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Final Showdown

 

Chapter 2

"With the seer out of the way, the others will remain unaware," the first of the four said.

"Already they question! Their eyes betray them," said the second. "Have you not noticed that the blocks we have used are far too weak? They must be constantly monitored. That will eventually weaken us!

"We need only make certain that they cannot leave the city. It won't take long until they fully accept their...positions," the first insisted.

"As long as we have control, all is well," the fourth said cautiously.

"Then we may tell Mibi that we have succeeded-" the first started.

"Not until they no longer question!" the third hissed. "We shall not be so foolish as to believe our victory secure before we have rendered them completely helpless!"

 

 

 

The Three Beings watched and listened carefully. First smiled, nodded slowly. Second and Third again exchanged worried glances. Tried to console themselves with the fact that First seemed...pleased. What did she know? And why did she seem so hesitant to share that knowledge?

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The Scribe

He'd spent a restless night. His dreams had been disjointed, at times more nightmare than dream. Each time he closed his eyes and allowed sleep to take him, the first images to fill his mind were those of a beautiful woman. Her hair was the color of the sun, her eyes the color of the rarest emeralds. She evoked feelings of love and happiness and warmth...and when the dreams turned to nightmares, it was because this woman had been taken from him. He didn't know who she was...no name, no idea how he knew her, or where she was...but such a sense of protectiveness filled him; made him determined to keep her safe...made him desperate to save her from the dangers that surrounded them. Hideous creatures threatened him, threatened her, and he felt helpless to defend her. Dark shadows moved around them, yet he was powerless to stop the impending attack.

Chest heaving, his breath coming in gasps, he sat up, scrubbed his hands over his face. This wasn't just a case of indigestion. He was taking leave of his senses. Akhum's face flashed before his eyes. Was it possible that the man had poisoned him? And if so...why? Was he jealous? Angry? Just why did Akhum hate him?

He pulled himself from the low bed, reached in the darkness for the robe that he'd worn earlier. His room had a small balcony, and he stepped out onto it, savoring the feeling of the cool night air against his sweat-dampened skin. His hands gripped the rough wood railing that surrounded the narrow space.

Pushing aside the remnants of his dreams, of the nightmares that had refused to allow him sleep, he stared down at the courtyard. Shared, it seemed, with half a dozen houses that surrounded it. Just like that village...

He huffed a sigh of frustration as yet another thought, another memory, slipped just out of his reach. There was something so familiar about that! Someone else, someone he knew, had suffered the same thing. Trying to search his mind, he could locate only a few scattered and random memories. Each of them seemed...incomplete. The harder he attempted to see the 'other' memories, to hold them, examine them; the quicker they seemed to fade away, disappearing before he could completely focus on them, leaving him more than a bit annoyed.

His head dropped forward, he rested his chin against his chest. Something was so wrong! If he could only put his finger on what it was!

There was one thought that continued to push forward. Keeping his concerns to himself was tantamount to his survival. If anyone were to learn of his...disquiet, his doubts about this place...

Yet another thought that spurred a stirring in the far reaches of his mind, only to remain hidden in the shadows. Yes, something was very wrong. Until he'd figured out just exactly what that something was, he would have to be very careful.

Slipping back into the room that was apparently his, he missed seeing the curtain move on the window beside his balcony. Didn't see the flash of light that lit the interior of the room for just a second.

Stretched out once again on the narrow bed, he laid on his back, hands behind his head. He would do what was expected of him, follow the cues from those around him to accomplish that feat. And try to gather as much intel as possible.

Intel?

The word echoed in his head. Rather than try to figure out where he had learned such a...strange...word, he chose to simply accept it. He carefully catalogued it in his mind, taking note that he understood the meaning of the word. He also put the thoughts, the images that could be memories, in that place as well. Took a moment to try to see more than just a hazy image of the beautiful woman with the golden hair. There was something about her...did she have the answers to his questions?

He frowned in the darkness. Decided that he would look for this woman. He would do so subtly, it wouldn't be safe to let anyone around him know that he suspected.

The frown deepened. He wasn't even sure what it was that he suspected. He knew only one thing: something was very wrong.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

He ate little, watching the woman who claimed to be his mother as she moved around the room. Pretended not to notice the surreptitious glances that she tossed at him. The man who was supposed to be his father had eaten, then left the house without saying anything to him at all.

There wasn't any proof, but he thought that the man might have been an overseer of one of the storehouses. He wasn't certain just how he had come to that conclusion, what bits of information might have resulted in that assumption. He only knew that it 'felt' right.

It would make sense...his father being in service in some way to the palace of the Pharaoh. Otherwise his son wouldn't have found it so easy to become a scribe in the Library. It wasn't often that the children of common laborers were able to move beyond that station in life.

"Suten? What troubles you, my darling son?"

He started slightly. The endearment made his skin crawl. "Nothing," he replied quickly.

"You've been scowling since you woke up this morning," the older woman chided gently.

"I suppose I just have a lot on my mind," he admitted.

"Such as?"

Suten looked at her. Was that suspicion in her eyes? Tread carefully, he warned himself. He could confess to the upcoming event, and his place in it, that was pressing on his mind as heavily as his feelings of disquiet. "I am to be a witness at the Festival of Isis."

"That's wonderful!" the woman beamed.

