The old man chuckled.
“Screaming stones? I have seen men break down after a battle won. After the danger had passed. Extreme stress collapses a mind when living becomes a possibility. Or a reality. I put down his raving to such a malaise, so common among those who faced intense experiences. And what could be more intense than what we have been through?”
Khamet stopped and looked out the window again. The full moon stared back at him. Lumeri followed his gaze. He wondered if it was his imagination but did the unnerving orb look bigger? The scribe said a quick prayer to all his chosen gods and blamed the old man for his wavering nerves.
“The danger had passed.”
He heard old Khamet mutter softly. Then a crazy fit of loud laughter followed. Lumeri shifted position in his chair, ready to run. He could deal with the hysterical and fanciful stories of Khamet the merchant but not with a mad old man.
“Again, your forgiveness, scribe. You must have thought me mad,” said Khamet, wiping the drool from his mouth with a thin piece of cloth.
“To my tale. I let one of the men ask for a strong drink from the natives. He came back with a beverage which reeked of alcohol. Unfamiliar concoction but it served its purpose. It let the mage sleep. I can’t let his ravings upset the men or our hosts. We were comfortable and safe,” said the old man with a droll smile.
“Shortly, our food arrived. It was a meat stew, heavily spiced. Delicious, if I may say so. I did notice that the meat used was fresh. A successful hunt, commented one of the women who brought the food. It seems that luckily, a group of hunters chanced upon freshly killed animals left by a predator. We have brought good fortune to the village, added the eldest of the group. For us, food and rest were welcome respites from a journey continuously marked with peril and scenes of the horrible demise of comrades.”
“The following day, the mage appeared calmer though I noticed he scrupulously avoided the paved square. Food came at regular intervals and the men were relaxed. Even content and pleased with the turn of events. Me? I spent the day sitting outside our quarters, observing the settlement and its people. Their attire and weapons first caught my attention. Many wore armor from crudely prepared leather or clothing made from some plant. Not cotton. Rough to the touch and not itchy, one of the local inhabitants told me. He mentioned the name of a plant but it was an unfamiliar one. More curious were the other outfits I saw. They undoubtedly were from Norse, Kemet, Greek, and other civilizations. Almost all had patched holes in them. Even the weapons and armor were an eclectic collection from different civilizations. I believe I even saw one of the throwing spears the Incans and Aztecah favor. They were all old but usable.”
“From trade, great Khamet?”
“I doubt it. Trading wouldn’t have resulted in such shoddy goods. And I have never heard of a trader from the known civilizations come to these parts. Anyway, at midday, one of their elders came and visited us. An old man named Turo. I was happy to see him and inquired about our status. He told me the decision would be made during a religious festival a day hence. People from nearby allied villages were expected to attend. In fact, invitations have been sent the day we arrived. I was surprised by such an event. Religion seemed to be a matter which didn’t have priority in the village. But the old man assured me that their entire lives revolved around their worship of their deity. A pharaoh of ancient days, I was informed. The knowledge reassured me. We do worship our rulers as gods or avatars of gods. The practice seemed to have been continued among these descendants of an archaic lost branch of our people. I also asked him about the diet of the village as I noticed that the natives only ate dried meat, not the stew and other laboriously prepared meat dishes we have been enjoying. He informed me it’s part of the preparation for the festival. Some sort of abstention from other kinds of food. Then he invited me to attend a religious ceremony to be held that night. Part of their preparations. Of course, I accepted. I was curious as hell! A lost branch of our people! Who wouldn’t be interested? And it was also my duty to learn as much as I can about these natives. I asked if I could bring Henunu and the scribe along. He found no objection in that. Toru told me he’d be around to fetch us when it gets dark.”
The old paused to wipe off his mouth. Lumeri noticed that the piece of cloth had red spots in it.
He’s coughing up blood. His time really must be close, the scribe thought.
“Henunu was not too happy about attending but he knew his duty. Meren, the young scribe, was ecstatic. Though his enthusiasm didn’t surprise me. He’s a scribe, after all. Like you. Have you heard of him?” asked Khamet.
“No, great Khamet. Even if he went to the same academy as I, the number of graduates and the difference in years would have made it impossible,” answered Lumeri.
“I would suppose so. Toru fetched us that night and we followed him outside the village, accompanied by men I assumed to be priests and acolytes. Torches lighted our way back to the mountains but by way of a different path. We climbed up roughly hewn steps along the mountainside. They were narrow ones and I could see Henunu clinging to the rock face as he followed me. It was a tiring climb. The trail crisscrossed the mountain face. We took breaks at small level stone platforms which served as landings. I stopped counting after a couple of sawat. Finally, we reached our destination. A cave with a great clearing before it. The men arranged themselves in a double line, with Toru at the lead. The three of us were positioned between the two rows of priests. The village elder chanted some verses in a language I have not heard before. Guttural, raspy, and full of difficult phrases. Some verses were intoned in sibilant manner. Not that I understood them. But Henunu had grabbed the sleeve of my tunic and held on. I could feel him shivering and heard his mumbling prayers. He worried me. Another fainting spell wouldn’t do. I doubted if they had a supply of that alcoholic drink up there in the cave.”
“You were not scared, great Khamet?”
“Why would I be scared in that clearing? If the villagers wanted us dead, they could already have done it. We were weaponless and far fewer in number. But the truth was I didn’t care for religious mummery. I know what most of our priests were like. Greedy, preying upon the superstitious and ignorant, and not one pious bone in their bodies. So, I stood there and waited for Turo to finish his chanting. Eventually, he wrapped up his spiel and raised his hands in a great shout.”
“You didn’t hear what he said at the end of the chant?”
“Ah, questions. I suppose I have to accommodate you. Queries do rouse my memories. As to what you asked, I did hear what Turo shouted. But I paid it no heed. It was an unfamiliar name. You’ll get your answer at the end of this tale, scribe. Don’t worry.”
“My thanks, great Khamet.”
“Don’t thank me yet. You don’t know if there’s any reason to thank me. Back to the story, scribe. The lighting good enough for you?”
“Now that you mention it, great one. Another candle would be welcome,” replied Lumeri. The shadows in the room have disturbingly lengthened and coldness had entered the chamber.
“There are some candles in that wicker basket beside the table. Get it so we can continue.”
Lumeri dutifully got two more candles, lighted them, and placed them on the table. Despite the additional light from the two other tapers, he was unnerved by the fact that the dark gloom surrounding them didn’t vanish. The shadows remained where they were. Lumeri’s uneasiness was exacerbated by his observation that the dark shapes on the wall, the floor and on the ceiling followed their own rules and were not dependent on the illumination given by the candles. Writing though was far easier with the added brightness.
“I am ready, great one.”
“The cave. Or rather, their temple. We entered the gaping mouth accompanied by the whispered chanting of the priests. Down a narrow incline we went. The rock face of the tunnel was surprisingly smooth. The torch-lined corridor was tall and wide enough for all of us to walk in without worrying about our heads and elbows. A large wall full of grotesque carvings greeted us at the bottom. It silently split into two panels and parted, allowing us entry. There in front of us was their shrine. A large cavern, brightly lighted by a means I don’t know. In the middle of the hollow was a statute. A life-size effigy of a Pharaoh of Kemet, complete with all the golden royal ornaments. It was surprisingly life-like, no man could carve nor sculpt such a perfect form. It arrogantly displayed its perfect shape at us, face marked with a disquieting grin. And it was a black Pharaoh.”
Sawat. Ancient Egyptian. The word for “a hundred.”