TITLE: "Heart of the Desert"

AUTHOR: Ardeth Saunders

RATING: M for language, sexual situations, and violence.

SUMMARY: Ardeth loses his wife to desert marauders. He finds new strengths and challenges with his American in-laws.

GENRE: Drama/Romance

DISCLAIMER: The character Ardeth Bay, The Mummy, and The Mummy Returns belong to Universal Studios and Steven Somers. NO infringement intended. All original characters belong solely to the sick, twisted, vivid imagination of the author. Please do not use content, plot, original concepts or any original characters without permission from the author.

The world whirled and swirled about her. She had been hit by something or someone, but could see nothing around her. The noise, however, was positively deafening. Never before had she heard such piercing screams punctuated by angry bellows. If she survived the day, she truly believed she would not be able to tell anyone what was being shouted or bellowed. She was a fighter…strong…had Medjai blood flowing through her veins. Despite what fate awaited her, she knew she must remember as much as possible for her husband…for her family.

Within moments, the deafening sound died down to total and complete silence. It was as if the world suddenly decided to stand still. She took it as a very bad sign for her and those in her traveling party. There were no shouts from the warriors or from her companions. There was nothing. She couldn't see and that was part of her fright. Whoever struck her had blindfolded her. Her shock was such that it hadn't dawned on her until she was blanketed by silence. Another horrifying thought assaulted her. She had no control over her arms and legs. She could not find her voice to scream. She was bound, gagged, and about an hour away from her village, from her beloved husband of nine years. She began to wonder if she would ever see him again. What of her family in America? Her father? Her sister? What of her unborn child? Only she, her sister, and her husband knew of it. Would she live long enough to bare her child? To hold the baby in her arms? Liliana Harding-Bay received her answers the moment she could see again. It was the last face she would ever lay her eyes on. She couldn't even scream. Goodbye, my love, was the last thought that left her as her life ebbed away.

It was very late. The Medjai Chieftain sat at his worse for wear desk reading by lamp light. When his wife was not with him, he was restless, often sleeping poorly. She was due back at any time now. He had sent four warriors to meet her and accompany them through the treacherous Kashfi Narrows. The area was almost thoroughly dominated by marauders. More than one group was an enemy of the Medjai. While they tried to keep order and intruders to a minimum at the Lost City, the Kashfi groups were always a force to be reckoned with. The main group was led by Erroll Auberjonus. He had immigrated to Egypt from France after hearing the colorful stories about Seti's hidden fortune. For many years, Erroll and his men tried several ill-fated attempts at raiding the Lost City. The Chieftain and his father before him had waged battle with Auberjonus on numerous occasions. So far, their bids had been successful. But it did not prevent him from worrying about his wife. Liliana was out there, probably passing through the Narrows as he sat and worried. What worsened his concern was that his wife was with child. The thought of anything happening to her or their unborn child was one unbearable, unfathomable.

Even more restless than ever before, Ardeth Bay pushed back from the table and brought himself to his feet. Although the night air was cold and could chill to the bone, Ardeth didn't bother putting on anything as he made his way outside. All around him, the village was sleeping. The only sound that disrupted the stillness was an occasional moan or grunt from a sleeping camel. The peace should have comforted him. It didn't. It unsettled him. Something felt wrong and out of place. Perhaps he was only paranoid. But he quickly dismissed that thought, driving it out of his mind. Something was wrong. Liliana should have made it home by now. Ardeth tried to dismiss it all as unnecessary alarm brought about due to his impending fatherhood. He hadn't wanted her to make the trip to America, to tread so far away from home. Liliana insisted that she could make the trip. She wasn't very far along. She reasoned that if she didn't go now, once the baby came, it would be more difficult for her to travel. He relented, but he hadn't been happy about it. And now, he was eaten alive with worry. He made a solid decision, one that would shatter his heart, changing his life forever.

It was at the Kashfi Narrows…the exact location he had feared…where Ardeth witnessed the carnage. Next to him, his second, Faras bin Saiyid, said a silent prayer. The four warriors Ardeth had sent ahead to accompany his wife were dead, their bodies laid out on the desert sand as if they were no more than boneless rag dolls. From the condition of their bodies, they had died fighting. The others were not with the warriors. For a brief moment, hope entered Ardeth's heart. Perhaps his Liliana was still alive. Perhaps by some miracle, she had escaped. But reality refused to support fantasy. If the attackers had managed to slaughter four of his best men, then there was little chance that his wife could have survived this. He hadn't seen her lifeless body, so he wasn't about to give up.

