Returning to life was no easy matter.
Life was full of pain so unbearable, Miri had no will to slip from the cool velvet fog of oblivion. But from the deep, dark, blackness, sharp points of searing pain stabbed into her consciousness with a blinding white heat that burned away and melted her very thoughts. She had never felt such pain before. Her very insides writhed in agony; the pain, which afflicted her slashed through her heart, scraped her bowels raw and plunged through her womb and vagina, hot as a blade in a blacksmith's forge.
She knew no peace from the torture, and could remember none. The pain consumed her whole being. But from somewhere beyond herself, she returned, pushing through the razor edges of her body, to take possession of the carcass she had abandoned. Slowly, deep within the nightmare of torment, she came into being, each tentative step, nerve searing torture. She slipped inside her hands and flexed them as if she were trying on stiff new riding gloves. Her fingers clenched weakly, then opened. Her legs pushed out as she climbed back into them and her toes dug into the sand. Her mouth and throat were as dry as the desert wastes. Her vocal chords caught, rasping, seized for lack of moisture.
And, despite the pain, she crawled painfully toward the water, every movement of muscle a pinpoint of anguish which swelled to a mind-numbing agony. Her awareness extended only as far as the surface of her own skin. She could not bear to go further, yet she moved toward the water on her raw belly, scraping against the hot sand and rock, drawn toward the pool as the dew is called into the air by the sun.
Her movement disturbed the vultures that had gathered around her, and they screeched and clumsily fell back from her. The sounds of the world filtered into her mind from far, far away. Like a serpent, she slid into the mud at the edge of the pool and the coolness of the water embraced her, soothing the pain, caressing her skin. The pain eased for a moment and she opened her eyes.
Her life returned to her in an instant. She could not bear to face her world and snapped her eyes shut, curling into a tight fetal ball, and whimpered. In fits and starts, her shattered memories returned, a piece at a time, and each new fraction caused her body to shake in short spasms as it pierced her consciousness. She slashed at each painful memory: her dead Ayamu, the men violating her, Setem, but she could not stop the memories from pouring into the pure soothing blackness of her mind; she could not prevent them flooding her entire being, for they were part of who she was, and as her sense of self reformed, her entire body was wracked by violent convulsions.
As the energy of her spasms ebbed, a semblance of conscious thought emerged from the chaotic kaleidoscope of pain. Her mouth was dry as straw, and her the sides of her throat rasped against each other like sand across the dunes. She opened her mouth and sucked in some of the water from the pool in which she lay.
With effort, she managed to swallow the first soothing mouthful, and she sipped at the water as an epicure would savor a good wine. Her limbs responded to the infusion of liquid, and she crawled deeper into the pool, and the life-giving waters softly caressed her skin and soothed her wounds. As she moved deeper, she floated free from the mud and slime and floated in the womb of her mother Tiama'at. As the waters enveloped her, Miri, for a moment was free of pain. She offered a brief thankful prayer to the Great Mother and opened her eyes.
The blinding radiance of Rei filled her vision and burned away her surroundings. She lifted a bruised arm and shielded her eyes from the rays of the sun, but the sun was too bright. She closed her eyes and tried to regroup her shattered senses. Painfully, she opened her eyes again, but only a crack, and peered out through her lashes. As her head rose dripping from the water, her hearing returned, and the only sound she heard was the buzzing of flies.
Ayamu, lifeless, bloodied, was now a feast for the flies. So were Al-ana, Demeter and Anubis. But as a fly landed on his ear, she saw Anubis's ear flicker. He was still alive!
His soul had not left her alone, and her heart leapt in the recognition of it! She crawled to the dog and lay beside him, stroking his body. He responded with a weak, muffled whimper, and she caressed his ear. She realized she must get him some water and she looked about her for a container, but could see none. She tried to lift him, but she could not even stand up on her own let alone lift the dog and carry him, so she dragged him whimpering into the pool. As his muzzle touched the water, his tongue lapped at it, his ears pricked up, and his eyes opened weakly. She held him tightly, pressing her cheek against his hot flank, thankful for the sound of another beating heart beside her own.
The passage of time made no sense to her. Each heartbeat seemed a lifetime, yet her life seemed but a moment. But slowly, she rebuilt her sense of self, and she and Anubis began a long arduous recovery together. She found her legs would not support her weight, so she crawled around on all fours, searching for her clothes.
She recovered her linen dress from the mud into which it had been trampled and washed it as best she could. The faded purple stains of wine mixed with the bloodstains turned pink like a washed out painting of patterned flowers on her dress. Next she found her robe, but she had no energy left, and as night was falling, she wrapped it around her and slipped into unconsciousness.
Anubis, his own wounds cleaned, crawled under the robe beside her and licked her behind her ear, waking her.
"Go away!" she commanded testily.
He licked her again and she waved her arm to stop him, but undeterred, he washed a nasty gash on her head, and she resigned herself to his attentions, and after a while realized his tongue had eased the soreness of the cut. When he finished she placed her forearm in front of his nose and he licked that cut clean too.
