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("The Mummy/Return of The Mummy" slash fiction)
The desert rolled into the highlands at a steady pace beneath Ardeth's vision. To the east, the mountains burst, concealing the river and springs beneath their rocks. With desperation, he scanned the ground before him, searching for a tiny group of horses and mules that walked where the sands lapped on the stone.
He was not on horseback himself. He did not stand on an overhang or sit on a cliff edge with his legs dangling over. He floated in some space between the earth and the sky. When he thought to look, he saw, but at the edges of his vision was opacity, impenetrable. He could hear, too, when he chose, but the breathing of the world -- wind, sand, water -- was lost to him here.
He pushed himself lower, hovering above a small stone shrine hidden among rocks and straggling growth. It had been hard to convey the location he needed them to find. Had they misunderstood? Had they become lost?
He could not feel his stomach, but there was a hard lump in it anyway. Had they given up? Had they decided they could not help him? Was he doomed?
A movement caught his eye. He lowered himself more. They had come by the mountain route, not over the sand. He could make out the thick waves of Evelyn's hair curling from beneath her scarf and broad hat. Rick rode behind her, leading a packhorse. His vision wavered as he tried to move closer. He had to make Evie hear him, to tell her she had found the right place. He could only pray they would save him.
Evie reined in her horse. "Look, Rick." She pointed ahead through the thinning trees. "There's some sort of structure."
Rick O'Connell stopped beside her. "Ok, so you were right. "
She looked smug. "Of course. I told you I wasn't just hearing voices."
Rick sighed and nudged his horse onward. The path down the slope was rough but gently angled. He could hear and smell running water. "So, where's Ardeth? You said he was here."
Evie swung down from the saddle and peered at the pool of water gathered under a rise of stone. "He's here, somewhere. I can...feel it." Her mount lowered its muzzle, snorting at the water, causing ripples to spread. "There are two other springs here. " She pivoted. "One is back that way, and the other is lower down, closer to that building."
"Decent place to camp." Rick rode further. "Doesn't look like it's visited very often. The water seems good enough."
Evie followed him down. The path opened out by the third spring, becoming flat and hard, marked only by small bushes and some hardy trees. More growth clustered near the available water, creating shade. The structure she had seen before rose up in the center of the clear area. It was a rough building, just large square stones stacked one upon the other. A doorway outlined by an oversized post-and-lintel faced them. She studied it at a distance. It was plain and unfinished, almost careless, and certainly not typical of Egyptian construction.
"Unusual building," she commented as she lead her horse toward Rick. "Perhaps that is what Ardeth wanted us to see."
Rick pulled gear from the packhorse. "Yeah? Doesn't look like much."
"Hmm. Never judge a book by its cover. I'm going to take a peek."
Rick paused. "Evie, be careful. Don't touch anything or take anything or read anything or open anything, ok?"
She made a face at him and headed for the doorway. In less than a minute, she was running back out.
"Rick! Come quickly!"
Rick's gun was in his hand as he started moving. "Evie! What's wrong?"
She stood in the doorway until he skidded to a halt beside her. "Look!" She pointed inside of the structure.
The walls of the building outlined a single large room mottled with light from between the rough fit stones and the thin roofing. At the far side, off from the center of the room, he could make out a dark, irregular form. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, Evie's hand gripped his arm.
"What the hell...?" Rick started across the room, gun still raised in one hand, Evie hanging on to the other. As he blinked his eyes into focus, he could make out the still form of a man. Dark hair covered his face. He wore nothing but a heavy tangle of ropes. Rick tucked the gun into its holster and pulled his knife.
"No, Rick, don't touch him!" Evie pointed to the dusty stone floor, where a circle was deeply carved. Small symbols quartered the outline.
"We can't just... leave him like that, Evie." Rick took another step forward, but Evie held him.
"Rick, look at this place. This isn't a proper temple. More like a shrine, really, but not even a shrine. I can't imagine who built it, or why."
"Evie, I don't think he's dead." He tried to take another step forward, almost dragging Evie with him.
"Look. There are carvings on the floor, inscriptions on the walls, but no pictures...no cartouche, no symbols of the gods, no records of the kings. Who made this place?"
He stopped, reluctantly, tucking the knife away. "All right. What do we do?"
"Give me a minute." Carefully, Evie stepped around the inscribed circle and studied the wall behind.
"Can you read any of it?"
"I'm trying." She followed lines of carved shapes with her fingers. "I'm not sure about this part..." She moved on to another line. "`...the greatest of tests, the truest of love, the strongest of hearts, or else the prison is eternal and the soul shall wander...'" She turned around. "Rick, this sounds like some sort of curse. I think this whole place is dedicated to a curse!"
Rick waved his arm toward the wall. "Well, what else is new? Who's it on this time? And what does it have to do with you hearing voices and...Ardeth being here?"
"The inscription is a little obscure."
"Give it a try, Evie."
"Just be patient." Evie bent to the inscription again. "Ah! There is a cure for this curse. It seems to be a sort of ritual that must be performed...Here, it says something to the effect that the circle is a barrier between a man's body and his soul. Ah hah! This is a tricky bit -- if anyone crosses that circle, he or she becomes the only savior. No one else may ever enter it." She glanced at Rick. "A nasty trap, I must say." She rubbed her nose and started again. "This bit is complicated... `The fluids of life were taken, and with them the circle arose to...I can't make this out...dade da...'seven times as the moon waxes, then each moon's phase for seven months, then every full moon for seven years..."
"This is some curse."
"Oh...yes. Rick, this is...oh my God..." Evie straightened, her face marked with surprise and worry.
"Evie, what is it? What's it say?"
She shook her head doubtfully and started translating again. "'The fluids of life must be returned to the body on the waxing of the moon, seven days, to bring the soul and body together once more. The one who challenges the curse must prove love beyond friendship or the curse will swallow them both'...in other words, once you start this, you cannot stop, or you are caught, too...Now it gets poetic again...'the salt of the eyes, the sweet of the mouth, the blood of the heart, the seed of the loins'..."
"Evie, I still don't understand."
"Just a few more minutes, Rick...I can't believe this..."
Rick bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet. "Just tell me."
Evie backed away from the inscription, carefully avoiding the circle on the floor. "Rick, you're right. Ardeth isn't dead. It's his soul that has been speaking to me, that told me to come here. Somehow he was captured and bound inside that circle, apart from his soul."
Rick scratched the back of his head, nodding. "Ok, I'm keeping up with you. How do we reunite his soul with his body? Did the inscription tell you that?"
"That's the part I find so hard to believe. One person can enter the circle . That person becomes the only one who can perform the ritual. Salt of the eyes -- saltwater, that's tears. Sweet of mouth is saliva, I suppose. Blood of the heart is obvious, I guess -- all blood goes through the heart. Seed of the loins is, um, well, you know." She looked at Rick, biting at her lower lip.
"I can follow all that. Evie, what does this have to do with the ritual?"
She took his hand, glancing between his face and the wall inscription. "Well, to reunite the body to the soul, someone must return these fluids to the body."
Rick nodded again. "OK, that's not so hard...messy, but not difficult."
"Each of these `fluids of life' must be placed within the victim's body as close to the point of origin as possible from where they naturally exude. Tears and saliva, blood and...semen..."
Rick's eyes widened. "Wait a minute, wait a minute..."
Evie pushed on, speeding up to overcome her discomfort. "I noticed a large wound on Ardeth's chest, over where his heart is...I can only assume that's where they drew blood but I don't how the last part is possible..."
Rick's face reddened. "Well, I do. What kind of maniac came up with this? It's sick! It's perverse! "
"Rick, please come outside." She pulled him into the bright sunlight. "I don't understand why you are yelling so much. Don't you want to save Ardeth?
Rick's voice lowered, but held its intensity. "Evie, do you know what you are talking about? We are talking about me fucking him. In his ass. That is what we are talking about."
"Mr. O'Connell!" Evie stepped back, her body rigid with affront and offense.
"That's what it is, Evie. Making up something polite won't change it."
"Well, I certainly don't see where such language is called for."
He held up his hands, palms toward her, steadying his voice. "Evelyn, listen to me. I've figured it out. This curse is set up so that either you willingly enter into perversion, or the victim will die. Either way, I don't like it. "
"You certainly seem to know enough about it." She eyed him a little suspiciously.
"I was in the Legion, remember? I spent my time in prison." He frowned at her. "Do you know what you get when you put a bunch of men together for a long time without any access to women? You get one of two things -- a lot of monks, or a certain amount of fucking. It's a fact. I don't like it, but, yes, I know about it. I'm not in the Legion anymore and I'm not in prison. I'm also not a pervert."
