The Coming Storm
Elon of Aerilann, Elven advisor to the High King of Men, helped negotiate the treaty between Elves, Dwarves and men. He suddenly finds that fragile truce threatened from without by an unknown enemy and from within by old hatreds and prejudice. With the aid of his true-friend Colath, the wizard Jareth and the Elven archer Jalila, he goes in search of the source of the threat.
Ailith, the Heir to Riverford, fights her own silent battle. Her father has changed, but her quest to discover what changed him puts her life and very soul in danger and leaves her only one direction in which to turn. Elon.
To preserve the alliance, though, Elon will have to choose between his honor, his duty and everything for which he fought.
The Coming Storm is the most compelling book I’ve read in a long time. I realize that’s a gushy way to start a review, but as a long-time reader of fantasy novels, I’m comparing it to the often cliched books of the same type. …I’m anxious to read the next book.
Donna K. Fitch
Very good story! The plot is well developed and fast moving with strong, well developed characters that are easy to identify with and yet complex. The battle scenes are intense and the ending left me eager for more – both on the history of the world the author created and on what happens to the characters afterward. Well written epic fantasy in the middle earth tradition and definitely a must read!
Colath couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever been so weary and if he was tired, what of the men, Iric and Mortan? They hadn’t the endurance of his folk. Both were thinner in only a few weeks, there were dark hollows beneath their eyes and a dullness to them. Travel bread could sustain you but it wasn’t meant to replace real food and they hadn’t seen such in nearly a week. That had consisted of the one game they had scared up, a solitary rabbit that had somehow stayed hidden in these hills. Jalila had gotten it with one shot. The rabbit hadn’t been large.
Of other game, they saw only carcasses rotting in the sun. Boggins or boggarts, who loved entrails but not much else.
They had to get away from the borderlands and soon but that was becoming more difficult with each passing day. The line between the borderlands and the rest of the Kingdoms had blurred. Narrowly missing an encounter with a firbolg, they’d also avoided an ogre and several boggins. They’d spent a day or so upon a tor, looked down the slopes from the rocks at its crown to watch as a troop of boggarts passed below them. Thankfully, they hadn’t picked up on their scent or were so intent on their own quarrels they hadn’t noticed. Without warning a trio of the boggarts had leaped upon another and torn it to shreds. When they were gone a salamander had crept out from the rocks at the base of the hill where it had been hiding and made a fine meal of what the other boggarts hadn’t finished.
Manticores, they learned, hunted in prides much like some desert cats. The one they’d first seen had likely been a solitary young male, if they held true to that comparison.
All were far out of their normal ranges and too many in number.
A firbolg come down from the high ranges you would see once or twice a year, perhaps, after a hard winter. Young boggins and boggarts weren’t uncommon and the reason for the Hunters, most often. The smart ones learned their lesson and fled back to the borderlands screaming their frustration and defiance. Stupid ones died. Kobolds came once a season, maybe. Ogres and trolls once or so every few years. As for goblins, this wasn’t their territory so much as north and east but every few years a new leader would come along and gather them all up for a raid. It would take a small army of Hunters to rout them and send them running back to their own lands again. Never without there being wounded on both sides. Thankfully, they’d seen no trolls yet, nor goblins. So few in number, he and his small party would never have stood a chance against them, not with men in their party.
It was enough and more than enough, both north and south. Time to go home, to return to Aerilann. It was the how that was difficult, he thought, as he brooded beneath the overhang and stared out into the night. Somewhere not far enough away something screamed at the darkness.
They’d run across a trail of a number of orcs running before them.
Behind, of course and in both other directions, was more of the same.
The orcs, those monstrous, bear-like things with their oddly hinged jaws were more than his small party could face, particularly Iric and Mortan. Despite their protest, he and the two other elves had taken their watch this night. In the end, both men had to admit they were too weary to be useful. What tricks men used to stay alert had long since worn off. They were completely exhausted and both now slept deeply.
Alic gestured a warning and Colath tensed.
They’d had many nights like these, startled into alertness by some sign or strange noise. Once they’d had to kill a basilisk looking for a temporary den. Alic had been caught and frozen, to his shame, before the glare in those eyes.
That was the basilisk’s magic, their method for capturing their prey.
No shame to him, though, as basilisks here were as common as salamanders – that is, not common at all. They were southeastern creatures.
Then Colath caught the scent of what alarmed Alic, a faint stinging in his nostrils. A boggart or boggarts and near. He nudged Jalila gently. She rolled over, instantly aware and awake.
The two men were so deeply asleep they dared not nudge them to consciousness for fear they would cry out. As cruel as it was, it was still much better to press a hand over their mouths and frighten them awake than it was to risk an outcry. He nodded to Jalila to wake Iric, while he went to Mortan.
Mortan bucked beneath his hand but then his eyes opened enough to see Colath’s face in the dim glow cast by elf-light. Abruptly, he subsided but he looked more alert than he had in several days, the little bit of sleep and fright charging him with energy. It wouldn’t last, Colath knew, beyond a few hours. He hoped it would be enough.
Tapping his sword, he drew it, so the two men could see it. Nodding, they drew their own.
With a quick gesture, he sent Jalila and her bow to the back of the tumble of rocks that arched around them. Sheltered there beneath the overhang, she had a good defensive position from which to shoot and to guard the horses. Although Elves could and did run for miles, the men couldn’t and Colath didn’t want to think of any of them afoot in this country.
Alic stood with Iric on one side of the entry, he and Mortan at the other.
There was little else to do. Boggarts were dark-skinned and stealthy, to venture out was to risk themselves foolishly.
A tumble of wood stood where the rocks ended but Colath hesitated to light it.
Once lit, it would be a beacon for any other creatures that prowled the night. He hadn’t lit it earlier for fear the smell of smoke would draw more than repel. Most of these creatures hated and feared fire but they also seemed to know that where there was fire there were men and Elves. He hadn’t wanted to invite attention.
If the boggart or boggarts attacked, they might have no choice, depending on how it went. It was unlikely to go well or unnoticed. Typically, boggarts screamed when they attacked, an unnerving shriek that was intended to shatter the nerves of its prey if they were unwary enough to be caught off guard. That shriek alone would often send prey flying from cover. Colath hoped he wouldn’t hear it. If he did, they were in serious trouble. While not as thick-skinned as the manticore, their skin was thick enough to keep an arrow from driving too deeply if the shot was off a hair. The swords of men could glance off if their aim wasn’t true, for that Elven steel worked better. Add long arms, sharp claws and wicked teeth and you had a formidable opponent even for Elves.
If it came to a real fight, they would have to run. At night, as dangerous as that was. There was no choice. The sounds of battle would carry. Like the salamander they’d watched, there would be those who would be drawn to the noise for a chance at the offal.
Orcs didn’t see well at night, unlike boggarts. With luck they would like not stir and the party might get past them.
An unearthly shriek rang out.
Instinct warned him.
He flung himself to one side as a boggart leaped from above, one long arm narrowly missing his head. An arrow from Jalila’s bow flashed by to bury itself in one massively muscled boggart thigh as the thing rolled to its feet and spun.