"It's my duty to observe, to report all that I see and hear. But what if I forget something? What if my attention is on one thing that isn't of significance, and I miss seeing something important?"

The woman crossed the floor, cupped his cheek with her palm. "You will do fine, my son. You will not be the only scribe there. You will be one of several, and it is your point of view that will be important. The others will see the same things as you, but not in the same way. Only by recording all of these things can we keep an accurate record of what has occurred."

He studied her for a moment. She knew far more about being a scribe than he had realized. It was a shame that women weren't allowed to hold such positions. The thought that he had worked with women...strong, intelligent women...flashed through his mind. He grabbed the thought and hid it among the others that he was carefully collecting. "I don't want to disappoint you. Or father," he added, remembering the words of the old scribe the day before.

"You never have before. I don't believe that you will any time soon," the woman smiled.

"I must go. I have to finish copying the scroll before the festival." He had no idea if that was true or not, but it sounded good.

"Here, take this in case you get hungry."

She handed him a small basket. Brief investigation showed that it held a handful of dates, what looked like an apple, and a small loaf of dark bread. "Thank you," he said, giving her a sincere smile.

The woman walked with him to the door. Stood watching as he made his way up the narrow street. Her own thoughts brought a frown to her face. Her task was not as easy as she had thought it would be. She was beginning to struggle. She looked around hastily as that thought moved across her mind. She buried her worries as deeply as possible. It would be to her best interest to keep her doubts a secret.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

At first he feared he'd be unable to find the Library again. The streets were narrow, and wound in serpentine fashion. But there was a distinct order to the layout of the houses. He walked through a wide gate in a high wall. The housing was kept separate from the commerce section of the city.

In the near distance the palace of the Pharaoh shimmered in the morning light. Temples lined the wide boulevard on either side, the temple complex dedicated to Isis standing the closest to the palace, the walls taller than those of other temples nearby. Closer to him were several buildings that he somehow knew were buildings of administrators...civic buildings, where the business of running such a large city was conducted. Behind those buildings was a street lined with shops. Behind that was a street where tradesmen and craftsmen worked to create the items necessary for everyday life. Behind that were the warehouses and storage yards. On the opposite side of the avenue, the same side as the impressive temple to Isis, standing in stately fashion between two smaller temples, one to Bastet, the other to Ptah, was the Library. The stone building dwarfed its neighbors, stood importantly with steps that led up to the grand entrance.

Heart pounding with excitement, in awe, he climbed the steps, entered the huge building. Inside, the walls were decorated with hieroglyphs, story after story told in the beautiful symbols. He couldn't help but smile as he slowed his pace, taking in the grandeur of the setting.

It wasn't difficult to find the same room where he'd spent the day before. There were more scrolls on the table, and stacks of fresh papyrus.

The priest who had watched him was waiting. Nodded as he entered the room. Said nothing as he settled onto the stool.

He reached for the first scroll. Carefully opened it and placed it upon the wooden stand that held the rolled papyrus in place. He ran his finger over the markings. So much knowledge! The Great Library had been the repository of information...it was said that everything that was known at the time had been written down and stored there. Losing it had been one of the biggest disasters in history...

His hand jerked as the thought crossed his mind. Forcing himself to remain calm, he struggled to keep his hands from shaking. Pulling a piece of papyrus toward him, he picked up the quill he had used the day before. Frowned as he noted that the tip had become rounded. There had to be some way of sharpening the end...a glance around the table left him frowning.

"Why do you hesitate?" the priest asked.

"The quill needs to be sharpened," he murmured, still looking for a tool with which to do the job. He jumped when the priest clapped his hands, the loud sound echoing in the room.

Alu came scurrying in. "Yes, Master?"

"New quills. Immediately."

"Yes, Master! At once!"

A heavy hand came to rest on his shoulder. Suten looked up at the priest, totally taken aback to see the dour man smiling.

"You are very dedicated to your task. Your attention to detail is unsurpassed. It is no wonder that Pharaoh himself knows of you."

"I thought that was an accident of my locating those scrolls," Suten replied dryly.

The priest's eyes filled with pride. "That you gave him only those that were of no use to us satisfied him enough to stop searching for the others. Do not worry, Suten, you will be protected. Your talents will be useful to us."

Cerulean blue eyes went wide. "What?"

"You will be Head Scribe as soon as it can be arranged."

"But Akhum-" he started lamely, his head spinning with the implications being made. It seemed that there was an 'underground movement' afoot. And where in the hell had that particular phrase come from, and further, how did he know of it? He felt as if he were running up hill in sand, the very hounds of hell nipping at his heels. If only he had a clue as to what was going on!

"Do not worry about Akhum. He will be dealt with. It might have been sheer luck that had you finding the scrolls where he had hidden them. It was your attention to detail, your perseverance for doing your duty, your dedication to the truth above all else that allowed us to keep those which recorded all that Khufu visited upon the people of Egypt. His son may wish to expunge the record, but we will make certain that the horrors are never forgotten."

Khufu? The Pharaoh who'd ordered the building of the Great Pyramids? That meant that the current Pharaoh was Djedefre. The first Pharaoh to call himself the 'Son of Ra'. Suten frowned. There was something about a blonde...a blonde woman who had been a minor consort of Khufu...who had been the mother of Djedefre. Was this the woman he had seen in his dreams? The mother of the Pharaoh?

