Chapter Eleven: Painful Recollections
The scent of wine and roasted meat hung thick and heavy in the air, mingling with the perfume of incense smoke as it rose to the sky. The sound of laughter and music and revelry echoed back to her from the courtyard beyond; she could hear the melody of the lutes, flutes and double pipes, accompanied by the deep, hypnotic sound of drums.
She closed her eyes, and allowed herself to be carried away by the music, drifting on the cresting notes and sounds as she leaned against one of the pillars in the inner sanctuary of the temple. Tonight was the culmination of a weeklong celebration held in honor of Hathor, and everyone who had come - devotee and priestess alike - had thrown aside all reserve and propriety. After all, would Hathor not be more pleased the more they cavorted and made merry?
She allowed herself a small smile, and she shook her head. Few knew the reason why they celebrated these things. Few knew why they made so many offerings of food, wine, dance and music to Hathor. Few knew the dark secret that lay beneath the smiling and benevolent face of the goddess.
She bowed her head, and once again the heavy weight of responsibility rested upon her shoulders. As long as the secret was never known to the world, and as long as there was someone to guard it, then all would be well.
She heard soft footsteps padding in her direction, and when she looked up, what she saw made her smile, and forget all her worries and her cares.
He stood in the entryway, his muscles rippling beneath the sheathing of tanned skin that covered his body. He was clad in almost nothing, save for the short military kilt that was a part of the uniform of the Medjai, and the hempen sandals on his feet. Standing before him, dressed as she was in the garb of the High Priestess of Hathor, she felt so encumbered and weighed down by the robes and the jewelry. All of a sudden, she wanted to be wearing nothing more than the thin linen shift she used when she slept.
And yet, he smiled, and slowly walked to her, his head held high, though his eyes burned with fires brighter than the ones blazing in the braziers before the statues of the gods. "Who is this goddess, who stands before me, radiant as Isis and fair as Hathor?"
"And who is this god, who comes to me, powerful as Ra and handsome as Horus?" She smiled, and lifted her hand to him, beckoning. "Would he take my hand? Would he come to me, and hold me that my breast may press against him, and our hearts speak to each other of mutual desires?"
His eyes twinkled, and his lips parted in a smile, revealing even white teeth that contrasted against the dark hair that framed his sensuous mouth and traced the edge of his jaw. He clasped her hand in his, and with one tug, pulled her into his embrace.
She felt her knees turn to water as his arms twined around her, his hands pressing her against his warmth. When he spoke, his voice was pitched low, filled with an intensity that drowned all other sounds: "Would you stay with me? Would you take me with you to your chambers?"
"I will," she responded breathlessly, unable to keep her heart from beating rapidly and erratically. How long had she waited for this night? How long had she watched him, and he her, the days passing by in agonizing slowness while she served as Hathor's representative at Pharaoh's court in Thebes? How long had it been since the time she had heard from her dear friend Nefertiri that Pharaoh would not be the one spending the last night of Hathor's festival in the chambers of the High Priestess? How long, since the time when she learned that he would be Pharaoh's representative, carrying out this most important duty in Pharaoh's stead?
She had never known a man, not in this manner. She had come to the Temple of Hathor a young maid, and when she was made High Priestess six moons ago, she was still such. And now, the first time that she would fulfill her duty to the goddess on this, the high point of her festival, it would also be the first time that a man would break the seal of virginity imposed upon her since she came into the world - and that seal would be broken by the man she loved.
His lips pressed against her throat, the slips of flesh sparking warmth throughout her body. She shut her eyes, and clasped his shoulders, his name emerging from her mouth as a whisper heavy with longing: "Ramose..."
He drew back then, and she could see the obsidian depths of his eyes flickering and flashing, almost as if they had a light of their own. He leaned forward again, and she felt his breath upon her lips just before he kissed her, saying her name: "Meritites..."
She opened her eyes, half-expecting to find herself lying beside him. But when she felt the space beside her, she realized that he was not there, and that it had all been a dream.
She sighed, and rolled over onto her side, curling up beneath the blanket that protected her from the desert cold. Outside, she knew that the night still lay heavy over the wilderness, though the moon had long since disappeared from the horizon to make way for the coming of the sun.
Her thoughts once more drifted back to the dream, and she shivered as she remembered the look that the man - Ramose - had given her. No one has ever looked at me like that before, she thought, and the image of his eyes, so dark, yet burning with fire, made a small ache flower in her belly.
She curled her knees up against her chest, as older, less pleasant pains came back to haunt her. She had never imagined, after that incident, long ago, that she would ever want to be touched by a man. The last time that had happened, it had been too horrible, too painful...
She whimpered involuntarily as images flashed through her mind. She remembered the thick velvet canopy of her bed, remembered the way that the heavy drapes had been pushed aside. She remembered the dread silhouette of the dark shadow as it hovered over her, the way that shadow pushed her down against the mattress with an inexorable weight she could not defy. She remembered the hand that pinned her wrists above her head, while the other clamped itself over her mouth, preventing any screams, cries, or whimpers from leaving her lips. And then she remembered the sharp, lancing pain that seemed to cut her very soul in two...
She jerked when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Flipping onto her back, she grasped the wrist of the one who had touched her, and twisted it at an angle that she knew would cause the most discomfort.
She heard a masculine yelp, which was followed by words uttered between teeth gritted against the pain: "Easy Cathy, it's just me!"
Catherine gasped, and let go, as Andrew's features registered in her mind. She sat up, and moved towards him, concerned. "Oh God, Andrew, I'm so sorry..."