"Obviously that's what the inscription meant by `prove love beyond friendship'." Some of the starch melted out of Evie's spine and shoulders. "There's a factor of humiliation for both the person who is cursed and anyone who tries to save them." She paused for a few minutes, her eyes flickering between the doorway and her husband, obviously thinking. " It's the part of the ritual that no one willingly performs, so Ardeth dies and we might as well pack up and go home."
Rick took a backwards step, his expression dumbstruck. "You...you want me to fuck him?"
She turned from him angrily, marching toward the horses. "Using that word is not going to change my mind about why we came here, Rick. When I first told you that I knew Ardeth was in trouble, you were ready to leave immediately. When I told you that I suspected his life was in danger, you said you would do anything to help him. Well, now we are here and he certainly needs your help."
He trailed after her. "I thought I'd be killing someone...fighting mummies or something...Evie, this is a whole different thing..."
She stopped and swung around. "I know it is, and even if I dislike your language, I understand what it is." She took a deep breath and rested her hands on Rick's arms. "My darling, I've seen beyond this life. I've come to have some appreciation of what is and isn't important. Ardeth has willingly put his life at risk because we asked him. He never questioned or hesitated to come to our aid, no matter what it cost him. That sort of friendship has greater value than most of the things we think are important." She patted his arms gently. "As you have pointed out, this is not a moment for delicacy."
She looked earnestly up into his face "You'll have to make up your mind, Rick, because it's only 7 more days until the full moon. If you don't start the ritual tomorrow, you won't be able to."
He shook his head. "Let's set up camp while I think about it. I really need to think about this."
Outside the shrine, Evie stirred a pot on the fire. She looked up as he approached.
He stretched his back, staring toward the sky where the moon was just peeking over the trees. "I'm going to do it, ok? If I can."
Evie ladled stew into plates. "I hoped you would. It's the right thing to do, you know."
He picked up a plate. "Just promise me one thing. Don't be...well...hiding and trying to look. This is hard enough without that on my mind."
Evie picked up the second plate. "That's hardly something I would do, Mr. O'Connell." He raised an eyebrow as he chewed his first mouthful, and she smiled a little ruefully. "All right, all right. I will stay inside the tent with my reading lamp and my book until you return." They ate in silence for a few minutes.
"Rick, I know this is troubling you, but...I do think it is the right thing to do."
"I know, Evie. If you are ok with it, I can manage." He put down his plate and stared at the fire. "I wonder how Ardeth is going to feel about it."
"I suppose we will know after you save him, won't we?" She sat still, her plate in one hand and her fork in the other. Her eyes were focused somewhere else.
She shook her head. "I can hear him, Rick. He's here...like a ghost." She put down her plate and fork. "It's hard to make out what he's saying." Evie rubbed her eyes. "I can't understand. At home he was so clear."
Rick glanced around the night, at the trees, the tent, the little shrine, as if he might catch a glimpse of a ghostly Med'jai. Except for the sigh of wind and the trickle of water, there was hardly a sound. Nothing moved. "Damn." He jabbed his fork at the bits of meat on his plate. "Evie, how am I going to do this?"
Evie gave him a little smile. "My mother once told me that you can find something to love in anyone. Find something about him you can love, some little feature or even a memory that you can nurse in your heart. If you can do that, the rest won't be so hard."
He dumped his plate back into the pot. "I can't eat any more. If I'm going to do it, I might as well go." He stood up.
"Wait!" Evie leapt up beside him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling his face to hers. "Here, something for inspiration." Rick embraced her, his mouth on hers as if it was food and water. She pulled away first. "Remember," she warned him. "Once you cross into that circle, no one else will be able to enter. And if you start the ritual, you can't stop." She kissed him again and his arms tightened around her as he explored her lips and mouth with his. She pushed herself away with a breathless gasp. "All right. Now you can go."
Rick carried a lamp, a bucket and a knapsack into the little shrine. Ardeth was still as he had been left -- naked, bound wrist to ankles behind him, bruised and bloodied and twisted. The circle was visible on the floor with him at its center. He sighed. "I don't know if I can do this, Ardeth. I want to help you. I mean it, I really do. I like you and all, but...I'm not sure if I like you this much."
His voice echoed at him slightly.
Rick could feel a strong tingle brush over his body when he crossed the shallow line, as if he'd walked through a gust of cold air. He put down the bucket and the knapsack and pulled his knife. The ropes were thick and not easily cut. He tossed them aside as he pulled them away, carefully straightening the limbs. Ardeth's skin was grayish under his dark complexion. His skin was much lighter where it was usually concealed under robes, and smoother than Rick would have thought. He pulled a blanket from the knapsack and spread it out, then lifted Ardeth onto it. Ardeth's body was too light, as if it were an empty vessel. Did the soul weigh so much? He breathed, but only barely. Rick pulled a pair of towels from the knapsack, wetting one in the bucket. Then he wiped Ardeth's face, studying it carefully.
The eyes were fixed under the lids when he lifted them. The pupils did not react. He had to close the lids again, like one does for the dead, and that thought made him shudder. Ardeth's mouth was torn, but the blood was dry and no more rose when Rick washed the wound. As he worked, Rick realized that, aside from the gash in the chest, none of the other injuries seemed intended to kill. They were mostly intended to hurt -- perhaps to make Ardeth cry so his tears could be taken? Smudged tracks in the dust on Ardeth's cheeks confirmed this idea. Rick's jar hardened as he worked, washing the marks and the dust away.
Evie and he had talked most of the afternoon while he'd made up his mind. He'd prepared himself for each step, with Evie's encouragement and advice. It had been a strange and uncomfortable conversation, trying to decide with her how he would go about fulfilling each part of the ritual. She had insisted that he bathe Ardeth and make him comfortable, both from respect and to help Rick find that `one small thing' she insisted would help.
The rest of the ritual had been more complicated, and more difficult to speak about between them. The tears would be easy enough, as, even so long after, the memory of Evie's death brought him close to crying. The saliva would be a little more of a test. Evie had ruled out spitting -- the idea was just as repulsive to him as the alternative -- so he would kiss instead. He didn't get butterflies in his stomach at the thought; it was more like worms. The blood he would draw from a wound he would make himself to match Ardeth's. That, he had decided, might be the least difficult part of the whole thing.
Rick washed away bloodstains and dust as carefully as he could. It was too much like funeral duty, something he'd always hated. He wished Ardeth would moan or wince or show some proof that he wasn't a corpse. His skin was too cool, but not hard. His limbs moved easily, not yet stiff. Rick pressed his fingers into the pulse point at the throat. He waited, but wasn't sure. Perhaps he detected only the barest quaver of motion, as if Ardeth's heart was pretending to beat.
I'm going to fuck a corpse, Rick thought. Not only a pervert, but a necrophiliac pervert. Normally I'd shoot someone like that.
From the knapsack, he pulled a comb and he sat near Ardeth's head to begin untangling the black curls.
"You're in a hell of a mess," he said, as if the body on the ground could hear him. Perhaps the hovering soul could. "Who did this to you, Ardeth? " He jerked the comb through a snarl and pulled out a knot of hair. There was no response, no indication of pain, but still he felt guilty. "Damn it." He slowed down, giving more attention to what he was doing. "Do you know what I'm supposed to do to you? "
The sound of his voice was calming. Maybe talking would help. Beneath his steady combing, the dark hair smoothed and fell silkily over his fingers. "I really don't want to do this, Ardeth. Damn it, how can I make myself do this?" He shifted to reach another portion of Ardeth's scalp. "Find one thing about you I can love. That's what Evie said. How the hell do I do that? Might as well close my eyes and think of England." Ardeth's face was impassive. "Well, you've got nice hair. I'll give you that. I can appreciate good hair." He fell silent, combing through the thick waves and smoothing them until they lay like a halo around Ardeth's head. The shrine was dimming with the setting sun. He pulled a second blanket from the knapsack and covered the still form. "Ok, I can like the hair. The rest of you looks like hell."
The night chill was already descending. The lamp cast weird shadows around the temple room, and seemed to catch occasionally on a misty shimmer in the air above the circle carved into the stone floor. Rick sat the lamp down on the far side of the circle and knelt next to Ardeth.
Ardeth was so still, he thought he imagined the slight rise and fall of his chest. Rick watched for it, just to confirm that the other man was really alive. He laid his hand on Ardeth's forehead, stroking the hair falling back from his face. Then he opened Ardeth's eyes.
