Tessa Rae wrote a sequel to this story, based on a premise by Anne Carr, called Taemon's Cuckoos
THE HOUSE OF THE AXE
He awoke to a rolling pitch in the world around him and sounds of piercing incomprehensible shouts. Lying on his stomach, he was on a thick pallet, probably comfortable when the padding was fluffed and dry, but under the steady deluge of rain it had congealed to a soggy lump. Brianhet pushed away from the offending mass and sat up, half blinded by driven water, completely disoriented, and finding no help from the confusion around him.
He was on a ship, a large vessel with the black sails of the Cretian traders, and the storm that whipped them had a fury that could only have come from a god. He wondered vaguely who had insulted whom and grabbed instinctively at one of the posts nearby when a wave spilled over the deck, carrying anything unanchored along as it retreated into the sea.
Shrill cries echoed through the wind and he shook his head, trying to clear the fog that seemed to separate him from reality. He remembered his arrival in Memphis, remembered delivering his father's message to that city's temple of Amon-Re, dinner, and later the brothel and the wine. He had fallen asleep in the arms of some girl and awakened on a Cretian ship in the middle of a tempest.
Another wave swept over him, threatening the ship itself, and he forgot about everything but the necessity to hold on.
Over his shoulder he could see the ebony skinned rowers straining in ragged unison amidships, and above them a large set man stood stolidly, shouting orders that were lost in the wind. The captain, Brianhet presumed, and reeled, barely retaining his grip as the ship rolled into the next wave.
His fingers slipped and he skid across the deck, gaining momentum as the ship tilted. The rail bit his stomach and water behind him shoved. His feet left the deck, only to return seconds later as a firm grip settled on his bare arms and pulled him back. The wave receded and Brianhet turned to meet the flashing eyes of a bare chested Nubian.
"Thank you!" He yelled it over the din and felt himself held tightly against the huge black body. "Poseidon already tries for his gift," the accent was heavy but Brianhet understood the words if not the meaning. "Here!"
A rope was placed in his hand, the other end tied to a sturdy mounting, and by the time he had lashed himself securely the man was vanishing into the rain.
"Wait!" Brianhet yelled after the Nubian, "Come back here! Tell me what's going on!"
But again he was alone on the afterdeck, helpless and confused in the hands of the angry god.
It went on for hours, then suddenly ceased as the early morning sun broke through scuttling clouds. The sea calmed to a steady roll and the wind settled to a warm westerly breeze. Flapping sails filled, sending the vessel ahead at a sharp pace and the rowers were finally given the command to set their oars and rest. More than one fell asleep instantly where he sat.
Brianhet eased his cramped fingers from their death grip on the rope, automatically thanking Amon for his deliverance from the deep, and unleashed himself. Already the trader was becoming a hive of activity and men scurried from one end to the other, assessing the storm's damage and beginning repairs. There didn't seem much wrong, the voices were cheerful and when someone began a lively ribald song the others joined the chorus unabashedly.
The Egyptian found he was completely ignored, a state of being entirely foreign to him, and his efforts to gain the attention of anyone who could tell him anything at all were fruitless. The sailors to a man behaved as if he simply did not exist. More bewildered than angry, still half certain this was a dream or someone's idea of a jest, he turned toward the bridge and eyed the man he took to be the captain. Finally deciding that, if nothing else, the man would have to tell him who was behind this trick, he moved to the wooden steps leading to the bridge.
Immediately two burly Nubians stepped in front of him and Brianhet felt his control begin to slip. "Out of my way," he pushed roughly at one man with no effect. "I want to talk to the captain!"
It was an order and Brianhet was used to being obeyed. But apparently these men didn't know who he was. They merely stood in his path and looked through him.
"I said..." Brianhet began through gritted teeth.
The command came from above, softly authoritative, and the Nubians melted away. Brianhet met the dark eyes of the captain and found that now his path was clear he was hesitating.
"You will have questions," the man continued in the same soft voice. "Come up."
The view from the bridge encompassed the entire vessel and Brianhet could see for the first time the strength of this ship that had taken the pounding of the sky and sea and survived intact. He had seen traders of this type many times in the sheltered harbours of his land, but had never been interested enough to go aboard. He mentally compared the slender lines of the trader with the heavy single-masted sails of home and half-smiled. It was no wonder Crete controlled the seas.
The captain waited, giving several quiet orders to a series of minions while the newcomer looked his fill, then motioned Brianhet to one side. "I am Thetor, captain of this vessel, in service to Deltanar, King of Crete."
Brianhet found the accent smooth and had no trouble understanding the Cretian dialect.
"I am Nebrianhet, son of Menanhotep of the Thebian Temple of Amon-Re," he returned the heavy politeness and was surprised to see a flicker of something like pity in the captain's eyes.
"Not any more," Thetor pointed to the black sail, now stretched to full splendor in the wind. In the exact center of the canvas a perfect bull's head was stitched in gold. "Now you are Nebrianhet, son of no one, gift to the Earthshaker Poseidon and the Mother Goddess of Crete. You have been sold into service... and for a very high price, I might add."
"That's impossible!" Brianhet glared at him, "The joke's gone far enough. Turn this ship around and take me back at once! I order you!"
"We're a long way from Thebes, Nebrianhet. The drug they gave you in Memphis was strong. You order nothing, command nothing. You are a slave."
Under the impassive gaze of Thetor, Brianhet closed his eyes. It was Amenhet, it could only have been Amenhet, the wily son of a worm. But Amenhet played for keeps in games of chance as well as politics. "I should be dead..."
Thetor half-smiled. "And so you would be if I hadn't needed a gift and that brothel keep hadn't liked the sound of my gold. From his actions I would say he was well paid to murder you as you slept. He was most anxious that we spirit you away immediately."
"So," Brianhet looked at him consideringly, "you have bought me. What happens now?"
"Well, first you can get that look off your face. You'll not murder me here. And what would be the use? Save your anger for those deserving of it." Thetor's smile grew. "I'll make a good profit from you. You're built for the bull and pretty enough for the crowds, though you are a bit older than I'd have liked. Nikta has given you a dry pallet. We've a ways to go yet. Eat and drink and amuse yourself. Gifts to the gods are sacred and very well treated, you'll find."
By the tone of the captain's voice Brianhet knew he had been dismissed. Thetor was right. It would gain him nothing to make a fight of it now. 'Wait, watch, listen and learn;' the words of Menanhotep came clearly to his mind. The strength of knowledge and the strength of the body used together will succeed.
Brianhet left the bridge and returned to his allotted space. Settled on the clean, dry pallet with a rich awning above him he determined to follow his father's advice. He would go along with Thetor, would wait and learn, would always watch, and when the time came he would set himself free. He had no intention of dying under the horns of some bull on a far off island. Somehow, someway, with the god's help he would return to Thebes. "And when I do," he said the words aloud and in his own language, "you'll pay for this, Amenhet. You will definitely pay."
Across the deck two Nubian sailors heard the barely leashed strength in the words of the fair-skinned offering and made the ancient sign against evil before returning with renewed effort to mending the broken rail.
For the most part they sailed in sight of land; either island or mainland, almost always to one side of the ship or the other there were dark shadows rising above the green sea.
Two days after his awakening they passed close by a rough looking bit of land and Brianhet watched, amused, as a pirate vessel sailed from behind a reef in majestic splendor, only to turn in undignified haste and scurry for home when the black sail and golden bull's head were identified. The Cretian's revenge on pirates was prompt and vicious, and their ships too strong to fall easy prey. Brianhet settled back, knowing he was safe at least until the island kingdom itself was reached.
They put into harbour at Tirkos on the mainland, and again Hestris and several ports. Each time the hold was opened, goods bought and sold, and one or two more slaves like Brianhet collected. Sometimes the young man or girl was a part of the trading merchandize, but once Thetor made a special deal and the new "gift" was brought aboard sleeping. Wrapped in his own problems Brianhet kept to himself and only joined the others when it was a feeding or sleeping time.
The slaves were a confused lot; young and frightened, like a bunch of stupid sheep needing a leader, and he found them both boring and depressing. Besides, he didn't want to know them or like them. They were meant to die for the appeasement of a god. No one lasted long in the Earthshaker's ring.
At first he watched for any means of escape, hoping that if he could only get off the trader he could find help and a way home. But Thetor was experienced and the slaves kept well guarded while the bartering went ahead. Brianhet admired and despised the captain in equal measures and bided his time uneasily, listening to the newcomers' talk of bulls and ceremonial sacrifices. Most of the stories he dismissed as hysterical jabber from cowardly children, but what was left added to what little he already he knew was still enough to make his blood run cold. Thebes and safety seemed a long way away. He sat to one side or paced along the decks, learning the wisdom of keeping his face blank of expression, and refused to speculate on his own future.
After a half moon of port hopping the trader turned directly south and began the trip home. Now there was only sky and sea and dolphins and boredom, and Brianhet found himself joining in dice games for imaginary stakes and other similarly simple pastimes. Anything to allay the pressure of doing nothing. In Thebes his life was planned down to the minute, regimented, interesting. He found himself actually looking forward to Crete and began to eye the girls with interest.
But at night the women were kept separate. Female dancers for the bull were virgins, he learned, though with boys it didn't seem to matter; so he shrugged and took care of his own needs if the discomfort of abstinence became too great. He had no interest in the other males and never noticed when they looked his way.
The sea turned from emerald green to blue to a beautiful odd color and he thought of a long-forgotten chanter. The poet was right. The water was "wine-dark", mysterious and fascinating, and the tiny islands they sailed among were like "bright colored jewels". If only he had something to do, he thought, he would almost enjoy the voyage. Now there was nothing to occupy himself with but his own thoughts, and they were rapidly becoming unpleasant.
They stopped once more, in a pretty little cove. Brianhet drifted close to the Nubians who were so used to his silent presence by now they never noticed him. They spoke of Thera and he wondered how everyone seemed unconcerned at the smoke rising from the mountain behind them. Then after a while he too forgot. Thetor was making another deal and from the snatches of conversation the wind blew his way Brianhet could tell this was a prize package being bartered for. Apparently an agreement was reached, for Thetor passed over a heavy bag and used his bracelet seal to ink a tablet. The jabbering circle of men parted and the Egyptian caught his breath.
The latest purchase being pointed toward Thetor's group of slaves was male. He was quiet, acquiescently following the directions given him by the captain, but moving with an innate superiority that held him above and apart from the rest. In the sunlight his brown curly hair shone with gold and red lights and his walk was sensuously graceful, proclaiming to all and sundry that this was no frightened boy facing death but a man... young, but a man nonetheless. His body was slight, but muscular, and he wore the red banded tunic of his people. As he came closer Brianhet briefly met the clear jade green gaze of the man's oddly slanted eyes and was sure. Somehow the people of Thera had captured an Atlantean and had sold him to the mercies of the Minoan bull.
Close by them now, the man paused and his eyes flickered over each of the slaves in turn. He looked last and longest at Brianhet who met his gaze with an assessment of his own. After a minute the Atlantean moved to sit beside him and said something incomprehensible pointing to his own chest. Brianhet shook his head and the words were repeated with emphasis on the final syllables.
Understanding, Brianhet pointed to his chest, "Brianhet." He motioned to the Atlantean. "Damon."
A languorous smile crept over Damon's face and he relaxed back on his elbows, stretching his legs full length. Brianhet watched as he closed his eyes and seemed to immediately fall asleep. He felt as if he had been accepted and dismissed in one gesture. Not knowing whether to be amused or insulted, he settled for following the man's example and lay back to take an afternoon's nap under the warmth of the sun.
They made home port at Knossos late the next afternoon. Brianhet stood by the rail, out of the way of the sailors, with Damon beside him and watched the dark haired Minoans gather on the docks to see what pickings Thetor had to offer this time. The knowledge that he was part of the merchandize did not add to his pleasure and he found himself saying just that to his companion. Damon gave him a long look but remained silent, as he had done since his arrival. Brianhet shrugged and turned back to the docks. They had been rowed to within a few yards of the pier and ropes were flung and caught, pulling them the rest of the way to anchor within plank distance of the dock.
Thetor turned the command over to his second and climbed down to join the slaves. "Line up and behave yourselves," he ordered and led them off the ship to an area set aside for them on the pier.
It was the first time Brianhet had set foot on anything that didn't sway beneath him in over a moon. He reeled and would have fallen but for a steely quick grip under his arms. Damon loosened the hold immediately but kept his fingers in place until the Egyptian was steady. The entire motion passed so quickly and quietly that the gesture went unremarked, but Brianhet was reluctantly grateful to the Atlantean for preventing an embarrassing fall. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, smiling his thanks, and Damon treated him to another of those long slow grins.
Two of the other slaves had immediately collapsed on the pier and were forced to climb unaided to their feet with the titters of unkind laughter from the Cretians jeering in their reddening ears.
The pier was rapidly becoming crowded with slave-borne litters and more could be seen winding down the hill on the smooth red dirt road. Chattering women with the long curling locks of the Minoan style and the open breasted bodices that Brianhet found interesting and oddly revolting together, ordered their litters closer so they could gossip and discuss the virtues of the latest shipment of slaves. The tattered group was led to a staging area and made to stand in a line slightly above and in full sight of the crowd.
There were gasps of astonishment as Damon came fully into view, but he remained impassive, relaxed and detached as he was turned and prodded by the curious vulgar hands of the surging crowd. One young man, drowned in gold bracelets and bangles, ran his hand lingeringly up the Atlantean's thigh and across his groin. He whispered something to the lady beside him and they giggled obscenely.
"Don't be taken by the bull too soon," she said to Damon. "Oh, I think we'll like you."
"If you want a big cock," another woman told the first. "I suggest you stick to your dog and leave the men for us."
Disgusted, Brianhet looked away, ignoring hands that moved over him now, lifting his head in an unconscious parody of Damon. The crowd moved on. The rest of the slaves were lingered over, some longer than others, then the curious fell back, the real buyers turned to Thetor, and the sale began.
All the bargaining took place to one side, out of earshot of merchandize and onlookers alike, but Brianhet and Damon both watched the faces of the customers. One by one they looked harassed, or angry, or resigned as suited their pockets and their natures until only two men were left.
Brianhet heard a nearby lady say quietly, "That's odd. Delineas hasn't bought an offering in ages. What's he doing here?"
"Replacing those two he lost last feast day, I imagine. He always does sponsor the best teams." The lady laughed, her ribboned curls bouncing across her bare breasts, "If I had his money I'd sponsor the best, too. Which ones do you think he's after?"
"Which do you think, Leandra? Those two on the end of course. And it looks like he's got them, too."
With some amazement Brianhet realized the women were talking about he and Damon. Out of this lot they were the best? Damon maybe, but as for himself? They were the oldest of the group, long past the age of spots and voice changes. He glanced at the Atlantean and remembered the strong grace of the man. "You, at least, have a chance," he told Damon but only got a puzzled look in reply.
A hand touched his shoulder and one of the sailors motioned him and then Damon aside. The two buyers had come to terms with each other and Thetor. The Egyptian and the Atlantean went to Delineas, the others to the second man. Brianhet didn't catch the other buyer's name and didn't really care. It wasn't that one who concerned him, but instead the man Delineas, who stood now before them, eyeing them like a pair of mismatched horses.
They gazed back at him silently and stood quietly as he stepped nearer. Brianhet steeled himself for the physical inspection, remembering how he once had casually examined new slaves. Never again, he promised himself, and stared ahead to the mountains in the distance. It was an owner's right and privilege. But though Delineas walked around them, viewing his purchases from every side, he made no move to touch.
There was a long silence, then at last he spoke. "Your names?"
Damon was silent.
Delineas repeated his question and Brianhet replied hastily, "He doesn't understand. His name's Damon."
"You know why you're here?"
Because I'm a political threat to the enemies of my father, Brianhet thought, but merely nodded. "And this one... Damon... does he know?"
"I don't know."
Delineas pursed his lips. He was a tall man, lean, and wore much less in the way of jewellery than the younger members of the crowd. Brianhet detected a momentary trace of humor in his new master's eyes, but it was immediately gone.
"Never mind, he'll soon learn. You will be taken to my rooms in the palace and prepared, then to the Lower Chambers for the Gifting. After that you'll become members of my team, the Wolves. Do well and you'll be rewarded. Do poorly and you'll die that much sooner. Do you understand?"
Brianhet nodded again.
"Good. This Is Letris. He'll guide you."
The road to the palace was not long, nor was it especially steep, but Brianhet was breathless nonetheless. For as they walked, the full splendor of Knossos came into view and it was unlike anything he had seen before. Thebes, with all it's temples and gigantic structures, was his home, but this style was different... lighter, airy, and unbelievably colourful. The palace sprawled across the land, rising four and five stories in some places, and glowed gold in the late afternoon sun. There were no defending walls, no water barriers, no plethora of guards. Crete was an arrogant master and depended on the sea it ruled to protect it.
As they drew closer Brianhet could see the two points he had taken for a marker to be the stylized horns of a bull. Huge, cast in bronze, they represented far more than the entrance to the palace. He glanced at Damon and was surprised to find the Atlantean's eyes on him. Damon looked back at the horns, gestured, and made a face. His meaning was clear and Brianhet found himself agreeing fervently.
They entered the city side-by side and were immediately surrounded by children. Mostly nude, the brown-skinned urchins hung off the two men, chattering and taunting... laughing at the couple who were destined to be sacrificed. Brianhet held himself with stiff dignity, a red flush of embarrassment staining his cheeks. He found this just as bad, if not worse, than being bought, but Damon swung a little girl to his shoulders and laughed with the children until Delineas' servant chased them away.
The streets were narrow, the structures on either side made of cedar and stone in one, two, and three stories. Often the bottom floor had no openings at all, the entrance gained by climbing retractable wooden ladders. Smoke curled from holes in the flat roofs and there was an aura of peace.
There was also little smell. In Thebes, the mud hut-lined outer city roads were pervaded by the odors of human waste, unwashed bodies and old cooking. Here a light breeze blew constantly, washing the smoke away, bringing in the perfumed breeze from the cedar forests that lined the foot of the mountains in the distance.
Beside him, Damon was looking around, his jade eyes curious. Once he tapped the Egyptian's arm and pointed, and they paused to look through the narrow space between two buildings. They were on a slope and Brianhet could hear the sound of rushing water. In back of the row of houses a stone trench had been built, and as they watched, a woman lifted a pot of garbage into it, letting the flow of water carry the offal away toward the sea.
Brianhet was impressed, but Letris, the guard, motioned them on and they turned a corner, out of the lower class area, straight to the palace gate.
In my years since the time spent in the Cretian place of the bull, I have often been asked to tell about the life there. Did I meet King Deltanar? Was I well treated? How did they live, these masters of the waters, worshippers of the earthshaker god? At the time I could only compare Knossos and its people to my beautiful Anise and, like every place I have been since, Anise came out the winner.
This is not to say that Knossos was not beautiful. Accustomed as I was to the white walls of my Atlantean city, decorated with pink and white blessed "lovers vines", the brightly painted frescos that covered every portion of Cretan stonework fascinated me. Much of the paint seemed fairly recent and it was all of a similar technique, lacking the intricacy of an Atlantean mural, but so vivid, so full of life, that I found myself liking the new style far better, it seemed, than the blue-eyed Egyptian who walked beside me.
He was called by the completely unpronounceable name of Brianhet and held himself stiffly, like one of the old ones of Anise, so wrapped in their own importance they have no time to stop and savor the beauty of a spring day. I tried to imagine Brianhet in the dance of the bull and railed utterly. It was not that he did not have the body for it... no, the Egyptian's figure was smoothly muscular, well cared for and full of the promise of slender grace. It was his mind that lacked the necessary frame. His attitude was all wrong and even then I worried that he would be the first to die.
We were led up the wide steps at the back of the palace (not for us the ornate front terraces), down a dimly lit corridor into the e bathing chamber.
Several young men with painted faces and beautiful nude bodies waited there and they took us in hand, stripping off our clothes, leading the way to the scented baths. Brianhet was reluctant, but I rather liked the attention. The chamber held two stone pools, one for each of us, both so large you could paddle or float with plenty of room to spare. One of the young men assigned to me pointed and I slid into the silky clear water, glad to wash the red Cretan dust away. The water was warm as it came from a natural hot spring and it came up to my chin even when I stood. Two of my attendants bathed me, refusing to let me lift a finger for myself. They used a musky scented oil that foamed white and left me clean, if rather odiferous. When one of the men became a little familiar with my cock, stroking the length long after it was necessary, I made no move to stop him. Perhaps this was the custom, or perhaps he was just being kind... whichever, it felt good and I enjoyed it until he was called away.
My impossible hair was washed last, rinsed with a jar of clear water, then the men led me out of the baths to a little courtyard where I was carefully dried and clothed. There were no undergarments and the little swathing held by a leather tie at the waist barely attempted to cover me to my thighs. It was comfortable, soft against my skin, but no protection.
Whey they gave Brianhet his he was hard put, I could tell, not to throw it back at them and demand his old, more modest, kilt.
There were stone benches in the courtyard and we sat there while the young men puttered, bringing in sandals that were tied and moulded and exchanged until they fit perfectly. Once we were suitably dressed they brought us wine and food. I ate hungrily, pleased at the change of slave fare. I had been on the Cretian ship only a day, but before that had been two full moons of salted beef, soft fruit and boiled water.
One of the men, a little older than the others, began talking to Brianhet in a low voice, waving his hand expressively, apparently explaining what would happen next. But no one here spoke the drawling Atlantean language and I was left to copy the Egyptian's moves, hoping he knew what he was doing. I wondered how our former shipmates were faring and thought of my mother's pies when I was leaving her house before this last ill-fated voyage.
"Go and have an adventure," she had said. "Make your life worth living."
Somehow I didn't think this was quite what she had in mind.
It was evening, the sun long since fading past the horizon, the sky still pink and grey with the lingering light, when Delineas appeared in their little courtyard.
Brianhet set aside the remains of the meal he had been too nervous to enjoy and stood, inclining his head proudly. This man might own him, but no son of Menanhotep would bow to a Cretian lord. He glanced at Damon, ready to signal the Atlantean to rise, but he was already waving aside the boy who had been hovering since the baths. They stood side-by-side and watched as their new-found owner came forward.
He was dressed formally now, wearing a wig of dark locks, and heavy gold chains glinted in the lamplight. Surveying them dispassionately from several feet away, he nodded.
"Presentable. Barely." Delineas looked Damon up and down then turned to the Egyptian. "Has my servant explained the Gifting?"
Brianhet inclined his head.
"Though you belong to me," Delineas told him, "you are nothing more than a gift to the God, and Deltanar himself has made the pledge."
"We're sport for a mob of bored rich people who are too lazy to do it for themselves," Brianhet countered rudely, reacting instinctively to the tone in the Cretian's voice. Beside him Damon made a sudden move, then went still.
But Delineas was not angry. On the contrary, he merely smiled thinly. "Unfortunately, you are quite probably correct. My father used to tell of the days when the youngsters of Knossos were the Dancers of the ring. Nonetheless, things are as they are and the bull must have his chance with you. If you are strong and as smart as you look, then you may live longer than the ones you are replacing. Your Atlantean friend here even longer, I imagine."
Brianhet glanced at Damon who was darting his bright green gaze back and forth between them curiously. He seemed to glow with life as if he drew energy from an inexhaustible well. Even his curls gleamed with a healthy vigour.
The Egyptian looked back at Delineas. "I make no argument."
"How very wise of you."
Despite himself Brianhet smiled a little at the dry voice.
After a moment the Cretian went on, "When the ceremony has been completed I will take you to the Hall of Dancers where you will be given into the care of Radar. He is a fair man and wise... if you listen to him you will be able to meet your team bull with honor."
Brianhet remained silent, not wanting to risk voicing his thoughts again.
Delineas continued, "The bull leapers' halls for the males and females are separate, of course, and are within the confines of the palace, but not part of the palace itself. You enter the hall at the rank of novice and you will remain at that level until you have taken part in the actual event. As a novice you are not allowed into the palace and the penalty is instant death. Do you understand?"
"Attempt," Delineas commanded, "to explain it to the Atlantean. There are no exceptions to the rule and not understanding the language is no excuse."
"Radar will instruct you on all other rules. Now. Come with me, it is time for the Gifting."
Their shipmates, the motley collection of wide-eyed teen-agers, went through the Gifting before them. Damon and Brianhet stood in the shadows of the underground Lower Chamber, the cool wet lair of the Goddess, and watched the ceremony with Delineas.
The room itself was circular with open archways at intervals, well-lit by candies only in the center. There were frescoes, of the Goddess in her tiered skirt, huge dark bulls, and the leapers themselves, arching over the horns and soaring above the broad hind quarters of the beasts. Brianhet eyed the pictures and knew there was no way he could begin to master the skill.
Damon looked at everything once then focused his attention on the ceremony itself.
The ritual began, and was conducted, almost entirely in silence. Only the human embodiment of the goddess moved, the twin snakes that undulated around her bare arms seemingly a part of her. She was masked, naked but for a tiered diaphanous gown, and as she anointed each of the novices the snakes hissed sharply, the sound echoing around the rock-lined chamber.
She finished with the first group and their new owner shepherded them away, bowing out of the Goddess's presence with unctuous care.
Ignoring him, her eyes, the only part of her face visible behind the gilt mask, went to Delineas and his pair for her bulls. One hand lifted, a command to come forward, and Delineas whispered to Brianhet, "Go, and do as you were told."