Leaving Faras behind to stand watch, Ardeth rode forward. Barely six feet away from the scattered bodies of the warriors lay one of Liliana's traveling companions. What had been done to the men was cruel, but what he saw now was worse. Much worse. Tarea was his wife's best friend and would have attended the birth of their baby. She had been stripped naked, her eyes removed, and her flesh ripped down to the bone. Sickened by the condition of her body, Ardeth dismounted and took a blanket from his pack. Grimly, he covered her body as he uttered a prayer. When he turned away from Tarea's body, he saw another just a few feet away. Something inside told him to summon one of the other warriors to approach the unmoving body. But he didn't listen. He refused to. Somehow, he knew what he would see, what he would find. Horribly enough, he wanted to be the one.

Although the distance was short, it seemingly took five lifetimes to approach the prone body. He took slow, deliberate steps. His heart pushed him to run, but his head ruled him today. Perhaps it was trying to confirm what his heart was attempting to deny. Perhaps his heart was aiding to dampen his emotions, preparing him for the worst. Lâ. I will not run to you. It is not my sweet wife. My life. Our child. His steady pace never faltered despite the panic fighting to grip his heart.

Ardeth received an answer when he was no more than a foot away from the body. The long, flowing black hair was all he needed to see. Dozens of emotions attacked him at once, assaulting him fiercely. It was then and only then when his need to run became urgent. Within seconds, he had collapsed to his knees before her body. The pain was so immense that he thought his heart would explode within his chest. Some unimaginable monster had swept in and stole Liliana's life as if it were precious gemstones. A single slash of a sharp blade had put out her light forever. Unlike Tarea, there was no look of horror on her face. She had died strong and in peace, much like she had lived her life. Ardeth reached out to lay his hand against her forehead. As before, something inside told him that he must break down and begin to grieve. He couldn't follow through with it. Anger embraced him. A desire for revenge sprouted in his stomach, sending seeds to his heart. Without a breath, without a thought, he took his wife into his arms and held her against him protectively. He remained that way for nearly an hour. When additional help arrived, it took four strong warriors to pry Ardeth away from his wife's body.

In her day and age, from her family, it was something of an oddity to see or know a Harding woman who treaded out into the working world. It wasn't that the Hardings were above it, but tradition was often hard to break. Harding women married young, produced scads of children, and became embroiled in their domestic bliss. They didn't want or need anything else to make their lives complete. However, that simply wasn't the case for one Ashlyn Caroline Harding.

At twenty, Ash had successfully completed a course of study, earning credentials as a nurse. She fell in love with the idea of becoming a nurse at fifteen when her father suggested she put in time as a candy striper to help her fellow man. Danforth Harding was a dedicated small town doctor who occasionally saw patients at the local hospital. When he first suggested Ash volunteer, she balked. She didn't know if she could take it, but after a few hours, she never uttered a cross word. It was what she wanted to do with her life. Ash's father supported her decision, but he also wanted her to settle down and start raising a family like a 'good girl.' Perhaps working in the hospital would land her a man. As if I care, she often thought.

Ash didn't think she would ever want to settle down. Nine years ago, her older sister, Liliana, was shipped off to the desert to marry a man she had only known a short time. Although too young to completely understand, Ash was told that Liliana was contracted to marry an Egyptian man. Ash's mother didn't quite answer when she asked what 'contracted' meant. However, she soon learned. The family began traveling to Egypt every summer during school breaks so that Liliana could become 'acquainted' with her future husband. It wasn't until years later that her parents thought Ash was old enough to know the story behind all these Egyptian excursions.

Ash wasn't ignorant of the fact that her mother was Liliana's stepmother, but she never knew what happened to her. During a particularly grueling trip across the far side of the globe, Ash grew curious. She asked her father about Liliana's future, and Danforth finally spilled it. He had met Liliana's mother years prior while providing medical assistance to a band of people he referred as 'Medjai.' He didn't elaborate about what a 'Medjai' was, but he did say he fell in love with one of the village inhabitants. Danforth didn't speak her name. It took more years to discover the fact that his heart still belonged to her. Speaking her name brought on fresh grief. He fell in love with her, married her after many blessings from these curious 'Medjai,' and they produced one child, Liliana. The birth was difficult and Liliana's mother died three days later. Before she was even born, Liliana was contracted to marry the son of the 'Medjai' Chieftain. Her first born daughter was chosen for that particular duty, but no reason was given. It was just 'the way.' Of course, there was a reason, but Ash was too young to understand fully. Danforth, crushed after losing his young wife, left Egypt with his infant daughter in tow. He was only allowed to do so by promising to fulfill the contract. An honorable man was Danforth Harding. He kept his word. Hence, the Hardings made their routine, and Ash thought pointless, sojourns to Egypt.

