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, the gods themselves 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!
Farafra Oasis, Egypt: 1916…
In the White Desert, many miles from the village of Farafra, campfires dotted the barren landscape, sending pillars of smoke up into the black night sky. Thousands of stars were smeared overhead, all of them either twinkling white or unearthly green, and the moon was just a sliver hovering over the horizon line. Hundreds of black tents dotted the landscape as well, and people in black robes and head coverings flitted from tent to tent and fire to fire. The smell of cooking meat and the sound of laughter filled the camp; in the distance, the horses whinnied and the goats baaed, and all around the camp were mewling cats, winding their lithe little bodies around legs and begging for meat.
Ardeth Bay sat at one of those campfires, outside his family's tent. It was the largest of all the tents, because it belonged to Yasir Bay, Chieftain of the Twelve Tribes of the Med-jai, as well as his wife Wahidah and their three children. Ardeth was their eldest child, next in line to be Chieftain. He had turned fourteen years of age a mere month ago, and tonight he was gloomy. Fourteen was young, his mother liked to say, but then his father would remind him it was not so young after all. Soon, he would be a man, and so every day, his father dragged him along to council meetings and the like, to teach him how to be Chieftain.
He felt old tonight, and heavy, as though the weight of responsibility already sat on his shoulders. He was sharpening his scimitar, a birthday present, and he supposed it was the scimitar that made him feel old. In a year, he would be a man, and it was time to start training with a real blade. No longer was he a boy, being taught to fight with a wooden sword.
Though night had fallen and the desert was pitch black, the camp was bustling and loud, and everyone was wide awake and celebrating. It should have been hard to remain gloomy under the circumstances. Med-jai from all over Egypt had come to Farafra today. The Council of Commanders had convened, bringing with them swarms of soldiers and family members. His cousin, Abdul-Sattar Bay, had been named a Commander today, and then sworn in to sit on the Council… and Abdul-Sattar's father, Abdul Bay, was celebrated in retirement.
Ardeth and his siblings had always called him Uncle Abdul, but truly he was uncle to Ardeth's father. Uncle Abdul was still tall, strong, and broad, though his hair was gray like a sand cat, and his face wrinkled like a dried date. He was clearly old, but Ardeth thought he still looked too young and too virile to retire.
Uncle Abdul and his son were approaching the fire where Ardeth sat with his mother and his little brother Yasir, who had been named after their father. His brother had been quiet, thankfully, but it had still bothered him, the young boy sitting so close to him and watching him sharpen the sword so intently. Their mother Wahidah was busy at the fire, with pots and pans cooking fragrant foods, hustling about with her long black robe brushing the sand. There was no veil over her face – Wahidah rarely wore one – but her usual black hijab covered her hair, as it always did when she was outside their tent.
Chieftain Bay was walking alongside Uncle Abdul and Cousin Abdul-Sattar, laughing loudly, and they all carried jugs that sloshed as they walked. Abdul-Sattar looked almost exactly like his father, but less wrinkled and with blacker hair; it was as though someone had painted old Abdul and young Abdul, and then placed the portraits side-by-side. People said that Ardeth looked like his father too, and he supposed it was true; his father was taller and stronger than fourteen-year-old Ardeth, and he had a thick black beard that Ardeth could not yet grow, but they had the same curly black hair and dark brown eyes. Wahidah Bay often said they also had the same sharp jaw and long, strong nose, and she said Yasir looked like them as well, but Ardeth didn't always agree. Yasir looked more like their mother, with a shorter, softer nose and the same honey brown eyes.
When they reached the fire, Wahidah nudged both her sons, and they obediently got to their feet.
"Ah, look how you've grown, my grandnephew!" Uncle Abdul exclaimed with a wide, jovial smile, and he hugged Ardeth a little too tight. Ardeth grimaced but hugged him back. "Fourteen this year, and almost a man. The next time we meet, it will be to swear you in as an official Med-jai soldier!" He took Ardeth by the shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. "How is your training going?"
