The Return of the Med-jai
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the motion picture The Mummy. That's all you, Universal Studios. And I'm not going to profit off this story, so calm down. There's no reason to sue, and you all make too much money anyway. Vultures.
Summary: Madeline O'Connell is living with her brother's family in London, working at the British Museum. Ardeth Bay is still living in the Egyptian deserts, performing his duties as chieftain of the twelve Med-jai tribes. But when the reincarnation of Anck-su-namun, enlisting the aid of a museum curator and an enemy tribe of the Med-jai, decides to resurrect Imhotep and take on the Scorpion King, the two ex-lovers are thrown back into one another's paths. Can they overcome mummies, Anubis warriors, a council-appointed bride and their own insecurities, and finally live happily ever after? Or will they require a little bit of help... in the form of Madeline's best friend Jonathan Carnahan and Ardeth's younger sister Nasira Bay? Sequel to Self Esteem.
AN: Thanks to everyone who reviewed Self Esteem! I hadn't planned on releasing the sequel so soon, but... I changed my mind! I started writing, and well... yeah. So, here it is: the sequel to Self Esteem! Thanks again to all my readers and reviewers and enjoy!
Chapter 1: His Duty
Nasira Bay had always thought the love story of Imhotep and Anck-su-namun was absolutely beautiful.
That was what she called it: a love story. Despite constant rebuke from first her parents and later her older brothers, she could not bring herself to call it anything else. To her, the tale of the Creature would always be a love story.
The other Med-jai did not see it as such. Her tribesmen called it a tragedy – a story of betrayal. And perhaps it was all those things: a tragedy, a tale of betrayal, and a love story. She knew Imhotep and Anck-su-namun had acted wrongly, but still the story spoke to her of eternal love.
It was the first story she had ever been told, and she would always love it. There was something about a good love story that Nasira simply could not get enough of. The suspense, the intrigue, the adventure… the romance, the tragedy, the preferably bittersweet ending. Endings always had to be bittersweet. Happy ones did not ring true; sad ones were too depressing. Nasira adored a bittersweet ending.
She had always wanted to live one of those stories. Not a romance, exactly. For her, it was the adventure, the excitement, and the profound, epic sense of importance that called her name. Romance was a bonus, one that she could live without. Love was a beautiful thing to watch, but not necessarily to live.
The Med-jai lived an epic adventure everyday, this was true. A dime store novel could be written about her people. But it was one thing to sit in her tent all day and listen to the stories of her brothers, and quite another thing to go out and live them.
But things had changed considerably in the last four years. No longer was Nasira forced to sit on the sidelines, to remain in her tent, to only hear the stories. Now she traveled to Hamunaptra, to Cairo, attended council meetings… she had seen battle, prevented theft, killed men twice her size.
She had Madeline O'Connell to thank for that.
Her eldest brother was Ardeth Bay, chieftain of the twelve Med-jai tribes. Once Nasira had turned nineteen – a mere month after she'd met Madeline O'Connell – he had allowed his younger sister entrance into the ranks of his warriors. He had not always been so accepting of the idea that his sister might become a warrior, of course. Nasira suspected he was still not entirely thrilled. She knew her other brother, Yasir, was completely furious about the whole thing, and he probably always would be. He had, after all, managed to maintain his fury over four long years already and there was no sign it might abate anytime soon. Yasir almost deserved praise, actually. His dedication was inspiring.
When the decision had been made, Ardeth had told Yasir that the only way to cure Nasira of her taste for battle was to give it to her; that once she had experienced a warrior's life, her romantic notions would vanish and she would be begging to return to her tent. Even then, Nasira had known simply by the look in Ardeth's eyes that he had not believed those words. He had known what his acceptance would result in, and he had been right. Exposure to a soldier's life had only increased her hunger for action and adventure, and she had no intention of ever returning to her tent. Yasir had once believed otherwise. He now knew she was on the front to stay. His disappointment radiated off him like a foul stench that was only made worse by the heat.
