stay. He needed to keep moving, to stride onward and upward. If he didn't, he thought he might lose his mind. He had rested poorly the night before, his sleep broken by vivid dreams of Leven. However, this dream was different than all others. He was unable to truly feel her skin beneath his hands. He couldn't reach out far enough to touch her. It was the first night since he left that he had dreamed of her. He'd seen her laid out on the pallet they had made on the floor. Her knees were drawn up very closely to her chest and her arms were wrapped around them. He could see that she was trying to envelope her body protectively around their child, who right now, was probably no larger than the size of his thumb. Even if he never saw the baby, he longed to tell her how wonderfully happy he was to know that she was carrying his child. He ached to reach out to her, to hold her against him. He wanted to comfort her and erase the feelings of abandonment racing vigorously through her mind. If he had known of the child before he left, would it have turned out any differently? Would it have mattered? Sadly, he realized that it wasn't for him to know. If he had known, if he had even suspected it,he would have stayed. He would not have left her; he would have destroyed some delicate balance between their two worlds. Yet, dying with her would have been easier than living without her, living with the knowledge that he would never see his child. A shout distracted him. Disinterested, he looked up and noticed that his second in command was waving toward him frantically. He turned away, ignoring the man and continued readying his horse for the journey.
Hashim rode up to him swiftly, calling to him. "Chieftain, we have found an intruder at the base of the village pyramid. An American. You must come to the healer and see."
He had no intention of seeing to this American intruder. Leave him for the elders. One American was not a threat. Whoever it was had probably strayed from a tourist group of some sort. "We have little time to deal with this, Hashim. We must be on our way. Take your information to the elders and they will act accordingly."
"Chieftain, please. You must. I think you should be the one."
Annoyed, he mounted his horse and followed his second. He had no desire to deal with a lost American. He had no desire to do much of anything. They rode in silence to the healer's quarters. Ardeth and Hashim entered quietly, respectfully, not wanting to make any unnecessary noise that would disturb the ailing. On the way over, Hashim had told him the American needed water and rest, but there were no other injuries. Laid out on a makeshift cot was the figure of a woman. Her face was hidden from view, but he could see enough to decipher her gender. As Ardeth drew nearer, there was something painfully familiar about the shape of the American woman's body. He had lain next to it for weeks, touched it, memorizing every line and curve. He shook his head. No. This was some cruel trick of the light. He only saw what his heart wanted him to see. He was fooling himself. It couldn't be. His eyes knew whom he saw, his heart confirmed it, but his mind held tightly onto denial.
The audible gasp emitting from Ardeth's throat [lâ] roused her. Her dream had brought him to her, had made him so very real again. When she laid her eyes on her lover, she sat up slowly. Please God, let me touch him one more time before you take him completely away."Ardeth," Leven whispered. "Is it really you? Have I come to you? Am I dreaming?"
The gentle push of her voice filling the room, stroking his heart, broke his paralysis. He went to her, falling to his knees beside her. "No. If you are dreaming, then do not awake."
Her hands were on his face, in his hair. She had to touch him, to prove to herself that he was with her, that this was no figment of her imagination. "It's you, it's really you. How did I get here? How?"
Ardeth saw the broken amulet laid protectively close to her body. The two pieces were perfectly fitted together against each other, as much as he fit with her. Slowly, he rose up enough to gather her into his arms. "The amulet, my love. It brought you here. It brought you back to me. It is broken now and that means we will never be separated again."
She began to cry against his chest, tightening her hold on his body. "I don't…don't understand."
He pulled back just enough to kiss her deeply, to drink in her tears. "Does it matter," he asked when the kiss was broken.
"No," she said, "No, it doesn't. I'm here, I'm in your arms, and I never want to leave. I never thought I'd see you again, Ardeth. Never." She remembered something else, something she didn't think he knew yet. She drew his hand down to her abdomen. "I'm having your child."
"I know," he said as he kissed her again. "And it is wonderful. I love you, my malak [angel]," he said. "I want you to be my wife. I never want to lose you again."
"You never will. I very much want to be your wife."
He took her in his arms and held her close. His heart filled up with his love for her and he knew he could never live without her.
*****to be continued
Chapter 15: A Passionate Reunion
A PASSIONATE REUNION
The need to leave had suddenly become less urgent for Ardeth Bay. He couldn't stop looking at or touching his malak [angel]. He still couldn't believe that she had come to him like this, but it was a thought that he shoved completely to the back of his mind. If the gods and goddesses wanted it to be, it was. He drew away from her again and kissed her once more. He could not stop kissing her, could not stop reveling in the feel of her lips beneath his.
"Can you leave," he asked once the kiss was broken. "Do you feel all right?"
She leaned her forehead against his and smiled. "I'm fine. Wherever you go, take me with you."
He was bound by a sacred duty to go, but he was bound by his love to stay. He looked away from her for the briefest of moments and saw that Hashim was waiting patiently, watching curiously. "Hashim? TfaDDal qâd haik ana qidir biqi fa'inn ba'D yaums." ["Hashim? Please lead so I may stay for a few days."]
"Aiwa, Ra'îs, brîd 'âyiz," he said with a respectful nod. ["Yes, Chieftain, I will."]
He nodded. "Shukran." ["Thank you."]
"Mabrûk, Ra'îs. Mabrûk, malak min Ra'îs." ["Congratulations, Chieftain. Congratulations, Chieftain's angel."]
Once Hashim and the two other men left, Ardeth focused his attention on his muHibb [lover]. "Can you sit a horse," he asked.
Her eyes grew large and incredulous. "Uh, I've never tried, but if that's the only way I've got going, then let's do it."
Ardeth stood and presented his hand to her. She took it and rose shakily to her feet. She hadn't grown accustomed to the temperature extreme yet, but at least it wasn't humid. She walked with him, still dazed at the unreal reality surrounding her, and she saw the black stallion waiting for them as patiently as Hashim had waited for his chieftain. The consummate expert at this sort of thing, he hoisted himself up without the slightest hesitation. The horse seemed twelve feet off the ground. How in the hell am I going to get up there? He smiled down at her and presented his hand again. "Ija." ["Come."] Taking a deep breath and then letting it out, she took hold of his hand and slipped her foot in the stirrup. Before she had to work at it a bit, she felt the strong pull of Ardeth's arm as he lifted her up and up twelve feet, fifteen feet, or however high it was. Once seated squarely against him, he wrapped one arm around her and placed a very gentle kiss on her ear. "I love you, Leven. You are my heart and my soul."
She ran her hand along his, the one tightly encircled about her waist. "Don't make me cry," she whispered with a little smile. "I've cried enough to last a lifetime." She turned her face toward his and brought her free hand up to his cheek. She kissed him deeply, her lips clinging to his desperately, as if she were afraid he'd disappear at any moment.
They rode back toward the heart of the village and both were met with strange glances. Who was this woman riding in with the Medjai Chieftain? Neither of them was paying attention. They had literally blocked out the world and wouldn't have known anything unless they were smacked by a flying rock. Those who saw them noted that the Chieftain held onto the woman possessively, intimately, as if they were more than what they were, which was mere strangers. They didn't stop, but continued on through the village as if they had another mission in mind. They did, of course. Leven had no idea where Ardeth was taking her, but she noticed that he continued to guide his horse onward through the blinding desert sand. They rode for what seemed like an hour or more and Leven began to wonder what he had in mind. She didn't care, she was with him, but the curiosity was killing her. This was a new world for her, one she had had very little exposure to, and there were dozens of questions lingering on her tongue. They passed tall looming pyramids, and she listened as Ardeth's soothing voice told her of the legends behind them. He was very proud of his homeland, very protective of it. It was all over him, in his voice, his demeanor, and the way he knew everything. He was quite the storyteller.
Finally, after miles and miles, she asked, "Where are you taking me?"
He kissed her ear again. "To an oasis that only a few people know," he said, his husky voice falling into her ear. "I wanted to show you Egypt, our home. This oasis is a place where I come to think when I wish to be alone. Today, right now, I wish to be alone with you."
The passionate promise in his voice gave her chills. "Yes," she whispered, "I want the very same."
They rode only a bit further until Leven's eyes caught sight of a few trees here and there and a bit of grass. It materialized as if from a dream, and she was tempted to ask if he had produced this place of his own magic. Yet, through all her readings, she had learned of desert oases, but had never seen anything so beautiful. Her heart skipped a little beat and butterflies began dancing inside her stomach. As they drew nearer to the cool, shady area, Ardeth's lips nuzzled the delicate flesh at the side of her throat. She sighed a little, once again reveling in his touch, a touch she thought she would never experience again. At that moment, her heart was pounding heavily in her chest and waves of anguished need flushed through her. It had been way too long since she last made love with him, and the fact that they had almost lost each other along the way intensified her feelings tremendously. She could tell by the way he kissed her and breathed heavily against her neck that his feelings were right in line with hers. He rode them a little further into the shady coolness before finally stopping. By that time, Leven was mad with desire and need. Ardeth turned her face toward his and kissed her again, allowing his tongue to trip lightly over her teeth before seeking hers. The arm once wrapped tightly about her waist slid upward and his hand cupped her breast gently, his fingers stroking the nipple through her top. She placed her hand on top of his and moaned. He broke the kiss and smiled against her lips. Making love to her on a horse wasn't practical and he was close to doing just that. He climbed down off the horse and placed his hands on each side of her waist to help guide her down so she wouldn't fall. He had no intention of any harm coming to her or their child. Once she was on her feet, he stroked the strong muscle of the horse's neck.
"Biqi," he commanded. ["Stay."]
Ardeth turned away from the horse and took her into an embrace that he had longed for since he laid eyes on her again. His hand went into her hair, cupping the back of her head, as his mouth claimed hers again. His free hand impatiently worked open the thousands of buttons on her blouse. It was difficult, but not completely impossible. She broke away from his consuming kiss the briefest of moments, her teeth gently nipping his bottom lip. He gazed down at her hungrily, desperately aching for her. He removed his hand from her hair as he watched her unbuttoning her blouse, opening it for him. She pressed her body against his as they kissed again. His lips moved away from hers as he reached up to yank one side of her blouse off her shoulder, pulling down the bra strap as he did. His mouth sought and found the side of her throat and moved down to her shoulder. His teeth grazed her flesh as his hands moved down to her buttocks. He held onto her, pressing her against his body. His lips swiftly switched sides and she threw her head back, crying out just a little. Her hands reached out to loosen the sash that held his robe closed about his body. Once undone, the scimitar nestled within [among other things she couldn't see] crashed to the ground. Startled a bit they each drew back from the other and Leven gave Ardeth an 'oops' look. He chuckled and shook his head. It didn't matter. The startled feeling lasted only a moment before she jerked open the robe, revealing his chest. Her mouth did an exploration of his flesh and her small, even teeth nipped his nipples before it moved lower. She was almost on her knees before him, her lips gliding over his washboard abs. She moved back up and worked her hands inside the robe, finally pushing it down and off his body. She kissed him again, briefly, before pulling back to discard her blouse. Deftly, one-handed [it was a trick he learned weeks ago], he unhooked her bra from the back and drew it away from her body, tossing it carelessly on top of his discarded robe. He didn't hesitate to lean down to take the pinkish, hardened peaks between his lips, one after the other. He moved back up to take her lips once again as his finger drew a gentle, stroking line along her abdomen. His touch made her quiver and she sighed against his lips. He took hold of her and she felt her body sinking to the cool grass.
The comforting weight of his body settled over her and she wrapped her arms around him, holding onto him, feeling utterly blessed to be with him again. He gazed down at her, his hand gently caressing her cheek. The love he felt for her was more than evident in his eyes and it was almost painful looking up into them. He lowered his head to kiss her yet again and one of his hands slid down to work loose the fastener and zipper of her jeans. He broke the kiss and worked his hands inside her opened jeans. She lifted her hips ever so slightly as he drew them and her panties down, stopping to remove her shoes, before discarding them near the growing pile. He kissed every inch of her nude body, lingering at her lower abdomen where he brushed his lips against it for several moments, loving her, loving his child nestled inside her. She worked her fingers through his soft, thick hair, and smiled down at him.
"Ana maHabbi inta, kwaiyis walad," he whispered. ["I love you, beautiful child."] He drew away for a very brief moment as he worked out of the rest of his clothing. He tossed it aside and came down to her again. "Ana maHabbi inti, il-madâm bita 'ti. Brîd 'âyiz abandan khalla inti râh tâni marra." ["I love you, my wife. I will never let you go again."]
His lips found hers yet again as he settled his hips between her thighs. He couldn't wait, he couldn't hold out any longer. He had longed for this moment again the instant he left her. He entered her deeply, her cry echoing out into the oasis. He would be grateful to the gods and goddesses for the rest of his life. Later, they found a cool pool of water and plunged their heated bodies into it, meeting, and joining again. Leven had never felt so wonderful in her entire life and when the waves of her climax began to subside, she cried against Ardeth's chest, never understanding what true love or happiness meant until they found each other.
It was nearly dark when they finally quenched their appetite for each other [for the moment] and they knew it was time to get back. He helped her up on the horse again and enveloped her shivering body with his warmth as they rode back. They didn't speak much at first, but there was something they would have to talk about sooner or later. He wasn't sure, but he thought in her world, courtship and marriage were quite different. "Before we marry, I must present you to the elders and announce my intentions," he said.
"I don't understand," she said gazing up at him.
"I know," he said. He tightened his arm about her waist. "It is custom. I must present my intended to the elders of the clan. I suppose it is like asking permission to marry. It is no more than a formality."