"It goes well, Uncle," he returned, forcing a smile, and Uncle Abdul laughed.
"So serious!" he teased. "You are not a man yet, Ardeth! Smile! Laugh!"
Ardeth tried to smile wider, but it felt foreign on his face. Uncle Abdul was not paying attention anymore; he had turned to Yasir instead. "And who is this little man?" he asked. "My grandnephew Yasir is but a babe!"
"I am eleven, Uncle Abdul," Yasir returned crossly, arms folded petulantly over his chest, and Uncle Abdul laughed again. He hugged Yasir next, who stubbornly refused to uncross his arms.
"Eleven indeed. You'll be next! Watch out, Ardeth; soon you'll be fighting your little brother at training time!"
They had all gathered around the fire now, and Ardeth met his mother's honeyed eyes over the flames. Wahidah raised a thin, dark eyebrow at him, even though she was smiling slightly around the corners of her mouth. Respect your elders, she mouthed at him, and Ardeth tried not to look as churlish as he felt.
The tent flaps rustled behind them, and then little five-year-old Nasira came tearing out of the tent, with her long black curls flying loose and wild. She ran right up to Uncle Abdul, throwing her arms around his legs like a terror. Uncle Abdul laughed, stumbling back a few steps on impact, and then he hugged her back.
"Nasira," Chieftain Bay scolded his daughter. "Is that anyway for a young lady to behave?"
"I am not a lady," Nasira returned willfully, as she always did. "I am a warrior."
Chieftain Bay smiled fondly at her. "Not yet, you are not."
Uncle Abdul was still laughing, unbothered by Nasira's antics. "And what a warrior you'll be, with a tackle like that," he teased her, and Nasira grinned wide.
"Are you going to tell me a story?" she asked.
"Of course," Uncle Abdul replied, eyes twinkling in the firelight. "I am here to tell all of you stories, until I drop dead. That is life for us old, pastured folks, don't you know?"
Abdul-Sattar rolled his eyes, taking a seat at the fire. "You are not so old yet, Father," he drawled sardonically. "You retired only four hours ago."
Ardeth hid a smile, tempted to laugh. Chieftain Bay did laugh, clapping his cousin on the shoulder. Uncle Abdul made a scoffing noise. "So disrespectful!" he mock chastised. "I am a seasoned elder now; you are supposed to seek and respect my wisdom!"
Abdul-Sattar rolled his eyes again. Everyone took seats at the fire except for Wahidah, who began serving dinner. Uncle Abdul tapped his chin thoughtfully, eyes turned towards the night sky. "Now…" he mused. "What story shall I tell tonight?"
Ardeth was tempted to roll his eyes too, but he dared not. To do so would be the height of disrespect; Uncle Abdul was an elder, jokes aside, and if his mother saw him rolling his eyes, she would smack him right upside his head. Anyway, it was not that he disliked Uncle Abdul or his stories, and certainly not that he did not respect him. It was only that the man was always telling stories (the same stories, over and over again) and at fourteen years of age, Ardeth was tired of listening.
"Have I ever told you…" Uncle Abdul asked, leaning in closer to a bright-eyed, excited Nasira. "About Set's Cipher and the Diamond of Ra?"
Nasira shook her head; she was practically bouncing up and down in her seat. She stared at Uncle Abdul with huge, dark brown eyes, the same eyes as her father. Ardeth looked up from the fire, interest suddenly piqued. In all his memories of Uncle Abdul's stories, never had he heard him mention anything like Set's Cipher or the Diamond of Ra. Was it possible that old Uncle Abdul had some new tales up his sleeve?
"The Diamond of Ra is the largest diamond in all of Egypt," Uncle Abdul began. "Perhaps in all the world."
"Is it cursed?" Nasira asked.
Uncle Abdul nodded gravely, widening his coal-colored eyes at her. "Of course."
Nasira giggled. Ardeth ducked his head to hide his smile. Even Yasir seemed interested. "Where is it?" Yasir wanted to know. "Do we protect it?"