The Scotsman chuckled ruefully, though there was still the trace of a grimace of pain as he rubbed his wrist with his free hand. "You're getting quicker lass. Had someone else done the same thing I had, you might very well have broken their wrist."
Catherine bowed her head in embarrassment. "I know. I'm sorry, I was having a bad dream."
"I could tell." Andrew gazed at her for a moment, and then sat down, cross-legged, in front of her. "Would you mind telling me what it was?"
Catherine shook her head. "I... I don't want to talk about it."
Andrew sighed, and nodded. "Alright then, if that is how you want it." He looked at her with a thoughtful gaze. "You know, I can't help but wonder sometimes, about what happened between you and the Baron."
"We promised never to talk about that," Catherine said.
"I know, I know, and I promised that I'd never ask, but that does not stop me from thinking about it." He sighed, and held her hand, in that companionable fashion that had sprung up between the two of them in the span of time that they had been working together. "A part of me wants to know how he could have hurt you so badly that you swore you'd never go back to England." He grinned. "Natural curiosity on my part, I guess, but mostly because you are my friend, and I have a right to fuss over you from time to time."
Catherine uttered a small laugh, and squeezed his hand. "I know that you are curious, Andrew, but I think that it is best - for all of us - that you did not know what happened between me and my father." She grinned mischievously as she nudged him. "In the same way that you will not tell me about why you really left Scotland and ran halfway around the world."
Andrew grimaced, and shook his head. "As I said, it's not something I like talking about. Just let it be known that whatever it is I'm trying to get away from, it's not something that makes me very happy."
"Then we're not that much different, you and I," Catherine murmured.
Andrew nodded his head, and then turned to her, lightly nudging her chin upwards. "I know. Now cheer up, lass. Being sad really does not suit you."
Catherine could not help but smile. Andrew had a way of bringing her spirits up during these bouts when the past that she would much rather forget caught up with her, and for that she would be eternally grateful. "Thank you, Andrew."
"Always glad to be of service, lass."
"Oh, these paintings are marvelous..."
Evie grinned, not looking at Catherine, since she too was inspecting the wall paintings of the newly uncovered wing of the Temple of Hathor. "Stunning, aren't they? The ancient Egyptians really put quite a bit of effort into their artwork, especially when they were of a religious nature."
Catherine nodded, her eyes tracing the elegant lines and patterns. "And they are not quite as...gruesome as the Mayan temple paintings. At least the Egyptians did not depict human sacrifices."
Evie looked at her best friend, a horrified expression on her face. "Human sacrifices?"
Catherine nodded solemnly. "Oh yes, they did. Their most common sacrifices involved drowning the victims in sacred wells." (1) She shuddered slightly. "You cannot imagine how horrifying it was. Andrew and I tried dredging one of the sacred wells, since we thought that there would be artifacts at the bottom, but all we brought up were skulls and bones. Oh, certainly, we did find a few items of value, since it would seem that the sacrificial victims were dressed up beautifully in gold and textiles, but still..." She shook her head sadly.
Evie nodded. There was no more horrible fate for anyone than to be offered up as a sacrifice. And she should know: she had been in the position of sacrificial victim twice.
They passed through a portico, and soon, they found themselves standing in the inner sanctum of the temple, as indicated by the granite altar in the middle of the room, standing in front of a magnificent statue of the goddess Hathor. Here, the paintings were at their most beautiful, and depicted scenes of women dancing and playing upon musical instruments, the colors almost as brilliant and as pristine as the day they had been painted.
Evie uttered a soft gasp. She had never seen murals so well preserved, and with such exquisite detail. She approached the walls with reverence, almost as if she was a novice priestess seeing these images for the first time - a privilege given only to those who were about to be induced into the order itself.
A soft rumble sounded behind her. Evie turned to look, and watched with horror as Catherine, as if in a dream, walked down a set of stairs that had been hidden on the pediment immediately in front of Hathor's statue, revealed when a slab of stone slid to one side.
(1) Drowning in sacred wells was one of the forms of sacrifice used by the ancient Mayans. These sacrifices were often offered to the rain god, Tlaloc.
Dawn1 - Thank you for commenting on my story, and no, I have not given up on it. Updates may be sporadic, since I have other projects that have a tendency to lure me away from this one, but rest assured, I shall continue to update whenever I can.
Lilylynn - As always, I thank you for your continued support of this story, even if my updates are not regular and are often far between. I hope that you like this chapter as much as you have liked the others. Again, thank you very much.
Lometari - I thank you for reading this story, even if, as you say, it is only now that you have gotten around to reading it. Thank you for saying that you like Catherine, and that you like the way I write Ardeth. They are a joy to write, to be honest, and it is always comforting to know that others appreciate how I have written them.
HighHedgehog - Thank you for commenting, and for saying that you find it interesting. I hope that you shall continue to read it even if my updates are not as frequent as some people may like.
Belphegor - Thank you again for taking the time to read this story, as well as to offer critique - something that I find very important and appreciate greatly.
I was not sure what to use when it came to modes of address amongst the Medjai, so just to be safe, I used "Lord" and "Lady." Thank you for saying that you liked Faridah and Javed; I did not think that a woman like Farrah would be without children, not when one considers the fact that she has to pass on the knowledge that she keeps in her head on to someone in order to preserve it.
And yes, Catherine is a reincarnation of the last High Priestess. As for your hunches, I think I have an inkling of what you are thinking about (both the sordid and not-so-sordid one), but I am not about to reveal what it is, exactly. But fear not: all shall be made clear later on in the story.
I hope that you will forgive me for the delay; school and a frivolous Muse all get in the way of the creative process.