The Aptet of Tchatcha-em-ânkh
Rebecca York was a woman of ritual. Her father had taught her at a very early age to treat every moment of every day with the significance of a final ending, and a great rebirth. To do less was disrespectful to the powers that created the heavens and the Earth. The end of her day was no less to her than the beginning, and in some ways, far more important.
She had expanded on her father’s wisdom over the years, caring for her mind and body with equal parts of her attention. At 5’9″ she was taller than most women. She was slender, which accentuated her height, and wore her hair in one long braid, normally draped forward over one shoulder. She kept to herself – evident in her choice of homes – and her clothing was usually dark and plain with only a few meaningful ornaments to set off the glitter of her eyes.
You would not know from looking at her that she’d traveled the world, or the mystery that had surrounded her life since a very early age. If you didn’t know her, you would not suspect the power she was intimate with, or the iron will with which she controlled it. Not unless you met her gaze full on. That was an experience none could ever forget. Rebecca York might appear unassuming, but that appearance was the epitome of the old adage about books and their covers. And despite her best efforts to hide it, she was beautiful.
Her cottage was tucked in among rolling foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, just west of Asheville, North Carolina. There was a road leading in, but it was closed off by a series of gates she locked carefully each time she drove in. She had other ways out, but they were not shared with the world at large. As far as anyone was concerned, she was the crazy lady who lived in the woods, and that was fine by her. Those who knew her often kidded her about taking to the North Carolina hills. Born in Israel, she’d lived in France, England, Tibet, and several other even more exotic places over the years, which made her choice of a rural mountain home seem odd. Rebecca always explained it the same way – she did not choose the place, it chose her.
If the person questioning her had the proper background, she’d explain about the lines of power, and their convergence. She’d tell them how this was the single place in all the world she’d found completely in line with her energies. In this small cottage she could reach levels of concentration that were impossible anywhere else, and for her work, concentration was essential.
As the sun dropped toward the line of mountains to the west, she walked through the small home, tracing symbols of protection at each window, checking the wards at the doors, and setting things to rights. Her books were perfectly aligned. The small fountain in one corner of her den trickled with just the right amount of clear water. There were no stray papers on her desk, or pencils laying askew on the blotter. Among other interests, Feng Shui occupied her mind on a constant basis. She was keenly aware of any shift in energy, and quick to correct it. She abhorred imbalance.
Her bedroom lay on the eastern side of the cottage where the morning sun could slide over the sill and invite her into each new day. The room would have looked strange to most, with the bed centered between walls hung with tapestries and lined with shelves. The floor was inlaid with concentric circles, each band of which contained a carefully placed ring of esoteric characters and symbols. At the head of the bed, the foot, and to either side, centered between the widest of the circles about five feet from the frame, four wooden stands held cast-iron bowls. Directly behind her pillow, a stouter stand held a large, ceramic bowl of white stone.
Rebecca walked slowly around her bedroom, stopping momentarily at each of the stands in the circle, sprinkling small handfuls of powder into each shallow burner, as well as some leaves and twigs. When they were filled to her satisfaction, she walked to the head of her bed and peered down into the ceramic bowl.
It was filled about halfway with clear water. The interior of the bowl was mirrored. It was a relic she’d brought back from a trip to Europe – very old. She’d followed a map so old it had threatened to crumble before she could photograph it through mountains and down tunnels to retrieve it. The hiding place, a larger pool of water, had been deep, and protected by water spirits. It had taken her nearly a week of careful preparation to brave that pool, and all for this apparently unremarkable bowl. Of course, it was – in every way – remarkable. It was said to have belonged to Morgana herself, though Rebecca was loathe to believe such tales. She knew what it was, and what it was used for, and that was what mattered.
The sun had completed its circuit of the sky and fallen behind the mountains as she moved about the room. The shadows were deeper, and she turned, just for a moment, to stare out her window at the fog-wreathed hills and the darkening sky beyond. It was a place of power, a place that attracted those with creative spirits, and those with dangerous hungers. Secluded as she was, she was far from alone.
