Disclaimer: I don't own it.
Chapter XXXI Petitioning the Gods
Josephine sat silently in front of Naji as they rode through the endless sands once again. They had collectively decided that she was in no condition to ride alone, and so Naji had lifted her in front of him for the journey. She had not said a word since she had helped them shroud Ardeth's body in cloth after tending the injured. She had followed orders mechanically, but she had showed not a single emotion since leaving Ardeth's side.
"How many days of riding till we reach Cairo?" Jonathan asked as he wiped his brow with his handkerchief.
"Not as many as it took us to get here. We shall spend most of the time on the water. We shall meet the Nile a day's ride from here and then we shall boat upstream into Cairo within a couple of days, depending on if we must make any stops along the way," Naji explained as he studied the map Rashid had given him. It was the map to Nefertiri's tomb, and it was his duty to see that it found a safe home. He had planned on giving it to Josephine when they parted ways in Cairo, but as they rode he had realized that she no longer wore the necklace. He had a good idea of where it now rested, and he decided that the map would be buried with Ardeth when he arrived at the tribe.
They rode in mournful silence throughout the rest of the day and well into the night. None sought sleep, and none felt the biting cold of the desert night. They moved like shadows upon the sand, neither feeling the touch of life nor the emptiness of death.
Rashid stood among the bodies being prepared for burial while his men dug graves for their brothers. Graves dug just deep enough to stop scavengers from digging them up but shallow enough to be created quickly. Each man was to be laid to rest with the greatest respect.
As the sun was setting in a blaze of red and violet, Rashid watched as the Tribe of the Seventh appeared on the horizon seemingly riding straight out of the sun itself. Rashid shook his head in renewed despair as he saw that they were led by Hajar herself.
"If it is you who greets me, then it must mean that he is truly gone," the elderly woman said as the haggard looking warriors halted their horses.
"I am sorry to tell you that it is true. Ardeth Bay now rests amongst the other great leaders of the Med-jai," Rashid answered solemnly as he offered his hand to Hajar. "Tell me what took so long in the Seventh's arrival?" he asked calmly as he led her to the healing tents they had set up.
"We met with more of Ghalib's followers not a day's ride from here, my child. We spent the majority of this day burying our own dead seemingly just to come and assist you in the same task. I begged them to bring me to see my grandson perhaps one last time, but I see that our meeting was not meant to be," Hajar said as she held carefully to Rashid's strong arm.
"I am surprised that Nadir allowed you to travel with them into battle," Rashid admitted as he opened the tent for her to enter.
"You forget that I am a healer my child. Not all of battle is killing. There is a need of healing once the fight is over. You know that I am capable of disappearing during a battle only to reappear at its finish. I knew I would be needed here, and so Nadir knew he would not be able to stop me," Hajar said with a small smile. Her husband may have been long deceased, but she still held much of the power that she had when he was chieftain. "Now where are those who need me?" she asked as she looked around the tent.
Hajar worked for many hours amongst the injured. Finally, she tended to Rashid's leg as the hour neared midnight. "There…your leg should heal nicely if you do not work yourself too hard," Hajar said quietly as she patted Rashid's newly stitched thigh. "Now, I must tend to my grandson," Hajar said as she rose on aged legs to stand before Rashid.
"I can bring you too him," Rashid offered as he stood stiffly trying not to place much pressure on his injured leg.
"No, he must be brought to me. Call two of your most trusted men, and have them bring my grandson's body to the temple of Nefertiri. I shall lead the way for them," Hajar explained as she moved toward the entrance of the tent.
"What do you wish to do to Ardeth's body, Hajar? If you wish to wash and anoint him in private, I can have it arranged, but I will not tempt the higher beings by sending my men in to disturb such a sacred place. What is it you wish to do?" Rashid asked sternly as he looked into Hajar's eyes.
