Chapter Nine - Farewells
Ardeth's chambers were bright with lamplight. The Med-jai chieftain lay still on his bed. He'd awoken a short time after being helped to his bed and Hessa had forced him to drink a strong sleeping draught. Hessa sat on the bed beside Ardeth and worked carefully, cleansing the new marks so that they might be carefully bandaged in the morning. Evelyn O'Connell, still wide awake with the events of the night on her mind, sat with her, keeping her company. She studied the tattoos on Ardeth's back while Hessa cleaned away the blood. "I've been waiting for the chance to get a look at these," she confessed with a conspiratorial smile. "It just never seemed the right time to ask."
Hessa chuckled. Evy had discovered that she spoke English quite well and they'd been talking while Hessa worked. "It is rarely the right time to ask a man to remove his shirt for you. Especially when your husband is nearby." The two women laughed.
"Yes, I'm afraid Rick isn't the understanding type when it comes to that," Evy agreed. "Now, can you tell me what these marks are? Or is it secret?"
Hessa shook her head. "No, it is no secret to us. And you are Med-jai now. Point to the ones you wish to know about. I must finish this." Evy watched as Hessa's skilled hands soaked and peeled away each bloody square of cloth, cleaned the raw flesh, and carefully covered each new tattoo with ointment. She drew her eyes away and pointed to the identical marks at the top of Ardeth's shoulder blades. "These. They are the same on both shoulders. What do these mean?"
"They are blessings for strength."
"And these little marks under each one. These are each different."
"Each of those tells of Ardeth Bey's success in a trial of skill. The ones on the right tell of his mastery of horsemanship and hand combat. Those on the left signify his prowess with knives and other weaponry."
"I see that now! Yes, of course. These are not all that different from the hieroglyphics I've studied."
Hessa smiled. "Our markings have changed little since the days of the first Med-jai."
Evy grinned, excited that she was finally getting the information she'd wanted since she'd first seen the elaborate tattoos weeks ago. "What are these new ones? I mean, I understand the red on the one on his chest is to signify his vengeance has been satisfied, but what are these others? The ones you just did?"
Hessa had finished her work and ran her fingers lightly across the blue marks she and Maysarah, her husband, had made only a short time before. "These tell of the battle with the undead in your country and Ardeth's injuries. Here it tells of your flight over the desert and the search for your son. These," her hand moved again, "tell of the battle with the Army of Anubis. And here it speaks of O'Connell saving his life and their brotherhood."
"What are the black marks?"
Hessa pulled her hands away and bowed her head. "They tell of the Med-jai who lost their lives in the battle with Anubis' warriors."
Evy leaned closer to get a better look. "But these marks look familiar," she studied them a moment. "Oh, yes! They resemble the hieroglyph for one hundred. What do they actually stand for?"
Hessa looked at the woman she had come to consider her friend and smiled sadly. "They stand for one hundred." She watched as Evy's eyes widened and her mouth opened and closed a few times. "You can't mean . . ." she sputtered. Hessa nodded. "Each mark represents the lives of one hundred of our warriors killed by the Army of Anubis."
Evy stared at the line of ten black marks marching down Ardeth's back and shuddered. She'd not realized the Med-jai had paid so high a price. "I didn't know," she whispered.
Hessa patted her hand, careful to avoid the new tattoos. "It is done," she said simply. "Now you must go and sleep. I will sit with Ardeth until morning."
Evy nodded and stood to go. At the door she turned back. "Did you know any of the warriors killed?" she asked quietly.
"Yes. I knew many of them. Two of them were my brothers. Many others were from our tribe. Ardeth knew all of them from our clan, and many of the others who perished. It weighs heavily on him. I am thankful to you and your family, Evahlyn O'Connell."
Evy frowned. "Why?" she wondered. "We didn't do anything. In fact, you could say we're the ones who got you into this mess to begin with."
Her new friend just smiled. "You are friends to Ardeth Bey. That is enough for us to thank you for."