Before building her home here, she’d spent weeks walking the forest paths. She’d lived in the mountains. She’d spoken to those whose families had lived there for centuries, learned their ways and studied their myths. She had found other powers in the hills. Some she’d contested, others were allies. All the while, she’d carved her place, carefully creating the proper boundaries, negotiating the wards and digging in roots. It was home now, more than the sand and rock of her homeland, or the high peaks of Tibet where she’d learned so much, or the deep glens and rolling hills of Europe. As much as possible, she had made herself a place of absolute tranquility and peace. The madness that was her life required it.
From her nightstand, she pulled out a long, slender joss stick. It was sandalwood. She had many scents available to her – cabinets filled with herbs, spices, leaves and tinctures of all sorts – but it was the Sandalwood that brought her peace. It was the Sandalwood that strengthened her vision.
She also pulled out a small box of wooden matches. Working in a counter-clockwise direction, she made a circuit of her bed. She lit the scented powders and leaves in each brazier. When all four were smoldering, tendrils of smoke wafting in slow circles in her wake, she lit the joss stick and stood at the foot of her bed, facing North. She held the stick out in front of her, closed her eyes, and spoke softly, invoking the Archangel Michael. Next she moved to the West and called upon Gabriel, then Raphael and Uriel in turn.
Her circuit complete, she placed the still burning incense stick in a holder beside the ceramic bowl, drew back the covers, and slid between the sheets. There was no light other than the faded orange of the dying sun, and the glowing tip of the joss stick, burned halfway down. She saw it in the periphery of her vision, smiled, and closed her eyes.
Very gently, the water in the bowl above her head rippled. The motion began in the center, rolling out in rings that matched those embedded in the wooden floor. When the ripple reached the edge of the bowl, it made a soft slapping sound, but Rebecca didn’t hear it.
She woke to the sound of laughter. All around her, women chattered excitedly, bustling about in a rustle of silk and the scents of sandalwood and musk. When she sat up, bells jangled. She glanced down at her ankle and frowned at the delicate band of gold and its noisy bangles. She felt the cool cotton of the sheets she lay upon, and the fresh air blowing over and around her. It was not her room, and it was not her mountains. The air tingled with power, and she knew it for a vision.
The air had a thick, ethereal quality. Rebecca smiled and rose. She was surrounded by silken draperies. She pushed them aside and stepped into the room beyond. There were at least half a hundred other women, young and old, in various states of undress. The conversation of many more drifted in from doorways leading in three of four directions. In that last direction a larger doorway opened onto a long hall. The entrance was draped with beaded curtains.
Rebecca turned and studied the other women, getting her bearings as quickly as possible. Some washed themselves with the water from metal bowls, and others ran combs through their hair, or sorted through small chests of jewelry for just the right ornament.
She waded through wafting incense smoke and the clutter of toiletries and bed-clothes, stopping now and again to watch as others prepared themselves for whatever was to come. There was never a vision without purpose. She tried to sort the sights and sound and give them a framework to hang on that made sense. It was hot, and it was humid. Sand wisped across the floor, and she guessed she was near a desert, or a beach. There was no taste of salt in the air, but it was moist with humidity. The overall scent of the place was familiar, but for some reason it wouldn’t click.
Then one of the other women tripped over her as she stood, taking it all in, and spun back to her.
“Be careful!” she snapped. “There is no time to clean, or change, we must hurry.”
The words flashed in and out of focus in her mind, and then locked. The girl spoke Egyptian, but not the Egyptian of Anwar Sadat; it was the Egyptian of Tutankhamen and Cheops. The Egyptian of Alexandria and Cleopatra. Rebecca shook her head once, cleared her thoughts, and then raised her eyes to meet the girl’s gaze.
“I am sorry,” she said.
The girl smiled. “You must hurry, sister. The King has called for us. There is to be a day on the lake. There will only be twenty chosen. It is a beautiful day, and there will be no work for those who are chosen.”