It roared in fury and charged, long arms reaching. The horses tried to scatter, blocking Jalila’s next arrow, kicking to defend themselves instinctively. Alic swung true, opening a gash along the thing’s side but taking a brutal backhand that flung him against the rocks as Iric hacked wildly, trying to drive it off. One of the horses screamed as Colath leaped forward to drive his sword straight and true into the boggart’s side as Jalila threw her shoulder against a horse to push it out of her way.
Free, she had an arrow nocked as Colath and Mortan fenced with another boggart that leaped over the rocks at the entry, ducking and dodging the reach of the claws at the end of the long arms. It shrieked again as Jalila let fly. Flinging himself forward, Alic threw himself back in the fray, although his face streamed blood. The scent of it maddened the boggart, who turned on Alic. Jalila’s next arrow buried itself in the boggart’s back, piercing deeply – nearly half the length of the shaft, as two more scrambled over the rocks.
Steel rained down on the things as they held them to the center of the ring of stone. Scores of wounds were opened on the creatures. Colath saw an opening and took it when one reached for Alic for the blood on him, exposing its vulnerable underbelly just long enough for him to drive his sword up into it. He dove out of the way of a massive backswing of an arm, claws slashing through the spot he’d just occupied closely enough to snag his shirt. There was no pain. Not at the moment.
It screamed its defiance, raising its face to the sky.
“Light the fire,” Colath shouted.
Startled, Mortan stared, then ran to kneel by the pyre and set flint to steel, sparks flying. The tinder caught and flared.
Another arrow and the other boggart fell.
“Jalila, stay alert.”
She nodded sharply and stepped away from the horses to get a better view. Iric’s mount was scored, long gashes running along one leg. The tendons in that leg were gone. It would never run. With a flash of his blade, Colath ended its life. Elven cull it might be but he wouldn’t leave it to the savagery of the creatures here. Dead, it could suffer no more miseries and might buy them some time.
“Iric,” he said, “you ride with Jalila.”
Both were smaller and light, not so much weight as putting Mortan up behind her. Her horse could carry both, although not for as long.
“When we go, grab a torch from the fire and ride hard,” he said and swung up onto Chai’s back.
His bow would be of little use. Even with Elven-sight he couldn’t see far and clearly enough to make his shot count sure. It was sword work or nothing and hope your sword was long enough.
Alic leaped for his horse with Mortan shadowing him to his own mount. Once she was sure they were set, Jalila swung up on hers and reached for Iric.
Dropping Chai’s reins, Colath let the horse have her head, leaning down swiftly to snatch up a burning brand as he went by the fire and sweeping it alongside to drive off any boggarts before righting himself and leaning into the race.
Chai took up the challenge, living up to her name. She was swift, leaping forward to clear the rocks completely and racing into the night.
The others were behind him, flames streaming from the torches. Fire wouldn’t matter in the mad charge except light and as a weapon. He sent an elf-light ahead of them to give the horse light enough to see.
Dawn was too far off, the first dim promise of it nearly an hour away.
“At all and any cost one of us must make it to Aerilann,” he called to the others.
Somehow all of them would if he had any say in it.
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Heart of the Gods
It was a shaken, terrified and desperate man who stumbled into the little temple to the shock of the priests and priestesses who served there. His face and hands were scoured and bloodied by the desert.
Abdul ignored them, prostrating himself before the figure of the Goddess. The priests and priestesses couldn’t help him, only a Goddess could.
They’d lost Mustafa in the desert that first night.
At first Abdul thought it safe to rest and so they’d stopped to set up what camp they could.
The wind had come up. All of them had looked up, knowing the signs in the clouds, in the haze in the sky behind them.
They found what shelter they could and hunkered down to weather it out.
Still something sent a shiver down Abdul’s back. He weighed his chances.
Something told him his chances were better in the sandstorm.
As the first rush of blowing sand reached them, he leaped for his camel.
Seeing him, Najib followed.
Mustafa had not.
Even over the sound of the storm they heard him scream in abject terror and then in delirious bliss, a dying gurgle of immense pleasure.
And yes, there was something about the sound of that ecstasy that drew their manhood tight and sent a chill through them. Even as it called to them.
Najib’s eyes had turned white at that cry.
It had been a race then, to see which camel could run or be goaded faster against the fury of the storm.
Once again, Abdul won, his fingers clenched around the figurine of the little priestess as he heard the cry out of the darkness.
Still he couldn’t shake the idea he was still hunted. He could feel it.
Desperate, he raced into the first temple he found and threw himself on mercy of she who ruled there.
All he had to offer was the golden figurine of the priestess.
“Take it,” he said to one of the priests, thrusting it into his hands. “Take it as my offering to her, to Sekhmet.”
The Goddess of War.
Instead the priest looked toward the open door of the temple and his face grew grim and set. As one, he and the others backed away, disappeared into the shadowed depths of the temple.
Nearly weeping with terror, Abdul slowly turned.
Sand swirled through the entrance. Something stepped out of it.
He looked from the figure in his hand to the terrible one who stood in the doorway.
The Guardian of the Tomb.
They were the same.
His cry was first of sheer terror and then of a deep and horrifying ecstasy.
When silence came once again to Sekhmet’s temple, the priests and priestesses emerged.
All that remained of the old thief was a dry and empty husk.
The wind gusted and swept the temple clean.
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When I first wrote The Coming Storm, there was a prologue. I felt it was necessary to explain to readers the circumstances that had led to the events in that book. As time went by, though, I had to accept that it was really what was called ‘back story’, history, and not really relevant to the book that would be The Coming Storm. There are just some characters, some stories, though, that haunt you. Delae and Dorovan were like that. They haunted some of my beta readers – folks who read Storm before it was published – all of whom wanted to know… what happened?
Like the story of how Elon, Colath and Jareth met (told in Setting Boundaries), Delae and Dorovan haunted me, as well. They just wouldn’t let me go, demanding that their story be told. It would take almost five years before I could tell it right.
There was one problem, though. To tell it I’d either have to include spoilers for The Coming Storm or find a way to dance around them. I chose to dance. Their story was about them, and although they love they shared would ultimately change their world, what passed between them wasn’t about that world but between two people in pain who gave each other everything they could offer, despite everything.
One reviewer said, “I was smitten by the archaic timbre of the writing style and the hardship of the era was well portrayed; as were the beauty and integrity of both hero and heroine – their love scenes are powerfully drawn. Whilst the ending is sad, but inevitable, the author sprinkles a dust of happiness over it.” Another commented, “I laughed and I cried at the end both from sadness and happiness. I was immersed from beginning to end. I would gladly read others in the series as this one gripped me totally.”
I hope you read it and like it, too. If you do, please click ‘like’ and the ‘tags’. If you really feel inspired, please leave a review. If you’d like a taste of their story, you might want to watch the trailer to Not Magic Enough –
For Delae, a lonely landholder on the edge of the Kingdoms, a frantic knock at the door on a stormy winter’s night brings more than a cry for help.
