Part 4 of 4
by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended.
My thanks to the many readers who have been so supportive of this series. You are the best! Thanks also to Lisa and Inga, my patient and hard working beta readers.
The stories in this series interrelate and should be read in the order they are posted.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction, please do not read on if you are underage or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Will lay on the muddy bank and tried not to think too deeply about what she had just done. By going to Cheops aid again, she had pulled out the last thread that held the patch she had so carefully applied over her raw emotions. She wasn't sure there was anything now to stop her anger and violence from haemorrhaging out.
She lay still for awhile, trying to focus the energy that she still had left in her. Then she reeled to her feet and stood unsteadily on the steep bank of the Nile. Once her world stopped spinning, she bent to help a half conscious archaeologist to her feet. "Come on, Malone. We gotta go."
"Okay, I'm with you," groaned Cheops, leaning heavily on Willy for support. Together, they staggered up the bank and on to a farmer's trail that ran along the edge of the river. Beyond were small fields of grain.
"Why?" Cheops asked, looking up at the lean, hard face, etched into contrasting planes of dark and light relief by the moonlight.
"Why what?" asked Willy, disinterestedly, as she looked around for light that would indicate habitation. Some distance down the path, there was the flicker of firelight through bushes.
"Why didn't you let me drown?" Cheops held her breath, knowing this answer could mean all the difference to her future and Will's.
Cheops held her breath waiting for the answer that would tell her what was going on in Willy's mind.
"Okay, listen, we gotta get down there," said Willy, pointing to the light off in the distance." I'll carry you piggy-back but you gotta kind of keep me on track because I might start to wander off a bit."
Temper, fed on days of tension, flared inside Cheops. "Damn it, Will! Why!" she yelled, grabbing the arm of the exhausted soldier and spinning Willy around to face her.
"Because I couldn't! That's why!" Willy yelled in her face. And then, softly, "Because I couldn't. I...I...still love you." Cheops gave a moan of relief and wrapped herself in Willy's arms. Will kissed the smaller woman's head softly.
After a few minutes, Will pushed Cheops away gently. With effort, Will bent her aching knees and allowed Cheops to wrap herself around. Then, hooking her long arms around Cheops' legs, she stood. "Hold on tight in case I let go," warned the soldier.
"Hmmm," came the grumpy reply.
"I still love you, too," Cheops confessed, crying softly into the dark wet hair, she had buried her face in.
Will started up the path, her jaw tensed in the effort. Cheops tried to be as still as she could, realizing that this walk was taking everything that the soldier had physically and mentally.
"Tell me some history," came the surprising command after a few minutes of silence.
"What?!" exclaimed Cheops, looking up.
"You know, your stuff. Ahh...I kinda like it. It will keep my mind off this walk...and things."
"You like it?" asked Cheops softly, leaning her head back down against Willy's wet hair.
"Okay, Queen Cleopatra wanted to meet the Roman general Mark Anthony who had conquered Alexandria. She sent several invitations to him to meet but he always refused. She was a very intelligent and talented woman, and she knew that the only way to save Egypt was for her to make an alliance with Mark Anthony. She was an Egyptian by birth but not race. Her family actually were Macedonian."
"A fellow Greek! Cool."
"She wasn't a dark, exotic beautiful either. She was short, plump and blond!
"Hey, I thought she was supposed to look like Elizabeth Taylor!"
"I'm afraid not," responded Cheops with a laugh, pleased that an old, familiar banter was re-establishing itself in their conversation.
"Well, that's the pits!"
"Hey! You love short, blonds!" growled Cheops in fun, giving Willy a poke.
Will's instant reaction was anger. Then she checked herself. She hadn't killed Cheops because she loved her. Cheops seemed, by her teasing, to be giving Willy yet another chance to express that love. Did she dare take it? Did she want to try to rebuild a life with Cheops? Yes, she did. "Oh yeah, I remember, now!"
"And don't you forget it, Kyrtsakas!" ordered Cheops with more confidence than she felt. For a second there, she thought Will was going to drop her. "Where was I? Oh yeah, she decided to send him a valuable Persian rug as a gift. The rug was carried into his presence and unrolled and out popped Cleopatra!"
"Talk about your carpetbanger," muttered Willy.