"Oh, no, my grandnephew," Uncle Abdul returned sadly, shaking his head. "We would if we could, but we cannot."
"Why not?" Nasira demanded.
"Because no one knows where it is," Uncle Abdul replied. "The diamond has been lost for millennia. Some say it sank to the bottom of the Nile and is lost forever; others say it is hidden deep underground, within the tunnels of Hamunaptra. But most likely, it hides in the lost oasis of Ahm Shere, the resting place of the Scorpion King."
Now this was a tale Ardeth remembered: the story of the great conqueror the Scorpion King, who was defeated by his enemies and retreated into the desert. His men perished under the hot son, and the Scorpion King made a deal with Anubis, god of the dark Underworld, to spare his life and help him defeat his enemies. Anubis accepted the deal, and gave the Scorpion King use of his armies, allowing the king to defeat his enemies... and then Anubis claimed the Scorpion King's immortal soul as his reward.
But the diamond? That was new.
"Once, the diamond was heralded as the most prized possession of the Pharaohs – a gift from the god Ra himself," Uncle Abdul continued. "Ra infused that diamond with his own powers, and then left it in the hands of his earthly viziers – our pharaohs. The diamond was meant to protect them and their kingdoms, and to grant the pharaohs wisdom in their rule. Once it was done, Ra climbed into his barge and began his eternal ride through the underworld each night, and across the sky each day.
"The dark god Set was jealous, of course. You know his tale. You have heard the story of his rivalry with Osiris, how he murdered him and usurped his throne, until Horus came to overthrow him. Set was jealous of anyone he suspected held more power than him, and Ra was no different, nor were the men protected by his diamond. It was unfair, Set reasoned, that such power should be in the hands of men. Did he not stand on the prow of Ra's barge every night and fight the serpent Apep, ensuring Ra would rise with the sun every morning? Where was his gift?"
Uncle Abdul paused to drink. Ardeth pretended to be more interested in his dinner than the tale, but he watched his uncle furtively, eagerly awaiting the next part. All around them, utensils scraped against plates as the adults continued to eat, but Nasira and Yasir had barely touched their food, both of them watching Uncle Abdul with wide open mouths and huge, eager eyes, hanging on the old man's every word.
"After his defeat by Horus, Set began to plot against all the gods and goddesses; he wanted to rule absolutely," Uncle Abdul went on. "He stole the diamond from the pharaohs. Then Set turned to dark magics as he had so many times before, and he turned the diamond into a vessel for the powers of the gods, slowly stealing their strength. Without their powers, they became ghosts of their former selves, doomed to wander in the veil between the earth and the afterworld, unable to walk our realm as they did before, yet also unable to travel the river through the underworld and back to paradise.
"But Set was short sighted; in the end, he found that he was not immune to the diamond's curse, and it stole his powers too, exiling him into the veil alongside his angry fellow gods. The diamond remained in the realm of men, and Set could only wait and watch, hoping that mankind would discover its powers and unleash them, freeing him at last.
"Without the gods, the desert began to spread, invaders began to conquer, crops failed and animals disappeared. The lions and crocodiles and hippos all moved south; only snakes and scorpions and jackals remained. Men forgot the diamond, and those that remembered could not find it, nor could they use it. It was only with Set's Cipher that the Diamond could be unlocked, and no one, not even the pharaohs, knew where the Cipher had gone. It had vanished with the diamond."
"What is Set's Cipher?" Nasira interjected curiously.
"A book, a scroll, an obelisk… no one knows for sure," Uncle Abdul replied. "But the Cipher held all Set's spells, among them the spell to unlock the power of the diamond… although Set never got the chance to use it. They say that one of Set's enemies hid the Cipher with the last of their power, dooming him to his failure, but no one can say which one it was. Many men searched fruitlessly for thousands of years – Pharaohs and nobles and military men… and the Med-jai, of course, but we could never find it."
"What would we do if we found it?" Nasira asked, and she sounded so innocent, Ardeth smiled despite himself. "Destroy it? Hide it?"
