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Needle In a Haystack

Chapter 4

"Everything will be all right, Jack. Even when things seem the darkest, remember that everything will be all right."

He rubbed his fingers over his eyes. He...they...had been clinging to that prediction...that promise, for well over a month now! So help me, Radar, you aren't stepping out of my sight unless Daniel or Teal'c are with you! Jack thought. He glanced at the doorway. He'd called each of his 'kids', told them to meet him here.

Daniel entered the room, his eyes bloodshot, his hair standing at all ends from his attempts to sleep. "What's up?"

"Message came in from the Tok'ra."

The archaeologist frowned. "I didn't hear the alarms."

"That's because it arrived from a ship. Parked right above us. It seems that Jacob arrived a couple of hours ago. Doctor Fraiser informed him and General Hammond that none of us were fit for duty until we had a couple of hours of shut-eye," Jack drawled.

"What?" He was as awake as if he'd just had a cup of coffee injected intravenously. "Let's go!"

"Don't you want to know what the message is?" Jack asked.

"If Jacob is here with a ship, they know where Ba'al is," Daniel replied dryly.

"Well, sure, if you're going to look at it that way. But there could be more."

He looked at his friend. "Is there?"


"I am not in the mood for this, Jack."

"In the mood for what?"

"I'm not having this conversation."

"Bit late for that, don'tcha think?"

In spite of the ache in his heart, and the weariness of his body, Daniel couldn't help but smile. "You can be such a pain-in-the-ass."

"Glad to return the favor," Jack retorted.

Sam and Teal'c entered the briefing room. "Major Evans said he saw my dad," Sam said.

"Seems Dad has a ship parked upstairs. Just waiting for us to get a little beauty sleep," Jack said.

The team peeked into the general's office. The lights were out, the room was empty. Daniel groaned, ran his hands restlessly through his hair. "We need to get moving! For all we know that bastard is subjecting her to the preparations for the Purification ritual, again."

"How'd that go the first time?" Jack asked.

"Dunno. Didn't get a chance to ask about it."

"If she didn't like it the first time, and being a betting man, my money says she didn't, he's not going to have much luck getting her to submit to it a second time," the colonel said.

Daniel's lips twitched. If he was a betting man, he'd bet that Casey would rip the Goa'uld's balls off and stuff them down his throat to keep him from doing something she didn't want him to do.

"No doubt Ba'al is now wishing he'd allowed Casey Jackson to escape," Teal'c said quietly. "If she hasn't stared him into submission, then she will chatter until he can stand no more."

The entire team erupted into fits of laughter. None of them minded Casey's chatter. Two of the men in the room found it quite endearing. As for her stares, it was rumored that recipients of one of her 'looks' had reported to the infirmary with frostbite.

"I'm glad to find you all in a good mood," General Hammond said, walking into the room. Jacob Carter was behind him.

"Just thinking that we should probably go bring Casey home before old Balls can't take any more."

Jacob smiled. "That's a good idea. And we know exactly where he is."

"And he'll be there when we get there?" Jack asked gruffly.

"If not, we'll know where he moved to. There are two cloaked Tok'ra ships keeping an eye on him. He's not going anywhere without us knowing when and where, Jack."


"Let's go," Daniel said again. They could all talk later. Sit down and just chat for an hour or two. After Casey was home, safe and sound!


A  A  A  A  A  A


She woke with a start. She had no idea what time it was, but she could sense that it was at least an hour or two before dawn. Blue eyes had filled her dreams. A smile that made her heart flutter. A thought, not only about who he was, but something about...danger? She sat up in the bed, clutched the blanket to her chest. Was he...the owner of those beautiful blue eyes...someone who was going to hurt her? Her heart began to pound. She knew that she couldn't trust her father. Not that she understood why. Only that she couldn't. Nebetah seemed almost afraid of her, no hope for help there...

The old woman at the well. Why she'd believe the woman could help her, she didn't have a clue. But the idea was there, and refused to leave her alone. She crawled out of the bed. Dressed as quietly as possible. Before her hand touched her shawl, she pulled it back. No, better to have them believe she was still in the house.