Not sure how to respond to this, Evy just nodded and said goodnight. She closed the door and retreated to her own room where Rick was already deep in slumber. She laid awake for a long time, thinking of all she had learned. Sometime in the night, she came to terms with what it truly meant to be Med-jai and she prayed she was strong enough to live up to the honorable name she'd given claim to with the marks on her wrists. When she did sleep, she dreamed of Med-jai warriors, their blood staining the white desert sand, their souls rising up in victory as evil was defeated once more.
Something wet and soothing lay against Ardeth's back and the cool comfort slowly woke him from a deep, dreamless sleep. He breathed slowly, assessing the extent of the pain and found, to his relief, only a lingering burning sensation.
"Good morning!" a female voice said brightly. "Sleep well?"
Ardeth smiled against the bedding. Although he could not see her, he would recognize Evy's bright tone anywhere. "Yes. Thank you. Yourself?"
"Oh, yes. I thought for certain I'd be awake all night with the pain in my hands but it didn't keep me up at all."
"I am glad you suffered no ill effects. Your hands, they are feeling alright?"
"Just a little sore. Rick's too. Alex's are a bit more tender. Whether it's because of his age or the fact that he was determined to prove himself to the tribe and not take Hessa's potion, I'm not sure." Even the stern reprimand could not mask the pride in her voice.
"It is because he did not take the potion. It has healing properties as well as something to dull the pain of the marking."
"Why didn't you take the potion?" Ardeth could actually hear Evy frowning at him.
"No amount of potion would have eased the pain of the marking last night."
Evy fell silent, having learned last night what the new markings meant. She laid a hand on Ardeth's shoulder and squeezed it lightly. "I know," she said quietly. "Hessa told me. Ardeth, I'm so very, very sorry. We had no idea."
"It is the price we pay. It is the curse we live with."
"Do you ever resent your ancestor for leaving you this legacy?" She'd been wanting to ask that for a long time.
Ardeth was silent for a moment. "Sometimes," he finally said. "But then, too, I can imagine no other life. For thousands of years the Med-jai have lived as we live now. I believe my ancestors knew that there was evil in the world that needed to be watched. Perhaps the homdai was the only way they could ensure it would always have guardians."
Evy removed the cool towel from his back and fidgeted with it a moment, not sure what to say next. She decided that changing the subject was the best way to go. "Do you need help getting up? Hessa said you'd need the new marks bandaged before you dressed."
"No, thank you Evy. I can manage. Would you find Hessa for me and tell her I am ready?"
Ardeth heard Evy leave his chambers and then rolled slowly onto his side. The new marks pulled at the edges and he gingerly swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was still wearing his loose pants from the night before but someone had been kind enough to remove his boots. He stood and stretched as far as he dared, easing the kinks from a night of sleeping on his stomach. He padded across the tile floor, cool beneath his bare feet, and over to the curtains that closed off his balcony. He pulled them open, filling the room with sunlight. A deep breath of brisk air was all that he needed to restore him to full wakefulness.
How he loved this valley! The light breezes, the fragrances of trees and flowers that filled the air all year round. It was an Eden unto itself and he was eternally grateful to his forefathers for finding this place. He looked down upon the streets that ran through the city just below the palace. People went about their work with a vitality that spoke of well being and contentment. A few people, working on their roof gardens, saw him and waved merrily. He waved back and called greetings to the ones close enough to hear him.
A whisper of sound behind him alerted him to the fact that Hessa had arrived. He took a last look at the city, knowing that his duties for the day would keep him in the palace. "I would stay here all day if I could," he said aloud.
Hessa's quiet chuckle reached him. "And what of your duties, cousin? Will you ignore them as you did in your youth and go swimming with Bashaar instead?"
He turned to her and made a face. "Do not tempt me, woman! Or I may do just that."
His cousin nodded. "You want to, but you will not. You value your duty too highly. Now come here and let me bandage your marks. You must dress and greet the day. The council expects you in an hour."