Speed might be his friend here. He conjured up the painful image the Evie on the ground by the Scorpion King's temple, stabbed by Ak-sun-amun, dying. More than a year had passed since that awful moment, yet his heart still clenched inside his chest and the memory was clear, edged in sunlight. The shock and pain on her face was still vivid. He'd lost her that moment, and he'd thought it was forever. He remembered her limp body in his arms, the last breath.
Tears formed so fast that he didn't have to try. They dripped from his face to Ardeth's, but the other man did not blink when they fell into his eyes. Rick swallowed a sob and moved his memory to the moment in the chamber when he'd heard Evie's voice again, after their son had spoken the incantation to restore her to life. Once he would not have believed it possible, but he'd seen a lot of things that he wouldn't have believed, and several of them had tried to kill him. He wiped his face and waited until his heart was beating a more normal rhythm. Then he closed the lids over Ardeth's unseeing eyes.
Ardeth's mouth was slightly open, the full lips torn and bruised, marked in the corners as if by a gag. Rick stared at his mouth for a few minutes. Who had done it? Some of the wounds looked like bite marks. Ardeth had a beautiful smile. That came to his mind very suddenly. He had a smile that made Rick want to smile back. That mouth was not smiling now, but if he could do this, perhaps it would again. He bent, placed his lips against Ardeth's, and let his tongue ever-so-slightly ease inside until he was certain some of his saliva had entered. He drew away. It was like kissing a statue. No reaction, no anything. He tasted a faint metallic flavor -- blood, he thought -- and he'd felt the tiny wisp of breath on his cheek.
Now he pulled the blanket down to expose Ardeth's chest. The wound there was at least as long as his hand was wide, deep, and strange looking in the lamp light. It did not have the grey-white look of dead flesh, but it lacked the pinkness of healing. He unbuttoned and removed his own shirt -- no reason to spoil it, he thought as he laid it aside. He hefted his knife in his right hand and, gritting his teeth, pulled the blade across his left breast, gasping at the bite and blaze of it. Blood welled up quickly and he leaned over, letting his chest rest against Ardeth's while he sucked in deep breaths and blinked pain tears away. When his vision cleared, he sat up again, leaving a bloody smear across Ardeth's wound. Suddenly it looked more natural. He grabbed for the towel he'd used earlier and held it against his cut until the hard hurt of it lessened to a dull annoyance.
Now he had only one thing left.
With a growing feeling of dread, he crawled to a place between Ardeth's knees, dragging the knapsack with him. From inside he pulled a small bottle. It was cooking oil. He smiled humorlessly as he recalled trying to explain to Evie why he needed it. There were some things he'd learned in the Legion and in prison; you could sometimes fight them off, but sooner or later, you'd either take someone or be taken. It was hard to ignore when the longing became a sharp gnawing and someone else was willing to trade you a measure of satisfaction either in kind or for something else -- food, tobacco, protection. In the Legion, at least, it had been somewhat companionable. Unlike some of the men, he'd maintained a more monk-like existence, as much because he'd been a commander as from personal preference.
Still, he knew how this worked.
He arranged the blanket, exposing Ardeth's legs and hips but leaving the rest of him covered. That was more for his own sake than Ardeth's. The man's compliant limbs were easy to position. Rick paused. He could rush through this, or he could be careful. Ardeth didn't seem to feel anything now, but if this worked, he would awaken again and feel the pain of all the damage done. Rick's stomach recoiled at the idea that he would rape his friend like this. He felt shaky and sick, and had to wait for the feeling to pass.
With a little of the cooking oil in his hand, he began working his fingers between Ardeth's buttocks, trying at one time not to think about what he was doing while still being careful. It was surprisingly easy to slide fingers into the anus. There was no resistance and no reaction. When he was satisfied, he withdrew his hand and reached for the towel to slide under them. Then he undid his trousers and pulled his cock out.
Neither he nor his appendage was inspired by the situation. Think of Evie, he told himself, pouring more oil into his hand and wrapping his fingers around his member. Think of her when she wore that black veil and dress. Think of her on our wedding night. Think of her now, in that tent, her breasts, her legs, her throat, how she smells, how she tastes.
Warmth built up slowly with the friction of his hand until he was stiff enough. Carefully, he caught Ardeth's legs in the crooks of his arms, guiding his cock into the body. There was some tightness, but even when he pushed his way inside, there was no warmth. Just get off and get going, he scolded himself. Don't think too much.
With concentration and a few minutes of motion, he felt the expellation of semen. The whole act was peculiarly cold and distance, even unpleasant, and he quickly withdrew. He wiped himself with the towel and buttoned his trousers, then slowed long enough to make a cursory investigation of Ardeth. No blood appeared on the blanket, so he eased the legs down again and pulled the blanket over them. Kneeling again by the man's side, he felt tears welling up for the third time.
"I'm sorry, Ardeth. Damn it, I'm sorry." He put his hand once more on Ardeth's forehead, stroked the long black strands of hair, picked up the lamp and the bucket, and hurried back to camp.
Ardeth watched from the no-where place he floated. It was jarring, watching Rick touch his body, but not feeling any of it. He had not been able to read the inscription on the walls -- something always blocked his vision when he neared it -- but listening to Evie and Rick as they discussed and argued through the afternoon, he realized he had expected something like this. It was humiliating enough for himself, but he thought of it more for his friends.
He could see the ritual as he hovered above it, and found himself a little surprised at Rick's gentleness and caution. However, he could not see Rick's face clearly, nor read his expression. More disturbing to him, though, when it was completed, was how his vision suddenly darkened. He panicked, but his fear had no means of expression. There was nothing to flee, nothing to fight. When he stilled himself, he realized his vision was now only a narrow tunnel, and what he could see through it badly blurred. He could, however, still hear.
"Damn it, I'm sorry." Rick's voice was clear enough, but what did he mean?
"Evie, I don't think I can do it again. "
They lay together in their tent, the blankets tumbled from their afternoon's lovemaking. Quiet now, Rick lay staring at the canvas overhead. She curled against his chest, one hand nestled inside his palm. "I can't imagine what this is like for you."
He nuzzled her hair. "It isn't even the doing of it. It's -- that's practically a dead body in there, Evie. He's barely breathing, but everything else..." He sighed. "I don't like this. I feel like I'm...betraying you."
"But you aren't. We discussed that yesterday."
He turned his face away from her. "I still don't think I can go through with this."
"You must, darling, If you do not, I'll lose you, too." Evie entwined her fingers in his, drawing him away from his thoughts.
"Huh?" He took a deep breath and hugged her. "Yeah, right. " The tent was warm and growing warmer. "How do I look at him when this is over, knowing what I did? How does he look at me?"
She kissed him. "The least you can do is check on him. It's getting late. I'll start dinner." With a final kiss, she wiggled away from him and began to dress. Reluctantly, he followed suit, grabbing his shirt as he left the tent and walked into the shrine.
The constant wind had ruffled the smooth waves of black hair he'd combed the day before, but other than that, Ardeth was unmoving. Rick crossed the circle, letting the strange tingle pass over his skin, then knelt beside the still form under the blanket. Ardeth's face was like stone, the well-muscled body under the blanket more like a carving than flesh.
With a sigh, Rick pulled the comb from his pocket and drew it through Ardeth's hair until it lay once more like silk. The tattoos across his forehead and on each cheek were unnaturally dark and sharp. He combed the course hair of Ardeth's beard as well, and felt that soft brush of breath on the back of his hand, the only assurance of life. He drew back the blanket a little.
The blood he had left on the wound was gone. Last night it has been a long smear across the cut, but now it was clean. The bruises scattered randomly on his skin were edged in green, their centers dark. As he watched, he could see Ardeth's chest rising and falling distinctly and regularly. He pressed his fingers into the side of Ardeth's neck. A pulse answered him -- not strong, but distinct and steady. He checked it again, and again it answered him with a regular beat. Shaking, he got to his feet and ran out of the shrine. "Evie! He's alive!"
`What?" Evie jumped up quickly from her place by the campfire and met him halfway. Rick grabbed her by her shoulders.
"Yesterday he had no pulse, Evie. He was barely breathing. Today, I can feel a pulse. He's alive."
She kissed him, laughing. "Then it's working. You're bringing him back. You're breaking the curse!"
Rick hugged her, hard, bending to press his face into her hair. "I'll keep going. I'll bring him back."
Ardeth floated in nothing, sealed as if encased in fog.
By the second day, his sight had vanished completely. He could hear Rick and Evie occasionally, but he was never sure where they were, and so could not follow them. Then, his hearing had failed. He was without any kind of sense now, no connection with the world, no way to measure time. He did not even have the relief of sleep.