The door made no sound as she opened it carefully, slowly. Just enough to slip past and into the street. The full moon overhead offered more than enough illumination. She hurried past the dark houses; the merchant stalls over which carefully woven mats were pulled, to the center of the village.

The old woman appeared to be dozing. The boy stood when she approached. "I need to speak to her," she whispered.

The boy nodded, and touched the woman's shoulder. He whispered in her ear, and then moved back to the mat on which he'd been lying.

"I need to know how you knew," Casey said softly.

"How I knew what?"

"About the blue eyes...beautiful blue eyes. They...they haunt me. Tell me, old woman, are you a seer?"

"I have been called that."

"Can you tell me what danger the man with the blue eyes will bring to me?"

"Danger? No, child. Not danger. Search your heart. Listen with your heart, not your head. The answer lies within you."

Well that was just about the most unhelpful thing she'd ever heard! If the answer was within her, she'd have bloody well figured it out by now, wouldn't she? Which would mean she'd have no need to be standing in the middle of the village square before the sun was even up, talking to some dingbat old broad! With a huff of indignation, she turned on her heel and hurried back to her home. That would teach her to listen to crazy old women!

The old woman watched Casey stomp away. She chuckled softly. "She never did have patience."

"But her anger will force her to examine the problem more closely in order to determine the answer to the riddle."

"True. If she doesn't say or do something in a fit of temper that will make things worse."

"That would not be a good thing," the boy agreed.



Nebetah said nothing as she watched Casey slip back into the house. Time was of the essence, she understood that. She also realized that time here moved more slowly than it did...there. Sometimes it was just the opposite, an entire lifetime could be lived here, in a matter of moments there. But he needed her to remain here as long as possible, in order to accomplish his task...



Casey sat in the middle of her bed, her legs drawn up and her arms wrapped around them. She closed her eyes. And 'stared' into the cerulean blue eyes that continued to fill her thoughts.

"Listen with your heart, not your head..."

Her heart began to beat faster, harder. Not with fear. No, these emotions were warm...inviting...love! Were the eyes she was seeing those of this man Ba'al, the man to whom she'd been engaged? She forced herself to calm down. Deep breaths. Don't think, she told herself. Feel.

No, thoughts of Ba'al...feelings of Ba'al were...dark. Anger. Despair. Such heartache. She focused on those blue eyes again. Smiled as the feelings of warmth and safety rushed over her. Whoever he was...he was important to her. She frowned. If that was true...where was he? Who was he?


A  A  A  A  A  A


Dartal watched his 'housekeeper'. Just a poor soul he'd stolen to serve him here, in this place he'd created for himself. A replica of the town where he'd lived as a small child. From where he'd been conscripted into the army of the Pharaoh. She looked uneasy about something. No doubt she suspected that he was going to beat her or some such thing. There was a time and a place for such behavior. Taking one's wrath out on the domestic staff never accomplished anything other than upsetting the entire household.

He sighed. She played her part well, when she was needed. Wasn't even aware of doing so. But it was possible that she might influence Casey...he reached out, strengthened the block. Added a few new memories, very pleasant ones, he thought proudly. Watched as her face lit up with a smile when she looked over to see him standing in the doorway. Yes, much better!

"Good morning."

"So it would seem," he replied.

She chuckled, placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of him.

"My daughter is not awake yet?" he asked.

"She most certainly is," a soft voice replied. Casey stepped into the courtyard. "Coffee. Gallons of it."

Nebetah shook her head. "I fear that if you prick your finger as you sew, you will bleed coffee!"

"Works for me," Casey grumbled. She really did need her caffeine injection. She hadn't slept well, her thoughts were still tumultuous, leaving her feeling exhausted and on edge. The only thing she knew for certain was there was no one she could trust. Not even her father. And that was the most disturbing thought of all!


A  A  A  A  A  A


Daniel paced the width of the cargo bay. Then the length. His companions said nothing as they watched him. Jacob had informed them that they'd rendezvous with the Tok'ra who continued to monitor Ba'al's ship in less than thirty minutes.

He was already planning it. Ba'al's death. Carefully constructing scenario after scenario in his head...his favorite so far was wrapping his hands around the Goa'uld's neck and squeezing the life out of him. Annoying little details like personal guards and ribbon devices had no place here, in the fantasies of revenge that he wove.