The next day, she returned the favour and ripped a strip of cloth from the hem of her dress and wrapped his ribs to seal a nasty hole from the attention of the incessant buzzing flies. She was feeling less pain, and managed to stand, but her right knee could not take her full weight. She bathed in the shallow pool, and as she rose from the water and slipped her dress over her head, she caught sight of a large paw print in the mud, and she froze in shock.
A large cat had visited them in the night. A young lion she thought at first, but there was no mark of his claws. A leopard! She looked at Anubis and he cocked his head quizzically at her.
"Some watch dog you are!" she said to him disgustedly.
At the mention of the word 'dog' his head tilted to the other side. "Leopard!" she said slowly to him, pointing to the track, "Leopard!" He looked down at her finger, then back at her, woofed at her through his teeth, still waiting for another word he would recognize. It was obvious 'leopard' was not one of them.
She sighed and covered her face with her hand.
Sensing something wrong she opened her eyes quickly. Ayamu's body was gone! Her heart stopped still, and she limped to where he had been and knelt on the ground. She reached down and touched the blood soaked sand, to find a sense of where he had vanished! For a wild moment, she thought perhaps he was alive and had wandered away, but no sooner had the thought entered her mind, she saw the trail where the leopard had dragged his body away. She followed the track for a few steps and realized following would make no sense. In a strange way, he was home: Bubastis was the centre of cat worship in Egypt, and now, the goddess Bast had claimed him and carried him away.
She scraped a small hole in the sand and buried the carcasses of Al-Ana and Demeter, then dragged the largest stones she could lift over the shallow grave, hoping it would deter other predators from dining on the dogs as well. In her search for stones, she discovered Cleopatra's bow and her quiver lying under a scrub bush. She caught her arm on the thorns as she reached in excitedly to retrieve the bow and quiver, reopening a gash on her arm, but she paid no attention to it. She brought the bow up to her lips and kissed it.
"Great Mother be praised!" she whispered and looked across at Anubis. "At least we will have food!" she said excitedly to him.
At the mention of the word 'food', his ears flicked forward and he barked back at her with a generous wag of his tail.
As the sun dropped into the western sky, Miri picked up her robe and called to Anubis, and they set out for the oasis.
There was not much left. The bandits had discovered the hiding place and dug up their belongings. What they did not want they had smashed or thrown into the fire they had set in the reed house. Nothing but ashes remained of the woven columns, roof and walls of the little house. They had taken the tent she thought. She gathered a few articles they had simply discarded: an empty wineskin, a jar of olives they had missed, a sack of grain spilled onto the sand. She gathered what she could of the grain and sifted it from the sand with her fingers, and tied the sack. The hand mill for grinding flour was knocked over and she righted it, but as she looked around her, she realized there was not enough here for her to start again. She would have to leave.
She dragged herself wearily over to the acacia and there, to her delight, she found Ayamu's reed pipe. She picked it up and sat down in Ayamu's place by the tree and fondled the reed pipe, and smiled at the memory of the tunes Ayamu had breathed into it. She put the pipes to her lips and blew a note that disturbed Anubis, then held it to her breast, as though her heart might touch the heart of her dead lover through it. Her back ached, and her bruises and cuts were terribly sore and she realized she was very, very, tired.
As the sky lightened in the East and the darkness dwindled, one by one, the stars faded from the sky. Miri stood completely dressed staring at the star of Ishtar. It seemed impossibly small and far away. The Egyptian name for the star, Sothis, washed over her memory of the Syrian association of the star with the Great Goddess, Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven. The Greeks called the same star the Dog Star, for it ran ahead of the golden chariot of Apollo, the great sun god. The Romans called the same star Lucifer, the Latin name meaning Light Bringer. She remembered the star shining so brightly in her youth, the brilliant blue-white of the Lady of Heaven, yet now, her heart felt none of the joy and wonder she had experienced when as a girl she had gazed up at the heavens.
She felt a tight band of iron around her chest, her heart a great, heavy, immovable stone within her ribs. Where had that little girl gone, she wondered. Even as she asked the question, she knew the answer. The men who had raped her had taken her. The child who wondered at the beauty of a single star in the sky, the child who had run happily through the wild flowers of the hills of Israel had been taken away with the pillage of her tiny world.
She would have to win her back. The wind had been kind to her and had not blown all night. The air was still, and her eyes followed the trail of the bandits still visible in the sand leading away from where she stood to the North East. She had made up her mind to rescue the little girl from the men who had taken her. Only then could she break the band of iron from around her chest and expose her heart to the open skies above and allow the unending love of her childhood to return.
She took a deep breath, and wrapped a black veil over her face, swearing to Neith, Anat and Tanit she would never remove it until she had avenged her death at the hands of these men. She shouldered a full waterskin, and a bundle of wrapped dried meat and flour, and stepped into the footsteps of the men who had violated her and murdered her lover. She would not rest until she had hunted them down and ensured they would regret the day they ever laid their hands upon her.