It was an impossible torture, worse than being beaten, worse than the most terrible wound in battle. He pawed through his memories in despair. Everything was fading, going grey like the fog -- the scratch of cloth on his skin, the heat of sun, the smell of horses and cooking food rising over the camp, the constant whistle of wind, the brush and crunch of sand. He longed to feel his own breath rising and falling in his chest, the ache of hunger, the exhaustion of a hard day in the saddle -- anything, anything at all.
There was nothing.
Rick knelt inside the circle, his hand resting on Ardeth's forehead. The wound on his chest pulsed painfully. This was the forth night. The moon rising over the little shrine has begun to bulge toward fullness. Each day had brought some little sign of improvement, but still Ardeth lay insensible on the ground. He ate nothing, drank nothing, saw nothing.
But, Rick thought, he's alive.
Warmth had come to the grayish flesh by the third day, returning the skin's natural hue. The bruises were pale and the abrasions around his mouth smoothing. He seemed now to be sleeping very deeply.
"He's like the sleeping princess in the fairy tail," Evie had said the night before, "awaiting her true love's kiss to bring her to life."
"Well, maybe, sort of," Rick had replied. "But most princesses don't have beards or tattoos on their faces and...I don't really think it's a good comparison."
"That's true enough," she'd answered him, laughing. "I'm your true love, after all."
Evie's my true love, he repeated to himself. That was, indeed, still a fact. He stroked the black hair under his hand. These other feelings were...other.
He'd done as Evie advised him, finding one little thing about Ardeth he could say he loved. He'd chosen the hair. He liked to touch it, combing it every day, letting the curls wrap around his fingers.
The more time, though, that he spent sitting beside Ardeth's sleeping form, the more things to love he'd discovered. At first they were just physical things he remembered -- Ardeth's wonderful smile, his eyes, the shape of his hands -- things he could admire without questioning himself. Then other qualities emerged. Ardeth was fearless. He did not hesitate to act. He hid nothing of his feelings. He took few friends, but he gave them his entire loyalty. His word was more binding than any contract. No matter how many years went by, he did not change. He did not waver. Those were qualities that Rick admired. Ardeth had them in abundance, and had never failed to show them. He loved those things. Did it follow that he loved Ardeth, too?
Rick pressed the wound in his chest to break the scab.
He'd seen Ardeth prove himself in Ahm Shere. He hadn't thought about it until now, that when he'd asked Ardeth to stay to help him find Alex, even though Ardeth's first duty was to the commanders of the Med'jai, Ardeth had not hesitated to promise his help. He'd placed Rick and his family above the fate of the world in that moment. What did that mean? When he'd declared Rick was his brother, had he been speaking about more than symbolism?
Ahm Shere was full of painful memories for Rick. He'd nearly lost everything there. It was easy for tears to form and fall.
Ardeth had helped him -- helped him rescue Evie, helped rescue Alex. Rick let gratitude rise up inside him. If he tried to thank Ardeth, or promise some return favor, Ardeth would not have understood or perhaps would have been hurt or insulted. There were no debts of service owed between them. The kiss he bestowed on the unmoving lips was the only thanks Ardeth needed.
Blood was dripping down his chest now, and he leaned over, wrapping his arms around Ardeth, pressing the wounds together.
He sat up again, carefully lowering Ardeth onto the blanket. Now was the most difficult part. He'd overcome revulsion, now that Ardeth was no longer corpselike, now that he'd broken the taboo. He'd felt guilty, too, until he'd talked with Evie. Now he only had himself to deal with, and his confusion.
"What will this be like when you aren't just laying here, Ardeth?" he asked quietly while he arranged himself between the man's legs once more. "That inscription says this ritual has to go on for 7 years. I might as well have married you." He poured oil into his hand and began to lubricate Ardeth, then himself. "I didn't think I could do this with you playing dead, and I sure as hell don't know if I can do this with you looking at me." He lifted Ardeth's legs over his shoulders and felt carefully between his buttocks, then guided himself between them.
As each time before, there was little resistance and he slid inside without trouble. Only this time, inside was hot. This time, he felt the first hints of reflexive muscles tightening.
That felt good. It wasn't supposed to feel good. This was a duty he performed, something he did for another's sake, not his own.
He leaned forward to steady himself with one hand on the ground. Ardeth's hips rested in his lap as he pushed himself completely inside the man, then began slowly to pull out. He thought about Evie, trying to pretend he was making love to her, but the silence was too distracting, the body too different from her lithe, soft form.
When he pushed inside the second time, it wasn't so easy. Muscles in Ardeth's body were pushing against him. It was such a surprise that he froze, searching the man's face. It was still impassive, although -- was there some twitching about the eyes? Could he be hurting Ardeth? He put a hand on the man's stomach.
"Easy now. I'll go slow. I'm sorry if I'm hurting you, I really am." He could feel small movements of muscle under his palm, could feel them around his penis. The resistance lessened and he could push in again. "That's it...we'll go slow." The addition of heat and tightness tried to make a liar of him. He wasn't supposed to like this. Within a few minutes he was thrusting almost uncontrollably, grunting behind clenched teeth, until the tension burst from him and he froze. Then he half collapsed over Ardeth's belly and chest, panting, eyes closed.
It wasn't supposed to feel this good. The thought stabbed at him.
After a few more minutes, he rolled away and got to his knees. He'd forgotten about his still bleeding chest. The blanket he used to preserve Ardeth's modesty -- to protect himself from seeing what he didn't want to see -- was spotted now. He grabbed the towel from the bucket of water he always brought and started to clean himself. He then pulled away the blood spotted blanket -- he and Evie could wash it tomorrow. He had not seen Ardeth's complete body since the day he'd covered it.
Now, he couldn't ignore the half-hard penis curved in the hollow of his hip, nor the flicker of attention in the eyes when he glanced guiltily away.
"Ardeth?" he whispered. The eyes moved toward him. "Can you hear me? Ardeth?" Quickly, he moved so he could look into those eyes. They were unfocused, like a baby's, but they followed him when he moved. Rick stroked the face gently. "It's ok, Ardeth. I'm going to get you another blanket, and I'll be right back. I'll be right back."
He barely took time enough to pull on his trousers before running back to the camp. "Evie! He's waking up!"
Evie's head poked through the tent flap. "He's awake? Ardeth is awake?"
Rick grinned at her as he skidded to a stop. "His eyes opened. I don't think he can't see much, but he's blinking." He dropped the blanket he held. "I need another blanket for him."
Evie grabbed behind her for a blanket. "I want to see!" He led her back to the shrine.
As he crossed the circle, Ardeth's eyes followed him. Evie pressed her hand against an invisible barrier. "Ardeth? It's Evelyn. Can you hear me?" Rick spread the blanket over him and knelt again, carefully tucking the fabric around him. Ardeth's black eyes moved toward Evie's voice, but his face and head remained still. "Can he hear me, Rick?"
"Yeah, I think he can." Rick bent over Ardeth, bringing his face near. "Ardeth? It's all right, ok? Just relax." He stroked the smooth forehead. "We'll be here. We're watching out for you." He stood up and stepped back across the circle.
Evie pressed herself to Rick's side. "Only three more days, Rick, and his soul will be reunited with his body." She hugged herself with excitement. "I didn't realize it would be so piecemeal. I wonder what he's experiencing."
Rick settled an arm around her shoulders. "He hasn't contacted you since that last time?"
She shrugged. "No, not that I can tell. Perhaps he isn't able, as he's being drawn back into his body." She turned a little, resting her hand on Rick's chest. "I don't think we should leave him now, do you? I mean, he's awake now. Leaving him here, alone, seems...he might be frightened. He might not completely understand what is happening."
Rick hugged her to him. "We can move our bed in here, if you like." He glanced over her to Ardeth. "His body might start functioning normally again. He may need to eat and drink, and if he does that, he'll need to be cleaned up."
"It's like he's being reborn, made an infant in an adult body." Evie turned her head to follow Rick's gaze. "It's so strange, seeing him lie there like that. He's really quite helpless, isn't he?"
"Yes, right now he is."
"And it isn't over when you finish in three days, Rick. There are seven months after that, and then seven years, or he will be lost again." She looked up at him. "How are we going to manage that, Rick? This will have been for nothing if we don't see it to the end."
"We'll figure something out, Evie." He kissed the top of her head, but he was watching Ardeth.
At first Ardeth hadn't perceived the change. The pearly grey thickness in which he floated had darkened. He sank to the bottom of it and felt it pile on top of him.