After centuries of war Elves have little contact with the race of men, but Dorovan can’t bring himself to ride past those so obviously in need. One small act, with enormous consequences.
Not Magic Enough is a tale of love and honor, duty and determination…
The pounding on the heavy wood of the doors of the homestead sounded loudly even above the shriek and howl of the storm raged outside. Pulling her threadbare robe on, only half-awake Delae ran across the cold stone floors in her bare feet to answer it, rubbing her eyes wearily. Doubtless her aged cook and houseman had been roused, too, by the pounding and were on their way from their quarters at the back of the homestead but she was the closer of them. She hated to ask either Petra or Hallis to sit by the door of a night as many landowners did anymore than she set a guard by the gates as many others did. They weren’t so far from the seat of the lesser Kingdom of Riverford that they had much to fear behind stout walls.
Who would be mad enough to be out in such a storm as this? she wondered. It was early in the night, true, but it was still insanity to be caught so far from shelter.
Lifting the bar, she set it aside and released the latch.
The door opened on a blast of wet snow and wind that struck her like a blow, nearly literally, to reveal a stranger standing there, looking windblown, frozen, battered and desperate. She caught him as he almost fell in the door, a young, plain-looking man, by the looks of him a farmer or tradesman, a traveler of some sort not used to the vagaries of the weather at the edges of the Kingdoms. His ragged brown hair was drenched, his clothing soaked, his skin white and his lips nearly blue from the cold.
“Help,” he whispered as he staggered into the relative warmth of the great room.
The fire in the great fireplace that dominated the whole of one wall was banked to coals but it still heated the room beyond the chill of the weather outside.
He was clearly injured, with blood covering one side of his face.
“My family,” he croaked, weakly, “the wagon, it overturned, we were on our way home from the birthing…”
“Hush, hush,” Delae said, gently, reassuringly, as she took his weight on her shoulders and guided him to the padded bench by the fire. “What’s your name?”
“Marlan. Lady, you have to help them…!”
“Of course I do,” she said, kindly, although it was no more than her duty as landowner, but also because people needed aid. “We’ll help them, I promised. What happened, Marlan? Where are they?”
“We were coming from Raven’s Nest, heading south for the Heartlands. My sister Jessa had her baby, we were coming home,” Marlan said. His next words were bitter and angry. “Pa thought we could make it to Riverford before the storm hit. I kept telling him no, we should stop at the last village but you can’t tell him anything. So we pressed on.”
As he spoke, Petra and Hallis rushed in. With a shake of her head, Delae indicated they shouldn’t speak.
There was no need, at the young man’s words both turned to rush back down the hall to do what was needed, Petra to get the kitchens going and Hallis to gather up blankets.
“I told him we needed to stop, hunker down to wait out the storm but he wouldn’t,” Marlan said. From the way he spoke, it had the sound of an old complaint, much voiced and now tragically vindicated. “The wagon overturned.”
“Where?” Delae asked. “On the road?”
“Yes, mistress,” he said, respectfully, as Hallis returned to drape a blanket over the young man’s shoulders.
Tall and spare, his gray hair sparse, Hallis’s hands were knotted with age, bent and twisted.
“Petra is making soup, my lady, there will be food soon,” Hallis said, his heart aching for his poor mistress as he bent stiffly to stir up the fire, wrestling another log into place.
Hallis looked at her there kneeling by the young man, a pretty young woman with a kind, gentle face and a good heart, as graceful as the dancer she’d been in her youth, her tightly curled hair glowing red and gold in the light of the coals, her dark blue eyes focused only on the young man.
In truth, most landowners would already have put him and Petra to work as drudges in the kitchens or as lesser house staff by now and there were a good many who would’ve put them out to beg on the streets. Neither of them could move fast any more.
Not Delae, though. For kindness mostly but also for good reason as there simply was no money to hire better, that good for nothing husband of hers took every penny she couldn’t hide. Still, she never ordered, she always asked and never complained of her lot in life. It wasn’t in her to do it.
A sharp petulant voice came from the door to the west wing of the house startling everyone.
“What’s going on, what’s all that racket? Can’t a body get some sleep of a night? Bad enough with this storm but then folk banging around…”
Closing her eyes, Delae willed patience as she had a thousand times before.
“It’s nothing, Cana. Travelers have broken down in the storm,” she said to her husband’s mother. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Then you must send aid,” the woman said, equally sharply, as if Delae were witless.
“This I know,” Delae said. “And I will. Go back to bed, Cana, I’ll take care of it.”
As she took care of everything else.
Despair and frustration weighed on her, battered at her soul. It was at rare times such as this that Delae wished she had a husband in truth instead of only in name. This would’ve been his duty had he been there, although she would have gone with him to brave the storm and give aid. Instead it fell to her. All of it.
She took a breath, willed strength and patience. These folk needed her. There was no one else and there was something, some satisfaction, to be found in the knowledge that she could help.
“Hmmmph,” Cana said and slammed the door shut behind her.
At least Kolan, her husband’s father, hadn’t come, too, Delae thought, which was one blessing, his joints bothered him too much on these days.
Letting out the breath she’d taken, with a wince at the door slam, Delae turned to Hallis.
“Go fetch Dan, Morlis and Tad for me would you please, Hallis? Tell Morlis we’ll need our hay cart, two of the draft horses and Besra. Then you and Petra get the rooms in the east wing ready.”
Those rooms were usually reserved for rare visitors to the homestead or for travelers such as these caught out in the storm. In this isolated part of the Kingdoms the smallholders used them most when they came in during the harsh days of winter, now fast upon them.
“Yes, Delae,” Hallis said and hurried off as best he could with his stiff joints and aching bones as Petra came down the hall toward him.
Their fingers touched for just a moment, his and Petra’s, with love and understanding and then Hallis hobbled down through the west wing of the quarters toward those of the south wing. It would take longer but he was too old to fight the winds of the storm by cutting across the square.
Petra came to sit by the boy, a mug of hot herbal tea laced with wine in one gnarled hand. She gave a nod to Delae.
“Help will be on its way shortly,” Delae said, laying a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder.
As she hurried away, she knew she wouldn’t tell him it would be she who would go. She, her smith, her wrangler and the addled but strong young man who assisted Petra in the kitchen.
That was all there were here save for the women and children of the homestead. All the smallholders were sheltering from the storm in the safety of their cottages and too far away to aid her.
It would have to be enough, it would have to do. Somehow.
Casting aside the threadbare robe and the thin linen nightdress she wore, Delae quickly drew on her working clothes―simple but heavy men’s winter trews, her heaviest tunic, layering over it a sweater Petra had knitted for her and thick woolen socks before she stamped her feet into her working boots. She threw her sturdiest cloak over all of it. A woolen scarf covered her abundant hair. She wrapped the scarf around her throat despite the itch of the wool before gathering up her sheepskin gloves.
She stopped to gather a jug of fortified wine from the storeroom, pausing in the kitchen to fetch a piece of warmed iron from the fire, letting it drop it into the jug of wine with a hiss before she pounded the cork stopper back in place.