"I wish nothing, my child. I will simply speak with the gods on my grandson's behalf this night," Hajar said with calm determination as she exited the tent and began to march toward the cliffs. Rashid obeyed her order out of respect to her legacy more than belief in what she wished to do. She was his elder, and she was more a mother to him than any. He would not deny her a last visit with her only grandson.
The cliffs seemed to open up as Hajar approached and she made her way to Nefertiri's temple in peace, followed reverently by the guards who carried Ardeth's body. She had them carry him straight into the temple and place him on the floor before the pedestal where the necklace once rested.
"You may leave us," Hajar said in a calm tone as she motioned toward the doorway. Both guards left the temple and made their way back to the camp, knowing that she would not need them again. Slowly, Hajar looked down upon Ardeth's shrouded body. With a sigh, she pulled the shroud down to reveal his frozen face. He looked pained in death. It had not been the peaceful passing that her grandson deserved. Unfulfilled dreams lingered in his dying breath causing him to look as though death were a curse instead of a gift which it should be.
"There are whispers that you found what your father had sworn off ages ago, my son. The men say that the woman whom held your heart also held Nefertiri's necklace, but I see differently. I have felt its presence since I arrived, and now I feel it weighing upon your heart as your death weighs upon hers," she said as she touched the very place that Josephine had laid the necklace before she left. She slowly rose to her feet and approached the pedestal. "I have come to return what rightfully belongs here, but I fear that I am no longer pure of heart. My years have stolen that from me, but I have brought another who is such a soul. I beg for his life, so that all can be made right again. As Nefertiri died for the love of her father, my grandson gave his life for the love of another. May the gods have mercy on him for he has given everything he has ever had for the land Isis and Osiris. I beg for his life, so that he may have the chance to live it," Hajar said before placing her hands upon the altar and kneeling before it. Slowly, she rose and exited the innermost chambers to wait in the antechamber.
Within Nefertiri's chamber, the torches suddenly faded. But a glow slowly rose out of the altar like a serpent. It weaved its way about the room slowly before finding its way to the stone that rested upon the Med-jai's heart. As the spectral glow came into contact with the artifact, the stone slowly melted into blood that soaked the shroud that covered his body. Then, the blood seeped into his skin and illuminated his veins as it coursed through him. Without warning, breath was forced into his lungs. The serpentine spirit surrounded Ardeth's body as his wounds began to heal and disappear. Scars that once adorned his battle hardened flesh faded into soft skin once again. The furrow that creased his brow eased and the calluses that covered his hands receded. Slowly, the specter settled upon his chest where the choker once lay and faded into his heart giving him life once again.
Suddenly, the room was aglow again with torch light as Ardeth's still shrouded body lay upon the floor. Slowly, his eyes opened to the glowing room. When he looked up he saw the altar and upon it rested the choker of Nefertiri once again. Ardeth sat up gradually, but was disorientated until he felt his grandmother by his side. "The gods favor you, my child," she said as she pulled the shroud away so he could move his arms.
Ardeth said nothing as he slowly touched his grandmother's face almost in wonder. He felt like a newborn, not really sure of his actions as he struggled to be free of the confines of the shroud. Hajar helped him remove it completely before retrieving the robe she had brought to cover his nakedness. Ardeth took the robe gratefully as she wrapped it around his broad shoulders. "Come, it is time to leave the princess in peace. There is much work to be done, my child," Hajar said as she helped Ardeth rise on wobbly legs.
He stood for a moment not sure of what to do, before he looked at his grandmother again. "Grandmother," was all he said before he embraced her tightly. Hajar held her grandchild lovingly until he pulled away. Then she led him slowly into the night to meet his men once again. All stood in shock and wonder as they stepped into camp. His men gathered and fell to their knees once again as Rashid rushed to him giving him a brotherly embrace.
2 Months Later
Josephine woke yet again from the horror of months before. She slowly rose from the tangled covers and sat upon the window seat that she had grown so fond of in the months since her return. She rarely left her room unless her mother forced her to attend something. Even then, her mind never strayed from the confines of her cell.