She knew it had been Madeline O'Connell who had changed Ardeth's mind. Such a pity she could not have done the same for Yasir. Ardeth had met Madeline nine years ago, when for the first time in thousands of years, the Creature the Med-jai had sworn to stand guard over had been resurrected. They had returned him to the grave. Five years after that, Madeline had reentered Nasira's brother's life as an active participant in the Med-jai struggle to stop the resurrection of a particularly nasty Egyptian pharaoh. She'd joined the fight, pistols blazing, with too many opinions and not enough sense to keep them to herself. Nasira had loved her from the start. Madeline had been strong, brave, and even funny… and she had an endearing awkwardness that made it impossible not to befriend her. It had not surprised Nasira when Ardeth had fallen in love with her.
The love affair had not ended well, but the young American woman had left a lasting impression on Nasira's brother. She had opened Ardeth's mind just enough to allow Nasira's entrance into the world of Med-jai warriors to become possible. But most importantly – and this was the reason Nasira's thoughts had turned to love stories on this blazingly hot, unforgivably bright day in the desert – Ardeth Bay had never fallen out of love with Madeline O'Connell. He had continued to love her for the past four years, and showed no signs of forgetting her or of marrying another… and Nasira knew, if he saw her tomorrow, that the two of them would pick up right where they left off.
Which explained why she was so incredibly furious with Yasir right now.
The three siblings were standing out at the corral, watching the horses huddling for shade by the stables. Ardeth leaned on his forearms, resting against the worn wooden fence and staring determinedly into the corral, purposely not looking at his younger brother. His large, dark brown eyes fixed on the huddle of black horses, strain evident in his jaw line, despite the dark, neatly trimmed beard that attempted to hide it. He could have been carved from stone.
Yasir was at his side, facing Ardeth's profile. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, and he was glaring at his older brother. Nasira was always struck by how they could look so alike, and yet not look like one another at all. Yasir had his brother's wavy black hair, his beard was trimmed in a similar style, and he had the same stern, stress-creased forehead and thick eyebrows. There were slight differences, of course. He did not have the same nose, or the same lips, or the same eyes. The eyes were the most noticeable difference. Ardeth and Nasira shared the same large, dark, and – as she had often been told – beautiful eyes, but Yasir had taken after his mother. They were a lighter brown, almost golden, like the eyes of Ardeth's hawk Horus.
Nasira stood directly behind her brothers, watching with great impatience as the two of them argued. They had just come from a council meeting, and the council of commanders had delivered some disturbing news – news that had greatly upset Nasira, and by the looks of it, Ardeth as well.
"This cannot go on," Yasir was saying now. Apparently he was oblivious to the dark scowls Nasira had been sending his way, so she decided to speak up.
"It isn't anyone's business but Ardeth's," she snapped. Yasir sent her a nasty look, and then returned his gaze to Ardeth. "I mean it, Yasir. Leave him alone."
Nasira was always inclined to take Ardeth's part over Yasir's. She loved both her brothers, but the strong, affectionate, and intimate bond that existed between her and Ardeth did not exist between her and Yasir. Yasir didn't seem bothered by it. He didn't even seem all that bothered by her interference. He simply ignored her, just as he usually did.
"Ardeth," Yasir said sternly, but not unkindly. "Brother. Listen to me. You heard the verdict delivered by the council of commanders. You must know they are right. You must recognize they've only waited this long to say something out of respect. You have been a good chieftain to us – you saw us through the turmoil of Father's murder, you saw us through the resurrection of the Creature, and you saw us through the attempt to raise Nitocris. You have fulfilled all of your duties… except one. And the council will not wait any longer. They should not have to."
"I know," Ardeth spat, still not looking at his brother, or even his sister. "I was there, remember? I am head of the council after all."
Nasira could tell by Ardeth's response that Yasir was treading on thin ice. If he kept pushing, Ardeth was going to explode. And she knew Yasir would keep pushing. Ardeth's fury did not frighten the middle Bay nearly as much as it should.