By the time she reached the great room, the men were waiting.
Dan was huge and burly, heavily muscled in the chest, arms and shoulders from his hours at the forge and capable enough there. Tall and gangly, Morlis was a wonder with horses and a godsend to her. Poor Tad just looked at her with no curiosity, his huge hands dangling, his moon face waiting to be wreathed in a smile…or a look of confusion. But he was strong and he would do as he was told. For all that he was shorted on wits, he more than made up for it in other ways.
She patted his cheek lightly, fondly, and the smile broke out, big and broad, heartening her.
“I’ve the horses and wagon waiting outside,” Morlis said.
She nodded. “Tad, will you take the spare blankets and the jug to the cart please? We’re going for a ride. Dan, go open the hayloft, quickly please. If their wagon has overturned, they’ll be cold, possibly injured. We’ll need hay in the cart for warmth.”
Obediently, Tad gathered up the things and trotted out to the cart as Dan ran to the stables, Morlis on his heels to drive the little wagon there.
With a glance back at the warm building that had been her home for the last ten years or so, Delae went out into the storm.
It was an early winter storm and all the more fierce because of it, driven by the warm winds from the south and the cold winds sweeping down out of the mountains to the east and north. It was bitterly cold and damp, hurling snow before it that wouldn’t stick but would turn the roads muddy, slushy and thick.
A rumble of thunder growled above the other sounds of the storm. Thunder snow… uncommon but less so at this time of year. If this were any sign, it would be a long and hard winter.
Faithful Besra, her horse, tried to turn her back to the wind, her winter coat thick, yet still she shivered as Delae mounted.
Delae could sympathize as she turned the horse’s head toward where Dan forked hay into the cart. The cold seemed to find every gap in the layers that covered her.
“Enough, let’s go,” she shouted and he nodded, pulling the upper doors closed behind him, emerging seconds later at the door below with torches he’d lit at his forge.
He handed one up to her before mounting his own horse.
The gates were unbarred as they almost always were, save for the rare goblin raid this far to the south and west. Far from the borderlands and in a Kingdom where the King kept faith with his subjects by keeping the roads safe for those who lived within his borders, they had little to fear.
Except the storm.
The wind struck with vicious force the moment they left the security of the walls, rattling the little wagon and nearly blowing Delae from her horse.
Still there was no help for it, as landowner here it was her responsibility to render aid, regardless of circumstances.
Putting her head down, Delae drew her cloak more tightly around her throat.
In the wind of the storm, the torches and lanterns on the cart guttered and flickered. Delae could barely hang onto hers, but she did, switching it from hand to hand to give each cold aching wrist and arm relief. Both were strained and sore by the time they finally reached the road.
With no sign of the passage of a wagon south, they turned north and soon enough found the stranded travelers, huddled together for warmth in the shelter of the overturned wagon. One horse was down, tangled in its traces, still kicking weakly as the other fought to stay upright with his fellow fallen beside him.
Delae’s heart sank at the sight.
The wagon was huge, a massive farm wagon, far larger than she’d expected, put to use no doubt for the family visit to distant relatives, the last such chance to do so before the snows closed the pass to Raven’s Nest. As it no doubt would be now.
It was easy enough to see what had happened. As the mud had grown thicker it had bogged the wheels of the wagon until they’d hit a low wallow. There the wheels on one side had caught completely, pulling them off the road. The wagon had gone over in a slow but inevitable roll onto its side. Now one side of the wagon was mired in the mud, making it far more difficult to raise.
There had to be more than a dozen people there, a few men but mostly women and children, all shivering in the cold. One of the men ― Marlan’s father? ― was also injured.
It was clear the cart would never hold all of them. They would have to right the wagon.
One of the other men cried out to her in relief as he staggered to his feet.
“Thank God you’ve come!” he said as she dismounted.
“How many are injured?” she shouted over the wind. “And how badly?”
“Forman is the worst,” the man responded. “He struck his head. One of the children has a broken arm. The rest are only bruises.”
That was a relief. Their thick clothes and hay had likely softened the fall, preventing more injuries.
“Get Forman and the child in the cart and as many of the other children as you can. There are blankets there. Try to get them warm,” she said, as she fought the wind and mud to have a look at the wagon. “Dan, I need you. Morlis, help them. Tad, keep the horses still.”
She slogged through the frozen mud.
At least the axle hadn’t broken. That had been her worst fear, as it would have made everything much harder. Otherwise, they would’ve had to take them back in stages with the fragile cart, each trip risking another accident such as this one while those remaining waited in the freezing cold.
If they could even get the wagon turned over and that was very doubtful.
The storm raged around them as Delae held her torch high examining the situation.
“If we cut the traces of the fallen horse,” Dan said, grimly, “we’ll lose pull.”
With a sigh, Delae nodded. That had been her assessment as well.
They’d never get the wagon out and there would be nothing to secure the draft horses to the wagon then. One horse couldn’t pull it alone but perhaps they could rig something.
Either way it meant the death of the horse on the ground. Without untangling it they’d never get the wagon righted and if they tried it would likely break one of the horse’s legs, if not worse. The way it thrashed she wouldn’t risk the life of whoever she asked to unbuckle it. Her heart grieved for the poor animal. She couldn’t ask Morlis to do it nor have the children watch.
Which left her. She sighed.
If they could even get the wagon righted with what they had.
They had to try.
Coming around the wagon, she eyed the situation.
Morlis had gotten the two injured and all of the younger children into the cart.
With a nod, she turned to the man she’d spoken to first.
Tugging his forelock in respect, he said, “Pell, Lady.”
“Pell. Who among the women is best with the children?”
“Yana,” the man said and a young woman turned at the sound of her name, holding her thin cloak closed around her head with one hand.
“Morlis,” Delae said, “Give everyone on the cart a swallow of the wine to warm them and then leave it with those who remain to keep them warm. Leave the draft horses here. Take Yana up with you, get her, the children and the injured back to the homestead. Have Petra put them in the east wing rooms. If we aren’t back by daylight, return.”
She wouldn’t risk him coming back alone in this weather. If they didn’t get the wagon righted and on its way whoever survived the storm this night would get a ride back to the homestead in the morning. Already the cold was numbing Delae’s fingers and toes. Young Yana shivered badly.
The man nodded.
“Everyone else,” Delae said, “get back among the trees. We’re going to try to right the wagon.”
The little cart with its passengers trundled off, taking with it the dim light cast by its lanterns.
The remaining women and the older children took what little shelter they could beneath the trees. The remaining two men held the torches.
Delae turned back to the overturned wagon.
Dan and Pell waited, Tad behind them looking confused, Pell’s face already pale and set, knowing what needed to be done.
Clearly, she couldn’t ask it of him, either, and she would much prefer to do the deed herself, so it would be done as quickly as well and as painlessly as possible.
“Dan, Pell,” she said, “secure the draft horses to the rails of the wagon so they can pull as we lift but wait until I signal I’m ready. Tad, help them by holding the horses.”
