Chapter 25

Two days later…

"We have done well this day, ya ukht."

Rahimah opened her eyes and blinked in surprise at the small pouch of food and cup of water being held in front of her by Marakim. She felt a pang of guilt for taking a moment to rest when there were so many wounded to be tended to and she hesitated in taking the offered nourishment. Marakim smiled and nodded her head, as if she understood what Rahimah was feeling.

"Eat, drink, replenish yourself for the hours ahead," the other healer ordered, the severity of it softened by a warm smile. Once Rahimah accepted the food, she sat down on the bench next to her with a slight groan. "This has been a day of triumph and sorrow; the night will be just as long for those who now battle fever and infection."

"We fight a different kind of war," Rahimah murmured as her gaze swept over the floor littered with hundreds of cots, the task of caring for so many almost overwhelming.

Quadamah's return to the village had been several hours ago and each time a group of horses came thundering into the main square, Rahimah would anxiously search through the wounded for Nabil or Jameel. Her hopes wavered and faltered as the hours passed and more injured were brought to the healers. The first hour had been chaotic as Rahimah and Marakim struggled to get the healers and helpers organized, and prioritized the wounds ranging in severity. Eventually, the deluge of warriors slowed down to a trickle and as peace once again settled over the village, Rahimah had to finally confront her worst fears.

Nabil and Jameel had either died in battle or had been taken to another village for care. The thought of both warriors perishing unsettled her stomach and Rahimah lost her appetite.

"I overheard the commander talking to his honored Second a little while ago," Marakim's voice broke into Rahimah's melancholy thoughts. "In a month's time, the Elders of the Tribes of the Seventh, the Second and the Fifth will convene and decide who will be promoted to Commander," she stated. "All are in mourning for the loss of those brave warriors yet our sorrow is lifted by the news that Commander Bay is alive. From what I gather…"

"Commander al Fa'ud has been declared dead?" Rahimah sat upright, her hunger immediately forgotten. She looked at the other healer, her eyes wide with panic. "When did you hear this? Are you certain or is this gossip that was gleaned from a warrior that knows nothing…"

Marakim held up her hands in surrender. "I can only tell you what I heard. There is the possibility of a mistake. Honored Second al Usama disappeared from the battle and there is speculation that he is on the hunt, going after those responsible for his commander's death."

Rahimah jumped up, and ignored the food and water that tumbled to the ground. She clenched her fists so hard that she felt the sting of her nails bite into her palms – anything to stop herself from crying. "There is always the possibility of a mistake. I will not believe… I cannot believe…"

"Ya ukht… wait! I meant no harm…" Marakim called out but Rahimah wasn't listening.

She dashed through the rows of cots and bolted out of the door, racing out into the cool night. She came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the square, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears, furiously praying that more riders would come on… someone else had to know about Nabil.

Someone had to have seen him…

"Healer?"

Rahimah spun around at the familiar voice, a smile of joyous welcome on her face that faded only a fraction when she recognized the speaker. A weary looking curly haired warrior gave her a tired but familiar boyish smile.

"Are you all right?" Jameel asked and gently touched Rahimah's arm.

"You…" she breathed.

"Aiwa," Jameel raised an eyebrow and chuckled softly from most likely the look of astonishment on Rahimah's face.

She gave a soft cry of happiness and threw her arms around Jameel's neck, not caring who would see this inappropriate action and speculate. "Al hamdu lilla, you are all right," she said excitedly and placed a light kiss on his cheek. She broke the embrace, silently noting that his hands lingered around her waist far too long but she contradicted her actions by gently touching his face. Jameel looked exhausted and worn; his robes covered in dust and possibly dried blood. But he was alive and that was all that mattered. Her hand accidentally brushed against his bicep and Jameel hissed, jerking his arm away from her.

"You are injured."

"It is nothing."

Rahimah and Jameel smiled faintly at their simultaneous comments. She felt a curious stabbing sensation in her heart when Jameel stepped back, purposely putting a respectable distance between them. Rahimah didn't dare try to examine her tumultuous feelings at the moment, but later on she would recognize one of them as disappointment.