Yasir sighed rather harshly. "Then you know why they insist…"
"This is ridiculous," Nasira interrupted, hoping to take the heat off Ardeth and put it on her instead. "The commanders have a lot of nerve. Ardeth is chieftain. They cannot force him to…"
"I think you'll find they can, Nasira," Yasir fairly growled. "Certain safeguards have been built into Med-jai law to prevent the rise of a dictatorship. The council does have the power to…"
"Yes, yes, I know!" Nasira rolled her eyes, impatience evident on her face and in her voice. "I understand Med-jai law, Yasir! But this is different! This is his life!"
"It is not his life!" Yasir thundered. "It is his duty to provide the Med-jai with an heir! It is the oath he swore when he took on the responsibility of chieftain! And if he does not marry soon, the council will see his refusal to marry as neglect of his duty!"
"I am right here!" Ardeth bellowed at his two younger siblings, spooking the horses. "There is no need to argue about my life as if I am not! The council has done enough of that as it is!"
Nasira looked at the ground, immediately abashed. "I am sorry, Ardeth."
"I'm not," Yasir retorted. "The council has hand-picked the perfect bride for you! And she is willing to marry you, if only you ask! And still you do nothing! You cannot hide from this forever!"
"And am I not free to marry whomever I choose?!"
Yasir snorted. "Only if you actually choose someone. So far, it seems your choice has been no one."
Nasira knew that wasn't entirely true. She saw Ardeth's lip twitch, and knew it was time to intervene. "Leave him be, Yasir. You could not understand."
"I understand perfectly! You are blind to your own fortune, Ardeth! Sameya Al Tufayl is a beautiful woman. She is also modest, and sweet, and dutiful. She would make anyone an excellent wife – and she would make you an excellent queen. Yet you ignore her as if…!"
"I do not even know her!" Ardeth snapped.
"You have not even tried!"
"And why should he!" Nasira cut in. The mention of the so-called perfect bride had gotten her as angry as Ardeth.
Yasir ignored her again. "I know what your problem is. Why you won't even look in Sameya's direction. Everyone knows. You are still in love with her."
Ardeth's jaw tightened. "Yasir, don't," Nasira said in a low, warning voice.
"You are still hung up on that silly American girl with the pistols and the blue eyes."
There was no menace in Yasir's tone, which surprised Nasira. She had expected otherwise. Yasir almost sounded sympathetic. But Ardeth's eyes narrowed angrily, his jaw getting even tighter. "Her name is Madeline."
"Yes, Madeline," Yasir agreed. "Madeline O'Connell. You are still in love with her."
Ardeth turned on his brother, eyes flashing. "It is none of your business."
"You are in love with her," Yasir pushed on mercilessly. "Yet you sit out here and mope and do nothing. It is not fitting of a warrior."
"Watch your tone," Ardeth snapped. "You may be my brother, Yasir, but I am still your superior."
"Yes," Yasir returned. "And you are bound by the constraints of duty to marry and produce an heir. So the way I see it, brother, you can either go to England, find Miss O'Connell, and ask her to marry you… or you can accept your lot, and marry Sameya." Yasir looked into the corral. "I know what I would choose."
"I am not you," Ardeth retorted.
"No. You are not. So if you are going to go to England, you best do it soon."
Nasira was taken aback by Yasir's words. Was he advising Ardeth to marry Madeline? Because if he was, well… perhaps the end of the world was coming again.
Before anyone could speak, they were interrupted by the arrival of a young, teenage boy running towards their little trio, breathless. "Chieftain! Chieftain!"
"What?" Ardeth snapped at the fledgling warrior, clearly not in the best of moods.
The boy hesitated for a mere moment before swallowing his discomfort and saying, "A team of diggers have found the burial place of Hamunaptra, Chieftain. They have begun to dig. We think they are looking for the Creature."
All three members of the Bay family stiffened, their brows furrowing in identical grimaces. "We will ride out at once," Ardeth announced.
"I will gather the rest of the men," Yasir added.
"Is the watch still stationed nearby the dig site?" Ardeth asked the young boy.
He nodded. "Yes, Chieftain. They sent me alone as messenger. Captain Yazan also wanted you to know this: the diggers are led by a woman. An American. She seems to know things about the City that no one alive should be able to know."
Again, the Bays stiffened. "A woman?" Ardeth repeated.