She thought it was more of a big deal than what Ardeth was letting on. In fact, it sounded pretty damn serious. When she said she would be his wife, she hadn't given a stray thought as to how his people would react to it. She was from a different world, a different mindset. In her time, if a couple wanted to marry, all they had to do was get blood tests, a marriage license, and then just…do it. "It sounds a little more serious than that, Ardeth. What are you not telling me? There's something, isn't there? I'm not their idea of a suitable wife, am I?"
"I do not care what they think about you. I will make you my wife with or without their approval, with or without their blessing. There are certain qualities they regard more than others, but I think you are worrying about nothing."
She placed her hand over his. "I guess not many women around here are pregnant when they get married."
He placed a gentle kiss to her temple. "I would say not, but this child was meant to be. Our child was conceived as a result of the most perfect, strongest love either of us has ever known. If anyone finds fault with that, then it is not our problem. It is they, not us. I love you very much and I have considered you my life mate, my wife, from the day I first realized who you were to me. Do not worry."
She sighed and settled comfortably against his body. She loved him, had felt that he was her life mate from the start as well, but she couldn't stop worrying. The thought of facing seven stoic clan elders unsettled her.
By the time they made it back, Leven had fallen into an exhausted sleep against Ardeth. He took her as far as Hazz's quarters and stopped there. He didn't know if Hazz had been informed of Leven's arrival, but he thought the mystic would have known before anyone. Thoroughly worn out, Leven only mumbled incoherently as Ardeth carried her inside. Hazz looked up curiously as he saw the Chieftain carrying a woman inside, but he wasn't surprised. Hathos and Isis had taken the warrior and his intended into their embrace and refused to let go. What had happened was out of his control. Gently, Ardeth laid Leven down onto a small cot normally occupied by Mukhtar. However, tonight and for however long it took, this bed would belong to Leven.
"I see you beat time and space, Chieftain," Hazz commented lightly.
He nodded and smiled a little. "We did." He placed a very gentle, loving kiss on her forehead. "I intend to take her as my wife. Until I can present her to the elders, I must leave her here with you. She cannot stay with me, not while she is with child. I have sent Hashim, Shaji, and Armil back to Hamunaptra. I will stay here two days, making camp at the fringe of the village pyramid."
Hazz nodded. "Very well. Mukhtar will give over his bed to her. Like you, Chieftain, she is honorable. I know that she helped you greatly and I know of your great love for her." He took Ardeth by the arm and walked him away a dozen steps. He didn't want Ardeth's malak [angel] to overhear their conversation. "I cannot say how the other elders will react to this woman. She has much stacked against her, including the fact that she is already with child. I will do everything I can to help you, Chieftain, and I am more than happy to offer your bride shelter."
"Thank you, Elder Haka. You are a great man," he said. "I will never forget your kindness. Please gather the elders as soon as you can. I want us to be wed immediately."
Ardeth turned away from Hazz and approached the sleeping form of his lover. He kneeled beside the tiny cot and ran his hand gently over her forehead, smoothing her hair away from her face. "Rest, my love," he said. "You will be safe and protected here. I will come to you in the morning." He placed another gentle kiss on her forehead before pulling away and making his leave.
Much, much later, Ardeth felt a warm body climbing into his tent to lie beside him. For a moment, he thought he was dreaming. He mumbled in his sleep and instinctively reached out to his lover. The moment he touched her, he awoke. "Leven? What are you doing," he whispered.
"I wanted to sleep next to you," she said.
"This is not good for you," he protested. "Go back."
She kissed his lips gently. "No," she said. "I won't go back, not until sunrise. Pregnant women don't dry up and blow away. This is the best place for me to be. Now shut up and hold me, I'm freezing."
He smiled. "I did miss you."
She snuggled closely against him, burying her face into his chest. "Mmm hmm, I thought you did."
Chapter 16: Unpleasant Surprises
It was morning, but still dark outside. Ardeth felt the comforting warmth of Leven's body beside his. He smiled a little when he realized that their bodies were literally wrapped around each other. He hated the idea of waking her, but she needed to go back to Hazz's quarters before someone saw her. She had yet to be presented to the elders and premarital relations with the intended was highly frowned upon, almost forbidden. It was hypocritical and he didn't like it. He didn't want to admit it, didn't want to speak the words to Leven, but Hazz had been right. The elders, his people, and the other wives would find many faults with her. Although she had great ancestral ties to the clan, no one would ever know it unless they were told. Despite the fact that she had Egyptian blood coursing through her veins, she was American. Her skin, eyes, hair, and attitude were completely different. She wouldn't fit in easily, if at all. He thought that eventually, she would be accepted if for no other reason than her status as his wife, the mother of his children. He didn't want to voice his concerns to her because it was sure to hurt her. He'd rather lose a limb than hurt her. Yet, there was another thought creeping into his mind. What would become of her after he left? He couldn't stay with her constantly. She had no other support outside him and Elder Haka. Just thinking of her experiencing that much pain and uncertainty unsettled him. It brought pain to his heart. He loved her so much and didn't want anything to ever hurt her again. Unable to help it, he began placing gentle kisses on her forehead, eyelids, and cheeks before lingering on her beautiful lips. She moved against him, coming awake slowly, her arms snaking about his waist, tightening, her hands caressing the small of his back, gliding down to his naked buttocks. He wanted nothing more than to lower her to her back and make love to her until he couldn't think, feel, or breathe. There was little time for that.
"Malak [angel]," he whispered against her lips, "You must wake up and go back."
Her eyes came open slowly. She had no desire to leave, but she certainly didn't have a choice. "I'll go, but I'd rather not."
"I know. I would not send you away if I had another option. Today, I hope that Hazz will gather the elders so our separation can be short-lived."
"Let's hope so." She gave him a soft kiss before pulling free of his tight embrace.
He shifted positions and leaned up on his elbows. A smile danced upon Ardeth's lips as he watched her scrambling around, looking for her clothes in the dark. Last night, they had started out holding each other, but their intimate touches became heated, and his need and desire for her outweighed every other thought and emotion inside him. He needed her more than he had needed anyone. They made love passionately and fell asleep tangled together. It was a comforting image, one that made him want her even more. He sighed a little and found he couldn't take his eyes off her. There was so much they should talk about, but he didn't have the heart to do it just yet. "I will see you later."
She struggled into her jeans, nearly having to lie flat on her back to do it. She turned and looked at him. "You'd better." She threw her top over her head and pulled it down. It didn't escape her that she had yet to find her bra. Perhaps he could bring with him. The image of seeing Ardeth carrying her bra around nearly threw her into hysterics. "I love you."
Before he had the opportunity to return the sentiment [if he did, she wouldn't leave], she crawled out of the tent into the darkness. Leven's moves weren't exactly undetected. A young woman beginning her morning chores saw something very curious out by the village pyramid. She knew the Chieftain had made camp there. Shocked, she watched silently as a woman crawled out of the tent and began to walk toward the village. She ducked out of sight to watch the strange woman. She was more of a girl and had very light skin and hair. She might have been English or American, but it was hard to tell. She stayed back and waited until the woman passed her before she came out of hiding. She forgot about her chores and curiously studied the tent. She began to move toward the tent but stopped when she saw movement. She waited patiently as the Medjai Chieftain emerged bare-chested. The woman had been with him? Considering his stage of undress, she was led to believe they were partaking of sins of the flesh. Quickly, she turned around and set about her daily chores. The elders would have to know about this.
When Ardeth entered Hazz's quarters after the sun rose to its full blazing glory, he smiled a little. Apparently Hazz had found clothing for Leven. He didn't know where he had dug it up, but somehow, he had. She wore a pair of tan form fitting slacks and a white cotton blouse. She had braided her hair and the plait lay over one shoulder. A couple of bowls were sitting beside her, the food inside them relatively untouched. Apparently, she couldn't eat and he noticed that her face was pale. He moved toward her and she looked up at him with a tired little smile. He picked up the bowls, set them aside, and sat beside her on the little cot. He caressed her cheek with the back of his hand.
"The baby," he asked.
She nodded. "Yeah. I'm a little sick, but I'll be okay."
Hazz entered the room and noticed the two young lovers. He made a purposeful noise to bring their attention to his entrance. He didn't want to interrupt an intimate moment. Ardeth immediately and respectfully came up to his feet. "Elder Haka," he said with a nod.
"Sa-baH il-kheyr," Hazz said. ["Good morning."] "I have sent Mukhtar to gather the elders. They should be here shortly. I told the boy to inform them that this meeting is very important to you. It appears that they intended to see you before your departure."
"The elders wish to see me," he asked, confused. "Do you know why?"
He shook his head. "No, Chieftain, I do not."
After Hazz left them to prepare for the gathering, Ardeth sat with Leven and waited impatiently. He had no idea why the elders would approach him. Perhaps it was related to his journey into the future. However, that didn't seem right. For unknown reasons, he felt uneasy about their request. Of course, he wasn't completely focused on it. He would present Leven to the elders and marry her whether they agreed with the pairing or not. Ardeth noticed that the longer they waited, the paler Leven's face became. Her nerves were frazzled, it was apparent in her demeanor and the way she fidgeted.
"What should I expect," she asked suddenly.
"As you know, the elders will be gathered together awaiting us. I am not sure if they know why I requested their presence. We will walk in together, not touching, to face them. From there, I state my intentions, they agree, and it is done. You will stay with the women of the village, the wives of my men, to wait and prepare for the wedding. It is custom to have a period of engagement after the elders have blessed the union. I will insist that they grant a shorter period."
"Oh God," she moaned. Her stomach was quivering sickly. If she didn't throw up, it would be a miracle. "I sense that it won't be as easy as that. I'm not like the wives of your tribesmen. I'm not an innocent and to top it off, we've already started our family. Jesus, I'm not even from this time. I'm scared."
He placed his forefinger beneath her chin and tilted her face up toward his. "Leven, do not be afraid. You are to be my wife. If they cannot accept it, if they cannot bless it, we will proceed as long as it is what you want."
Half an hour later, Mukhtar entered the room and nodded respectfully toward Ardeth and Leven. "Come Chieftain. The elders have arrived," he said.
Ardeth nodded. "Shukran." ["Thank you."] He presented his hand to Leven. "It will be all right," he said as he gazed into her flickering eyes. She was terrified. Leven sighed heavily as she took his hand. "It is nothing more than a formality. Remember that." She nodded nervously, on the brink of tears. He kissed her forehead and pulled her up to her feet.
The two of them followed behind Mukhtar down a long, dark corridor. Beside him, Leven was taking in harsh, sharp breaths. Ardeth squeezed her hand reassuringly, grasping it until they were close to the room where the elders awaited. They entered the room and Leven laid eyes on the seven men. Earlier, Ardeth had told her a little about each man. Elder Qasi was considered the leader of the group. He was the oldest and had been seated with the elders the longest. He was a healthy, robust man of eighty with a long flowing beard that was snow-white. His head was covered, but she wouldn't be afraid to bet that his hair was the same color as his beard. Elder Nukta was the youngest of the group, barely sixty. He held less power than any other elder. His beard was luxuriant and full, shot with lodes of gray. He was frail in body, and according to Ardeth, in spirit as well. Elder Zilan mirrored Qasi physically, with one exception. His left eye was missing and his face was covered with an intricate web of scar tissue. Ardeth had told her that he was in a great battle many years ago and had lost his eye due to a violent slash from a scimitar. He had been left to die in the desert, but had managed to return to the village. He had become the greatest hero and the most respected elder of the group. Even though he wasn't the leader, most of the elders deferred to him. He was considered Qasi's second. Elder Burd was next in line to Zilan. He was the only elder in the group without a headdress. His hair was steel gray, long, and flowing. He resembled an ancient Native American warrior. His face was hard and bitter. Ardeth had told her that the man had been in an unfortunate accident as a youth that left him completely mute. Elder Jahannam was next to the youngest. His beard had no gray at all within it. His face wasn't as stony as the others. His eyes brought the most attention to him. One was black, the other the palest of blue hues. The last, Elder Tuhmi, was like Nukta. His body was frail and feeble, but he was the stronger of the two. He deferred to no one in the group. Normally, if all the elders said one thing, Tuhmi would say something else. He was the only elder devoid of facial hair. There were great differences among the six men, but they shared one common feature. Unlike Hazz, they weren't kind, and they gazed upon her suspiciously. They whispered quietly amongst themselves, never quite including Hazz in the conversation. Leven thought it odd, and her worry grew. She couldn't translate the words, but it didn't matter. She knew what they were saying. Who is this woman? Why is she with the Chieftain? What is her purpose?
"Who is this you bring with you," Elder Zilan demanded.
Ardeth bowed slightly. "She is the woman I love. I come before you to declare my intention of marrying her. I would ask that you bless the union and allow a short period of engagement."
"Chieftain, you bring forth an outsider as your intended?" Elder Qasi had spat his words through great shock and disbelief. "We wanted to seek you today to inform you that we have previously arranged a bride for you. A more suitable bride."
Hazz, Leven, and Ardeth were stunned. Silence filled the room, penetrating every corner. The words 'suitable bride' hit Ardeth like the ultimate insult. "I will not take any other woman for a wife. This woman beside me is the only bride for me," Ardeth stated stubbornly.
"Chieftain, you have lived life alone far too long," Elder Zilan began. "The past fortnight, your behavior and actions have been that of man in need of companionship; companionship of a proper woman. You are aware of the customs and traditions of our clan. We have selected a proper wife for you, Radab Murr. We cannot allow a union with a woman not of our people, not of our clan. It simply cannot be done."