"Come, let me take care of that for you," Rahimah firmly ordered. She gently took his hand and led him back into the building but she was surprised when he pulled her in a different direction.

"There is someone else who needs you far more than I," Jameel simply stated as they walked towards a dim and far corner of the room.

~*~

"Who is he?" Rahimah asked and bent over the cot, carefully examining the warrior's injuries. Her hands fluttered over the lean muscular body, her mind already confirming that he had been expertly tended too. The bandages were clean and had been applied with great care but the wound near one temple was what drew her attention. Against her will, her hand brushed back the brown-black hair away from the face…a face that looked somehow familiar.

"I cannot say," Jameel said and gestured at two warriors who stood off to one side. He quickly introduced them and told Rahimah how they had found the warrior on the field of battle. "Speak to him and you will understand when I say that I may not have brought back Commander al Fa'ud for you but someone just as important."

"You speak in riddles, warrior," Rahimah sighed and turned to Dharr and Solman. "Do either of you know this man?"

"He is lost," Solman stated quietly and Dharr nodded his head.

Rahimah frowned at the warrior's choice of words and she bent closer, her eyes drifting over the warrior's features. When curiosity made her examine the head wound again and her fingertips brushed across it, the warrior's eyes suddenly snapped open. His hand shot out and grabbed Rahimah by the wrist.

Rahimah swallowed her yelp of surprise and Jameel and Dharr came to her rescue, soothing the agitated warrior and trying to get him to loosen his grip. She pulled as they tried to pry her from the warrior's desperate hold but she was prompted by a nameless compulsion to stare at the warrior's eyes. She drew in a sharp breath as slashing gray colored eyes at her so balefully. Her mind tried to register the impossible as she gazed at the face that was at once familiar and different. The nose seemed more refined but the lips were shaped like the ones Rahimah had secretly dreamed of tasting, the absence of facial hair the only defining characteristic. Two days worth of stubble shadowed the strong jaw line and her eyes swept up to meet a gaze that was now shadowed with confusion and fear.

"Sahil, bero… sahil," Jameel grunted and finally obtained Rahimah's freedom. Dharr held the warrior down when he started thrashing about until exhaustion from his exertions exacted its price. His body finally slumped against Dharr, his hands holding tightly onto the warrior's arms.

"SamaH ana," he murmured over and over, his body trembling, as he seemed to struggle for a semblance of control. His gaze was unfocused and bleak, disturbing Rahimah more than she would care to admit. Carefully Dharr laid the warrior down, his actions slow and precise as if to relay no further threat.

Rahimah felt the large but calming presence of Solman behind her, his huge hand splayed across her back to steady her. She gave him her thanks and found that against her will, her attention was pulled back to the nameless warrior. Her mind tried to register the impossible even as her heart tried to understand that he was not Nabil. She wanted to reach out and touch him again, needing to confirm or deny this cruel trick that fate was playing on her. To be teased with a version of the man she had loved for so long and yet see that he was not… her hand dropped to her side.

"Who are you?" she whispered to him, not really expecting a response.

The warrior roused himself with great effort and his eyes fluttered open. "I… I do not know."

~*~

The homecoming for Rick was everything he could have dreamed of and more.

With the warm and inviting lights of their home bathing them in a golden blow, Evy and little Alex bundled up like a present waited for Rick at the front door. He forgot his luggage, had no desire to shut the car door and almost forgot to pay the cab driver his fare – he was too busy staring at his family. Once the man had been taken care of, Rick slowly walked up the drive, amazed that his palms were sweating and that his mouth had gone dry.

Evy. His wife… his lover… the other half of his soul stood in front of him, her eyes shining with love and happiness. He furiously scrubbed his hands against his pants, a rakish grin dancing across his face. He couldn't seem to find the words to convey how happy he was to be alive and home. They stared at one another for a few long moments, as Rick simply drank in the sight of the woman who so lovingly held his heart in her hands.