She went to her knees beside the head of the thrashing chestnut horse, wary of its kicking forelegs, its tossing head hampered by the tangled traces and laid her hand on its cheek, looking into the one eye she could see. The white there clearly showed its fear. For a moment it stilled, distracted by her touch. Her heart went out to it as she stroked its rough hide and she drew her belt knife.
That was how Dorovan first saw her, kneeling in the mud by the overturned wagon. To his Elven-sight her brilliant hair was a bright splash of red against the light dusting of snow on the ground as she bent her head. Brightness sparkled on her cheeks as she touched the frightened, tangled horse gently.
Nearby three men secured draft horses to the upraised side of the wagon while a group of men, women and a young boy stood nearby beneath the dubious shelter of the trees.
It wasn’t his business, it was a thing of men. He knew he should pass by, unseen in the darkness, his Elven-sight rendering everything to him as clear as day, unlike that of the men and women here.
He was cold as well, chilled to the bone, tired, heartsick and far from home.
It had been a long journey from Lothliann in the north, where he had gone to render aid against the Borderlands creatures, through the Rift and the lands Men called Raven’s Nest. They’d lost one of their Hunters to the goblins and his people grieved the loss along with Melis’s soul-bond.
As he himself did, his heart heavy. Even without a soul-bond of his own, through the empathy his people shared he knew a fraction of what it was to suffer such a loss. His heart ached for Melis. She would go on to the Summerlands soon, he knew. And then his people would lose not one, but two.
To his vision it was clear the small party was unlikely to right the heavy wagon, not with what they had to work with, but it was also quite clear they would try. There was nothing else for it.
It was also clear what the woman on the ground was about to do, however much she clearly dreaded it and how necessary it was… If he didn’t intervene. With the storm it was also likely they would all freeze and die out here if they didn’t succeed.
Dorovan had had enough of death.
Taking a breath, Delae set the blade to the horse’s throat. She didn’t think she could successfully put it through the eye and thus into the brain―nor could she bear to do so, but she could cut its throat if she was quick. The thought of it made her want to weep but she steeled herself to do what must be done.
A strong, long-fingered hand settled over her own, stilling it.
Startled, she turned her head to look.
Shock and amazement at who stood there held her rooted to the spot.
Not who, though, so much as what.
She wasn’t certain in that moment or any moment afterward which held her more immobile, that an Elf had appeared at her side, that he was an Elf, that he was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen, as most Elves were, or the seemingly bottomless depth of the kindness in his silvery gray eyes. Or the grief and sorrow hidden in the depths, moving like shadows in the flickering light of the torch.
His features were perfect, strong, his smooth skin reddened a little with the cold beneath the hood of his cloak, his long straight hair streaming loose in the wind.
It was as if she were held spellbound and yet she knew she wasn’t. Elven magic didn’t work that way.
Rarely did her folk see Elves out here in the outlands and never one alone given the danger from her own kind, although she certainly knew of that aloof and beautiful race. Everyone did, as they knew of the Dwarves who dwelled deep in the earth in their Caverns.
What was he doing out in this storm so far from an Enclave? There was none close that she knew of and the storm would slow even his Elven-bred horse, standing patiently nearby. She hadn’t even heard its approach.
Empathic as he was, beneath the thick scarf covering her bright hair, Dorovan could see a woman of warmth and of spirit, of infinite tenderness, her blue eyes filled with both grief at what she was about to do, the determination and duty that was required to do it and wonder to see him there beside her. His kind and hers rarely interacted.
“Do not,” he said, gently. “I can hold him still, if you can but unbuckle the harness.”
Dorovan often worked with the horses in Talaena Enclave and the horses of men were much less headstrong than those, so keeping the animal still was only a matter of empathy with it, of sinking his awareness into that of the animal trembling beneath his hands.
It was on Delae for a moment to ask if he was certain, but he was Elf, so of course he was. If he said it, he was. There was that about Elves that they didn’t lie, it going so against their Honor.
Then he laid his strong, long-fingered hands on the horse, one on the horse’s strong neck, the other covering its eye, murmuring soft words as he did and it stilled completely.
“Dan, Pell, Tad, help me,” she said, softly, not wanting to disturb the Elf’s concentration.
Both seemed as dumbstruck by the presence of the Elf as she’d been, staring at him in amazement.
“Dan, Pell,” she called, more sharply, tugging her gloves from her nearly frozen fingers to work the straps free of the buckles. “Tad.”
That broke their suspension and they rushed to help her, Tad goggling owlishly at the Elf, something he’d never seen.
Still it took all of Dan and Tad’s muscle to lift and Delae’s and Pell’s efforts to get the harness unfastened from beneath the horse. Then it was free and she turned to the Elf.
As lightly as a feather, the woman touched Dorovan on the shoulder, letting him know he could release his control of the horse.
It surprised him she would know his people didn’t like to be touched by anyone other than other Elves, but even that brief touch told him much about her, including the knowledge that she possessed an empathy he’d thought uncommon among the people of men. Still, he couldn’t help but be grateful for it and for her consideration.
He looked up into her blue eyes and nodded, stepping back carefully, drawing her back with him with a touch to her shoulder as the horse thrashed to its feet.
Quickly he reached out to grasp the frightened animal by its halter.
“Pell,” Delae called. “Come help us get the horse harnessed. Have one of the women hold it.”
The other man nodded while Dan took the reins of the other horses.
Delae looked at the Elf hesitantly. “I can’t ask you for more than you’ve done…”
With a grave nod, Dorovan said, “But I can offer it.”
The gratitude in her eyes was thanks enough.
“I’m Delae,” she offered.
“Dorovan,” he said.
She smiled, her blue eyes warming, turning her beautiful.
Borrowing the traces from wagon, he set them on his own Charis, the Elven horse shaking himself at the feel of the leather on him before settling. The Elven-bred stallion knew his duty here, it didn’t need to be said. Dorovan attached the traces to the sturdiest rails on the side of the wagon. Before they could move it, first they must right it.
Even so, it wouldn’t be an easy task. It would take all of his strength and more to achieve it.
“Do you want to do this?” Delae asked.
He shook his head. “They are your people.”
Relieved, Delae turned briskly to the others.
This just might be possible, now.
“Dan,” she called, “get the horses moving forward, slow and steady. Pull them back as soon as the wagon starts to break free of the mud, as soon as it starts to go. Pell, Tad, I’ll need you with myself and Dorovan.”
The four of them bent to the wagon, dug their fingers into the thick mud to find the edge of the wagon bed. She only hoped the rails above would hold as the Elven-bred pulled against them.
Her gaze turned to the Elf beside her.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise Dorovan to find Delae crouched down beside him and them in the mud to lend what strength she had to lifting the massive wagon. He could only admire her, who wouldn’t spare herself.
“Now,” she shouted and the man Dan called to the draft horses, shaking the reins to get them pulling.
Charis needed no instruction, throwing his great weight against the traces.
At the side of the wagon, Delae, Dorovan, Tad and Pell heaved.
There was a pause and then they felt it begin to move, to shift. With a wet sucking sound it pulled free.
All of them leaped back as Delae shouted, “Stop!”