No, that felt totally...wrong. All of the feelings associated with the images of that beautiful woman filled him with warmth...with happiness. Certainly he wouldn't have such feelings for a women who had died before he'd been born!

He focused his wandering attention on what little he knew...the few bits of information that he could remember clearly. Khufu had been known as a cruel despot. He had closed temples, conscripted boys as young as ten and eleven into his army, had literally turned the population into slaves who labored on his pyramids continually...

"Suten, your name will be remembered as one of those who remembered the truth, and prevented it from being hidden."

"Sounds to me as if my life could be in danger," Suten commented drolly.

The smile faded from the priest's face. "Do not worry, Suten. You are protected. Always."

There was truth in that statement. He wasn't certain how he knew that, but he did. However, what he'd just learned shed light on the animosity between him and Akhum. Who, apparently, was higher ranking than he was at the moment.

The thought that his life could be in peril, and that being so near the Pharaoh during the Festival of Isis might get him killed, crossed his mind. But, if the Pharaoh was convinced that he had found all of the scrolls, and they had been destroyed, thus allowing Djedefre to rewrite history to suit himself...

Typical damned Goa'uld.

The sudden thought nearly tossed him from his seat. What in the world was a Goa'uld? And how was rewriting history typical?

With more questions than answers, Suten stared at the scroll in front of him. Barely noticed when Alu returned, several quills in his hands.

It wasn't until his shoulder was tapped lightly that he pulled himself from the whirlpool of his thoughts, and focused his attention on the task before him. And continued to wonder just who he could trust.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The Inventor

Sammy strode through the house, ignoring the women who watched, mouths agape. She'd returned late the prior evening, helping Iteti bring the copper ingots that had been assigned to him back to the shed where he stored his supply. She'd been tired and dirty, had bathed, found a bit of fruit and bread in the kitchen, and had gone to her room, papyrus in hand, to work on the design for the water wheel.

"Sm'n'khet! Where are you going?" one of the women called out, her voice filled with ire.

"To work," the tall blonde replied absently.

"There is much to be done here! You must stop behaving as if you are a child! You are a woman with responsibilities! There are tasks here that must be completed! Sm'n'khet!"

She kept walking, not listening to the tirade that continued behind her. It had taken her nearly an hour to find the quill and ink, hidden in a box beneath her bed, after a careful examination of her room...a room that she couldn't recall ever seeing before. Which had just added to her feelings of disquiet.

She had carefully drawn what she saw in her mind. Adding detail after detail. Frustrated because she didn't have exact measurements, nor the necessary tools to make such measurements. She'd worked well into the night on her design. Had awakened as soon as the warmth of the sun touched her face, eager to begin building.

While the actual water wheel would have to be large, in order to accommodate large enough buckets to move the water, she planned to make a prototype of her idea using the two old chariot wheels that Iteti had managed to get for her. The old soldier he'd talked to...Benipe, she thought the man's name had been...had been a childhood friend of her father's. Of course, it helped that her father was a part of the Pharaoh's army.

The thought hadn't occurred to her until she had been busy making the drawing; not once had the old soldier asked just what Iteti wanted the wheels for. That he had almost ignored her presence had at first infuriated her. Later she realized that it might be a very good thing that he had.

She still couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen the man named Benipe before. Although rarely did her father bring home anyone with whom he served. When he was home, he didn't speak of his position, or the men he marched beside. Which, now that she thought about it, was more her mother's choice than his.

Still...the old soldier had looked familiar. Part of her was certain that it was a result of the long held friendship...that the old man had probably visited her father at some point when she had been a child. Another part insisted that she'd made the man's acquaintance just recently...within the past few years.

When she tried to search through her memories, what she found baffled her. Bits and pieces, most of the memories recent. Nothing that seemed at all familiar. When she did stumble upon a memory that seemed complete, it was impossible to focus on it. Thoughts and ideas seemed to be just out of reach, slipping into a dark void when she tried to grab them. As if they were falling behind something...

Sammy stopped short. Shivered slightly. There was a familiar feeling in that thought. And a sense of foreboding that accompanied it. She glanced over her shoulder. The woman...her mother, she corrected herself, was watching her, a frown on her face. There were no feelings of familiarity, no feelings of love, or even frustration, associated with the woman. There was...nothing. Her...mother...continued to stare at her. She barely resisted sticking her tongue out at the woman. Turned and hurried down the path to her uncle's blacksmith stall.

A man she'd never seen before was standing beside Iteti, the two men deep in conversation. The man was tall, with light brown hair, which was short and standing on end as if he had just run his hands through it several times, and light green eyes. The smile that crossed his face as she approached was positively feral, and had her shivering in spite of the growing heat.

"Sammy! You remember Anderz, do you not?"

She didn't, not at all. But she'd pretend. Something told her that it was in her best interest not to let this man know that she was struggling with things she couldn't understand, at least, she couldn't understand them at the moment. There was a logical explanation for her confusion, of that much she was certain. She just needed to figure out what that was. Until then..."It's been awhile," she replied, forcing a smile to her lips.

"Yes, it has. You're as beautiful as ever, Sammy," Anderz said.

She could feel the heat in her cheeks. She dropped her eyes. "Thank you," she mumbled.