"O'Connell," Evy smiled as Alex fussed a little, his tiny hands were plucking at the blanket tucked beneath his chin. Her gaze wandered from the top of his head, down to the faint pink colored stain on his shoulder down to his boots.

"Mrs. O'Connell," Rick replied with a chuckle.

"You're late."

"You look beautiful."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Evy retorted with a smile. The smile almost took Rick's attention away from the tears in her eyes and he thought he felt his heart break. He reached up and caught one with the pad of his thumb before it could begin its wayward journey down Evy's cheek.

"I've missed you," Rick said hoarsely. He pulled Evy into his embrace, his strong arms wrapping around both his wife and son as peace unlike he had ever known flooded his heart. He placed a sweet kiss on the top of her head and rubbed his chin across her soft hair, inhaling the unique womanly fragrance that was Evy.

Slowly, he leaned back and nudged her face up and then bent his head, his lips brushing across Evy's mouth tentatively. He embarked on a mutual journey of rediscovery as his lips and tongue tasted and explored the curve and texture of his wife's sweet lips. Evy returned his passion with equal fervor and they would have willingly lost themselves in the smoldering flames of passion if Alex hadn't brought them back to reality with a small sneeze.

"We've missed you as well," Evy replied dryly as she tucked more blanket around Alex. She slowly broke the embrace and then took one of Rick's hands, pulling him inside, into the warmth that was their home… and into what Rick would always consider his sanctuary, and his heaven.

When he walked over the threshold, a horrific image from his dream popped into his mind but Rick wisely kept it to himself. No need to explain to his inquisitive wife about the odd premonition that he felt that somehow… it was all going to end. The serenity of their lives would soon shatter, the shards exploding and cutting away all pretense of security.

"Where's Jonathan?" Rick asked as they walked through the foyer.

Evy waved a hand, clearly agitated about the subject. "I have no idea, most likely he's off on another one of his gambling and drinking binges. He was supposed to be checking into something for me and I haven't heard a word from him since last night."

Cracks in the foundation of the security of O'Connell Manor suddenly appeared and blossomed out erratically…

"Maybe he forgot to call or something," Rick offered as they walked upstairs. He took Alex from Evy, relishing the chance to hold his son and silently marvel at how big he had grown in his absence. Still… the feeling that something was wrong persisted.

"Well, I wish he would remember or something," Evy sounded worried. "He was checking on the new curator at the museum for me and had left a message yesterday afternoon but his handwriting was too garbled to really understand."

Tiny fissures danced up the old stone walls of the manor and skittered across the ceiling as dark, billowing storm clouds appeared on the horizon…

"There's a new curator?" Rick asked as they walked into the nursery. "When did that happen and who decided on that?"

Evy turned to Rick and placed a hand on his forearm, as if she needed to feel his quiet underlining strength. "It would seem that we have a lot to talk about," she said and gingerly touched the pink stain that Rick knew she had noticed earlier.

"Yeah, you ain't kidding," Rick sighed and subconsciously held his son closer.

The clouds rolled through the heavens, dark and ominous as if signaling that the world the O'Connell's once knew would be forever changed from one act…an act of curiosity…

~*~

"Come on come on come on," Jonathan begged as he turned the key again in the ignition, praying that the engine would turn over. He fearfully glanced in the rearview mirror, his panicked mind playing tricks on him that the shadows in the alley way were coming after him.

"Turn over, ye blasted thing," he cajoled and a moment later, he whooped for joy when the motor sputtered to life. Wasting no time, he stepped on the gas pedal and threw the car into gear, roaring away from the gambling establishment that he had frequented for the past two days.

True to his word and the promise to his sister, Jonathan had been slowly and carefully gleaning any information he could about the newly appointed curator at the museum. The various and questionable informants that he had managed to find were always lured into speaking about the new curator as long as money was exchanged. Tonight had been no different and Jonathan had met a nervous little man in the backroom of one of the casinos. It took quite a while to loosen the bugger's mouth and Jonathan grimaced at the steep price he had paid, his own limited assets taking quite the cut but the information given was priceless.