Perhaps, he thought, this is a true death. Perhaps Rick and Evie had found a way to bring him that much. He would be grateful.
That thought passed quickly, though, when new light pierced the darkness. It was like looking up again through a tunnel, unfocused and shifting shapes passing before his eyes.
Looking up. Through eyes.
Just barely could he sense it. Voices rose and fell over his head, falling down to his ears, unintelligible. He could blink, breaking the faint light at his own will. Other than that, he was encased in lead. Still, he could perceive his own heartbeat and the faint movement of breath inside his mouth and nose.
He began to feel alive.
Evie helped Rick move their camp inside the shrine the next morning. Ardeth slept in short, fitful naps. She watched him constantly when she wasn't studying the long lines of the inscriptions on the shrine walls. She noticed that Rick would come into the shrine, then turn abruptly and leave. When she would leave the structure, he seemed furtive and shy, almost embarrassed. After lunch, he disappeared altogether and she didn't see him again until he called her for dinner.
"You've been jumpy all day, Rick," she commented as he handed her a dinner plate. "Please tell me what's wrong."
He gave her a wide-eyed look, one she knew he used to mask his thoughts. "Nothing. There's not a thing wrong."
She set her plate on her knees. "I know you, Mr. O'Connell. You might as well confess whatever is on your mind."
"I really don't know what you mean," he replied. "Pass the salt, would you?"
She handed him the tin saltbox. "You've pretended all day that Ardeth wasn't even here."
"No I haven't. Why would you say that?"
"Because I've been in there all day, and you haven't." Evie stabbed a bit of stew. "Usually, you go in a dozen or more times a day, just to sit with Ardeth or speak with him, comb his hair, touch his hand -- today, you didn't even wish him good morning."
Rick rested his plate on the ground and wiped his face with both hands. "I should know by now that nothing gets by you."
"Then tell me what's bothering you."
Rick's shoulders rounded as he rested his elbows on his knees. "Remember when this all started?" She nodded. "You told me to find something, any little thing, about Ardeth that I could make myself love."
"Yes. I thought it might help you. My mother said almost everyone has some little positive thing you can learn to love, and you can go from there."
"Your mother was smart. It worked." He leaned over and dragged his fork through his food. "It's worked too well."
Evie swallowed her mouthful. "Too well?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Rick, you simply are not making sense." She took another bite. "Let me see if I can sort this out. You've come to love Ardeth, and now that he's starting to revive, you are...shamed? Is that it?"
Rick's jaw tightened. "Don't make it sound like I'm throwing a tantrum."
Evie set her plate down and knelt next to her husband, her hands on his arm. "Rick, I'm not, really. I just want you to see how silly it is."
"It doesn't feel silly to me, Evie. It feels anything but silly."
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry." She stroked his arm. "You still love me, don't you?"
He turned his head to kiss her. "More than anything. You know that."
"Yes, I do." She smiled. "It's a wonderful thing to be loved by you. And you love Alex, and I even think Jonathan has a place in your heart." Her smile softened. "Perhaps you are just trying to make the best of a very awkward and frightening situation. Perhaps your feelings are coming out now because if ever Ardeth needed someone to love him, it would be now." She tilted her head. " I feel that it would be more terrible of you to be ...well...behaving in this sexual manner with him and not feel anything for him than the reverse."
"Maybe. Evie, I don't want this ritual thing to be like making love to you. Do you understand that? I'm really not sure...I mean...Evie, it's really scaring me."
Evie wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, long and hard. "Darling, it can't ever be like making love with me, because he isn't me. Don't you see that?"
Rick's jaw hardened. "Evie, you aren't understanding what I mean. I mean...I'm starting to...well...it's not as hard to do as it was before." He spat the words out and froze, waiting for her reaction.
She took his face between her hands. "Darling, what you are doing is ...I can't even begin to think how difficult it is, and yet...isn't it supposed to be a pleasurable act? I'm hoping, for both your sakes, that it is, because there's a very long time ahead for you both. It only makes sense to me." She kissed him again, long and lingering. "Are you afraid you will lose something if you let your heart open to Ardeth? I can tell you now, you will not lose me. I am proud that you will go to such lengths to help Ardeth. He desperately needs your help. He's our friend. He's your friend."
"Evie, it's not that simple..." She silenced him with her lips.
"Yes, it is. Right now, my dear husband, your friend needs you."
Evie walked down to the spring to wash the dishes when Rick went inside the shrine. Seeing Ardeth lying so still inside the circle, trapped and helpless, kicked him with guilt. Quickly he crossed the circle and knelt down. The man's eyes fastened on his face.
"Sorry about today. I'm feeling...I feel pretty strange about all this." He smiled and laid his hand on Ardeth's forehead. "Maybe you feel even stranger than I do. You'll have to tell me later." The dark eyes blinked at him.
The pattern of the ritual was the same, but Rick was very conscious now that Ardeth knew what was happening. He blinked when the tears fell into his eyes. His mouth moved against Rick's -- trying to resist? Trying to respond? Rick couldn't tell. When Rick embraced him to press the wounds together, Ardeth sighed -- the sound was so soft Rick wondered if he'd heard it. And when the final part of the ritual was accomplished and Rick lay panting across Ardeth's body, there was an unmistakable hardness pressed into his belly. But the greatest surprise was the feel of a hand resting against his head. He froze, then lifted himself up.
Ardeth was weakly smiling.
Rick was overcome with sudden embarrassment. Quickly, but carefully, he separated them and went through the little cleaning ceremony that always ended the ritual. He did not look up until he had closed his pants and arranged the blanket over Ardeth's legs. Only then did he stop and sit still by Ardeth's side.
The man's dark eyes were sharper now and he could move his head and arms -- weakly, without great control, but move them he could. Rick was caught between elation and embarrassment.
"Ardeth? Can you understand me?" The man nodded. "Do you know what's going on, what happened to you?" Again the nod, and this time the eyes closed and the mouth tightened. "Ardeth, I'm doing what the inscription says I'm supposed to, as close as we could figure it out." Ardeth nodded a third time, opening his eyes. His hand came up, clumsily groping in the air, and Rick caught it between his own. "Ardeth, I need to know something. Is...what I'm doing hurting you?"
There was a pause, then Ardeth shook his head, side to side and his mouth formed a word that came out as a breath. "No."
Rick squeezed his hand. "Two more days and you should be past this part. Twice more." Ardeth smiled. "Do you need anything? Are you thirsty? Hungry?"
Ardeth gripped Rick's fingers. "Cold," he whispered.
Rick nodded, quickly fetching another blanket and bringing it back. He wanted to run to find Evie, but he hesitated. Once he had the second blanket firmly tucked around Ardeth, he paused, studying the man's face. Where once it had been still and smooth, it was now agitated. The eyes were fixed on him. They held the sharpness he'd always found in the dark warrior, but they had more. He wasn't sure what it was.
"Ardeth?" He started to stroke the man's forehead, and caught his hand halfway there, pulling it back. "What's wrong? Tell me."
"Afraid." The whisper was hoarse and strained. "Tired."
This time Rick did not censor his impulse. He caressed the dark curls, the high forehead. "Don't be afraid. I'm here. Evie's here. We aren't going to leave you." He adjusted the blankets over the man's shoulders. "Just hang on a little longer. I promise I'll bring you through this."
Rick swallowed hard at the sudden lump in his throat. "No, no, I don't hate you. Not at all." He leaned over and rested his lips against Ardeth's cheek, briefly. "Not in the smallest bit." He straightened and smiled. "Now, rest. I'll stay here with you for a while. Evie and I are sleeping right over there. If you need us, call. We're only a few feet away."
Ardeth nodded and closed his eyes. Rick continued to stroke his hair until he was sure the man was sleeping. When he finally left the circle, the tingle of the barrier was barely noticeable. He saw Evie standing in the doorway of the shrine and walked over to her.
"He's conscious?" she asked, holding her arms out to him.
He hugged her. "Yes. Confused, I think. Scared. Worried I hate him." Rick chuckled very low. "I didn't even see that coming."
"But you told him, didn't you?" Evie looked into his face, the lamp light flickering in her eyes.
"Yes." Rick nodded, and kissed her soundly on the lips. "I promised him we'd stay nearby. He's weak as a baby."
"Does he need to eat? He hasn't had food or water in at least a week. Perhaps longer."
"Not yet. I imagine he'll be starving when this is over, though."
"Just two more nights."
"Yeah." Rick chuckled again. "And then everything gets really complicated." His laugh died as he clutched her tightly to his chest.
