Title: I Whom You Seek
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
Summary: "Any and all in your power, huh?" O'Connell replied. "If you'd caught me three years ago, I might have taken you seriously enough to take that oath, myself." 4000 words.
Spoilers: Slight AU for The Mummy (1999)
Notes: For samantha_kathy, for Yuletide 2011. A happy ending slightly different from the one we got in canon, with a few spoilers from TMR. Thanks to Untherius for the assist with the cultural research; any remaining errors are my own.
"Winston. Soon as dawn breaks, we'll head for the airfield and find Winston. If we're going to have any hope of catching them, we'll have to do it by air."
O'Connell rubbed a hand over his face and leaned back in his chair. He seemed weary, though much improved by a swift change of attire; the worst of his rage and the darkest of the grime accumulated during their escape through the sewers had been lifted by the necessary distraction.
Ardeth's burden, by contrast with the American's, had only increased with their delay. The Creature had to be stopped – but Ardeth was sundered from his kin, penned up in Fort Brydon with men he would have killed without flinching only a few days before while the undead priest took his chosen sacrifice back to Hamunaptra. After three thousand years of vigilance, the Medjai had failed under his leadership; he would take any chance that might bring him closer to repairing the damage to his people's honor.
Even if it involved such an unnatural means of travel. If Allah had meant men to fly, he would surely have given them wings. "You are certain he will respond favorably to your request?" he asked, pacing slowly in front of the room's shuttered window.
"Sure as I can be," O'Connell said, shrugging one shoulder, the white linen of his shirt shifting under the strap of a leather suspender. "I've known him for years, and he talks about 'rotting of boredom and booze' every time I see him; he'll do it for the sake of the adventure, if nothing else."
The conspicuous Western attire made Ardeth even more conscious of his own enveloping, dusty black robes. Neither were native to their setting; but with his primary contact in the city dead, and no time to make arrangements with another, he had no choice but to trust that O'Connell knew what he was doing. "I hope you are right," he said, inclining his head. "The alternatives are not pleasant to contemplate."
O'Connell straightened at that, his uncomfortably pale gaze narrowing in Ardeth's direction. "I'm sorry about your cousin, by the way. Or whoever he was to you. Dr. Bey sacrificed his life to make sure we got away, and I respect that, even if I am pretty damned sure he was the one who told you guys about our trip in the first place. Evelyn told me she'd showed him the map."
The loss did sting, as did the banked accusation in O'Connell's tone; but it was no more and no less than what every Medjai had sworn to at manhood. "He died as he lived, fulfilling his oath," he offered grimly; he would make no more apology than that.
Had O'Connell not intervened, Ardeth's men would have left the riverboat with the map, the key, and no more immediate damage than a young woman's fright; for without the key, the expeditions would have been far less a danger. It had not been seen in three thousand years; Dr. Bey and the elders of the twelve tribes had all been very alarmed to hear of its reappearance in the hands of a foreigner. Miss Carnahan's brother had claimed to have found it on a dig in Thebes, but that was clearly not possible; the Medjai knew it had been buried at Hamunaptra, and its appearance elsewhere could only mean that someone had smuggled it out of the City of the Dead under the watchful eyes of its guardians.
That someone, Ardeth knew, could only have been the man before him. Twice, he had observed Rick O'Connell from the cliffs above the city; twice, he had faced him over weapons drawn; and yet, while facing the assault of those enslaved by the Creature, he had fallen in to fight at O'Connell's shoulder as though the American adventurer were the leader and he, chieftain of the Medjai, his subordinate. O'Connell had a strength of personality that seemed eerily familiar, and a decisive manner that prompted action from others as well.
Had the evidence of eyes and ears not told him otherwise, Ardeth would have believed he was fighting at the side of one of his own people that night. O'Connell had defended the Carnahans as though he were a bodyguard of ancient times, fought with Ardeth at his back as though they were brother warriors, and sought the others' safety before his own when the three survivors escaped at last beneath the streets of Cairo. For all that they had first looked upon one another's faces only one day before – when O'Connell had tackled Ardeth off his horse to defend his charge, and lit a stick of dynamite rather than allow the Medjai to claim victory – they had made common cause against a greater enemy, and O'Connell had proven to be as strong an ally as he had an opponent.
He could only pray the obstinacy that had carried O'Connell through war, desert, prison, and plagues would continue to serve him well in the fight to come. The cursed city had a way of claiming those who did not belong within its walls, and O'Connell had tempted fate at Hamunaptra before.
"I guess it's kind of hard to argue with that," O'Connell finally replied, mouth curled sourly as he lifted the cloth roll containing his weapons from the floor and unfurled it on the surface of the table before him. "Any and all in your power, huh? If you'd caught me three years ago, I might have taken you seriously enough to take that oath, myself. I should have known better than to go back at all – but Jonathan picked my pocket, and then Evelyn saved my life, and I couldn't let them go it alone."