By the afternoon of the first day of tracking, she began to wonder if she had perhaps made a mistake. Her water skin was near empty, and Anubis, who followed in her wake, was showing signs of fatigue and his mouth foamed from dehydration. The men were getting further ahead from her, for the tracks were fading; the shifting sand, despite the lack of wind, still filled the trail. She had hoped perhaps there would be a well where they might have rested, and she could gain the advantage on them, but where there was no water, they would not stop.
She rested, facing North on the hot sand, her cloak over her head shading Anubis and herself from the burning rays of Rei. She poured water out for Anubis, a handful at a time. Rei was dying, but the heat from his fire would last for another three or four hours. She and Anubis dozed in the shade of her cloak. She was losing water faster than normal; her dress, stripped for bandages, no longer kept her skin from passing moisture into the air.
Miri suddenly was aware she was being watched, and as the awareness struck her, she realized she had been observed for some time. She glanced behind her quickly, but there was no movement for as far as the eye could see. She frowned. Anubis lay before her, stretched out, fast asleep. His ears were better than hers, and he seemed relaxed, but she could not shake her sense of being followed. An image of Ayamu dragging himself after her passed across her vision, and she shuddered. The thought was too terrible to bear, and she fought desperately the urge to retrace her footsteps in order to go back and save him. She sensed some living presence behind her, but she could not quite discern its form.
Who was following her?
She could stand it no longer, and stood up. Anubis raised his head and stared at her quizzically.
"Anubis, come!" she commanded as she regained the trail of the men before her. The dog raised his head wearily, and stared after her, not wanting to get up, but after a moment's thought scrambled to his feet, and trotted behind her, sniffing his way, and despite himself, his tail wagged, for he was born to the hunt.
They walked past sunset and well into the night. A sliver of the waning moon cast a dim light over the desert, barely enough to see, but Anubis's nose followed the scent of the bandits ahead of them and she followed his lead. The stars above winked and twinkled at her, and she was surprised at the clarity with which she saw them. Had some spirit entered her, she wondered, for now she saw them as she had not seen them the day before.
She was close to her quarry, she realized. They had stopped, and the little girl she was seeking was close at hand. Her heart pounded with excitement.
The essence of Neith and Anat filled her. Her pace quickened and as one being, the woman and the dog were caught up in the chase as the scent grew stronger and the trail warmer. As her pace quickened, Miri unshouldered her bow and strung it without pausing. Anubis went from a trot to loping, Miri running in his wake. She slid an arrow from her quiver and strung it on the run.
Suddenly, in the lee of a large dune, she spotted the glow of a campfire. Both she and Anubis froze in their tracks. She glanced behind her quickly, and decided she must gain the high ground of the dune overlooking the camp. On its crest, she would be in bowshot. Quickly the huntress and her servant retraced their steps, and climbed the back of the dune.
She could see very little beyond the small circle of light from the glowing campfire. She could not see the donkeys, though she knew they were there. The men with the exception of a sentry tending the fire were sleeping, wrapped tight in their robes. She slipped off her quiver and counted her arrows. She had only twelve left. One for each of the gods. She would have to make each shot count. She could take two, perhaps three, before they discovered her position, but from above, she had the advantage of territory, and they could not approach her without exposing themselves to her arrows, nor in the small depression, could they escape without her being able to cut them down as they fled. She smiled in grim contentment.
She would wait for dawn.
She settled down to wait, and sleep crept over her, though she fought it off. She dozed fifully, snapping awake with starts as she realized she had drifted away. Finally, she let herself go, for Anubis would wake her if the men arose and began to move.
Anubis let out a muffled woof and Miri's eyes snapped open instantly. She rolled over onto her stomach and looked down at the camp. The men were waking. She could hear their laughter as they joked one with another and her anger welled within her. She stood on the rise, partly protected by it, and drew her bow. She lined her arrow on the large black-bearded man, for without their leader, they would scatter like sheep from the leopard's claw.
She pulled back the bowstring to its full extent.
A woman's voice called out to her.
Miri whirled and before her stood a woman dressed in a robe of deep royal blue, richly brocaded with stars of silver. Her glistening black hair was encircled by a crown of animal figures carved from lapis lazuli intertwined and connected by vines and leaves of knotted beaten copper. A shining silver and copper necklace adorned with carved sapphire birds wrapped around her shoulders and cascaded into the valley between her breasts. Beneath her robe she wore a diaphanous Egyptian linen dress, white, tinged with sky blue, and tied with a white girdle. Her jewellery jingled as she held her hand out to her.
Miri had no need to ask who she was for she knew the woman immediately.
"Mother Astarte!" she whispered in awe, and dropped to her knees before the Great Goddess.
Astarte reached down and grasped Miri by her shoulders and pulled her to her feet.
"Have you forgotten everything I am, Miriam?" asked the goddess. "You are here to take the souls from these men, and condemn them to a life of pain and torture?"
"It is all they deserve!" replied Miri fiercely.
"You cannot retrieve what they have taken from you Miriam," replied Astarte. "They have much to learn and will return to me, and I shall send them back time and time again until they follow the Path to Oneness with my glory."