"Will!" exclaimed Cheops in shock.
"Well?!" justified the soldier weakly. Okay, Willy clean up your mouth, Cheops doesn't like that sort of rough talk. Save it for the barracks.
"Well?!" repeated Cheops indignantly, and then laughed. "Well, she had had an affair with Caesar and had several children by him. That was before she literally threw herself at the feet of Mark Anthony. And before that, she had originally been wed to her brother, the King of Egypt, but he died.
"Hmmm, so did Mark Anthony take her up on her offer?"
"Oh yeah, it was one hot affair! She was charming, rich and powerful, not to mention very, very bright."
"Ahhh, a marriage of convenience!"
"Yep, but at the naval battle of Actium she saw Mark Anthony was going to lose, so she dumped him and took her ships and went home."
"All's fair in love and war." Cheops announced blithely.
"I'll remember that," observed Willy, dryly, her insecurities revealing themselves again. Was Cheops just coming on to her to save her life, or did she really still feel something for her?
Cheops picked up the insecurity in Will's tone and hastened to reassure her. "Don't. That was then, this is now. No games, Will, just love."
Silence, then, softly. "I'm glad.... So did she kill herself in remorse."
Cheops laughed. "Fat chance! She just realized she was too old, frumpy and tired to seduce yet another Roman. She knew she would lose her throne so she opted out. She let an asp bite her."
"Hmmm, so Mark Anthony was heart broken when he found out and acted like Romeo."
"Willy, you are a babe in the woods! He was pissed that Cleo had deserted him and came after her, only to find out she had beaten him to the punch. Without Egypt for support, he knew he was defeated and that the Romans were going to do horrible things to him, so he fell on his sword."
"All politics," slurred Willy, staggering a bit.
"'Fraid so. Sweetheart, you're heading for the bushes, go right," directed Cheops, giving Willy an affectionate hug. "Do you want me to walk? I can."
"No, I'm okay."
Will was something amazing, Cheops thought, as they slowly made their way down the dirt road. All she had gone through emotionally, and the torture she had endured, and yet here she was digging deep into that amazing reserve, and forgiving and aiding her. Yes, Cheops had lived through a lot too, but she had friends to support her and the ability to talk through the pain. Will had to bottle it all up inside and somehow cope with all the raw emotion and anger alone.
"Okay. We're almost at the farm house," gasped Willy.
"Let me down now, Sweetheart."
"Right. What did you call me?"
"Sweetheart," Cheops responded feeling awkward and embarrassed.
"I tried to kill you."
"No, you didn't. Had you tried, you would have succeeded. You thought about it, but you changed your mind.
Cheops hesitated and then added guiltily, " I had you arrested."
Willy stood swaying slightly. "You did the right thing. You should have done it sooner. Still," she added with a smile, "I'm never going to let you live it down, Malone!"
"Okay. What did you call me?"
"Malone. It's a term of endearment," Will responded, looking out over the black Nile.
Cheops reached up and cupped her chin, bringing Willy's face around to look at her. "Good," she whispered softly.
Willy wrapped the dirty, wet woman in her arms, feeling the wave of relief and love flow through her. She struggled trying to get her tired mind to express how she felt. "You smell."
"So do you. See, already we are finding things in common, again."
Will laughed weakly and wrapped a supportive arm around Cheops. "Come on. Let's go and give a farmer a story to tell the neighbours.
They had indeed given a poor, local farmer material for many evening stories. Will had fallen through the doorway when it was opened by a timid woman. The shocked woman screamed, no doubt imagining a tree was falling on her. Cheops' arrival was not much better, stumbling into the terrified woman, as she tried to manoeuvre around Will's body on her water soaked prosthesis.
"We need help," Cheops explained in English, forgetting in her concern for Will to speak in Egyptian. She awkwardly knelt beside Will. "We need to get to a doctor. We fell off a tourist boat and my friend is very sick. Can you take us to a doctor?"
The woman looked wide-eyed at her husband who nodded. "I will get my wagon. You are not to worry. I am Mohammed Hassan and I will take you to the clinic," came the response in stilted English.
"Thank you, Mohammed Hassan, we are truly grateful. May Allah bless your house," responded Cheops, continuing in English so as to show respect for the farmer's learning. She used however, the correct Egyptian response to a kindness offered.