Ardeth lay still under the blanket. His body was quiet, but inside, he was shaking.
It had happened suddenly. He'd only been dimly aware of Rick having returned. It seemed he'd been gone forever. Evie, he sensed, was near, but she never came close. He craved the slightest sound, the tiniest flicker of motion. If only one of them would come closer, would touch him, would speak to him. He could not move, could not whisper. His mind raced and fretted. Eventually, the world around him grew silent and dark.
What was happening? He could imagine that Rick and Evie were filled with loathing for him. After all, to save him they must break vows made to each other. He'd heard Rick's reaction upon learning about the curse and its cure. Only his sense of duty and honor could make him perform something that was obviously so disgusting to him. Was it not natural, too, that his disgust would extend to the one who brought him to this kind of humiliation?
Rick's voice brought him out of dark thoughts. He had to force his mind to understand, because he was distracted by the feeling of warm flesh against his own. It was more delicious than he could have imagined to feel Rick touch him -- to feel. He thought that even the most terrible pain would be welcome, rather than the thick numbness of the grey nothing.
Something stung his eyes and blurred his vision, and he was at once thrilled, pained, and confused. Then softness, warmth and wetness, pressed against his mouth. What was it, and why, and oh! the wonderful thrills it sent into his awakening body. Before he could understand that, he felt more warmth pierce the blanket of numbness around him, the pressure of ...an embrace? His heart beat loudly in his ears. Of course, of course...the ritual, the returning of the fluids of life to his body, to knit body and soul together once more.
It was too hard to hold that thought against the wash of sensation pounding him. This time it came from the root of his being, familiar and strange at the same time, flooding him with itself -- he could catch a new scent that pulled out memories that made the scent more important. He could not sort out one sensation from another and surrendered to them. When the waves slowed, then stopped, he could feel now Rick's body flung over his own. He could feel his own arousal, the motion of the other man's rapid hard breathing, the blessing of warmth, the softness of hair under his fingers, the joy of being awake in the world once more.
It all crashed apart when Rick looked at him, when shame crossed his face. All of Ardeth's elation shattered. He almost didn't understand when Rick spoke to him, nodding blindly, afraid to focus too carefully on the other man's face or on his words.
"Am I hurting you?"
No, no, Ardeth wanted to shout. Anything is better than that nothing. Please, please do not abandon me to it again. But he could only whisper.
Rick was holding his hand, squeezing it. He wanted to cry in gratitude, but his eyes were dry. Now that Rick was no longer pressed against him, he could feel the desert chill on his skin, familiar and dangerous. Then Rick vanished.
Not yet! he begged silently. Please, my friend, forgive me that I brought you to this. Forgive me that I fell to my own weakness. Do not leave me...
But Rick had not abandoned him. His hands were busy tucking a blanket over and around Ardeth, but despite the added protection from the night, there was still a chill inside him,. He focused on Rick's face -- a strong face, an honest face, a face that would tell him the truth.
"Ardeth? What's wrong? Tell me."
I am ashamed, he wanted to say. I am no longer a warrior, no longer fit, no longer brave, no longer worthy..."Afraid," was all that came out. "Tired."
The hand on his forehead was gentle, the feel of it in his hair surprising and comforting and still confusing. He could hear Rick speaking, hear reassurance in the words, promises and kindness. His heart welled inside him.
Do you hate me? he tried to ask. What have I done to you?
"No, no, I don't hate you. Not at all." He felt a kiss on his cheek. "Not in the smallest bit." Rick's face hovered over him, a face that would tell him the truth. He relaxed, allowing himself to enjoy the hand in his hair, now that he understood what motivated it. Now he could sleep.
Evie peeked into the shrine. Rick was fetching water from one of the springs. Ardeth lay quietly on his hard bed inside the circle. She could run her hands along the invisible barrier as if it were glass. Ardeth watched her and smiled when she smiled.
"I'm so glad you are awake, Ardeth. Do you need anything?" She sat down as close as she could.
"I am pleased to see you, Evelyn." His voice was very soft, but steady. "No, I am...I need nothing right now."
"Good." She felt her smile become a little fixed on her face, and cleared her throat as she sat down on the sandy stone floor. "I hoped we could talk a little, you and I." He nodded. "This is a terribly awkward situation for all of us, I know. I want to help as much as I can, for all our sakes." She rubbed her hands on her pants. Her palms were sweating. "He's pulling himself apart about this."
Ardeth felt a stab of guilt. "I am sorry, Evelyn."
"Shhh,,,...it isn't your fault, not really. That's why I need to speak with you." Her cheeks were heating and she tried to ignore it. "This is a terribly intimate business, all the way around. I feel positively embarrassed, but it must be done." With a deep intake of breath, she forced her eyes to meet Ardeth's. "How do you feel about Rick...about Rick and...about me?"
Ardeth studied her while he tried to sort his thoughts. He had always thought her pretty. More than that, she was courageous and clever, and honorable through and through. He'd never had leisure to truly look at her before. "You are O'Connell's wife, his beloved. I have great respect for you." He tried to smile. "You heard me when I called to you, and you trusted what I told you. You came here to help me."
She nodded. "Yes, Ardeth, I owed you that much. But..." She seemed to be searching for something, as if words would fall through the ceiling. "How do you feel about...Rick...with all this..." her hand waved toward the wall inscription, including him in the gesture..."with all that has happened? Do you...do you have any affection for him?"
"The very deepest," he replied in an earnest tone. "He did not need to enter into this curse. He did not need to...do all he has."
Her shoulders relaxed and her smile widened. "Oh, Ardeth, that is good to hear. It makes what I want to say so much easier." She leaned forward, her manner confidential. "You see, I was worried that -- well. Rick is worried , too...that you might feel...violated...by all this. By him."
Ardeth considered the statement for a moment before responding. "No, Evelyn. It is not he who has violated me. "
She glanced toward the doorway, "He's very confused. To...to perform the ritual to save you, he couldn't simply...well...do it and be done. He's not that way, not with people who matter to him. It isn't just an act...he's making love to you. Did you realize that?"
Much to his surprise, Ardeth felt his own cheeks reddening. "I have not been...aware...of what he has done until last night. I knew he feared to hurt me, but..."
"He's confused because he has started enjoying it, Ardeth. Enjoying you." She tilted her head slightly, her expression amused, "His nature is rather sensual, but there's more than that. He's afraid, you see, of hurting me. He's afraid you will...well...you'll reject him, despise him." She rubbed her cheek. "Did you know that this ritual doesn't end for another seven years? You and he will have to perform it...for quite some time."
Ardeth squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head weakly. "I would have rather had my death than cause so much pain for you and for O'Connell."
Evie's hand pressed against the invisible barrier as if she would force it aside to touch him. "No, no, Ardeth, That's not what I wanted to tell you. I simply meant that...I think I can help, if you allow me."
The sun's heat was only a memory on the stones when Rick entered the shrine area, water and towels in hand, and approached Ardeth lying inside the circle. He hesitated, and then crossed the line.
"Hello, my friend." Ardeth smiled at him from the floor.
Rick put down the bucket and knelt. "You're looking better." He smiled, too, but it was strained and tight. "The moon's high -- it'll be full tomorrow."
"Yes." As Rick began to unbutton his shirt, Ardeth caught his hand. "Please, O'Connell...Rick...lay down beside me. I wish to talk to you."
Rick blinked. "Uh, sure, ok." He stretched out on the edge of blanket Ardeth vacated for him, maintaining a few inches of space between them.
Ardeth rested his hand on Rick's chest. "When you first came here, I was...my soul was sundered from my body. I could not feel nor act. When you performed the requirements of the curse, I could do nothing. I was not dead, but I did not live, either." He began unbuttoning Rick's shirt, slowly and with some difficulty.
Rick froze. "Ardeth...what...?"
It was hard for Ardeth to work the buttons one handed. "I want to make this easier for you, if I can. If I could choose to die cleanly, I would prefer that to causing you such trouble. But I cannot, until my soul and body are knit whole again. Now that you have begun it, only you can do this for me. Now that you have begun the unraveling of the curse, you must finish it, or we both will be dragged from this world, neither living nor dead. Now, this ritual must be performed together, to save us both. But that does not mean either of us should be ashamed, or afraid." Surrendering the buttons, he touched Rick's chin, turning the man's face toward his own. His hand shook slightly. "You have taken the loyalty of a friendship and bent it to serve me, despite what it costs you. I cannot repay that debt." He pressed his lips softly against Rick's, then pulled away. "You are highest in my heart. I withhold nothing from you. That is all I have to offer."