The Egyptian was accustomed to temple functions, had served in them with his father for as long as he could remember, both in the great halls and the secret chambers; ritual held no mystery for him. He went forward confidently to stand between the rows of candles and Damon followed, still watching the Goddess and her snakes through his lashes.
She motioned for them to turn slowly, one at a time, a full circle. When they faced her again she mouthed the ancient rite of words though only her snakes' hissing could be heard, and dipped her fingers into a pouch tied to one of the rare iron sconces. Opaque droplets fell from her fingers down Brianhet's chest, the heat of the room and his body bringing out the odor. It was pungent and he recognized it from his own experience as a mixture of snake milk and herbs.
When it was Damon's turn to be anointed the Atlantean wrinkled his nose but made no other move. Then the Goddess nodded to Delineas and they were led away silently, through a maze of corridors and up, into the cool night air.
Brianhet took a deep breath, glad to be out of the oppressive room and its hissing echoes. Delineas paused as if he too was pleased to be well away.
Above them the palace gleamed with light, and merry voices echoed through the night as the Cretian nobility partied. As he watched, Brianhet saw two figures slip out onto an upper balcony and immediately come together in a passionate kiss. Damon followed his eyes and grinned. He was absently wiping away the sticky moisture left by the Goddess from his chest, and when Brianhet's eyes briefly met his, he deliberately winked.
Brianhet frowned and turned away, ready to follow Delineas to his new abode. After a moment Damon shrugged and leisurely tagged along.
He wasn't sure what woke him. It was never totally dark in the common quarters of the male dancers and there were always sounds... of bad dreams, of lovers, of the fire. But in the six weeks since his training had begun he had learned to sleep through them all.
Moonlight streamed in through the uncovered windows, lighting his way to the door. Several of the beds were empty, the male leapers who had passed the rank of novice had the run of the palace and there were no dances tomorrow. They would be with their noble lovers.
Brianhet slipped easily past the dozing guard, drawn by chance or the gods into the night, around the barracks, directly to the practice ring of the bull. The moon was full and the sky free of clouds. The light was almost as bright as day and in the glow he could see a figure by the stationary practice bull. The Egyptian stood silently in the shadows of the gate and watched, knowing long before he saw the curling hair and slender body picked out in silver that the man was Damon. No one else would be out here at this hour. And besides, like it or not, he seemed to have a sixth sense with this man. The Atlantean strolled to stand in front of the spreading bronze horns, and almost without hesitation sprang to meet them. His body seemed to suddenly float and rise high over the bull. His feet touched, for ceremony's sake, the broad wooden back then he rose again, twisting into a ball, rolling and straightening with time to spare before he landed lightly onto the sandy floor of the ring.
It was beautiful, perfect in form and grace, and executed with a pride and joy that awoke in Brianhet something the instructors had failed to touch. It lifted ceremony to art and higher and Brianhet moved forward without realizing it, his breath caught in his throat as Damon began another leap.
This time he was ready and made the catch, eager to steady Damon's landing. It was unnecessary... but he had a sudden and overwhelming desire to be part of the act, to share in the skill of the Atlantean.
Damon accepted the grip easily, then turned in his arms, his muscles sweat slick under Brianhet's fingers. "Thank you, Brin't."
He spoke the words softly and with only a trace of accent, and the slow smile that started in his strange green eyes spread over his face. "Don't look so surprised. Of course I speak this language."
Damon moved away to stand in front and to one side of the practice bull. "It's amazing what people will say in front of you if they think you don't understand. Stand to the left, Catcher, and be ready. I'm not very good on this one yet."
There was no problem that Brianhet could find in that leap, or the next or the next. Damon seemed tireless and all the time he danced, he talked, giving breathy instructions to his catcher, humming a crooning sound between snatches of speech.
"We do this at my mother's home in Anise," he told the Egyptian. "You should see it Brin't, the walls are high and white and covered with flowers..." he made the leap and landed laughing against Brianhet's chest.
"Well have to work on that one, Egypt, or you'll kill us both before the bull does. Now go there," he pointed.
It never occurred to Brianhet to resent the orders. In Thebes no one ordered him but his father and Thutmoses, but in the ring under the Cretian moon he listened to a master athlete and obeyed without question.
Damon positioned himself, "None of this stupid sacrifice to a bull in Anise. There it's done for sport. We don't humiliate the animal..." he twisted up and over the horns, bounced and landed "...and they don't hurt us."
After a time Damon indicated he'd had enough and led Brianhet out of the ring to the side garden, fed by one of the man-made springs. "We need to cool off a bit."
They drank from the tepid water and sprawled in the grass, letting their bodies relax.
Still amazed that Damon spoke both Egyptian and Cretian without difficulty, and more, that he had dropped his stand-off air and seemed ready to be friends, Brianhet asked about his capture.
Damon lay back against the trunk of an olive tree, chewing negligently on a mint leaf. "These things happen. I was on a ship of my people's, making the yearly voyage to the Coves... don't ask, Egypt, it's one of our stranger customs. Anyway there was a storm, we were blown into the rocks and I survived. And you?"
Brianhet made a face, "Politics. My family is close to the Pharaoh and I stand in line for a position. I was meant to die." He told Damon only the basics and the Atlantean listened, a slight smile on his round face.
"It all seems... I don't know... we just don't behave like that back in Anise."
Ruffled, Brianhet growled, "You're not at home now."
"Neither are you. While you were throwing incense about and lighting candies, I was learning how to stay alive in the ring, so don't get all priestly with me!"
They glared at each other, then Brianhet remembered the soaring body and relaxed, "Do you think you could teach me? I've no wish to die for some god that isn't even mine."
"All gods are the same," Damon reluctantly smiled, "and you'll never be a good leaper. You're too heavy and too old to learn the trick of it. Besides, you have to sing to your animal and I've heard you sing. Any bull in his right mind would gore you to shreds the minute you opened your mouth."
"Thanks very much," Brianhet made to stand only to have Damon touch his arm.
"But you're the best catcher I've ever seen."
Surprised by praise after the half-hearted contempt, Brianhet paused.
Damon was serious now, "The leaper can somersault and bounce, and any number of things, but without a good catcher he won't last an hour in the ring. Jumping on the practice bull is one thing, a real animal is entirely different."
His grip tightened on Brianhet's arm. "I'll teach you. At night, just we two, because I think... well... just because."
Intrigued, Brianhet pressed for motives, but Damon had said all he was going to on the subject. They made their way back to the common room and entered with some late returning party goers. What was left of the night Brianhet spent dreaming of strange sullen caves and odd clay statues that looked at him with sad, slanted eyes.
I'm not sure when I fell in love with Brianhet, the Egyptian. Oh I remember, I will always remember, the moment I realized it. It was in the early days on Crete. We were in the practice ring of the bull, taking turns doing the simple leaps the Cretians think so difficult, and for a moment he was separated from the rest. He has a way of lifting his face to the sun with his blue eyes narrowed and his features blank... as if he is taking strength from the light. He was standing apart, even in a crowd he is solitary, and I suddenly thought, You need never be alone again, Egypt. I'll be there for you. If you'll let me.
I must have made some movement for he turned then and saw me staring. He smiled... would he have smiled if he had known what was in my mind? I think not. But the smile was enough. From that moment I gave my life to him.
I wanted to take him far away from the others, pull him to the ground beside me and spread whatever small skills I had for him like a feast. But the moment passed, he turned away again all innocence, and anyway we couldn't leave. That night Teran, the leader of the Wolves, attempted to join him in bed and when Brianhet kicked him out I was only half pleased. Never before had I been jealous, but lying on my pallet, watching the Mycenaean snuggle against Brianhet's still sleeping body I could have killed. When he awoke and was angry I was relieved, but only for a moment. It didn't take much in the way of brains to know that if Teran had been tossed aside I would be as well. Brianhet was a man for women and though I could and would change myself for his pleasure, that was something I could never become.
I'll have to get him used to me, I thought. For the moment I would settle for being friends.
But even something this simple was difficult. In Anise, the beautiful capital of Atlantis, I had many friends. We were drawn together by childhood memories, by family ties, and common interests. We shared our lives so easily, far too young to think beyond tomorrow, and sex was a by-product, something to be enjoyed with whomever was willing. I thought, in Crete, that Brianhet could never have known a childhood such as mine, and it was no joy to find I was right. He was raised not to enjoy life but to accept it, and we had nothing in common but an uncertain future.
In my own way I had kept apart from the others as much as Brianhet. What they thought was a language barrier was a wish to remain informed but uninvolved. They thought me stupid or snobbish, but it had not kept Brianhet as far away as the rest... his own barriers were higher than mine could ever be. The leapers bored him with all their petty squabbles and cockish preening. Frankly, they bored me, too. The trick was... how to get him to see that I was different?
In Anise I could have given him so much; land, servants, gold or jewels. Here I had nothing to offer but myself and I was afraid it wasn't enough. I know better now. Riches he already had in abundance, of love he knew nothing. So, in my ignorance I plotted, watching him as he slept, encouraged by that one smile. First he must notice me, I must shine in his eyes, then we would go from there.
One night I lay awake, full of the energy of frustration, until finally I had to rise. I went naturally to the ring of the practice bull that was so familiar and began the leaps as we did them in Anise, thinking all the time of Brianhet. When suddenly he was there to catch me it seemed so much a dream I almost shouted for the sheer miracle of it. But it would have frightened him away forever so I made some easy remark and stood away from the temptations of his body.
There was a look on his face... the dance of the Atlanteans touched him as the Cretians' way had never done. He noticed me, maybe even admired my skill a little, and when he asked me to teach him I was satisfied. It was something to build on.
They practiced every night, going over the leaps Damon specialized in again and again, until Brianhet could tell exactly where the lithe body would land by what seemed like intuition alone. In the daylight, in the same ring with the other novices they made the moves they were taught, walking through it with nothing setting them apart from the rest. At night they came alive.
Radar, the head instructor, shook his head over them and the nobles coming to check the quality of the merchandize before laying down their bets were heard giving odds over which would die first. Brianhet and Damon shared a look and continued to play dumb. It had almost become a game... them against the world. Of their patron they saw nothing.
Their team mates, the Wolves, began to practice with them; first on the wooden animal, and finally with the team bull. He was a fearsome looking beast with perfect curving horns and a sloping back, but he was bred for size rather than speed, body rather than brain. Called Petro, he had chosen the team only months before and had killed two members, and maimed three others already.
From the safety of the stands Brianhet watched the narrow eyed Teran tease the bull with his dance. "He's very good."
Behind him Damon leaned forward and rested his arms on the Egyptian's shoulders. "He's wooden."
"Looks all right to me."
The Atlantean ruffled the short dark waves under his fingers, "You'll learn," was all he said. Even with Petro Damon kept up his act, making his leaps clumsy, his movements jerky. After a time Brianhet realized that only the Atlantean's superior skill kept him alive when they played their game. Teran and the others didn't bother to hide their contempt, and at night Damon would laugh delightedly as he told what they had said about him, thinking he didn't understand.
"Being dumb has it's uses, but I can't play it forever," Damon explained as they relaxed in the gardens after practice. "The only reason I've been able to keep it up is because they don't figure I'll live past the first dance. Nobody's all that anxious to teach me."
Brianhet raised one dark eyebrow. "What of me? How do they think we communicate?"
Damon moved closer, cupped the Egyptian's face with long fingers and kissed him fully on the lips. "Without words, Catcher," he whispered.
Brianhet pushed him away and wiped his mouth. "Don't do that!"
Damon gave a soft chuckle, "It's what they think already. I'm lucky and you're shy."
"Remember when Teran tried to come into your bed?"
"I kicked him out."
"Which only makes him want you more," Damon waved a hand. "And then you leave with me at night... every night... and we come back all sleepy-eyed hours later. What do you think they think? For an all-seeing priest you're awfully blind."
"You know, if you keep up this constant praise it'll go to my head. What makes you so lucky then?"
"Oh I get you all to myself for now," Damon eyed him and his tone became seductive. "You have an air. Blue eyes, dark hair, pale skin... all with a sign that says "don't touch". I'm lucky. I get to touch."
Brianhet felt an arm come around his waist and Damon said softly, "Play along, we're being watched."
Soft lips nibbled along his neck and too surprised to protest, he was pulled against Damon's hard body.
"Come on, d'you want them to find out now?" He could barely hear Damon's whispered words.
Slowly he reached to hold the body, but his grip was loose, and after a minute Damon raised his head. "They're gone," he announced. "By the heavens, Brin't, if that's all the better you can do no wonder that girl drugged your wine!"
Nettled, Brianhet forgot about asking where the watchers had been, how Damon had known they were around when his own ears had heard nothing, and opened his eyes. The Atlantean was still sprawled above him, his full weight pinning Brianhet to the ground. In the starlight he could barely see Damon's half-closed eyes, but they glittered mockingly, daring him. Brianhet let his quick temper unleash for an instant and held the man still, "I never liked boys much," he said and pulled Damon's head to meet his.
The kiss should have been vicious, but the Atlantean opened his mouth and used his tongue to lick sensuously over the hard lips that claimed him. Brianhet faltered and his anger slipped into something else as he felt his heart begin to thud and the familiar tightening that heralded sexual response. His fingers relaxed their hold in the brown curls and slid of their own accord over Damon's shoulders, down his bare back to his waist. Damon's breathing accelerated and he probed at Brianhet's mouth with his tongue, urging him to open his lips for a deeper exploration.
Brianhet felt the Atlantean's rising hardness against his thigh and it brought him back to reality. Abruptly he shoved. "Stop it!" He tried to order to order but his voice was shaking.
Damon lay to his side where he had rolled for a long moment and when he finally spoke Brianhet could hear the smile in his voice. "Sorry, Egypt. In Anise we don't worry about these things. If the body is in need the mind is slow."
Brianhet drew a ragged breath, "Damon, I..."
"Come on. Well go back now. Our first dance is tomorrow. If we plan to give them a show we'd better get some rest."
Almost reluctantly Brianhet followed his team mate back to the common quarters. In Thebes he had been encouraged to try both men and women, had been rich and powerful enough to lay wherever he chose. But after once with a man he had stayed with girls, preferring the softness of the female form beneath him. The man, another priest from the Temple of Montu, had hurt him and never until now had his body responded to a male touch. It was a little frightening, exciting, and all together against his better judgement. He would be very glad, he thought, to get away from the novice rank and be allowed the run of the palace full of beautiful, bare-breasted women. But when he slept he dreamt again of the caves, only this time Damon was with him and they made full and satisfying love under the empty gazes of the strange statues that stood in the walls around them.
The dance. The sun at its peak, the sky brilliantly blue and cloudless, and the stands surrounding the Earth Shaker's ring filled to capacity and overflowing. The nobler ladies of the court gossiped together under the rust and pale blue awning, dripping with gold and precious jewels, eating daintily at the fruits and sweets provided, while their servants fanned away the heat and flies.
The men mingled among them, making private bets on the outcome of one team or another, wagering on the number of lives to be lost in the ring today. They shouted back and forth, laughing at their friends, bringing themselves to the attention of their ladies. The noise level rose as the hour drew near.
Inside the quiet common room the din could be easily heard. Brianhet adjusted the barely adequate leather loincloth... the only thing besides his skill that stood between him and the bull... for the hundredth time, absently chewing on his lip. He had never been good at waiting, and the air in here... a heavy hand clapped on his shoulder and he jumped.
Teran smiled, "Just a bit nervous?"
Brianhet pursed his lips and didn't answer.
"You needn't be. I've had a little talk with the team. You needn't worry,"
"Throwing Damon to the Wolves?" The pun was heavy and intended, but Teran's smile merely grew meaner.
He indicated his gold laden body. "You can share in all this if you're nice to the right people."
"The right people being you, of course."
Teran moved closer, "That's right."
The Egyptian's eyes narrowed, but he had not spent his years in politically turbulent Thebes for nothing. It wasn't necessary to antagonize the Mycenaean now. He'd be angry enough when he saw Damon in the ring. "We'll talk about it later, all right?"
Satisfied, Teran turned away end Brianhet watched him go, disgusted at the man's attitude. Coming up beside him Damon commented, "I've never actually seen anybody do that before."
"Curl their lip. You're very good. Consider me impressed."
Brianhet relaxed under the gentle teasing. "He makes me sick. He's ready to trade half his jewels and you for..." he waved an expressive hand.
"That's it then. I prefer cremation."
"Oh, shut up."
The high eerie sound of flutes filled the room and the men straightened. No more waiting, the rite was beginning.
Damon took a long breath. "You scared?"
Looking into the depths of the Atlantean's eyes Brianhet couldn't lie. "Yes. You?"
Damon nodded, "Every minute," he said soberly, then his gamin face crinkled, "Makes life worth living, doesn't it?"
Brianhet followed him out the door, "Just makes me nauseous."
They paraded to the ring in a double line and each pair paused at the Altar of All Gods to pay respects. Brianhet imagined the Temple of Ra and bowed low, then eyed Damon as the Atlantean touched his forehead, then each side of his chest with his right hand. He'd have to ask what the gesture signified. Somehow religion was a subject they hadn't explored.
But it was not his gods they were being offered to, or Damon's. They were here to be sacrificed to the Bull, the Earth Shaker's manifestation on Crete, and the Mother Goddess of the Snake awaited them in the ring.
The crowd hushed as the three performing teams made their entrance and formed a line before the Goddess. She raised her arms, her ceremonial mask covering her face, her uplifted breasts bare and tipped with rouge. For a long moment the human Goddess stood perfectly still, only the breeze in her tiered skirt and the snakes encircling her arms moving. Then she murmured the ceremonial words, her arms fell, and the crowd roared approval until the sound threatened to rival the Bull himself.
The Wolves were to dance last and they waited in a place set aside for them in the stands to watch the Dolphins and the Goats practice their artistry. After working with Damon, to Brianhet they were nothing. His gaze strayed to the opposite stands and he amused himself catching the eyes of one noble beauty, then another. When the crowd roared and stood he was slower to his feet and had to crane around the figure in front to see.
He wished he hadn't bothered. The girl, the only female leaper of the Dolphins, wasn't quite dead yet and the bull had returned for the kill. No one moved to pull her from the horns and the animal came away with gore dripping from the tips.
Brianhet swallowed the unexpected lump in his throat. He didn't even know her name, but he remembered her at practice, and once she had shown him a trick to make a difficult catch easier. He glanced at Damon and was not surprised to find the Atlantean's eyes elsewhere. Somehow it pleased him to know his friend had no blood lust for the ring.
There was break while the body was placed on a silken covered bier and carted away. She would be buried with honor, bride of the bull, then forgotten. The ring was resanded and now it was the Wolves taking the stage.
Petro entered, shaking his horns at the dancers, and trotted to the center. Now was the seduction, the enticement of the dancers. Brianhet felt clumsy under the scrutiny of the crowd and held back, more nervous than afraid. From across the ring Teran smiled and twisted close, drawing Petro's attention, but only until the next dancer lured the bull aside. It came time for Damon and he went forward smoothly, his slender body just brushing the bull's flank before he glided away. On the other side of Petro he looked up and caught Brianhet's eye.
His look invited. "Come, play with me," his gaze seemed to be saying. "It's a foolish game for children and women, but we'll indulge them... you're good at this..."
Brianhet forgot the body of the girl, the hungry audience, and moved to join the game. Life and death merged with the rush of adrenaline, giving him the grace he needed and he stroked the neck of the bull before he was away.
They began to circle the beast, feinting left and right, always just out of reach of the gold painted horns, until Petro lifted his head and roared his frustration, pawing the arena floor with sharpened hoofs.
Teran's leap was sure; he had the weight of experience, knowledge of his bull, and he bounced easily off the back into the catcher's waiting arms.
It was a classic leap. The crowd cheered approval and his smile deepened, accepting their praise as his due.
Another leaper, not as skilled but just as practiced, went forward and Petro turned to meet him.
Brianhet found himself keeping one eye on the bull and the other on Damon. When? The game always went on until the animal grew tired or blood was spilled. Petro showed no signs of boredom, instead his temper grew.
Teran leapt again, then again, before he fell back with a wave, conceding the stardom, if only for the moment, to the others.
Damon straightened from his almost casual stance. Petro was facing away, preparing to charge another leaper, when the sound began. The Atlantean was crooning to the bull, a low strange noise that seemed soft but filled the ears. It did not travel far, only the leapers could hear, and with the single exception of Brianhet, who had long since grown used to the eerie song, they paused in mid-step and listened.
Petro turned to the only one moving in the ring. Damon slid slowly closer, his feet barely touching the ground, his hands spread wide apart.
Petro shook his horns and roared, trotted a few steps forward and suddenly went into the charge.
A hundred screams came from the stands as the watched what was surely to be a kill. But Damon met the bull head on, grabbed the horns firmly and was up.
Brianhet didn't remember moving. His eyes were on Damon's floating body as it twisted, curled and rolled for all the world like it had no need to ever return to earth. He soared, barely deigned to touch Petro's sloping haunches, then somersaulted again. The Egyptian was ready, knew by the pitch and timber of the song which leap would be performed. He held up one hand, steadied Damon's landing and released him quickly. Already Petro was searching with beady red eyes for his victim.
If the crowd had shouted before it was nothing to the cheers they voiced for Damon. He ignored them so completely Brianhet thought he must not be hearing. Someone shouted, "Teran's met his match in this one!" and Brianhet glanced over his shoulder.
The Mycenaean had also heard and his smile faltered then disappeared altogether.
"Serves you right, you bastard," Brianhet thought. "My Damon's worth a hundred of you." He met Teran's furious gaze with a bland look, but only for a second. Petro was moving forward.
Damon glided ahead and again the low sound reverberated through the ring. The bull sidestepped, confused by the noise from the stands, and Atlantean wheeled to stay face-to-face. There were words in his song now, but the language was his own and what he told the bull was secret between the two of them.
The team circled, staying well away from the center, stunned into leaving the bull to the novices alone. Petro lowered his horns and when Damon reached and caught hold the bull, twisted. He was flung to the side, landing spitting in the sand, but Brianhet could see the twinkle in his eyes. The Atlantean wasn't hurt. The danger now lay with both horns and hoofs, until Damon could regain his wind and feet. Thinking only that Petro must be diverted, Brianhet slid along the animal's blind side and thumped him hard by his tail.
Petro spun and Brianhet danced lightly to the side, luring the bull from Damon. He was not a leaper, simply had no talent for the horns, and he had no idea what he would do if the beast charged. Running was out of the question, both for pride and practicality. Brianhet made a mental prayer to any god who might be listening and immediately an idea presented itself.
He slowed, noting that though Teran and the others were coming to his aid they would be far too late, and faced Petro. Rather than the ready crouch of the leaper he stood straight, hands on hips and dared the bull to take him.
Petro didn't hesitate. Lowering his head once more, he charged, gaining momentum as he crossed the arena to claim his prize. Nebrianhet waited, deaf to the warning cries of the crowd, until the bull was a hair's breath away, then he simply turned his body sideways, sucked in his stomach and let the animal's own speed carry him past.
A shocked hush fell over the crowd and Petro skid to a halt, shaking his head as it surprised to find no meat dangling from his horns. In the silence Brianhet could hear the hiss of the Living Goddess's snakes as they curled in the royal loge. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and Damon came to join him. They had each done something new in the ring today and they stood together to receive their desserts.
The Goddess waited to see if Petro would renew the attack, and when she was satisfied that the Earth Shaker had had enough she stood and signed the keepers to catch and lead the bull away.
The Wolves gathered in the arena at the foot of the royal box and she looked at each of them for a long moment, her dark eyes glinting from behind the high mask. Lifting her arms she delved among the encircling snakes and pulled free two of the bracelets at her wrists, then pointed to the newest members of the team, beckoning them forward.
Brianhet raised an eyebrow at Damon and they stepped to the front, bowing low. The Goddess murmured but the words were unintelligible and she dropped the bracelets... one each to the ground in front of them. Then she turned and was gone, disappearing back into the palace through the portal that was for her alone.
Damon picked up the slender strand of gold and held it high over his head for all the crowd to see. The Goddess had honored them, the people could do no less. They began to applaud, then call, and their noise shook the birds from their nests and sent them into the air overhead.
Brianhet picked up his gift from the Goddess and looped it about his wrist as he followed the Wolves from the arena. He was smiling broadly, tired but elated together, and only Teran's dark face was there to spoil the moment.
I had never in my life set out to ensnare anyone and I made more than one stupid error. It was just that I didn't always understand Brianhet's mind and was too anxious for his body. Never once has my love for him faltered. But despite my mistakes he never turned away from me and as our training days went on he even began to seek me out, sitting next to me at meal times, or standing beside me during the days' practice. When we sat in the stands and watched the Wolves I would stay behind him and lean to touch and he accepted me, more easily each time.
The others began to notice and draw their own conclusions when we left the common room at night together. Brianhet was so used to doing whatever he pleased he didn't see their sly glances in our direction, and of course they spoke more freely in front of me since they thought I couldn't understand.
When, in the garden one night I took my courage in both hands and kissed him, I felt his response, but he was frightened of it and pushed me away. It didn't matter...the feel had been there, I could wait. I determined more than ever to make him proud of me in the ring and kept a quiet distance.
I will never forget our first dance in the bull's arena. We have done much, seen much, and shared many adventures since... but that memory stands alone. It was then he first put my life before his, in a way only he could have done. The Mother Goddess honored us herself and I still wear the bracelet from her wrist. Brianhet laughs at my "silly superstitions" but I'll never part with the strand. It's not an omen, but a memory, and therefore all the more precious.