"That is up to the Chieftain," Uncle Abdul said smoothly, brushing his hands together to suggest he was washing his hands of such affairs. "An old man like me can't be bothered to make such decisions."
He took a long drink, and shoveled some food into his mouth. "I will say, to any chieftains who may be listening, whether current or future..." Here, Ardeth noticed both his father and his cousin rolling their eyes. "That the Cipher and the Diamond combined are forces of apocalyptic destruction, destined to erode the veil between realms."
Yasir gasped around the fork in his mouth. Nasira looked decidedly unconcerned about the apocalypse. "Well, are we still looking for it?" she asked next.
Uncle Abdul shook his head. "Not since ill fate befell the Lost Med-jai."
Nasira looked giddy at the prospect of more story to come. Yasir frowned at his uncle. "The Lost Med-jai?" he echoed.
Uncle Abdul nodded gravely again. "Yes, the last of our people to seek the Cipher," he told them. "They were not like other Med-jai, this pair, fearless, stubborn, and skeptical. But loyal. They were always loyal. Always strode to do right by our people. They went looking for the Cipher, to protect it from less scrupulous individuals who would use it for evil."
"Did they find it?" Nasira questioned him. It was a wonder Uncle Abdul ever finished a story with her around, Ardeth reflected, constantly interrupting him, and asking so many questions.
Uncle Abdul shook his head again. He did not seem to mind Nasira's questions. "No. The Lost Med-jai failed in their quest. Evil came for them, and they died defending their children."
"They had children?" Nasira whispered, staring wide-eyed at Uncle Abdul.
"Yes. And the children became lost Med-jai too," Uncle Abdul explained. "For when evil came and killed their parents, the children vanished!"
Uncle Abdul lunged forward on the last word, shouting it, and Nasira shrieked, hands over her mouth, while Yasir jumped a foot in the air. Ardeth rolled his eyes and regretted it when his father gave him a disapproving look over the fire. Another tale to frighten the children, he dismissed the story, the tale suddenly losing its magic. Another tale to make Nasira and Yasir behave.
"Where did they go?" Nasira demanded. "Were they eaten?"
Uncle Abdul shrugged. "Who can say? They were just gone. Best heed your parents, children. Stay close, and don't go looking for trouble, lest the ground swallow you up, and you too are lost to us forever."
Hours later, after too much food and drink, Ardeth found himself alone at the fire.
His mother had left first, taking Nasira and Yasir with her. Uncle Abdul was next, yawning and making cracks about his age. Father and Cousin Abdul-Sattar stayed up longer, chatting, joking, and laughing, but soon they left too, headed for bed. All around the camp, warriors and their families left their fires, disappearing inside their tents, letting the flames sputter and die. Soon, the desert was too quiet, with only the sound of Arderth's lone crackling fire and the occasional, distant bark of a jackal. Ardeth did not get up; he was wide awake and staring at the flames. There were too many thoughts whirling around in his head; he could not imagine sleeping yet.
"My son is too young to look so old," he heard his mother's teasing voice. Ardeth jumped a little, looking up. Wahidah Bay padded through the sand, towards the fire, with her robe clutched tight about her. A sharp desert wind blew across the terrain and the flames flickered.
She took a seat beside him at the fire and glanced quickly towards the tent, as though checking to make sure they were alone. Ardeth frowned sideways at his mother. She smiled at him, and it deepened the faint lines around her eyes and mouth.
"What troubles you?" she asked gently. "Is all not well with your training?"
"Training is fine," he replied quietly.
"Hmm," she replied, frowning at him. Ardeth squirmed on his rock, feeling as though he were Nasira's age again. "Thinking about the ceremony at the council meeting?"
"Ah, I see," she mused, nodding wisely. He forced himself not to roll his eyes. "Fathers stepping down, sons taking charge… you are going to be a man soon. A warrior. You have your first blade. Soon, there will be guard duty at Hamunaptra… you will lead guards as a captain… then one day, you will take over as Commander… and then finally, someday in the future, you will be Chieftain, with a wife and a family of your own. Lots of responsibilities for a fourteen-year-old boy to contemplate."