"And still more tomboy than maiden."

The comment was made in a teasing tone of voice. She dared to look up at the man. He was still grinning at her. His eyes were cold...as if...when the smile began to fade, she shook herself mentally. "Didn't bother you the last time we talked," she tossed. Hoping that she was right.

Anderz laughed. "Never said it bothered me now. Just making note that you haven't changed."

She forced herself to keep smiling.

"So, another brilliant idea?" Anderz asked, nodding at the papyrus rolled up and held tightly in her hand.

"Yes."

Another laugh that chilled her to the bone. "Then I'll leave you to your inventing."

"Thank you for the extra ingots," Iteti said. "I'll be able to meet the needs of the Pharaoh, and have a bit left over to make a pot or two to sell in the markets."

"It's my pleasure. I'd rather a friend have the extra, as someone who wouldn't...appreciate...the kindness."

Iteti shifted slightly. Pointedly ignored Sammy. "Yes...of course," he murmured nervously.

Anderz reached out, cupped Sammy's cheek. "One day, my beautiful little inventor, you'll take me up on my proposal."

"Don't hold your breath," Sammy retorted immediately. Felt her heart stop at the look of determination that filled his eyes.

"I'm a very patient man," he said. With a nod at Iteti, he turned and strode away.

"Don't make him angry," Iteti said quietly. Fighting down emotions that he didn't yet recognize. He'd never liked Anderz.

"Why?"

"There are men in this world who answer to no one. They do as they please. And there aren't any who are strong enough to stop them. The best one can do is keep their favor, and that means never crossing them." Iteti shivered. Anderz was one of those men. Here, his mind pointed out. Which made him all the more dangerous.

She studied her uncle. Had never seen him frightened. And there was no doubt in her mind that Iteti was indeed frightened. "Sometimes just standing up to those men is enough to make them understand that you won't be intimidated."

Iteti's dark eyes focused on his niece. He couldn't have her causing trouble..."I have your mother, your aunt, and your cousins to think about. If I wish to keep my stall, continue to provide for the royal household, continue to put food on our table, and clothes on our backs, I must do what I can to appease those men."

"At what price?" Sammy asked softly.

"Whatever price they demand," he replied, not looking at her. Again the surge of emotions that he refused to examine filled his heart and mind.

A cold weight settled in the pit of her stomach. Something told her that she was nothing more than a bargaining chip where Anderz was concerned. And that she might wind up accepting his proposal, whether she wanted to or not. She glanced at the house. It was selfish to put her own desires ahead of the needs of her family. Even if there were no emotions at all connecting her to them, putting innocent people in danger was just wrong. "Does Father know about this?"

Iteti nodded. "He does what he can. Brings back whatever booty he can carry."

She closed her eyes. The thought of just...disappearing...began to dance in her mind. That her very soul seemed to grab to the thought and cling to it should have alerted her to the fact that more was going on than she could understand, but for the moment it was lost amid the jumble of her emotions.

Iteti watched until Anderz disappeared over the small rise that led into the city. Would punishment have been any worse than what he was, and what he had been, enduring? He didn't think so. Sadly admitted to himself that he didn't have the courage to stand alone against them. He sighed. "Let's see what you've come up with," he said, reaching for the papyrus.

Sammy let him take the cloth-like paper. Watched his eyes as he studied the drawing.

"This is very good," he said at last. He smiled at her. "I always knew you'd be the one to make a very important discovery...or device. This is...let's build a model of this. Perhaps we'll be able to interest the Vizier in looking at it."

"That would be a good thing?"

Iteti laughed. "It would be a very good thing."

Excited at the prospect of seeing her idea adopted for use, she launched into a description of how best to proceed, never noticing the indulgent smile on the face of the man beside her.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

Four hours later, the two chariot wheels were finally locked together. It had taken a bit of searching, going through the chests and cupboards in the kitchen to find enough small pots to use, since actual wooden buckets would be much too large.

With patience, she burned holes in the top edges of the pots, slid the wooden sticks that Iteti had carved for her through the holes, anchoring them with small pegs that she tapped into each end. The tabs were then set into place in the notches made in the inside rim of the chariot wheels, another piece of wood slid over the top to keep them in place. Ideally the tabs and the covers would be made of metal, as the wood had a tendency to swell when wet, and the wooden sticks needed to be removable so that new buckets could be attached as necessary.

Her mother was still muttering about the loss of the pots, even though Iteti had pointed out that the woman had far more than she'd ever needed, and only those too battered to be put into the cooking fire had been 'sacrificed'. She pushed those thoughts aside. The woman...her mother, she reminded herself...simply didn't understand. The thought that none of the people that milled around the house even mattered flittered through her mind, too quickly for her to consciously notice it.

The sun was dipping on the horizon when she attached the last of the pots. It didn't take long to add the 'handle' that would allow the operator to turn the wheel. "Tomorrow, we'll build the platform that this will attach to," she said, wiping the her face with the back of one grimy hand.

"You'll build the platform," Iteti replied. "I have kettles to make for the palace."

She sighed. "Fine. I understand. But you'll talk to the Vizier about this?"

"I will talk to his assistant," Iteti said. "I'll have a chance to do so at the festival. That's the best I can do, Sammy."