Rebecca followed the girl out of the room and into a long hall. They moved quickly, and the others closed in around them, laughing and chattering. Rebecca kept her mouth closed and her ears open, and by the time they broke out through the front door and onto the steps, she knew that they’d been summoned for a special service to the King. The King was bored…he required entertainment…and the word was that his advisor, the sorcerer Tchatcha-em-ânkh, had been called upon to provide that entertainment.
The name sent shivers down Rebecca’s arms. She was familiar with the popular works of Budge, and she was intimately familiar with the rituals recorded in the various Books of the Dead. She knew the name. She knew his reputation, and had memorized stories of his accomplishments as told to King Cheops – which placed her several dynasties prior to that great Pharaoh’s life – and death.
She moved as close to the front of the pack as she could get. The vision was astonishingly clear, but she knew she must play her part. If she wanted to know what it was all about, she would have to become one of the chosen. As they passed a mirror of polished silver, she glanced at her reflection, and was astonished by what she saw. Her face and features were her own, but she was dressed in a very sheer cotton smock. She wore gold at her throat, and on her ankles, and her makeup, while crude and overdrawn, was striking. She wished she could capture the image, but knew her memory would have to serve. She wished that she knew what the others saw, as well. If she had suddenly appeared in their midst, unfamiliar and foreign, they would never accept her – she knew she wore the frame and face of a long dead woman – a woman she would never meet.
As they reached the steps, an aged man, his head shaven and tanned, stepped forward with his hands raised. The women, as one, dropped to their knees. Rebecca joined them, just managing to do so before she was left standing alone. The man was flanked on either side by two young boys with bronzed skin, wearing only short, skirt-like garments and sandals. The boys, like the women before them, were adorned in gold and thick makeup. Each of them held an armload of fine-mesh fishing nets.
Rebecca heard more whispered voices and knew that the man before her was Tchatcha-em-ânkh. He spoke softly, but the words carried, wrapping in and around them, seeming to come from everywhere – and nowhere – at the same time. Even in the eerie, half-life of the vision, he stood out – his countenance was clear, while those around him shimmered in and out of focus.
“You are privileged,” he said. “You serve the one King, the son of Ra. It is a glorious day, and some among you will have a special task. It will not be an easy one…you will man the oars on the boat of a God. You will be on display, and you will please. You will be called upon to be beautiful, and to work as a single unit.”
He stepped forward then, and began moving among the women. When one met his approval, he bent and touched her head gently. Each time this happened one of the boys draped a net over the chosen. Then Tchatcha-em-ânkh stood before Rebecca, and unable to lower her eyes to his feet, as was expected, she met his gaze fully.
The sorcerer registered shock, just for the shortest of moments. In that time, Rebecca, cursing under her breath, managed to tear her gaze free and lower her head. She waited, expecting the worst. She did not know what would happen if he confronted her in the vision. It would disrupt the flow. She might be trapped, or worse. Her heart slammed in her chest, and she waited, until – like the touch of a fly landing, Tchatcha-em-ânkh touched her head, and moved on. A moment later the cool mesh of a fishing net fell over her shoulders, and the selection was complete.
“The rest of you may go,” the sorcerer cried. “Do not despair if you were not chosen. The God shall return, and in that return his dark mood will be lifted. He will smile upon you all. Rejoice. Prepare a feast, and music.”
Those not among the twenty drew back in silence, turned, and scurried into the hall behind them. When they were gone, Tchatcha-em-ânkh spoke once more.
“You will attire yourselves in only the nets you have been provided, as if you were a bountiful catch. Make your way to the lake, and you will be led to the King’s boat, where you will each take up an oar. Together you will row the God who walks among us about the lake, helping to lift his mood. This is a great honor…do not waste time.”
Then he turned, and was gone, leaving them to rise and hurry back to their quarters to change. Rebecca pulled the net from her shoulders and stared at it dubiously. The mesh was fine, but it would be incredibly sheer. She thought about walking among these strangers with nothing else to cover herself, and her pulse quickened.
Play it out, she told herself. If it wasn’t important, you would not be here.