Of course, Radab had visited Zilan and she told of the woman leaving the Chieftain's tent. According to his great-niece, the woman she saw now stood beside Ardeth Bay. She had obviously lain with the warrior. How would the warrior follow in the traditions of his forefathers? How would he one day assume his proper place as an elder with a fallen woman as his wife? Men of his stature chose a virtuous wife, an appropriate mate. Her lying with him was not as much of an issue as her lineage, where she was from. Be it England or America, she was an outsider, a woman not like the others. She would never fit in; she would never belong.
Ardeth knew of this Radab Murr. She had ties to Elder Zilan's family, was a niece or a cousin. He understood the custom, understood the elders' need to provide him with a happy life. However, he didn't doubt that Zilan had planned this purposely. He could not see a relative marrying a man who was not of proper character. Outside a Medjai Chieftain, who else would be more suitable? Ardeth was about to respond before a soft thud drew his attention. He turned and noticed that Leven had fainted dead away. Both Hazz and Ardeth went to her. Ardeth kneeled beside her and brought her body up to a sitting position. He caressed her cheek. As he gazed down at her, he wasn't sure if the shock had knocked her flat, or if it was due to the baby.
"Chieftain," Zilan called. "Have you put this woman with child? Is this why you requested a short engagement? I am sorry, but we cannot grant your request. You will send this woman away and take your proper wife."
His focus, his concern was on and with Leven, but he heard every word Elder Zilan said. Without releasing his hold on her, he turned to look at them. "I will do no such thing. If I must, I will marry against your wishes. If you do not want to give us a proper ceremony, we can leave and wed elsewhere."
Understanding that Ardeth had control of the situation, Hazz drew away and went back to the semi-circle of village elders. "I must say that I do not agree with you, Zilan," Hazz began. "This woman aided with ending the Curse of Set. I think we should grant the Chieftain's request."
"Your opinion, Hazz, is overruled," Qasi said. "What say you, Chieftain? What is your final decision?"
Ardeth focused his eyes, blackened with anger, on the panel of men. "I will marry who I choose. I will accept no one else. There is much you do not know about this woman."
"Chieftain, we know enough," Zilan said.
Leven awoke with the feel of a hand grasping hers tightly, stroking it with a gentle touch of a thumb. For a moment, she thought the scene in front of the elders had been some sort of nightmare, some sort of extension of her dream before she came to Ardeth. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Ardeth gazed down at her worriedly. "How long was I out?"
He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it. "Not long, perhaps ten minutes."
She sat up on the little cot and gazed up at him. "So, that meeting today went smashingly well, didn't it?" She followed her comments with a bitter laugh that was filled with hurt and shock. "They want you to marry someone else? I think I heard that before I passed out. I sure as hell didn't dream it." As if her touch was poison, she withdrew her hand. "I think you should leave me."
He shook his head and reached for her hand again. At first, she tried to keep him from touching her, but she eventually grasped hold of his hand, squeezing for all she was worth. "Leave you? Leave you after you have come to me? Leave after you were sent to me? No. I will not leave. The only woman I want, the only wife I will take is you. Only you."
She gazed at him incredulously, never quite releasing her tight grip on his hand. "Are you crazy? Do you realize what you're saying and doing? Do you?"
"Yes, I realize it, but I have made my intentions clear. You do not understand the importance of the position I have. It is such that they cannot force me to do anything, not like they could with any other person in the fold. I do not need permission. Whatever decision I make about my future, about our future, is completely ours to make. They may not like it, they may not agree with it, but it does not matter."
She smiled a little. "Basically, you're the boss and that's that?" She sighed and nodded her head firmly. "Yeah, fuck 'em."
He laughed and playfully covered her mouth with his hand. "Just make sure you use that word only in my presence."
She removed his hand and leaned forward to place a soft kiss on his lips. "Is that an order, Chieftain," she asked softly.
"No. It is more like a request."
Radab Murr awaited her great-uncle impatiently. She knew that he was to have told Ardeth about their marriage arrangement. Surely, the warrior would realize that she would make a more suitable mate than the woman caught leaving his tent. She paced about her tiny, bare adobe walled room. Her great-uncle had told her parents years ago that she would marry a great man and the Medjai Chieftain was the greatest of them all. With his status came honor, and with that honor came respect. She sought that respect. Sought it and strived for it.
"Daughter, your uncle has come with news."
She stopped pacing as she noticed her mother. She almost hadn't heard her voice. "Yes, Mother."
She left her tiny room and followed her mother outside to meet Elder Zilan. She nodded respectfully toward her uncle. "Uncle, when is the wedding," she asked suddenly, foregoing a greeting. She wanted to know immediately so that she could begin the preparations for the ceremony.
"There will be no wedding, not for you and the Chieftain. He has denied you and chosen the outsider."
Shocked, she gazed up at her uncle as if she had never seen him before. "Uncle? Are you telling me that I will not be the Chieftain's wife? I will not be after you have promised me to him?"
He nodded sedately. "That is what I am telling you, Niece. He will marry the outsider at the time of his own choosing. I believe he feels he is obligated to her. She is with child. I am afraid she has possessed the Chieftain's spirit and is trying to turn him away from his people."
"Where is she now? I want to meet her," she said.
"She has taken shelter with Hazz Haka. There, you will find her and the Chieftain."
She nodded respectfully. "Shukran. ["Thank you."] I wish to meet her."
Elder Zilan stood back and watched his great-niece with a smile framing his lips. Yes. Radab wished to meet the Chieftain's woman and he thought it was a splendid idea, a splendid one indeed. "Yes, Niece. Welcome her like only you can."
Chapter 17: Friend Or Foe
FRIEND OR FOE
Leven was dozing uncomfortably when Hazz awakened her. He told her that someone wanted to meet her. The 'someone' was Ardeth's proper intended, Radab Murr. At first, she balked at the idea, and Hazz didn't seem very enthusiastic, either. However, Leven was curious and anxious to find out what this woman wanted from her. She told Hazz to bring her. Leven sat up and smoothed her hair and clothes. She looked up as Hazz led the young woman inside. She was of slight build and seemed no taller than five feet two inches. She was dressed in long, flowing robes, but her head was uncovered. Her hair was very long and straight and inky black like Ardeth's. Her eyes were dark brown and kind. She looked no older than twenty; she was very young and timid. She was beautiful and had almost exotic good looks.
"You are the Chieftain's khaTibtee [fiancée]," she asked.
"KhaTibtee," Leven replied. "Fiancée?" Radab nodded. "Yes, I suppose I am."
"I wanted to meet the woman who won the Chieftain's heart."
Leven felt awkward around this serene woman. Something in the back of her mind was telling her not to trust her, but she thought it was more due to what had happened earlier than any real threat. She felt the need to apologize to her, but she couldn't find the words. This woman before her was nicer to her than the elders, and she was the jilted one. If anyone had a right to dislike her, it was Radab. Suddenly, Leven didn't know what to do or say. "My name is…Leven Medlem," she said. "And you are…"
Before Leven had the chance to say anything, Radab spoke up. "I am Radab Murr. My uncle is Elder Zilan. He came by to tell me that the Chieftain did not choose to marry me. I can see why he chose you. I ask that you trust me and I will help you adjust to this obviously new life. Will you allow me?"
She was completely shocked. Why would this woman offer her kindness? Something about it should have tweaked her, but it didn't. Since this morning, her emotions were so shot to hell; she would willingly accept kindness from anyone. "Thank you, but I intend to leave with Ardeth this afternoon."
"You intend to ride out to the desert? You are with child, correct? Do you think that is a good idea? Will that be good for you?"
"How did you…how did you know?"
Radab lowered her head in shame before she focused her eyes on Leven's face. "I am sorry, but my uncle can be a harsh man. He said the Chieftain put you with child. The desert is a harsh place, it is not kind. I do not think it is a good idea to go along. Stay here where you are safe and protected. I am sure the Chieftain would prefer that you stay. I see that you rely on Elder Haka for guidance and support, but you also now have mine. Keep your shelter here. Do not interact with the other women until I speak to them. Please. Consider it."
Leven said nothing further as the young woman nodded before turning away to make her leave. She was very tempted to stay. Ardeth hadn't wanted her to come along, but he thought they had no choice. He would only take her far enough to find a temporary place to stay until the storm passed amongst the elders. She slowly brought herself up to her feet and began to pace about the small room. Her life had changed so abruptly in the last twenty-four hours. Most of the changes were welcome, of course, but some were heart wrenching. She knew that their marriage wouldn't come easily to them, but she hadn't really been prepared for such a harsh reality. She continued to pace and think and to think and pace; she didn't notice when Ardeth returned. He stood watching her for a long time before she stopped and glanced at him.
"Leven? Are you all right?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I've been thinking about something, Ardeth. While you were gone, I received an interesting visit from the woman the village elders wanted you to marry."
He gave her a perplexed look. "Radab? She came to you? What did she want?"
Leven approached Ardeth and took his hands in hers. She led him over to the small cot and sat down with him. His beautiful, earnest face was awash with confusion. "I thought she came here to have some type of showdown, but she didn't. She said her uncle told her of your refusal of her, but he also told her about the baby. She reached out to me, basically, and offered her support. She asked that I stay here instead of going with you. I think I should."
Before he said anything, Ardeth worked her words over in his head. If she stayed, he would have incredible peace of mind. He couldn't honestly say how many days they would have to ride before they found a place suitable enough for her to stay. The thought of his pregnant wife under the brutal assault of the desert didn't sit well with him. However, Radab's kindness seemed almost too convenient, too easy. He didn't know very much about this woman, but her meeting with Leven disturbed him almost as much as the thought of her out in the desert. How long would it take him to find means to secure a safe place to stay? Two days? Four? He weighed the pros and cons. Here, she could find shelter and protection with Elder Haka. He would not allow anything to happen to Leven. Yet, the elders were not pleased with him or his choice for a wife. What kind of cruelty would she face at the hands of his people? They would not accept her as she was, and if one person knew of their unborn child, the entire village would learn of it soon enough. The outcome of that would not be good. If he took her along with him, she would be forced to sit a horse for at least two days, maybe longer. She came from a place that was relatively harsh, but it was different in the desert. He knew that she was a strong woman, one that would not wilt away just because she was with child, but a dozen things could happen to her. What if she became ill? What if she needed the services of a healer? How would that happen if she were miles away from help? What would become of him, his sanity, if something happened to her or their unborn child? Cruelty v. Safety. It was a difficult choice and he felt uncomfortable making it. She had voiced her intentions. She wanted to stay, she was willing to wait, and eventually, she would have to stay here anyway.
"You know it will not be easy for you here right now," he began. She nodded without speaking. "The thought of you hurting breaks my heart, but it is not safe for you if you come along with me. I am torn."
She took one hand out of his and brought it up to his cheek. She placed a gentle kiss to his lips, barely making contact. "My hulu, hulu jauz [sweet, sweet husband], you are such an honorable, loving man. I'll never understand how I was lucky enough to find you, to love you, and to carry your child. Whatever happens here, I can handle it, despite whether or not this woman is a friend or an enemy. If we intend to spend our lives together, I have to be here. There's no other way around it, is there?"
In a deep, emotional quandary, he looked down for a moment before focusing his eyes on her face. "No, there is not." He placed his hand on top of hers and drew it away from his cheek. He placed a gentle kiss on the palm of her hand. "There is one thing that you have wrong. It is not you who is the lucky one, it is I." He kissed her lips very gently. He drew back and stood up, bringing her to her feet. "I must leave before dusk. Would you come with me to the oasis?"
She smiled up at him silkily. "Do you have to ask?"
Ardeth didn't want Leven to follow him out, and although she wanted so very desperately to see him off, she was relieved [in a way] that he insisted she stay back. She had been separated from him for a couple of weeks and the thought of being separated yet again didn't sit well with her. She was afraid that she was having some extremely vivid, complicated dream and if he left her, she would awaken without her love beside her. Before he left her, she insisted he take his half of the Isis amulet. He had said it best. It was hers now, carrying her spirit, and she secured it with a cord and tied it about his neck. She took her half and did the same. He had left, promising to return as soon as he could. Leven returned to Hazz's quarters a little lost and afraid. She was left in unfamiliar territory in a world that would not accept her.
Elder Zilan stood and watched as the Medjai Chieftain took his leave. As he hoped, he had left without his muHibb [lover]. He smiled at that thought, his scar wrinkling grotesquely. He figured it would take the warrior a few days to return. With the help of Radab, it wouldn't take any longer than that to bring about Leven's ruination. Once she was completely and totally shunned, she would be isolated and vulnerable, a perfect target. Of course, no one, including Radab, the village elders, or the great warrior himself, knew that Zilan wasn't exactly himself lately. Zilan was merely a shell, a host. When the Curse of Set did not come about due to the interference of the Medjai and his whore, Set had bestowed yet another punishment on his minion, Sharr. He banished him inside the hideous scarred body of Elder Zilan until he paid his penance for failing. The other man's soul was floating about somewhere on the fringes of the afterlife, only to be sent onward when Sharr's mission was completed. Set had sent Sharr to destroy the woman, to end the life of this Leven Medlem. Once dead, the past events could be erased. Sharr could go back to the future, retrieve the amulet from the sleeping Medjai, and open the gateway. The events would come full circle, the curse would come to pass, and Sharr's soul would finally be released. Radab was the perfect catalyst to bring this about. She had a cold, bitter heart, and she would be absolutely merciless with the whore. Long ago, she had been promised to the Chieftain. Sharr knew that her uncle had held out on her age of promise until the marriage could be arranged. She had been ready to accept the marriage, to accept him, but her plans were thwarted. It mattered little. Radab would seek and receive her revenge. It was perfect; nothing could be more perfect than this plan.