"What did you see three years ago to leave such an impression?" Ardeth asked, pausing to watch as O'Connell chose a pistol from the selection before him and began cleaning the already shining weapon. He had seen several Tuareg riders follow the brown-coated legionnaire deep into the city that day, but there were sections of the old ruins that could not be observed from without, and when the riders had fled alone he had assumed the officer dead. That was, until the man had left the city under his own power, throwing one last glare over his shoulder. It was the only window of opportunity O'Connell might have had to glimpse the ancient city's secrets; that must have been when he'd discovered the key.
O'Connell swallowed, looking up from the pistol with a troubled expression. "Evil. Imhotep, I guess; it must have been. I had no idea where I was going; I just ran, and went where my feet led me. I fetched up against this jackal-headed statue; probably the same one we found the sarcophagus under, actually, though I wasn't exactly paying attention at the time. I stumbled to a stop in front of it and braced myself, expecting the worst. That was when the Tuareg found me … and the whispering started."
"Whispering?" Ardeth's eyes widened. Direct interference from the gods themselves was rather more than he'd been expecting. Even those Medjai who braved the city at their coming of age seldom experienced direct contact. Particularly from Anubis; though not innately evil, He who is upon his mountain was a dark god whose hand did not lie easily upon the living.
"Yeah. I couldn't make anything out, but the Tuareg bolted immediately; they couldn't keep control of their horses. I was pretty relieved – for about half a second. Then the ground started moving, and I could hear this echoing sound, like jackals calling; a wide stretch of sand in front of the statue made like a self-building sand castle and rose up into a face."
He shuddered and set down the pistol he was working on before continuing. "To be honest? I don't remember much else after it roared at me – besides seeing a bunch of you guys in dark robes, up on the cliffs. I think I was a little delirious, because at first I thought it was the old director of the orphanage up there, passing judgment on me for trespassing."
"Was this a duty he had to perform often?" Ardeth asked, raising an eyebrow to keep the conversation light while his thoughts churned uneasily. Anubis had spoken to him, this pale-skinned, light-eyed, oversized foreigner: and more than that, the Creature had marked him as well, long before his association with Miss Carnahan and her infernal curiosity. Why?
"Often enough." O'Connell rubbed absently at the bracer over his right wrist, a slight smile, half embarrassment and half pride, tugging at his mouth: the smile of a boy who knew he had done wrong, but was sorry only that he had been caught. "The last time was just before the War. There were a lot of strange people in the streets, and – well. I was poor, you know?"
He left that line of justification lie. "So I snuck out every chance I got. I ran across him one day dressed like he'd been on a trip to the desert – black robes, keffiyeh, scimitar, the works – talking to another guy who looked, well, pretty much like you do. With all the, you know." He gestured toward his face, then Ardeth's. "The tattoos and everything. What do they mean, anyway? I speak enough Arabic to scrape by, but I never had any opportunity to learn the older stuff."
"Ma'at. Truth," Ardeth replied with a frown, gesturing to the marking on his right cheek, then the line of hieroglyphs on his forehead. He would not disrobe to show the rest. "And this, for the Underworld. There are others, also related to our oaths – but I was not aware that any so marked had made the crossing to America." His father, certainly, had sent none; his focus had been at home, against the possibility that the looming unrest between nations would affect the secrets sleeping under the sands.
Rick snorted, smile edging further toward amusement at that. "I wouldn't know about that – but then, I wasn't in America when I saw him. I may have been born there, and I may have spent my teen years in Chicago after my uncle finally turned up to fetch me, but I've spent more time on this side of the pond than I ever did back home. We were in Cairo when my father disappeared, and after my mother died..." He shrugged. "I suppose I was luckier than some."
Cairo – Cairo before the war, when Ardeth would have been a child himself? Sudden suspicion seized him, and he glanced back toward the bracer wrapped around O'Connell's arm, just where a Medjai who lived apart from the tribes would often be marked for secrecy. His father had not often visited the city himself, but on the occasions that he had, the stories he told of his time there had been memorable.
It would explain … much. But it would raise other questions as well, some even more improbable.
He crossed the space between the window and the table; O'Connell watched him curiously, then shook his head and picked up his cleaning cloth again to prepare another pistol. Ardeth grabbed his wrist before he could complete the motion, callused fingers clasping tightly around the plain brown leather, then met his startled gaze directly.
"If I were to say to you that I am a traveler from the East, seeking that which was lost..." he began in quiet tones, repeating the words his father had given him more than a decade before.