She hurried after the others, found the bed where she’d awakened, and quickly stripped out of her clothing. Standing naked with only the gold ornament at her throat and the belled ankle bracelet, she concentrated on other things. She drew on the emotions around her – excitement, anticipation, but no shame. None of them was uncomfortable in the near nudity of the fishing nets. If anything, the soft threads excited them. Rebecca did her best to feed off of this, allowing her mind to clear, and channeling their emotions into her expressions and actions.
She knew that she had nothing to be ashamed of, but centuries of ingrained propriety were difficult to slough off. She was a handsome woman. She ate sparingly, walked miles through the mountains each day, and cared for herself meticulously. As with all else in her life, health was a ritual, and one she enjoyed. With the nets trailing over her shoulders and cinched in the center with a bit of gold rope she’d found near her bed, she left the chamber of maidens behind and followed the other chosen down the wide stone steps and into the street that led to the lake. She was certain that they saw what they expected to see – another daughter of the Nile on her way to serve the King. She wondered, though, what Tchatcha-em-ânkh would see…and if he would approve.
She was amused to realize that all of the chosen were virgins. The form she inhabited was that of a maiden. She hoped that Tchatcha-em-ânkh would not have them examined prior to embarking on the day’s pleasure, because she wasn’t certain which woman he would see – and it had been many years since she fit the description of maiden. She wondered, as well, what he’d seen in her eyes. Did he know? Did he realize another of power had entered his world? Was he threatened, amused – plotting something she could not comprehend? She thought it likely that, at the very least, he knew something was different about her, and so she wondered how he would react, and why she’d been chosen.
They were escorted down a wooden pier by a number of very large, shaven-headed eunuchs. These were so remarkably similar in appearance that Rebecca wondered if they’d been bred to it, or just trained and sculpted to match. She was fascinated by everything she saw – the ornaments, the attire, the immense stone of the buildings. All of it had been dust for centuries. She tried not to let her senses overwhelm her. She concentrated on keeping her footing on the damp pier, and not allowing the meager covering of the fishnet to drop from her shoulders.
The boat was long, like a very large canoe. It was wide in the center and flat, and running down either side were benches, ten to a side. At each of these benches an ornate and gilded ebony oar rested, waiting for one of twenty to be seated and take it in hand.
They were helped into the boat and led to their seats. The Eunuchs paused before each of them, helping to arrange the nets and their hair, positioning them just so to make the perfect aesthetic design – an image to please the senses of a God. Even as her mind rebelled against the objectification of the women, the attention to detail captivated her. The boat was like a huge, many-faceted ritual of which she was but a single part.
The twenty were followed by the boys who had accompanied Tchatcha-em-ânkh. They moved to the front of the boat, where they arranged pillows on a flat seat. Incense was lit in small braziers to either side of the padded seat. Palm fronds were brought and laid to either side and an awning was raised that blocked the brightest rays of the sun.
“He comes,” one of the girls whispered.
Rebecca turned her head slowly, watching the pier out of the corner of her eye. A small entourage made its way majestically toward them. Eunuchs flanked the King, and behind him, accompanied by two more of the young men, the sorcerer followed.
King Senefru was young. He might have seen twenty years, and he was slender. Between the eunuchs, if it hadn’t been for the golden headpiece he wore, he might have been mistaken for a boy. His brow was creased by a frown, and his steps were hurried. He also wore makeup, more elaborate than that of the boys. His hair was clipped to the length of his shoulders and he wore an amulet of lapis lazuli at his throat. Gold glittered as he moved. It rippled on his robe, in his hair, on his fingers and wrists.
Then the King broke the spell of his own majesty by speaking.
“I hope that you are right,” he said peevishly, turning back to Tchatcha-em-ânkh before stepping into the boat. “I have not felt right since rising this morning, and I can’t see how riding about in a boat is going to change that.”
“You will see, your Highness,” the old man replied. A day on the lake, with such beauty surrounding you,” Tchatcha-em-ânkh waved his arm to indicate the maidens at the oars, and the beautifully laid out seat awaiting the King, “will do wonders for your spirit. There are many beautiful sights along the banks, and we will see them at our leisure.”