Radab was with the other women. A major portion of the group was married to the Medjai warriors, some of them were promised to them, and others were too young, but would eventually be promised. When Radab encountered the group of her peers, she heard them speaking of the strange woman living amongst the clan. As with any other small community, word got around. There were tentative whispers revolving about the identity of the woman, the fact that she was most likely an American, and that they had seen her with the Chieftain on a couple of occasions. They also discussed her differences, the style of her dress, and the fact that she was nothing like them physically, mentally, or attitude-wise. She was seen without the customary robes and did not bother covering her head as she was expected to do. Radab sat back and listened to the women with feigned interest. She waited for her chance to put in her thoughts, to share her information. Thus far, the conversation had been one of curiosity; no malice had entered the flow of words just yet. However, it would, because Radab would see to it.
"Do you not think it odd that the Medjai Chieftain would choose to suddenly marry this woman," Radab began. "He chose her over me. I also saw this woman exiting the Chieftain's tent just last night. Apparently, he has put her with child. She possesses his mind. He went against the wishes of the elders. He cannot function because of this woman. He is turning against his people. This woman will be the ruination of our village, of our Chieftain. If he is wasted, what will become of us?"
Sahib, the wife of Ardeth's second, Hashim, listened carefully to Radab's speech. She knew little of the Chieftain's malak [angel], but she had heard Hashim speaking of her right before he and the others returned to the fringes of Hamunaptra. In fact, she had yet to see the woman at all. There had been great talk of her, but none of the women had approached her. Of course, most of the women were following through with this due to the fact that the woman was an outsider. Yet, the reasoning was simpler to her. She stayed away because of her respect for the Chieftain. Sahib held her tongue a lot, but she didn't agree with every law the clan had to follow. She remembered Ardeth's love of Sharîk. Although they loved each other greatly, they could not wed. If the outsider made the Chieftain happy, if he truly loved her, she did not see the horror that Radab saw. There was more than a little green in the young woman's eyes.
Khajul, wife of Elder Burd's son, listened raptly. She had seen the Chieftain riding out with the woman yesterday and today. He seemed completely taken away from his mind. He saw nothing, did nothing, and acted as if no one else existed. She didn't realize that these were all signs of a man in love. "She has seduced our Chieftain," she asked incredulously. "What kind of woman is she, Radab? Do you know of her?"
Radab nodded just the slightest bit. "I know only what I saw. It is more than plain that she wishes to be apart from us. She is shamed by her situation, but she is also denying us. She wants to draw him away, to cloud his mind. She might have been sent by an ancient evil god set to destroy us."
Sahib shook her head. "Radab, you are a foolish girl. The Chieftain cannot be swayed in such a way. He is far stronger than that, far smarter than that. He would know. He has been touched by Isis and guarded by Horus."
"Would he," Radab challenged. "Is he not a man? Can he not be seduced by an outsider's charm? Surely you cannot believe that she came from our stock? If we put our trust in this woman, we are destroying our way of life. We must not let her seduce us the same way that she seduced the Chieftain. She is a fallen woman with child and who is to say if the Chieftain even fathered the child?"
"Radab, your words are disrespectful to the Chieftain," Sahib said. "You do not know any of this as fact."
"Oh yes, I know this," Radab said. "The khârij [outsider] told me that she is carrying a child. She confirmed it. She was disrespecting me, claiming that she had won. We must isolate ourselves from this woman. She cannot invade our spirits or souls. We must work together to drive her out before we lose our world. I know you are having difficulty believing what I am telling you, Sahib, but you will see for yourself. She will not interact with us. She will hide out and wait for the Chieftain to return. If he marries this woman, a fierce, horrid curse will befall us all. Mark my words."
Leven looked up as Hazz approached her. He was a sweet, gentle man. "You have not eaten today," he said.
She nodded. "I know."
"How can you be healthy without nourishment? You must eat."
"I will, Elder Haka. I can't thank you enough for what you've done for me," she said.
"You have done a great favor for us, and you should be thanked for that. I know that you were hurt by the behavior of the village elders, they do not understand, but as soon as they do, they will fall on themselves to seek your forgiveness. No other woman is suited for the Chieftain but you. If that were untrue, you would not be here today. Stay strong. Do not allow your sadness to interfere with your life. What appears today as a mixed blessing will be a great joy to all." Leven tried to respond, but Hazz held up his hand. "Pah, do not argue. If Mukhtar brings you fruit, will you eat?"
She nodded, feeling ridiculously close to tears. "I will."
"Very good, Sitt [Lady] Bay."
Chapter 18: Attempted Ruination
Leven was awakened early the next morning by a strong wave of nausea. Somebody close was cooking something and she just couldn't take it. Oh God. How long would it be like this? She scrambled up to a sitting position and grabbed the chamber pot specifically set near her for an occasion such as this. She could live with anything but the nausea. When she thought she had recovered the slightest bit, it raged back into her, as if saying 'surprise, I'm still with you…I'll be here for the rest of the day.' Uh. Help me, God. After she truly recovered [for the moment, anyway], she collected herself and cleaned up as best as she could. She needed fresh air. She had been cooped up far too long. Leven wanted to step outside just for a bit. She had no intention of straying far. It wouldn't take much to get totally and completely lost. Ardeth would have to show her how to get around. She couldn't simply sit still twenty-four hours a day. It just wasn't in her. Taking a deep breath, she moved toward the door and let herself out. Surprisingly enough, the little village around her wasn't exactly silent and unmoving. What a completely different world she was in. The drastic differences staggered the mind. However, she didn't find herself missing her old life at all. Old life. What a joke. How long have I been here? She stepped out a little further away from the small adobe structure that Hazz called his 'quarters.' The scurrying sound of bodies moving busily about grew louder, nearer. Leven walked around to the corner of the small hut-like building and saw a few women milling about, doing what appeared to be morning chores. She hadn't seen many people since she came, Ardeth had been shielding her, protecting her almost. It was as if he expected her reception to be less than kind. Of course, she didn't expect everyone to be as straightforward as the woman…what was her name…had been with her yesterday. Some little something was telling her to remain leery and aloof of her, but she wasn't listening to her inner voice just yet. It would turn out to be a big mistake. Leven had a desire to belong, to break through whatever barriers existed between her and them. For God's sake, she was one of them.
She tentatively moved toward the few people she saw milling about. When the women noticed her, they glanced at her once, but never laid their eyes on her. They went about their morning rituals without acknowledging her existence. It was as if she were some temporary vision or wraith. She didn't expect to be greeted with hugs and kisses, but she also didn't think she would be so viciously shunned. She opened her mouth to speak, but only a tinny sound emitted from her throat. The women reacted exactly as they had when they first saw her. When she tried to move in closer, one of the women spat at her. What the hell? What had she done to them?
"Riji waTan, harâmi," a young woman spat. ["Go back home, thief."]
Harâmi? Didn't that mean thief? The woman was calling her a thief. What did she steal? What? Were they talking about Ardeth? Were they accusing her of stealing him? She hadn't stolen anything. They were in love with each other, they couldn't help that, and it wasn't something they have prevented.
"Wehsi ma'ra." ["Loose woman."]
Leven wanted to defend herself, but she couldn't find the words. She had begun to think that staying was a very bad idea. "'Ajab samaH…" ["Please allow…"]
"Lâ! NiHna 'imil mâ mush inti haun." ["No! We do not want you here."]
Leven didn't understand all the words, but the message was clear. She didn't belong. They obviously thought she had perpetrated some horrible misdeed against one of their own. But I am one of them…a few generations separated, still… Her morning 'walk' had been a terrible mistake. "Âsif…" ["Sorry…"] She turned away abruptly and went toward the hut. She had made a mistake coming out here, had perhaps made an even major one allowing Ardeth to leave her behind. She was pretty much stuck in this hostile world. She might have been able to adapt better if she knew where it was coming from.
Sahib stood with the other women, but she hadn't taken part in the cruelty. However, she hadn't exactly tried to stop it. All this was due to Radab's jealousy and venom. The elders and the people would have to accept the Chieftain's decision whether they wanted to or not. He would marry his malak [angel] and raise his children with her. What could be done about it? Nothing. She wanted to approach the Chieftain's intended, but she wasn't sure if the girl would even speak to her now.
The moment Leven stepped inside the little hut, she dove for the chamber pot again. She wasn't so sure this bout of vomiting was necessarily due to being pregnant. When she recovered, she leaned back on the bed, fingering her half of the amulet. How long would it take for her love to return to her? How long would it be before she was in his arms again, before he was kissing her again? Oh, maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh, love. Where are you?] Leven fell into a light, fitful doze and was awakened again by Hazz. He brought her food, but she couldn't touch it. The baby inside her was kicking up one hell of a fuss today. She had never felt so messed up. Of course, she had never been pregnant before, either. She had just shoved the bowls away when she received another visit from Radab.
"I came to say I am sorry for what happened to you this morning," she began with a sincere look on her face. However, there was a flashing nastiness in her eyes. "I heard some of the women talking and it was most unkind. They do not understand."
Radab's appearance was much too convenient for Leven's comfort level. No one had even thought to look at her cross-eyed until after her visit. Suddenly, Leven didn't trust this woman. God, and I let her talk me into staying here! She wished she could erase yesterday and her foolish thoughts of staying behind. Ardeth had tried to sway her, of course, but she hadn't listened to him. He gave over to her, gave her what she wanted. "I didn't expect the venom," she said, cutting her eyes at the other woman. "I'm no thief. I didn't steal Ardeth away from anyone. Falling in love with a man isn't stealing him. We love each other and everyone will have to deal with it." She appeared to be speaking directly to Radab, and if the truth were known, she was.
Radab almost wanted to smile. Ardeth's ma'ra [woman] wasn't as blind as she thought. She needed to steer her back. Her plan wasn't complete until Leven left completely. Ardeth would be destroyed, of course, but she would be there to comfort him. "No, you are not a thief. Give the women time. We do not know you yet."
"Do you mind leaving, Ms. Murr," Leven asked suddenly. "I don't feel well."
She nodded. "No, I do not. The baby bothering?"
"Yes, Ardeth's child is pitching a fit inside me right now."
"Very well," she said demurely before leaving.
Evelyn O'Connell, corralling a screaming five-year-old, signed for a telegram. When she read the message, her eyes brightened considerably. "Oh my," she said softly. "Rick!"
Ardeth and Hashim had started back toward the village. Ardeth had stopped briefly at a port town outside Cairo to send a telegram to his friends in London. He waited only as long as necessary to receive an answer. When he had what he wanted in hand, he stopped and picked up Hashim on the way back. He thought his second might want to see his wife. She was due to give birth any day now. Besides, he enjoyed the younger man's company. Ardeth listened as Hashim gave him bright blessings with regard to his marriage. It pleased him immensely. At least someone other than Hazz and his apprentice had accepted the marriage with open arms. He had slept poorly since leaving Leven behind and at one point, he had heard her call to him, the way she had called to him from his vision. Oh, maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh, love. Where are you?] The plea disturbed him, made him want to get back faster. He wasn't pleased with himself for leaving her behind, but he was so very concerned about her safety. Yet, she would have to ride back to Cairo, wouldn't she? Something did not feel right.
Poof. Sleep. Hazz Haka heard those gentle words before he was induced into a coma-like slumber. The entity drifted over to Mukhtar and did the same thing to him. In another room, the Chieftain's whore slept soundly. One last touch on her forehead and she would stay out until he managed to get her to the village pyramid. He felt for his dagger within his robes. Yes. It was still there, waiting for its chance to bite into her soft flesh.
Sahib slipped up quietly to Elder Haka's hut and gasped in horror. Someone [probably Radab] had piled a tangle of dead snakes at the door. Puckering in disgust, Sahib toed the pile and realized that there weren't any alive. With a cry of anger, she kicked them away from the door. This was completely and utterly cruel of Radab. She rapped on the door and waited patiently. After several moments, Leven stuck her head out and gazed down into the face of another exotic beauty. It wasn't Radab. This one was hugely pregnant and there didn't seem to be a smirk in her eyes. Leven stood back and allowed the woman to enter. After all, she might have come to seek Hazz's guidance.
The other woman stepped into the tiny room and noticed that it was pitch black inside. Leven reached over and lit a lamp and watched her curiously. "'Imil inti tkallam inglîzi?" ["Do you speak English?"] When the woman nodded, Leven continued, "Do you need Elder Haka?"
"No. I wish to speak to you. I am Hashim's wife, Sahib."
Leven nodded. She knew of Hashim, he was Ardeth's second in command, and also one of the three men who brought her to the healer. "What do you wish to speak about?"
"My husband and I respect the Chieftain greatly. We saw him grieve for Sharîk and for you. I do not agree with the elders. I think they are wrong. I must warn you about Radab Murr. You should not trust her. She has disrespected you and the Chieftain. She is responsible for what happened this morning. I was there and I am sorry they hurt you so. She is the one who did that; she told us to shun you. Radab is very jealous of you. She has been promised to the Chieftain for many years."
Leven sighed and shook her head. "I'm not surprised."
"You are very strong, like your great-grandmother," she said.
"My great-grandmother? You…know? How?"