"But these men are evil, and I can't let them get away with what they have done to me!"
"Revenge, Miriam, is that what you seek?" said Astarte sadly. "And after you have filled your lust for their blood, will you feel any better?"
"Yes!" answered Miri without hesitation. "If I do not avenge their wrongs against me, I shall be consumed by the imbalance! How can I move along if I know these scum still walk in sunshine and laugh at what they did to me?"
"But if you take away their lives, are you any better than they?" asked Astarte, "All life is sacred, Miriam, you know that. It is I who give it, would you take that which I have given?"
"Do I not take life when I sacrifice to you, Mother? You gladly receive the life and blood of an innocent lamb; yet, you come here and question me when I am bout to wreak vengeance upon common criminals? What kind of a deiva are you, that you protect Evil and drink the blood of the Good?"
Astarte shook her head sadly. "It is not a question of Good and Evil here, Miri. Both emanate from my being. I am All that is Good and All that is Evil. Shall I judge your life? I think not! When you return to me, I shall open my arms to you whether you have been saint or sinner, and that which you are becomes me. That which you are is already me. You are a single blossom emerging from one of my branches.
But these men are also born from my womb and shall return to the chalice within my body, the grail of blood that renews Life and shall make them whole once more. I am asking that you allow them to live so that they have time to seek Redemption before they return, for their blackness will contaminate my Essence."
"You can handle it!" retorted Miri sharply.
"I can!" replied Astarte angrily, "But you, Miri, must atone for the taking of their lives! You already have the blood of two men on your hands. You know how heavily it weighs upon your Soul. Will you truly be at rest if you add these others to your burden? Would you have a legion of the dead following you about the world? Dogging your steps. Can you drink enough wine to drown out their voices, Miriam? Can you?"
Astarte's words and eyes travelled directly into her own Soul, the light of the Goddess pierced Miriam's inner eye and she was blinded by the vision. But within the blindness came a greater seeing, and the Essence of the Great Mother filled her, and she felt completely whole, for she became Astarte. No longer alone, but completely connected to each and every living being on Earth. A wave of ecstasy washed over her, and took her breath away.
She caught a feeling of Setem. Then Ayamu! She could see his face! His spirit reached a hand out to her; the arm stretched an impossibly far distance from a new child in which parts of him had been returned to Earth. She touched Martha. Yohanna- Salome! Her feet grew roots and instantly reached throughout the Earth! Nothing escaped her attention. She was aware of every movement, every object on Earth. It shrank like a ball, and her consciousness expanded in a flood of overwhelming orgasm, reaching beyond the planets, beyond the stars, until All that was shrank to nothing, and she was surrounded by deep impenetrable Nothingness.
Just as suddenly, an unbearable pressure bore down upon her and she was ejected from her epiphany within the womb of the Goddess and flowed back inside herself on the crest of the dune.
The sense of emptiness she felt was devastating. Astarte was gone, and she was alone again. She longed for the union she had just felt, yet knew it would not be forthcoming. She fell to her knees and began to weep. Her agony was complete and unbearable. Anubis pawed at her, but Miri felt nothing, and collapsed in a heap face first into the sand.
"Miriam!" The voice was loud and impatient. Miri rocked back on her knees and sat up. Before her, Anat stood, hands on her hips.
"What are you doing?" she asked angrily.
"What?" asked Miri, absently, her mind temporarily disoriented.
"I am disappointed in you, Miri," said Anat. "The days of our Great Mother's reign are over! There is no room for the warm fuzzies in the world! Have you forgotten the stories of your childhood? We no longer live in the Garden, suckling from the Great Mother's Breast! The warrior god Yahweh has cast us out of the lap of the Great Mother Astarte, and forbidden her to show her face. And she listens! Your childhood is over, Miriam! You must take up arms in your own defense! Have you forgotten why you came to this place?"
Anat opened her clenched fist and pointed her open palm toward the awakening camp.
Immediately, a high-pitched child's scream echoed in the dunes and Miri spun around in less than a heartbeat. One of the men held a small, writhing, little girl who kicked at him viciously, but fell far short of her mark. The man punched the small child in the head, but the girl only renewed her struggle with greater vigor. Miri's breath caught in her throat, and an uncontrollable anger rose from her bowels.
Anat moved beside her. "Save her Miriam!"
The child squirmed free of the man's grasp and fell to the ground. The man kicked at the child's head and missed.
"I will be with you!" whispered Anat fiercely, and her words galvanized Miri's outrage, and slipping her bow about her breast, she leapt instantly from the dune, Anat's own war cry in her throat, echoed by a deep earth shattering roar from below.
A donkey screamed in agony, as a large female lion pounced upon its back and bit deeply into its neck. The other animals, donkeys, sheep and goats, scattered in panic. Shouts rose from the men as they leapt to their feet. Their attention was taken by the lion's attack, and they failed to see Miri descending upon them from above.