Ash was eight the first time she remembered meeting Liliana's future husband. He was astride a gigantic horse, its eyes shielded against annoying pests with some type of dangling things that didn't exactly impair the animal's vision. The young man, only older than Liliana by five years, was covered from head to toe with long, flowing robes, and some type of head covering. His face was covered as well. All Ash could see were his eyes. Liliana hastily told her that the robe/head covering combination was actually called a burnoose, and that on his face was a ghutrah. Ash didn't much care what was what. She had never seen anything so strange in her life. All she did know was that this man was making goo goo eyes at her sister. The moment he saw the Harding sisters, he removed the covering from his face and smiled down at them. It was then that Ash noticed a mark on his forehead. She knew from her father that it was an Arabic character, but she had no idea what it meant. He removed the head covering as well as he dismounted to face Liliana. His hair was very dark and longish. At the ripe old age of eight, Ash became fascinated with this man. He spoke to Liliana and asked Ash with a mellow, but deep voice what her name was. Proudly, she puffed out her chest and told him. He offered her a kind smile before giving his name: Ardeth.

It wasn't proper for Liliana and Ardeth to be together alone prior to their marriage. So, Ash became the perfect…although unaware…chaperone. At first, Ash loved Ardeth like a brother…he sure was cute, but her feelings began to change as she grew older and began to understand what a 'contracted' marriage actually was. Although she thought her future brother in-law was a handsome, sweet man, she didn't think Liliana should be forced to marry him due to some old-timey tradition of arranged marriages. Liliana didn't mind. Ardeth didn't mind. Danforth and Millicent Harding didn't mind. But dang it, Ash minded. At eleven, she grew to loathe this Ardeth Bay. He was taking her sister away from her to make her a slave in his home. It didn't matter that Ardeth was kind to her, or gave her rides astride his gigantic steed, or doted on her, or gave her a special Arabic nickname: Rimâd. Nothing mattered. All that mattered was that after Liliana's eighteenth birthday, Ash would not see her as often as she wanted. It was wrong. It was unfair. None of the fits Ash threw did any good.

When Liliana and Ardeth finally became husband and wife, it was a wonderful affair. They married inside a billowing white tent that Danforth called the 'maHall min gama.' Ardeth was decked out in ceremonial robes the color of the deepest sapphires while Liliana wore a flowing gown of gold, layers and layers of material floated about her body, giving her an angelic appearance. Ash cried. They weren't tears of joy. They were tears of sadness, selfishness, and grief. She kept telling herself that Liliana really didn't want this. But as the ceremony began, ended, and the couple celebrated with a huge feast of roasted lamb, vegetables, and ale, Ash saw what she thought she knew didn't exist. Happiness.

Through the next several years, Ash didn't see her sister much. The Hardings made a trip every other year. Liliana only visited a few times. Ash hated Ardeth more for that as well. She last saw her brother in-law in his homeland year before last. He had grown even more handsome, earning more marks on his face, hands, and body. Yet, Ash didn't care. She saw a monster where her gentle brother in-law dwelled. She would never forgive him for taking her sister away from the family, away from America. Each time Liliana wrote or visited, she went on and on about her 'happiness.' But Ash was too stubborn to see the truth. Again, it was pure selfishness, but she didn't try to devoid her sister of her happiness. She openly supported Liliana's marriage, but hid her disgust in private.

Not four days ago, Liliana left America to go back to Egypt after a three week visit. It was the first time in a few years that she had made the trek. Fortunately for Ash, the 'husband' didn't come along. Liliana said he had to stay to 'carry out his duty.' It was another thing that Ash didn't like. All the mystery. What was so important that no one could be told what Ardeth did as he galloped about on his gigantic horse? There was so much she would never understand. On her last day at home, Liliana shared a secret with Ash, one that only she and her husband knew. Ash was to be an aunt.

Liliana was nervous, but Ash didn't have a clue as to why. She knew her sister would leave this day, but she was not one to be giddy over such trivial matters. As Liliana dragged her over to sit upon Millicent's prized antique settee, Ash began to wonder what this was truly about. In the back of her mind, she was hoping against hope that Liliana had come to her senses and decided to come back home.

"Oh, yâ ukht," Liliana whispered. "You mustn't tell a soul what I am about to share. No one knows…only Ardeth, me, and now…you."