Once we had danced we left the novice rank and the palace, with all its delights, both legal and illicit, were open to us. Brianhet immediately began an affair with some noble beauty. I had expected it, but had not reckoned for the bursting pain. It spread through my body, made me clumsy and stupid when I saw them together, so I kept away. Another lady invited me to her chambers and I went and spent my passion there. I was easier when next I saw him.
The men sat together in one of the many rooms allotted for travelling dignitaries at the Knossos palace. They spoke quietly among themselves, nodding occasionally, never raising a voice louder than a whisper.
"I still can't believe it's him," one of them said.
"You saw him. There's not another one looks like him in the world. Besides, who else would have the gall to do what he did with that bull? And the name's the same."
"Brianhet," the man's voice was edged. "That whore-keeper must have sold him off instead of killing him. By the gods I'll have his head on a platter for such treachery."
"Never mind that now," the third man spoke for the first time. "What's to be done?"
"Just leave him," came the suggestion. "He can't escape from here, can't do any harm... the bull will get him sooner or later."
"We can't take that chance. As long as Brianhet's alive he's a threat."
There were rumbles of agreement all around, then the first man spoke again, "There's no way to get at him now. When he starts knowing his way about the palace maybe, but until then..."
"Wait." The third man lifted a negligent hand for silence. "Why not let the bull kill him?"
"Oh? And how do you propose to do that, eh? Point him out and give the beast a sugar lump for encouragement?"
The third man merely smiled. "Something a bit more subtle. Didn't you see the face of the Mycenaean when the Atlantean made that leap? There was death there if I've ever seen it."
"Heptos, you are truly simple. The Atlantean and our Brianhet are obviously partners in the ring. And from all the gossip, not just in the ring. Think! If the Atlantean dies..."
Heptos' face lit up. "Then Brianhet will be quick to follow!"
"So all we have to do is have a little talk with this Mycenaean boy. It won't take long, I'm sure he'll be easily persuaded to influence the team. We'll tell him we just want to get rid of the Atlantean. Then poof!" He spread his fingers, "Gone! One Atlantean, closely followed by one Egyptian. To be buried and forgotten just like all the others."
Heptos was pleased. "Very neat. May I suggest we invite the Mycenaean for a private chat? Well have time to convince him and make it to the party tonight as well if we hurry."
Smiling, they stood and went their separate ways, each contemplating the bloody body of Brianhet and the rewards it would bring.
"The water's getting cool."
"So? Let it."
Brianhet sighed and reluctantly lifted Casia off him before standing up in the bath. "You'll be late to your own dinner," he told her severely. Picking up a long sheet he handed it to her, then wrapped the second one around himself.
"I don't care," Casia allowed him to pull her up. She rubbed her wet naked body against him and giggled when she felt his response. "You don't care either."
"Yes I do. Go on," he slapped her rump sharply and watched with undisguised interest as she wiggled into her dressing chamber. Casia was a beauty, with her Cretan dark ringlets, flashing eyes, and off-island pale skin, but her insatiable appetites were beginning to pall.
Brianhet dressed himself quickly and went to the window. His noble lady's room was high, away from the smells of cooking and animals on the lower floors, and faced the islands almost spinal mountains. He gazed at the sunset reflecting oft snow covered peaks, so lost in thought he didn't hear Casia come up behind him.
"What is it Brianhet? What makes you look like that?"
"Look like what?"
"Sad, angry... I don't know."
"It's your imagination. You look very nice." She spun, laughing, already forgetting his problems. "It's new. Almost Egyptian, so they tell me. I had it made in your honor."
Brianhet refrained from telling her that no Egyptian lady would be caught dead in such a gaudy costume. If he had learned anything since leaving the novice rank the week before, it was that immodesty seemed the style among Cretian nobility. Who was he to throw back the sight of so many brightly clad women if the gods offered it?
Casia had been the first to invite him to her rooms after the Dance. In fact, her messenger awaited his return from the ring. Her wealth, or her father's, he hadn't yet figured that one out, seemed as unlimited as her sexual appetites and he had taken advantage of both. It seemed an equal trade and he smiled at her preening, "I'm not used to so much color."
"Oh, you Egyptians! Everything so white and bland. Come in!"
The servant bowed her head, "Your guests are arriving and dinner's ready."
"Oh good," Casia tucked her arm through Brianhet's briefly. "Shall I see you after?"
She laughed, "Well, if you're not here I shall start without you."
"You do that."
He didn't watch her go and followed minutes later, knowing his way well enough now. The dining hall door was open, the sumptuous room already crowded. He could see Casia at the main table surrounded by her high born friends. The new dress, it appeared, was causing talk, and she was carrying it off with an air. By next week they would all be wearing the style. He grimaced and looked away.
"I didn't think you'd be here, Egypt."
Brianhet didn't bother turning. Damon's voice was as familiar as his own now and only the Atlantean had such a pleasantly odd accent. "Where else would I be?"
"Recouping your energy. Sprawled face down on your pallet too exhausted to move."
"I thought so," Damon drifted away and Brianhet didn't see him again until the meal began. The plates were made of gold, the cups as well, and the food was abundant and well prepared. Brianhet let the hovering servant pour more wine and found himself watching three men across the room. They were dressed as Mycenaean, but they looked Egyptian and surely he had seen the tall one somewhere before. Frowning, he lowered his eyes and tried to place the man. Not the temple, the whorehouses, not in Thebes at all. Tanis? Maybe...
Damon sat beside him, watching him silently, his eyes for once serious. After a moment Brianhet felt the stare. "Sorry. Were you saying something?"
"No," Damon leaned closer. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, for Amon's sake! Why does everyone keep asking me what's wrong?"
Damon merely sipped at his wine and looked away.
Brianhet looked at his friend and saw concern, not curiosity. "Damon," he touched the Atlantean's arm. "Please. I'm sorry."
Damon nodded. "Is it Casia? Is it because you can't be with her up there at the table?"
"Good heavens no! What would I do up there? Simpering is not one of my attributes."
"Hmm. I just thought perhaps..."
"Company's better here anyway," Brianhet said gruffly. "No it's those three by Teran, across the way. I could swear I know one of them. And note their eyes. Those are not Mycenaeans. They're Egyptian."
"Friend or foe? Or neither?"
"I don't know, but I wish I did." Brianhet leaned back, replete, and changed the subject. "Where've you been this last week? You're never around."
"Neither are you. We probably just missed each other. Are you busy after this?"
"What'd you have in mind?"
"A little practice, if you can move after all that food. There's a rite next week and I've thought of something."
Brianhet was intrigued, "All right. Shall we slip away before the music?"
"Please. I swear these Cretians studied voice at an Egyptian school. They're worse than you."
Brianhet's laughter sputtered. "You never let up, do you?"
"No," Damon hesitated then asked, "You know what they'll think, don't you, when we leave together? Casia and the others?"
"Who cares? Let them think what they like." His eyes were on the trio across the room again. Something was whispering a warning, but when he tried to pin it down it had slipped away. He met Teran's eyes and felt again the desire in them, then the Mycenaean's gaze slid to Damon and hardened. "Let's get out of here," Brianhet said, and led the way under cover of the arriving entertainers.
The trick Damon had thought of was pure acrobatics and difficult. They worked at it every night and Brianhet happily let Casia find a new lover. Their time had been intense but she liked variety and went on to the next without a thought. Brianhet found that whereas Damon simply had not been around the week before, now he was always near, ready with a quick biting joke, full of stories about Anise. The Egyptian began to look for him; for the first time in his heretofore regimented life he had a friend, though it took slavery and possible death to do the deed.
Three days before the next dance Teran stopped Brianhet outside the common room after the practice.
"What is it?" He was hot, sweaty and irritable for lack of sleep. "I want a bath, can't it wait?"
Teran shook his head. "No longer."
"All right then... where?"
The Mycenaean led him along the outer path to a tiny garden. There was no spring, but the flowers were all in riotous bloom and bees made a pleasant background noise.
Brianhet stopped in the middle and turned, "What do you want?"
"You know well."
Teran pulled him close and kissed him lingeringly. Brianhet stood still, thinking not of the man holding him, but of Damon, Damon's mouth, Damon's body, Damon's breath in his ear. If Damon had roused him, shouldn't Teran do the same?
No. Teran stroked and Brianhet felt nothing. After a moment he pushed away a little, "Teran! Wait, this isn't any good. It's not you," he added at the sudden nasty look on the leaper's face. "It's me."
"No, it isn't you, it's that misbegotten Atlantean!" Teran growled. He shoved the Egyptian aside, mumbled something and strode away, leaving Brianhet alone, shaking his head after him.
He had a sudden notion to be with Damon and went searching, finding him in the dancer's baths. The Atlantean took one look at the troubled face and yanked him in, clothes and all.
Brianhet came to the surface, spitting and shaking water from his eyes, "Why'd you do that?"
"It was safer than saying "go soak your head," Damon splashed him. "You're bigger than me... you could hurt my delicate figure. And besides you looked mad and I'm not in the mood for it."
Damon's smile was angelic and Brianhet found himself grinning back. "You've ruined my tunic," he sold and slipped out of it, tossing the soggy mess aside.
"All in good cause. You can have one of mine. Great God, did I do that?"
Brianhet glanced at the livid bruise on his shoulder. It had more like been Teran, but he shrugged. "See? You don't know your own strength, you delicate thing you."
To his surprise Damon gave him an odd look, leaned and kissed the mark. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It's a catcher's prerogative." Brianhet slipped under the water hoping Damon hadn't seen the rising bumps of flesh his kiss had caused.
That night Damon said he was tired, they'd rest and not practice if it was all right with Egypt? Brianhet agreed readily, knowing the Atlantean's concern lay with his shoulder. He assumed Damon was worried that when the time came the pain would mar the trick, and didn't see his friend's green eyes follow him to his pallet, their look unreadable.
I had made up a trick and it seemed to me that Brianhet's lady couldn't hold him, for he left her without a thought and came with me. I made him laugh; something he wasn't accustomed to, and he liked it.
Again we practised at night, perfecting the new moves, which called for me to somersault to his shoulders, and after we would go to the spring to sluice off and relax before returning to the others. I talked of Anise... he liked to hear the stories, always wanting more. In those days I was anxious to speak of my city, having a secret dream of someday showing it all to him in the flesh. Now we don't talk of it at all, the feeling is too deep and he spares me the pain. In my dreams I remember, but only the good times, the Great God spares me in my sleep.
Teran made another play for him, as I had been sure he would. Though our methods and motives were different, the goal was the same. I had not given up, he didn't either. I followed them and watched from the shelter of a bush when Brianhet said no. Teran was angry and blamed it on me. His eyes burned holes in my back after that; I had taken, or so he thought, both his stardom and Brianhet. It was no wonder he hated me. Perhaps if he'd known the truth...
I barely made it back to the baths in time and when Brianhet entered with a troubled face I teased him happy again. He had a mark on his shoulder (only Teran could have left it) and he was bone weary. I cancelled our practice that night and guarded his sleep from my pallet. He dreamed and spoke of caves but settled again without waking. Across the way Teran made use of another and watched Brianhet the whole time. In the end he looked at me, and our eyes met and held. I had made an enemy there and he had a plan. In the common room he could do nothing, but I knew to watch him in the ring. Even petty squabbles were solved there; the bull was an excellent alibi, and death satisfyingly painful.
After the night of Casia's banquet Brianhet had not mentioned the three travelling dignitaries again. I asked my lady but all she could discover was that they had arrived on a ship from Tyros and that was no help at all. They seemed harmless enough. I was terribly innocent in those times. And I forgot them until the day of the second dance.
We were up early, having foregone practice to be well rested, and Brianhet was remarkably sweet tempered. We took our light breakfast to the palace's South Portico steps and ate under the eyes of the frescoes. I told him about food in Anise and asked of Thebes.
"Plainer, but plentiful," was his only reply. He never spoke of his home without shadows coming into-his eyes. Lately there was confusion there as well and he spent a lot of time staring at the mountains rising sharp in the distance. I brought his attention back to me with an insult and he smiled... but still his eyes strayed to the peaks.
The dance began when the sun reached its zenith. This time the Wolves were first in the ring and the crowds were avid for blood.
I was right. Teran used every trick he knew to turn Petro to me. Between us we took all the leaps and when I did my new leap, landing standing on Brianhet's broad shoulders, I saw the Mycenaean's face mutate into something ugly. I remember feeling sorry. I didn't want him to hate me. Brianhet saw the look too, and he muttered a warning as he slid me down to the sand. The crowd was roaring for my leap but it meant nothing. I danced for the pride in Brianhet's eyes. When he suddenly looked to the sun I was caught and it almost killed me for Teran had come up behind and his foot caught between mine. I toppled as he danced away.
Petro's eyes were on me and he had begun the charge before I was on my feet. I should have died then, would have if Brianhet had been an instant slower. But he was fast and strong and he grabbed Petro's left horn and held on until the others came forward to help him. They had not been fast enough. He had a bleeding injury somewhere. I saw the red smears and knew then that Teran had to die. It was one thing to be after me; another altogether to have Brianhet hurt.
I got to my feet, drew Petro's attention with a song and waited until the last second to step aside. Teran was again behind me and he had expected me to leap and redeem my clumsy fall. The bull took him head on and he screamed. More from surprise than pain I expect. His eyes were glazed and fixed before the echoes had died away.
Brianhet came up panting beside me, clutching the scrape on his flank, and looked at the body. "Nasty," was all he said, but he squeezed my arm in support.
They led Petro away and took Teran out; our part in the dance was over. In the common room a healer met us to attend to Brianhet's wound. He had been sent by our sponsor, whom I had heard had made a second fortune backing us in our debut. The medical man seemed to know what he was about and shooed me away when I hovered. Brianhet told him to let me be and gripped my hands while the wound was cleansed and stitched. It wasn't deep, he healed easily with a small scar. Sometimes now I will touch it and he always smiles... I have my gold bracelet, he the scar, the memories are shared.
After the doctor left Brianhet slept, drugged by the draught he had drunk to kill the pain. One of the Wolves brought me a bowl of stew for dinner and I ate it sitting by the Egyptian's pallet. The boy, Lexios, who was agile but easily led in the ring, hung around looking worried until I asked what was wrong. To them my Cretian words were stumbling but improving daily.
"The others," he hesitated and I smiled for encouragement. "It's just... Teran was our leader and he's gone... well, they want you to be leader now."
I thought of how they would have let me die and Brianhet, too. But that was under Teran's influence. Safety in the ring could only come if we all worked together, and even then it wasn't sure.
"All right," I answered slowly and his face lightened. He turned to go but I caught his arm. "Wait. Earlier I heard the crowds. They were cheering..."
Lexios nodded. "The Earth Shaker was hungry today. Each team lost a dancer." He looked at Brianhet's pale face, relaxed in a drugged sleep, "Is he bad?"
"No, he'll be up tomorrow."
"There were three men asking for him earlier. Radar told them to go away."
Three men. "Cretians?"
"No. I don't think so. They're the ones Teran had been seeing. Probably Mycenaeans with news from home."
Lexios took himself off, leaving me alone with Brianhet. I remembered Teran by the three men at the banquet. Mycenaeans? Brianhet had not thought so and had recognized one of them. Inside me warnings went off and I bit my lip until it bled. Was Teran's attack on me more than jealousy? It was certainly obvious Brianhet and I were a team and while my Egyptian had saved me twice from the horns, so I had saved him. Without me he wouldn't last a single dance...
He moved then and groaned a little.
"Egypt?" For all my language I still couldn't pronounce his name. He licked at his lips and I held his head for water.
Briefly his eyes flickered open and he smiled his thanks before drifting back to sleep. I went to find Leander and exchanged my pallet with its extra padding my lady had given me for his bare one next to Brianhet. He thought he had the better deal, but I imagine I was the most satisfied.
"So, it didn't work," Hektos looked around at the others. "That damned Atlantean was better than Teran."
"He was injured," one of the others pointed out.
"A scratch. Already he's up walking about. I saw him yesterday in the palace. There's not even a dressing over the stitches."
"And all the ladies are making much of him," Hektos growled. "Never mind. He uses the palace now. Very well, it just leaves him more open."
"You have a plan?"
"Assuredly I do." Hektos held up a small vial. "There are banquets, and where there are banquets there is wine."
Brianhet bent without thinking and grunted. The scrape wasn't deep but it hadn't quite healed. Just enough to make him forgetful.
"Here." Damon seemed to appear out of nowhere and knelt to lace the sandal.
"I wish you wouldn't."
"Nonsense. If you keep straining yourself you'll never get better. Come on, other foot. I'm not that fond of kneeling to your sacred personage,"
Obediently Brianhet handed him the thong. "Are you coming to the dinner?"
"Hadn't planned on it, why?"
"No reason," Brianhet shrugged, irritated to find that if Damon wasn't going the festivities seemed suddenly far less interesting. "What are you planning?"
Damon smiled and didn't answer.
"Like that is it?"
Sighing with great exaggeration the Atlantean rose, "Well, if you won't have me..."
"Oh, stop it," Brianhet turned away.
"That reminds me," Damon began to dress. "Did those men ever find you?"
"From Mycenae...or not. They were asking after you when you were hurt."
"Haven't heard a thing. What's that?" Brianhet reached to finger the chain Damon had just fastened around his wrist.
"A gift from my lady. Some kind of identification bracelet. See? My name and all."
"I didn't think slaves could have them," Brianhet turned the carving and read it. "'Damon - of the Bull'. Well, that's plain enough."
"Gifts," Damon told him, "are allowed. Look at yours. You've more gold now than you'll ever be able to wear."
"I don't plan to wear it. I plan to sell it."
Brianhet led the way to the door and pointed to the distant mountains. "When the time is right I'm leaving and I'll use the gold to buy what I need, and passage home as well."
"You can't leave!"
Surprised, Brianhet glanced at Damon's stunned face. "Why not?"
"Because..." Damon stopped, took a long breath, and pulled the Egyptian to the side. "Don't you realize how you stand out in a crowd? An Egyptian with blue eyes, and a scar. They'd find you in no time and you know what would happen then."
Brianhet shook him off. "You may like it here. I don't. And I'm not staying a moment longer than I absolutely have to. I'll see you later."
With that he strode away and Damon stared after him, his pugnacious face a mixture of emotions.
I went to my lady's that evening with a mixture of emotions. Brianhet had expressed a desire for my company and it was not in me to refuse him, but I knew she had planed something nice and I had promised. Promises to Atlanteans are as sacred as the bull leapers are to the Cretians. I felt the heaviness of my tread as I went through the corridors of Knossos to Elysia's chambers.
She was high born, it is true, the illicit product of a liaison between my sponsor Delineas and a true Cretian. Small, dark, and vivacious, she had smooth skin, good even teeth and uptilted breasts that showed to advantage with the Cretian styles. Her hair, however, was thick and long and she was again despairing of it as her servant let me in. I laughed at her attempt at ringlets and pulled out the combs, letting the whole mass tumble down her back. It was soft and smelled of perfume and when I buried my face in it she stopped protesting and laughed with me.
"Oh, but Damon! I wanted to look nice for you!" She paused as I pulled her to her feet, then toward the bed. "Do you understand?"
I still stumbled over my speech and mixed words for them. "I am Atlantean, Elysia. You look best with nothing between us but skin."
As always she responded with passion, and after, as the servant served us dinner while we still lay half entwined, she was heavy-eyed but talkative. I had learned much during these relaxed times... far more then I really wanted to know... for Elysia was a gossip and knew just about every piece of palace news five minutes before it happened.
Now she spoke of this and that... someone's new hairstyle, who was bedding with whom... and I only partially listened, with the rest of my attention split between her body and her food. The bull leapers' common cooking pot was just that. Common.
There was a plump grape and I popped it into my mouth, then nearly choked as she prattled a name.
"Say that again."
"What? About Casia and..."
"No, no. The other bit... the ship."
"That's what I meant. Casia's getting a new silk from the trader Andreas. She ordered it from his samples a full year ago and he's due anytime now. He comes every year, you know..."
She went on but I had stopped listening, for Andreas was well known to me, and the worms that had spun Casia's silk very likely came from one of the plantations by Anise. Oh Brianhet, I thought, I'll get us out of this yet!
I should have known better. Nothing on this side of life is that easy.
I peeled gropes for Elysia and let chewing silence her flow while I plotted and planned. I would have to get a message to Andreas at the docks as I was not allowed to leave Knossos and he must not come upon me suddenly. Andreas was not always as diplomatic as he should be... so lost in thought was I that Elysia had delved below the covers and started some plotting and planning of her own before I noticed.
I left her late and wandered the long hallways for awhile before going back to my pallet. I wanted to think -- to lose myself in my thoughts. Of all the places I've ever been, the Cretian palace was the best for just that purpose. Knossos is called The House of the Axe and the labys was everywhere, either in symbol or reality. It is said that every King of Crete must go under her double head before burial. I don't know if it's true, but there were certainly enough of the things. Even the corridor frescoes and carvings over the doors carried the theme.
I was used to such wanderings and by now the guards knew me well. We leapers were gifts to their Earth Shaker and therefore allowed almost everywhere. I presumed the royal chambers, the Goddess's Temple and the underground treasure labyrinth to be off limits, but I can't swear as I never tried to enter.
Finally I came to the South Portico where Brianhet and I had taken our breakfast before the last dance. I remembered his eyes on the mountains. Even then he had been planning to leave. Up there, despite the summer heat, snow still capped the peaks. We would never survive. If we made it that high. They'd be after us before we'd gone a mile and escapees were not let off lightly. One had run not long after we arrived in Knossos. When they caught him they used the double-headed ax on his hands and feet then left him for the bull to finish. We were made to watch. The whole palace heard his agonized screams.
No, the mountains would never work. I'd have to convince Brianhet to wait for Andreas and his trader vessel. We could...
I smiled mirthlessly to myself... we? I had not been invited to join Brianhet in the mountains and he might not wish to join me with Andreas. Like a lovesick fool I was taking for granted he would return my feelings. A few smiles, a touch, and I was lost. With Brianhet it was different.
One of the guards came to join me and we spoke idly for a few minutes. He was young, with an innocent face and an untried body. All the palace guards were less than twenty summers and pretty. It was said the King enjoyed them. I doubt if any had ever seen action on the field of battle. Crete was mistress of the seas in those days. The biggest excitement in Knossos was an occasional drunken brawl.
I don't remember his name (may his spirit forgive me), but then I knew it, and was not surprised he knew mine.
"That was some excitement at the banquet tonight, eh Damon?" he said after a time.
"Oh? What happened?"
"Don't you know? The Egyptian leaper ate something that disagreed with him. They had to carry him out I hear."
I didn't wait to listen further. There was only one Egyptian dancer and I ran to him, my heart in my throat.
The healer was just leaving as I arrived and I grabbed him before he could slip past. "Brianhet! What happened? Is he all right?"
He peered at me in the darkness, "Oh yes, it's you is it? He's been wanting you. Nasty bit of food poisoning. Funny... I never saw it work that quickly."
"It must have been mold on the avocado. I've warned the cooks... we had a case last year." He would have prattled on forever; I've never seen such a race for talking. "How is he?"
"Still feverish, but he brought up the lot, I think. He's sleeping now."
Only partially reassured, I let him go and made my way to Brianhet. Lexios was sitting by his pallet, but stood when I neared.
"Damon! We sent to find you. He was asking. But you weren't to be seen anywhere." He spoke in a lisping whisper and looked a little frightened.
"I only just heard. What happened, do you know?"
"Only that he was suddenly taken sick and collapsed on the floor. They brought him straight here and Radar fetched the healer. He's been out of his head at times, though he seems to be sleeping now. The doctor gave him a draught."
"You go to sleep," I told him. "I'll stay."
He departed so quickly he seemed to disappear under my nose; glad, I suppose, to escape my anger. But I wasn't angry, only terrified. I knelt by Brianhet and held the shaded lamp closer, the better to see his face.
His skin is naturally pale, even in the desert he barely tans. But now he was white as the sheets on Elysia's bed. His eyes were sunken, with dark circles underneath, and two bright red patches stained his cheeks. I touched his face and found him burning hot.
"Egypt? Brin't?" I stumbled over his name once again, but he responded, turning toward my touch.
"So cool," he mumbled in his own language. "That's nice."
There was a bowl of water on the table by my bed and I bathed his face with the tepid liquid. He slept on, his breathing raspy in the night-quiet.
No moldy avocado had done this. More like it was bad water and the Cretians covering up for fear of offending the Earth Shaker. They really were a rather silly bunch of people. I sat and watched him, having the time for once to look to my heart's content. His eyebrows grow differently, one arches naturally more than the other, and his mouth is incredibly sensual. I looked and dreamed until my head drooped and sleep overcame me.
I couldn't have slept more than a few minutes when he began to toss. He kicked the thin covers away and turned his head from side to side, mumbling incoherently as if he was fighting some monster from beyond time.
Wishing I had paid better attention to my teachers who talked of treating fevers, I tried the wet rag on his face again. He pushed my hand away, said crossly, "Don't!", then retched violently.
I knew enough to pull him to his side, but there was nothing left to come up and choke him. He heaved once more then relaxed, shuddering all over in reaction.
"Quiet down over there!" one of the others yelled end I gathered Brianhet's trembling body to me and rocked him, not knowing what else to do.
Gradually he stopped shaking, but when I would have released him he clutched at me, so I urged him aside and stretched out on the pallet, cradling him, whispering soothing nonsense in his ear.