Never had her feet flown with such energy; her feet sprouted wings, her legs pounded into the sand with the vigor of the finest Arabian mare, and the forceful pumping of her heart pounded in her ears. As she stormed the camp, her hands reached down in an irresistible arc to a club left beside a bedroll. She lifted it high into the air and brought it crashing down upon the first man she encountered. He fell to his knees without a sound and toppled head first into the sand. Before the others could react, the club claimed a second man and he was spun sideways from his feet, lifted high into the air, and again she caught the fleeting astonishment of a man at the moment of his own unexpected death, but before his body crashed to the ground it was hit again by a tawny roaring Fury.
A lioness charged from nowhere, gripped the man between her claws and her jaws closed around his head and neck, and the man's blood gurgled for a heartbeat within his crushed throat, then gushed into the lioness's maw. Screams and cries of men and the roaring bloodlust of a pride of attacking lionesses reverberated within Miri's skull in harmony with her own uncontrolled rage. And the sweet moist smell of blood mingled with great clouds of dust rose from the confusion. She did not question the presence of the lionesses, but accepted them instantly as allies, as an extension of herself, the angels of her own wrath, and the rightness of their being.
No longer controlled nor reserved, Miri leapt upon a third man, and the force of her attack knocked him to the ground. She mounted him, her legs straddled across his torso and smashed his head against a large flat rock lying beneath them.
"Where is she?" she screamed at him, but he was too dazed and confused to answer. Miri grasped his hair and asked him again.
"Where is she?" She smashed his head down upon the ground again. And again. And again.
She did not stop until she realized all was silent about her.
She let the man's head fall limply to the ground, and looked about her for the little girl. She was shocked by the devastation of the camp. Not a single man had survived. The animals, sheep, goats and donkeys, uncomprehending of the narrowness of their escape, yet immobilized by the death and destruction which had enveloped them, stood unmoving, wraiths gaining substance in the settling dust.
Miri's eyes searched for signs of the little girl, but could not see her. Above, on the dune from which she had descended, Anubis sat calmly watching. Their eyes met, and Miri thought she had caught a flash of golden light in his dark eyes, but it was gone in an instant. She stood up slowly, still seeking out signs of the little girl.
In the instant she knew the girl would not be there, she also realized there were no lions about her, or signs of any. She held her hands out in front of her, and stared at the blood and gore which covered every inch of her skin of her arms to her elbows. Her eyes followed the path of blood splattered up her arms and splashed onto her tunic; it was no longer a dress, for the linen was shredded to mid thigh. She wiped her hands down the front of her tunic, across her breasts, over her ribs, along her sides and around the curve of her buttocks, leaving dark red streaks on the cloth, a strange satisfaction with her world and its course through the Cosmos.
The sentry calmly watched the approaching caravan through the shimmering heat. The images of the donkeys flickered in and out of the undulating layers of superheated silvery air. His job bored him. In all his life, no enemy had ever approached from the desert, or from the Nile for that matter. His life was pleasantly boring, the only excitement came from his fear of being caught napping by the captain of the watch. So, if truth be known, he was more on the alert for his captain than marauders from the desert. He often sang or hummed to keep himself alert, or recited poetry. He fancied himself a poet, though others of his acquaintance felt he perhaps had overstated his calling in the literary field.
The first line of a poem circled within his brain and rearranged itself in different combinations. The basic line was: "The white lady came riding" and changed to form "The lady in white came riding" then "The lady came riding on a white steed" and back again, and the second line which appeared over and over was "We laid our palm leaves down", and as the caravan in the distance came closer, the poem gelled within his mind. He was so overjoyed by the verse, he looked about him excitedly, hoping one of his comrades on the gate tower was in earshot. He was in luck.
"Hey Hajid, how about this:
The lady in white came riding, riding;
"God preserve us!" said Hajid, but he was staring intently out to the desert and ignoring his poetical friend. The poet-sentry sensed the seriousness of Hajid's demeanour and turned back to the desert.
"Queen of Heaven!" he whispered in awe.
Nowhere in the approaching caravan was there a single human being. It consisted only of a single line of animals stepping daintily in each other's footsteps. He automatically began to count them. One, two- there were at least twenty donkeys laden with baskets and bundles, perhaps fifty goats, he counted ten, maybe fifteen cows; the forms faded into the dust their feet raised in the dry wadi.
"Call the captain, Mustef," called Hajid, "There is something wrong here!"
Mustef the poet flew down the stone steps to the guardhouse calling as he ran. "Captain, come quick, come quick!" Breathless, he burst into the darkened interior of the guardhouse, and in his excitement, he was oblivious to the fact he had caught the captain fast asleep on his bunk. Theocritus the scribe snapped stupidly from his nap at his desk.
"What is it?" asked the captain, irritated to roused so rudely from his sleep.
"A caravan!" cried Mustef, "A caravan without any people!"
"What?" asked the Captain, "You're not making any sense!"
Mustef grasped the captain by the sleeve. "Come quickly!" he cried pulling the Captain to his feet. He literally dragged his superior out into the street and to the gate and the Captain, still groggy from his afternoon nap, followed him like a child. Carrying his writing board and papyrus, the scribe Theocritus followed curiously in their wake.