O'Connell blinked once, eyes round in startlement, then jerked his arm out of Ardeth's grip. "Then I would say to you that I am a traveler from the West, it is I whom you seek," he replied, astonished and not a little angry. "He was one of you!"
Ardeth's breath hissed between his teeth. There was yet a chance that O'Connell might simply be the son of an exiled Medjai; the blood did not always breed true. One would never know, for example, that Jonathan Carnahan was half Egyptian. The tattoo would tell the story, one way or the other.
"The man he met; I believe it was my father," he said. "Show me the mark."
O'Connell scowled at him, mood still darkened by the unexpected revelation, but complied, unknotting the laces that held the bracer to his arm. "Why?" he asked, as it fell away.
Ardeth took his wrist again, tracing the pad of his thumb over the symbol to test the ink; it was years old, dark and set deeply in the skin, even as his own were. The compound image depicted the Wedjat, set over a pyramid, with a sun behind it framed by a pair of king cobras: symbols for protection, for enlightenment, and for the instrument with which Isis had gained the throne of Egypt for her husband Osiris. It was not a tattoo that would have been lightly given, and the sight of it chilled Ardeth's stomach, even as it made his heart beat faster with excitement.
"The sacred mark," he said, feeling the heat and strength of the muscles lying under that skin; the pulse throbbing under his fingertips, the match of his own; and the half-credulous, half-disbelieving look on O'Connell's face. Some part of him, he realized, had been waiting for that moment since the day his father had told him of the orphaned boy whose destiny might one day entwine with Ardeth's own. "You are a warrior for God. A Medjai."
To have a sacred one on their side – it increased the odds that they would succeed in stopping the Creature before it achieved its goals. But it also alarmed him; for this was no child or young man to be taught the ways of Ardeth's people, as they sometimes adopted into the tribes, but a man full grown, who in his ignorance had already garnered the attention of the gods of the Underworld. His fate would not be a simple one, nor over so swiftly, even if he were properly prepared for it.
O'Connell blinked then and shook his head, and the feeling of dread and anticipation, like the prickle of electricity in the air before a lightning strike, dispersed as though grounded. "You've got the wrong guy. That was a long time ago; and all the director ever told me was that he hoped I'd learn my lesson." He tapped the tattoo with a frown. "Whatever that's supposed to mean. My uncle arrived a few days later, and I never heard another word about it. I certainly haven't lived a life anyone would call godly."
Such brash courage and absolute surety. Ignorance would not shield him when the storm finally came … but neither would doubts, if Ardeth pressed hard enough to make O'Connell question his actions. He released the man's arm with a nod of acknowledgement and a brief, suppressed stab of regret. He would speak again later, should they both survive the day; there would be time then to educate his brother further.
"So is there anything you need to do before Jonathan gets back? Anyone you need to talk to?" O'Connell cleared his throat, changing the subject. "'Cause once we get going, it'll be too late to stop."
"Those I would need to speak with are already near Hamunaptra," Ardeth replied. "Insha'Allah, they will be waiting to celebrate our success."
Some few hours later, they greeted the morning over tea with Winston Havelock of His Majesty's Royal Air Corps, an older man who seemed to remember O'Connell and their past days of glory with more fondness than either perhaps deserved. He agreed to pilot with only the most minimal application of incentive. Some few hours after that, Ardeth's first aeroplane ride came to a violent and dizzying end, when the Creature's command over the sands interrupted their arrival at the City of the Dead.
The flight, in itself, had been more exciting than he had expected; the stark beauty of the dunes was not lessened by the distanced perspective, and it had been a wonder to see his world the way his hawk, Horus, must when he sent him forth with messages. But nothing else in the entirety of the day's events went even remotely according to plan. They nearly lost Jonathan Carnahan to his own curiosity and a cursed scarab beetle before they even gained access to the chamber where the Book of Amun Ra lay hidden, and Ardeth became unavoidably separated from O'Connell shortly thereafter.
He saw enough in those short hours, however, to confirm his belief in the man's essential nature. There had indeed been a reason Allah had stayed his hand the first time the American had escaped from the city; oath or no oath, O'Connell did in fact do any and all in his power to achieve his goals, and within the bounds of his skill that power had proved considerable. He did not shirk the physical work required to shift the rockfall out of their entry passage; he was not distracted by the wealth of Egypt when they stumbled across the treasury chamber; and he did not panic when swarms of Imhotep's priests rose from the earth to slow them. Few born Medjai could claim better.
And then he saved the girl, and returned the Creature to its prison, while Ardeth offered himself as distraction. The day was won. Hamunaptra sank into the sands, the better to dissuade future treasure seekers. Imhotep's pawns all perished, unable to spread further word of the city's location. And last but not least, the honor of the Medjai was restored.