"It's enough," she told him, smiling up at the only person she felt comfortable with. The nagging in the back of her mind had insisted that she not trust him with her doubts and worries. But she was comfortable enough around the man to relax and actually enjoy working on her project.

"You should clean up before you go inside," Iteti said gently.

"I suppose so," she admitted, looking at her hands.

"I'll be along shortly. I need to make certain that the wood pile is stocked for tomorrow. I won't be able to stop once I start working on the kettle."

She nodded her understanding. "I'll talk to you later. And thank you."

"You're welcome, Sammy," Iteti smiled. Watching the blonde working, the absolute joy in her eyes as she put together what had been just an idea the day before, had given him a sense of happiness that he hadn't felt in a very long time.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The Fisherman

Rami was sitting inside his small hovel, working on his 'fishing pole'. Or at least the line for it. His fingers worked the ball of goat wool, twisting and pulling, twisting and pulling. He wasn't sure that the string would be strong enough to actually hold a flopping, fighting fish. But it was a start. If the wool didn't work, there were plants that were used to make strong lengths of cord. He just had to remember what they were.

At the moment, remembering was something that he was trying desperately to do. There were...images...in his mind. But they were faded, blurry...and he had no idea what they meant. There were other images that were more clear, but felt so...wrong. He still hadn't been able to determine just how he had come to be where he was. Had no idea of his life before...well, before.

In fact, his only clear memories were from the day before, when he had...What exactly had he done? Woken up? Sitting there in that boat, fishing with a net. He didn't remember leaving the hut. Didn't remember rowing out to the middle of the river. Didn't remember tossing the net over the side of the boat. In fact, he didn't remember anything before that moment of sudden confusion.

That, he decided, was just odd. Maybe he was living in the hut, alone, because he was bonkers. That made about as much sense as any other theory he'd examined. His dreams had been filled with such erratic thoughts and images that he'd awakened at least a dozen times, gasping for breath, struggling to hold onto the fading figures who had moved in and out of his consciousness, like ghosts from the past.

He frowned. There was such a surreal quality about everything around him. He felt out of place...removed from what was going on around him.

His heart began to pound against his ribs when a shadow fell across the floor, darkening the table where he sat working. He looked up to see the man who had called to him the day before.

"Ah, you're awake, I see."

"Middle of the day, why wouldn't I be?"

The man glanced around the tiny room, then frowned slightly. "No reason, I suppose. We just worried that you might be...ill...when we didn't see your boat this morning."

Rami snorted. "You thought I was here sleeping off a nice drunk," he muttered. Not, he thought, that such an idea was a bad one. Had he been able to locate anything stronger than water, no doubt he would have tried to numb the confusion, and the fear, that had such a grip on him. Just long enough to gather his strength, so that he could figure a way out of this mess...he sighed mentally. Something told him that he was accustomed to doing just that. Figuring his way out of messes. A poking in the back of his mind, flashes of faces...people who were important to him...people who worked with him to find those escapes...

The man had the decency to drop his eyes, shuffled his bare feet slightly. He was still standing just outside the door.

"Probably would have slept a hell of a lot better. But there isn't anything but water here to drink."

The man nodded. "Don't know how some rumors get started," he mumbled.

"Small minds, with nothing better to do than destroy the reputations of good men," Rami spat in return. He was still furious about the rumors that had been started about...His hands stilled, his frown deepened. The rumors hadn't been about himself, he could feel that. But they had been about someone he cared for, a friend...a very close friend. Was that what had happened? Had he confronted someone about rumors, or about hurting his friend? Had he been stripped of his rank, tossed out of the...

Rami crossed his arms over his chest. This was just annoying! He'd been so close to remembering, only to have the information he needed, the memories he was struggling to find, disappear into the dark shadows that seemed to fill his mind. Yep, he was going bonkers. That was the only explanation. Everything was just leaking right out of his head. Soon there wouldn't be anything left at all. A thought which did much to add to his already worried heart.

"I brought you a couple of fish. Thought you might be hungry." The man held up a stick, on which two nice sized fish were hanging.

He nodded slightly. As a matter of fact, he was getting hungry. He'd eaten the last of the wheat cakes for his breakfast. He stood to his feet, accepted the gift, grateful for the charity of others. So far, he wasn't doing such a great job of taking care of himself. Another thought that added veracity to his conclusion that he was crazy.

"Why do you stay here, alone?"

That, Rami thought, was the question of the day. He studied the man silently. Wasn't certain if he could trust him or not; the question hadn't been asked from mere idle curiosity, or even genuine concern. There was a definite hint of expectation from the question. Decided that discretion was probably in his best interest for the time being. "It suits me," he said finally.

The fisherman nodded slightly. He'd noticed the reed poles. And the pile of wool that Rami had obviously been twisting. "So what are you doing?"

"Just passing time," Rami replied easily. No way was he going to share his idea. Besides, he wasn't certain that this man wouldn't brand him a lunatic and have him dragged away if he tried to explain. Crazy was one thing. Lunacy was quite another. And why he was so determined to make that distinction was beyond his grasp in that moment.

Another nod. Uncomfortable shifting. "I suppose I'll leave you to your...task."

Rami gave a curt nod. "Thank you," he said, holding up the stick.

"You're welcome. Good day to you, Rami."

"Good day to you...uh...yeah, good day," Rami replied.