The three men stopped beneath the gateway. Both massive doors stood open, as they usually remained during the day, and at the sight of the riderless caravan, all three had thoughts of closing them. There was the air of the supernatural about this new arrival. Even when attended by herdsmen, goats usually travelled in a large conglomerated mass, unless they were winding along a narrow mountain trail. As the lead donkey, a roan stallion came within a hundred paces of the gate, it stopped and the animals began to bunch up behind him.
The animals stared patiently and unemotionally at the three men, whose eyes were wide with amazement. They had never seen anything like it.
"Do you think we should ask the ass what his business is?" asked Mustef seriously. Hajid snickered, and the scribe rolled his eyes.
"There is some explanation for this," Theocritus said impatiently. "There is no doubt a Trai-"
Through the haze a rider on horseback appeared, a young woman, dressed in a fine white linen dress, and mounted upon a fine white Arabian mare. As her mount drew abreast of the red mule, she dismounted. Gold bands wrapped her arms and her fingers bound by gold, sapphire and rubies. The extent of her riches was more than the guards could have imagined. Behind her, in baskets were ivory tusks, gold, blocks of incense, natron salts and uncut precious stones. Her bow was slung over her shoulder and her quiver on her back. About her waist, hung from a finely crafted belt, was a fine iron sword in an ornamental bronze scabbard. She was deeply tanned from the desert, and her deep brown skin seemed almost black against the soft white linen. And her hair. Her hair was the same red colour as the sand beneath her feet.
"What place is this?" she called out to the men.
They looked at each other, not knowing whether they should answer or not. This situation was out of the ordinary and demanded someone with more authority to manage. They all felt out of their depth, though Theocritus, a rather dour and somewhat more intellectual man, took charge. Mustef and the Captain relinquished authority to him with great alacrity and relief.
"Where are the others of your caravan?"
"They-" the woman paused for a moment to consider her words, though she had spent a lot of her time on the road going over her story carefully. "Perished!' she said with some authority. "They died in the desert!"
"You brought the caravan here alone?" the scribe asked in amazement.
"I had no choice,' replied the woman flatly. "What place is this?" she asked again.
The scribe looked from Mustef to the Captain for support, but their faces offered none. Theocritus regretted taking the forefront. He had thought he could show the others he was as commanding as them in their armour, but he knew this woman would have to be dealt with someone who could bargain with her. He knew he could not allow such a strange apparition within the walls of the town without consulting the Seers in the temple. After all, this red-haired woman might indeed be Nepthet herself. Or worse, Neith, or any number of lesser goddesses who could take a man's life with a single sideways glance from her a single eye. He weighed the dangers of offering the name of the city to this stranger. She could utter a curse upon the entire population if he gave the name away.
The woman sensed his thoughts, and changed her tack.
"Under whose protection does this town exist?" she asked. She sensed their fear and knew she had the advantage. A number of curious town folk had begun to gather in the street behind the gate and they peered apprehensively from behind half closed doors and from behind corners at her. She stepped seven paces forward, and the entire host of animals moved with her. A great gasp rose up from behind the walls from the people who could see what had happened, and the woman could not keep the smile from her face. The spirit of Anat rose within her, and she felt the intense urge to rush the gates, sword raised and lay waste to them all. The thought made her smile, and to the others who faced her, it was the terrible smile of a goddess who had come to exact sacrifice from her people. The woman felt if she opened her mouth, she could roar so loud as to cause the walls of the town to collapse from the strength of her voice; that a wind could rise from her lungs and blow out through her
She marvelled at the feeling for she had no fear nor felt vulnerable in any way.
The news of her arrival had reached the temple, and the high priest came along the street from the temple as hurriedly as he could and still remain dignified. Several lesser lights fussed about him, adjusting his dress and head coverings, for he had donned his ceremonial vestments as quickly as he could. The gathering crowd parted before him and he joined the three men at the gate and they whispered to him, pointing at the woman. All four glanced at her continually as they conferred. Finally some sort of consensus was reached and the high priest stepped to the edge of the shadow of the gate, and spoke.
"I am Apollonius, high priest of the true temple of Seth the Elder." He cleared his throat as his hand reached up to rub it.
"You are alone?" he asked.
"I am!" she answered.
"Then what is your business here?"
"I have come to honour Seth, and ask his protection!"
The crowd suddenly began to buzz approvingly. Here was a strange woman with red hair, who commanded an immense retinue of animals. Some even speculated the creatures were lost travellers bewitched by her, doomed to be her slaves forever. But this news!
This was something!
She had come from who knows how far away, to honour their god! Though she spoke the Egyptian tongue fluently, they detected she was from some foreign land, which one who could tell? This was a good sign! Most outsiders held Seth in some contempt, indeed, some even invoked curses in his name without offering a thing! Yet this woman had come to honour him! All sense of foreboding evaporated inside the town walls and wafted upward into the clear blue sky.
The woman called out so all could hear, but her black eyes remained fixed on the High Priest. "I have vowed to give half of my wealth to Seth. As an offering to ensure his protection until I reach the Nile."