Rick unbuttoned his shirt without looking. He was trembling, but that did not slow him. His arms slipped easily around Ardeth's body, cradling him, and he bent his head for another kiss. The pattern of ritual fell away as he explored Ardeth's face with his lips. The rough beard did not trouble him now. The full lips were invitingly soft and yielding, yet not passive. Ardeth's hands caressed him, and he let himself enjoy it. The blanket was pushed away, and he managed to undress without releasing Ardeth from his embrace.
From a shadow at the shrine's mouth, Evie watched the two men slowly explore each other, almost too eagerly to remember the needed ritual requirements, and then couple. She smiled to herself.
Rick sat by the spring, watching Evie bathe. She smiled when she saw him, the morning sun glinting on the water droplets in her hair.
"Today's the last day, Rick. We can take Ardeth away from here."
"Where, Evie? To England?"
She ducked under the water and came up shaking her hair around her. "I suppose so. At least for a while. We cannot stay here. I have my position at the museum. And we have Alex."
Rick shook splashed water from his hands and rubbed his face. "Not to mention Jonathan. He's still not old enough to be out on his own yet."
She reached for the towel on the rocks. "Do you think Ardeth will not come?"
Rick grabbed it before she could pull it to her, waving it teasingly. "If we ask him, he will come."
She snatched at the towel, trying not to rise too far from the water. "Give me that!"
"You come and get it." He flicked it at her.
"You are incorrigible!" She splashed water at him and he leapt up.
"Hey! Now I'm really not giving you your towel!"
With a final splash, Evie hauled herself up on the rocks surrounding the deep pool of the spring. Her naked body sparkled a little. "That's fine. You can keep it. I'll just walk back to the shrine for another!" She started to walk passed him, defiantly.
"Not so fast!" With one smooth motion, Rick caught the towel around her and pulled her close for a kiss. She held him for a long moment, then wrapped the towel tightly around herself.
"Oh, so you don't want to share me with Ardeth, do you?" She laughed a little.
Rick stopped, his face suddenly solemn. "I hadn't thought of that."
She began wringing the water from her hair, bending over to let it drip on the ground. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I hadn't thought about sharing you with Ardeth -- or sharing Ardeth with you."
She straightened and stared at him. "Rick, are you quite serious?"
Rick shrugged. "I mean, if that becomes something you want...maybe I wouldn't feel like I was being unfaithful...or maybe I wouldn't feel so guilty about having all these feelings...I don't know, Evie, I'm just saying..."
"I know what you're saying, Rick." She pushed wet curls from her face. "Are your feelings for him that...intense?"
"He gave himself to me last night, Evie. I don't mean just physically." Rick put his hands on her hips, pulled her close again, shaping the roundness of her buttocks with his hands. "He made a vow to me. You know what that means. He told me he withholds nothing from me." He rubbed her shoulder with his thumb, catching droplets from her hair. "What's stranger is that he means it. And I think...I think...that I've sort of made the same promise." He shook his head. "Evie, you've talked about...what it was like in Heaven...am I wrong? Is this whole thing wrong?"
She stretched her arms up to encircle his neck, her towel falling loose, caught between their bodies. "My dearest husband, I did learn a little while I was there. I learned that when love is real -- when it is honest and strong and willing to suffer for another -- it is never wrong. If Ardeth and I are to share you, then I would rather be a part of it than stand outside it." She kissed him again. "Besides, he is one of the handsomest men I've ever seen next to you." Her tone held more than teasing.
Rick hugged her, then stopped and held her out so he could see her face. "Wait a minute...Evie? You were... you promised!"
She grinned at him, somewhat slyly. "And I've been as good as my word until last night. Last night I had to...Ardeth and I had a long talk. We both decided that since this whole thing is going to go on for some long time, he and I should come to an understanding of our own." She stood on tiptoe to kiss the end of his nose. "Darling, I love you. I am also extremely fond of Ardeth, and I believe he is fond of me. He is your devoted friend and...for at least a while...your lover. You are moving beyond the minimums of the curse, you know."
"Stop being so smart, ok?"
"One of us has to be." She wiggled free, pulling the towel with her. "I'm going to get dressed now."
Rick followed her back to camp more slowly. When he entered the shrine, she was dressed and combing her hair. Ardeth was also sitting up and he smiled warmly when he saw Rick. He waved the other man over. "I've been waiting. I wanted to talk, to tell you how this happened."
Rick pulled over a campstool. "I'm all ears." Evie pulled up another and continued combing her hair.
Ardeth had a blanket pulled across his lap, but his chest was bare, the long wound showing plainly. "Have you ever heard of the efreet? They are spirits that live in the deserts. Some are powerful. They act for their own reasons, meddling in human affairs as it suits their whim. Most sensible people think they are but legend, but the Med'jai know they are not. Perhaps they were once the tools of the gods." He rubbed his face with both hands. "I do not know how long ago now, but one of them came to me. It was in dreams, at first, trying to seduce me. It wanted me to willingly follow it into the desert, to become its lover. Night after night it came, eventually abandoning the path of dreams and accosting me in person." His smile was tense. "I refused. I had no desire to abandon my place in the Tribes to become the thrall of a desert spirit. It was angered by my refusal.
"I cannot recall clearly what happened, only that one night I was taken from my tent and brought here. It found some weakness within me, I think, that it could exploit,. With creatures of its conjuration, it took from me the fluids that represent life in the human body. It cursed me to remain here until I should call for it to free me, pulling my living soul from my body. You see, it forbade me to contact anyone in all the lands of the desert peoples -- thus I could not appeal to any of the Med-jai. It thought that I would thus beg of it what I had refused before -- to become its lover and slave forever."
Such a long speech seemed to be draining his energy away and he slumped down to his bed again. "But it is still a creature of the desert, and does not think of any place beyond it. I knew that if I could reach Evie, and through her, you,that you might aid me. I prayed that perhaps you would come, that you would break this curse. And you did come." He stretched his hand toward Evie, but it could not pass the invisible barrier. She pressed her hand against it, not touching. Rick gripped their hands, feeling the strange tingle of the barrier even as he felt their combined but separated warmth. "I am grateful to you both, more deeply than I will ever have words to say." The intensity of his eyes was so strong that Rick was first to glance away.
Evie let her hand fall to her lap. "Ardeth, what will happen tonight? I mean, when the curse is broken?"
He shook his head. "I do not know."
Rick frowned. "Almost every other place we've been when we've broken a curse has self destructed one way or another. What to you want to bet that this place will go the same way?"
"If that is possible, we should prepare," Evie said, looking from one to the other.
"Well -- pack things up as well as we can, I suppose. Keep everything together so we can escape. This shrine is small so even if it collapses it might not kill us..."
Rick laughed disbelievingly. "Honey, I'm pretty sure a few of these stones falling would kill us pretty good. I don't see what packing will do."
"No, she is right." Ardeth raised himself on one arm. "Four years ago, I traveled through here with the tribes. There were springs -- you have been getting water from them, I think -- but this shrine was not here. Perhaps the efreet created it. When its curse is broken, perhaps it will also vanish. If all your equipment is at the springs, there will be nothing to hamper our escape should we be endangered."
Rick shrugged. "If it will make you feel better, we can move everything down to the far spring."
Evie hopped up. "Then I had best make a start, shall I?" She vanished outside.
Ardeth lay down again. Rick left the stool to sit beside him "Still not hungry or thirsty?" He caught an errant curl around one finger, then pushed it away from Ardeth's face.
"No. Just tired." Ardeth smiled. "This only ends part of the curse, does it not? Evie has told me about the inscription."
Rick nodded, "We were going to ask you to come home with us, if you can. She and I have talked about it and..." He looked toward the doorway where Evie had exited, "...well, if we can work this all out, we want you to stay with us. With both of us." He turned back, letting his eyes emphasize his meaning.
Ardeth raised a brow. "I do not know how long I have been missing from the Tribes. There are still threats to the world buried beneath the sands. But..." he shook his head, "I will be of no use to them now, not until I am free." He took a deep breath. "I would like to come to England to stay with you and Evie."
Rick took Ardeth's right hand in his own and held it tightly. "You will have to come to your own understanding with Evie, but...for me...whatever I have is yours." He grinned a little sheepishly. "At this point, I don't think I should be drawing lines around things. Curse not withstanding, I've...come to care very deeply...for you. I want to be with you, but not...as your rescuer. As equals. Friends." He let his grip loosen. "Is this making any sense? I feel like an idiot."