And at the end of it all, O'Connell simply stood watching what he had wrought, oblivious to his fate. If Ardeth had not spoken with him the previous night, he might even have been grateful to see him depart with the Carnahans. But he had; and he knew what a loss it would be to his people.
And to Ardeth, specifically, as well; he sometimes forgot that his own desires and those of 'his people' were not synonymous. He had been commander of the Twelve Tribes from a very young age, set above the social ease of his peers, and had no living brothers. Over the course of the last two days, in the press of shoulder against shoulder, heated words spoken without regard for authority, adrenaline and victory and sacrifice shared as equals, even the casual strike of a match against his beard, he had discovered a hunger for the other man's company that he suspected would not quickly leave him.
Insha'Allah; at least he could comfort himself with the thought that it would not be the last time they met. If the key had found its way to light, then they could not count on the Bracelet of Anubis remaining hidden where its Keeper had buried it, either, and the evil once more sleeping under the City of the Dead was as nothing compared to what slumbered at Ahm Shere. They would need one so marked should the Scorpion King awaken, and Ardeth knew of no other. Surely that was excuse enough to track him, and check in with him occasionally to make certain his skills remained sharp?
Ardeth sighed to himself at the justification. Then he urged his camel forward, the sound of its footsteps muffled by the chaos of the city's collapse, and dropped a hand onto O'Connell's shoulder.
The man jumped, genuinely caught unaware by Ardeth's arrival for perhaps the first time since he had known him, and Ardeth could not resist offering him a wide, white smile as he stared upward in surprise.
"God! Ardeth. You're alive!" The relief in his expression was a balm to Ardeth's weary soul.
"You have earned the respect and gratitude of me and my people," he said, tilting his head slightly and pressing his fingertips to his forehead. His words were for all of them – the persistence of the Carnahans in repairing their mistakes had raised them higher in his esteem than most foreigners the Medjai encountered – but his attention was primarily for the bloodied, blue-eyed warrior before him.
O'Connell snorted at that, smiling back at him. "Didn't you just get through telling me they were our people?" he said, teasingly. "Don't thank me for doing my job. Just make sure I don't need to do it again."
"In so far as it is up to me," Ardeth shrugged, pleased by the words, however flippant – and unable to resist following up on it. "You could return with me and learn the full nature of the work, if you should so desire; you will always find welcome among the tribes."
"You really mean that, don't you?" O'Connell asked, his smile fading a little at the offer.
Ardeth inclined his head. "It is as I have said; you are Medjai, and among our people, if a man does not embrace his past, he has no future."
Miss Carnahan stepped forward at that, insinuating herself against O'Connell's side, and frowned up at him. "But what would he do with your people? I thought no one had woken a mummy in over three thousand years."
"The Creature is not the only relic of ancient times under our guardianship, Miss Carnahan," he chided her gently. She was well learned, and had an astonishing strength of spirit; but in some ways, the young woman was still very naïve. She would be formidable once she had seen the passage of a few more years – but she had little understanding of persuasive tactics as yet. He shifted his attention back to O'Connell and continued. "Nor is our task the sum total of what it means to be Medjai."
O'Connell replied with a shrug. "I won't deny it's a little tempting; it's not like I have anything waiting for me back in Cairo, not anymore. But I'm not sure I'd be a good fit."
Ardeth had some idea why he might say such a thing. After the failure on the riverboat, Dr. Bey had done a great deal of research. O'Connell had been sentenced to death in Cairo Prison when the Carnahans found him, in part because he had been recognized as a Legion deserter … but also in part because he had been discovered while 'having a very good time.' The sort of 'good time' which would require four witnesses for a conviction.
It might ease O'Connell's mind to know that the Medjai did not follow Egyptian law, secular or religious; nor did they require new Medjai to recite the Shahadah. They could not, after all, say that there was no other god but Allah; there were clearly other powers at work in their world. While still very different from Western society, life among the Medjai was not so restrictive as he likely imagined.
Ardeth had no desire to speak of it in public, however, particularly in front of Miss Carnahan. He gestured toward the ruins of the city, mantled with a dust cloud as the last stones settled, and smiled instead. "If the man who could accomplish this does not 'fit' among us, my friend, then perhaps my understanding of what it means to be Medjai is flawed."
O'Connell stared at Ardeth for a long, evaluating moment, then glanced down at the dark curls atop Miss Carnahan's head. "I promised to return them safe and sound to Cairo," he said, finally; then looked back up – and there was a spark of interest there, clear and unmistakable, where there had not been before. "If I ride back when that's done..."
Ardeth's smile widened. "There will be someone watching."
"All right, then." O'Connell nodded slowly. "It might be a week or two. And I might not stay. But..."
"You will come," Ardeth interrupted. "It will be my part to convince you to remain."
He took the man's return smile with him, content despite the aches of battle, as he rode away.