Ardeth heaved a heavy sigh and threw his arms out with a flourish, giving Hessa room to work the long linen strips around his torso. "I am very tired of wearing these," he complained. "First Safiya and now you. I do not think I will ever feel clothes against my skin again."
She punched his arm lightly. "You will soon enough. I know how you value your silk robes when you are home. Two days for these IF you stay out of trouble and keep still. If you move around too much and irritate them, four days. And do not pick up the children. Understand?" She addressed him as she would a child. He gave her an exaggerated petulant look, one identical to Azizah's when she was forced to do something she didn't want to. It made her laugh. "I understand," he pouted as she walked away. "But I do not like it!" he added under his breath as she closed the door.
"You do not have to." Her response came clearly through the door and it was his turn to laugh. Hessa always made him laugh. She was his favorite cousin and he loved teasing her. She and her husband, Maysarah, made certain he was a frequent guest in their home and always made him feel welcome. He valued that more than anything.
Suppressing another sigh and realizing that the day would proceed whether he was ready for it to or not, Ardeth found his boots and pulled them on.
He found a light green robe and belted it loosely around his waist, not bothering with a shirt as the strain of lifting his arms might break open the delicate scabs on his back and shoulder. A knock on his door told him that his food was ready. He ran his fingers quickly through his long,
disheveled hair, restoring it to some manner of order, and opened the door, ready to face his day.
"Now, Alex, you hold the scimitar thusly." Ardeth curled his hand around Alex's, instructing him in the proper way to grip the heavy sword. For three weeks they had trained with wooden copies, working on Alex's technique. He'd learned first with his left hand. That had been difficult as he was right-handed for the most part but Ardeth assured him it was imperative that a Med-jai be able to fight equally well with both hands. Alex had trained hard, working with his father and Bashaar when Ardeth was called away to attend other matters. He was now fairly proficient and could fight using a scimitar in one hand and a dagger in the other.
Ardeth was proud of his progress. Alex was a quick study and agile for his age. He'd taken to the training well and today would be his first sparring match against someone of similar age and skill with dulled weapons instead of wooden ones. He smiled when he thought of what Alex's reaction would be to his sparring partner.
Alex hefted the dulled sword. "It's not that much heavier than the wood ones," he remarked as he tested the weight and balance.
"It is not. However, the steel gives a different feel when struck. You will notice it in your arms on the first strike." He picked up his own practice weapon and lifted it. "Strike at me, use all your strength."
The boy grinned. He loved sparring with Ardeth. He always learned something new. Alex lifted the steel blade and swung with all his might at the blade Ardeth held. He felt the impact in his shoulders and grunted. Ardeth smiled, not unkindly. "I told you it was different. Again."
For several minutes Ardeth had Alex deliver blow after blow, adjusting his arms and upper body to the feel of the steel blades as they met. Finally, he called a halt. "I think you are ready now," he said with a nod.
"Ready for what?" Alex wondered. He'd only been told he would be sparring today.
"To spar with someone your own size. While it is valuable for you to know how to fight someone larger, your true skill will only be realized against someone equal to you in ability." Ardeth cocked two fingers, gesturing to someone Alex couldn't see. When Ardeth stepped aside, Alex found himself facing a miniature Med-jai in full black robes and facial covering, wielding another practice blade and looking very intent.
Alex swallowed and studied the boy before him. He was somewhat smaller but handled the sword with a sure knowledge of what to do with it. "Who's this?" he asked, his voice squeaking.
"You will not always know your adversary," Ardeth replied and stepped aside. At his unspoken signal, the small Med-jai approached. Alex dropped into a crouch, matching his opponent's style and watched, as Ardeth had instructed, the form of the other boy. Like two lions they circled each other, each intent on waiting for the first move. Finally the pressure of waiting got to Alex and he moved forward. The other boy parried his thrust and soon they were each lunging and swirling, their blades connecting with a ring at each blow. The two were well matched in skill and Alex, trying to remember all that Ardeth had told him, used his added inches to his advantage whenever possible. The other boy seemed to know when he might do this, however, and Alex was thwarted more often that not.