He squirmed again, making a face at the fire. "I don't mind responsibilities."
"But you are nervous."
He did not argue, but he also did not agree, even though she was right. He glared at the fire. He thought about being a warrior, being sworn-in, getting his first tattoos… standing guard at Hamunaptra… taking over guard captain duties… marriage, ugh, what a thought that was…
"Will I have to have an arranged marriage?" he asked, turning up his nose in distaste, and his mother laughed.
"You?" she asked. "My son? Have an arranged marriage? Over my dead body."
She might be amused, but Ardeth was not. "You and Father had an arranged marriage," he pointed out mulishly.
"Ah, yes," she murmured. "And I was very lucky that he turned out so wonderful, and that eventually we fell in love. Looking back, I would change nothing… and yet, I still would not arrange a marriage for any of my children. Much better you find your own way, and your own bride, and your own happiness, as best you can. You have too many rules already."
Ardeth was relieved... and yet, he still argued with her. "But if it turned out well for you…"
"As I said, I am lucky," she interrupted. "Arranged marriages often turn out well… and they often turn out terribly, too. I remember, before your father and I fell in love, feeling so… so…"
Ardeth stared at her. He waited patiently. She lifted her chin and studied the stars.
"Powerless," she finally settled on. "Frightened and powerless. I would not wish that on my children."
He had no answer for that, and Wahidah now seemed lost in thought. They sat in silence by the dying fire, and Ardeth tossed more fuel on the sputtering flames. Wahidah raised an eyebrow at him. "Staying a while?" she asked.
Ardeth shrugged and still said nothing.
"Are you still fretting over your responsibilities?" she suggested.
He shrugged again.
"Maybe you are thinking about Uncle Abdul's story?"
Ardeth scoffed and regretted it when she gave him a sharp look. "It is just a story."
"Oh, really? Wise young man who knows so much?" Wahidah returned teasingly, and Ardeth ducked his head, smiling in spite of himself. "And the tale of the creature? Is that just a story? Shall I tell your father to stop wasting so much time out at Hamunaptra?"
He was still smiling and she was still teasing. "That's different."
Ardeth shrugged yet again. "Everyone knows about the creature," he replied. "But the other stories… not all Uncle Abdul's stories can be real."
"You might be surprised," Wahidah told him. "I'd wager more of them are than not."
"Even the story about the Diamond of Ra?" Ardeth asked. "And Set's Cipher?"
"Even that one."
Ardeth frowned pensively, poking the dying fire with a stick. "But not all of it is real, right?" he argued. "The part about the Lost Med-jai… that part isn't true, is it? Uncle Abdul just tells it to make the children behave."
His mother was quiet a moment, staring into the small, dancing flames. Ardeth watched her face. She looked sad, and he regretted asking the question.
"Many years ago," she finally said, and then she leaned in close, smiling at him, teasing him again. "When you were just a twinkle in your father's eye…"
Ardeth made a face and she laughed, ruffling his hair. "Mama!"
She smiled at him briefly, and then he watched her face turn sad again. "Many years ago," she continued. "I befriended a foreign woman. She was an adventurer. A brave lady, with a good sense of humor. I became very fond of her. She and her husband stumbled upon our people by accident, and it did not take them long to understand what we do out here. They helped us chase off some of their compatriots from Hamunaptra, and after that, they were our allies. Over the years, they found many cursed relics that had once been lost to us, and always returned them to us for safekeeping. Many of us began to see them as honorary Med-jai."
She looked even sadder now, and Ardeth was sorry he made her tell him the story. "Then one day," she went on. "When you and Yasir were still very small, they sent word that they thought they were about to find Set's Cipher."
Ardeth stared at her when she did not continue. "Did they find it?" he prompted, after a much too long pause.
