Khamet, the general turned merchant, looked at Lumeri. The scribe could see the reflection of the light of the candle in the man’s eyes. But he thought he saw that, for a brief moment, the man’s irises turned a strange shade of green. He must be seeing things, Lumeri thought. The old man’s weird tale, the darkness of the room, the candle-lit atmosphere throwing odd shapes on the wall, all are starting to put his nerves on edge.
“Let’s continue, scribe.”
“Of course, great Khamet. I am ready.”
“Now where was I? Ah, the trail. That damnable trail! Oh, how I wish we all died instead in the Great Desert! Our sun-bleached bones clean and in peace!”
Lumeri kept quiet. Then the old man continued.
“We ran up that trail in panic, disregarding the heart-rending pleas and terrible screams of the men we left behind. Finally, we reached the end of the path. It was a dead end. A small grass clearing fenced in by sheer mountain faces. We slumped to the ground. Tired and without hope. The surviving warriors arrived and without a word, sat down on the grass. What was there to say? At the back of the trail awaited monsters and beasts the like of which man had never seen before. Even the mage said so. All his learning proved useless in that valley of death. His spells did work on some of the smaller creatures but for the most part, the monsters appeared to have a degree of immunity to magic attacks. Steel and iron did a better job of killing them. If one could get past their claws, fangs, and speed.”
“Forgive me, great Khamet. But the mage didn’t recognize any of these creatures?”
“Henunu was an excellent mage. And a priest. A very learned one. He did recognize some of the creatures but not their abilities and characteristics. They seemed to have evolved in that place. Stronger, more savage and cunning. Some even hunted us in packs, employing simple hunting skills one would typically ascribe to humans. They baited us. Ambushed us. Not your typical brainless beasts, would you agree, scribe?
“No. I mean yes, great Khamet. Not normal at all.”
“We rested in that meadow. Ate and drank what we could spare from our diminished rations. We watched the sun go to its rest. And as it was setting, we found ourselves surrounded by armed men. Curious, how they able to approach and encircle us without our noticing them. Six trained warriors, a general, and a mage. Disregard the scribe. He was sleeping. To our surprise, we were addressed in the ancient language of Kemet. It was not that far removed from what we use today so we understood enough. Learning we were from Kemet, lost, and had men down the trail, they greeted us as kin and sent some of their warriors down the path in search of the wounded.”
“They’re also from ancient Kemet? From the old world?” asked the astounded scribe.
“From Kemet of the old world, yes. Their ancestors also made the journey but not through our gods. Definitely not through our gods,” laughed the old man. Only a bout of coughing stopped the wild cackle.
“They asked us to surrender weapons and armor, explaining with a lot of apologies that it was the rule of their village. But in turn, they assured us of shelter from the elements and wild beasts. And food. And the mention of those necessities, the face of the men lighted up and turned to me. What choice did I have? Surrounded by spears, monsters at my rear, hunger beside me. I agreed. Some water please, scribe. My throat is parched.”
Lumeri filled a cup and gave it to the old man. The old man drank but held on to it.
“Ah! That’s better. At first, we wondered how we were going to leave the glade, until one of our… hosts… went to a part of the mountainside where two rock faces met. It was a cleverly hidden opening. A cleft. Naturally disguised by the angle and color of its surroundings. It was narrow but enough to admit a man provided he entered in a sideways position. And in such a manner did we leave the mountain clearing. Another forest trail greeted us and we followed it until, after the better part of an hour, we came to a small village. It was enclosed with a wooden palisade and watchtowers were positioned along the walls.”
Khamet took a sip from his cup.
“It had around thirty to forty wooden structures but I later learned that thirty or so families were living in that settlement. We were directed to a large dwelling in the middle of the village right in front of a large square paved with flat stones. It had a raised votive platform at one end. Some of the stones of the square were stained dark. At that time, I put it down to the resources of the village affording limited means for maintaining the center of the settlement. But I was surprised at the religious aspect of it. I didn’t see any temple or place of worship. Though I noticed Henunu turned pale and nearly fainted when he entered the square on the way to our appointed quarters. Fortunately, I was able to catch and hold him up.”
The old man gave back the cup to Lumeri. The scribe noticed a slight shaking of the man’s hand. He didn’t say anything and returned the container to the small table. As he returned to his seat and took up his stylus again, Lumeri could feel his legs had gotten cold and despite his attempts to control it, his writing hand was trembling. It could be his imagination but the shadows of the room seemed to lengthen their reach. Encircling the bed and the chair where he sat.
“I ushered Henunu into the house, instructing one of the men to take him to one of the beds. A native approached me and told me food would be sent to us shortly. I was warned that we were not to walk around the village unescorted but also told that the village elders preferred that we stay in the house until their council had decided on what to do with us. The precautions were reasonable. I would have taken the same arrangements if I were in their place. I went to our mage who was on a bed. He looked weak, his skin tone pallid, and his face displayed immeasurable fear. I have never seen him like that. Even when that pack of clawed and fanged horrors who walked like men had surrounded us back in the valley. I sat down beside him but as soon as he felt me sit down, his eyes opened. He grabbed my tunic, pulled me down to his face and hoarsely whispered to me. The stones were screaming, he said.”