Jack knew that keeping the young man in check was going to be damned near impossible. In fact, chances were he'd hit that ship like a crazed man. Which, Jack had to admit, he was damned close to being. The best he, Sam, and Teal'c could hope to do was make sure Daniel didn't get himself killed.


A  A  A  A  A  A


Ba'al had been brooding for days. With the help of a shol'va among his Jaffa, and his inept engineer, Daniel Jackson had escaped. Taking his Consort and lo'taur with them. Ryk'teal had reported hearing 'noises' coming from the cargo deck, and had gone to investigate. He'd fired his staff weapon, but the group was already entering the event horizon, and he was unsure of whether or not he'd hit his intended victim. He claimed to have been aiming for Jackson. So shocked was he, Ryk'teal declared, that he'd failed to notice the position of the symbols on the Chappa'ai.

He'd tasted her, he'd held her in his arms. The fire for her burned even hotter than before. He shifted slightly on this throne. No doubt her anger at him for bringing Shanda to their bed would make her all the more willing to run from him. His clenched fist impacted on the arm of the ornate chair, causing all those on the pel'tak to jump with fear.

He dared not move, it seemed that Olokun and Yu had joined forces, and were searching for him. He was well hidden, he'd know of any approaching ships long before they'd be able to locate him. He'd sent a message to Tieel Mogba, but as of yet, the bounty hunter hadn't responded.

An alarm caused another jump of surprise among the pel'tak Jaffa. "My Lord, the ring transport has been activated!"

So who was trying to escape now? He shoved himself to his feet, grabbed the staff weapon of the nearest Jaffa, and raced from the room. His personal guard were running behind him, their armor clanking noisily.




The team slid into hiding places behind the support pillars. Daniel looked around. "If she's still pacing, it's hard telling where she'll be," he said quietly.

"Say what?" Jack asked.

"Nutesh said that Casey paced every day, all over the ship...just...paced."

Jack heaved a sigh. "Danny, this would have been something good to have known before we got here!"

"Daniel Jackson, I do not believe Ba'al would continue to give her free run of the ship after your escape," Teal'c said quietly. "We should look first in his chambers."

"Lead the way, Teal'c" Jack said, dragging a sigh of relief from his lungs.

Teal'c moved ahead, watching carefully for any sign of approaching Jaffa. Selmak had been able to interfere with sensors just enough that the actual 'transport' would have seemed to have taken place seconds after it actually had, giving the team a chance to move away from the rings. Sam was carrying a prototype of a 'portable' ring transporter, one that would allow them to ring from anywhere on the ship, without the loss of the rings themselves. That was another advantage they had this time around.

When the door to the room opened, Daniel gasped. The panels of silk that had covered the metal walls had been ripped down, most of them were laying in piles of color on the floor. The bed had been overturned, the sheer curtains that surrounded it were shredded, the chairs tossed haphazardly around the room, the table lay on its side...someone had thrown a major temper tantrum in here!

"Holy Hannah!" Sam murmured.

"Oh, that woman is pissed off!" Jack muttered.

Teal'c had already scanned the room. He moved into the adjoining bathroom. "She is not here."

"Fuck!" Daniel spat. "He's probably torturing her." He could remember every step from the ring transport to that hall of horrors. "I know where he likes to do that."

Jack nodded.

Carefully, making certain that the corridor was empty of any and all Jaffa, Daniel led his friends toward the elevator.

"Shoot first, ask questions later," Jack said as the doors closed in front of them.

Luckily, their presence hadn't yet been noted...the Jaffa on the pel'tak who monitored such things was instead searching for any ships that might be nearby, the prevailing opinion was that someone had tried to leave the ship. After all, from where could anyone arrive?

Blood stained the floor beneath the metal web. There were traces of it on the brushed aluminum rods that made up the 'strands'.

"That's what he had you...and her...on?" Jack asked. He thought he'd seen a lot of nasty things in his day. This thing was just...wrong!


Without a word the former special ops agent opened a pocket of his vest. Pulled out a small brick of C-4. He pushed it between two of the center support poles, and placed the timer, setting it for ten minutes. "Takes care of that," he muttered.

"Can you hear me?" Jacob's voice asked, echoing quietly in their ears.