Senefru shrugged, nodded, and turned. One of the eunuchs helped him down into the boat, and he made his way slowly forward. As he went, he gazed at each of the maidens in turn. He did not touch them – they were all virgins – but he examined them carefully, checking for any blemish. It was as if he was determined the day would not improve, and wanted any excuse to validate his mood.
When he reached Rebecca, he stopped and turned fully to face her. She kept her eyes respectfully on the boat’s plank floor. She felt the heat of the sun beating down on her shoulders through the netting and was suddenly very aware of his eyes, and the fact that she was nearly naked in his presence. He lingered, stepping to one side, and then the other.
“What is it, sire?” Tchatcha-em-ânkh asked. “Does something displease you?”
“No,” the King replied, distracted. “I do not know what it is. There is something…”
He shook his head and turned toward the front of the boat. Without further hesitation he made his way to the pillowed seat and arranged himself carefully. Two of the eunuchs took up the palm fronds and began to fan him gently.
“Cast off,” Tchatcha-em-ânkh called.
The boat rocked gently and slid out onto the brilliant blue water. Sun rippled on the waves. A short man with a shaven head paced to the center of the boat, taking a position between the rows of maidens. He held a small tambour, which he began, slowly, to tap. It made a susurrus rattling sound. Rebecca and the others took up the oars, dipped them into the water, and within a few beats, they had matched the pace of their strokes to his rhythm.
Rebecca concentrated on the motion. She had rowed before, but never a single oar, and never in unison with others. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself, and it was both easier, and harder work than she’d anticipated. As she relaxed, the light drumming of the oar-master seeped into her consciousness, and her body – the maiden’s body – responded. The boat rode light and easy, and the oars, dipping at a leisurely pace, drawing back and rising again, brought them to a slow, but steady pace that ate up the distance with surprising rapidity.
They turned to the left and cruised along the bank. There were groves of trees, and banks of reeds. In the sunlight the distant desert glittered like a sheet of diamonds. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and the King, for all his ire upon their departure, quickly grew calm. He spoke with Tchatcha-em-ânkh, who told him stories, pointed out landmarks, and generally filled in the last elements of a perfect afternoon. Rebecca listened carefully, but heard nothing of importance. She tucked away the names of places and kings, and the anecdotal tales that filled the otherwise silent journey, but she knew she had entered this time – this place – for a reason, and she remained watchful.
Now and then, the old sorcerer turned and glanced at her. She kept her eyes down on these occasions, avoiding direct contact, but she felt his attention like tendrils of spider silk brushing over her skin. More than once a slight shiver threatened to break the perfection of her rowing, and she was certain that – if the old man didn’t notice, he at least sensed her discomfort. It irritated her that he was able to affect her control with such small effort.
When they’d seen the sights of the left shore, Tchatcha-em-ânkh directed the oar-master to turn them toward the center of the lake. He said that there were some things he’d like to show the King on the far bank, and wanted to cross as quickly as possible. The squat oar-master changed his cadence to a series of sharp raps. He called out to the maidens on the right hand side to hold tight as those on the left continued their strokes. When the bow was nearly pointed in the direction they needed to go, he shifted back to the steady rhythm with a shimmering rattle of the tambour. Rebecca resumed her steady rowing, and as they progressed toward the lake’s center, the beat increased in tempo until they fairly raced across the placid surface of the water.
It appeared they would make a swift, unhindered passage, but it was not to be. A girl near the front of the boat, just to the right and behind the King, faltered. A large horsefly had landed on her hair, threatening to bite. Frightened, she released her oar with one hand and swiped at the offending insect. It buzzed off over the water, but the damage was done. Her oar went dead in the water, then caught the resistance of the lake and slammed back into her chest. The boat’s progress was disrupted. They lurched, and spun slightly to the side. The oar-master caught the problem quickly, slowed the rhythm and called out to all of them to stop. The smooth progress they’d been making ceased, and the boat shuddered, unsettling the King on his seat, and nearly tumbling one of the eunuchs into the water.