Without thought, she opened the window to feel the early spring air caress her face. The soft breeze that comes after a heavy rain weaved through her room gently. She felt herself sighing and resting her forehead against the cool glass of the windowpane. How many days had it been? Weeks? Months? She had lost all concepts of time upon her return, but she was happy to let them go. If she had known the hours and days passing, she surely would have gone mad by now.
As it was, her dreams were haunted by robed men and endless sands. She hadn't had a full night's sleep since her return, but she didn't want sleep. Sleep meant reliving what couldn't be changed. Slowly, Josephine untwined her long braid and began combing her fingers through her hair. It was the only comforting action she had. She had cried, but tears changed nothing. She had screamed, but she was left without voice. She had kicked and fought, but she was left hurting all the more. She had contemplated death, but she refused to be conquered by this.
As she weaved her fingers through her silken hair, Josephine looked out at the crescent moon that hung in the night sky. With a soft sigh, she pulled a light shawl around her frail shoulders and let her dreams claim her once again.
Ardeth stood on the street corner watching her window for the third night in a row. He told himself, he was standing guard over her as he had done in the desert. However, deeper he knew that he came with the hope of seeing her at her window in the dead of night. He knew her dreams were haunted, as were his own.
This ritual had begun because he had had a lingering nightmare that tore at his still bleeding heart. He had wanted to come to her as soon as he arrived in London, but Evelyn had begged him not to. She had told him that Josephine was not the person that he remembered. Her family had not been kind to her upon her return and she rarely left the confines of her own quarters, but Ardeth couldn't wait forever. He used to be a man of infinite patience, but since being given a second chance at life he didn't like to wait and leave things to fate.
Fate had been good to him over the years, but it had also taken away the only thing he had truly wanted. Ardeth sighed as he watched her open the window once again. She sat their in silence staring into the night. She weaved her fingers through her hair, and Ardeth found himself entranced once again. Even from this distance, he could tell she had changed a great deal. The spirit that had been nearly overwhelming when he first met her seemed to have withered in the months since she left.
"How many nights are you going to stand out here, Buddy?" Rick asked as he tore himself away from the shadows.
"You followed me?" Ardeth asked, but he didn't turn away from Josephine's window.
"Evy went to check on you since you've kept to yourself the past few days. When she saw you weren't there, she forced me to come find you. It's not like you're that hard to find. You only know two places in London, and one of them is the museum. And judging from what happened last time you went to the museum, it narrowed my options significantly," Rick explained as he stood beside his solemn friend.
"I want to go to her, but what can I say? I should be dead. I was dead. She has a good life here. She has money, class, and family. I can only offer her a tent, odd stares, and a life as a warrior's wife. How can that even compare?" he asked as she looked at his longtime friend.
"That's more than I offered Evy. I was an ex-con treasure seeker who happened to be American, which might have been the worst of all," Rick said with a smile as he patted Ardeth on the back. "What was it you told me about when you found love? I believe it had something to do with spending the rest of your days seeing that she wanted for nothing. Well Buddy, I happen to know that Josephine wants you, so you better get on that or I'll have to tell your grandmother that you're a liar," Rick laughed.
"You have never met my grandmother," Ardeth said in defense.
"No, I have not, but I am sure that Naji would relay the message upon his return to Egypt in a few days," Rick said with a mischievous smile.
"You wouldn't," Ardeth challenged.
"Oh wouldn't I? Have you ever known me to bluff?" Rick asked as he began heading toward home.
"What would you have me do? I can't just walk into her house and ask her to be my bride; she'd probably have a heart attack on the spot. I am supposed to be dead, or have you forgotten?" Ardeth asked as he fell into step with his friend.
"I think Josephine is a little more resilient than you give her credit for. Go to her, I don't think that she'll turn you away," Rick said calmly.
It was a dismal Sunday afternoon as Josephine sat sipping her tea. Her mother and brother had gone out for the afternoon, and she and Rose had been left to their own devices. Rose sat reading a novel as Josephine watched the rain dance across the windowpanes. She was in a complete daze as she brought her teacup to her lips. She let out a small curse as the tea burnt her lip, and Rose looked up from her pages.