She gentle stroked the damp hair from Willy's face. Dull blue eyes tried to focus on her. "I'm going to kill you," Will slurred.
Cheops put her finger tips on Willy's lips. "No, you're not. Remember. You saved me from the cave and the river."
The eyes closed for a second as she realized what she had just done. They reopened. "I'm sorry, Malone."
"I'm not well. Be careful," Will mumbled.
"I will," reassured Cheops although her fear of Will was gone. She knew now that the love had returned to Will's soul and that she would never hurt her intentionally again. She cradled Will's head in her lap and wrapped her small hand around Will's big, warm palm. I love you, Will, she thought.
The wagon ride was bumpy and the night cold. The farmer had put a few pitch forks of straw on the cart for warmth and comfort but it did little good. The ride, however, had been easy compared to the problem of getting Will on the cart. The woman was becoming delirious. She had taken a few erratic swings at both Cheops and the farmer, and had connected a left hook to Hassan's rather prominent nose! They had finally managed to convince Will that they would leave her alone, and let her sleep, if she would just climb into the back of the wagon.
It was almost two hours before the wagon finally pulled up in front of the mud brick clinic. Already the sun was starting to filter light into the night sky. How long had they been in the water and on the river bank? Cheops had no idea. Exhaustion muddied her mind and she was starting to feel very sick to her stomach. She had swallowed some of the Nile water in her panic. After four thousand years of waste and garbage being dumped in the river, the bacteria levels were dangerously high!
The farmer brought the mule to a stand still and hopped down from his cart. He went to the door and pounded loudly, yelling out in his broken English to impress all those who would hear and understand, "Doctor, Doctor, you wake please! Tourists have fallen off the tourist boat tonight and are near drowned! Doctor come quickly, they are English tourists, who Allah has placed in your hands. If they die, the government will be very angry with you!"
Had Cheops been able to muster any energy at all, she would have laughed at the farmer's dramatics. Lights up and down the small village came on and heads appeared at the windows. The farmer now appealed to the crowd. "They are English tourists, who fell from the big tourist boat. The one, I think has died!" he announced pointing to Willy's sleeping body.
"Hush! Mohammed Hassan," chastised the sleepy doctor hurriedly buttoning his shirt, as he padded out to look in the wagon. "You could raise the dead with your bellowing. Get some men. I will need them to help carry this one in," ordered the doctor, as he evaluated the situation. Can you walk?" he asked turning to Cheops.
"Yes, but not well, I have a prosthesis on my lower leg and it has really rubbed. We've swallowed a lot of Nile water and are starting to feel the effects. My...My friend has other problems that I'll tell you about inside. Handle her carefully; she can be violent."
"Allah protect us, the big English woman thinks she is Lawrence of Arabia!" exclaimed Hassan, who had not forgotten the good clout he had got from Will. By now the air was full of Egyptian voices. Strong, wiry arms helped Cheops out and into the clinic. Oaths and curses drifted in to Cheops as they then fought to get the delirious Willy on a stretcher and into the clinic.
"Allah has sent us an English devil woman to test our faith!" came Hassan's voice over the others and Cheops managed a weak laugh. Boy, they'd got that right!
With much clamour and confusion, the now unconscious soldier was brought in and placed on the examination table. Then, the doctor shooed the crowd out with much thanks. Turning, he padded back to Cheops. "Can you explain what has happened?" he asked, reaching for his stethoscope and turning to examine Willy.
"Yes. We were pushed from the open back deck of the tourist ship. My friend saved my life and pulled me to shore. But she has been sick. She was infiltrating a terrorist cell, was captured and held prisoner for a long time. They used drugs and torture on her to try and get her to reveal the names of the other operatives. She never broke but she paid an awful price for her silence. She is okay when she is rested, but when she is tired or upset, she can be...violent."
The doctor nodded and turned to smile at Cheops. "This I have seen," he said with a smile. "I am
doctor Hamada Khaled. Your friend has a remarkably strong and steady heart beat. How do you feel?"
"Sick to my stomach," complained Cheops.
"I will give you both shots and stomach medication. Still, I think tomorrow you will be very sick, but by the next day, you will feel better. I think," continued the doctor looking back at Willy's still form, "it might be the best part of valor to tie this woman down before she wakes again."