"Yeah, go ahead, General," Jack said softly.

"Selmak has located Ba'al. He's on the cargo level. Looks like he's alone."

"Got it."

"I'll meet you at his quarters," Daniel said quietly. Firmly.


"I'm going to kill him. Find Casey." Without waiting for acknowledgement, certainly not for permission, Daniel stalked from the room.

"One less Goa'uld to worry about," Jack mused. "You heard him. Let's find Casey. Any ideas?"

"I have none."

"It's possible that she might be in the harem. Punishment, maybe," Sam suggested.

"Worth a shot," Jack said. "Let's go."


A  A  A  A  A  A


Ba'al stood in front of the door that protected his treasures. All that he had brought with him from the First World. He'd have gladly given all to her. He'd still give it to her...as soon as she was back at his side. He'd bring her here, show her...give it to her...

"Where is my Wife?"

He whirled around. "I thought you dead."

"Dream on. Where is my Wife?"

He frowned. If she'd escaped with this Tau'ri..."You seem to have difficulty keeping her at your side." He gasped when he found himself suddenly thrown against the wall, a strong arm across his throat.

"I'll only ask once more. Where. Is. My. Wife?"

Ba'al grinned. "If you do not know, do not expect me to have the answer for you. I do not know how the engineer and that shol'va managed to get you to the Chappa'ai. Nor do I know what threats were made to ascertain my Consort and lo'taur would accompany you. But I have not seen Casey since before your escape."

"You're lying!" His voice echoed angrily around them.

"If I knew where she was, do you really think I'd tell you?" Ba'al shouted in return.

Fingers of icy cold fear closed around his heart. If she had escaped with him, had been with him, and Ba'al hadn't followed...recaptured her...where the hell was she?

"We have something in common, you and I," Ba'al continued.

Familiar words. Another Goa'uld had said the same thing. Also about his Wife. About Sha're. "No, we don't. You captured her. You never took her. Never won her heart. Never broke her spirit."

"I held her in my arms. Buried my cock deep inside her warm body-"

Daniel applied more pressure to the man's neck as red-hot rage raced through him. "No, you didn't." His voice was cold, angry. "The first night, when she shot you full of ker'nish'ta, she spent tending to me. You had a wet dream, Ba'al, and she took advantage of that. Made you believe all your fantasies had come true. The next night, while you were unconscious because of the drugs Shanda slipped you, Casey and I made love. She shivered and cried out and made love to me!"

He frantically searched his memory, tried to bring up details that would prove this Tau'ri was lying...felt his anger, and his heartache, flare when he could not. "Noc!" 

"Yes! She hates you! She hates you damned near as much as I do!"

"And what will you do about it?"

Daniel glared at the Goa'uld; watched as his eyes flashed when he pushed harder. He pushed the muzzle of his P90 into the man's belly. His thumb moved over the lever that changed the firing position from automatic to semi-automatic. Allowing him to fire one shot at a time. "I'm going to kill you."

"Perhaps. But my Jaffa will find me, take me to my sarcophagus, and I will return. Because I am a god!"

"You're a goddamned snake...a parasite. And I don't think so!" He pulled the trigger. Felt the body in front of him jerk from the impact.

Ba'al's eyes flashed, then went cold with death, blood trickled from his mouth.

Daniel backed up, let the body drop to the floor. He grabbed the Goa'uld by one foot. Dragged him to the cargo bay where the Stargate was stored, leaving a wide swath of blood behind him. Hoped that the address would work.

It was all he could do to keep from jumping up and down with delight when the seventh chevron locked into place. "Get out of that," he muttered, shoving the dead Goa'uld into the event horizon.

"Daniel?" Jack's voice said.

"I'm here," he replied into his radio.

"Teal'c just talked to a couple of the girls in the harem. Casey isn't here."

"I know."

"What...never mind. Meet us back on the detention level."


Watching carefully, certain that someone, or some sensor, would have picked up the sound of the single gunshot, Daniel made his way back to the room of horrors.

They were in the corridor when the C-4 went off. "Time to go, campers," Jack said worriedly. Jaffa would be swarming the area in a matter of minutes.

Sam activated the ring transporter. Grinned at her companions when the familiar 'whoosh' filled the air.