Ash cringed at the use of Arabic. For no reason at all, it made her very sad. Liliana had accepted her role as an Egyptian, as the wife of a Medjai Chieftain. Why couldn't she accept it? "No, Liliana, I won't tell anybody. What is it?"

Liliana smiled tenderly before placing her hand onto her flat abdomen. "In a few short months, you will be our baby's khâla," she gushed.

Honestly, the idea thrilled Ash and she hugged her sister fiercely. Having children was very important to Liliana, to her husband. Ash understood Liliana's happiness, but Ardeth's was a different story. He was a man. Why would he care? All he wanted was an 'heir' to his heritage. Not once did she believe she was underestimating her brother's love for his wife and unborn child. She wouldn't learn that lesson until much later. As Liliana departed to make her long journey back to Egypt, Ash had no idea it would be the last time she would see her alive.

With the thoughts swirling about her mind, Ash entered the house, tiredly slinging her bag onto the nearest table. Neither her father nor her mother was anywhere to be seen. Usually, they were both in the sitting room taking turns reading the evening paper. This unsettled her. She was no psychic, never claimed to be, but she immediately felt as if something was wrong and out of place. Toward the front of the house…near the kitchen…she heard the voices of her parents. She couldn't make out what they were saying, but it was more than obvious her father was upset. Her mother's voice came after his in low tones, offering comfort. Ash didn't want to go into that room, but like her brother in-law before her, she knew she must move forward. She had no choice.

As she drew near, Ash realized that they were in the kitchen standing near the sink. Her father was leaned against it, his eyes focused unseeingly out the window. Her mother stood behind him, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head on his shoulder. She had walked in on them a few times as they shared intimate moments such as this. On any other day, Ash would have watched curiously for a moment, and then drifted away. Today wasn't routine. She could sense that already. Tentatively, she moved toward her parents. They had yet to notice her. Danforth was crying softly, shaking his head in denial.

She was suddenly awash with news unannounced. "Not my sister," Ash said unbelievingly. "Not Liliana."

Shocked not only by the intrusion, but by Ash's voice as well, they broke their embrace and turned toward her. "Ashlyn," Millicent said quietly. "We didn't hear you come in."

Ash couldn't believe they were trying to hide this from her. What were they thinking? Liliana was her sister. Is, damn it. Is is is. Not was. Had she miscarried the baby? Was that it? No. Neither of them knew about the baby. This is more and you know it. "Mother? Father? What has happened to my sister? You must tell me!" She could feel the tears fighting to make their presence known, but she resisted. If she gave in and cried, it meant that Liliana was gone forever. It meant acceptance. She refused to accept.

"Ash, we received a telegram from Chieftain Bay," Danforth began. "Liliana didn't make it home. She died in the desert." He knew it wasn't as simple as that. He knew the desert, was more than familiar with the Narrows. If Liliana had died in the desert, she had suffered. She had suffered greatly.

She died in the desert. Ash might not have been psychic, but she was no fool. She could see it on her father's face. It wasn't as if Liliana had closed her eyes, gone to sleep, and knew nothing else. There was more to it. Much more. "You should have never allowed her to marry that man," Ash said calmly. Oh, she was saddened. She was upset and devastated, but she was also bitter, angry. The time to grieve would come later. Right now, she could concentrate on little else that didn't have to do with her fury. She wouldn't know for some time that her thoughts were exactly in line with her much loathed brother in-law. If she had known, she might have understood that he was no heartless asinine bastard. "If you had kept her home, allowed her to marry who she wanted, this never would have happened."

"Ashlyn, darling, you don't understand," Millicent said sympathetically.

She watched as her mother made an attempt at approaching her, her arms halfway extended to offer comfort. She surprised her parents by stepping back two steps for every one her mother took. "No," she said angrily. "I do not seek, want, or need your comfort."

Without another word, Ash ran out of the kitchen. She darted toward her room, ran inside, and closed the door behind her. She ensured she locked it as well. She did not want anyone entering her room, trying to offer comfort that Ash would never be ready to accept. Face first, she went for her bed. She wanted so badly to cry, but she couldn't. No one would ever understand her bond with Liliana. Not her parents. Surely not her brother in-law. No one would understand the special relationship between sisters. They weren't just blood kin. They were best friends. No one would understand or fathom the deep connection they had. What they shared throughout Liliana's short life. The stories. The harmless pranks. The love. The hugs. The joys. The sorrows. All gone. Forever. For an eternity.

To be continued…




MaHall min gama—Place of unity

Yâ ukht—My sister

Khâla—Aunt, on mother's side