The girl who’d caused the problem gave a soft cry. There was a clink of metal, and Rebecca saw something strike the side of the boat. The girl reached for it, but her net tangled on the end of her oar, and the glittering object dropped past her grasping hand and splashed into the water beside the boat. The girl brought her hand to her throat and gasped, and though the oar-master called out to them all to resume their efforts, she made no move to return to her oar.
The King, distracted, turned and stared at her. She sat very still.
“What is wrong?” he asked her. “Why have you stopped rowing?”
The girl did not raise her eyes, but neither did she seem cowed by his presence, or his attention. Once again, Rebecca was fascinated. There was some dynamic at work here, some relationship between King and virgins that she did not fully understand, but there was no time to dwell on it.
“My amulet,” she said. “It was a gift from my mother, and belonged to her mother before her. It has fallen in the water.”
“Then it is gone,” the King said. “You must take up your oar so that we may continue.”
The girl made no move to comply. Instead, she leaned closer to the side of the boat and peered into the depths below.
Rebecca watched closely. She also watched the King and the old sorcerer. Most of her knowledge of the ancients came from scrolls and books, manuscripts so old they crumbled to dust if handled incorrectly. She did not know how the King might react – what sort of punishment might be forthcoming. She steeled herself for the worst, but it never came.
The King turned to Tchatcha-em-ânkh.
“You were very wise,” he said, “to advise me to come on this trip. I am feeling well, and enjoying the beauty, but now we have a problem. This maiden has lost an amulet that is important to her, and she will not row. If she will not row, I fear we will sit here so long that the day will be ruined.”
The old sorcerer met the King’s gaze.
“It is a problem,” he said. “Without an even number of oars on either side, we will not move smoothly, and how would we fairly choose one from the opposite side to excuse from her duties?”
The King smiled.
“I know that you are a very powerful man,” he said. “I believe that you can find a way to return this maiden’s amulet and restore my tranquility.”
Rebecca frowned. The banter back and forth between the King and the old man seemed stilted and formal. It was like a planned script, or something they’d been through again, and again. She concentrated on their words, while willing herself not to turn and stare. She still did not know what would happen if she met the sorcerer’s gaze again. If he knew she was there – that she was not the girl she appeared to be – what would he do? What could he do? Would he call her out, or tell the King?
“If it is your wish,” Tchatcha-em-ânkh said, “then I will use what small influence I have with the powers of the lake to assist, if I am able.”
Senefru turned to watch, not the old man, but the lake. The girl who had lost the ornament, despite her apparent desire to sulk, glanced over as well. All of the girls turned, so Rebecca felt, at last, it was safe to surreptitiously observe
Tchatcha-em-ânkh moved to the side of the boat and stood between the first girl and the bench seat where the King had turned to observe. From beneath his white robe, the old man pulled free a golden scarab pendant that dangled from a strong chain. Rebecca saw a glitter of red, but could not see any details, as the man’s back was to her.
She heard a rattle of sound she was certain had come from the sorcerer’s throat, but it was not loud enough to hear clearly, or controlled enough to be words. She had heard of exercises used to train vocal cords to operate beyond normal capabilities – and she wondered if she’d just witnessed proof.
Then Tchatcha-em-ânkh began to speak, and the world shifted so quickly and completely that Rebecca nearly cried aloud in shock.
The light from the sun, already bright, turned golden. The air, clear and bright with a hint of the lake’s moisture, thickened. It had a taste, but Rebecca could not place it. She turned her head and found the motion uncharacteristically difficult. Tchatcha-em-ânkh had turned, and regarded her with interest.
“Come to me,” he said.
Rebecca looked up and down the boat. All the others sat as still as stone, as if they were statues, and only she – and the old sorcerer – existed. With no other clear choice, she rose – again finding it more difficult, the motion slower than it should have been. She crossed the boat, trying not to think of the fact she wore nothing but fishing nets. She met the old man’s gaze.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Rebecca,” she said, without hesitation. “I am a seeker.”
He nodded, as if her words did not surprise him. He nodded toward the lake.