"Yes, Chieftain. And… she has several of the Red Scarves with her."
Nasira felt her stomach turn over at the mention of the Med-jai's sworn enemies. A quick glance at her brothers confirmed that they too were rattled. Yasir's upper lip had drawn back in an intended snarl, and there was a far off, haunted expression in Ardeth's eyes. "Is Lock'nah leading them?"
The boy nodded.
"Run back to your captain," he ordered the boy. "Tell him not to make a move. He will have reinforcements shortly. We will infiltrate, not attack."
The boy nodded again, and then raced towards his horse. Soon, the young scout and his animal were a mere black speck against the hazy horizon.
"I will issue the command to move out," Yasir announced.
Ardeth nodded. "At once."
Yasir strode purposefully through the camp, yelling for the warriors not on watch duty to prepare to ride to Hamunaptra.
Ardeth walked briskly towards the tent belonging to Baheera Yazan. Nasira had to jog to keep up with his fast pace and long legs. "Ardeth," she said. "If Lock'nah is out there, than shouldn't we…?"
"We will not talk of revenge," he cut her off, anticipating her question. "Not yet. Not until we know what we are dealing with."
Nasira nodded. "Do you think Nagesi is out there as well?"
He shrugged. "I care not if it is one Zubayr brother or both. First we stop them from finding the creature, and then we stop them from ever harming the Med-jai again."
They had reached the tent. An older woman of about fifty years of age ran out to greet them as if she were much younger. She had neglected to cover her long, salt and pepper hair, or her mostly smooth face, save the bird's feet at her eyes. Nasira smiled slightly. Baheera Yazan had little use for tradition, and she was old and respected enough to get away with it.
"Ah, my favorite niece and nephew!" she crowed, wrapping Ardeth in a hug. Ardeth hugged her back, affection softening his hard, determined face. Baheera stepped back from him and hugged Nasira next. "Let me guess. The warriors are riding out, and you'd like me to pack your provisions?"
Ardeth smiled. "That sounds about right."
Baheera smiled back. "Well, only for my favorites." Her good natured smile faded a little. "Is Mas'ud all right?"
Ardeth nodded. "Your son is fine, Aunt. Captain Yazan is simply warning me that diggers have been spotted at Hamunaptra."
Relief creased the middle-aged woman's face at hearing that her son the prestigious Med-jai guard captain was fine – relief that was soon replaced once again by worry. "Diggers at Hamunaptra?"
He nodded. "And Red Scarves."
"Lock'nah? Nagesi? Both?"
"Lock'nah for certain," Ardeth replied. "Nagesi has not been spotted. Thank you for helping us prepare to ride out, Aunt Baheera. I must see to my men. Nasira, help our Aunt and then join the warriors."
Ardeth walked away, in the same direction that Yasir had gone.
Baheera harrumphed. "You? Help me? When is that boy going to learn you are a warrior, not a handmaiden?"
Nasira smiled at her aunt's indignation on her behalf. "I'm simply glad to have made it this far, Aunt Baheera."
"Your father never expected me to do woman's work when I was a soldier. No, not until I gave up my career to raise your cousins was I expected to do anything of the sort. I have a good mind to give that boy a whipping. He's not too old to turn over my knee, you know."
There was a reason Baheera was Nasira's favorite aunt… and it was the same reason that Nasira was Baheera's favorite niece. Nasira smiled fondly at her indignant aunt. The woman was over fifty years old and had not seen battle for more than two decades, yet she was still as fearsome and powerful as ever. "He may not be too old," Nasira replied jokingly. "But he is chieftain now."
"Chieftain or not chieftain, I am still his aunt. I half raised that boy… oh, never mind. He will come around, I suppose. He is more liberal minded than his father ever was, and his father came around too. Although I suspect my older sister had something to do with that."
Any other time, Nasira would have longed to hear more about her mother. Every time Baheera said the words, 'I suspect my older sister had something to do with that,' they prefaced some amusing tale about Wahidah Bay. But there was no time for such stories today.