Ardeth squeezed Rick's hand in response. "Not an idiot. Neither of us, I think, ever gave this possibility a thought. I believe I understand, and I thank you." He let Rick's hand go, but Rick did not pull away.
"Never had a thought like this in my life, Ardeth." He looked at the circle carved into the stone floor. "There's one more thing before I go help Evie. About tonight..."
"Well...when all this started, I made Evie promise me that...well, that she wouldn't look." Rick blushed, Ardeth's hand lying still in his. "I mean, she's my wife and now you're...my lover, I guess...I felt embarrassed. Afraid she'd see me differently...not see me as the man she loves..." He took a deep breath. "Well, she doesn't. I know you and she have been talking...about me...and it's ok with me. I want her here, tonight, when...whatever happens, happens." He looked up. "Is that ok, I mean, with you? Would it bother you?"
Ardeth smiled very gently. "So many things that would have bothered me before are now not as important. Yes, Evie should be here if she wishes it, and you wish it." He tilted his chin toward his half-covered body, "I find that I have little shame left for things such as this. Evie has talked to me of what happened after I left you in Ahm Sheer -- how she was killed and brought back, how it has changed her. She has given her trust to me. If I were to dishonor that -- that would shame me. If I were to betray you, then I would be ashamed. But this?" He shook his head against his rolled blanket pillow. "No, I feel no shame for this. Do you?"
"I'm getting there." Rick cocked his head to one side. "I'm sort of curious as to how it will be when we...well, when the curse isn't the issue..."
"You mean, you would do this just for the pleasure of it?"
Rick froze. "Only if it was...pleasurable...for you. Do you think that's wrong? I mean, is that per..."
"Rick," Ardeth cut off his friend. "No, no, you misunderstand. I do not think it is wrong." He turned his hand so his fingers could stroke the folds of Rick's palm. "I am glad to think we can make a pleasure around necessity. I was pleased to know that your heart would so undermine the efreet's curse that what it intended to break me now is...my happiness. I've been...curious...myself about how we would be after..."
Rick placed Ardeth's hand on his chest. "I'd better go help Evie before we talk ourselves crazy." He got to his knees and bent over to kiss Ardeth, once on the mouth and again on the forehead. "Rest. I'll see you in a bit." Ardeth watched him walk from the shrine.
The full moon rose over the temple, round like a ripe fruit. All the gear had been packed and stowed under a shelter of stone by the farthest spring and the horses tethered nearby. Evie and Rick stood outside the invisible prison around Ardeth. Evie stretched up to kiss Rick's cheek and blew another kiss toward the dark warrior. She was first to break the silence.
"This feels incredibly awkward, I know, but it doesn't need to be." She looked from face to face. "I'm not afraid of anything. You shouldn't be either." She took a single step back as Rick went forward.
He knelt by Ardeth's head. He was bare-chested, and he pressed the scabbed wound to start it bleeding. The pain made tears easy and he leaned over to let them drip into Ardeth's eyes. When he gathered the warrior into his arms to press the wounds together, he sank into the full soft welcome of his lips. He forgot any hesitancy, any fear, any doubt. Ardeth's arms were around him, and he only thought of that warmth, velvet of flesh against flesh, the pleasure of being with him. He wanted to do more than embrace, than kiss his mouth, than the basic act of coupling required. He knew he wanted more as his hands slid down to cup buttocks more narrow and hard than Evie's, but that filled his hand nevertheless. Thinking of Ardeth's body compared with Evie's didn't disturb him. He was imagining instead how it would be to have them both together, being able to sample each one in turn, to have them both touching him, their hands joined on his body. He found himself picturing Ardeth between Evie's creamy soft thighs, and the thought made him instantly hard. He fumbled at his trousers to free himself, but his hands were pushed away. Ardeth opened his trousers and drew his cock free, stroking it aggressively but still gently, knowingly.
It was punishing to pause even long enough to find the oil and pour some into his hand. Ardeth caught a little of it and used it, rubbing both their cocks together. He didn't even pause to think about these changes, that Ardeth was no longer simply a passive body. He was too intent now on the last goal. His fingers slipped easily between Ardeth's small buttocks, against the now familiar entrance into his body, and began massaging oil there. Ardeth moaned softly into his mouth, still rubbing his hand on the two organs battling between them. For a few dizzy seconds he imagined what it must feel like, how it would feel when it was Ardeth sliding into him, prizing him open for the first time. He knew he wanted that to happen, but right now it just made him so erect that it was almost painful.
He knelt, eyes half closed, and felt Ardeth straddle his thighs, positioning himself to be taken -- or to take, Rick wasn't sure as his cock slid into the oiled crevice of Ardeth's buttocks. The warrior's arms were around his neck, hands in his hair. Rick supported him with one arm while using his other to guide them together. His cockhead nudged the still tight, now unseen pucker of Ardeth's anus, pressed against it. He felt more than heard Ardeth's gasp, then the tension in his thighs relaxed.
Very slowly, it seemed, he pushed his way inside. He heard a voice crooning something comforting, and realized, with a little surprise, that it was his. His face was pressed against Ardeth's shoulder as the other man lowered himself slowly, impaling himself on Rick's stiff member. Rick held him tightly, keeping himself still, allowing Ardeth to control this particular coupling, concentrating instead on caressing the man's back, his legs, even occasionally the curved hard shape of his cock where it jutted between them. With a long sigh, he felt Ardeth open and he slid inside completely. The heat and tightness were so exquisite that he almost forgot himself, almost threw Ardeth to the floor. Instead, he found a little hollow in the other man's throat, licking and kissing it ardently.
So many impassioned images were flooding his mind that he hardly knew what was happening. As tremors of pleasure began to run through his legs, he realized his own groans were matched in Ardeth's voice. They had found a rhythm together that was building up such intense feeling inside him, he wasn't sure he could contain himself longer. A thought threaded into his mind that Ardeth had never come during these rituals, that it might be dangerous for him if the whole life fluid thing meant some sort of balance, but it was far too hard to think coherently. He wanted Ardeth to climax, almost as much as he wanted it for himself. Ardeth's once alien body was now part of him. The images in his mind slithered once more and he was picturing himself behind Ardeth while Ardeth was inside Evie, imagining their faces, the sweat of their bodies mingled, two ecstatic lovers both reaching for him,
He growled when he came, seizing Ardeth tightly, thrusting hard and careless for a few seconds. The white noise roar in his ears was deafening, then he felt the press of wind on his back. He opened his eyes, seeing only a dark outline of Ardeth's chest, the roar rising to a scream. Ardeth and he parted by silent assent as the wind began tossing sand into his face. Quickly he seized the blankets that made Ardeth's bed and flung them around them both. Shielding his eyes, he looked for Evie, but Ardeth had already grabbed her out of the rising tempest. When he pulled her into the relative shelter of the blankets and their two larger bodies, Rick realized that the temple was dissolving.
He could not look any more, the wind kicking up a thick curtain of sand that scoured his face. Evie was pressed between them as they knelt. It took all his strength to hold the blankets around them as the screaming wind grew louder and louder. It tried to drag the blankets from his hands and force his arms away from Ardeth's shoulders. His back and neck ached with the strain not to yield.
It ended suddenly. He peeked up. The moon shown with silvery fullness above them, the stars picked out sharply in the desert sky. The wind was now only a brush of air. The shrine was completely gone.
He dropped the blankets. Kneeling next to him was Ardeth, and huddled in the protection of the warrior's body was Evie. Silently they unwound one from the other. The sounds of the night returned as they shook sand from their hair and bodies. Rick looked from one to the other.
"Everyone all right?" Both Ardeth and Evie nodded. Rick realized his trousers were still around his ankles and he was momentarily annoyed -- he should have just left them outside. He stood clumsily to pull them up.
"You might as well take them off, " Evie said in a practical tone. "If they are as full of sand as mine are, you won't want to pull them up."
Ardeth stood up unsteadily. Evie caught and supported him. He smiled at her, then at Rick.
"It is over. I can feel it."
Rick stepped out of his pants. Evie was right -- they were full of sand, as were his boots. He pulled those off next. "That part is over. How do you feel?"
"Starving. Thirsty. Sandy." Ardeth rested his arm over Evie's shoulders, trying not to lean on her too heavily. His smile was completely wonderful. Rick could not help smiling back.
"We can fix all three of those," Rick replied, shaking gouts of sand from his pants. "Come on, down to the spring." He caught Ardeth's other arm and drew it around his waist, then leaned around to look at Evie. "Lady, you are definitely over dressed for this occasion."
She grinned at him.