Sahib smiled at the obvious shock on Leven's face. "Husbands and wives talk, just like Chieftains and seconds. Hashim pried for the information and Ardeth was less than forthcoming, but we have simply pieced everything together. Once you can explain your past, the attitude will change. Sharîk was a respected woman among us, as was her mother before her."
"How touching," a voice said from behind them.
Leven turned and saw Elder Zilan standing no further than three feet from her. "What are you doing here?"
"I do not respect the demands of a whore, Chieftaina," he said mockingly. "Come with me now and I will not hurt Sahib."
She stood in front of the pregnant woman, blocking her a little. "Oh Jesus," she spat. "Caldo."
"I'd prefer Sharr, but Caldo is good in a pinch. It's time for you to pay for damaging my chances at eternal rest. Your death will guarantee my retrieval of the amulet. Come, Leven, and I won't hurt anyone else."
Leven grabbed hold of Sahib's shoulder and pushed her toward the door. "Go," she screamed. Frozen for a moment, Leven had to put more force into the push than she wanted. Sahib went out the door and as far as Leven knew, she ran. However, she was wrong. Once outside, the woman sank to her knees as her water broke.
Sharr produced his razor sharp dagger and rushed toward Leven. She sidestepped partially out of his way, but he managed to grab onto her arm. He brought the dagger down as if he was about to chop off her arm, but Leven raised her knee and planted it squarely between his legs. As he sank to his knees, the dagger flew out of Sharr's hand and skittered across the floor. Leven took a dive for it, feeling its jeweled handle against the palm of her hand. Sharr grabbed her, taking handfuls of her shirt, ripping it. Leven stretched her body as far as it would go and she grasped the handle tightly in her hand. If she could just get it up to his chest… Stab him in the heart, she heard Ardeth's voice say, It is the only way to release his soul. She tried to sit up, but Sharr held her down. Leven closed her eyes tightly and began to pull away, to yank her legs out of his hands, gritting her teeth. Damn the bastard. Damn the bastard. With one hard tug, she wrenched one leg out of his grasp, but it was enough to allow her to bring her body to a partial sitting position. She lifted the dagger high and swung it down in a violent arc. The brilliant blue light blinded her as the soul of the minion was released. Leven barely caught her breath before she heard a weak voice calling for help.
The sun was high and the day hot when Ardeth and Hashim rode into the fringes of the village. Ardeth's heartbeat picked up just the tiniest bit when he realized how very close he was to Leven. When the men drew closer, they noticed the activity around and thought it a little odd. A young boy noticed the warriors approaching and he began calling for Hashim. "Hashim, Hashim, il raDî!"["Hashim, Hashim, the baby!"] Hashim exchanged a panicked look with his Chieftain and Ardeth smiled a little.
"Rikib fauq. Shâf inta walad." ["Ride on. See your child."] Hashim galloped forward at a breakneck pace. He understood. He completely understood. Soon enough, his and Leven's child would be born. He rode onward, picking up the pace himself. He would spend one night here and then take Leven on to Cairo for their wedding.
When Ardeth finally made it to Hazz's quarters, he was shocked and dismayed to see Leven kneeled beside the small cot where she had slept since he left. Right at that moment, Hazz was laid out upon it. She had soaked a cloth with cool water and placed it over Hazz's forehead. "Leven?" She closed her eyes and sighed when she heard his voice. She turned to look at him and he noticed scratches about her face. He couldn't stay away from her any longer. He went to her, kneeling before her. His hands came up to cup her face. "What is this? What happened?"
She went willingly into his embrace and she placed a moist kiss on the side of his throat. "I love you, I'm glad you're back."
He drew away from her. "You must tell me what happened."
"Elder Haka is sick," she began, her eyes filling with tears. "Sharr was here, Ardeth, he was inside Elder Zilan. He did something to Mukhtar and Haka. Mukhtar recovered, but…but…the healers can't do anything for him."
He took her back into his embrace and soothed her the best he could. "What of the minion," he asked. "Did he hurt you?"
"No," she said against his chest. "Just a few scratches here and there, nothing major, but oh God, Elder Haka is going to die. This…this ba-beautiful man, Ardeth…" She drew away to look up into his eyes. Her tears streaked her face, etching cruel lines in it. "Sahib came to help me after Radab tried to start trouble. Sharr was after her, too. I…I had to shove her out the door, I…I couldn't let him hurt her or the baby. She went into labor and I didn't know what to do. I ran for help, not knowing where to go or whom to ask. I found the mid-wife and brought her back…the baby is okay, but oh God…oh dear God," she moaned.
He took her into his embrace again and cupped her head to his shoulder. He didn't let her go for a very long time.
Elder Haka died that night with both Ardeth and Leven attending. Leven held the old man's hand as he took his last breath and faded away. Her other hand was grasping Ardeth's tightly. He sat on the opposite side of the little cot and allowed a few of his own tears to fall at that last moment of Hazz's life. Elder Haka had been almost like a substitute father to him for many, many years.
Much later, they sat together in the dark, neither having the desire to speak right away. Ardeth gathered Leven in his arms and kept telling her how brave she was for doing what she did, but her heavy heart wouldn't accept it, not right away.
"Are we leaving tomorrow," she asked suddenly.
He kissed her ear. "If you wish."
"I am taking you to Cairo. I have friends who have a house there. They are coming from London tonight to prepare for our arrival. We will marry there if you wish."
She leaned into him, listening to his soft words against her neck. "It sounds lovely," she whispered.
"Leven, I am sorry you suffered at the hands of our people," he said as he tightened his embrace.
"No, you don't have to apologize. It was the doing of a minion and a jealous woman. To them, I'm an outsider and outsiders are always viewed negatively. It's okay."
"I love you," he said. "I love you for everything you have given me and for all you have endured. I love you for having enough love in your heart to save a life and enough courage to watch one fade so that he would not be alone during his journey. I may have said this many times, but I will say it again. You are my light and my life."
"Hold me," she whispered, "just hold me. Don't let me go."
Early the next morning, Ardeth and Leven stepped out of the small adobe hut to a very surprising scene. There were several people awaiting them, standing back at a respectful distance. At the head of the crowd was Hashim. Ardeth had witnessed this behavior before, but it was usually reserved for honoring those coming back from a great battle. Of course, the elders were missing, but that was of no consequence to him. When they returned from Cairo, she would take her rightful place as the much respected and honored wife of a Medjai Chieftain.
"Il madâm bita 'ti, [my wife] this warrior's welcome is for you," Ardeth said as he smiled down at her.
Chapter 19: I Do
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Forgive the following marriage customs described below if they seem off-key or flat-out wrong. I did some research on the Internet and found a few Arabic wedding customs and readers can note those. Sorry for any mistakes! THANKS!
ANA 'IMIL [I DO]
God. Leven was absolutely tired of this horseback riding stuff. When she first thought of doing it, she was thrilled. She had always loved horses, thought they were beautiful majestic animals, but that was before she had ridden on one for any length of time. The muscles in her inner thighs were strained and aching miserably. She had stretched and flexed muscles she never knew she had. In a way, it felt like she had just made love for the first time. The thought made her giggle nonsensically. Ardeth, who was riding close beside her, glanced at her curiously. She shook her head and uttered 'nothing.' The heat, the riding, and the morning sickness had taken a toll on her. She thought she might be losing her freaking mind. After a seemingly eternity of riding, Leven noticed that the area around her had taken on a more civilized look. Thank God. They must be close. She didn't know how much more of this horse she could stand. As they plodded along, her mind began to drift. During the night, they made camp and slept out under the stars. Ardeth had told her of his friends, the O'Connell's. He had told her how he had met them and how they had saved his people from some horrid curse of a mummy. It was a bizarre story and if she hadn't seen some freaky shit herself; she might not have believed him. He had told her that his friends wanted to offer them use of their Cairo house and to throw a wedding for them. Ardeth had only requested that they allow Leven to stay at their home, but the moment they realized he was in love and had a strong desire to marry, they simply refused to do anything less than give them a proper wedding. He was beyond touched. Complete strangers, people who didn't know Leven at all, offered a wonderful gift when the village elders had cursed them. When Ardeth spoke of the wedding, Leven asked him time and time again what he wanted. Every time, he answered simply: you. It was touching and she loved him for the gentle, heartfelt thoughts, but she was also a bit frustrated. She knew nothing of the wedding customs of his people, and he never elaborated. Perhaps once in Cairo, she could dig around and see what she could find. Ardeth had said that O'Connell's wife knew everything about Egypt. She hoped she could get some assistance to give Ardeth an incredible wedding gift.
Leven's daze ended as soon as they entered the crowded city filled with people. There were dozens of street side stands that Ardeth called 'bazaars.' She had lived in a fairly large city for years, but this was completely different, completely out of her realm of normalcy. Although she hated herself for it, she thought that if they didn't stop soon, she might start whining like an insolent child. For Pete's sake, she had to get off this damn horse. They rode a bit past the busy dusty road and the street side bazaars. Up ahead, off to the side, was a large, expansive house made entirely of adobe. It reminded her of something she might have seen in a storybook. It was completely and totally beyond explanation. There was an old car parked outside, one she had never seen in her life. Of course, she had to remember that this was 1931, not 2001.
"We are here," Ardeth said.
She sighed. "Hallelujah," she spat.
Ardeth smiled a little as he dismounted and approached her. She refused his help. She should be an expert at this shit now. She jumped down on her own and went into his arms. She placed a very gentle kiss on his lips. It had been a couple days since they'd made love, and she missed the hell out of him. There was no way she could give way before him as tired as she was, but oh, give her a chance to rest up, and she would wear his ass out. She was tempted to carry it a bit further, but she didn't think anyone would appreciate the PDA. The two of them moved to the front of the house and before they could even touch the door, it came open. A lovely, petite woman with long, flowing dark hair greeted them.
"Evelyn," Ardeth said with a respectful nod.
She smiled. "Ardeth! How nice to see you. And this?"
A little shy, Leven nodded toward the woman with the stunning smile. "I'm Leven," she said.
"By all means, come in, you look exhausted," Evie said as she stepped back from the doorway. "Rick and Alex won't be here for a couple of days, so I basically have the house all to myself. Company is more than welcome."
Leven felt awkward as she entered the house with Ardeth at her side. The inside of the home was decorated with antique furniture a dark mahogany brown. There were expensive paintings hung on the walls and she could have sworn the rug was Persian, probably from the 18th century.* It actually looked like a museum in here and Leven was stunned. She felt like a curious little kid. She wanted to look at and touch everything. She had made moves toward inspecting a particularly nice Egyptian statue when a wave of dizziness attacked her. Oh God. Here goes the baby thing again, she thought just moments before she conked out on the floor.
As she regained consciousness little by little, she could hear the soft conversation passing between Ardeth and Evie. The poor girl, Evie said, she must be exhausted from your journey. Yes, Ardeth agreed, it was difficult for her. Leven moaned and sat up. "Sick," she mumbled. Ardeth stood back a little. He was accustomed to this by now. It was the baby.
"Come on," Evie said sympathetically, "This way."
As Leven stood at the sink and washed her face, Evie stood back and watched with a concerned look on her face. "Are you all right," Evie asked.
She nodded. "Oh yeah, I'm fine, it's just mo…" She stopped. "I'm just tired."
"Oh, of course you are. Would you like to see where you will be sleeping? You need lots of rest after that trip."
Leven couldn't argue. She needed a bed, a real bed, not a pallet laid out on the sand. Of course, with Ardeth beside her, she couldn't complain much, but the temptation of bed rest was great. "Sounds lovely. Do you mind if I take a bath first?"
"No, of course not. Consider this your home away from home."
She was overwhelmed by this woman's kindness. For a couple of days, she had been faced with nothing that even resembled it. She almost started to cry. "Thank you so very much."
Evie smiled back at Leven as she left her alone in the bathroom. She went back into the front room where Ardeth was waiting patiently. She glanced at him and shook her head. "You're always so stiff and polite, Ardeth."
He smiled a little and nodded. "Old habits die hard. Is Leven all right?"
She nodded. "Oh, yes. I left her to bathe. She seemed a little ill and tired. Come on, I'll show you to your room."
Leven sank back in the old-fashioned claw footed tub [or is it old-fashioned]. It was huge and she could stretch out her entire frame inside it. The hot water felt heavenly as it worked out the soreness in her muscles and inner thighs. Oh God. She had never thought a bath would feel this good. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. If left to her own devices, she knew she'd fall asleep in the enveloping warmth. The door creaked open, but she didn't attach any significance to it. She heard what sounded like garments dropping, but she again didn't bother opening her eyes. There was a reasonable explanation. It was probably Evie bringing in towels or something.
"May I join you?"
Uh…that's not Evie. She opened her eyes and looked up at Ardeth. He had not one stitch of clothing on. She sat up a little and drew her legs toward her. "Do you have to ask?"
"It is better to be polite than to assume, maHabbi [love]," he said with a smile.
Leven carefully brought herself up to her feet and waited for him. He climbed into the tub and sank his body into the water. He looked up at her standing over him as if beckoning her to come to him. He didn't have to look again or say one word. She sank back down into the tub, but instead of settling back on one end, she straddled him. Her lips met his gently, but he returned her kiss with urgency, as if afraid he'd never kiss her again. He broke the kiss and his lips traveled lightly down to her chin and then settled on the curve of her neck.
"You are not too tired," he asked, his voice muffled slightly.
"What do you think," she asked.
He smiled against her flesh. "I think I am blessed."