Baheera seemed to sense that as well, because instead of launching into a story, she simply smiled sadly and fingered a loose strand of Nasira's long black hair. Nasira stared at her aunt, who stared back at her with her gold hawk eyes – eyes that looked just like Yasir's, and yet brimmed with something that Yasir did not possess.
"You are the very image of her," Baheera murmured. "Except your eyes. Those are your father's eyes."
Then, just as suddenly as the moment had come, it was gone again. Baheera released Nasira's hair and frowned over her shoulder. "Why is the Al Tufayl girl coming towards my tent? Shouldn't she be preparing her brother's provisions?"
Nasira looked in the direction her aunt was looking and saw Sameya Al Tufayl making her way towards them. "Her brother was on guard duty," she answered her aunt. "He is already at Hamunaptra. She is probably coming to help you prepare Ardeth's provisions."
"That's thoughtful," Baheera murmured. "Seeing as I have three people to make provisions for. I'm just glad my sons aren't in need of my services as well."
Nasira was quiet, looking at the ground and chewing her lip. Baheera knew immediately that Nasira wasn't telling her something. "Oh, I see that look. Spill, missy, right now. Why is Sameya helping me?"
Nasira met her aunt's eyes, her feelings about Sameya clear on her face. "The council decided Ardeth has waited too long to marry. They have appointed Sameya as his bride. I suspect she is practicing her wifely duties."
Baheera didn't look any happier about Nasira's announcement than Nasira was. "Has he proposed?"
Nasira shook her head.
"Good. I don't want him marrying that little slip of a girl. Can you imagine…?"
"He has no choice. If he doesn't find someone of his own accord and soon, the council will force him to marry her."
Baheera looked indignant. "That is ridiculous! They would make one another miserable! I mean, Sameya is a sweet girl, I have nothing against her. But she is all wrong for your brother! Besides, what of that American girl you were telling me about? The one you claim has been the reason for all his moping? Surely he hasn't…"
"You are probably the only member of the tribe who would advocate Ardeth marrying Madeline," Nasira murmured ruefully. "You and I, that is."
Baheera snorted. "They'd get over it. Their council appointed bride over there isn't even full blooded Med-jai, after all. Her mother was a Greek!"
Nasira had forgotten that. "Allah, you are right!"
"Aren't I always? Oh, never mind then. I shall tolerate her assistance – for now. But she won't be marrying my Ardeth, though, not if I have anything to say about it. And you, young lady, you better go get your horse! No women's work for you, you here me? Get out of here – and if your brother asks, you tell him I said there is no room for warriors in my kitchen. Go on!"
Nasira kissed her aunt good-bye and then ran off towards the stables before Baheera decided to give her a good kick in the rear. She was not above such an act… Nasira had seen her do it countless times before.
Less than an hour later, the Med-jai had congregated in the center of camp, ready to pull out and head for Hamunaptra. Women and young boys were helping the warriors load their provisions for the journey. Hamunaptra was only a short ride away, but there was never any way of telling how long the warriors might be forced to stay out there. The Bays stood together, watching as their middle-aged aunt raced towards them, two bundles in her hands. A young woman followed close behind, carrying a bundle of her own. Unlike Baheera, the young woman had covered her hair with a long scarf and tied another one over the bottom half of her face.
"Sorry, sorry!" Baheera called out, finally reaching them. "Not as young as I used to be."
She went to Nasira's horse first and began strapping down one of the bundles. Nasira moved to help her.
The young woman accompanying Baheera walked over to Ardeth's horse, her eyes trained on the ground. "I have prepared your provisions, Chieftain," she murmured almost apologetically, in her soft timid voice. She set about tying the bundle to his saddle.
Nasira heard the voice and grimaced. Sameya Al Tufayl. It was true; she was a sweet girl. There was really nothing wrong with her. But Nasira could not bring herself to like the girl Yasir and the council claimed was perfection.
"Thank you, Sameya," Ardeth said, clearly surprised.
Baheera exchanged a look with Nasira as she finished tying down the bundle, and then moved towards Yasir's horse with the last bundle of provisions. "It was good of you to do that," Yasir spoke up as his aunt tied the bundle to his saddle. There was an odd, proud note to his voice as he commended his brother's supposed future bride. He gave Ardeth a sidelong, almost scolding look as he praised Sameya. "Seeing as my brother has no wife to do so, and his sister is otherwise preoccupied."