"I didn't realize that you knew such words. You were always so proper before you left us. What happened to you that you have forgotten your manners and smiles? I hoped that seeing the world would bring a smile back to your face, but it seems to have drained the life right out of you. You have aged years in only three months time, and I demand to know what is killing my sister," Rose bit out. She had had enough of Josephine's silent behavior, and she wanted to know what really happened in the desert.
"I don't know what to tell you, Rose. I left a silly girl chasing dreams, and came back a woman followed by nightmares," Josephine said as she moved to the window and gazed out into the muddy streets. People trudged through the rain as though they barely noticed it, but Josephine couldn't stand it anymore. She hated the clouds more than anything.
"Will you at least tell me his name?" Rose finally asked. She was sick of pretending that she didn't see the despair in her sister's eyes and attire. Only one thing could cause such a drastic change. Josephine didn't answer for a long time as she looked out at the street. Then suddenly something caught her eye.
"Ardeth," came the whisper from Josephine who stood in a trance like state as she gazed out the window at something Rose could not see.
"What did you say?" Rose asked because she couldn't make out what her sister had said.
"It can't…Ardeth," Josephine gasped as she threw herself away from the long windows. "It isn't real…it can't be real," she mumbled as she stumbled toward the foyer. Rose followed her in concern as Josephine knocked over one of her mother's favorite vases. Josephine looked possessed as she threw the front door open and burst out into the pouring rains.
"Josephine, are you mad? Get in here before you catch your death," Rose called to her from the doorway as she wrapped her shawl around herself tightly.
Josephine didn't listen to her sister as she ran down the sidewalk splashing her way through puddles in her slipper feet. She heard footsteps behind her as she ran, but she didn't turn to see whose they were. She just ran as fast as her legs could carry her until she saw a dark figure walking up ahead of her. As she made a last push to catch up, she was seized from behind.
"Where do you think you are going?" she heard the distinct voice of her brother as he growled in her ear.
"Let me go!" she exclaimed as she tried to fight her way out of her brother's grasp. The figure was moving further away, but she could still see it through the crowd. "Ardeth!" she screamed with all he might as she struggled against her brother.
"Will you shut up, you sound as though you are possessed," he growled as he clamped his hand over her moved to silence her. Josephine simply bit down on his palm before unleashing another pain filled cry. "Shut up, you're causing a scene," he brother shouted as he raised his hand to strike her, but as he brought his hand down to deliver the blow his wrist was grabbed. James looked down at the tattooed hand that held his arm immobile, before looking up at the tattooed face of the man it belonged to. "Who the bloody hell are you? Let me go, can't you see this is a family matter, you barbarian?" James shouted.
"I can see that the woman is upset, and your actions are not helping her," the tattooed man said as he continued to grasp James' arm tightly.
"She is mad. She belongs in an asylum, but I have had it in my heart to care for her, until you came along. She's family; I can do as I wish to her. So release me," he spat out, but the other man just tightened her grip.
"She is not mad," the tattooed man said before releasing James so suddenly that the young man stumbled back. However, instead of helping him up, the stranger knelt beside a weeping Josephine. Without a word, he wrapped his arms around her and held her to his chest, before lifting her into his strong arms.
"What are you doing to my sister?" James cried as he watched the stranger carry his sister in the direction she had come from.
"It's not you, you're dead…I saw you die…held your body…saw your wounds…" Josephine mumbled incoherently as she was carried toward her home within a pair of arms, she believed were buried.
"Shh," was all he said as he held her tightly against him. When he came to her house again, he carried her up the stairs where her sister still sat watching for her return. He could hear the mother running around screaming from within the house. He carried her up the stairs and into the house when the younger girl ushered him in.
"Oh god, we need to get her out of those clothes before she gets herself ill. Please, if you could bring her up to her rooms," Rose said as she beckoned for the stranger to follow her up the stairs.