Dark eyes moved around the room again, a flash of calculation and presumption moving through them too quickly to be noticed. With one final nod of satisfaction, the man turned away.

He watched as the man walked back down the dusty path. Why couldn't he remember that man's name? Considering his current condition, however, he wasn't alarmed at that lack of insight.

Deciding to appease his stomach, he pushed aside his work, found the knife he'd used to clean the fish the day before, and carefully began the work of gutting and filleting the unexpected...and gratefully accepted...gift he had received.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The fish had been good, although he wished he'd had something to eat along with it. This wasn't the first time he'd had a meal that consisted solely of fish. Like the days in that cavern, on that damned cold...

His hands stilled, the string he'd been spinning dropping unheeded from his fingers. Flashes of places, faces, names that tried to make it through the murky shadows had been bothering him all day. That had been the clearest 'almost memory' so far. Scrambling to hold onto the thought, the images, he groaned out loud when it all slipped away from him.

Suddenly restless, a burning need to know what lay beyond his little hut, and the nearby river that had soothed him with its quiet splash of water as it raced to...wherever it was racing to, Rami jumped to his feet.

He washed his hands and face, using the water he had taken from the river, and had boiled in the single copper pot that sat on the hearth. Two small rings, both gold, neither of them with stones of any sort, had been tucked away beneath his pillow. He'd discovered them when he had tossed and turned the night before. He slid them onto his finger. Neither actually fit him, he could only get them past the first knuckle of his pinky.

There was something about rings...or jewelry...and the Nile. Someone important to him...he could feel that much...had told him about jewelry and the Nile. He snorted when once more the knowledge that he was certain was within his mentally bruised and aching head refused to come forth.

He adjusted the kilt that covered his lean hips. It had taken him the better part of an hour after rising, having spent the night naked and huddling beneath the meager blanket that covered an equally thin mattress, to finally have it around his body the way he remembered it being the day before. The leather belt that held it up also held a small, crude sheath. Knife at his side, he looked around the small hut, as if he were saying goodbye to a friend. Taking a deep breath, he made his way out into the sunshine.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The narrow path led to an equally narrow dirt road. In the distance he could see the gleaming white walls of a city. Might as well start there, he thought. The ground was hot beneath his bare feet; another thing he found...odd. He didn't remember being barefoot so much.

The path wandered past a house that seemed to consist of several rooms just haphazardly connected to one another. Off to one side was a blacksmith's stall. He could hear the clang of metal against metal as the craftsman worked at his trade.

Movement near the house caught his attention; he kept his eyes focused straight ahead, but allowed his peripheral vision to identify the possible threat. Two children and three women, all with hair as black as night, were moving from one of the rooms onto a wide, covered veranda. Snatches of conversation drifted toward him. The words had a strange rhythm to them, the pronunciation strange, the high pitched voices seemed almost incapable of the guttural sounds. That he understood the sounds was one fact that evaded his consciousness. They didn't seem to notice him at all, and that was a very good thing.

His heart was beating harder and faster as he moved closer to the high, thick wall that surrounded the city. He could see the guards who traversed the top in a regular pattern. It would be better if their movements weren't so predictable, he thought. Not a lot of security in routines.

He sighed heavily. The perplexing thoughts, with their hints of hidden knowledge, continued to torment him. Rather than try to grab them, an impossible feat, which he had learned from hours of trying to do just that, he let them flow at random. If they remained within grasp, fine. If not, well, there wasn't much he could do about that, was there?

Trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, Rami walked through the open gate. The first street that he came to was filled with large buildings - warehouses his randomly and not always logically functioning mind informed him - and open areas where goods were stored. Mostly wood, it looked like, although there was one area that seemed to be filled to the brim with shields, those that the Pharaoh's soldiers would carry to defend them in battle. Odd that they were left so visible, he thought. Just tempting someone to steal one or two...or more.

The second street was a hive of activity, lined with the stalls of craftsmen. Wooden sleds pulled by oxen - or men with bowed backs, their eyes on the ground beneath their feet - were piled with blocks of clay, or cords of wood, or sheaves of grain. Other sleds carried colorful clay jars and bowls, probably from the pottery shack he could see, or bolts of cloth, from the weaver's stall where three women worked, the clacking of the wooden looms adding to the cacophony of sounds that filled the air.

The next street wasn't as wide, nor as busy. Buildings with long expanses of unbroken walls lined one side, what looked like market stalls were strung along the other. The calls of merchants hawking their wares made up the majority of sounds. The smells of cooking food made his stomach growl and his mouth water. But with nothing to trade, there would be no purchases made.

An old woman carrying a basket of fruit, what looked like apples, approached him. "Would you care for a sin-fruit, kind sir?"

"Sin-fruit?"

She held up a large, round specimen.

The skin was rosy red, and he could smell the sweet aroma of the fresh fruit. His mouth watered even more.

"For the smallest, I can give you two," she said, pointing to his finger.

"Huh?" He glanced down at his hand. Took the smallest ring off and handed it to her. Received a bright, toothless smile and two of the most tempting of the 'sin-fruit' in her basket.

"Good day to you, sir."

"Good day," he replied. He examined the fruit. Sniffed it, then took a tentative bite. Ripe and juicy and sweet, the meat of the fruit seemed to melt on his tongue. Hungrier than he'd realized, he ate with relish, devouring both in a matter of minutes. He chucked the seed laden cores toward the bottom of one of the walls where several other dried, brown cores were laying.