When Leven lay down for her late afternoon nap, she ended up sleeping the entire night through. Ardeth had slept with her until dawn before he slipped away to his own room. She didn't sleep long after the sun rose, the baby made sure of that. She struggled with the coverlet, nearly hooking her foot in it, to get to the bathroom in time. Evie was up and around. She heard the other woman clearly and went to see about her.
"Are you okay?"
Leven nodded as she stood up. She splashed her face with cold water and a bit escaped down her throat. Just the water alone nearly brought on another wave of vomiting. Uh. This has got to stop. In the back of her mind, she wondered if Evie had any suspicions of her pregnancy. Ardeth told her that Evie and her husband had one child. She debated with herself for a moment. She had qualms telling another person, especially after what happened to her back home [home…I already think of it as home]. However, this woman seemed so much kinder, gentler. Perhaps if she told her, she could seek her advice and guidance. Leven knew nothing about children. In fact, she had once thought she'd never have a child. She hated being judged more than anything. She had not one ounce of shame in her; there was nothing for her to be ashamed of. She loved Ardeth, he loved her, and their baby was a product of that. How could it be wrong?
She reached for a towel and blotted her face dry. "I'm fine. I'm pregnant, probably six or seven weeks."
"Does Ardeth know?"
She nodded. "Yeah. He probably knew before I did."
Evie took Leven's arm. "Come on. I'll make you tea."
The two women sat at the kitchen table and Leven tentatively sipped at her tea. For the moment, her stomach had agreed to accept it. The two women made small talk, Evie telling Leven that Ardeth had left earlier on a supposed 'errand.' What business he had in Cairo, Leven would never know. When the conversation waned a moment, Evie studied the other woman curiously. It was obvious that she was American, and from the look of her, she didn't appear as if she understood much going on around her. It seemed as if she were misplaced. On the outside, she was entirely different than Ardeth, but Evie understood that they were connected by some strong force outside the realm of love.
"Leven, if you don't mind my asking, how did you meet Ardeth? You're American, correct?"
Leven glanced at the woman with the dark, dark hair and beautiful eyes. How could she tell her without sounding as if she were insane? "Yes, I'm American." She sighed. "I met Ardeth in Memphis. I found him dehydrated and worn down and I took care of him." She didn't want to go into great detail, didn't want to tell her about the time travel or the amulet or the minion. "We were together constantly, and we fell in love."
Of course, Evie heard 'Memphis,' and she simply assumed that she had met him in Egypt. Leven had saved Ardeth, as much as she had 'saved' Rick. "I often wondered what kind of woman it would take to win his heart. I can safely say that I see those qualities in you. You're exactly what I imagined."
"Thank you," Leven said with a smile. "I appreciate your kindness. Can you help me with something? Ardeth has never specified anything that he wants or would like to have at the wedding and I have no clue about the customs. Would you mind helping me dig something up? I want to give him something special."
Evie smiled. "I don't know how much Ardeth has told you about me, but digging around is one of my specialties."Nuptials
For the next few days, Ardeth and Leven didn't really see each other that much. Both of them were cooking up separate little surprises and there was much work to be done. As soon as Alex and O'Connell arrived, the wedding would take place. The morning of the ceremony, Leven literally locked herself in the room with Evie to prepare. She and Evie had searched endlessly to find just the right dress and other little surprises Leven had in store for Ardeth. She had set about readying herself before the sun rose. She praised the goddesses for keeping the morning sickness at bay. After a couple of hours of seclusion, both women could hear the men milling about, telling 'war' stories, and grumbling impatiently. With that was Alex's exuberant reaction to his 'Uncle' Ardeth.
After a seeming eternity, O'Connell approached the bedroom door and tapped on it with his knuckle. "Could we get this going before the great Medjai Chieftain has a nervous breakdown?"
"We're coming, we're coming," Evie called.
When the bedroom door came open and the women made their approach, Ardeth turned. He felt shocked, touched, and incredibly happy. Leven entered the room wearing a floor length long-sleeved black kaftan that scooped down to a modest V-neck. Surrounding the neck was thick silver inlay that branched downward, almost meeting her navel. Very fine threads of inlay drew down the front of the kaftan to meet yet more at the bottom. Intricate designs flowed throughout the breezy/lacy material and touched the cuffs of her sleeves. The veil, which was more like a long scarf, was silky-sheer and rested upon her head without the benefit of a single pin. Her hands were adorned with henna markings reaching just to the edge of her wrist. He couldn't believe the depth of love he felt for her, couldn't believe she had made such a tremendous effort just for him.
In turn, Leven made her own once over of her soon-to-be-husband [whom she already considered her husband]. He was dressed in a black robe inlayed with silver threads from the slightly open collar all the way down the front to the bottom. He wore a black cape slung over his shoulders that was adorned with a silver etching. She didn't know what the etching was or what it meant, but it covered almost the entire length of one side. She beheld the shocked/touched look on his face and smiled at him gently.
As she approached, he couldn't take his eyes off her, couldn't focus them on anything else. When she finally made it up to him, he reached down and grasped her hand in his, still amazed that she had made such an incredible effort to please him. Without a word, he showed her the wedding ring, desperately wanting her to have it, to see it. It was tri-color gold with black etchings adorning its circumference. She had seen the etchings before, the Arabic script, it spelled out 'eternity.' She felt a tear rolling down her cheek when she thought of the beautiful gifts he had given her: his child and a declaration that their love would last an eternity. They grudgingly tore their eyes off each other and turned to be wed.
After they vowed their love each to the other and were joined as one, two goddesses and one restless soul smiled upon them, blessing the union for all eternity.The Wedding Night
When nightfall came, the newlyweds politely excused themselves, thanking their host and hostess profusely for such a wonderful wedding ceremony. However, their patience was wearing thin and both were eager to consummate their marriage. They stepped into the bedroom and had the door closed for approximately five seconds before they shared a deep, passionate kiss. When the kiss was broken, it took perhaps fifteen seconds to completely rid their bodies of every single stitch of clothing. They came together again and shared another deep kiss. He pulled back just a tiny bit to allow his tongue to trip lightly, delicately on her parted lips. He reveled in the taste of her mouth, so exquisitely sweet; it was something of which he could never get enough. His large, warm hands moved restlessly down her back before drifting to cup her waist. He pulled her body against his, his hands quickly moving to her buttocks. The touch, taste, and smell of him was overwhelming. She was again momentarily immobilized. She couldn't move a muscle, couldn't do anything more than respond to his hungry kiss. They had been together many, many times, but tonight it seemed as if she were reliving the first night he had made love to her.
His mouth consuming her, his hands gently cupping her buttocks, he began slowly backing her up toward the bed. She moaned against his lips at his tedious progression. Uh. He was torturing her, driving her out of her mind. When they reached it, Leven broke the kiss and sat on the side of the bed. She gazed up at this beautiful, beautiful man, her husband. Had she ever thought she would be at this point with him? With anyone? She moved closer to him, her hands gliding up each side of his waist and then meeting along his abdomen where they progressed lower. He opened his mouth to protest, to ask that she not do that. He very much wanted to be inside her. She noticed he wanted to speak and she smiled up at him.
"Allow me," she said.
She didn't exactly touch him right away. She brought her mouth to his abdomen, swirling her tongue along the solid muscle. Her hand fell on him in a deliberate, gentle caress as her lips and tongue continued to explore his taut abdomen. He closed his eyes and moaned a little, the sound emitting from deep within him. At first paralyzed by his desire, his need, he could no more move than Leven could earlier. However, as her hand expertly moved up and down the length of him, hardening him, he ran his hands through her hair almost wildly, recklessly. Only when he felt the warm push of air on his lower abdomen did he momentarily freeze. His eyes closed even tighter, his moan grew even louder when her tongue traced a delicate little circle around the smooth, broad tip of him. He wanted to speak, to utter an objection to what she was doing, but not one coherent thought entered his mind. There was no way he could stop her, no reason he wanted to. As she took him fully into her mouth, his paralysis broke again and he felt his hand tangling into her hair, holding her in place, aching for her to stop, needing her to continue. Her mouth and hand double-teamed him. Each move of her mouth was matched by a gripping stroke of her hand. He was perilously close to release, but he couldn't bring the word 'stop' to surface. His breathing came in hard and heavy, his moans and growls increased.
"Waqaf, 'ajab. Ana irâdi infajar," he begged through an almost pained moan. ["Stop, please. I will explode."]
Not quite understanding every word he spoke, she got the general idea. He was rock hard and throbbing. She withdrew reluctantly and placed a moist kiss on his abdomen. She backed away and slid her body fully onto the bed, her hungry eyes never leaving his. He came down to her, leaning over her, not quite settling the full weight of his body atop her. He placed a very gentle kiss on her lips before he began his own agonizing exploration of her quivering body. His lips left hers and he placed gentle, nipping little bites down her chin and onto the slope of her neck. She wanted his hands on her, she wanted them all over her, but he wasn't immediately gratifying that need. Instead, his nipping teeth traveled lower. She grabbed double handfuls of the coverlet as a whimpering cry escaped her. His tongue flicked a nipple, circled it, and flicked it again. He drew it into his mouth, released it, and drew it in again. She whispered an incoherent curse as his mouth wandered to the other nipple, repeating the same completely torturous movements. Oh, she would have never thought that Ardeth Bay was a tease, but he was. He was paying her back for what she had done. Of course, she couldn't complain. Who could?
His mouth moved lower and she longed for his touch at the center of her. Her back came off the bed as his lips and teeth nipped the sensitive flesh just below her navel. When he did not taste her, she groaned in frustration, and fell back to the bed panting weakly. She could feel his smile against her flesh as he 'disappointed' her. His lips made their erotic trip back up and he kissed her again. When he tried to break the kiss, he couldn't quite get away. Her lips and tongue were on his, her teeth nipping his bottom lip. She finally allowed him to draw away and she wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling the silky fan of his hair against her. Her mouth and tongue traveled along his throat, to the curve of his jaw. Her own breaths were coming in hard and fast, and she was desperately trying to pull him toward her. She wanted him immediately, wanted him inside her before she simply died from impatience. Was it possible to die that way? Oh yes. With this man, anything was possible.
He leaned up and a frustrated cry escaped her. He gazed down at her and allowed his hand to move up and gently stroke her cheek. "I will love you until I draw my last breath. When that occurs, I will search restlessly for your soul so that I may love you to infinity."
Without giving her a chance to respond, he settled his body over her and she parted her thighs to accommodate him. During the kiss, her hand found him again and put him exactly where she wanted him to be. Her hands gripped his buttocks, her nails digging in, as he began to move within her. He drew in a hissed breath at the sting of her nails, but it didn't exactly dissuade him. Oh no. Her lips sought his, found them, and his tongue made love to her mouth as much as his body made love to hers. She cried out, the sound drowned out by his possessive kiss, and it caused a little humming vibration to fill him. The shock waves traveled outside him and sent a rippling flood of sensation that consumed his entire body. He broke the kiss and heard his own moan echoing in the room. He was close, so very close to release, but he held out, held on stubbornly, not wanting the passion to subside. If only they could stay connected like this forever. Her hands moved up from his buttocks and plunged into his hair. He heard his wife crying, felt her body shaking. She uttered another sound, a soft little 'oh' as she experienced another shuddering climax. The contracting muscles inside her gripped fiercely and released rhythmically. He gritted his teeth and drew in yet another hissed breath as he felt his own release ever so imminent. This time, he began to reach for it, to grab it, but he still tried to subdue it. Fighting it as if he were facing an opponent, he managed three or four hard, driving thrusts before his body froze and gave in. This was one battle he would never win.
"Ah," he sighed through gritted teeth.
He felt Leven's lips delicately caressing the side of his throat before moving to his ear. He collapsed on top of her, his breath coming in sharply and heavily. Her hands moved over his back and down the curve of his spine.
"Eternity, my love, eternity," Leven whispered.
*Reference from "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." I loves me some Antoine LaConte, too!
Chapter 20: Lost Love
Was it morning? Noon? Night? Was it sunny? Rainy? Windy? It mattered very little to the newly wedded, eternally connected, couple resting quietly in the comfort of each other's arms. Leven was utterly exhausted, but she fought sleep madly. She didn't want to miss a moment of this wondrous, miraculous bliss. She drew away a bit and pressed her lips to his chest. She leaned over him, propping up on her elbow. He reached over and took her hand in his. He kissed each fingertip and smiled a little when he once again noticed the henna markings. They would stain her hands for weeks.
"The henna, the kaftan, and the veil. How did you know?"
She smiled a little. "I didn't. Evie and I dug around a little, and we found a custom here and there. You didn't exactly tell me what you wanted, so I sort of improvised."
"It was beautiful, Leven, and I will never forget this day as long as I live. I thought I had given my heart to you thoroughly, but when I saw you earlier, I realized you did not have it all. Now, you do. You have every inch."
She kissed his lips gently. "I love you. I never knew what it was, what it meant until I found you."
He gazed up at her for an indeterminate amount of time. He had known love before, had experienced the joy and the pain it brought along with it. "Nor have I," he said, and he meant every single word. The love he felt for Sharîk was nothing like this, not as strong as this, not as all consuming. He kissed her and ran his hand through her hair. "We must sleep."
"Sleep," she asked with a grin. "Who needs sleep? This is our wedding night."
"Yes, it is," he said with his own grin. "Are you suggesting that we make love again?"
"No," she said as she placed another gentle kiss on his chest. "But if you don't want to, I don't mind begging."
He laughed. "Oh, my love, you will never have to beg me for anything."
She moved to straddle his waist. She looked down at him and ran her hands along his face and down his chest. "No?"