Alex knew that the fight would continue until one of them was disarmed. Hit after hit was exchanged until sweat poured off both of them. Alex knew he was tiring and decided to try one last desperate move. He stepped back and faked a stumble, falling onto his back. The other boy moved in quickly. Alex's feet struck out, catching his opponent in the stomach and sending the other boy flying. He landed on his back with a grunt. With a flick of his wrist, Alex's blade caught the other boy's sword and sent it skittering aside.
A cheer went up from the crowd Alex hadn't realized was watching. He saw his father lean over and say something to Ardeth which made the Med-jai laugh. Alex took a deep breath and reached out his hand to help the other boy up. The boy grasped his hand, and in a move that surprised Alex as well everyone watching, the boy kicked out and caught Alex behind the knees. Alex felt himself fall and before he could catch himself he was pinned face down on the ground, a knee in his back, with a blunt dagger laid tight against his throat. From where he lay he saw Ardeth lean over and say something to his father and it was his father's turn to laugh.
After a moment, the other boy let Alex up and they faced each other. Alex, determined to be a man about the whole thing, put out his hand.
"Nicely done," he said in English. Then he realized his mistake and repeated it in Arabic.
The boy across from him giggled, which Alex thought was odd, and took his hand. His other hand raised and pulled the face cloth down. Alex found himself staring at the smiling face of Azizah Bey.
"This is where I must leave you." Ardeth stood at Rick's stirrup and looked up into the face of the man he now called 'brother'.
Rick nodded and studied the desert around Hamunaptra. "Yeah. It's not like we haven't been this road before." He smiled, trying to dispel the feeling of loss he was experiencing at leaving his friend.
Ardeth's lips twitched in a suppressed smile. "I am confident you can find your way." The subtle amusement Rick had come to recognize over the last few weeks colored the Med-jai's tone. "I will hear from you when you reach England?" he asked, needing to be reassured that the O'Connell's would stay in contact.
Evy had dismounted and put an arm around his waist. "You know you will," she said giving him a squeeze. "And in six months we'll be back. And Alex will stay with you while we go on another dig."
To Evy's delight, Ardeth embraced her tightly. "I will miss you," he admitted quietly. She hugged him back just as tightly. "We'll miss you too, Ardeth," she said, a hint of tears threatening. She pulled away before she cried and smiled brightly. "You'll be sure and write?"
The Med-jai nodded. "I will." Evy gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and mounted her camel.
"Ardeth." He turned at his name. Rick, too, had come down off his camel and stood close. "You be careful," he commanded, all the things he could not say evident in that one phrase. Ardeth grabbed him in a rough embrace. "I will," he promised. He released his brother and they shared a last look, one that said everything they could not. Finally, they each nodded and Rick climbed aboard his mount.
"Alex." Ardeth turned to the young man he had grown so fond of. He reached in his robes and pulled out an ornately carved dagger encrusted with precious jewels. He handed it, hilt first, to his heir. Alex's eyes widened and he gaped at the gift. "This was given to me by my father. It is yours." Ardeth told him. Alex reached out a tentative hand and grasped the knife, careful not to cut Ardeth as he pulled it from his palm. "Thanks," he said breathlessly. "I'll take really good care of it."
Ardeth smiled at him then turned and walked back to his horse. "Now, my friends. My family. I wish you safe journey."
The O'Connell's looked at the man they had come to know as he sat on his black horse in the shadows of the ancient city he'd vowed to protect. The rising sun illuminating the proud marks on his face. They knew, each of them, that his fate and their was now irrevocably tied together. As one, they raised their hands in farewell and turned to ride away. Ardeth Bey watched them go and raised his hand to his heart, his lips, his forehead, bidding them goodbye and godspeed in his own way. He watched them for a long time, not turning away until they could no longer be seen through the heat waves rising from the sand. Only then did Ardeth Bey turn his horse toward Hamunaptra and the life he was born to live.