Cheops bit her lip. She wasn't sure how Will would handle being tied. Then again, Will had warned her to be careful. "Okay, but I have to stay with her so she knows everything's all right."
Cheops was so sick that she thought she would die. Then she got sicker and hoped that she would, just to be out of her misery. Through bouts of illness, she managed to contact her tour agency and Inge to let them know not to worry. She asked the agency to contact the boat when it made port at Edfu. Mostly, she stayed with Will.
Willy had woken after a few hours and lost it when she found herself tied. Cheops tried her best to calm her but the woman was raving. Finally, when the doctor slipped out of the room to get a sedative for Will, Cheops grabbed Will firmly on both sides of her head and kissed her soundly. Will's eyes opened wide and for a second, awareness flickered into the blue.
"Listen to me, Will. The drugs are very bad. I want you to remember that you love me and that I love you too, okay? Just hold on to that one thought, and it will lead you back to me. I love you and you love me."
"I luv u," muttered Will as she fell at last into a quiet sleep. It was a very surprised doctor who returned to find Cheops holding Will's hand as the soldier slept.
The boat the next morning had been a hot bed of speculation. What had happened to Cheops during the night? Was there any connection between Cheops' disappearance and the disappearance of Willy? The tour group was very upset and could get little information from the crew because of the language barrier.
Arron Scott looked moodily at his son, who was very elated that morning, and offering his own theories as to what might have happened. None of his suggestions were very believable. Most of the group tended to ignore him. But Arron didn't. He noted with horror the way Bob kept rubbing his thumb against his finger tips in a nervous manner, and Bob's ghoulish grin.
He knew the signs. He had seen them often before. When he got the chance, he pulled Bill aside. "Can I talk to you?" asked Arron, uncharacteristically hesitant.
"Of course," responded Bill, picking up on Arron's tone and switching automatically to a professional manner, a frown forming on his face.
Arron looked out over the Nile. His throat worked but the words took awhile in forming. When he did speak it was like he was thinking out loud to the river. "He always had to have his own way, even as a tyke. Always had to have what he couldn't have. And when he was frustrated in his efforts, well, he'd holler bloody murder. It was cute when he was a toddler."
"His mother and I tried. We got him counseling when things started to happen. He hurt things, for revenge, he said. I..I..It was scary. Cost me a lot of money too. You know, to pay for damages. I thought he'd been getting better. Since his mother died, last fall, there hasn't been an incident. I thought if I brought him on this trip....we could get to know each other, again.
Tears flowed freely down Arron's face but he swallowed and went on. "That crazy woman, Willy, she said Bob had been bothering Cheops and he was to stay away. I didn't take her seriously. Christ! Bill, I think Bob's killed Cheops!" sobbed Arron, burying his head in his hands.
Bill's hand shook as he patted Arron's shoulder. "Steady, Arron. You've done the right thing. I think what we need to do is notify the police that we have concerns, and then see what your son has to say to them. You know I'll do everything I can to help."
The old man took Bill's hand. "Thanks, thank you. I can't let him go on hurting things! My God, what if he's killed her! He's done something, I can tell by his mood and actions."
"Well, let's not think the worst yet. It might be quite a minor offence, if any. First, we need to find out from someone what has happened to Cheops, and talk to the police. You just take it easy. You have done the right thing. Hopefully, we can sort this out without anyone getting hurt," reassured Bill.
The inspector was not happy. First, he had got a call that two tourists had been pushed from a boat and were at a local clinic. Then, he got a call saying the well known archaeologist, Cheops Malone, was missing from her tour. And next an American lawyer wished to talk to him about a delicate matter related to the disappearance. It was not, he thought, going to be a good day.
He slipped from the back seat of the buggy that had brought him to the dock at Edfu. The horse and buggy were still the preferred means of travel around town, in this city. The tourists loved the quaintness, the horsemen got to bred and train their fine Arabian horses, as they had for hundreds of years, and the locals got a cheap public taxi system. Most days, he would enjoy a ride along the Nile, but this whole issue was leaving a bad taste in his mouth.