Yasir's sidelong and scolding look transferred from Ardeth to Nasira, as though resentful that her career as a warrior had so inconvenienced her brothers. He probably was resentful, Nasira thought in annoyance.
Baheera gave Yasir an irritated glare behind his back. If they weren't in such a hurry, Nasira would have bet Baheera would have given the younger of the Bay brothers a severe tongue lashing.
Sameya bowed her head, bending slightly at the knees. A slight blush colored the tops of her cheeks. Nasira grew more and more resentful of the girl famed as the beauty of the Hamunaptra Med-jai tribe. She was beautiful; this was true, even if her skin did happen to be paler than any of the other Med-jai women – a result of her half Greek origins. Her eyes were a strange but gorgeous marbling of dark green and brown. A few loose strands of her long, shiny black hair had fallen out of her scarf during her mad dash across camp, catching the sunlight. In the sun, Sameya's black hair reflected a hint of navy blue.
Nasira ground her teeth in annoyance. Beautiful or no, she'd be damned if she watched Sameya marry Ardeth.
"Yes, thank you," Ardeth said again. He gave Yasir an agitated frown.
"Have a good journey," Sameya practically whispered, never lifting her eyes from the dirt.
Ardeth nodded again, and then climbed up on his horse. Nasira examined Sameya one last time as she did the same. She couldn't help but regard all possible suitors in the case of her eldest brother in the same resentful and disobliging way. It was more than Sameya's beauty that discredited her in Nasira's eyes. It even went deeper than Nasira's affection for Madeline O'Connell. Plainly put, Nasira knew Ardeth was sought after by the vast majority of the Med-jai women. He was more than a very handsome young man; he was chieftain of all twelve of their tribes. Marrying Ardeth would put any woman in a very powerful position. Nasira knew any woman chasing after him was nothing more than a power-hungry, gold-digging…
Shock interrupted Nasira's bitter thoughts. Yasir walked past Sameya to get to his horse. As Nasira watched, she saw Yasir turn his head towards Sameya, his eyes practically burning holes in the beautiful young woman's face. Sameya finally raised her eyes just enough to meet Yasir's. He walked past her, his eyes boring into hers, and she followed him with her own. Even after Yasir had passed her, ceased to look at her, and climbed onto his horse, Sameya's eyes continued to follow him, wistfully, almost longingly.
She suddenly looked away, apparently startled by her own lack of discretion. This was still more unfortunate for Sameya, because then she caught Nasira's eyes instead of Yasir's. Quickly, she bowed her head again, her blush creeping back into her cheeks.
Nasira turned from her and looked over at Yasir. He was back to his old, proud, stone-faced self. Ardeth gave the cry, and the Med-jai were off, racing across the desert.
A peculiar situation had just reared its still more peculiar head, making itself known at last to the youngest of the Bay siblings. It was a surprise, yes, to see Yasir's true affections show themselves, but Nasira was quickly getting over the shock. No wonder Yasir had pushed so hard for Ardeth to marry Sameya. No wonder he would not stop talking of her many virtues. It was just like Yasir to fall for a woman and then push her off on someone else, making it impossible for him to be happy. He was a strange beast of burden, her brother, always putting duty first and happiness second. He could not bear the thought that he might be happy.
But Sameya was another story. Should the council pick her as Ardeth's bride, should Ardeth propose marriage to her… well, the poor girl was stuck, wasn't she? Nasira suddenly disliked Sameya Al Tufayl much less. She could not avoid her duty. She could not refuse the Chieftain. Even if her heart belonged to another… even if that other was the Chieftain's brother. Out of all the power hungry, gold digging women lusting after Nasira's older brother, the council had chosen the one woman who wanted no part of the chieftain, the one woman who did not want to marry him. The injustice of it all wrenched at Nasira's heart.
Her resolve quickened. Ardeth would not marry Sameya. Nasira would make sure of it. The happiness of more than just one brother depended on it. And so did the happiness of more than one young woman.