The wagon tilted free of the mud, paused for a moment teetering on its side and then it fell back to all four wheels with a crash, a rail broken, a little the worse for wear, but whole enough to get the remainder of the travelers back to the homestead.
Delae shivered with the cold and turned to Dorovan.
“Our thanks,” she said, softly. “I can offer you hospitality, shelter and food, for your help, if nothing else, but also as my duty as landowner. It won’t be Elven fare, but it will be hot and there’ll be a warm bed.”
It was the least she could do.
For a moment Dorovan hesitated, despite the wind cutting through his clothing, the cold, his heaviness of spirit. It was a long way yet to Talaena, though.
“I can guarantee you privacy and peace,” she said, very gently, reaching out to touch his hand with just her fingertips, no more. “No one should be out in a storm such as this, Dorovan. The food will be plain but good and warm. There will be a hot bath, a bed for you and a stall for your horse with plenty of oats.”
The gesture touched him. Her blue eyes were calm, steady. The offer was a kind and honest one.
It was no more or less than any Elven Enclave would offer and he was far from home. In gratitude, Dorovan inclined his head.
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Servant of the Gods
A child of prophecy, in her life she would bear three names, one as a peasant and mercenary, yet another after she was captured and enslaved. Despite it all she would rise to become Priestess of Isis and High Priestess of all Egypt and face her greatest challenge…an nearly immortal evil.
It was late in the afternoon when they came within sight of the tall, thick walls of the fort, slowing to a canter as they approached.
An eerie silence prevailed, unbroken by the sound of the birds that normally scavenged the refuse and detritus of the fort’s dunghill. All they heard was the wind blowing over the sand, a soft ominous hiss.
Khai looked to the walls.
They were empty. The gates were open wide, almost in invitation. No one could seen, within or without.
Something was badly wrong.
Instinctively, nervously, the archers strung their bows and carried them at the ready as the charioteers held their horses on a tight rein, the animals tossing their heads restlessly.
At Irisi’s side, Nebi made an anxious noise low in his throat, shaking his mane uneasily as his tail twitched.
Unsettled as well, Irisi reached behind her to loosen her swords in their scabbards.
The towers at each corner were unoccupied, as was the interior as far as they could see through the narrow aperture of the open gates. Nothing moved beyond them. The garrison should have been bustling with men drilling and patrols coming and going. Especially in light of the stories they’d heard.
Everyone looked around nervously as they rode through the gates in the outer wall.
No one challenged their right to enter. Shadows pooled unnaturally beneath the walls.
They passed through the first wall then through the second and into open marshalling yard.
To all appearances, the complex of barracks and buildings was completely empty. The square before them was barren, no soldiers drilled, no one repaired their gear or sharpened their swords, nor did the commandant come to greet them.
It was unnatural, eerie and disquieting. The entire garrison seemed to have vanished.
A silence unlike any other, broken only by the whistling of the wind, surrounded them.
“How many?” Irisi whispered.
Khai shook his head. “A hundred, perhaps more.”
The enormity of it…
With gestures, Khai split his people and sent them scouting carefully through the complex.
He and Irisi dismounted to cautiously approach the commandant’s quarters.
They could see nothing within the shadows of the entry but those shadows seemed darker than usual.
Nebi pressed protectively close to Irisi. Out of habit, she rested her hand on his head, her fingers in his mane.
Darkness seemed to press against her, though the sun was still high in the sky. Something was wrong… The closer they walked to the commander’s quarters the more disturbed she felt. She tried to tell herself it was her imagination.
Malevolent… Evil… Gathering…
With a great coughing roar, Nebi suddenly crouched.
“Khai,” Irisi shouted and threw herself at him.
Nebi leaped just as something with wicked teeth and claws erupted from within the concealing darkness.
Whatever it was that burst from the cover of the commandant’s quarters was like nothing Irisi had ever seen before… And yet it was familiar in a strange way, something she’d only read about, something to haunt her nightmares.
Nebi met it, snarling and roaring.
More of the thing bounded out in the wake of the first.
They looked like hyenas but they weren’t, everything about them was slightly wrong, from their oversized teeth to the too long claws on their feet, yet the powerful bone-crushing jaws of the hyena they resembled were still very much a danger.
Irisi spun away from Khai, throwing her swords up to defend herself as one of the things launched itself at her.
“Call your people back, Khai,” Irisi cried. “Get them back.”
The thing twisted to evade the iron in the rough steel of her swords.
Khai shouted for his people as more of the things and new, different, ones erupted from the shadows where they’d been hiding.
Things that resembled smoke but weren’t flowed from the barracks around them in rolling billows. That smoke transformed into creatures that were shaped roughly like men. It was there that all resemblance ended.
Rough creatures, their skin was as black as charcoal and rimose, threaded with glints of red like the coals of a banked fire. Their eyes were narrow glowing slits, their noses and mouths a slash of embers. Others shifted shape and form, some appeared to be men who’d suffered a terrible battle – all bore fearsome wounds. Khai feared he knew who they were and from where they’d come… The fallen of the fort.
With a howl, a hyena thing leaped at Irisi. She spun away, her swords flashing. It screamed in frustrated fury as her blade cut it while another leaped at Khai himself.
Khai took the thing down with a two-handed swing of his own sword, sending it tumbling across the ground. It instantly rolled to its feet and raced toward them once again. A spear thrown by one of his men pierced it. It howled, rolling, scrabbling and biting at itself.
“Don’t let the shadows touch you,” Irisi cried out in warning, as she cut an ifrit in two.
If she was right… Fear shot through her.
Gesturing, she called up a burst of wind to drive back the shadows closest to them and their people.
“What are they?” Khai demanded, turning to put Irisi at his back as his people raced to join them, most of them ducking, dodging and fighting the creatures that seemed to burst through or ooze from nearly every orifice of the fort.
He saw the smoke that wasn’t smoke swirl around one of his men.
Screaming, the man’s eyes bulged as he fell, his clothing stained red even as he toppled.
Irisi threw herself against Khai as he instinctively responded, going to the aid of his man.
“No,” she cried, “you can’t save him.”
More of the things appeared.
Nebi leaped past them to take another, his massive jaws locking on the throat of one of the hyena things.
“Djinn,” she answered as she looked around in horror. “They’re Dark Djinn…”
They came from everywhere.
Ifrit in the shape of hyena, sila – fire demons – ghuls who would eat the dead or a man alive…and the marid, beautiful spirits who would steal a man’s soul.
In all her reading Irisi had never heard of such a thing. Djinn didn’t fight together. Djinn never fought together. They were solitary creatures. And yet here they were.
United like this…
They couldn’t fight so many, not with so small a force.
Dear Gods and Goddesses, help us, she thought.
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To Khai’s horror, his fallen man rose up to take sword against them.
I’ve loved the Egyptian Gods and early Egyptian society since I learned about it as a kid, despite the tendency of teachers to talk about the Greek/Roman pantheon. The Greeks/Romans were a better contrast of pagan beliefs to Christian than the egalitarian Egyptians. After all, what other society valued marriage as much? Why else do so many hieroglyphs and images portray both husband and wife side by side?