The High Priest smiled, and held his arms out toward her, palms outward. He stepped to one side and one arm swept the city behind him.
"The god Seth welcomes you. Enter in Peace!"
The woman stepped forward to stand alongside the priest. He was an older man. Almost sixty perhaps, though he had an air of agelessness about him. Their souls touched, and they shared a secret smile.
The woman said quietly so only he could hear: "I will follow you!"
Her eyes sparkled, and the Priest replied, "You may call me Apollonius!" and with a contented smile, he turned on his heels and walked back the way he came, but slower and with a heightened dignity which rang true. The woman walked a respectful seven paces behind him and her animals, one by one, followed her through the town gates.
The procession took on a festive air as people lined the main street to touch the robe of the lady in white. Others threw strewing herbs before her. Palm leaves. Myrtle. Flowers from the garden. They all marvelled at her great beauty. Of her composure. Of her Magic. She was, they were sure, Nepthet come to visit her husband Seth. The sun was deeper in the west, and soon night would fall. Of course, she had to be Nepthet! The Lady of The Twilight: The bringer of the Dawn. What marvels they would soon behold!
There had been signs in the sky, not fourteen days before, said one. And the well by the Western gate had dried up! It would surely fill again; there was no doubt! Just that morning one woman said, her goat had remained on her knees unable to get up, and why, at the very moment Nepthet appeared at the gate she gave birth to twins!
By the time the woman reached the outer gate of the temple precinct, she wore a crown of flowers and was festooned with blossoms of every sort. And as the procession stopped, she turned to face the crowd, and her entire retinue of animals wore similar crowns. They had been honoured as she had. The woman was filled by such a gorgeous sense of belonging, she positively beamed back on the crowd, and all remarked, for years afterward, that her face glowed with an unearthly light, and all who were there that day received her blessing.
"I shall sacrifice before Seth. Not for myself only, but for all who care to honour him!"
The crowd cheered.
"As soon as the signs are right, I shall ask the High Priest of Seth to perform the rituals-" another cheer interrupted her. "-As soon as the signs are right! I call for his blessing upon you all!"
The High Priest held up his arms for silence.
"This day-" he began, pausing for effect, "-is like not any other. The heavens and the land of the West have blessed our town by the presence of this-" he paused again, to increase the significance of his words "this woman!
Great Mysteries are set in motion, and by the stars I have consulted yet an hour ago, this evening as the sun sets, we shall accept this sacrifice in the name of Seth! Those parts that are offered to the gods are offered to us all! Let no man- nor woman- nor even the smallest babe in arms be excluded from this ceremony! Go now, and purify yourselves, and bring what offerings as you may - or may not- be able to bring. We shall keep a vigil at the first hour of night, and keep watch until Rei rises again from Tuat!"
Apollonius dropped his arms, and the crowd, or most of it rushed away to prepare for the sacrificial feast.
"It will cost you seven cows!" he said to the woman with a smile.
"It shall be done! Take the finest, for they are yours!" She swept her arms across the animals. The goats you may keep, and we will settle the contents of the caravan when it is quieter."
"You do Seth and out town great honour!"
"I shall have need of an escort to the Nile." said the woman
"You will have no lack of volunteers after tonight!" replied Apollonius in good humour. "But come! You must wash and bathe! Our cisterns will run dry from the rituals today I think. I hope you know how to bring rain!"
The woman looked askance at Apollonius.
"A joke!" he said affably, "A joke!"
The sacraments that evening were a great success. Never had any felt so close to their gods as when the red-haired woman became the bride of Seth. The sacrifice was far more sacred than any had ever felt before or since. The cattle died peacefully. The blood sparkled with flecks of gold they said, and all those who received the blood upon their head glowed with an inner radiance that defied rational explanation. And the feast!
There were some who declared they saw Seth and all the gods of Tuat at the banquet. Ausar himself had appeared at the breaking of the bread! A sign of great abundance on the next harvest! Such was the Euphoria, the transcendence of the moment, it is said both first and last fruits were offered that night, for never again would there be such a convergence of divine forces.
Each of the twelve hours of darkness was marked by a new sacrifice. Each hour new beer was produced as oblation and sacrament. As the stars faded and Sothis stood alone above the Eastern horizon, the first light of dawn announced the coming of the chariot of Rei. The red haired woman retired to the Holy of Holies at the precise moment the eye of Horus appeared on the horizon, and as the fingers of Rei reached out and touched the porticoes of the Great Temple inner sanctum, the doors closed in upon her as she joined her husband Seth in the dark interior of their temple-palace.
As the red-haired woman lay in the bath prepared for her by the holy women of the temple, one of the priestesses brought a mirror to her. It caused the woman such distress, the priestess tried to take it back, but the red-haired woman would not relinquish the mirror, but stared into it in amazement.
Miri touched her hand to her hair, once raven black, and traced her fingers over the auburn locks. She did not recognize the strange woman in the mirror. It was as though someone else had taken possession of her body, and like a dress wrapped around a new body, her features had changed to suit the new soul within it. Such was the transformation, she could not pull herself from the mirror for a very long time.