He snuggled closer and sighed, then opened his eyes, and recognition was there in the blue depths. "Damon. I'm glad you're here," he whispered.
It was all he said before sleeping again but had I been given all the gold in Crete I could not have been more happy. He wanted me near, was letting me hold him close. I kissed his dark head and rested my cheek against the soft hair before I dozed.
It was not the noise but the sudden silence that woke him. Brianhet blinked and his eyes adjusted to the sunny common room. From the slant of the shadows it was midmorning and the chamber was empty. The dancers would all be at practice.
For a moment confusion ruled, then he remembered and tried to sit straight on his pallet. He was stopped by a tangle of sheets and a pair of rock hard arms that tightened around him.
Damon? That he did not remember. Surely the Atlantean hadn't taken some sort of advantage of him in his illness? No, the slim body was still clothed. And besides, Damon was not the type to play unfair games.
"Egypt? Are you awake?"
The voice was soft in his ear, full of concern, and gentle breath tickled his cheek as Damon lifted his head. For a moment green eyes stared into blue and something flared between them. Brianhet felt an unexpected melting in his belly and fire spread from his center to every pore. He shifted, laying back, pulling Damon to him, acting on instinct alone.
Damon searched his eyes, read the bewildered want in them and made a sound low in his throat. He leaned closer and his mouth touched Brianhet's, gently at first, then with hunger. The lips parted eagerly and Damon took the invitation, delving deeper with his tongue.
There was a rattle and clank at the door and Damon broke the kiss slowly. "It's the doctor. Shall I tell him to go away?"
"Yes," Brianhet whispered, but when Damon returned he was sitting up, pulling on his tunic, looking pale and flushed together.
Damon paused but said nothing.
Brianhet kept his eyes on his hands. "What happened?"
"When, now? Oh, you mean last night. You ate something bad, so the doctor says," Damon sat on his own pallet. "They said you collapsed on the spot."
"It was convenient," Brianhet said obscurely. He rose quickly and swayed. "Amon! I'm as weak as a babe."
"Where do you think you're going?" Damon went smoothly to his side. "What's going on? Come on, sit down and tell me." He read the stubborn look on the Egyptian's face and sighed, "Surely you can trust me?"
"Can I? Can I trust anyone in this place? No, don't look like that. Of course I trust you. It's just, while you were getting rid of the doctor, I remembered."
Damon pushed him down on the bed end busied himself rearranging the contents of the chest between their pallets. "Remembered?"
"I didn't eat bad food last night. I was poisoned. Deliberately. And I know who did it."
Damon stared at him, eyes wide, "But that's impossible! No one would dare!" But even as he spoke he pictured the three men with Teran. "The Mycenaeans that aren't?"
"I saw one of them talking to the wine boy... his hand passed over the cup just so," Brianhet demonstrated. "It's an old method, I was taught it by my father when I was ten. I watched just to see who he planned to do in. When the boy brought the cup straight to me, I knew."
"Surely you didn't drink it!"
"Only a sip. The rest got poured into one of those awful potted plants they insist on putting in everyone's way."
"Still, you were ill."
"It must have been a very concentrated poison," he shrugged, "I couldn't fake symptoms of an unknown poison."
He left the rest unsaid and met Damon's eyes unblinking. The Atlantean touched his arm. "What shall we do? You know about these things, Egypt, I don't."
"You're not involved, Damon. Stay out of it. Be glad Anise doesn't have such intrigues. Amenhet must truly hate my father to go to all this trouble to make sure I die."
"Yes, even to making it look like a death in the ring. Move over and listen to me a minute." Reluctantly Brianhet stilled and Damon went on, "Those men were seen with Teran more than once, did you know that? I didn't think so. That day in the ring he meant me to die."
"He was... well..."
"Jealous?" Damon smiled. "Yes, maybe. And I'll wager they used that to sway him, too. We work together in the ring, Egypt. I die, chances are you'll die, and vice versa."
"Teran must have known that.
"He would think you'd turn to him. That in the ring he could work to protect you and get the others to as well."
Brianhet thought it over silently for e long time. Damon merely watched him, noting the unguarded, still pale face changing expressions with mounting satisfaction. Brianhet believed him.
There was, Brianhet thought, probably a great deal of truth in Damon's words. It all made an obscure sort of sense. And even if the Atlantean was mistaken this time, the plan itself was entirely too available for use. That would put Damon in danger and Brianhet suddenly realized that no political plotting was worth his partner's life. Every minute he stayed in Knossos brought disaster closer. For Damon as well as himself.
"All right," he got slowly to his feet. "Then it's best I leave now. Tonight."
"You can't. You're too weak yet, we'd not get halfway to the lowest slopes before they caught us."
"Me, Damon. This is my battle. And I'll just have to take that chance."
Damon grabbed his arm and shook it like he would a recalcitrant child, "Would you stop being so donkey-headed?! Teran was after me, remember? I'm in it, whether you like it or not!" He lowered his voice and glanced around, then added quickly, "There is a way out. Safer, better than the mountains. Andreas, the Atlantean trader, comes through once a year and he's due anytime now. I know him well, Egypt. Hell take us on, no questions asked."
"Just like that? Be reasonable Damon, nobody does anything for nothing. Though I suppose..." Brianhet motioned to the chest. "Would he take the gold? Would it be enough?"
"Andreas doesn't need gold, he lives on excitement. It's like a drug he can't do without. He'll do it for the thrill."
Damon grinned at him and the look in his eyes was unholy, "Don't be so high nosed til you've tried it," he said and merely raised one eyebrow at Brianhet's astonished glare.
I made him promise me, and give his hand on it, that he wouldn't slip away yet; that he would wait awhile for Andreas and would tell me when he planned to go. All this he gave oath to, with one aside.
"If there's ever a clear chance at the mountains before your Andreas gets into port, I'll go."
It was good enough for now. I left flowers on the Altar of All Gods and requested favorable winds for the trader.
Gossip was like oil in the Knossos palace, spreading into every crevice and pit, refusing to mix with the waters of truth. Before nightfall I heard from three separate sources that Brianhet had died of the poisoning. I wondered what the three not-Mycenaeans thought and wasn't eager to pass on the news that the blue-eyed Egyptian lived.
On the second day after his poisoning he was back out in the practice ring, wary but unafraid, and the walls were lined with the curious, many of whom had seen his collapse. The three who dealt in poison were there as well, but he made no sign to them and never faltered in his practice. I was teaching Lexios my leaps and Brianhet worked with the catchers.
"I simply cannot wait until the next dance," I heard one of the more fashionable men say to another. "This is the best team in years." He paused for breath and it was no wonder. The way they cinched themselves into their clothes it was a constant amazement they could talk at all, let alone so much. I didn't wait to hear more but passed the comment to the others. You could see how the praise stoked their ability. They held themselves straighter and became more graceful with every leap. Going to their deaths with pride, I thought. It all seemed very stupid to me.
There were few women watching us under the hot summer sun and perhaps I noticed Elysia sooner because this was so. She was sitting on her cushioned seat, surrounded by a gaggle of friends.
Some might say her popularity in the palace was due to her father's importance or their money, but I had seen a little deeper into my lady. She had charm and wit and knew the trick of being a friend. I waved and she blew me a kiss while her hair melted in the heat. Two half-naked servants erected a brightly colored awning over her crowd. I felt my smile as I turned back to the leapers. I truly liked her.
"Now I see why you missed the dinner."
Brianhet had come up beside me and I nodded.
"She's a pretty little thing," he commented and went away again, but not before I heard the edge in his voice. Rather astonished, I fear I gaped after him, wondering if, just possibly, the tone was lent by jealousy. That was not a game I wished to play, but there was no way to tell him that. I got on with my duties and kept my gaze to my fellow slaves and away from the stands from that moment on.
The days passed and though each held a special something that I relived again and again lying on my cold pallet with Brianhet only his arm's length away, now they are a blur... melded into a haze by the coming events.
The three men stayed in the background, watching, waiting... the first to cheer Petro on when he charged. They made no efforts to end Egypt's life, that I knew of anyway. Poison again so soon after his last illness would assuredly cause undue speculation and any leaper murdered outright was revenged by the Earth Shaker's own bull without mercy, his body gored, then hacked and thrown to the dogs for scrap.
I grew to hate them and what had seemed an exciting game before turned to grim reality. Brianhet could die...there was no place but the common room where he was safe, and even there I watched him.
He laughed at my precautions, my insistence that I always be around, but underneath I knew he was glad of me for never once did he tell me to go away. And always he stared at the mountains.
A month passed, full of much and little. Three dances, a festival of candles and ritual sacrifices, days of sweat and dirt in the ring, and lovely nights lulled to sleep by the sound of his breath. It went on forever and no time and still Andreas did not come.
Elysia sent messages, first of inquiry (why wasn't I at her party?), then of anger, and finally of sadness. I could take all but the last and feigned tiredness one practice day to see her. Brianhet should be safe in the ring of the wooden bull.
She received me icily in her outer chamber. The room was painted to look like the sea with splashing dolphins and starfish mixing among sea anemones and twining reeds. I looked at the painted blue water, thought of Brianhet's eyes, and somehow found the words to tell her the truth.
Halfway through my tale she stopped pacing and by the end she had settled on the seat beside me, wide eyed and concerned. Her understanding unnerved me, and I faltered to a halt.
"I have to protect him," I added when she was silent. "Do you see?"
Slowly she took my hand and held it, stroking each finger that overlapped her small palm. "I see," she said finally. "He looks to the sun and you to him. I hope someday he'll see the light in you." She caressed my cheek once with gentle hands then became brisk. "Now, tell me again of these men. I think I know who you mean, didn't you ask me about them once? But just to be sure."
My lady. I have rarely met a better woman. I remember thinking at the time that she must be part Atlantean and that was the finest praise I could give.
We did not spend much time together... I was anxious to get back to Brianhet. The Great God alone knew what he might take it in his head to do if I weren't around to prevent him. I left her with a kiss and she did not cling. When next I saw her she was on the arm of one of the palace guards looking happy and well pleased.
Another week passed. Brianhet began to fidget and was cross tempered with all who came near him. I let him get away with it for a day or so, knowing that only his promise to me kept him in the House of the Axe. I was nearby when he snapped at young Lexios for no reason.
The boy stood rigid, biting his lip, near to tears, beyond answering.
"What's the matter, Egypt? Didn't he bow low enough? It's easy Lexios. Just pretend you're fit to tie his laces..." I bent over, bowing way too far and Brianhet jerked me upright.
He opened his mouth, met my eyes and sighed. "Forgive my sharp tongue, Lexios. Ignore it, please. My side... it catches."
He said the words charmingly though his eyes stayed with mine. Lexios mumbled and departed rapidly. Into the ensuing silence Brianhet whispered, "I can't wait much longer."
"I know," I said and thought with violent hopelessness, Andreas hurry.
That night I lay awake for a long time. Thoughts twisted in my head as much as my body turned on the pallet and I finally rose to go to the window. The night was clear. I leaned my elbows on the ledge and looked past the flickering lights in Knossos to the mountains beyond. The moon was bright enough to reflect off the snow topped peaks and the absence of stars outlined the black ridges. I looked for a long time then turned back to my pallet and sat there, staring across at the man I loved more than life. Finally, taking one long breath, I dressed silently and knelt at his side, touching his arm.
"Egypt," I hissed and covered his mouth with my hand. He came from his dreams with a jerk and tensed until he had blinked sleep far enough away to recognize me. When his hands that had flown to tear my grip on him relaxed I released him.
"What is it?" he mumbled and his fingers slid down to hold my arms.
I leaned over him and hesitated. In the scattered moonlight his face was clear, his eyes half open and his lips parted. I wanted him in that moment so intensely I shuddered with the longing. To feel him against me, holding me...wanting me. But I had not awakened him for this and already he was tensing again. I straightened a little and spoke his language. "Egypt, come on. Get up and dressed and get your gold."
"Is Andreas here?"
He sounded confused, stilt more asleep than awake and I resisted the temptation to stroke his stubbled cheek. "No. But you can wait no longer. So we'll go."
"How?" he was already sitting up, reaching for the chest.
"Well find something. Hurry. It'll be light in a few hours and I've got a feeling..."
He paused, "What feeling?"
"I..." I shrugged. It was something I could not put into words: an overwhelming sense of impending doom, of terrible destruction, and a call from the mountains. I had long since learned to heed this extra sense. In Anise it had caused me to leave a house in the middle of a storm and the place was hit by a twister not five minutes later; and on the ship that had gone to the sacred caves I had refused to lash myself to the deck. When she went down in the storm I was the only survivor, thrown clear and left on the Theran rocks to be sold to the Cretan bull. Listening to my inner voice had brought me to Brianhet. He didn't question then and he never has since. We're alive and together; and I still listen.
We left the common room in less than five minutes (after all there was nothing to keep us) past the sleeping guard, out into the darkness.
"All right," Brianhet still whispered. "Now what? And..."
But my attention was caught elsewhere, "Look! No, up there!"
He followed my pointing finger, "Where?"
But there was no need to say more, for he too saw the burning star. It crossed the sky as it fell, getting brighter each second and followed by a fiery tall. Over our astonished gazes it disappeared into the horizon and the sky again turned black and diamond.
Everything was quiet. Even the animals were silent and I felt Brianhet's tight fingers on my arm. "An omen!" he gasped and I laughed shakily.
"Just a close view of a falling star more like," I told him, but my inner voice was shrieking and I moved ahead with renewed energy. "Come on, Elysia will help."
He frowned and released me. It was late, but there were still parties going on in the palace. The guard waved us in with a knowing smile and never noticed our small bundles.
We passed through the corridors without seeing anyone we knew. I kept a special watch for the three men who weren't from Mycenae, but they were not about, it seemed. At least not in this part of the palace.
We climbed the first three flights of one of the long staircases and Brianhet grinned at his wavy reflection in the mirror. "We're hardly dressed for visiting."
"Elysia isn't picky."
"I know that. She's your lady."
I laughed at him and pointed the way towards her chambers. This could be tricky. She might not be there, or worse yet, be with some man. I decided to face that problem when and if it arose and we went ahead.
Brianhet, who has ears as sensitive as a bat, heard the sound before I did. He paused midstride and cocked his head, motioning for me to listen. It came from the west like thunder rumbling, and the noise grew louder, rolling close, and I waited for the final clap. But just as I remembered the clear dark sky I saw the oil lamps in front of us flicker, the pots tumbled, then the floor beneath me heaved and I fell sideways, pulling Brianhet with me.
We lay in a tangled heap and I heard the screams begin.
Around us running footsteps mixed with the sound of shattering pottery and stone, and the earth continued it's rumbling shake. One of the overhead rare iron sconces crashed nearby, narrowly missing my foot. I scrambled up next to Brianhet and by unspoken consent we worked our swaying way forward, against the surging crowd.
We stayed by the inner wall of the corridor, dodging falling masonry, trying to stay out of the way of the panicking Cretians who would have trampled us as easily as they did their own. Brianhet bent once and helped a grey haired, jewel bedecked old woman to her feet. She just stared at him blankly then ran past without a word of thanks. He shrugged and went on. Her rudeness did not stop him from helping the next or the next. And always the ground shook.
The dust was beginning to rise as the wails cracked and fell around us, and it eddied and swirled, reflecting the light of the spreading oil fires. Lamp after lamp crashed to the floor. I saw the beautiful body of a frescoed Minoan cup bearer blackened in an instant into nothing by the smoke. As always, once the disaster began my little inner voice no longer spoke... it wouldn't have mattered, I couldn't have heard it over the din anyway.
We were at Elysia's door and almost past before I realized it, "Brin't! Here!"
She was inside, struggling to dress, and some man slipped past, his face a blur of terror. I stumbled to her side and Brianhet and I together hauled her under the most convenient door frame as the far wall tumbled inward. It was the entrance to her bed chamber and already hangings were ablaze.
"Quickly, Elysia... we all have to leave here!"
"I know... but I knew you'd come. Here." She handed me her identification bracelet made of onyx and gold. "Show it to anyone in the stables and they'll let you have two of my father's horses. If there's anyone about, that is!" She had to shout it twice before we heard and even as we ventured back across the room and into the corridor Brianhet was protesting.
"We can't take your horses!"
She gave a look that silenced him. The shaking ceased abruptly, but the eerie feeling of the solid ground beneath my feet moving persisted. The sudden silence gave me chills.
"Come," Elysia led the way to a back staircase. "The whole level's going to go any second. Oh dear..."
This as we came across the light clad body of a slave. A large chunk of ceiling had fallen directly across him and his eyes gleamed white and fixed in the lamp light. One hand protruded from the stone block and lay clenched and blood streaked by Elysia's small foot.
The fires and quake had not unsettled my lady, but the bulging eyeballs and congealing blood were rapidly making her ill. Brianhet and I shared a look that bespoke the uncertainties of women and lifted her over the body.
We hurried on down the steps. This way was dark and narrow, without decoration and therefore not burning. It was a mixed blessing. There were no trampling crowds, and the air was breathable, but the steps were steep, worn slick with time and the countless feet of slaves, and cluttered with the still falling debris.
"Where does this go?" Brianhet was panting. He led the way now and we kept Elysia between us. Her feet were bare. They must have been bleeding by now, but her voice was fairly steady.
"To the far side. It won't be much more to the stables. I just wish I could see!"
"There's a light ahead. Look down there. Hurry..."
The rumbling had begun again. The stair beneath me rocked and I swear we slid more than climbed most of the rest of the way to the bottom.
The door was blocked and my heart nearly stopped. Brianhet heaved against it and when I went to help. It scraped open a few bare inches. The second quake ended as we squeezed through.
We emerged into hell.
I once stood on a hillside end watched on Eastern city consumed by fire. Brianhet says it's the most horrible thing he's ever seen, but I don't agree. The fall of Knossos was worse. In the East we were strangers, the people dying were faceless, nameless, and downwind. The House of Axe crumbled around us and the terrible screams were voices I knew.
One of the outer walls had fallen, crushing everyone in the courtyard beneath it. I began to think the slave on the stairs was the lucky one. Pitiful cries echoed from under the rubble and parts of bodies were flung about like children's toys.
Fire gouged out of windows like sheets in the wind and the smell of burning flesh was everywhere. Beside me Elysia sobbed, "Hurry..."
The stables were behind the naming palace. I concentrated on gripping Brianhet's hand on one side, Elysia's on the other, and we began to skirt the remains of the courtyard. Suddenly Elysia cried out and jerked free of me, stumbling to a mound of fallen masonry. I shouted to Brianhet and he turned back.
"What is it?"
I pointed. "Elysia! Come on!"
"It's my father!" Her voice was tortured and she dug at the stones ineffectually.
Delineas. Our owner... sponsor. The man who sent the healer for Brianhet's wound and unlike most masters expected nothing more from us than our all in the ring. I glanced at Brianhet and saw my own indecision reflected on his face.
"Please..." Elysia was crying. "He's alive! Please! Help me!"
"I'd better live to regret this," Brianhet told me and went to help.
Delineas was conscious and cursing fluently, attempting to push free of the heavy stone that pinned him. Elysia smiled through her tears when she saw us coming and pointed, "If we can move this one the others are small. They saved him being crushed but they'll not hold much longer."
She was right, of course. Another quake would bring the block straight onto him. There was no time to do the thing property. Instead we simply stood one on each side and heaved long enough for our owner to roll free then, with a nod from Brianhet, we let the block crash to the earth. It dug a hand span into the soil and lay there, malevolently reflecting the flames at our backs.
"Can you stand?" Brianhet had gone to Delineas' side.
"Yes." The reply was grim and when we helped him up he gasped sharply and bit his lip. His right leg was bloody, but functioning.
Elysia slid under his arm and took what weight she could. "You two go ahead. Now, before the wind shifts and the fires get to the stables."
Delineas lifted his head and his eyes locked with Brianhet's. They stared at each other for a long moment. I could only guess at the messages being given and received. Then our sponsor sighed heavily, "The Earth Shaker had his chance. Go. May the Goddess be with you."
I swallowed and half choked on the dust, "Elysia..."
"He's right," she said. "Go. Hurry. We'll be all right."
Still I hesitated, but Brianhet tugged at my arm. I leaned and kissed her, nodded thanks to Delineas and followed the Egyptian toward the stables.
I looked back once and they still stood, the old man and his beautiful daughter, outlined by light of fire, watching us leave. I lifted my arm in farewell and they waved back. I never saw them again.
It was far more quiet behind the palace. Brianhet called out but no stable slave answered.
"They've long since gone," he said and pointed to the tumbled bowls of stew mixing with the dirt on the ground. "I wonder which horses are Delineas'?"
"Does it matter?" Damon stepped over a fallen wooden beam. "If the wind shifts this place'll go up in no time."
The horses were plunging in their stalls, terrified by the quake, the fires and the smell of burning flesh. Damon ran to the end, called a warning to the Egyptian and began opening the heavy doors.
Brianhet narrowly missed being trampled by the first two steeds, and braced himself against a pillar, "What in Amon's name are you doing!"
"If it burns they'll be fried alive! Come on. These two look good enough. Let the others go."
"You're crazy," the Egyptian muttered but he began tugging at the nearest door.
When all but the two horses Damon had chosen were out they found serviceable halters and took time to quiet their animals. The horses were wet with sweat and danced nervously, but both men had ridden before. Damon clamped his knees firmly against the grey's sides and headed towards the nearest city gate, Brianhet just behind.
There were people everywhere, milling confusedly, calling the names of missing loved ones, or looting the burning houses. Bodies lay where they had fallen and the horsemen were forced to go slowly. No one tried to stop them. Apart from the plunging hoofs, the grim and smoke blackened faces were enough to halt anyone interested enough to notice.
The city gate was open; they plunged through like a cork from a bottle and spilled away down the road, not stopping until they reached the small temple marking biforcating paths... left to the shoretown, right to the first foothills.
Damon reigned the grey to a halt beside Brianhet's chestnut gelding and together they looked back.
The palace was alight and fire blazed from every window left. Two of the walls had completely gone and showers of sparks mingled in the glowing dust. Away from the smoke and smells and heat it was eerily beautiful and they watched for a long minute.
Finally Brianhet drew a ragged breath and coughed, "So. You came along anyway, eh?"
Damon ignored him, "I've been thinking. If we could get to the harbor we could get a ship."
"No. It's too soon. They might be looking for sacrifices," Brianhet added the last as Damon seemed prepared to argue. "I'm going right. Up there, and over to Phaestos. Come if you like."
"At least let's try," Damon almost pleaded. "Crete itself isn't safe right now, Egypt. Brin't!"
The Egyptian paused, frowning. "Oh, all right. To the harbor then, but if there's nothing ready to leave this instant I'm going to the mountains."
"So gracious," Damon murmured and they pointed the horses down the hill to the bay.
Halfway there the rumbling began again. Damon's horse reared and he slid to the ground, keeping the reins tight in his grasp. This time the sound did not roll towards them but came directly from beneath their feet.
Brianhet hit the track solidly beside him and yelled. "Listen!"
The quake was strong. Rocks rolled past them, and to the side the earth split into yawning trenches, sucking hundred year old trees out of sight in seconds. Unable to stand they fell into the bracken and with his ear pressed to the ground Damon could hear the sound. It came from deep within the bowls of Crete... roaring like the infuriated bulls in the ring denied their prey, teased by the dancers into unrelenting fury. The hair on the back of his neck rose at the sound of death.
"The Earth Shaker!"
They breathed it together then held each other and the horses as the ground convulsed again and again.
Brianhet felt a flying stone strike his arm and cried out, opening his hand involuntarily. Released, the chestnut dived away and fell, screaming, into an opening abyss only to emerge an instant later on the other side, galloping quickly out of sight.
Damon rolled and pinned Brianhet to the ground, wrapping his arms firmly around the Egyptian's head, shielding him from the shirring rocks. "Hold still!" He yelled where he judged an ear should be. "It can't last much longer!"
Beneath him Brianhet stopped struggling and wound himself closer. They lay together, fused by arms and legs and sweat while the earth bounced and the Cretian bull god roared his anger. Brianhet lost track of whose heartbeat was whose, of falling rocks and tree branches, and plunging hoofs and gave himself up to the cocoon of Damon's arms.
And then the bull stopped its roar, the ground steadied, and there was silence.
They were gasping, half covered in rubble. Damon lifted a little and looked down at Brianhet, his face a blur in the hazy moonlight. "Are you all right?"
"I will be when you get off me! Oooph!" They wriggled loose of the debris, causing a minor landslide, and climbed slowly to their feet. "Amon..." Brianhet breathed and Damon silently agreed.
In less than three minutes the landscape had totally changed. What was left of Knossos still burned in the distance, but the closer area, of trees and boulders and paths to the shore, was devastated. Nothing remained standing and long trenches carved black streaks in the roadway they had just travelled.
"I lost my horse," Brianhet said suddenly, inadequately, and Damon began to chuckle.
"You...lost...oh god" his chuckles grew deeper, peeled out in rolling laughter, and tears began to slide down his grimy face.
"Well, yes." Brianhet felt himself caught in the wave of released tension and joined in, halt sobbing as he shook. They clasped at each other and staggered, almost falling, giggling helplessly.
Against all odds they were alive, and apart from some minor cuts and bruises, unhurt.
Gradually they sobered, leaning heavily against one another for support, and Brianhet took a controlled breath. "We're both crazy," he said and smiled lopsidedly.