Okay, and to be honest, the Mummy movies (one and two, let’s not talk about three) didn’t hurt either, even though poor Anubis got such a raw deal. I guess a jackal head and being the god of mummification and afterlife seemed more threatening than a ‘Set animal’ or typhonic being – in other words, the first shapechanger – than Set, the god of chaos and darkness. After all, it was Set who chopped up Osiris and scattered him across Egypt. And Isis who rescued him.
That was part of the attraction – that it was Isis who rescued her beloved Osiris, and that women in Egypt were largely as autonomous as the men. They could have businesses, serve in the army, do anything and everything that men could do.
So, what was it that triggered Heart of the Gods, what made me write this story?
Like all of us, I was as intrigued by the process of mummification as the next person and there was the mythology of the Mummy movies – the person unwillingly mummified. Alive.
And then the scene that opens Heart of the Gods was in my head –
Egypt, 17th Year of King Narmer’s Reign, Early Dynasty
Torchlight flickered over the stone walls of the immense cavern, bathing them in a soft golden glow. That light danced over the massive figures of the Gods, giving the faces of the statues the appearance of expression. It illuminated as well the faces of the priests and priestesses gathered around the stone pedestal that served as an altar. The air was pungent with the scent of burning incense. Chanting echoed throughout the chambers, a sound that rose and fell, a low atonal hum that resonated in the bones.
Mummification had never been intended for use on the living but it was as it must be and none of those gathered there could gainsay what was about to happen. Not General Khai, nor any of the priests and priestesses of the Gods, nor even the High Priestess Irisi herself. Who were they to second-guess the Will of the Gods?
Irisi could not and would not.
It was as the prophecy had decreed however much they wished to deny it. Kahotep’s prophecy. He who was Priest of Horus, the Falcon-God, whose Eye saw everything.
“A darkness rises, oh Pharaoh, to be unleashed across the world. It comes as a shadow rising from the desert laying waste to all of Egypt, scouring the earth as it passes. Death and destruction follow in its wake, and the cries of the people of the world are terrible. From the north comes a warrior, a crowned and golden servant of the Gods with eyes like the sky, bearing swords in hand to rise up and drive the terrible darkness out of the world, and to stand against it for all time.”
That shadow had risen and the battles had been terrible. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here. Now they had a chance, one chance, to end it. Here.
Servant of the Gods. Irisi was that, she was priestess to both Isis and Sekhmet. To stand against it for all time? What was prisoned in the chamber below would live forever. And so, therefore, must she.
And so, this.
For it to have any chance at success she knew she must accept it without protest, she must give it both her Ba and Ka, her heart and soul, willingly, and so she steeled herself to face it.
There was no other way and there was no other to do it, only she, both warrior and priestess, could, however terrible it was.
Irisi knew only she must accept it without protest, willingly, if this they did were to have the slightest chance of success and so she steeled herself to face it. Even as that other below, Kamenwati, did not. He fought them, writhed and screamed in protest, in outrage. He chanted spells against them even as Awan, High Priest of Osiris, Kahotep, High Priest of Horus and Djeserit, High Priestess of Sekhmet struggled to contain him and his terrible magic. In the back of Irisi’s mind she chanted the words of the two Books she knew so well, the Book of Life, known only to the priests and priestesses of the temples…and the Book of Emerging in Daytime – what some called, wrongly, the Book of the Dead.
Of the priests and priestesses only Rensi, High Priest of Anubis and gentle Nafre, priestess of Hathor, stood with her in the upper chamber. Representatives of their Gods, each had their task. Rensi made certain the rites done this day were done as they must be to keep Irisi’s soul alive against all the odds and to preserve her body in the hope that someday she might reach the afterlife.
Nafre gave comfort to help ease her passage.
And then there was Khai, Irisi’s beloved Khai.
She looked up at him from where she lay on the cold stone of the plinth.
Her breath caught as it always did to look at him. He was so beautiful and she loved him so much. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving him.
Gleaming black hair streamed in shining waves to his shoulders and framed his strong handsome face, high cheekbones and beautiful long-lashed dark eyes. Deep within those dark brown eyes was the hint of warm gold she knew so well. There was grief in his eyes, the sure knowledge of what they were about to do. She knew what it cost him to stand aside and watch, how little he loved to feel helpless, but for once his strength and courage could avail him nothing. This was for her to do, and her alone.
She longed to touch him once again, treasured the memory of his hands on her, his body against and a part of hers. The thought was bittersweet. In that Kamenwati had succeeded, he’d kept them apart for so long. Surely the Gods wouldn’t deny her this much? In her heart of hearts she felt the sweet benediction that was the blessing of her Goddess, Isis, who, having lost her own beloved Osiris for a time, understood her fear and her pain at having to give up her own beloved.
Here, finally for this one time and with these trusted few around them, they could do as they’d wished for so long to do openly.
While Irisi had been Kamenwati’s slave that hadn’t been possible. Or while under his threat. Only that had kept Irisi away, the sure knowledge that Kamenwati would kill Khai had he but known of their love.
His lips touched hers, so warm, the feel of them firm but gentle, a soft caress.
Reaching up, Irisi touched Khai’s stern handsome face for one last time even as the sharp pain of the reeds lanced through her wrist, her ankles. She wouldn’t cry out, not looking up into that beloved face. It wasn’t in her to make him suffer any more than necessary. She loved the Gods, she loved Egypt her adopted home but above all else she loved Khai. It was only for her duty, for Egypt and its people, and the people of all the lands she’d known, that would she would leave him.
The Gods understood.
As did he.
“You are Nife-an-Ankh to me,” she whispered, “and Nomti…I love you, I will always love you. Forever.”
Breath of life and strength he was to her. Her heart.
She’d loved him from almost the first moment she’d seen him that long ago day in the desert, standing surrounded by her dead and theirs. He’d offered her honor, then, as one warrior to another. She loved him for that, for his honor, courage and for his great heart.
He was beautiful to her in all ways.
“Irisi,” he said and lowered his proud head to hers.
Khai looked down at his beloved Irisi laid out upon the altar and wanted to cry out his denial of what was to come but he could not. Leaning over her with one arm braced on the stone he touched her face, looked into her lovely eyes, at the glorious length of her hair as it spilled over the sides. So beautiful, so alive…
Breath of life and strength as she was to him as well.
Blood flowed through the reeds, her blood, drained out of her… her lifeblood. The rich coppery aroma of it filled the air, mixed with the scent of the herbs in the Water of Life as it was drawn into her.
It must be and they both knew it. She was the one who must go and he the one who must stay.
Egypt needed her only surviving General.
Irisi’s successor had already been chosen.
Slowly, he touched his lips to hers, the kiss soft as the priests and priestesses chanted around them. Her hand was warm on his face as their lips found each other. Grief lay heavy on his heart. Duty lay heavier. He couldn’t bear to let her go and yet he couldn’t keep her, however much he wished it. He, too, served the will of the Gods. And he could see no other choice, no other way.