"Get the hell out of here," Jack said, as soon as the rings had disappeared.

Jacob looked around. "She wasn't there?"

"No. We need to go, before Ba'al finds us, cloak or not," Jack insisted.

"Ba'al won't be finding anyone," Daniel said calmly.

Four pairs of eyes focused on the young archaeologist.

"I killed him."

"They'll just put him in the sarcophagus," Jacob said.

"They'll have to find him first."

Jack grinned. "You used the 'gate!"


"Where'd ya send him?"

Daniel gave a small smile. It held no warmth. In fact, it was probably the coldest smile that any of his teammates had ever seen. He said nothing, but settled onto one of the benches. "We need to get back to P3X 888."

"She's there?"

"If she's not, I have no idea where she'd be. If she's all right, then she'll be trying to get home," Daniel said softly. He leaned his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. Concentrated on not falling completely apart.

"She'd head straight for the Alpha site," Sam agreed.

Jack studied his best friend. Knew exactly what he was thinking. If the Unas had Casey, it might already be too late. "If we could get a ride to the nearest Stargate, we'd appreciate it," he said quietly.

"On our way," Jacob replied, his own voice hushed.

Teal'c settled beside Daniel. Closed his eyes as well, and began to meditate. Casey had told him that centering herself to do a search was very similar to the way that he'd taught her to do for mastaba. As much as he taught her, he learned from her. He tried to force all conscious thought from his mind. He would...listen, as she called it. Perhaps there would be something to 'hear'.


A  A  A  A  A  A


Anderz climbed off the camel he'd ridden into the small village. Dartal was there to meet him. "So, where is she, this woman who will be my bride?"

Dartal grinned, hugged the man affectionately. "You will meet her soon enough. Come, let us talk of business first." As soon as they were off of the street, away from any potential eavesdroppers, he turned to the young man. "I need her out of here as soon as possible."

"I do have a caravan waiting," Anderz grinned. "You can tell everyone I begged you, and paid you handsomely to allow me to take your daughter so far away."

The older man nodded. "Yes, that's good. That would work. I'll tell them that you actually journeyed out of your way to make this request. You've been here before, they'll remember that, and just assume that's when you met Ishtar."

"Ishtar? I thought her name was Casey."

"I didn't want to take the chance it might cause the memory block to slip."

"I understand. She has no idea where she is?"

He gave a feral grin. "She told me last night that she misses her mother. Then insisted that I shouldn't be alone."

"Then I can expect all of the benefits of having her as my wife?"

"Feel free," Dartal laughed. "I don't care what you do to her, as long as she's never able to reach the mortal plane again."

"I think that can be arranged," Anderz replied, his grin as cruel as that of his companion.

"Let's go. I'm sure she'll be anxious to see you again. Especially when I inform her that she's flirted with you before."

"Is that so? I like her already."

The two men left the building, neither paying any heed to the old woman and the young boy who continued to sit by the well. The villagers were curious about the two who sat daily, speaking to no one, buying only enough food to sustain them, but said nothing to the man who ruled the village with an iron fist. Nor was anything said about his visitor. That man had been to the village before, he wasn't a stranger...exactly. No one was willing to risk the wrath of Dartal by asking any questions, just to satisfy their curiosity.




The old woman watched as the men disappeared around a corner. "She'd better figure things out pretty soon, or we could have a problem on our hands."

"The way of the hawk is not our own, but she travels as she is meant to fly."

"Hmmph," the old woman replied. The boy's mentor had definitely left her mark on him!


A  A  A  A  A  A


Casey had been busily preparing dinner, a casserole that she was able to make from the ingredients she'd purchased earlier in the day. It simmered in the clay pot, filling the courtyard with its delicious aroma. The task had required a modicum of concentration, allowing her respite from her confusion, and the rampaging thoughts that seemed to battle in her mind.

"Ishtar! Come and see who has arrived!"

She wiped her hands on the cloth she'd used to wipe out the mixing bowl, hurried into the house.

"I had to come to see you, beautiful Ishtar," the man said, grinning at her.

She looked at her father. Okay, so she was supposed to know this guy? Right, play along. "It's been too long since last I saw you," she said softly.