He would have gone on but his gaze was caught and held by the expression in Damon's odd eyes. Why had he never seen the clear depths before? Surrounded by dirt, with dust and tiny shards clinging to the lashes, they were beautiful.
"Crazy..." he murmured again and leaned forward to touch his lips against the suddenly lowered lids. He pulled back then and smiled awkwardly at Damon's stunned expression. "Shall we see it there's anything of the harbor left?"
"Yeah. Sure," Damon sounded breathless and confused, but he gathered they grey's reins and swung himself up, then held out a hand. "Come on, Egypt, we'll share. All right?"
"All right." Brianhet came up behind him. "To the beach."
It is, of course, a well-documented fact that the three major quakes of Crete were followed by a tidal wave. We rode together to the shore, saw a hundred ships stranded by the receded water and knew the wave was coming. By the time it hit we were halfway up the first of the foothills. Brianhet finally got his way. We were escaping into the mountains at last.
Dawn rose in a blaze of color, spilling light on the horrors of the night. We could see Knossos below us, and a red column of dust rose around the black smoke of the still burning palace. We rested the horse and Brianhet watched the House of Axe for a long time. In turn I watched him, and when I judged the time was right I put a hand on his shoulder, "It's all over, Egypt. All but the shouting."
"All those people..." he said quietly. "Gone. Just like that."
"There is always a purpose," I told him, but he shrugged away my touch and my words together.
I had taught him to care a little and now it brought him pain; I wanted to comfort him, but it was a growth he must undergo alone. Instead I went to the grey and led him to the spring then stripped my stained and torn clothing off and dove into the pool. It was mountain fed and icy, but I felt the night's weariness surge away. When I used the sand from the bank on my skin and hair the dirt came off, too. It tingled pleasantly and I stayed in the water, playing tag with the skittish fish that didn't seem to realize I was the same one who'd caught two of them for breakfast. I came to the surface laughing, my hair dangling its impossible curls in my eyes.
"Damon, you idiot! Are you all right? I've been calling these past five minutes!" Brianhet stood by the edge of the pool, hands on hips, looking aggressive and worried together.
"I'm fine! And clean, which is more than I can say for you! Take off what's left of that thing and come in. Be careful, it's..."
He had stripped and dived before I finished and as he came sputtering to the surface I added weakly, "...cold."
I expected retaliation and got it, but he was laughing as he dunked me and let me go immediately. It was worth it to see the heaviness of his expression lift and the shadows go from his eyes. We had seen tragedy and had been hurt, but we were alive, free, and lived to tell the tale. I came up beside him and spit a stream of water at his face. He laughed again and I was satisfied the healing had begun. We swam for awhile then cleansed what we could of our clothes and left them to dry on the rocks while we slept in the sun.
No one came to disturb our rest. We had long since left what remained of the track, and behind the trees surrounding the pool only the black cloud of smoke drifting into nothing overhead was there to remind us of the night before.
The night before... I awoke with the remembrance of Brianhet's mouth against my face and rolled to my side to watch him sleep. What had caused him to suddenly turn to me? The backlash of fear? A need to share joy in life? Or... and here my heart began to pound with hope... a signal he might be willing?
We slept the afternoon away and the sun was setting, the last of its fire turned his skin to gold in the light. He lay flat on his back, sprawled naked on the grass, one arm flung over his eyes as his chest rose and fell in an easy rhythm. There were vivid bruises marking us both. I leaned closer to inspect one especially purple mark on his arm and lightly brushed his side. He mumbled my name but did not awaken. For me, the accidental touch was enough. I wanted him... wanted him to want me... and almost without conscious thought I stroked one daring hand over his flat belly.
He stirred and his penis twitched in reaction. Encouraged, I stroked again, gliding my hand a little lower, not quite touching the growing hardness, wanting him to come awake slowly. He shifted and lifted his hips sluggishly, seeking the source of his arousal and I felt myself tense and grow as I watched him.
I slid my fingers lower, tickling at the dark hair of his groin, lightly fingering the sac between his legs. He moaned slightly and arched again and I heard him whisper, "Damon..."
I looked up. His eyes were open, alert, and he looked confused and ready to pull away from me. I could not have endured it, I think, I wanted him so badly, so I leaned to press my mouth to his to stop the words before they could be uttered.
He hesitated, and I used the moment to lick against his lips. One kiss, I thought desperately... one kiss freely given... let me have that to remember. I know I was shaking, trying to hold back my fierce longing. His mouth opened and his hands tangled in my hair, pressing me closer. I felt fire exploding inside me, igniting every nerve with the heat of passion, and my tongue delved deep inside his mouth. It was better, more erotic, more wonderful than my dreams. Having made his choice he gave himself with abandon, sucking me deeper, stroking my shoulders and arms, and back with discovering hands. Our tongues twisted about each other, tasting, and savoring until the need for air broke us apart. I lifted my head, gasping, and met his darkened eyes. My hand moved eagerly to his fully roused cock and he pushed against my fingers. "Damon..."
His voice pleaded and I could see the lust in his eyes. It was a lust for sex, not me, but it was a beginning. I kissed his eyes, the stubbled cheeks and bit gently the lobe of his ear. He was thrusting into my hand, rapidly coming close to his peak and I wanted more. If I was not careful it would end too soon. I released him and he moaned in frustration.
"Slow down, Egypt," I whispered against his ear and he trembled. As if he had spoken aloud I knew suddenly what he feared and my hands soothed him. "I won't hurt you. Relax. Enjoy it."
I kissed down his throat and sucked the heavy beating pulse at the base, then moved lower. A nipple jutted under my tongue, puckering into hardness and he held my head to its mate, gasping my name in a flow of abandoned words.
He is almost hairless on his chest, his skin beautifully smooth and soft over hard muscle. I licked and kissed and stroked at the rib lines then plunged my tongue inside his navel. His voice caught in his throat and his fingers gripped painfully in my hair for an instant, then he was encouraging me farther.
There was a drop of moisture on the tip of his cock and I rubbed at it with one finger, spreading the fluid easily over the head. The shaft was long and rock hard, rising from a thatch of dark body hair, serviced by a sac that took both my hands to cup it. I twisted my body around and to my surprised delight he drew me over him, completing the circle. His strong hands held my hips at a comfortable angle and when I sucked his shaft between my lips, he returned the motion.
We were too excited, too far already along the path to satisfaction for it to last long. I felt the gathering in him mirroring mine long before I had tasted enough, but I couldn't, wouldn't stop, and took his final thrust eagerly, sucking the hot bursts of seed from him even as I spilled my own. I swallowed each wave, wanting more, aware of the heat of his mouth around my cock, his tongue flickering against me. And when he was empty, I licked him clean and turned into the circle of his arms while we comforted each other's shudders away.
He fell asleep without a word, but he held me close against him and our legs tangled together as the smell of sex and grass mingled in the air about us.
I did not sleep, but neither did I think... I was beyond words, beyond thought, somewhere on the level of consciousness I had never been to before. I watched the last of the sun's rays pick out the new lines on Brianhet's face until the night blurred his features and then bemusedly counted stars with his chest as my pillow.
"Damon?" Brianhet breathed the name before he was fully awake and his hands lightly stroked over the body sprawled across him. The Atlantean stirred, mumbled and snuggled closer, and Brianhet half smiled at the child-like gesture.
He raised one arm, stretched and used it to pillow his head while his other hand absently traced patterns across Damon's muscled back.
It was almost morning, the fire had burned into glowing embers. He would have to get up soon and add wood. It had taken them hours to get it going in the first place, a procedure he had no patience with, especially as Damon had teased him unmercifully the entire time.
Not that he really minded. It was a type of ribbing Brianhet was becoming accustomed to, even growing to like. He wondered how long they had been in the Cretian mountains. One full moon... two? The sudden heavy rains had blocked a view of the sky for days and they travelled, ate, slept, as the mood came upon them.
Now they were high, sheltered in one of the many mountain caves, with hot food in their bellies and the satiated feeling of spent sex relaxing them. He hadn't meant it to happen. Hadn't reckoned for the fire that leapt inside him every time Damon touched him. A fire that got hotter as the days passed instead of burning itself out.
The first time, there on the foothill slope by the pool had been a surprise. He had come out of sleep and dreams already past the point of no return, and the feel of hands on his, a mouth on his, had taken him easily beyond his self-control. Afterwards he had felt foolish, had been a little curt and aloof... too unsure and afraid of his own feelings to be comfortable in Damon's company.
There was only one horse and all the next day they had ridden, slowly climbing, following whichever way seemed easiest, while Damon held one arm around his waist and his legs rubbed constantly against Brianhet's. When the dusk made travelling too dangerous they stopped, ate from the red-berried barberry shrubs, and took shelter under a scraggly almond tree. He had known Damon would reach for him. It was there in every look, every touch, and he had planned his arguments logically. He knew exactly what to say.
But Damon had merely said, "Goodnight", and turned away.
Brianhet lay in the cooling cave and remembered the scene, smiling broadly at his own expense. Frustrated, angry for some reason, he had shaken Damon out of sleep and demanded, "What are you doing?"
"Sleeping," came the wary response.
"How can you sleep at a time like this?"
"What time is it?" Damon rolled to blink at him.
"I don't mean that," Brianhet snapped.
"Well then, what do you mean?"
Flummoxed, Brianhet opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Nothing," he said finally and lay back in the grass.
"Egypt," Damon leaned over him, one hand on either side. "Is this what you want?"
His lips were soft, nibbling, defying the strength Brianhet knew lay behind them. Damon raised himself. "Well?"
"No," the Egyptian whispered, shaken by the instantaneous response in his body. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
"You've been cross all day, Egypt," Damon went on serenely. "I figured you were sorry about what happened yesterday. I'd rather have you smile and be... friendly... than the sex. If it's going to disturb you so much, frankly it's not worth living with a bear."
When Brianhet just stared at him, astonished, he went on, "I enjoy sex, Egypt. I like making my partner feel good... I like feeling good myself. To me yesterday was good, but you act like it's all dirty and demeaning. I don't agree with that attitude and I never will. You're not dirty to me and I won't let you make me feel that way!"
He turned away then, hunched in a ball, with his back to Brianhet.
With all their teasing, everything that had happened to them, never before had the Egyptian heard real anger in Damon's voice. The sense of loss was incredible, overwhelming, and he reached out tentatively, "Damon, I didn't mean... Amon! I never thought that! Never!"
"Then what do you want? What in Hades are you afraid of? Did I hurt you? Did you feel anything but good?" Damon rolled to look at him. "Well?"
Brianhet shut his eyes, "You're right. It felt good. And I don't know what I'm afraid of."
"Look," Damon sat up. "Do you want me? Do you want to be friends and lovers or not? You have to say."
"I..." and unable to speak he pulled the Atlantean down, opened his mouth and let the fire consume them both.
So much for good intentions, Brianhet thought. His stomach rumbled loudly and he almost laughed aloud. All this ruminating might be good for the soul, but it didn't stop the need to empty his bladder or fill himself with food. He tried to slide out from under Damon but the Atlantean spoke, "Don't bother, I'm awake."
"Then move, will you? You're killing my bladder!"
Damon rolled easily to his feet. If anything, their travel had made them leaner, even more fit, and Brianhet watched Damon stoke the fire with real appreciation of his lover's body. He had known Damon's movements in the ring, had been taken with the graceful flow of one gesture into another, but now he had a special knowledge. That spot on his flank was ticklish, a touch on the back of his knees turned him into insatiable jelly, there was a tiny mole just above his shaft... it was a lover's knowledge and Brianhet felt himself harden just thinking about it.
"Here," Damon threw him a heavy cloak. "You go first. I'll start the food."
Brianhet wrapped the cloak around himself and headed out of the cave. It was misty... or they were caught in another low cloud... whichever, the dawn air was cold and he was grateful for the wrap. They had managed to bypass the highest peaks, somewhat to his disappointment. It would have been nice to see real snow up close, interesting, a story to tell his grandchildren someday, but safety was more important, as Damon had pointed out, so they went around the snow covered mountain tops and Brianhet was glad it was no colder than it ever got here.
They had found clothes, utensils and weapons early on. Passing by a lonely farmer's hut they had gone to trade gold for food only to find the only occupant crushed by the fall of the back wall of the building. They buried him in a deep grave to keep the animals away, surrounded the old man's body with what valuables they could find, and left a god-looking statue at his head before filling the pit. Then they took what they could carry... anything they might need to cross the mountains ahead, and Brianhet rode the half wild mare they found in a paddock behind the hillock.
He jumped the three feet to the ground below the cave's ledge and went into the bushes, then untied the grazing horses and led them along the stream to water. The grey had bruised a foreleg several days earlier during a slight landslide and they had halted their crossing of the peaks to let him rest and heal. Brianhet felt down the leg and was pleased to find the swelling completely gone. One more day then, and they would move on.
And go where?
To Phaestos. He had a vague longing for clean sheets and a woman's body. But even supposing the harbor hadn't been destroyed and ships were available, was he to go to Egypt? Back to the life of his father? To be a priest, to marry a woman of his father's choosing and serve out his days divided between petty court intrigues, little affairs, and supplication to a god?
The life he had known before, had looked forward to, suddenly seemed small, tight, suffocating. Brianhet looked out over the deep green of cypress and cedar forests peeking through the wisping fog far below and realized he'd outgrown that life. And besides, what of Damon?
Confused, he wished his grandmother were here. His father's advice would come from the head... his grandmother's came from the heart. He turned and hurried back to the cave, pausing only when he heard Damon's cheery whistle echo from the entrance.
"Careful. You'll cause an avalanche," he warned and Damon snorted.
"Come stir this, it's my turn."
"What is it?"
"Got me. A little of everything," he looked doubtful. "Smells all right."
"I won't tell you what it looks like."
"Thank you," Damon said gratefully and disappeared over the end of the ledge.
By the time Damon had returned Brianhet was dressed in the rough warm clothing he'd appropriated from their mutual pile and the breakfast concoction was apparently cooked. But he was no closer to a solution to his problems. He ate what was put in front of him, too lost in thought to notice Damon's worried glances in his direction and the Atlantean had spoken twice before his voice registered.
"I said, what's wrong?"
Brianhet waved an all-encompassing hand. "Nothing. Everything."
"Well, that tells me a lot."
"I was just thinking. When we get to Phaestos, presuming there is a Phaestos, what happens then?"
"What do you want to happen?"
"That's the problem. I don't know."
Damon finished his breakfast and set the wooden bowl carefully on the ground, not answering.
After a moment Brianhet shrugged, making a determined effort to set his problems aside, "Did you check the grey? I think the swelling's down."
There are times when I wish I had the divination powers. I once saw an Eastern seeress conjure an entire city in a pool like a painting on the water. If I could have shown him Maruka then... our beautiful house with its gardens and farm; the cool courtyard where I write this...maybe Brianhet would not have been so worried about the future.
But I suppose it's best we find these things out for ourselves. I write from the end of the journey, looking back to the beginning and I remember my own confusion.
I wanted to be with Brianhet and I wanted to return to Anise. I wasn't sure what he wanted, or if his desired future included me at all. So I lived for the moment, not wanting my idyll to end, knowing it would. Sometime soon we had to return to the real world and I would have to share him, maybe even leave him.
My mind always balked at the thought. I could not bear to leave him. It was inconceivable. And if that meant I might never see Anise again, then I would accept that.
We left the high cave the second day after the grey was healed and soon began the long descent to the southern side of the Island. The earthquakes ravages were constantly in view. Streams cut new paths through jagged edged gorges, cedar trees toppled lopsidedly against each other in a forest so thick they held each other up while their branches blocked the sun. There was no path we could find through the tangled woods, so we made our own, always taking the downward slope.
We did not hurry. Any excuse to pause in our travel held us. Brianhet, it seemed, was just as anxious to stretch this time out of time as I was. We hunted small game and seasoned the pot with wild growing phlomis, thyme and burnet. Herbs were something Brianhet knew about and I learned a dozen new tastes at once when it was his turn to cook.
At night we lay together by the fire (it took him awhile, but he finally learned the trick of it) and talked about our homes, our families, the cities of our birth. At least I talked, he liked to listen and rarely spoke of his life in Thebes. I finally asked where his blue eyes came from and he told me of his beautiful grandmother whose name I found harder to pronounce even than his. She was captured from one of the northern tribes and given to the Pharaoh as a gift. But Brianhet's grandfather whom, I gathered, was some high ranking nobleman, had wanted her. There was a favor owing and she was handed over. Brianhet's mother had been blue eyed as well. He spoke of his grandmother with clear affection and some amusement; she still lived, surrounded by adoring servants, ignoring the traditions of ages to do exactly as she pleased. Brianhet's father apparently didn't like her much and his mother was long since dead. Taking courage in both hands I expressed a desire to meet the old lady.
His eyes grew speculative in the firelight but all he said was, "She'd like you." Then our gazes met and all thought fled in the face of the passion that flowed between us.
We came out of the forest the next day. It ended abruptly, one minute the trees towered over us and the heavy undergrowth tangled about the horses legs and the next we were in a terraced orange orchard, carefully tended with only the ever present spurges and heath mingling amongst the trees. We could see clear to the shore from this height and there was nothing but simple village groupings between us and the water.
"We must be further east then we thought," Brianhet said and pointed his horse toward the first of the small houses.
The people here were true Cretians, like Elysia, small and dark, without off-island blood to mix and change them. The girls were modestly covered and giggled shyly as we rode past. With the mountains behind us we had long since abandoned the warmer clothes and in the forest our tans had faded. They exclaimed over Brianhet's pale skin and followed us to what seemed to be the main house.
As we drew closer we saw this place was different... all stone with painted doors and a small fresco on the front wall.
"It's a temple to the local god," Brianhet said in a low voice. "Let me handle this."
With half the village gathered around us we dismounted and waited for the priest to come forth. Brianhet handed me the mare's halter and spoke coolly to the silent house. "Priest within, we are travellers seeking to honor your deity. We wish nothing more. Allow us to enter."
Startled, I glanced at him. It was the first time I saw him use his temple knowledge and though I have seen it many times since it always amazes me. He seemed to grow in stature until he towered over us and one of his gold chains appeared to float in the air before him. He had stepped to one side and as the temple door opened a single shaft of sun came through the clouds to outline him in light. The effect was marvellous and the crowd fell back and hushed.
The chain drifted to the feet of the long robed priest and Brianhet bowed. The priest was old, but his eyes were sharp. He glanced once at the gold, then ignored it, but not before I saw the feral gleam in his gaze. He stood aside, "Enter, travellers and welcome."
The clouds shifted, the beam outlining the Egyptian faded and he was my Brianhet once again. Small dark places bother me so I opted to stay with the horses. He nodded then entered the temple, bending his head to go through the small door. It closed behind him and the crowd surged forward again, asking questions, offering food and shelter. I was obviously the servant of a great man, nothing was too good for me. I thought it was funny and remembered this "great man" pitching over the head of a horse to land in a patch of nettles earlier that day. No, Brianhet was only special to me, and I loved him as much for his faults as his attributes.
The gold chain lay where it had fallen... Brianhet has since shown me the trick of it... but it wasn't long before the door opened as a younger priest grabbed it up and disappeared into the dark inner sanctum again.
The oranges, of course, were not in season, but the people brought me a myriad of other fruit including my favorite black mulberries, and I had finished a small roasted chicken when Brianhet finally emerged. He was alone end paused to let his eyes adjust to the outside brightness. "You all right?"
I waved a chicken leg at him and stood up. "Just fine. You?"
He nodded, then glanced around at the people. Not one of them lifted their eyes above his knees. "What's all this?"
We spoke his language and I smiled. "Maybe they like your sandals."
He patted a little girl on the head and produced a gold coin from behind her ear. "Little one, point us to the western road and you can have this."
She pointed eagerly and Brianhet ruffled her hair, then dropped the gold piece into her palm. He has a way with children, perhaps because he likes them so much; always they follow him about, anxious to obey his slightest command. The little Cretian girl kissed his fingers, then we mounted the horses and left the village behind.
Mostly we stayed by the shore, letting the horses pick their own way through the quakes' wreckage. The tidal wave had not hit on this side of the island, but the tides had surged taking every boat for miles to crash against the reefs. It took but a day to come in view of Phaestos. This palace, too, had been heavily damaged, but in the time we had spent crossing the mountains repairs had begun. We camped outside the city walls in a grove of olive trees and bathed, then shaved our beards for the first time since the quake. Men in Crete are beardless and the last thing we wanted was to stand out in the crowds.
It was hot, we were too close to the city to be bothered by wild animals, so we didn't bother with a fire and ate our supper cold.
I looked down on the lights of the palace and all its surrounding city and knew the dream was over. Tomorrow we would re-enter the world. I must have sighed, done something, for Brianhet laid aside his bowl and touched my am.
"Are you all right?"
"Of course." No. Inside I'm terrified. I can not lose you.
He smiled slowly and I felt a long finger stroke my cheek. "I hardly recognize you without all that fur."
He hesitated. "Damon?"
"I've been thinking..."
"Do you find it painful?"
His chuckle was more like a snort. "Be serious for once, you idiot," he sucked a breath. "Amon! Don't do that... I can't think when you do that..."
I took my hand away obediently and shifted to one side. He was too close and then I couldn't think.
Brianhet went on, "I have to go back, Damon. I've thought and thought and there's no way around it."
"Don't you want to go back?"
"Yes and no." He grunted as he leaned back on his elbows. "That bastard Amenhet. I want him."
"But," I suggested.
I stayed silent. There was, after all, nothing to say.
In a while he said quietly, "Damon. What is it? Are you cold?"
It was a good enough excuse for my shivers. He had too many problems of his own to be burdened with mine, even it I could have told him what they were. "Is that an offer?"
We met in the middle. He was never reluctant, always ready now that he no longer feared me. His mouth was almost hungry, and his touch practiced, sure. Climax came swiftly for me, but I lingered over Brianhet's body, taking him slowly through the phases until he was lost, sobbing out his peak against my throat, his hardness slick between my thighs.
Afterwards came the more important time when we just held each other, listening to slowing hearts, moving contentedly into comfort. Generally Brianhet fell asleep first, but that time he stayed awake.
I had always considered my hair impossible and the curls a bother, but he likes it, he says, and I suppose it's true for he frequently plays with the tangles. That night he smoothed it back, "So soft," he whispered.
"It grows that way."
"I'm glad," he said and was silent for awhile.
I relaxed against him, as always too exalted to do more than just feel.
"I wonder..." he shifted slightly to breath better, "...if Delineas and Elysia made it all right."
"I hope so."
"I liked her. I even kind of liked him."
"Do you think anyone will be searching for us?"
"You sound pretty sure."
"We're not important enough. Not with all their other problems."
"Huh." He thought about that for a time. He was so used to being important I don't think the idea that he wasn't had occurred to him. "I'm glad," he said finally and couldn't understand why I began to laugh.
The city gates were open and two fully armed guards stood solidly in their path. "State your business."
"We're travellers," Brianhet said easily. "We were in Mallia during the quake. Looks like you've had quite a bit of damage."
The elder lowered his figure eight shield slightly, "Yes, but not as much as Knossos from what we've been hearing."
"Oh?" Damon's tone was noncommittal, barely interested.
The guard nodded and lowered the shield completely. "They got a big wave as well. I don't know what they did to anger the gods, but we're the only decent port still open in the whole of the land."
Brianhet followed the man's gaze towards the docks and waved a hand, "You've certainly got enough business going on down by the pier.
"Traders from almost every coast. Buzzards." He spat. "Will you be needing lodging?"
Damon spoke up quickly. "Yes. Just a room and a meal. Nothing special."
The younger guard took an interest long enough to say, "Yarmo's widow has a spare still going, I think. Down there and two streets to the right. It's just by the whorehouse... ask anyone."
Brianhet tossed each a coin, they parted and the horsemen entered the busy city. Damon glanced back, "That was easier than I thought it would be."
"Why should they suspect anything? I imagine it's all pretty open right now. Besides, it's your honest face. No one would ever think you'd be up to no good."
"I've got a mother and two sisters back in Anise who would disagree with you there," Damon grinned.
"It's only we who know you, know what a lout you truly are."
"To know me is to love me," Damon crowed and Brianhet shook his head in mock despair.
The house they wanted was easily found and they offered one gold chain for a week's room and board.
"I've only the one room," the old lady told them. "But it's clean. My husband built this place solid, we didn't have much damage from the quake."
"It'll be fine," Damon assured her. "Mainly we just want privacy to rest up from our travels."
She eyed them with suspicion, but was too greedy to let the finely worked gold chain go to another. "In advance then and if you're not here dinner goes to the dog."
The house was small with one sleeping room on either side of the living area. They dumped what clothes they had kept from the old man's things on the floor and Brianhet touched the one lumpy pallet with his toe, "Probably has lice."
"Live dangerously," Damon advised. "Come on, let's sell the horses. We can use the money."
A marketplace had sprung up by the docks as the enterprising traders and Cretians alike took advantage of the island's disaster. It was a seller's market, prices were high. People of all ages milled about looking for anything they could find to rebuild their lives. The horse traders were at the far end. Damon was offered 150 shekels for their pair and bargained it up to 200 before he gave in. He handed Brianhet half the coins. "The gelding alone was worth twice that," he said, disgusted.
"We've still got most of the gold. Casia was very generous," Brianhet told him. "Let's hope it's enough."
They drifted amidst the surging crowd, not really caring which way they went, listening to the hawkers' cries and fierce quarrelling that seemed to come from every booth. Damon was watching, fascinated as a single brace of chickens went for 20 shekels when a hard hand clamped on his wrist.