The herbs, the potions, flowed into her, burned in her veins. Irisi fought the pain of it with warm feel of Khai’s lips, so long forbidden, on hers…and with the surge of love that washed through her.
“Irisi,” he whispered. “You are my heart.”
As he was hers but she could no longer speak the words or else break the chant that echoed endlessly in the back of her mind.
The stone of the altar was cold and the chill seemed to soak slowly into her flesh.
Around her Irisi could hear the chanting, the minds and voices of the priests and priestesses raised in support of her and of those who fought below, mixed with the drone of the Horn in the chamber far below.
It had taken some little time for Irisi to achieve the semi-trance state necessary to endure what was done, yet some of the pain and the weakness seeped through to batter at her will. As did the will of the creatures in the darkness of the chamber below – the magic of the Horn and her own will, joined to these others, was all held them there. She dared not falter.
She felt her lifeblood drain swiftly away even as she felt the embalming fluids flow in, the natron and herbs bit sharply into her veins. It burned as it went but she turned her thoughts away from it as she turned them away from the other things they did.
Her arms were folded across her breast with a hand on each shoulder and bound so tightly with lengths of linen that she could barely breathe. Her hair was coiled up as the cloth was wrapped around her throat, around her head to cover her mouth and forehead. All but her eyes.
Cold fluid brushed across her belly, followed by numbness. Something pressed just below her breastbone. There was a sense of invasion as they finished wrapping her body in the last long lengths of linen.
Warm liquid soaked her from collarbone to feet. It drenched the linen and stung sharply in the cuts they’d made.
A cry echoed from the darkness below. That, too, fell on deaf ears.
She bit back her own cries. Fought the sense of being constricted.
Remaining still by an act of will she kept her eyes focused on his dark ones, sought the gold within them, the warmth even as her own drained away. His will melded to hers, lent her the strength she needed to do this as the weakness grew within her until he stepped back as, finally, he must.
Her heart hammered in her chest, drawing in the sacred herbs, natron and fluids through her veins even as it pumped her lifeblood out. Mixed among the herbs was the blood of the one who lay below so she would be bound to him and he to her.
The last length of linen went across her eyes. The light disappeared behind the linen to take her down into darkness.
Pain flashed, sharp, sudden, within her to leave a sense of absence, a stillness within her.
It would go quickly now and she was grateful for that.
And it did.
She felt them raise her to carry her swiftly out.
A coughing roar echoed down the tunnel that led outside. They followed that sound, she knew.
The lions, her lions…gifts of the lion-headed Goddess Sekhmet when that Goddess had turned her away and sent her to Isis’s service instead. They would come with her, to keep her company through her long duty so she wouldn’t be utterly alone.
Watching, Khai bowed his head and looked away as they tipped her up for he couldn’t watch as her linen-wrapped form slid with a splash of the Water of Life into the hollow in the stele they’d prepared for her.
He could wish this had been done in sunlight as Irisi was and always had been a creature of light and not darkness.
Grief burned. If only he could have gone in her place…
He could not, he was no priest, he had no magic, nor as Egypt’s only surviving General could he leave his country and its people undefended any more than Irisi could have refused this.
Duty and honor wouldn’t allow it.
He laid a hand against the cold stone, listened as the hammers beat above him, pounded the sealing stone into place with steady rhythmic blows so much like the sound of a heartbeat. Sealing the stele with Irisi inside it. What was it like for her in there, in the darkness filled with the Water of Life?
He willed her the strength and courage to endure. Like the beat of her valiant heart, each blow of mallet on stone reverberated, echoed from the distant walls, to whisper back over the grassy hollow within them.
Above, through the narrow break in the cavern roof Khai could see the stars glitter coldly.
Desperately, instinctively, Irisi’s lungs sought air, her body fought…even as she clung to trance, to will, to the spells in her mind, to the endless mental chanting of the words from the Book of Emerging into Daytime – the Book of the Dead.
She had to hold against the grief and the fear, the close space that enveloped her. What lay below, him and them, battered against her will.
Khai was still here, though, her beloved Khai and these others she loved, Awan, Kahotep, Djeserit, all the priests and priestesses with whom she’d served over the years. Even poor Saini in the distant chamber below, seeking his redemption, watched the last faint light disappear as the doors shut on him to seal him in among the Dark, among Them…
She could almost pity him, not knowing which of them suffered the worst fate.
Faintly, she could hear the Horn call as he blew endlessly, drawing air in through his nose, blowing out through his mouth. That sound must not falter until the doors were shut and sealed. Forever.
Beyond, outward, there was all of Egypt, all of the world. They couldn’t let what resided so restlessly within that chamber escape to lay waste over it. Not again. She couldn’t set what lay within the tomb loose upon the peoples of this world, not with what they now knew of them. Those below would devour every living thing, turn the people of the Nile, the distant peoples from which she’d come and those of all the lands where she’d served and fought as a mercenary into cattle, chattel, something to feed upon…and their feeding…the torment of it…
Horror shook her.
If they were to be free, safe, she must hold, even as her body bucked, fought for air…and so she held. It seemed an eternity and yet it was only minutes.
She remembered…and clung to her memories, lost herself in them, held them against the pain, against the cold that seeped into her. The cold and the darkness.
Alone in the dark she remembered the ones, the one, she loved and would always love.
His hand upon the stone, Khai remembered, too, remembered his beloved Irisi with her swords flashing, her hair swirling around her as she did battle that first day he’d seen her and all the days thereafter. Priestess and warrior. So lovely, strong, so seemingly indomitable. It was her laughter though, that rang in his memory most. That beautiful hair, her glorious eyes…her laughter and her joy.
In grief and sorrow he touched the face carved into the stone of the stele…laid his forehead against the cold stone forehead of it as he would do with her in life.
His fingers traced the words engraved in the stele, the chants for Coming Forth into the Day, for Going and Coming Out of the Realm of the Dead, and For Taking on Any Shape. She would need to know them.
He willed her strength and he willed her love. How did she fare within? Was her struggle over yet, had the Gods taken her, given her surcease? Were her ba and ka yet free of her body?
He looked to Awan, to Djeserit, and saw the same thoughts mirrored there in their faces.
In the darkness of the cavern far below, the great iron doors slid closed as bands of gold and silver were hammered across it to secure it with the powers of the Gods Ra and Isis. The seal, carefully balanced, was placed in its niche to enclose what lay within, hopefully forever.
The chanting did not end…it was not done, not yet.
As one, the priests and priestesses closed around the stele. Each lay their hand on the stone and willed strength to the one within. The Gods came to the one within then, all of them but Set, each to render her a gift.
Sekhmet was the last.
In the chamber below the great iron doors were closed and sealed, and she set to stand guard over it, to ensure it remained sealed, forever.
Alone through the ages to come.
Tales were told of one’s life flashing before the eyes as one died, but Irisi was not dying nor would an afterlife await her.
So many memories…
Heart of the Gods was originally written a much larger book, but once it was written I realized it was two separate books, both intertwined. Servant of the Gods, the prequel to Heart of the Gods, will be released in September of 2011.
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