Within that time, she realized she could now return to the Black Land of Egypt, for she did not recognize herself. Even her eyes had seemed to change colour. She had planned on skirting the Nile, but now she saw she could enter the valley without fear of recognition. She was no longer the dark eyed raven-haired young girl, but a red-haired woman with green eyes. Or at least in this light they seemed green. Slowly she relaxed, and a contented smile crept across her face, and she sent a prayer of thanks to Set for delivering her from the Western Desert.
She slept soundly that day, and into the night, and did not rise until the next dawn. Apollonius sought an audience with her, and after bathing and dressing, she granted him a hearing.
"When are you leaving?" he asked. "The people have said you have already left, and have asked me what your absence portends."
"What is your opinion, Apollonius?"
He bowed deferentially.
"I have none," he answered. "I know enough not to predict those events over which I have no control. You have brought great honour to our temple, and are always welcome indefinitely as an honoured guest, but my advice to you is to get out while you are ahead. The sacrifice went extremely well, but it would not take much for the great unwashed to begin to ante up on their demands upon your beneficence, and their needs, I think, would soon outstrip your resources."
"Then I should like to leave as soon as possible. Can you arrange an escort for me?"
"It is already done. Your train has been assembled and is waiting in the inner courtyard gardens." Apollonius withdrew a sealed paper from his robes. "I have prepared an immigration document for you which declares you are a Libyan noble woman, and that you have paid your import fees here. I- uh- took the liberty of creating an inventory of goods, which is one half of your actual wealth, and all are marked with import tax seals. I hope that is not to presumptuous of me."
"Not at all!" replied Miri, "You have been very kind."
Miri stepped down from the dais upon which she had been seated and Apollonius led her out into the garden. They walked abreast toward her white mare, saddled and bridled and held by a young priest.
"You will leave the way you came," whispered Apollonius. "To all intents and purposes, you are the embodiment of Nepthet, and I do not wish to dispel that myth. You will soon be out of sight of the town ramparts, and then my men will turn to the north and skirt the town. You will eventually reach the path to Koptos. The young men who accompany you have all expressed a wish to travel to the Nile, and do not intend to return. There will be no homecoming for them, for the legend of the arrival of Nepthet shall be preserved intact. Your visit has given us all great hope, and I do not wish to dispel it."
Miri was shocked the men would give up their lives in this place for her. She opened her mouth to protest, but Apollonius raised his hand for silence.
"Do not be concerned!" he said, "These boys all had been on the Path to become Seers, but they do not have the discipline. They all have wayward souls, and none wish to be dishonoured by their imminent failure to enter the priesthood. Many are younger sons who will have little responsibility to maintain their ancestor's well-being in the Afterlife. You have given them the opportunity to gain great honour in their parents' eyes, and satisfy their own foolish craving for adventure in their hearts. I shall have time to think why they would return from the Land of the Dead before the first of them falters and returns the prodigal son."
They reached the mare and Miri stroked the horse's nose. "You have no qualms about deceiving your congregation?"
Apollonius smiled briefly, but his voice was in earnest.
"Every day," he said, "we are faced with a Lie. Each day we must push aside the Illusion to gaze upon the Truth. Nothing of this around us is what it seems. Truth is what we believe in our hearts and cannot be determined from deductive logic. A lie cannot be perceived by rational thought. The Intellect creates the Lie. The Heart dispels it and creates the Reality.
The Truth cannot be manufactured, it just is. The Truth cannot be argued, for it stands for itself, undeniable. Only the Heart can perceive truth for Truth is Love and Love, Truth. The essence of every object, invisible to the naked eye."
"You carry the Truth in here!" Apollonius placed his hand firmly between her breasts. "Your heart has filled my temple, Miri. And for aeons beyond our knowing, your heart will fill all those who enter here. Love is boundless. Unlimited!"
"Love is God!" replied Miri sardonically.
Apollonius ignored her sarcasm.
"God is Love!" he replied sincerely, "Love is God!"
Miri grasped the reigns of her mare and Apollonius offered his hand to help her mount her horse. As she pulled in the reigns, he handed her a small bundle.
"Go with my Love, Miriam," Apollonius said softly, "May Peace be with You."
"And with you!" replied Miri, then dug her heels into the mare's flank.
As the temple doors opened, the sun seemed to move with her, for although it was yet morning, her memory of that departure was of high noon. She led the procession from the temple to the city gates. The whole town turned out to bid her farewell. She was showered with gifts and offerings, and pleas of remembrance from each and every inhabitant of the city. The piercing cries and wails of the women mourned her passing, and tears fell from every eye.
Their friends, relatives and neighbours dressed the young men in their finest and festooned them with garlands of flowers, as though they had died, as they would a mummy was bedecked for burial. For it was said none would return from the Western desert, and the young men would pass into Tuat, there to accompany Rei on his journey west and for Eternity, they would serve the red-haired goddess in the Afterlife.