Anderz turned to Dartal. "This proves my word to you! Come, my beauty, greet me with a kiss!"

She took an involuntary step backwards. Every hair on her body felt as if it were standing on end. This man was evil. Pure and simple. She could sense it.

"You have embarrassed her," Dartal said. He closed the distance between himself and his 'daughter', put his arm around her protectively. He'd add a few memories, just enough to make her at ease...

The smile faded, Anderz lowered his eyes. "That was not my intent. My joy upon seeing her again was so great that my common sense fled from me. I beg your forgiveness. And yours as well...Ishtar."

There it was, that damned 'itching' again! She carefully 'scratched', trying to see what was irritating her so. She stumbled upon images, like faded photographs, more odd 'memories' that hadn't been there before. She examined them carefully. This man had visited the house in the recent past. Entertaining her for hours with stories of his caravan, and the people and places he'd seen. Except...it wasn't real...the memories weren't real. Before she could figure out how she knew that, they were gone. Now this is just getting to be ridiculous, she fumed silently. She smiled at their guest. She'd make nice for now, and try to figure out what was going on later.

"Something smells wonderful," Dartal said, sniffing the air appreciatively.

"I've made dinner. Nebetah has been busy with the laundry all day," she explained.

"It will be my greatest pleasure to eat that which you have prepared," Anderz said, flashing a smile at her.

Oh, what a snake...snake? Now that was an...odd...thought. Snake...there was something about snakes. And their faces. She could remember snakefaces. Or something about snakefaces. No...not snakefaces. Snakeface. Another face flashed in her mind. Brown eyes, mustache and goatee...not a bad looking man...but there was something...

"-we need to discuss," Dartal was saying.

Oh, shit! What had she missed?

"So, come here and sit at my side. We will talk before dinner."

With a nervous smile, she settled at Dartal's side. "What shall we talk about?"

The two men exchanged a glance. "Anderz has traveled out of his way to journey to our village. He does so because he wishes to marry you. The problem lies in the fact that he must carry his goods on, for the man who waits is very impatient. And it will be some time before he will be this way again."

"I see," she said softly. Although she really didn't see at all.

Anderz slid to his knees, knelt in front of her, took her hand between both of his. "The times we spent together, laughing, talking...I believe that we...that our feelings for one another grew. When I left the last time and you kissed me so tenderly..." he threw a worried glance at Dartal, "with such innocence, such...purity...I have been able to think of nothing else since. Please tell me your heart has ached for me as well."

Now wasn't this a perfectly screwed up situation? She so did not need this right now! There was something going on...something wrong, this guy was giving her the creeps, and now he wanted her to run away and marry him? Oh, hell no! "I...I don't know what to say," she murmured.

"I realize that this is sudden. And that not being able to have a proper wedding feast is a disappointment...but I promise that when you are able to return to visit, we will have a party the likes this village has never seen before," Dartal declared.

"May I...may I have time to think about it?" Casey asked, trying to hide her desperation. The look in her father's eyes warned her that she might not have a choice in the matter. Better to try stalling now, to give herself time to come up with a defense against this very sudden, and very unwanted proposal.

"You may have until breakfast," Dartal replied. His tone of voice alerted her to the fact that the decision had already been made.

Nope, no choice at all, she thought worriedly. She was going with this guy whether she wanted to or not. And oh, she so did not want to! She gave a reluctant nod. "I should check on the casserole, and get the biscuits made."

Dartal leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Go, my daughter. Call us when it is time to eat."

Again she gave a small nod. She was forced to wait for Anderz to move, he managed to catch her hand, pressed it to his lips. The action should have set her heart pattering with delight. Instead, she barely suppressed a shudder.

He watched her carefully. Something was wrong. She didn't seem to remember Anderz, even with the memories he'd planted. Or what she remembered, she didn't like. His eyes narrowed slightly. Was she so enmeshed in the illusion that she'd behave as the independent daughter she thought that she was? Would she refuse to leave him, because she worried about him being alone? How absolutely delightful! If she proved to behave like a headstrong, spoiled brat he'd...he'd what? Be extremely amused. Dartal settled back against the cushions of the sofa. If she were so deep into the illusion that she'd fight him, perhaps he'd let her stay with him, for a short time. He could cajole her into seeing Anderz again. Encourage her to consider him as a potential husband. Yes, he could do all of the things that a father did with a stubborn daughter! And his superiors had worried that she'd be difficult to deal with! It seemed they'd over-estimated her ability to fight him. And under-estimated his ability to control her.