"Don't turn," Brianhet whispered urgently. "Just keep going. Round the back. Carefully..."
He didn't ask questions but did as he was told. There was a second quieter alley behind the first and Brianhet led him along its length, not quite hurrying to the first booth that was enclosed.
"Just looking," he told the woman who glanced up eagerly at their entrance, then pulled Damon towards the back.
They were the only customers. Damon glanced around at the glazed pottery, "What's going on?"
"I saw them... well, two of them... back there."
"Saw two of who?"
"The men who tried to poison me. They're here in Phaestos!"
Damon stared at him. "Did they see you?"
"No. I don't think so. Amon! What now?"
"Phaestos is a big place."
"Well have to leave here sooner than we planned," Brianhet took a breath. "In Knossos we had some protection, here we're not safe anywhere. Damon, I..."
"Do you see anything you like?" The old woman bore down on them and noted with bright beady eyes the jar Damon had automatically picked up. "Now that one's a real treasure. We won't be getting any more of those in. Not ever."
Damon glanced at the design then looked closer. "Why not?"
"It's from Atlantis," she said with great relish.
Damon's voice was quietly controlled, "Oh? Atlantean traders come this way occasionally. They might be a little slow these days with all the Westland opening up, but..."
"Where have you two been?" The crone poked at the jar. "Atlantis isn't there no more! The whole island sunk. There's not a trace! They say," she confided, enjoying herself hugely, "Part of the moon fell right in the middle and it broke up like caked mud."
"Damon..." horrified, Brianhet turned, but Damon had gone and the jar smashed into a thousand pieces as it hit the floor.
Like a dying animal I crawled away to lick my wounds in privacy. I was wet with sweat and shivering, my heart pounded and I was dizzy... but these things I didn't notice. Only when I look back do I remember the frightened looks the people gave me as I passed. At the time I just knew I had to get away.
I left the city, and more by instinct that design, found the olive grove we had slept in the night before. The grass still lay crushed from our bodies' weight and I sank down on the thick green and leaned against the trunk of a tree.
Gone. Atlantis was gone. In a couple of happy sentences an old woman had taken away my foundations. It was worse than the quake, for this shook my inner rock and I was not sturdy enough to stand the blow. I could accept not ever seeing Anise again. For Brianhet I could accept it, I had thought. But that was knowing that my land was still there. That I always had the choice of going back. Now there was nothing...
Sometime during that black afternoon, I cried. I didn't even realize the tears were there until they ran salty into my mouth. I choked on my sobs, then gave way to grief and poured my pain into the Cretian soil until I was hollow and could cry no more.
It was there Brianhet found me and held me, not saying a word, just wrapping himself like a blanket around my shock.
When the sun began to set I felt a need to talk and he listened to me ramble on about my friends, my family and my life in Anise. I doubt I made much sense... to tell of a lifetime in a few hours is impossible and I went from one thought to the next without reason. But he never questioned, only listened, until finally I was dry of words. It was then I had a notion. "Egypt, maybe she was lying. Maybe..."
"No," he said gently. "I checked at the docks. There are two captains there who saw it happen. I don't know how they got out alive... but their stories are exactly the same. Atlantis is gone."
I closed my eyes, accepting his wards, feeling nothing now but exhaustion. Somehow he got me back to Phaestos. I vaguely remember walking, doing exactly as he told me to do, nothing more. He put me to bed at our lodgings and guarded my healing sleep as I had guarded his. When I dreamed and woke he hushed me back to sleep, and in the morning I ate because he ordered me to do so.
We stayed inside for three days and the widow Yarmo, when he told her of my loss, patted my head, called me "poor boy" and thankfully left us alone. On the fourth day I woke up hungry and for the first time ate without being chivvied into it. Brianhet smiled and left me to it and didn't fuss when I pushed the plate aside unfinished.
There were heavy blue circles under his eyes and weariness hung round him like a cloak. I realized suddenly that he had not left me once. That he was always awake and ready to be there for me, and the toil it was taking on him showed.
"Go to sleep Brin't," I told him, feeling guilty. "You look awful."
"Later," he said quietly. "Are you thirsty?"
"I'm fine. No really," I added and suddenly knew it to be true. "I'm fine."
His eyes searched mine and I didn't look away. I had forgotten for a time that Atlanteans believe life must go on. Now I remembered... and though the pain will always be with me... from that moment I stopped looking back.
He seemed to read my thoughts for he sat back and sighed. "I'm sorry."
"I know. Thank you." My smile was crooked.
"I thought last night," he began, "what you need is a major dose of my grandmother."
"Yes. So you'll come back to Egypt with me and don't argue. It's decided."
What I had wanted, hoped for... prayed for. We mortals must be very careful how we wish. If we're not careful it will be granted.
"All right," I agreed. "But first you must get some rest."
"Later," he said again. "First there are things you should know. Here, the widow brought this mead for us yesterday. Drink some and listen."
So I sipped at the sweet flavored drink while he told me the news.
"When you ran out of the shop I had to stay to pay for the jar... oh, I got you these." He reached into the pouch at his waist and handed me three small ivory statues. I took them silently. He could have no idea what a tremendous gift he had just bestowed and now was not the time to tell him.
"They were all she had left of Atlantis," he added. "Anyway, then I went looking. One of those captains I told you of is your Andreas. He'll be in port another couple of days, I think. I didn't tell him about you."
I nodded, still fingering the statues. Andreas, I thought, could take me to the caves.
"And I wasn't very careful," Brianhet had gone on. "My ever present enemies saw me."
This brought my head up. "What?!"
He looked embarrassed. "Well, I had forgotten them, you see. I was looking for you. I couldn't think where you'd gone... I was worried..."
I saw. Oh Brianhet. "What happened?"
"Nothing really. I turned a corner, and ran right into them. I don't know who was more surprised. I didn't even think... just apologized for my lamentable clumsiness and went on."
I couldn't help it. I laughed.
"They followed me," Brianhet ignored my giggles. "But I managed to lose them in the marketplace before I left the city to find you. They're probably still looking for me. Rotten bastards."
I began to understand even more. It was only a matter of time before they found us, and every moment we stayed on Crete we were in imminent danger. Here, of course, we were not slaves. Here we could stand and fight and possibly win. But I was not willing to take a chance with Brianhet's life. They had money and mercenaries could be bought. The Great God alone knew how many combed the streets even now. Out numbered in a foreign land, the odds were not in our favor. Two more deaths in the city right now would hardly raise an eyebrow.
We should have gone days ago. Instead he had stayed with me, keeping vigil while my mind healed, knowing what danger he was in and holding it to himself. Until now.
I stood up and managed not to sway. It was the fastest I had moved in three days, but if I faltered he ignored it.
"We'll have to go now," I reached for my sandals. "I'm sure Andreas will..."
"Not yet," Brianhet stopped me with a touch on my arm. "After dark. Right?"
Damn. He was right. I wasn't thinking. I went to the pallet. "So we wait until tonight. Rest."
"In a bit."
He seemed nervous suddenly and played uneasily with the ties of his waist pouch. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I told you... yes."
"Then I'm going out for a few minutes," he waited for me to protest, but I could see he had his arguments ready. I said nothing.
I watched him pulling on his sandals, running his fingers through his hair... his movements were jerky, like when he first faced the bull. But he said no more than, "I'll be back soon," before he left, and I merely nodded good-bye.
In Anise I once had a pet cat. I found her living in the wild and too hurt from a fight to run from me. I nursed her back to health, kept her safe in my rooms, gave her food and water. But always she would scratch at the door, trying to be free. One day I could not stand her plaintive cries any longer and I let her go. I knew where Brianhet was heading as plain as if he had shouted in my ear. The cat came back...
Brianhet shut the door of the widow Yarmo's house quietly and looked around. The sun was high and in the distance he could hear the sounds of the city rebuilding; but the street was quiet, the only passers-by more interested in their own problems than a man standing alone. Satisfied he was not being watched he left the coal shadows and went the short distance to the house next door.
It was larger by far than his lodgings and better cared for as well. The stone dwelling sprawled out rather than up and therefore had sustained little apparent damage from the earthquake. The walls were smooth, painted with bright figures that reminded him a bit of the temples in Thebes. His city seemed a long way away just now.
He knocked twice on the painted door and waited, resolutely refusing to look back to the widow's.
A minute passed, then two and he was beginning to wonder if he should try again when the door swung open and a large woman with improbably curled hair smiled as she stood aside for him to enter.
Whorehouses, he thought, were all the same. Oh, the decor might be different, quality of the choices better or worse, but somehow they still managed to look and smell and feel alike. He listened with half an ear to the woman's spiel and handed over the coins she wanted.
"A woman," he ordered curtly and the fat lady clapped her hands.
He had a choice of five. They were all young, supple, dressed in the bare breasted Cretian style. Brianhet looked them over and hesitated.
"Are none of these to your liking?" the woman asked. "We have younger, but you said 'a woman'."
He glanced back at her then back to the girls and saw only slanted green eyes, red brown curls and a puckish face. The woman was speaking again, anxiously now, and he smoothed his frown. "What?"
"I asked if something were wrong?"
"No. Nothing." He turned and smiled at her. "I just wondered what on earth I'm doing here. Thank you."
She stared after him and when he had gone remembered the money in her hand. "Never mind, girls. That was the easiest 20 shekels we'll ever make!"
He crossed the red packed dirt to the widow's, each step faster than the last, until he almost ran the last few paces. Throwing open the door he called, "Damon!"
The Atlantean appeared in the shadowy living area. "What is it?"
With Damon actually in front of him, his jade eyes rounded with astonishment and ready for anything, Brianhet stopped short.
"I'm back," he mumbled and couldn't think of another thing to say.
Damon came closer and cocked his head to one side, "Yes."
Brianhet seemed frozen in place. "I went next door," he managed finally.
"You didn't say anything."
Damon smiled. "Since when do we have rules? Claims?"
"Since now," Brianhet said fiercely and reached out his hands.
Damon went to him willingly and the Egyptian's arms closed around him. "I shouldn't have gone."
"Of course you should."
"No. I knew it as soon as I got there."
"You couldn't know you shouldn't be there if you didn't go," Damon pointed our reasonably. He tasted the skin at Brianhet's throat and felt the pulse under his tongue accelerate rapidly, fast enough to match his own. "Come on," he encouraged softly and pulled the Egyptian into their tiny room.
They stood facing each other, barely touching, their breathing quick and light. Damon reached out a hand and lightly traced the curve of his lover's cheek. "Are you sure?" he asked faintly. There was a gleam in the Egyptian's blue eyes that he had never seen before. Something he hesitated to identify, fearful of reading too much of what he so desperately wanted it to be.
When Brianhet made to pull him closer Damon held back. "Be sure, Egypt. Once you're mine I'll not let you go. Not ever."
He held his lover's eyes with his own and Brianhet thought suddenly that it sounded as if Damon were saying a vow.
"Beyond your temples. Brin't, your father -- beyond your land and your Pharaoh...beyond death we'll belong to each other."
Brianhet sucked a breath but his gaze never wavered. "I stood there looking at those girls. They were nice enough, even beautiful. But none of them were you." When Damon still held back, his green eyes unfathomable, Brianhet searched and found the words. "You make me laugh. You make me happier than I've ever been, ever dreamed of being. You're the other half of me. I'm very sure."
This time when he pulled Damon came eagerly. Their kiss was light, softer than the very first time. Damon wrapped his long arms around the Egyptian's waist and held him tightly for a long minute, half terrified this gift would vanish before his eyes.
Brianhet slipped his fingers into his lover's unruly curls and held his head still. He kissed Damon's eyes closed, brushed his lips over the Atlantean's high cheekbones, lingered over the edge of his mouth. He could feel the rising hardness of Damon's passion throbbing against his belly and he arched into it, suddenly desperate to be closer.
He ground his hips nearer and Damon groaned. Brianhet's knees turned to sand at the sound and he knelt, bringing the Atlantean with him to the narrow pallet. There were hands on him, quick and sure but trembling just slightly, then his tunic was gone, tossed carelessly to the floor next to Damon's own. He lay back and looked at his lover through half-closed eyes, watching as Damon stroked him.
Damon knew his lover's body now, the places to touch that brought him the highest pleasure, and he used his knowledge, lingering over his flat belly, the soft inner thighs, the small spot at the base of his throat. But when he would have taken the rigid shaft into his mouth Brianhet stopped him.
"No," he panted, and managed a smile through his barely controlled passion. "Lie back." Puzzled, Damon stretched out and Brianhet rose to straddle his legs. For what seemed an eternity the Egyptian just looked at him, drinking in the body of his lover, delighting in the hard muscle, the broad chest covered with hair that tapered to his waist. He reached to finger one nipple and it tightened instantly in response. Damon breathed his name and arched.
"Do you like that?" Brianhet touched his other nipple, then slid his hands down. He ran his fingers along the base of Damon's abdomen, feeling the involuntary flutter, then edged lower still. He leaned closer, kissing his lover, enticing his mouth open to explore the moist depths. Damon tasted of sweet mead and something that was his own essence and Brianhet savoured the flavor. He felt Damon groan and left his mouth to kiss down his throat, sucking and biting lightly, to his chest.
Damon was lost in the feeling, thrusting blindly against the warm body above him when suddenly it was gone. He almost cried out, his eyes flying open as he searched for Brianhet. "Egypt please!"
The Egyptian had moved lower and now he kissed the tip of Damon's shaft, felt the urgency in the tight sac. "Do you want me?" he asked softly.
The tone of the voice was odd. Damon rose on his elbows and looked at him. Their eyes held, green and blue, and the Atlantean whispered, "Yes."
Brianhet smiled and rolled away to his side, his back to his lover. "Then go ahead."
"Please. I want to feel you inside me. Do it, Damon. Now... Please..."
Damon pressed close against him, ran his hands in ever-harder patterns across his flanks and belly, and began to kiss down Brianhet's spine. The Egyptian shivered in anticipation as Damon's tongue reached the apex of his buttocks and bent his leg when one hand slid between his thighs.
Damon moved again, fitting himself to Brianhet's back and his hands teased. One saliva wet finger circled then gently entered him and Brianhet gasped as sensation curled from the sensitive nerves to shoot through his entire body.
"Yes," he whispered and his body signalled, "more".
A second finger slipped inside, dilating the taut muscle, advancing and retreating until Brianhet relaxed and moved with Damon's rhythm. The fingers slid away and the Atlantean kissed the back of his neck. "If I hurt you, you'll tell me."
There was pressure and more pressure and a swift pain that was gone immediately. Again the pressure, then Damon drew him to his knees, covered and slowly entered. He paused, trying to control his body's urge to move, "Brin't?"
The pain was there again but submerged with trust into pleasure, then beyond. He pushed back, wanting more and Damon thrust completely inside him again and again, harder, stronger each time. An arm reached round his waist urging him until they were both sitting up. Damon ran his hands down his lover's sides to his groin and grasped the straining shaft, working it in rhythm to his hip's movement. He was close, lost in the dark secret pleasure of Brianhet's body, but he wanted them to come together.
Brianhet groaned, felt the rising ball of sensation coursing through him and cried out as he exploded. There was a throbbing inside him, Damon's voice in his ear and then nothing but incredible feeling that went on forever.
He shuddered the last of his release and relaxed against his lover, drained, replete, completely satisfied and gasping for air.
It was much later, when they were half asleep and tightly wrapped in each others arms that he remembered what Damon had cried out in that shared moment.
"I love you," the Atlantean had said and he had answered immediately and with complete honesty, "I love you, too."
There was no moon that night. The widow Yarmo brought us something for dinner that both filled the stomach and warmed the blood. Brianhet thanked her and told her we might be gone soon.
"Is your friend better then?" She watched me eat as if I had no wit. And I suppose after the last few days that was understandable. I was not used to being around the elderly, and with her halting bent walk and occasional lack of hearing she was no preparation for Brianhet's grandmother. That redoubtable old lady could outride us all and hear a whisper three rooms away. No one knew for sure just how old she was. Brianhet says she stopped counting at forty summers but she acted thirty and still had a choice of lovers when I knew her.
But I digress. The widow went away with our empty bowls and Brianhet checked our packs. "It will be completely dark in another hour. We'll go then."
I had waited until now to tell him of my plan but still I hesitated. He was Egyptian, raised in a temple, and though he never spoke of it, most assuredly had religious beliefs that differed greatly from my own. But I had to explain, to attempt to make him understand the quest I must undertake; for until I had undertaken my obligations to my own family I could not become a part of his.
"Egypt." I called him quietly but he knew my tones of voice by now and came at once.
He sat on the pallet beside me, relaxed and easy. So different from the man I had first met. "What now? Second thoughts?"
"About leaving Crete? You? Great God no," I marshalled my explanations. "I need to tell you something. It's not exactly secret, but not well known to people not of Atlantis."
He raised an eyebrow and waited expectantly.
"Do you remember in Knossos when I told you why I was on that ship in the first place?"
"Something about caves..."
"Yes. The Sacred Caves. When we die we are cremated and the ashes are generally mixed with clay then made into a statue. They look like these," I held out my hand and showed him the three ivory figures he had given me. "Bigger, usually, and decoration depends on the family's wealth. Once a year, every year, a ship sails from Atlantis carrying all the statues of all the people who have died. Do you see?"
"It's a custom that one man from each of our five regions be on board. It's sort of an honor and I was chosen to go this year."
"But what do you do with them?"
"We take them to an island. It's north of Thera, no one lives there, of course, and we put them deep in the caves that face the east."
He looked fascinated and a little shocked together, "Why?"
"It's part of our religion. Atlantean's believe in life. In the living. And we don't like being surrounded by the ghosts of our dead. So we have a ceremony of sorts and send the remains, in the statues, to another place. I don't know why that particular island. Probably it was just convenient or something. Anyway, that's what we do... did."
I could see he was trying to understand. "Why are you telling me this? Why now?"
"Because I'm going to ask Andreas to take us... or me, if you won't come... to the island and I'm going to add these." Again I showed him the figures, "to the others. For my mother and sisters. I don't have their ashes, but they were my family and I want their spirits to rest easy with their ancestors."
I thought I knew him, and in many ways I did, but at that moment he surprised me. He did not argue, did not question or laugh at my beliefs. Instead he kissed me gently on my cheek, "I think that's wonderful Damon... by all means we'll go to your island."
He added then, "That is, will the spirits allow me there? I'm not Atlantean..."
"It's not that kind of place," I smiled remembering the beautiful, if barren land. Egypt wasted whole lifetimes building great structures for their dead and filled them with all manner of things. Atlantis spent its time on the living and left the afterlife to the wisdom of the Great God. "Believe me, the only lives which might resent our presence are the wild goats and they stay out of sight for the most part."
He was already thinking of the practical. "You know, if your Andreas would be willing, this might work out for the best."
"If he could carry a message to my father... let him know I'm alive... we'd be assured of safe entrance into Egypt. He would send a ship for us, and Amenhet wouldn't stand a chance."
"Andreas," I told him with certainty, "will love it."
I was right. Andreas, when the whole plan was explained, did love it, and his full red beard fairly bristled with eagerness. "So. Damon, as always you find your feet when everyone else flounders," he ruffled my hair with his massive hand and looked at Brianhet long and hard. "He knows our ways, then?"
"Yes," Brianhet answered tartly, "He does. Well?"
"How much gold do you have? I'll have to get supplies."
"And pay for the voyage," Brianhet reminded, handling the burly trader all our valuables.
"Any trip to the caves is sacred," Andreas told him, "and cannot be bought." He looked at one of the gold chains with a practiced eye. "Going on to Egypt, of course, is commissioned."
He grinned at me as he said that. He'd have done it for the adventure, even just for me as a fellow Atlantean had I allowed him to, but he wasn't stupid. If Brianhet offered gold, Andreas would find a way to accept it.
His ship, the Hawk, was berthed in the deep water of the farthest pier and we found it without apparent trouble. I knew the lookout from childhood, was greeted joyfully by the crew, and practically crushed in the captain's fierce grip. They accepted Brianhet at first because I told them to; later, when they realized he was willing and ready to carry his load and cheerfully with it, they took him in like one of their own.
So few of my people were left. Late that night, while his men scoured the city for supplies and Brianhet slept out of sight below deck, Andreas took me aside and told me of the sinking of Atlantis.
We sat crossed legged on the foredeck, kept safe from prying eyes by the awnings, and drank Atlantean liquor from Atlantean cups. Andreas, it seemed, had been delayed by the marriage of his sister to a man from the Westlands on the other side of the great ocean. The party had gone on for days as they often do, and only the need to deliver his commissions had finally dragged him away.
"We were riding the night tide," he told me, "already out of sight of all but the Tower Rock."
I nodded. I had climbed that huge natural edifice countless times myself to watch for incoming ships. And when I left on my own voyage the rock was the last I had seen of my land.
"It was awful, Damon," Andreas became serious and looked past me with suddenly aged eyes. "A huge glowing thing appeared from the east and flew over us. Everything lit up like day and fire fell in the sea all round. It must have hit Atlantis on the gorge line... I don't know...but the sea went crazy and we tossed like a cork. I was sure we were dead."
"I saw her go from the crest of a wave. Oh God," he closed his eyes and I touched his arm. At least for me I was told... I doubt I could have lived with the memories he held.
"She just... broke up and... sank. The sea whirled like one of your baby sister's tops and it almost sucked us in. Frankly, I don't know why we were spared. Or Marius either." He nodded toward the second Atlantean trader docked beside us. "The next morning there was nothing. As if Atlantis had never been. We stayed, of course, for a bit, to see if there were any survivors, but there was nothing... nothing."
I could see by his eyes that he spared me the details and I was glad. Silently we finished the bottle, tears on our cheeks, then he went to his men and I to Brianhet.
We never spoke of it again.
The Hawk sailed with the dawn tide and no one but two meagre shiploads of Atlanteans and one Egyptian knew who was aboard. Damon waved farewell to Marius and his men sadly, knowing he would not see them again. He had never met the men from the Atlantean western region, but they were brothers nonetheless, made kin by the death of a beloved land.
Brianhet joined him by the rail and they watched silently as the island kingdom grew tiny, lingered dark on the horizon, then disappeared altogether.
"I suppose," Brianhet turned away, "I should say something very meaningful to be handed down through the coming generations, but frankly I'm just glad to be rid of the damned place."
"It wasn't all bad," Damon protested mildly. "Was it?"
Brianhet glanced at him, "No. Not all."
"I quite liked that particular patch of nettles you so ingeniously discovered," Damon went on irrepressively and danced easily out of reach of the Egyptian's retaliatory swipe.
"If you two are finished playing around we could use some help," Andreas growled from behind them, then spoiled it by grinning broadly. "We've a ways to go, you know, and you're not on a slaver now. On the Hawk everyone works."
They sailed north and a little east through a myriad of islands and Andreas pointed out the changes the quake had wrought. Entire settlements were destroyed on the hardest hit, with no one left to rebuild the land. The trader was philosophical, "It won't matter. Already we hear rumours of whole shiploads coming to stake claims."
"And you?" Brianhet asked. "Where will you go after Egypt?"
"Across the Great Ocean," Andreas stared off into the distance, absently watching the antics of a school of dolphins. "There are Atlanteans there. My sister sailed a full day before us. She may be alive."
Brianhet was fascinated. "What's the land like? And the people? Is it far?"
Hecktos stared at the empty pier and cursed fluently, "They're gone. Just when we finally find them they disappear again. I swear, that one has the luck of the gods."
"Where do you think they've gone?" his companion shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun on the water, but no half-hoped for sail appeared on the horizon.
"Back to Egypt. Where else? I'll tell you something, my friend. If we plan to live, we'd better get to Amenhet first. He doesn't like surprises much."
Together they turned end picked their way through the bustling crowd. By nightfall they had commissioned a vessel, end by dawn they, too, had left Crete behind.
The Island of the Sacred Caves had changed somewhat in appearance, of course. It was only to be expected. What we did not expect was the collapse of what must have been half the reefs. The Hawk was too big to sail uninjured into the bay below the eastern caves. Andreas shrugged and went a little further. In the next bay there were no reefs at all. Brianhet and I dived into the middle of our surrounding troop of dolphins and swam to the sandy beach with no problems, except one over-curious fish that seemed to want to come onto the sand with us.
Andreas waited only until we stood in the foaming surf and waved, then the Hawk moved away, quickly disappearing over the horizon, and her dolphins went with her.
I was tempted to lounge in the warm water for awhile but Brianhet seemed anxious so we plodded ashore, dug for our sandals in our small packs, and began the trek to the Sacred Caves.
At first I thought the caves destroyed and my heart sank, but a second, closer look proved me wrong. The rock mantle over the entrance had crumbled, true, but we could pick our way over the rubble with nothing more than a scraped knee for our trouble. The entranceway torches had fallen from the bronze sconces but we found them easily enough by the light that filtered in through a new hole in the roof. I watched Brianhet's face as he saw the red, yellow, and green geometric patterns decorating every surface, but other than a raised eyebrow he stayed expressionless. How different it was from the temples and tombs of Egypt I could only guess at the time. Now I know, and far all their beauty I like our simple paintings better.
There is a legend that says a great holy man named Leore was among the first of the voyagers to visit the caves. I remember my mother reading me the tale of how he blessed the stones so that no intruder, man or beast, would disturb the statues. I don't know if it's true, or even very logical, but certainly no bats clung to the high ceiling and no prints but our own disturbed the new layer of dust.