An arched passage led to the next street. The architectural break was as sharp as the visual change. He wasn't on just a 'common' street. This was a wide, palm-tree lined avenue, paved with brightly colored tiles. The buildings that lined it were impressive in style, and in the amount of vibrant decoration that adorned them. He stopped and stared at what could only be a palace that sat in dominance at the end of the street.

Pharaoh. The Pharaoh lived there. More jumbled thoughts that tried to move forward, none of them making sense to him. He stood beside a tree, just looking. Lowered his gaze when two men came out of the building beside him, talking animatedly.

"...first festival of Isis in his reign, and he expects the people to prostrate themselves as he passes!" the first man was saying, his voice ringing with disapproval.

"He is god personified," the second man said. "It would not do to have any of his...agents...hear your words."

That's a stern warning, Rami thought, wondering idly if the first man would heed it.

"He might be a god, but he is no better than his father."

False god.

Rami stiffened. Just where in the hell had that come from? He moved slowly up the street, remaining as close to the trees as he could. Listened to the conversations of those he passed. It seemed that tomorrow, if he was understanding correctly, there was to be some sort of festival.

There would be a lot of people at a festival. He'd be able to move about without drawing attention to himself. Maybe get close enough to that palace to figure out just what was going on.

He studied the gleaming walls of the royal estate. He had no idea how or why he would believe the answers to his questions could be found there. He only knew that he did. And if he couldn't trust anyone else, he had to trust himself, didn't he?

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The Soldier

With the Pharaoh's approval, Mdjai had left the guards who had been his protection at night with that same task. There was no need to completely disrupt the established routine, just because he was the new Captain of the Guard. As he now had a small room near the Pharaoh's chambers, he was nearby if he should be needed, but able to get the rest his own body demanded.

He was in his room at the moment, eating the food he had brought from the kitchen, having been dismissed by the Pharaoh for the evening. There were a handful of dates, an apple, a bit of meat, and a few small wheat cakes, sweetened with honey. He sat beside the window, a soft breeze moving over him, offering respite from the heat of the day. He watched as the sun dropped lower in the sky, painting it with oranges and reds as it died once more, only to rise triumphant once again at daybreak. He chewed slowly on the meat, a tender chunk of beef, his mind pouring over the day's events.

It had been a busy day, filled with preparations for the festival to be held the next day. Guards would be posted, all of the lieutenants had reported that their legions understood their assigned tasks, and were prepared to follow his orders. His assistants had assured him that all knew of the Pharaoh's edict. He didn't like the punishment for any who refused to comply, but what could he do? Blinding the populace wasn't the way to gain the trust of the people, he thought angrily.

The most difficult undertaking had been finding men to accompany the Pharaoh who would not be overly zealous in the execution of the Pharaoh's orders. He had sought as many as he could find who were whispering their own disbelief of the situation. Benipe had been most helpful, pointing him toward several young men who deserved the chance to serve the Pharaoh in such a way. If asked, he would simply reply that they had earned his trust, and that any who questioned the Captain of the Guard was in essence questioning Pharaoh himself. A ploy that might get his tongue cut out of his head. But one that should put off the majority of those who would dare to challenge him.

He finished eating, sat back with a sigh. He was weary. Nights were no more restful than his days, the irritating madness that seemed to be lurking in the shadows of his mind taunting him with 'almost memories' at every turn.

If he chose to ignore them, more details seemed to remain in the seconds after the 'almost memory' had disappeared into the shadows in the back of his mind. Details that left him more certain than ever that something was very wrong.

Twice now he had seen the slave who had shared the Pharaoh's bed. Each time he knew that she belonged somewhere else, that she had been taken from her home. And each time he had admonished himself, for all of the slaves and servants who lived and worked in the palace in service to their god...

False god.

...had been taken from their homes. Many of them had been taken at sword point. The feeling that she belonged to a specific man remained. Even though there was another feeling attached to that now. He had dreamed of a woman, a very beautiful woman, with long hair the color of sunshine, and eyes like emeralds. He had awakened from that dream gasping for breath, certain that he'd been about to find the answers his mind...his heart...was seeking. But before he could reach those answers, he'd felt as if his life were in peril, and he had been running. From the woman with the light colored hair? Was she the danger? Somehow, in his waking moments, that thought felt...wrong.

A soft tap on his door brought him to his feet. He was taken aback to see the dark haired harem slave standing there. She barely glanced at his face, before lowering her gaze to the floor once again.

"Pharaoh has bid me to come to you," she said softly.

Mdjai frowned. Glanced down the wide hallway to the door where two of the palace guards stood at attention. To refuse the woman would be to refuse a gift from Pharaoh, and that simply was not done! He stepped back, allowed the woman to enter.

He knew what the Pharaoh...what the woman...was offering him. He studied her face. That familiarity tugged at him. The thought of taking her to his bed left him feeling...guilty. He had no right...he mentally shook his head. Did he really have a choice? If he refrained from taking the woman, would she report as much to the Pharaoh? Or would what happened in his quarters remain between the two of them? And could he trust her even if she made such a promise?

"You are not like the others," she said, sitting timidly on the edge of the bed.