She shook her head. "I will never know," she told him sadly. "By the time our soldiers found them, they were dead, and their children were missing."
There was another long silence. Wahidah stared at the fire, and Ardeth hung his head, examining the sand under his boots. "Where were their children?" he finally asked.
"For a long time, we did not know," she replied. "Though we searched. Your father and I feared the worst." She looked at the ground, briefly rubbing one eye with her finger, and Ardeth thought she might be crying. He wished again he had not pried. "My friend would have been very sad to know we could not find her children; that they would have been raised by strangers," she whispered.
It might have happened years ago, but Ardeth suddenly wanted to help. There was a need, an itch under his skin, commanding him to do something, anything at all. There were missing, orphaned children out there that did not need to be so alone; his mother was sad, and he could not stand it.
"Did we ever find them?" he asked.
His mother smiled at him. It did not reach her eyes; she still looked so sad. "Do you remember the pregnant cat that ran off into the oasis a few years ago?" she asked him, instead of answering.
Ardeth frowned at her, thrown by the change in subject. "Yes?"
"By the time we found her, the kittens were born and nearly grown," she went on. "Remember how they would not come to us? They had grown wild and feral. We had the best intentions; we wanted to bring them home with us where they would be safe, and we tried to lure them with special treats, but… they did not know us. They only knew running wild in the oasis and did not want to leave."
He began to understand. He redirected his frown at the fire. "You think it would not matter if we found them," he realized. "That they would not want to come live with our people."
Wahidah did not answer. Ardeth frowned harder and shook his head. "But people are not cats," he said. "People can be reasoned with. Couldn't we explain?"
"People are capable of reason," his mother replied. "But all too often, emotion overrules. And reason must be learned, and so must trust and love. The lessons we learn when we are young are the ones that linger longest when we are old, and the hardest to unlearn should we discover they no longer serve us."
"So, you believe they will never return," Ardeth concluded quietly. "That even if they were found, even if we explained... you think they could never be persuaded to come home. They will always be lost."
But his mother gave her head a shake, sniffing a little, and then tilted her chin up proudly. "I choose not to think that," she disagreed. "I choose to believe that one day they will return. It may take time, it may take patience... but I have faith."
Ardeth watched her face, but she was staring at nothing, somewhere off into the desert, and did not seem to notice his eyes. He turned his gaze onto the fire. "Then I will have faith," he decided. "I can do that; I can keep faith."
She smiled at him again, hand smoothing over his hair, and this time he did not protest. "That is all I want for you," she told him. "For you to have faith. For you to have love. For you to have laughter. If you have these three things, happiness follows. Ardeth, I do not want you to forget how to smile."
He smiled as though following an order, and she smoothed his hair again. "You are growing up," she said sadly. "And one day you will forget these conversations by the fire with your old, tired mother."
"I will not," he protested, but she laughed and shook her head.
"You will," she insisted. "It is all right; it is the way of things. But if you remember just one thing I have told you, let it be this. Remember what I said about faith, and love, and laughter."
He stared at her a long moment, and she stared back, waiting. "I will remember," he finally whispered.
She smiled and stroked his hair a third time. "Good," she whispered back. She got to her feet, stooping over him with her hand still on his head. "Are you coming in?"
He turned his eyes to the fire again. "In a bit," he murmured. "I am not ready yet."
She kissed his forehead. "As you need," she returned, and then she straightened up, her hand falling away from his hair. "Not too long," she warned over her shoulder as she walked back to the tent.
"Goodnight, Mama," he called after her in a hush.
She smiled at him from the doorway, holding up a tent flap. "Goodnight, my son."
Wahidah disappeared into the tent, and Ardeth turned back to the dying flames. The stars were bright overhead; the moon had climbed higher into the sky. The camp was quiet. His mother's words echoed in his ears.
But she was right, and soon the memory would fade. It would be many years later before Ardeth recalled Uncle Abdul's story and his mother's sad tale. It would be many years later before he kept his promise and remembered what his mother had said by the fire.