Brianhet set about lighting the torches and held his high to look around, "We'd better be careful," he warned. "No telling how much damage was done. Now is not the time to be trapped in a cave-in."
"Is there a good time?" I asked and he laughed and relaxed a little.
There was some rubble that had not been there before, but as we worked our way down the long passage I could see that the cave itself was still essentially sound.
There are several entrances to the Great Chamber and it seemed all of them were still open, for the air was fresh and I remembered the tang of mint and phlomis from my earlier trip. The Great Chamber itself is immense, roughly circular, and a fresh water stream cuts straight through the center of the room. Brianhet stood in the entrance for a long time, staring round at the figures he could see in the flickering torch light, their faces serene and angular.
I knew how he must have felt. It's one thing to hear about our custom, another altogether to see the thousands of models, all very alike, lined up row upon row.
In the ancient day, all the ashes of the dead for an entire year were put into the center of a large statue like the filling in a pastry. These heavy figures lined the walls in natural or carved out niches, and though they were larger, the carving itself was crude and indistinct as much from underdeveloped craftsmanship as the ravages of time.
Brianhet went to look from one to the next, his face a study of conflicting emotion. "I've seen this before," he said suddenly.
"In my dreams. I used to dream of this cave when we were in Knossos. And you. I dreamed of you."
"Good, I hope."
He slanted me a glance but didn't answer. "Why are some of these big and some small?" he finally asked, and winced when his overloud, nervous question echoed back from the black recesses where our meager light had not penetrated.
I told him about the filling. "Then some of the richer families decided they wanted their own, so the figures got smaller and far more numerous. Look... those are about a hundred years old over there. And mine go here, in the new line."
His curiosity overcame his reluctance and he came closer. "They're all women. There's not a male looking one anywhere. Is there?"
"We come from woman, we return to woman," the phrase that was such an essential part of the sacrament slipped out automatically.
"Oh," he said, and watched while I set the ivory figures he'd given me in place. I mumbled the placing words and felt a weight lift from my heart. I was free now, without obligations, and someday, in the way of time, the pain would blunt. I smiled at my lover, "That's it. You ready to go?"
He was taken aback. "That's all?"
"Yes. Come on," I turned back towards our passage.
"Wait a minute. Where do these other openings lead?"
There was no heavy feeling of apprehension in the cave, nothing telling us to leave. "Well, that one goes to another cave. It's long since full of these big statues. And that one across the way leads to an underground lake. That's all I know."
"Well then, let's find out," his look challenged. "We're not in any hurry. Unless it's forbidden or something."
"Atlanteans never forbid anything," I told him dryly. "Haven't you discovered that yet?"
"I'm learning," he told me and led the way.
There was more fallen rubble in the passage Brianhet chose and I felt like a school boy again, exploring the unknown as we clambered over the rocks. There were paintings here, too, but the colors were faded and the designs more circular then those in the entrance passage. They didn't look Atlantean to me at all but Brianhet pointed out that styles change. He also found some ancient writing, but I couldn't read the chipped scrawl. This tunnel was much longer than the others but the air grew fresher with each step and sometimes whistled about us.
Brianhet, remembering I suppose, my dislike of small dark places asked, "You doing all right?"
"I'm fine," I answered. And I was. Somehow his presence made everything exciting rather than frightening, and what would have been a nightmare alone became a sort of adventure. He was ahead still, leading the way, and therefore he found the opening first.
"Damon! What's this?" He bent over and in the half-light I stumbled into him.
We had rounded a natural bend in the passage and almost immediately the tunnel had lightened, becoming bright enough to see without the torches. Brianhet had stumbled over a large pile of rocks. He examined the walls, "Look... these marks are new, this way must have just opened. Watch it, you idiot. You break a leg now there's no healer to help you."
I extracted my foot from where it had slipped between two stones. "You mean you wouldn't set it for me?"
He raised an eyebrow, a characteristic I was beginning to learn meant any number of things. "I can thing of better ways to play doctor with you," he said.
"Oh? Do you intend to ravish me?"
"Actually I was thinking of you ravishing me, but first..." he tugged at the rocks then jumped back quickly as the pile fell away.
We must have gone clear through the mountain, for the sight that met our eyes as we stepped into the light was the sunset radiating over the water in glorious colors no artist has yet been able to match. We watched, caught up in the magic, as the fiery ball sank into the waves, then Brianhet pulled me close and kissed me. He teased my mouth open with his tongue and gently invaded while his hands slid into my tunic to stroke bare skin. My knees lost strength immediately and when he eased me down onto the grass I went willingly, moaning already as I felt his hardening length against me. I strained closer and our clothes fell away under eager hands. He began to kiss me... my whole body... licking and nibbling until I writhed under him, almost mindless with the feel of him.
His hands caressed, encouraged, and I felt long fingers slide over my cock, then between my legs. I rolled to my side, and he hesitated, "Damon, I've never..."
I turned my head and reached to kiss him, "I want you," I whispered and thrust back against his hand. I felt a finger slip inside me and gasped. He was hard and throbbing against me then his finger was gone and the heavy pressure of his shaft began to fill me.
He was gentle, holding himself in check, afraid of hurting me. But I didn't feel pain, only the pressure then unbelievable pleasure. I wanted him completely, filling me, and reached to pull him closer, pushing back against his hard length. He made a sound and began thrusting. One hand gripped my member, working it in his rhythm, until I cried out and came. My pulsing set him off. He shuddered along my back, his entire body shaking in reaction. It is always thus with us, we give and take totally, and each of us is equal to the other.
He held me then and we slept where we lay on the mountainside, wrapped like spoons in the mouth of the cave until the cooling evening air drove us back inside.
Brianhet shaded his eyes against the morning sun, "Damon! There's a ship on the horizon!"
Further below him, halfway down the hill where the herbs he was seeking grew in wide patches, the Atlantean waved acknowledgement and turned to look over the emerald water. They had seen ships before, not many, for this island was not in the path of traders, and none in the two months they had spent here had come close enough to be identified by design of vessel or sail.
A second sail appeared and Brianhet slid down the rocky path to stand beside Damon. "Blue and red sail on the first ship! I think it's Andreas!"
But Damon had already identified the Atlantean trader. His eyes were on the second vessel, following close now as they headed directly for the bay. "That's one of yours, Egypt. Great God it looks clumsy! How ever do you keep them from sinking?"
"Prayer," Brianhet grinned and followed Damon toward the beach.
The two ships anchored in the curving bay; the ocean-worthy trader, and the ponderous ornate Egyptian vessel.
"You would know," Brianhet said, eyeing the dissimilarities, "that my father would insist on arriving in style. We've better ships than that."
Damon glanced at him and didn't answer. The Egyptian's tone was acidic and somehow Damon knew that the last two months had removed forever the dutiful son. He didn't think Menanhotep would be at all pleased.
"Do we swim for it?"
"No," Brianhet pointed. "They're lowering the skiff."
"By the way," Damon began gathering their meager collection of belongings, "Just what do you call your father?"
"Sir," Brianhet said with grim amusement. "It's the only name he answers to."
Two swarthy Egyptians manned the skiff and they grinned broadly at Brianhet's tattered appearance but said nothing, merely taking the two bundles and stowing them in the floor of the craft with the disdain they deserved.
Damon eyed the skiff doubtfully, "It doesn't look big enough for all of us."
"Live dangerously," Brianhet threw the Atlantean's phrase back at him and Damon shook his shaggy head ruefully but stepped into the boat and sat down gingerly.
They were rowed close by the Hawk and Andreas came to the rail to wave down at them.
"When are you leaving?" Damon yelled and Andreas laughed.
"Don't worry, it's not goodbye yet! I'm leading that great barge back to Egypt!"
Satisfied his gratitude could later be expressed over something more palatable than salt water, Damon sat back and took a good look at the ship they were fast approaching.
Rope ladders had been lowered and strong eager hands helped haul them up and into the gilded ship. He glanced around, taking in the slave rowers, the brightly painted wood and finally the man who sat before him in solitary splendor.
I think in all my life I have never seen a man with colder eyes than Brianhet's father. He was a handsome man, unstooped, and his hours serving his god inside a temple had prevented the sun's aging wrinkles. His hair was still dark, too, and in many ways his son bore his features. But one look into those onyx black eyes and I was chilled to the bone.
He was waiting on the Egyptian ship in the shade of the gaily embroidered awning, his richly colored robes enveloping him to his feet, only broken by the large gold seal he wore around his thin neck. I hated him on sight.
"Sir," Brianhet bowed and Menanhotep raked him from head to foot. "I'm happy to be with you again."
He didn't answer. The icy gaze turned to me and for Brianhet's sake I made obeisance. "I am..."
"I know who you are." He dismissed me rather like swatting at a bothersome fly. "Nebrianhet, explain.
"It was Amenhet, Sir," Brianhet said, and Menanhotep merely looked bored. "I was drugged and sold to a Cretian trader."
"Entirely your own fault. After this have your woman brought to you. We will speak later when we have privacy." Again the eyes flickered to me and away. "Go now and wash and dress. You," he almost ground out the words in my general direction, "will be conveyed to the Atlantean vessel, of course."
"No, Sir," Brianhet's voice was soft. "Damon stays with me."
I was proud of him. He made a stand there on the deck of that awful ship and in all the days to come he never backed down. And even if I had known then that it would almost cost me my life, I would not have changed it.
Menanhotep was too smart to argue. "Very well. Go."
Brianhet winked at me as he turned and I smiled back. We went into a cabin area amidships where two slaves greeted Brianhet by name and motioned us toward a steaming bath. It was not overlarge, scented with musky oils and Brianhet insisted I get in, too.
"I do not take baths with perfume," I told him and he skid his hand over the water, drenching me in one swipe.
"Now you do. Oh come on, get used to it. Damon, for Amon's sake let the boy have the towel. It's his job to wash you."
I let him wash my hair and back, no more. And when we got to Egypt I did myself entirely... except for the times when Brianhet and I were alone.
The ship, powered more by rowing slaves than sails, had begun moving at once and as soon as we left the calm bay the steady rise and fall of the sea caused the bath water to splash everywhere. The two boys mopped it up silently, but without sullen attitudes. One of the first things I learned on that ship was that the slaves that served in Brianhet's house liked him unreservedly. I doubt he ever thought about it at all, he was so used to them, but I could tell. My opinion of Egyptians went up. No group of people who cared for Brianhet could be all bad.
Once I had suffered the indignities of being towel dried by a total stranger, I was given a gauzy white thing. "What's this?"
"Your clothes," Brianhet was already lifting his material and his voice was muffled. When his head emerged from the folds he let go and wiggled slightly. The gauze fell neatly into place around his shins. "See?"
"Yes," I replied. "I certainly do."
The material was almost invisible, especially where the slave had missed a spot of drying.
I never did learn the trick of that little wiggle and consequently the sheaths always clumped more than draped around me. The boy who seemed to have made me his personal project twitched at the folds.
"What's your name?"
He made an incomprehensible mouthful of sounds.
"Nice," I said. "Can I call you Sol?"
Sol blinked at my random pick of syllable, but nodded shyly. He laid out the eye painting brushes and motioned me to a chair. "Is this really necessary?"
Brianhet nodded. "Sir would appear to want to be formal."
"Wonderful." I let Sol paint me as he would. At home I would have insisted on doing it myself, but here there was no mirror and besides, the way the ship was rolling I probably would have poked my eye out, or worse yet, gone to dinner with black streaks down my cheeks.
When Sol deemed me done I went to stand by my lover. His boy had just finished the grooming and the change was remarkable. The long dark hair had been cut close to his head, his eyes shone clearly blue from the darkened lids, and the white sheath almost glowed next to his faintly tanned skin. He looked very good, very stern, and very Egyptian. Then he grinned and he was my Brianhet once more as he opened the cabin door.
The sun was still shining and it took me a moment to adjust to the bright light. Brianhet had already gone to his father's side and as I approached they stopped speaking and glared at each other. Menanhotep shifted the glare to me, then motioned to a hovering slave.
"We will eat."
The meal was silent and uncomfortable. I nibbled along and thought about Anise, the welcome I had looked forward to, the joy and relief of my family. As soon as the dinner ended I excused myself. Maybe Menanhotep just preferred to talk to Brianhet alone.
Sol directed me to a pallet on the afterdeck, then took himself off. I lay in my borrowed finery, starring at the stars just appearing, wondering what the morrow would bring. I was half asleep when Brianhet found me. He curled against me and wrapped long arms around my waist, then kissed me.
"Your feet are cold," I complained, more relieved than I would admit that he had come, "Was it bad?"
"A bit. Here," he sat up and pulled off his clothes, then added mine to the pile. "That's better." He had come prepared it seemed, and he spread the soft blanket over us. "Damon."
"Hmmm." I was already close to sleep again, relaxed now that he was safe beside me.
"It wasn't much of a welcome for you."
"Sir doesn't like me."
"Give him a little time. He lives in a very ordered world... where he gives the orders."
I rolled to look at him. "I've really upset things, haven't I?"
"Thank you, yes," he smiled and pulled me close.
"What about Amenhet?"
"He doesn't believe me. Thinks it's all my overactive boyish imagination."
"Hush," Brianhet put a finger over my lips. "I know him. He'll think it over and check it out when we get back. He's no fool."
I was furious but could say no more. Brianhet closed his eyes and sighed, "I'm glad you're here."
Me too, I thought. It looks like you still need someone to guard your back.
The days passed and with each sunset I knew Menanhotep hated me more. Though I rarely spoke in his presence my influence on his son was obvious. Brianhet no longer took orders without question and even occasionally outright defied the priest. They argued, and always I was the core of the matter. The first morning I overheard Menanhotep stop Brianhet as he was about to come into the cabin.
"You did not sleep inside as I told you," Sir said.
"Where were you?"
"Hereafter you will sleep in the cabin by me."
Brianhet sounded amused, "No, Sir. I've gotten used to sleeping in the open. Besides, there's not room for all of us in the cabin and I doubt if he'd like sleeping by you anyway."
"No, Sir. Damon has just lost everything, don't you see? He needs me. And I need him. Now if you'll excuse me."
After that the cold black eyes followed me everywhere, and for all the comfort of the Egyptian ship, I wished with increasing fervour that Brianhet and I were back with Andreas. The trader was always just ahead, her blue and red sail clear against the emerald sea.
Sol seemed determined to turn me into an Egyptian as quickly as possible. The clothes, the shoes, the food and drink, all of these I could tolerate, but I put my foot down when it came to my hair. I let him trim it and no more.
"But Menanhotep told me..."
"I don't care what he told you, get that blade out of here."
Sol turned to Brianhet for reinforcement but found no help there.
"Let it be and content yourself that I am now looking faintly respectable," Brianhet told him. "Besides, I like his hair. It reminds me of a bird's nest."
Sol choked on his involuntary laugh and gave up. When next Menanhotep saw me he pursed his thin lips. Another mark against me.
We were half into the new moon out when Sol came stealthily up to us one day and began puttering around. Brianhet was teaching me one of the board games Egyptians are so fond of. It's called Senit and is played with draughts on a squared layout. The set was typically opulent, the pieces made of faience, and the carved wands we threw to dictate our moves were of ivory. Brianhet, who in those days invariably won, was irritated at the slave's hovering.
"Sol," (he'd begun to call him by my nickname), "you're blocking the light."
"Sir," the boy hesitated and glanced at me. I liked him and smiled... not really paying attention, too concerned with getting my cones past Brianhet's spools to listen. Sol took a deep breath and whispered urgently into his master's ear.
Brianhet's expression never changed. All he said was, "Are you sure?"
"All right. If you're right, when we get back you'll be rewarded. Oh, and Sol, thank you."
I moved my cone triumphantly and prepared for the turnaround, "What was that all about?"
"Maybe nothing. But listen. Tonight, just follow my lead, eh? Come on, you rat, just because you're ahead doesn't mean you can keep the wands. Hand them over."
With all the knowledge of hindsight I should have seen it coming. I don't know why I didn't. Perhaps because Menanhotep is Brianhet's father and for all my dislike of him I still couldn't, or wouldn't, believe he'd stoop so low. To his credit, once Brianhet eyes were opened, they were wide open. He never doubted Sir's perfidy. But then he'd known the man a lot longer than I had.
Menanhotep's personal slave, a man as tall and thin as his master, came to tell us the evening meal was ready. I rose at once; after all, Brianhet was winning again. I was hungry, and the sooner we got it over with the better.
We always ate dinner under the gaudy awning with Sir presiding in his full priestly robes. I suppose he did it to make me feel like the low-born vermin he so obviously though I was... but all I ever wondered was how he kept those long folds out of the soup.
Brianhet was casual, and as the meal progressed I began to realize he was too casual. Beside me his legs were iron-tense and his hand lay quietly on the table. Brianhet's hands were never quiet. Something was happening... what had he said? 'Follow my lead'... and so I would do if I could just figure out what that lead was.
The slaves rowed on, their oars creaking and splashing in a monotonous pattern. Menanhotep was speaking of mundane temple matters as always... anything to exclude me from the conversation, to remind Brianhet of his place, which was away from me.
The rock hard grip on my knee almost made me yell. Brianhet's hand, a warning, but he was speaking easily, answering some question about Cretian art.
When he turned to me I had to work to keep my expression bland.
"Damon, you don't have to eat that to be polite. I know you don't like pomegranates. Here, have my orange and I'll take that. Now Sir, about the frescoes... there was one on the South Portico..."
I love pomegranates and Brianhet knew it, but still I was slow. Until I saw Menanhotep's face. It looked splotchy, mottled. like rotten potatoes, and his eyes almost held emotion as he half-snatched the fruit from his son's hand. "Don't eat that!" he snarled, then seemed to recall himself. He became the cold, impassive priest once again and added, "It had a bad spot."
The understatement of the year. I sat and peeled the orange, then sucked at the slices, giving half to Brianhet, and my mind whirled.
Poison? Great God. Surely he didn't hate me that much.
I glanced at Sir and our eyes met. I had been a fool. For not only did he hate me, he despised himself for wasting so strong an emotion on one so insignificant as I. I really believe the man thought that in a day or so his son would have forgotten me. I blinked and looked away.
Social courtesies continued as if the ugly little incident had never happened. But as the slaves took our plates away Brianhet suddenly leaned forward. "We're over halfway now, aren't we, Sir?"
"Then it's appropriate we, Damon and I that is, spent some time on the Atlantean ship."
Menanhotep didn't even look up from contemplating the swirling wine in his goblet. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Damon wants to reminisce with his old friends," Brianhet lied coolly. I only wanted to be where he was and so I had told him at length the night before.
"Then let him go. You will stay here. It will give us time to begin catching you up on your studies."
"Oh, there's no need for that. Excuse me," Brianhet stood and made a gesture. Immediately a torch was lit in the bow and a slave waved up and down. The flames wavered in the gathering darkness end I saw that the slave was Sol. "As you see, Sir, the signal is given. I'm sure you'll agree I owe Andreas a visit."
"Sir. Surely you must see that I can no longer embrace the worship of Amon-Re as my profession."
Menanhotep roared to his feet and reached across the table for my throat, "This is your doing!" His fingers never reached me, mainly because I simply stepped backwards. All the slaves were staring and the armed guards appeared out of the gloom behind the priest.
My reply was regrettable, but the words were out before I could stop myself, "Yes," I said. "It is my fault! For the first time in his life he's..."
Brianhet stopped me by rather unsubtly stomping on my foot.
"It you'll excuse us, Sir? We'd better get our things."
There was nothing Menanhotep could do. Already the Hawk was close by and any orders to stop us would almost be an admission of guilt. Those guards were there to protect Brianhet as well as his father and since I was obviously not threatening either of them... besides my brawny Atlanteans were known for their fighting capabilities.
Sol doused the torch in one of the water buckets, then met us at the skiff.
"Sir," he knelt on one knee in front of Brianhet, "Please Sir, take me with you. I..."
"Get up; my Egyptian tugged at the boy's shirt. "And don't ever do that again. It's damned uncomfortable. Yes, certainly you may come. Your life wouldn't be worth a wooden shekel after we've gone. Damon," he turned my way. "Stop looking like you're going to burst with questions... I'll explain when you're safe."
And I had thought to guard his back.
We rowed the skiff ourselves. Not an easy task in these rough waters, and Andreas met us as we were hauled aboard.
"Change of plan?" He looked so hopeful that I laughed.
Brianhet shook his head, "Damon just wanted to travel with you for a bit. I don't think our food agrees with him."
"This is Sol," I covered my confusion... so Andreas wasn't to know the truth? Well, I could understand. I pulled the slave forward.
Sol looked up, and up, and up into Andreas bristly beard and fiery eyes and swallowed.
Andreas clapped him on the back with a hand that nearly sent the boy back over the rails. "Welcome aboard the Hawk, son. Have you eaten?"
Brianhet dumped the rolled pellets Andreas had given him on the deck and went to join Damon at the rails. The Atlantean glanced at him, his involuntary smile half-shadowed in the darkness. "Sol all settled?"
Brianhet nodded. "Good."
They stood silently, watching the moonlight on the foamy green waves for a long time, each thinking his own thoughts, both listening to the sounds of the ship at their backs.
Brianhet spoke so softly Damon had to strain to hear him.
"You saved my life. Thank you."
"Thank Sol. He took his life in his hands coming to me when he overheard the plot."
"How'd you know it was the pomegranate?"
"We all served ourselves from the common dishes," Brianhet reminded him. "The fruit was brought separately."
"What will your father do now?"
"Act like nothing's happened. Follow us back to Egypt, present his long lost son to Thutmoses, continue to try to murder you."
They looked at each other and twin smiles began to appear. When they spoke, it was together. "Live dangerously!"
Brianhet chuckled low in his throat, "Between you and Andreas I may never sleep soundly again."
Damon followed him to the pallets and began unrolling one, "Makes life worth living."
Brianhet stared dawn at the curly head and remembered the first time Damon had spoken those words. "Still just makes me nauseous."
THE DARKER SIDE OF BEAUTY
Egypt. Land of extremes. Of dust hot and desert cold, of extreme wealth and total poverty, of drought and flood. Damon stood on the deck of the Hawk and stared at the passing countryside as the ship made its careful way up the river. He had expected to disembark somewhere on the Delta, in Lower Egypt. To be conveyed in a smaller craft or possibly by chariot to Thebes. But the channel was deep and wide and Andreas had elected to deliver them directly to the city.
There was too much to see and the sun glared off everything, even the heads of the cheerfully waving workers on the shore.
Today, Brianhet had said. Today they would see the cliffs known as The Place of Beauty where so many queens and kings were secretly entombed. The palaces and shrines and temples...his head began to pound and he turned away. For all its majesty, this was a place of death and he wanted no part of it.
There was a shout as they rounded a slight curve and Thebes speckled into view.
"Great God," Damon breathed and beside him Andreas laughed.
"What were you expecting? After Thebes, Knossos looks like a country village."
"Egypt never said..."
Andreas looked to where Brianhet stood eagerly at the bow. "He wouldn't, would he?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Damon," Andreas spoke quietly, his voice a low rumble, "I'll be here another month before I sail. If you need anything... you or Brin't...well, you know this misbegotten crew of mine... they love a good fight."
"Aided and abetted by their captain..."
"Something like that."
Damon offered his hand and clasped the burly Atlantean's arm firmly, "Thank you."
The Thebian docks were a hive of activity. Faces of mixed races, all burned to leather by the relentless sun, swarmed to meet them, and experienced hands caught the ropes that heaved the Hawk against the wooden pier and secured her.
Brianhet looked around at the high cliffs that outlined his city and wondered at his lack of feeling. It was good to be home, but none of the overwhelming excitement he had expected filled him. Thebes was still beautiful, the huge temples were still brightly painted, and the sounds and smells were still exactly as he remembered. Why then did he feel as if he were a visitor and it all belonged to someone else, in another lifetime?
Thebes hadn't changed, but he had. He shaded his eyes and scanned the docks. Surely he knew that banner? Green and gold...
"Damon! Look! My grandmother's come to meet us!"
"To the right... Amon! Did she bring the whole estate?"
If the docks were a hive then the woman standing straight and solitary to one side was the queen. She was surrounded, at a respectful distance, by a small army of guards, scribes, and various other people Damon could only guess the functions of. Her long blonde hair blew loose in the breeze and her dress, white but richly embroidered, was sheer enough to show a still youthful figure. Damon swallowed and threw aside all his preconceived notions about a kindly old lady. "That's your Grandmother?!"
"Saskamariana," Brianhet supplied her name again and grabbed one of the riggings to swing himself to the rail. He waved and the woman waved back, her straight white teeth gleaming as she laughed.
Behind them, on the other side of the pier, the Egyptian ship made fast. Planks were lowered, the crowd fell back, and Menanhotep began his descent to the dock.
"Come on," Brianhet leapt easily down beside Damon. "Stop gaping... you'll swallow a fly. I don't want to miss this."
They said quick farewells to Andreas, gathered up Sol and their bundles and made their way to intercept the more decorously moving priest.
"Grandmother's here," Brianhet said, after bowing.
"Your propensity for stating the obvious never ceases to astonish me," Menanhotep looked him over and reluctantly nodded approval. He ignored Damon so completely the Atlantean glanced down to make sure he was still visible.
"Come," the priest ordered, and led the way toward the lady's entourage.
As I sit in the courtyard of Maruka in the cool shade of spreading oaks, with flowers blooming everywhere and the distant sounds of the little waterfall and Sol's wife Bethsida banging pots in preparation for dinner, I can still see that confrontation as clearly as if it had happened this morning.