“It is no small thing that the King has asked,” he said. “To retrieve an item from the bottom of a deep lake – twelve cubits, if memory serves – would seem – impossible.”
Rebecca held his gaze, and finally, he smiled.
“Observe,” he said. “And listen. I do not know you, but I sense your power. Listen, learn…do not forget a detail, because any lost word loses everything.”
“Return to your seat,” he said. “They must not know we have spoken.”
Tchatcha-em-ânkh turned away from her, and Rebecca hurried, as best she could in the thick, cloying air, to her seat. She gripped her oar, and as she did, the world tilted back. It was like the rush of the downward slope of a roller coaster, and this time she did gasp, but none turned to see why. All eyes were fixed on Tchatcha-em-ânkh as he began to speak.
Rebecca understood some of the words, but not all. She concentrated on inflection and pronunciation. She memorized every tone, every sound and click of the tongue. She concentrated so hard on getting it right, that she paid no attention to what was going on around her. It was only when the girl beside her dropped her oar and covered her mouth to suppress a scream that she glanced up. In that second, her mind nearly blanked.
The water beside the boat had separated. One section, a perfect rectangle, had lifted to a height of at least ten feet above the surface, a thick, wet column, and continued to rise as she watched. She saw fish within that segment of water, and the reflection of Tchatcha-em-ânkh and his amulet, glittering in the sunlight. Though the water rose, nothing dripped or poured from its surface. It might have been formed of panes of glass, or a massive chunk of crystal.
Tchatcha-em-ânkh continued to speak, and Rebecca frantically repeated each intonation, each syllable. She had been trained to incredible feats of memory, but the power and energy crackling through the air stole her concentration.
The slice of lake finally rose to a point where its bottom edge cleared the surface. The sorcerer raised it yet another foot, and then, as if sliding it onto a shelf, he pushed it aside. Rebecca could not help herself…she half-rose from her seat, peering over the far edge of the boat. At the far end of the impossible slit in the water, she saw the bottom of the lake. It appeared dry as bone. Sand actually caught in the breeze, and swirled up to dance in the air.
The King turned, saw her on her feet, and beckoned to one of the eunuchs.
“Bring her to me. We will lower her down to fetch the bauble, and be on our way.”
He showed no awe, or even surprise, at Tchatcha-em-ânkh’s magic. If anything, he was amused, and seeing the flicker of panic Rebecca had to fight down and control, his smile widened. He was enjoying her discomfiture.
“There is nothing to fear,” he said. “You will be down, and then back in the boat within moments. You would not deny the will of your King?”
Rebecca lowered her eyes, crossed the boat, and stood quietly at the old sorcerer’s side. Tchatcha-em-ânkh did not glance at her, or at anyone. He seemed in a trance. His lips still moved, but no sound emerged that she could hear. Automatically, she ran through the sounds and intonations of his chant in her mind, once, twice, a third time, and she would have done so a fourth, except that the eunuch took her by her arm and shook her gently. She realized the King had spoken again.
“I hope the heat has not been too much for you,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Come, then,” he said.
A larger fishing net was lowered over the side of the boat, draping down the perfectly symmetrical wall of water. It unrolled like a rope ladder, and when the top-most edge had been secured to the side of the boat, the King gestured for Rebecca to comb down.
“Don’t take too long,” he suggested. “Tchatcha-em-ânkh is very powerful, but who knows how long he can hold it? And there are insects – distractions.” The King’s smile widened yet again, and Rebecca stared down into the pit below, shuddered, and then, not wanting to appear hesitant, sat on the boat’s edge, swung her legs over, and turned, gripping the rope of the net tightly As she bumped into the side of the craft, she was reminded once again of her nearly naked state. Her breasts pressed into the wood, and she felt the King’s gaze as he watched, assessing her. She felt, very suddenly, as if she were being offered a test, and that what she did next, and how she did it, was important, though she had no idea in what way, or whether it would be important to herself, or the girl whose place she’d assumed in the vision.