When they arrived in the room, he placed her on the bed and tried to step back, but she wouldn't release him. "No…" Josephine said as he tried to pull away. She gazed into his deep brown eyes remembering how they looked the last time she had seen them. They were no longer vacant, but glowing with life once again. "You left me, and you just tried to do it again," she whispered as she tugged at several strands of soaking hair that stuck to his face. "Why did you try to leave?" she asked in a choked whisper.
"I saw you in the window, and didn't see where I could fit into this existence. You obviously have wealth, and live in luxury…"
"And I chose to be a governess. I do not want wealth or luxury, Ardeth Bay. I thought you would have seen that by now. If I wanted wealth, I could have taken any number of things from the temple, but the only thing I wanted was taken away from me. H-how… how are you here? Alive?" she asked in confusion.
"Perhaps your fairytales are not so far from the truth for I believe a little magic was involved," Ardeth said as he gave her a small smile.
Josephine shook her head in disbelief before boldly pulling open the front of his robe and searching for the scar that should have run across his stomach where the final blow had landed, but she found nothing but smooth bronze skin. She heard the small gasp that escaped her sister, but didn't pay attention to it as she looked into Ardeth's eyes once again.
"My grandmother still believes in the old ways. She petitioned the gods on my behalf, and I was granted a reprieve. I have spent the last two months living with my grandmother before she sent me in search of you. She said my heart was missing something without you," he smiled.
"Josephine, let him go. You'll catch your death if you don't get out of those garments," Rose said sternly, but she was completely confused as to who this mysterious stranger was. Could he have truly followed her from Egypt to be with her?
Ardeth began to pull away so that she could change, but Josephine pulled him right back and onto the bed beside her. "Don't go…please don't leave me again," she whispered as tears clouded her vision.
Ardeth softly kissed the crown of her head before whispering back. "If you wish it, I'll never leave your side again. But you'd have to promise me one thing," he said calmly.
"I'll promise anything," she sighed as she buried her head against his beating heart. She clutched his soaked robe as she listened to each gentle beat.
"You'll have to promise to marry me, or I'll be forced to go right back to the temple and ask the gods to take my life back," he said with a small smile.
"Don't say that," Josephine said with a tentative smile of her own before she pulled him to her by his robes and placed a sweet kiss upon his lips. "Yes, I'll marry you, but you have to promise to take me someplace without all this dreary rain," she whispered as a bright smile lit her entire face.
"That can be arranged," Ardeth said before pulling her tightly to him and meeting her lips with his own in a passionate kiss. Without breaking the kiss, he lifted her into his arms and walked them over to the blazing fireplace and sat in front of it with her in front of him. Rose watched in shock from where she stood at the doorway, as the couple sat clinging to each other in front of the fire, warming themselves from the harsh rains. Rose simply shook her head and turned to leave. She would get answers later. Right now, she would have to distract her mother and brother while her sister was reacquainted with the man she obviously loved. She had a feeling she would be visiting Josephine in Egypt for a wedding in the not so distant future.
As the door closed, Josephine pulled away for only a moment. "I never got to actually say the words before," Josephine said in a small voice.
"You don't…," Ardeth attempted to counter as he pushed a couple stray locks of hair out of her eyes.
"I love you," she whispered before he could finish as she clung to his chest once again.
"And I you," he returned as he stroked her hair and held her tightly as he leaned against the chair in front of the fire. There were many things to discuss and decide, but they could wait. Right now, all Ardeth wanted to do was hold the most stubborn, brilliant, and beautiful woman he had ever met and loved.
Wow, I can't believe it's over. This is actually the happiest any of my stories has ever ended, but I figured poor Ardeth probably deserved it after what I put him through. I hope everyone liked it. Thank you to everyone who has followed this story from the beginning. I greatly appreciate all the reviews and favorites and what not. I hope you guys enjoyed this, and until my next story…adieu!