He was determined that no one, especially a woman who could be a spy of the Pharaoh, know of his unease, of the thoughts that tormented him so. "Am I not?"

"No. You are not...cruel. Your heart is one full of...kindness."

"You have gentle heart, my friend."

The words echoed in his head, spoken just as softly. Try as he might, he could find no face to put with the words, although the voice was definitely that of a woman. "You have been mistreated by palace guards?"

The woman wrapped her arms around her waist. "I am but a slave."

"You belong solely to the Pharaoh. That any of the guards have touched you is against the law," Mdjai insisted.

"Unless it is the Pharaoh's wish," she whispered.

The frown on the dark face deepened. "The Pharaoh would allow mere guards to take you?"

"I had...displeased him," she replied. His displeasure, she thought, had been her lack of response...or rather the lack of the 'proper' response, what he had wished from her, as he had taken her so cruelly. "He called for his whip, and when he was finished, he told his guards to...to..."

Mdjai watched as single tear moved down the woman's cheek. She had no need to say the words. He understood completely. He moved closer, crouched down beside her, gently wiped the tear away. "You have been with the Pharaoh this day?"

She shook her head. "Not since last night when..." she paused, shuddered slightly. "Tameri says that I now to belong to you, a gift from the Pharaoh."

He knew well that Tameri was the fifth wife of the Pharaoh. And she was in charge of the women of the harem. If she had said this thing, it must be true. "What is your name?" he asked gently.

"Sheriti," was the nearly whispered reply.

"Sheriti." It didn't sound quite...right...to his ears. He pushed that thought aside. Tried to understand the feeling of...disloyalty...that the sudden craving in his loins stirred deep in his heart. As if the feelings of lust...of need...for this woman were somehow wrong. As if...as if by taking her, he would betray the trust of someone he held dear.

The woman slid back on the bed, dropped the robe from her shoulders. Her breasts were full, with large, deep brown areolas and thick nipples that puckered as the breeze from the open window blew across the room.

With careful movements, Mdjai covered her once again.

"Do I not please you?"

"You are a beautiful woman, Sheriti. I will not take what does not belong to me."

"But I do belong to you!' Sheriti declared, her dark eyes going wide.

Mdjai shook his head. "You belong to no one. You...your body, your soul, belong only to you."

Tears filled her eyes. "You would set me free?"

"If it were within my power, I would remove you from the palace," Mdjai replied.

She reached out, cupped his cheek. "Truly, you are a rare man, Mdjai, Captain of the Guard."

"I know that to send you away would bring harm to you. You will sleep here."

She nodded. "Thank you," she whispered.

"For what?"

"For sparing me this night. I am...I...he..." She studied the man who was still squatting beside the bed. She pushed herself to her feet, waited until he had risen to his own. Then dropped the robe completely.

His breath hissed from his lips. Her back and shoulders still bore the marks of the whip. Her waist and hips were covered with bruises. He could see red marks on her inner thighs. "You have been hurt!"

Again a single tear slid down her cheek. "The Pharaoh takes great pleasure when inflicting pain," she whispered. "Or watching as it is inflicted."

Rage filled his heart and mind, his hands curled into fists. He was furious that any man, even a man who professed to be a god...

False god.

...Yes! YES! False god! Pharaoh was no god! He was a petty tyrant, a cruel man who hurt others in order to establish his superiority. It took every ounce of strength he could draw forth to remain where he was, and not storm the Pharaoh's chambers, and inflict the same wounds upon the man. "Do you have ointment for the cuts?"

Sheriti shook her head. "I know where I might find some."

"Go. Bring wine as well, it will give you an excuse for leaving, and returning."

"Is there anything else, something particular, that you would have me also bring?"

"No."

"I will return as quickly as possible."

He gave a curt nod of understanding. Although he didn't look at the guards, he knew that they were watching. He let his eyes remain on the slave as she nearly ran down the hall, reached down as if to adjust an erection, then stepped back into his room. Before he closed the doors he could see the knowing smiles on the faces of the men. If they believed his act, then he had no reason to fear that anyone else would question.

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

True to her word, Sheriti returned a short time later, carrying a tray that held a flask of wine, two beautifully carved goblets, and hidden beneath an overturned bowl was a small jar of ointment.

He carefully applied the ointment to the wounds on her back. There were at least a dozen red marks on her buttocks that she couldn't see, leaving Mdjai to gently apply the balm to those as well. She tended to the marks on her breasts, thighs and the tender flesh between her legs. Neither of them spoke, it seemed that there was no need for words between them...both slaves to the Pharaoh, regardless of their positions; neither with any choices left to them.

She snuggled next to him when he stretched out on the bed, and he allowed it, knowing that it was possible that Tameri would inspect his room while he was absent, seeking to know if he had shared his bed. He could only hope that the sweet scent of the ointment would be enough to convince the woman that it masked the odor of love making on the sheets.

His dreams were even more troublesome than the previous nights. He eased himself from the bed, fearful of waking the woman who slept beside him. That he did not convinced him that she was exhausted; and that the Pharaoh had most likely kept her awake most of the night, demanding that she be ready for him, even if he slept. No doubt her wounds had made sleeping impossible, as well.

Mdjai stared out the window. Everything around him was all so...wrong. And he had no clue how to right his world again.


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