She descended as rapidly as possible. She watched, nervously, as the boat bobbed and floated above her, the side where the net was attached dangerously close to the lip of the strange, impossible pit. She didn’t know what would happen if the current, or a strong breeze, pushed the bow over that edge – but she knew she did not want to be at the bottom of the net, or worse yet, still descending it, if she found out.
The climb seemed to take an eternity, though she knew it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. She dropped the last foot or so, expecting to sink into soft, muddy earth, despite the evidence of her own eyes, but it didn’t happen. The ground was solid, and she turned quickly. There were plants she’d never seen. There was a tangle of branches wound round and round with some sort of thread. Just beyond it all, she caught a glitter of gold. She walked carefully around the branches, avoided a rounded stone, and bent to pick up the amulet. She felt the net slide from her hip as she bent, and she reached to hold it. There was laughter from above, but it seemed to come from a very great distance.
She picked up the jewelry, turned, and made her way back to the net. The laughter seemed to echo from the walls of water to either side, and a wave of claustrophobia nearly paralyzed her. She placed the amulet gently between her teeth, gripped the net, and began to climb.
Above her, faces loomed, leaning over the edge of the boat, smiling and pointing and laughing with delight. Beside and behind a little, Tchatcha-em-ânkh still stood, arms upraised. She focused her attention on the old sorcerer, ignored the water and the laughter and the voices. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, and repeated the incantation a final time. She climbed, and when she reached the top, strong arms gripped her arms. Someone pulled the amulet from between her teeth.
And then, Tchatcha-em-ânkh glanced down at her and smiled. He dropped his arms and with a terrible roar, the huge rectangle of lake water dissolved. It poured over the edge and back into the pit, equalizing. The boat bucked and rocked, and Rebecca fell back. The last thing she saw was the old sorcerer’s eyes. Then the lake closed in over her. The water filled her lungs, and she fought for her breath. She struggled, but the weight on her chest was immense; the thought of the huge block of water settling over her – merging with the lake – pressing her down – drove her to panic.
She grasped at straws of memory. She fought to concentrate and, despite the inability to breathe, she mouthed the words of the incantation, now buried in her psyche. As she pushed the last word from her mind, the last air from her lung – it was gone. All of it. The weight lifted – she was dry – and she came up, gasping for air, to find herself gripping her sheets white-knuckled. She took in such a deep breath she cut off her own oxygen. For the second time in as many moments, darkness threatened to steal her consciousness.
Then, behind her, there was a loud splashing sound. Droplets of water flew from the bowl behind her and dampened her hair, and her neck, her pillows were soaked. Regaining control, she turned and stared. The water in the bowl – what was left of it, was agitated. There were puddles and spills all around it, and Rebecca sat, clutching her sheets, neck craned painfully to gaze at the normally placid pool.
So close. She had lain within her protections. The wards had been set. Nothing had been different, except – he’d seen her. The old man, Tchatcha-em-ânkh, had known her for what she was – known she did not belong. He had been with her in her vision – and so, she realized – he had been within the confines of her protection. It was something to consider in the future and a blessing that she’d not run across a more malevolent power.
All of this flickered through her mind and at the same time, she paid it little attention. She visualized the bowl of water – imagined a chunk the size of a stick of butter being lifted free – imagined it dropping back to splash her and her bed. The words of the incantation were fresh in her mind. She rose, walked the circle around her bed, waving her arm, as if dissipating smoke, and spoke the names of the Archangels in turn, reversing the order of the ward she’d set, until she felt the pressure in the room relax. She crossed the circles to her desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a leather-bound journal. She flipped it open, and with careful, even strokes, recorded the words as she’d memorized them. When possible she used the Egyptian, but when the words were not as expected, or unfamiliar, she recorded the phonetic equivalents with care. It took her nearly five minutes of deep concentration to get it down to her satisfaction. Then, reaching up to brush the long, dark hair from her eyes, she turned to an old, antique rotary dial phone on the desk’s edge…frowned slightly…and reached out. Half a second before her fingers brushed the cool Bakelite of the antique phone’s receiver – it rang.