True to his nature and caving into his weak will, Jonathan had stopped off at a gaming table with the intentions of trying to rebuild his cash flow. Time had somehow managed to slip past him like a thief in the night, and by the time he had realized he should have left long ago, danger was slowly surrounding him on all sides.

His instincts screamed a warning and as he hurried from the establishment, several men dressed in red and black robes were following him. Feeling as if the cold hand of death was resting on his shoulder, Jonathan ran, unwittingly leaving behind him a path of chaos.

He made the mistake of turning around at one point to get a good look at his pursers as he ran outside the building and it had almost cost him his life. They were tall, menacing looking men, who dark eyes burned with the fires of retribution above the face coverings that hid all other human aspect of their features. They shoved and pushed aside any hapless patron that had the ill luck to step in their path. Relentless, and driven, they determinedly followed Jonathan out of the building and were closing in on him when he had finally reached his car.

As Jonathan steered his vehicle in to traffic, he glanced in the mirror again to reassure himself that he had gotten away. The smile of victory on his face disappeared like the winter snow melting in spring as several dark cars followed him at a reckless pace.

"Oh bloody hell," he muttered and gripped the steering wheel tighter. He compressed his lips into a thin line of annoyance as his mind frantically struggled to come up with a plan. Going back to the manor was out of the question, he would never jeopardize the lives of Evy and Alex. His only other recourse was to run as fast and as far away as he could praying that his unseen enemy would follow.

As Jonathan drove through the crowded downtown traffic, he would realize in the years to come that on this night he never had prayed so much and so hard…

~*~

A/N – I have to wonder as this story winds down and the Mummy genre seems to be less popular than it has been, if I were to continue writing my mummy stories – would anyone still want to read them? T'would seem a shame that all the adventures I have in store for Ardeth et al would never get told. Your opinion counts so let me know…I have at least four stories that I'd love to write and submit.

As always thanks for reading and reviewing – your comments are often what keeps me going and keeps me inspired. J

The shout-outs:

Marcher – So tell me how you really feel about Allan? LOL As I had mentioned in my email, Allans' role in all of this is far from over but I believe he will get his 'come-uppance.' Olivia is indeed on a rollercoaster of emotions a la Ardeth but as the title of the last chapter stated, everything happens for a reason. I'm tickled pink that you loved both chappies, my friend and thanks for reading. And it is good to be back.

Patty – such a good faithful reader you are and I'm so happy you came back to continue reading, despite the recent lack of updates. Promise me you'll stick around for a new story that features Ardeth and Nabil as they face a new threat in the desert…and no, it's not Immy. LOL Olivia is where she should be although there are forces conspiring that may rip them apart…heh heh [eg]

Deana – thanks for coming over from your world of elves, orcs, rangers and talking trees to revisit this, your review is greatly appreciated.

SerenaFehr – Sorry for the stomach-drop when Nathaniel gave Nabil's prognosis but it made sense, considering what the poor man had been through. Olivia is indeed tired but there will come a day when she will be able to lean on Nabil's strength and love…just as it should be. Btw, I love this story too. J

Desperate – Ask and ye shall receive – I'm working on the outline for "The Other Side" even as we speak. If you had left a name or email, I could have responded personally to thank you for interest in that story line as well as your faithfulness. Ardeth and Sharif have indeed waiting long enough but if you know my writing by now, things won't come easy for them but in the end…

Karri – Thanks for the review, I appreciate you still reading. So…how's Legolas? [grins]

Dawn – Thanks for the review and people just seem to love Olivia and Nabil. But methinks Allan will not disappear, at least not without a fight. He is a scoundrel, a cad and someone that even I hate but…lol He's doing all of this for one reason – greed. I think it's an interesting portrait of a man who's losing everything and how desperate he'll become to get it all back. [eg]