His hands cupped her breasts as his thumbs teased her nipples. "Abadan." ["Never."]
With the cries of their lovemaking echoing in her mind, Leven drifted off into a peaceful slumber. She smiled in her sleep as she felt the weight of Ardeth's head pillowed against her breasts. As she drifted further into sleep, her hand ran gently and lovingly through her husband's hair. Asleep, he seemed so vulnerable, so hungry for love. She slipped further and further into the fog of sleep, reaching that plateau where dreams first begin. Vaguely, from far away, she felt Ardeth's arms tightening about her body and he murmured softly within his own dream. She couldn't quite understand the words, but they weren't ones of distress.
Leven smiled. She saw Hazz like he was before he died. She wanted to speak to him, but he seemed outside the realm of consciousness. She stood near him as if she were watching a television program. Hazz stood in the middle of a nearly bare room. The only furniture inside it was a small podium with statues and figurines adorning it. He seemed to be praying. Leven moved closer, not wanting to disturb him. He was in a trance, rocking back and forth, mumbling incoherently. The only two words she understood were 'Hathos' and 'Isis.' She drew even closer. Beckoning you, great goddesses. I beckon you to take hold of the malak [angel] and bring her the love and peace she deserves. Bring her to her man pure of heart. Do not allow her to suffer as her great-grandmother, as her great-great grandmother. Leven stood stock-still. Had Hazz summoned the goddesses to her? Had he been responsible for bringing her to Ardeth? Her heart ached at the beautiful thought. She had come to Ardeth as a result of her prayers and Hazz's summoning of the goddesses. Why had this lovely, lovely man been victimized by an evil entity such as Sharr?
The voice, so dreamy and soothing, so close, had drifted into her ear. She was too ensconced by the beautiful vision before her. Hazz had done more for her and her love than she first assumed.
"Leven," the voice called, urgently.
"Hmm. MaHabbi [love]."
"Leven? You must wake up."
She opened her eyes slowly, focusing them on Ardeth's face, but not focusing at the same time. He was gazing down at her worriedly. "What is it," she asked sleepily.
"You were moaning as if you were in pain. You were whispering kwaiyis [beautiful]. Are you all right?"
She nodded and smiled a little. "Wonderful," she whispered. "It's okay, Ardeth. I had a nice dream. I dreamt that Elder Haka summoned the goddesses who brought me to you. He gave us a beautiful gift, and I wish I could thank him."
A tear had rolled down her cheek and he quickly kissed it away. "You were dreaming."
"No. I saw it, just as I saw you."
Her voice held a far away quality as if she were still asleep with her eyes open. "And?"
"He wanted us together because of the baby, because he lost a baby. He didn't want it to happen to you, to me. He wanted to see us happy." In her sleep/awake state, her hands drifted down to her abdomen. "He knew we would make a baby, he knew you weren't supposed to stay. He knew this, but he sent for me, he sent for me so your heart wouldn't grow cold like his did. His heart grew cold because he couldn't be a father. You weren't supposed to be a father, you were only to break the curse, but he wouldn't have that. It's why he told you. If he hadn't, you never would have known."
Although her slightly slurred whispering voice haunted his soul, he felt a desire to prod her along, to delve into what she saw. "Elder Haka lost a child? He was unmarried."
A soft smile played on her lips. "So were you. So was I. It doesn't take marriage to produce a child. It was too late for him, but not for us. He pushed and it happened. He wanted to see you hold your baby, and he made it happen. He made it all happen."
"Leven? Where are you," he asked softly, gazing down into her calm face.
"In the wide space between sleep and consciousness, in the hallway of prayer. It's where one must go to find the truth. Hold onto me; hold onto your child. Watch over me, watch over us."
Her words had taken on a hint of threat, a precursor to loss. "Leven? What does that mean? What will happen?"
"Not for me to see, not for you to know. Hold us, hold us close, and if you lose us, find us quickly."
"If I cannot," he asked.
"Then Haka's work will be for naught." Her eyes closed and her breathing evened out.
What was this? What did she mean? He had pulled much from her, but still wanted more. "Leven," he whispered urgently. "Leven."
She opened her eyes and focused them on his face. "What is it," she asked.
Her voice and demeanor had changed abruptly. "Where are you?"
His bizarre question startled her. She gave him a 'have you flipped' look. "In bed, with you. Why? Where are you?"
Ardeth gazed down at her incredulously. "You were talking about your dream, you were…"
She placed her hand on his cheek. "Ardeth? Maybe you were dreaming."
"No," he said. "I was awake."
"It's okay, weird things happen to me when I dream sometimes. It probably meant nothing."
He shook his head stubbornly. "No. I do not believe that."
"I don't remember anything. It's okay, nothing after my dreams of you has meant anything." She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him. "It's okay. It's nothing." She thought she saw tears shining in his eyes.
"No, it is not," he insisted. "If anything should happen to you, my heart will cease beating."
She wrapped her arms around him and he held onto her tightly. Despite what she said, what she felt, her dream had touched him, had set off a horrid premonition inside him.
Early the next morning, Ardeth awoke and noticed immediately that Leven was not beside him. Still panicked about what happened to them last night, he thought she had completely disappeared. Hastily, he grabbed his pants and slipped into them. He stepped into the darkened hallway and heard noises coming from the bathroom. Quietly, he rapped on the door, hoping it wasn't Evie. Behind the door, he heard Leven's voice calling out "Yes?" Ardeth opened the door and entered the bathroom. She was in the tub again, safe and sound. He exhaled deeply and went to the tub, getting down on bended knee.
"You have such a concerned look on your face," she said. "Would you stop worrying so much? I told you. It was nothing."
He ran his hand through her hair, his fingers holding onto a sandy lock. "It may be nothing, but please do not go out alone."
"Okay, I promise." She reached out to him and he kissed her deeply. She broke the kiss and gazed lovingly into his warm brown eyes. "Come in with me?"
He smiled at her. "Do you have to ask?"
Much later that morning, Evie wanted to drag Leven off into Cairo to browse around. Ardeth didn't feel comfortable having her go out, but he assumed she would be well protected with Evie. Besides, she wouldn't hear of it. She insisted that the craziness from last night was nothing more than an overwrought dream. He was tempted to follow her, just to be on the safe side, but he hesitated. She was already exasperated with him and it wouldn't take much for her to become completely tired of him. He sat back in a bit of a daze, totally unhappy with his choice. He tried to hold a conversation with O'Connell, but his heart wasn't into it. After a few impatient moments, he announced that he needed air. He had to find Leven. He didn't feel good about her leaving, regardless of her reasoning. Something would happen to her, he knew it.
Leven broke away from Evie for the slightest moment as some silly baby item drew her attention. She wasn't sure why she loved it so, but it had drawn her right into its spell. It was a baby blanket with an intricate design woven into the fabric with red and black threads. It resembled something close to outlandish lightning bolts, but not lightning bolts. The pattern was beyond explanation, but it grabbed her. She reached out to touch it and it felt very soft and inviting. It was perfect for a baby. Held transfixed by the sight of the beautiful blanket, she didn't quite notice that she was being drawn bit by bit away from the crowd.
Perfect, Sharr thought. The bride of the Medjai Chieftain had no idea the street side stand was an illusion created to draw her in. Once encased in its force field, she would know little until she was sucked completely into it. By that time, it would be too late. Sharr stood in the periphery of the crowd watching the progress of her abduction. He had come back and chosen another body. He was grateful to his dark god that he hadn't brought him back to the wasted body of Zilan. Instead, Set had given him Radab's body. It was ironic. His weakness for women and sins of the flesh had finally given him the ultimate pay-off. He was inside the object of his lust. Sharr concentrated hard and watched as the stand drew back, back, and back. The young bride was completely oblivious to her own plight.
Leven's attention was drawn away from the blanket when she realized she could no longer see Evie; no longer see anyone around her. There was nothing but air, sand, and this stand. What the hell was happening to her? She seemed to be standing on solid ground, but she was not. She appeared to be floating into some kind of weird space. When she reached out, her hand hit an invisible shield of some sort. She was completely imprisoned. Below her, she could see a few people below. One of them was Ardeth. He appeared to be searching for her. No. Oh no. Where am I? Where am I going? She tried to call out, but she had no voice.
Ardeth moved through the throngs of people searching for his wife. When he didn't immediately see her, he began to panic. Why had he let her go? Why hadn't he held on to her as she had said in her dream the night before? He spied Evie and felt an instant of relief, but when he noticed the concerned look on her face, his heart fell to his feet. He turned to look around behind him and his eyes caught sight of a glimmer of silver. Whatever it was, it was partially buried in the sand. Bending down, he brushed the sand away and gasped audibly. It was Leven's half of the amulet. She was gone. She had been taken. Sharr.
Sharr continued to concentrate, to work his evil magic, until he was ready to set her down. Once on her feet, he would have to move swiftly. The spell would break and once she saw him [or her], she would run. Of course, she wouldn't get far away, not in the desert. He couldn't let her die by means that didn't involve the sharp blade of a dagger straight through her heart.
"Ardeth," Evie said from beside him.
"This is Leven's," he said without glancing up at her. "She has been abducted."
"We'll get Rick and help you look."
He shook his head. "No. I will find her."
Leven's head jarred upward, as if she had been nodding off. She realized that she had landed hard on the ground. She looked around her stupidly, wondering where she was. A figure was approaching from the distance, seemingly unaffected by the heavy sand. She stood up and began to scramble away from the figure. Whoever it was didn't mean her anything but harm. She managed no more than two steps before she was hit in the back by an incredible force. It felt like a gigantic hand grabbing her and pulling her back. She was frozen solid, completely unable to move. The gigantic, unseen hand began to drag her backward until she was at the feet of her captor. Radab? She tried to scramble up to her feet, but Radab held her down with an invisible force.
"Sharr," Leven spat weakly.
"None other. It is time for my curse to end. Did you enjoy your wedding night? I surely hope so. You will never see your warrior again."
Before she finished her thought, Sharr touched the top of her head. "Sleep." Leven fell at his feet completely unconscious.
Chapter 21: Escape
Ardeth had no idea where to begin looking. He held Leven's half of the amulet in his hand and felt it grow warm. Almost simultaneously, its mate around his neck also warmed considerably. He fingered his half, concentrating hard. Call to me, jauzi [wife]. Call to me so I may find you. Ana maHabbi inti [I love you]. He rode onward, solitary and obsessive. O'Connell had wanted to help search, but he wouldn't hear of it. Leven was his wife and this was his battle to fight. All he could think about was what she said to him in bed. She had tried to warn him, had tried to prepare him, but he had let her go anyway. He should have known better, should have known that Sharr was still a danger to them. He could not live if anything happened to her or the baby.
Sharr brought Leven out of her weird sleep. He had laid her in a dark room on an altar of sorts. It looked more like a table, but it would do. He wasn't necessarily sacrificing her to anything, but the table would serve as the ultimate stabilizer as he plunged the knife deeply into her chest. Although he had broken the spell, her eyes were closed. Sharr did not know this, but she was concentrating hard, calling out to Ardeth, crying for him to find her. Oh, maHabbi. Wainak? [Oh, love. Where are you?] She chanted this phrase as if it were a prayer. She said it a dozen times, two dozen, hundreds, thousands. She didn't have long to wait. Sharr was set to kill her and she knew he intended to do so with an ornate dagger. She would fight and protect her unborn child until death. Her breathing slowed as if she were sleeping and having a wonderful dream. Sharr watched this with complete and utter fascination. How could she be so calm knowing that her death was imminent and would be quite painful? She would never see her husband again; never see her child grow up. Unsettling, but not enough to distract him. Oh no. His time had come. Finally. After many, many centuries, he would find the peace he sought so desperately.
Despondent, Ardeth plodded along. There was nothing. No little pull. Frustrated, he couldn't understand how she had called to him from her dreams, but she couldn't do it now. He grasped her amulet in his hand, feeling the increasing warmth. Was she close? After a few moments, he felt his body vibrating as if something or someone was tweaking a string inside him. It buzzed through him and grew strong as each moment passed. At first, all he heard in his head was nothing more than a drawn out Ohhhhhhh. He commanded his horse to stop as he felt the vibration continuing its rushing game. It seemed to linger in the pit of his stomach, grasping him. Ohhhhhhhhh. It grew stronger and stronger, trumpeting in his head now, making him dizzy. It completely died out a few seconds later and Ardeth's heart fell. He was so certain that Leven was calling to him. Right when he had totally given up, the words hit him with the force of a brick wall. They came in loud and clear: OH, MAHABBI. WAINAK? It hurt, but oh the pain was so very good. He closed his eyes and grasped the amulet even tighter. It grew hot in his hand. He remembered this sensation before. Another string of words hit him one after another: AAAARRRRDDDDEEEETTTTHHHH…LOOK TO THE EAST. LOOK OR YOU WILL NOT SEE. He groaned against the force of the words. His brain would explode from the pressure if she did not hold back. She was near, very near. He opened his eyes slowly, feeling a dull thump behind them. As her disembodied voice commanded, he looked to the east. In the distance, he saw a small structure between two pyramids. He had never seen such a structure. Had it even existed before today? Gritting his teeth against the rage bubbling up inside him, he called out to his horse and rode on at full gallop. RUUUNNNNIIIIGGGG OUT OF TIIIIMMMEEEE.
"You will open your eyes now," Sharr/Radab said. "Open them before I end your life. I want to see the look in them as your life ebbs slowly away. You will do it. If I have to force them open, you will do it."
"Not for you to decide the fate of the world," she said.