Anderz watched her as well. She was slender, yet there were curves beneath her linen dress that made his body ache. He'd most certainly be taking advantage of the fact that she was to be his wife! He was going to sample every delicious inch of that blonde beauty!




Casey tried to block out the low murmur of the male voices, the quiet laughter that came from the house. She was kneading the dough when Nebetah joined her.

"Perhaps you should find something else to focus your anger upon," the older woman said, smiling warmly. Casey was punching the dough as if it were that which had upset her.

"How could he? How could he expect me to just go off with a man I don't know...barely know," she amended quickly. Have to keep the charade going, she thought.


"Poppa! He expects me to marry a man I barely know! Allow this...Anderz to take me away from here! Away from my home!"

Dartal listened, held his finger to his lips when his companion would have commented.

"If your father is willing to give you to this man, then you should not worry, he will be a good husband," Nebetah said soothingly.

"I don't want a good husband! I don't want a husband at all!" Casey insisted. I'm already married, damn it! The thought shocked her, stilled her hands.

Nebetah watched the green eyes widen. "Ishtar? What troubles you?"

Damn it to hell! Why did she have to have eyes that were like a freaking plate glass window, putting every thought that crossed her mind on display? "He's angry with me," she said. It was partially true...she could feel it. Perhaps not...anger...but there were negative emotions connected to Dartal.

"Who is angry with you?"


"Oh, Little One, that is not true! Did he not spend nearly every moment at your bedside, as you lay ill? Has he not provided the finest house, the nicest clothes, the best food for you? Has he not indulged your every whim?"

"I don't want to leave! This is my home!" What would happen if she threw a tantrum over the proposal...or better yet, begged her supposedly loving father not to send her away? Even if it bought her a day or so, that might be enough time to figure out just what the hell was going on. "This is my home!" she said again. She turned and stomped into the house. Okay, my girl, let's see just how good an actress you can be...

Dartal looked up, noted the fire in her green eyes.

"This is my home."

"It will always be your home," he replied easily. He was not at all prepared to have her rush across the room, throw herself at his feet, take his hand and press it against her cheek. Where he felt the wetness of tears.

"Please, Poppa, don't send me away! I want to stay with you! I promise to stay in the house when you tell me to, and I won't go to the barn without your permission, please, Poppa!"

The tears that rolled down her cheeks, the unhappiness in her green eyes, the way her lips trembled slightly, the way her hands gripped his...his feelings of amusement...and fondness...were his undoing. "Shh...Ishtar, do not weep so!"

"I don't want to leave you, Poppa!"

"Come here, child," he crooned softly. Didn't speak until she was sitting beside him, her head on his shoulder. "Anderz is a good man, Ishtar. I wouldn't allow my only child to marry just anyone! And you talked so about him after his last visit, that I just assumed that you were in love with him."

Well, hell, this wasn't going the way she'd planned!

"Perhaps I have been a bit hasty. We will announce your betrothal, and when Anderz has delivered the goods his caravan carries, to the owner who awaits them, he will return. He can work with me for a time, so that you might have more time with him before you are wed. Will this be acceptable?"

Anderz' eyes went wide. Dartal had just been insisting that the seer had to be taken as far away as possible, as soon as possible. When he would have objected, the older man shook his head subtly.

"I suppose so," she agreed.

"That's my good girl. Now, go help Nebetah finish with dinner. My mouth cannot wait much longer to taste what my nose has been smelling since I have arrived home!"

She gave him a smile, kissed his cheek, and, avoiding Anderz' confused stare, hurried back to the kitchen.

"She is totally immersed in the illusion!" Anderz said, awe in his voice.

"Completely. So, being the doting father I am, I'll indulge her," Dartal said, chuckling slightly.

Casey quietly gathered the crockery that would be needed for the meal. She had no idea how long she had. A few days at the most. She had to figure this thing out...whatever it was. She dared to take comfort from those beautiful blue eyes.

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