Saskamariana ignored Menanhotep as completely as he had ignored me and threw herself at Brianhet, laughing and crying and giving him all the welcome his father had not. She spoke with only a trace of accent, but her words were a breathless flow of light.
"Damn you Brianhet, you've grown another hand span! You look wonderful! I was so worried! We saw the fireball here, you know, and all the priests have been having a wonderful time prophesizing all sorts of things that Thutmoses won't let them write down anywhere, and the quake? Was it bad for you? We felt it here too, I was terrified!"
What a lie. This whirlwind had never been frightened of anything in her whole life.
"You've lost weight too, but it looks good on you... and who's this?" She turned so suddenly I almost fell over under her piercing gaze. There was no doubt where Brianhet had gotten his blue eyes. Saskamariana's eyes rivalled the sky and the black liner only made them more brilliant. "You must be Damon. Andreas, that rascal, told me about you. My goodness, he didn't tell me enough though! Men just don't see men like women do, do they?"
Unsure just how to take that I bowed, and when I rose those eyes raked me from foot to head. I had the feeling she looked past my borrowed sheath, still clumped and forever wrinkled, directly into my heart, missing nothing on they way. Then she smiled and gathered me into her arms and hugged me until I couldn't breath.
She was beautiful, warm, and so openly accepting. I felt a suspicious wetness in my eyes and blinked rapidly. The top of her head almost reached my chin and one strand of hair blew up my nose.
Over her head my eyes met my lover's and he raised an eyebrow. He was right. I did need a dose of his grandmother, but I had a feeling her cure would probably exhaust me.
She eventually released me and looked again. "Does your hair grow like that? Brianhet's hair is curly, too. I always wanted waves but got this straw instead. Damon, you are absolutely gorgeous, but I'm sure I'm not the first woman to tell you that! If jumping about over some bull's back can do such wonders on a man's body I must tell Thutmoses to encourage the sport immediately..."
Beaming, she took one of our hands in each of hers, "There's a feast all prepared. Everything your favorite, Brianhet and Cressie's been howling for days..."
Brianhet had just enough time to mouth, "My cat," in explanation when Saskamariana remembered her son-in-law. "Menanhotep, you are getting scrawny. Go up to that temple of yours and eat something. And you needn't look at me that way. Brianhet and Damon are coming back to my estates to recuperate from their terrible ordeal. Thutmoses said so when I had dinner with him last night. Shut you mouth. Frowning gives you wrinkles."
With that we were summarily hauled off to a waiting litter and born in stately opulence away from Brianhet's father, the city, and the oppressive atmosphere that clung to both.
"So Damon. How do you like my house?"
I had not heard her enter. When she wanted, Saskamariana could be very quiet.
Now I came away from the window where I had been watching the slaves work in the fields beyond, "It's lovely."
"Come, I want to show you something,"
She led me along the hallway to Brianhet's room and we stood in the open doorway together and watched him. He was asleep, sprawled across his bed, and Cressie, his huge black cat blinked her golden eyes at us as she guarded his side.
After a long moment when I felt my insides melt as they always do when I watch him sleep, Saskamariana moved away and I followed her into one or the cool inner rooms further down the hall.
It was obviously part of her private quarters. There were personal belongings everywhere and two busts, one of her and one I took to be Brianhet's grandfather sat in stately splendor on columns to one side.
This was not the bubbling lady of yesterday. Now, as she motioned me to a cushioned chair and seated herself opposite, she was silent. Her eyes were still warm, but today they assessed and I was not surprised at her first question,
"You and Brianhet are lovers, aren't you?"
"And you truly love my grandson, don't you Damon?"
"My husband used to call me Ana. You are welcome to use the name." She leaned back and cocked her head to one side. "Brianhet had told me a little of your adventures, but I think there is more he does not say. I'm not prying Damon...there's enough gossip in Thebes to keep me amused... but if he's in danger I want to know."
Looking at her there with her hair bound up, surrounded by light, I was reminded of the pair of lions some trader had once brought to Anise. The male was bigger, and his mane caught the eye, but it was the female who was the more dangerous of the two. She looked at me steadily, small and dainty and as deadly as a lioness to those who threatened her loved ones. There was no way I could really protect Brianhet in Egypt when I was a stranger to place and custom, with a powerful enemy of my own to worry about. I needed an ally and I couldn't imagine a better one than Saskamariana. So I told her everything, from our first meeting to our night-flight to the Hawk, and I left nothing out but the intimacies that were between Brianhet and I alone.
It took some time and she poured wine more than once as she listened. When I stopped speaking, adding, "That's all there is," she nodded and twirled her goblet idly.
She thought for a time while I watched shadows gather and deepen in the corners of the room, then she nodded once to herself and leaned forward. "Do you know who exactly this Amenhet is?"
"Just a political opponent of Brianhet's father."
"You must understand something. Egypt is divided into two regions, the Lower Delta and the Upper Valleys, and the Pharaoh, Thutmoses, is godking over all."
"I know that."
"Thutmoses is a warrior. He's forever off conquering another chunk of the north, getting back at the Hittites, I expect. Anyway, in his place the two viziers control the land, the people, everything. And the Upper Valley vizier, of course, is by far the most powerful."
"The current vizier is old, he'll be retiring or dead soon and Menanhotep and Amenhet are both in line for the... er...job."
I was startled. I had no idea Brianhet's family was that important. "What's that have to do with Brianhet?"
"The current vizier has no living sons, that's why the job will be open... it's usually a family succession. Amenhet, too, has no sons."
I began to see the light, "You mean..."
She nodded. "Menanhotep could ensure the line through Brianhet, which makes him the obvious favorite."
"So Amenhet wants to get rid of him," I grimaced. "If he only knew..."
"Brin't told Menanhotep he didn't want to be a priest... not ever..." I stopped speaking because Ana was no longer listening. A sly smile began to creep over her face and by the time she focused her eyes on me again I knew she was up to something; possibly faintly shocking, probably including me, and almost assuredly dangerous.
"Damon," she said invitingly, "how would you like to tell Amenhet just that? Right to his face and only the three of us would know."
I had no idea what the plan was, but right then I'd have followed her straight back to Crete if she'd asked it. "Oh yes," I could feel my smile growing. "I most definitely would."
She sat back, looked at me, and just barely licked her lips, "Oh Damon, if I were twenty years younger..."
"You name the place and the time, Ana... and I'll be there."
She really looked regretful then. "You're too young, my boy, my heart would never stand it. Oh, but what a way to go!"
I laughed then and she glanced around, "Quickly now... before Brianhet comes in, I'll tell you what I have in mind for Amenhet. Tomorrow night..."
I'm not sure when it dawned on me exactly what Brianhet had done. One minute I was watching him lift that eyebrow at me and the next I was holding him tightly enough to stop his breathing.
"Damon! Oof! Hey!" He loosened my grip and looked at me in astonishment. "What's wrong?"
"Damon, you don't have to worry about him here, and when we go back to Thebes I'll be there. I won't let him hurt you."
I shook my head. "That's not the problem."
"Then what is?"
"I just suddenly realized what you've done. You told Sir you wouldn't become a priest... that you were giving it all up." I looked at him a little stupidly, "For me."
"You could, you would someday be the second most powerful man in all Egypt!"
Brianhet, amazingly, laughed. "So?"
"Brin't, I can't offer you anything at all..." I was confused suddenly, desperately afraid of losing him, but knowing I had to offer him the choice now, before tonight's plan went into action.
We were in his room, alone except for the ever present Cressie. He gathered me up in his arms and hugged me, then held my head and kissed me. "You offer me time with you. That's all I need."
"Sshh," he kissed me again, opening my mouth with his tongue, and his hands pulled my hips against his. "I thought we had this all straightened out."
I could feel his body react to mine. It's a kind of ego, I suppose, to know you have that power over someone. The feeling was definitely mutual. I made no protest when he urged me to his bed. But as I lay back I had to ask, "You say that now, but what about later? No one knows what will happen later."
He broke off kissing down my chest through his hands kept up their roving. "How do you think you'll feel about me in twenty years?"
"No different," I gasped as he touched my shaft.
"Then why should you think I'd feel any different? Oh yes, that feels good..."
He seemed insatiable that night, loving me over and over again until at last he slept. I would have liked to sleep, too, for he had exhausted me wonderfully, but I had things to do, someone to meet, and a mission to save his life.
As I left the room, Cressie leapt up on the bed and snuggled next to him. He mumbled and rolled over, his face calm and peaceful. He slept easily, sure of his decisions. I nodded at the golden-eyed cat, and tip-toed away.
A lone figure, enveloped in a black cloak slipped from shadow to shadow until the house lay far behind. It moved quickly, silently, and paused only once to look back, the face a pale shimmer under the moonless sky.
When the last of the mud huts housing the field workers had been passed the figure paused again, as if searching, then finding the path, it continued on -- southeast, towards the city.
The large house was now completely out of sight, and at the foot of a high rising cliff the figure stopped, wrapped the cloak more snugly against the night chill, and waited.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," Saskamariana seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Damon whirled and relaxed when he identified the voice, "Great God! You scared me!"
She was dressed in a cloak identical to his own and her smile was a blur. "Did I?" she sounded pleased. "What took you so long?"
Damon paused and she laughed softly, "Like that, was it? Ah well, come quickly, the horses are back here."
She turned and vanished, but as he followed he could see that what had seemed to be a shadow was the opening of a large cave. The walls were smooth under his hands and he followed the sound of clinking metal until he stumbled into the warm body of one of the mounts. "What is this place?"
"Someday I will be buried here... well, not here precisely... further back. Quietly now, until we get to the main road."
He heaved up on the dark horse and settled himself comfortably, then bent his head as they emerged back into the open air. Saskamariana led the way, weaving carefully through the boulder strewn pathway, her body barely visible under the starlit sky. They reached the wider dirt road sooner than he anticipated and she drew up until he was abreast.
"We can talk now, but hurry," she told the Atlantean. "If we're not back by dawn Brianhet will have the whole of Thebes in an uproar."
Damon gave her an admiring glance, "He really cares for you, doesn't he?"
"My dear boy, I was thinking of you."
Surprised, Damon was silent. The horses cantered on, their hoofs echoing loudly in the night silence. They could go no faster and be safe on the road. The moon suddenly appeared, half-full over the sheer cliffs, spilling silver across the countryside. Damon trusted their way to Ana and tried not to dwell on what lay ahead. She still hadn't told him how exactly they were to accomplish their mission, only where to meet her and to come unarmed. He would have felt better with at least the comforting presence of a dagger at his waist, but he had promised and had kept his word.
They rode at a steady pace until the poor outer city houses came into view, then reined to a walk. Damon saw a figure dart across the road ahead and remembered Brianhet's casual references to the busy underworld of crime. Great God, if they were ambushed, how was he to protect Ana?
She seemed to read his mind, for at that moment she turned and grinned, "Don't worry. They'll know who we are... we won't be stopped. Don't look back."
As she spoke she tossed something over her shoulder and Damon heard the chink of metal hitting the road behind them. There was a flurry of movement, then silence and they went on unhindered.
Somewhere a baby's thin wall sounded and occasional torchlight sent shadows leaping in odd patterns. Damon drew a long breath of relief when they crossed into what he privately termed "Temple Row". One huge shrine after another lined the way. Built in worship to dead god-kings, the buildings were beautiful, impressive, and sent chills over the Atlantean's body. It was beyond him to conceive of worshipping anything that was dead... and a king that had gone wherever they believed he had gone, hundreds of years before, could have no possible earthly interests left, surely.
Wondering vaguely how they managed to keep all their gods, god-kings, and goddesses straight in their minds, he almost rode past Ana before he realized she had stopped moving. "What is it?"
She pointed. "Amenhet's city home isn't far. He'll be in town for the festival tomorrow."
"Which festival is that?"
"Montu, the city god," Saskamariana half-smiled. "The bull god."
Damon's shudder was involuntary and not as well concealed as he'd have liked. But the women's quick mind had already gone ahead, "What do you think of Thebes by moonlight?"
"It's worse that it is in the daytime."
He was brutally frank and she understood. "Yes. I agree. You should see my homeland, Damon, I think you'd like it."
"Brin't just said you came from the north."
"Across the Great Green Sea, yes," her voice was dreamy. "So long ago...sometimes I see the farms, the mountains rising black in the distance, and every shade of green you can imagine... all I see so clearly... but mostly I've forgotten. You'll learn, as you get older, you forget the bad times, the details, and only recall the good. We were at war then, and green fields aren't as beautiful when they're full of bleeding bodies. Stop," her voice became brisk again. "Well leave the horses and go on foot from here."
They were far along an alley with walls rising high above them on three sides. Here the moonlight had not penetrated, and once he had tied his horse and taken several steps away, the animal was just another shadow between the stones. Saskamariana grasped his hand firmly and led him, the fingers of her other hand lightly tracing the lines of the building they sheltered under. The alley narrowed until they were forced to go sideways, slipping between huge granite slabs like cats. Damon had to draw in his stomach and lift his arms to flatten himself enough.
Ana paused and seemed to search along one of the stones, her fingers playing crab-like over the surface.
"What is it?" Damon hissed. "What's wrong?"
"It's been a long time," she whispered back, then, "ahh..."
She pressed and the solid wall at his back disappeared, sliding inwards with only a soft grinding sound to mark its passage.
"Come on," Saskamariana tugged at his hand. "Very quiet now. This is the tricky bit."
If he hadn't been so astonished he'd have laughed. All they had done so far tonight...and this was the tricky bit. "Lead on, Ana, I can't see a thing."
The stones closed behind them again and now there was nothing but black. It enveloped them. The air was stale and Damon felt his old fears press him heavily against the wall. He bit his lip until he tasted blood and tried to fight the prickles of approaching senseless terror, but it overwhelmed him, held him motionless in the darkness.
Her hand, soft and warm, felt the sudden cold sweat that dampened his face. He couldn't speak.
"Damon... think of Brianhet. It's his life we're trying to save. Think of Brianhet. Think Damon!"
Her words, sharply whispered, began to penetrate the fog that had surrounded him and he fought to concentrate. Brianhet. His eyes, his face, his head lifted towards the sun...
He drew a long breath and conquered the dark. "I'm all right. Let's go."
There was no light, no sound but that of their own making and a scurrying rodent or two. Saskamariana again led the way. She moved quickly now, assured and steady as they followed the twisting tunnel. Damon lost any sense of direction immediately but that didn't seem to matter. There was no other way to go but forward. After travelling this far, to go back now was unthinkable.
The floor tilted up in a gradual slope, adding to his confused senses. He was about to ask Ana how much further they had to go when she hissed a warning and stopped so suddenly he almost bumped into her. Again her fingers searched among the close hewn blocks and found a lever. Now there was light, and after total darkness the single-shaded lamp seemed brilliant in comparison. Damon stumbled forward and found himself in a richly decorated room. Golds and reds, and greens and blues were everywhere, from the stately marching wall paintings to the stone pillars and even on the hangings of the bed.
The bed? Astonished, he turned wide questioning eyes to Ana, but she just smiled saucily and let her cloak sag to the floor. Dressed in a short diaphanous gown, dripping with gold and jewels, she looked more like a little girl playing grown-up than a grandmother as she approached the bad. Obedient to her wave he slid around the other side of the huge raised platform and lifted the heavily embroidered hanging.
One man lay sleeping, alone on the mattress that seemed big enough to cover the entire floor space of one of the huts they had passed earlier. His face was shadowed in the semi-light but Damon could pick out the angled features stamped there even in sleep.
The nose was long, broad and slightly crooked, the lips thin but shapely, and the eyes barely slanted. His head was shaved bare and a heavy overnight stubble covered the scalp, on around his cheeks and chiselled chin. He was not handsome, but neither was he ugly. Damon knew who this was even before Saskamariana whispered the name.
"Amenhet. Amenhet!" She shook his shoulder and he started awake, his liquid dark eyes snapping open to stare at her.
The Atlantean didn't know why he was amazed when, after the first moment of shock, Amenhet should smile.
"Saskamariana," the man murmured in a gravely voice and his hands slid from under silk covers to reach for her.
Ana let him pull her onto the bed, but glanced at Damon. "We're not alone, Amenhet, my dear. Now, don't get excited. Damon take off your cloak and show this untrusting man that you're unarmed."
Under the wrap he wore only a white pleated kilt and he remained completely still as Amenhet sat up and looked him over thoroughly.
"Damon..." the man raised his eyebrows. "The Atlantean everyone and their brother are talking about? Yes, I can see why."
Damon could only admire the man's presence. Faced with a beautiful woman and a total stranger who could easily have slit his throat while he slept, Amenhet merely tucked the sheet around his waist and leaned back against the piled pillows. "To what do I owe this admittedly unexpected... uh...pleasure?"
He didn't even ask how they'd gotten in, Damon noted. Saskamariana reached to tap Amenhet's considerable nose with one finger. "Isn't he wonderful, Damon? I told you he was wonderful, didn't I?"
She had said nothing even remotely resembling "wonderful", but Damon nodded agreement.
"Now Amenhet dear, before you call in those boring animals you think are guards to haul us off for disturbing your rest, Damon has something he wants to tell you. Please listen. For my sake?" Damon schooled his face to blandness only with years of experience and found his voice at last.
"Please," he added.
Amenhet looked first at Ana then turned to the Atlantean. "All right. I'm listening."
"It's about Brin't, Sir," Damon spread his hands, searching for the right words. "He's no threat to you. Oh, I'm not saying he wasn't when he first went to Crete. I'm sure he was. But not now. He doesn't want to be a priest, doesn't want to follow Menanhotep's lead... and he's told his father that. I was there, I heard it."
Amenhet was silent.
"You see, dear," Saskamariana added, "for once the gossip is right. My grandson has broken from his idiot father's grasp at last. You haven't seen these two together, Amenhet, but I have. Brianhet would toss over the entire known world for Damon, here, let alone Egypt, and however silly that may sound now, I remember once, a long time ago when you..."
"Enough." Amenhet hastily raised a hand. "I don't recall ever saying that I had anything to do with Nebrianhet's disappearance in the first place. But since you seem convinced, let me ask you... what's to stop Menanhotep from getting rid of the boy here?"
"He's already tried," Damon said.
"Oh? You seem healthy enough."
"Brin't stopped him."
"It would seem to be in your best interest," Ana told the Egyptian, "to keep Damon alive and well. At least until he and Brianhet are out of Egypt."
Amenhet thought this over and looked at Damon through narrowed eyes. "You are leaving?"
"Yes," Saskamariana was firm. "As soon as Thutmoses grants them an audience they'll be going."
"You'll see to this personally?"
"He's my grandson, dear. And the only one of my family worth a thing. I'll see to it, you have my word."
Ana smiled and Damon shivered. Deadly, he thought.
"Once Brianhet and Damon are gone I don't much care what happens to him. That's between the two of you entirely."
Amenhet nodded slowly. "If it was anyone else but you..."
"But it is me. Remember the Atlantean merchant a few years back who let Queen Hatshepsut torture him for days because he'd made a promise and wouldn't break it to tell her what she wanted to know? Promise him, Damon."
"What I've said is true," Damon answered promptly. "You have my word as an Atlantean."
"And my word," Saskamariana added, "as me."
What more could a man ask?" Amenhet's voice was dry. "Very well. Tomorrow, or rather today, I'll indicate to my men that for the time being Nebrianhet and Damon are...shall we say, off limits?"
"Oh let's do," Ana agreed.
"The ban will stay in effect until one sen-night after Thutmoses grants an audience. Now, unless you're staying, Ana, may I suggest you take Damon out of here before I think twice and change my mind completely?"
She leaned and kissed him. "Goodbye, dear. You must come to dinner sometime soon. Once all this nastiness is over. Damon?"
They gathered their cloaks and once again become part of the shadows, then disappeared into the secret tunnel. Amenhet watched them go, a slight smile curving his thin lips. When the stone had grated into place he settled back in his lonely bed, still warm where Saskamariana had sat beside him, and fell immediately into sleep.
I did not ride back to Saskamariana's estate on the back of a horse, but rather on a cloud. We had taken a chance, had done the impossible with no problems. And best of all, Brianhet was safe at last. For the first time in months I relaxed completely, and Ana and I giggled like children over silly things all the way home.
We parted where we had met, the place in which she would lie entombed, and I hurried back to the house. It would be dawn soon, already the eastern sky seemed lighter.
I let myself in by one of the side doors and remembered not to trip over the low tables lining the dark hallways. Saskamariana's home was built in typical Egyptian style... a rectangle of inner rooms, and the center a courtyard. In the daytime all the doors stayed open to catch the cooling cross breeze, but at night the portals were closed for privacy and warmth both.
I crossed the courtyard to my room to deposit my cloak, then went along the inner hallway to Brianhet's quarters. Everything was dark, but I knew the way. I remember my face ached with smiling, but I couldn't seem to stop. I would wake him, tell him the news, and soothe his sure anger into passion...
I realized there was something wrong immediately. I had closed his door firmly behind me when I left him sleeping that evening. I remember doing it. I was absolutely sure. But now the portal was open. My first thought was that he had gotten up to let Cressie in or out, but the flaws in that theory were obvious. If Brianhet had come awake and found me missing, the whole estate would be in an uproar.
I took a step closer and saw the man. He was bending over my lover, his arm raised, and the sheen of metal flashed in the uplifted hand.
I think I yelled, though I do not remember what words. The cover on the bed heaved as Brianhet rolled aside and I leaped forward, grabbing for the dagger.
The man spun and crouched, shifting the blade to a frontal attack even as he backed out of Brianhet's reach. I had nothing to protect myself so I reached for my borrowed Egyptian kilt and yanked it free, then wrapped it around my arm.
The attacker slashed forward without warning but he was too far away to strike me. His movements were light, precise, and I knew he was good. But it didn't seem to matter. Nothing was important except the fact that this man was here to kill my lover and I wasn't about to let him get even a single chance.
Brianhet was awake now, on the far side of the bed, coming around to join me. I wanted to tell him to stay back, but knew it would be useless. If he had let me fight his battles he would not be the man I loved.
One more step and he would be in the attacker's range. I feinted to one side, then dove, ramming the full weight of my body into his gut. Air convulsed out of the man as we stumbled backwards, falling onto the bed. His breath was rancid and hot in my face and he mumbled curses in a flowing litany as he twisted out from under me. The knife flashed again and I felt a ripping pain across my back; then Brianhet was yelling, grabbing at the man's arm. I rolled, forcing the attacker over, and he gasped, squealed like a pig, and stiffened. It was not until he relaxed and I saw his wide sightless eyes that I realized he must have rolled onto his own dagger.
Brianhet pulled me up as servants and slaves began to pour into the room. They carried lamps and light flooded the scene, turning the dark blood stains to red as it pumped out of the man's body and into Brianhet's bed.
I was feeling weak, a little light-headed, and was glad of Brianhet's supporting arm around me.
"Are you all right?"
We asked it together, and smiled. He shifted me closer and his expression changed. "Damon! You're bleeding!" He frowned and turned to look at my back.
"It's nothing. A scratch. I can't even feel it." But even as I spoke the throbbing began and the room, which had been so light before, seemed darker. The strength went out of my knees and I slumped. I heard myself groan his name, and for the first and only time I said it right, then everything faded into a jumble: Brianhet's voice giving orders, the wonderful feeling of being lifted and held against his chest, and Saskamariana telling me over and over to "hold on".
It is dark now, Maruka is as quiet as a house this size can be, and I sit at the small table in our room with only a candle for light. It is almost melted and the flame is flickering, but it does not concern me. In a few minutes I will blow it out and join Brianhet who even now awaits me. Tomorrow will be a busy day as we begin our journey back to Egypt. Brianhet hopes to make it in time for Saskamariana's birthday. We have much news to tell her of her homeland where we have been made so welcome and I have this bundle of scribbling to give her.
I did as she asked and wrote the scenes that were the clearest in my mind. Perhaps someday the rest will be filled in... I hope so anyway.
This will be our second visit to Brianhet's homeland since his father's death. Odd to think that we returned at Amenhet's invitation, but the Vizier is old now and had long since been a friend. It was his man, Hektos, that died in Brianhet's room that night, not knowing that Menanhotep's son was no longer a threat. The Vizier has said the man acted on his own and I believe him, for it was Amenhet's doctor that stitched my wound and his men that prevented Menanhotep from killing me when we finally went to Thebes to be presented to the Great Pharaoh, Thutmoses.
We kept the promise I had made to him and began our voyage out of Egypt the very next day. I hated leaving Saskamariana, but was glad to be rid of the feeling of death that hovers over the cliffs of Thebes. Brianhet too, hated leaving, but he was soon so busy listening to Andreas' stories of the pyramid builders in the Westlands, on the other side of the Great Ocean, I doubt he realized when Egypt was gone over the horizon.
We travelled far with Andreas and the Hawk. First to the land where his sister lived happily among the blood thirsty people (they gave Andreas an unpronounceable name there and treated him like a god... but that's another story and should be told by someone who understands their strange customs), and then back again to the Great Green Sea and all its surrounding lands.
We have had adventures, have seen and done so much, but always my Egyptian and I have been together, and so it shall forever be.
Brianhet calls me sleepily now, and as always I am anxious to feel his arms around me, so I will end this at long last, blow out the candle, and go where I belong.
In The 38th Year of Thutmoses III
of Egypt's Reign
-- THE END --
Originally published in In the Public Interest 2, Sunshine Press, 1988