Sharr/Radab peered down at her curiously. She was awake, but not awake. "Not for me? Of course it is for me. If it were not, would you be here right now? Open your eyes, whore, open them and look at me."
"Are you a coward, Sharr? You should have plunged the dagger into my chest by now. A coward, Sharr, you are a coward. Tell that to your god when you see Him today."
Ardeth rode for a mile, for two miles, an eon before he was close enough to see the structure plainly. A look of disgusted dismay crossed his face when he realized that there were no doors. He let out a growl of frustration. For the first time in his life, he was at a loss as to what he could do. He closed his eyes again and held onto the amulet even tighter. Tell me, my love. Tell me what I can do to help you. I am here. I know you are inside, but I cannot find my way to you. The amulet was scalding him now, bringing immense pain, but he took it, he took every bit of it. TAKE THE AMULET AAAARRRRDDDDEEEETTTTH. TAKE IT AND PUT IT TOOOO THE DOOR. CONNECT THE PIECES; MAKE THEM ONE, AS ARE WE. Without a moment of hesitation, he ripped the amulet from his neck and touched his to hers. The moment the pieces touched seemingly with a life all their own, they fused as if they had never been separated. The vibration inside his body ended abruptly. She did not call to him again. He jumped off the horse and took the fused amulet over to the solid structure with no entrance, no exit. He slammed the amulet against the outside wall and the heat grew enormously. It wasn't burning his hand. Smoke began to billow up toward him as the heated silver began boring out a hole. He watched, transfixed, as the hole grew larger and larger still. It stopped when it was just wide enough for him to slip his body through.
Sharr didn't let the woman goad him. She would die. She would die right now. He raised the dagger high, ready to bring it down, ready to end his eternity of walking the earth. Right as he began to arc it toward her, an unseen force gripped his hands, holding him back. Oh. She was very good. He had forgotten that Hathos touched the whore. It mattered very little. Sharr's god was darker and stronger. Her grip wouldn't hold him long. He struggled against the invisible force as he glared down at the woman. She had yet to open her eyes. She seemed to be in a weird trance. Ah. He felt the grip loosening. Wonderful. It wouldn't be long now. Inch by inch, he brought the dagger downward. Her death would be painful, he would make certain of that.
The moment Ardeth gained entrance to the building, the amulet began radiating a strange glowing beam, seemingly guiding him to his wife. When he saw her, his body was seized with an odd type of paralysis. Leven's body was surrounded by a warm, white glow, the same glow that had emanated from the amulet. Standing before her with a wicked dagger was Radab, but not Radab. Sharr had taken over her body. Her cold heart and evil spirit was perfect for him.
"You are too late, Medjai," Sharr said with a little smile. He arced up and up and up.
With deadly precision, the dagger swooped down. Just before the blade touched Leven's chest, great white light burst from the amulet outward. To Ardeth's stunned and shocked eyes, it resembled the head of a woman. It was no goddess, not Isis. He didn't know what or who it was. The head floated toward Sharr and seemed to gaze down at him. Sharr did not release his hold on the dagger. He kept it arced upward, intent on carrying out his evil deed. From out of nowhere, an arm shot out from the beam and took hold of Sharr's body. The creature of light peered down at Sharr curiously before opening its mouth and swallowing him/Radab whole. After Sharr disappeared down the creature's throat, the light faded, shifting backward toward the amulet before dissipating. Once the light died away, the amulet snapped in half and fell at Ardeth's feet. Still under his paralytic spell, he watched as Leven's back arched up off the table. She opened her mouth and closed it again. It seemed as if she were taking her last breath. Ardeth wanted to go to her, but his body wouldn't listen to the cues his brain was giving it. She cannot be dying. I cannot help her. I cannot move. She settled back on the table and her body stilled. Ardeth heard a small, primal cry leaving him, but some force or entity had him glued to the floor. He felt bitter, mournful tears forming in his eyes that quickly changed to a gasp of surprise as she took a deep breath.
"It is over," she whispered, awake/not awake. "Sharr has been sent back to Set. He will not return."
When the echo of her words ceased, the structure disappeared around them. They were surrounded by nothing more than sand and sky. Leven was laid out upon the desert sand. His paralysis broke. One man could not get to one woman any faster. He was down on his knees beside her, cradling her unconscious body in his arms. Her body and face were so hot, she was burning up. "I will not lose her now," he declared through gritted teeth. "Leven? Say something." He ran his hand over her cheek. It was flame red and getting hotter. "Please, Leven. Speak to me. Open your eyes and speak to me."
The great heat began to rush out of her body as quickly as it rushed in. Her skin cooled tremendously and as the heat faded, beads of moisture formed on her forehead and above her lips. He could feel it dampening her skin through her clothing. She sighed again and opened her eyes. "Ardeth," she whispered. "What…what happened?"
He closed his eyes and gathered her in his arms. "I thought you were gone," he whispered, his lips against her temple.
"Gone," she asked, confused. "Gone where?"
He drew away and gazed down at her. "You do not remember?"
She shook her head. "No. The last thing I remember was looking at a blanket. I was standing in front of a street side stand. Baby? Why are you crying?"
Ardeth drew her close again. "I thought I had lost you."
For the next few days, the man who was completely unaccustomed to fussing fussed ceaselessly over his wife. They stayed in Cairo with the O'Connell's until Leven was well enough to travel back home and after she received a stamp of approval from a local doctor. The trip down had seemed horrid and endless, but the trip back was more pleasant. The camp outs under the stars were the best part of the trip, of course. Once they made it back to the village, it was nearly nightfall and there weren't many people out and about. Most of the people that were out shouted greetings to the Chieftain and his wife.
Leven insisted on stopping at the quarters once occupied by Elder Haka. She had left her few meager belongings there and wanted to pick them up. When they entered the little room where Haka had died, they noticed that the old cot-like bed had been removed and was replaced with a comfy pallet. Leven smiled a little. It reminded her of the pallet she had Ardeth had made on her floor. She looked about the room for things, but couldn't find them. She called out to Mukhtar and he appeared carrying what appeared to be a large, ancient book. It was so old that the pages appeared to be crumbling.
"Ahlan riji, Chieftain, Is-saiyida Leven," Mukhtar said. ["Welcome back, Chieftain, Miss Leven."] "Your quarters are ready for you."
She looked at him with a creased brow. "My quarters," she interjected. "It belongs to you, Mukhtar, you were Elder Haka's apprentice."
He nodded respectfully. "Yes, I was, but you are his damm [blood] successor," he explained.
Leven looked to Ardeth. "Damm?"
"It means blood," he said.
She turned to look at Mukhtar again. "I don't understand. What do you mean I'm his blood successor?"
He smiled. "I know you do not understand. Permit me to explain." When neither Ardeth nor Leven made any comments, Mukhtar continued, "After you left to be wed, I began clearing out Haka's belongings and I found his sacred prayer book. Inside the book was a journal of sorts. Most of it contains different prayer incantations, but some of it gave details of his younger life. The keeper of records and the mystic must be bestowed upon a blood relation. If no blood relation exists, then an apprentice must come in. He wrote of his connection to you. You must take the prayer book, as you are its rightful owner and the owner of these quarters. When you have children, one of them will be chosen for this duty. What you see here," he said sweeping his hand over the pallet and the room, "was done for you and the Chieftain."
Stunned, Leven took the thick, ancient book and carried it over to the pallet. She dropped down onto it and laid the book in her lap. Ardeth went to Leven and sat beside her. Neither of them noticed when Mukhtar left the room. Leven opened the book and saw the ratty, dog-eared journal fashioned out of twine and parchment paper. She was again reminded of the day she read Grandpa Q's idle thoughts after his death. She found a note written in English that was addressed to her. She held it out so that Ardeth could read it with her.
"My Dearest Leven," he wrote, "when I pass onto the afterlife, you will become the keeper of the mystic because you are my Hafîda [granddaughter]. I know you do not understand, but I will explain as best as I can. Your great-great grandmother was a wonderful, brave woman. She was only a bit younger than I when I saw her for the first time. You know of love. This I can see when you speak of your Ardeth. I had the same feeling for Taiyib and she felt the same for me. She had been promised to Elder Zilan, but she only loved me, and I her. We became lovers and Taiyib conceived a child, Sharîk. No one but us knew of this child. One horrible day, a band of marauders came into the village set to destroy it and our people. The leader of the group was a minion of Set and he threatened to curse us and our entire way of life. She was kidnapped and taken into the desert. I cannot say what horrors she suffered at the hands of these men, but when she returned, the marauders never came back. The minion, the leader, was Sharr. I do believe you know of whom I speak. When it became obvious that Taiyib was with child, the village assumed it had resulted due to her assault. Taiyib was so very respected amongst our people for what she did for our people. Although she was tainted, she had also saved us by sacrificing herself to these men. She did not marry and was allowed to be the first and only single mother with status. Elder Zilan did not want her after her assault and I could not shame her further by declaring that I had fathered her child. When she gave birth, I attended. I remained on the fringes, always watchful, always loving. However, I could not be a true father and my heart began to grow cold. It grew colder still when my sweet, sweet Taiyib died.
"Sharîk was eighteen when Taiyib died. By then, she had been promised to marry Qâtil. What she did not know was that she had originally been promised to Ardeth. Yet, Qâtil was very much infatuated with Sharîk. He did not love her, but he wanted her to keep her from the Medjai warrior. Qâtil's family learned of Taiyib's secret and mine. Qâtil's father confronted Taiyib with what he knew and she had no other choice but to relent to his demands. If Taiyib had refused, she would have been driven out, as would I. It was a cowardly move on my part and probably hers as well. I was foolish and I shall pay for that in the afterlife. After Sharîk died, my heart became so much stone and ice. I felt nothing, I knew nothing. I learned of the Chieftain's love for you, and I discovered that he would father a child, a child he would never be allowed to see. I could not allow Ardeth to suffer the same fate as I. My dear Hafîda, I did everything in my power to bring you to your love. I wanted Ardeth to know his child, to see it, to love it. I did not want him to grow cold and bitter. He is truly a man pure of heart and did not deserve such a cruel fate. Since you are my blood, Hafîda, you will carry on the traditions of my bloodline if you wish to take it. If you do not, then it will end. I only hope that you can forgive an old man's foolishness."
Leven read through the letter three times, allowing the words to sink in. She understood the visions, the dreams, and the feelings of precognition. It was in her blood to see and experience these things. The bits and pieces of the last several weeks began to fit together and come full circle. So much pain, so much grief. Every bit of it could have been avoided if they had been allowed to love who they wanted. She felt Ardeth's arm encircling her waist and she leaned into him.
"Are you all right," he asked.
She looked up at him. He was as emotionally wrecked as she, but behind it all, there was great happiness, peace, and relief. "Yes."
"Will you take your rightful place?"
He kissed her gently. "I love you."
She smiled a little and returned his kiss. "Will you show me?"
He nodded. "Every day."
"Eternity, my love," she whispered, "Eternity."
Chapter 22: The Gifts To The Medjai
EPILOGUE: THE GIFTS TO THE MEDJAI
Ardeth rode in at full gallop. He had been summoned several hours ago. He was very concerned and upset. Leven had gone into premature labor, and the words scared him. It brought images he best not think of, not while trying to return as quickly as possible. In a panicked state, he would be no good to either her or the baby. When he rode into the village, he paid no attention to anything or anyone. He had one mission in mind, to get to his wife. No sooner than he commanded the horse to stop, he was tearing off inside. The sight he beheld was startling. Leven was attended by the mid-wife and Sahib. She was sitting up on the pallet and was obviously exhausted, but she held not one, but two babies in her arms. Two? Twins? For a moment, he stood transfixed and shocked. His worry and concern quickly changed to happiness and overwhelming love.
Leven looked up when she noticed him. "Drop your weapons, Chieftain," she said with a tired little smile. "Come see your daughter and son."
Unable to speak, he did as she instructed and approached, kneeling beside her. He couldn't tear his eyes off the tiny bundles. They were his children, little lives he had helped create. Of course, he had known and accepted that a life was growing inside her, but nothing compared to actually laying eyes on them. Nothing.
"Twins," he uttered. "Did…did you know?"
She nodded. "Yes, I knew, but I wanted to surprise you. Surprise."
Gently, carefully, as if fearing he would cause undue harm, he took one of the babies into his arms. "This one," he asked.
"Your daughter," she said. The baby's slight weight rested against him comfortably, knowingly. He didn't know what to say, but was afraid that if he opened his mouth to speak, he might cry. She handed him her twin. "And this is your son."
"They are beautiful, Leven. I have never seen anything more beautiful."
"Remember how we were tossing around names a few weeks ago?" He nodded without say anything. "Well, I guess we don't have to decide now, do we?"
He looked up at her with a smile. Unshed tears shined in his eyes. "No, we do not. Azizah and Adnan it is."
Shuraka fa'inn abadi. [Partners for eternity.]
"They lived, loved, and raised their family together and never lost their connection. Nothing parted them, even death." The young woman sat back and sighed. She glanced down at her two young children who had been watching and listening raptly. She smiled down at them and closed the journal, now yellowed with age. Her son was eight and her daughter a year younger. The boy resembled his great-grandfather while the girl resembled her great-grandmother. "So Ardeth and Leven," she said with a sigh, "that's the story behind your namesakes. One day, you'll inherit Grandmother's journals so you can share their story with your children."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A HUGE thank you goes to Shelley and Deana who graciously read the story and provided feedback. THANK YOU for offering your much appreciated advice and assistance. You guys are the best!
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