The last thing Egypt needed was a negative incident involving tourists! He just knew before this day was over the Minister of Tourism would be breathing down his neck! At least, this time it did not appear to be a killing. Still, he had prayed to Allah that morning that this was not a botched terrorist attack.
The next day, a very weak, and very pale soldier lay in the cool sand under an olive tree, beside an equally shaky archaeologist, who sat with her back against the trunk. The bindings of Cheops' artifical leg flapped on a clothes line and Cheops was busy with a rag drying the plastic parts of her prosthesis. An uncomfortable silence hung between them.
Cheops had deliberately rolled up her pant legs so that the stump of her lower leg was visible. She needed Willy to know what to expect, in case she was not comfortable with trying to rebuild their relationship. It was one thing to have a lover with a slight limp, if was another to see a partial leg moving about like some strange and exotic life form. Cheops kept busy, not daring to look into Will's eyes and see the revulsion there.
For her part, Will watched Cheops with fascination. She wanted to reach out and pull Cheops on top of her. She knew she couldn't do this publicly, nor was she sure Cheops would welcome her touch. They had flirted, after they had made it to shore, talked of love, but they were both in shock and not themselves. Hell, they'd only nearly drowned because Willy had beat on her, and had almost thrown her unconscious body into the Nile!
Will felt the red creeping up her face. She had been pretty messed up in her thinking. She still didn't feel good but somehow now that awful anger was no longer eating at her. It had been replaced by guilt. She had treated Cheops appallingly. Used her as a target for her anger and feelings of uselessness. The head of counter-terrorist activities, and she couldn't even protect her own son. Will closed her eyes and pushed back the pain.
"Ahhh, Malone, about us," Willy started, knowing that she owed Cheops this and was just going to have to swallow her own foolish pride and get on with it.
Cheops hand froze at her job. Oh God! Here it comes! She's going to try to tell me nicely that I revolt her!
"I just wanted to you to know that I realize that I've treated you badly. Ahhh, I....I needed some one to blame because I couldn't deal with not protecting.... then the drugs and stuff...I was really messed up...still am, I guess. I...I...ahh, never mind!"
Cheops looked out across the barren sand dunes, afraid still to look at Willy. "Never mind what?"
"I wanted to say...I mean...last night I realized.... I love you," Willy managed at last get out.
"No, don't say anything," Willy hurried on when Cheops turned towards her, "I know I don't deserve your love. I understand you were just trying to make me see past my anger. I..."
"I love you."
"I won't....What?!" Willy exclaimed, turning to look into Cheops' eyes.
"You have made me very anger at times, Will. And I think it will take time to rebuild the trust we once had, but I want to try because I have never stopped loving you."
"Cheops..." Willy barely checked herself from wrapping the woman in her arms and kissing her soundly. She looked around sheepishly, then continued, " I'm really glad," she finished, smiling inanely.
Cheops laughed. "I was sitting here terrified that, well, you wouldn't want me... you know...you are very physically fit, active....I thought when you saw...."
"No!!" No, it doesn't change who you are Cheops." Then, seeing Cheops glance to her partial leg Will realized, for Cheops, it had changed everything. She reached over and stroked the damaged limb reassuringly. "If possible, my respect for you has gone up. You just faced it all and carried on. I didn't."
Cheops drew patterns in the sand with her finger. "Neither did I. After...well, I was very depressed for a very long time. Inge helped me through the dark nights, and covered for me on the site or I would probably have lost my job."
Willy paled even more. "You and her... you...I mean..."
"No! Will, there could only be you. Don't you know that!"
"I mean, I could understand...I...I... Oh God, I feel sick."
Cheops reached out her hand and covered Will's. "No, Inge is a good friend. Okay?"
Willy smiled shakily, "Okay."
"Could you do me a favour?"
"I think my bindings are dry. Could you get them for me, and then I can reassemble this thing. If you feel up to it, we should take a plane up to Edfu and catch up to the tour. I have a few words to say to Bob Scott!"
Willy stood up and looked down at Cheops. "You do know, I want to kill him."
"Yes, but can you let me handle it my way? I don't want to visit you in jail for the next twenty five years!"
"Sure. But I'm going to be right behind you waiting for a chance to beat his little brains in if you need me to!" agreed Willy, moving off to retrieve the bindings from the line. Cheops watched her go. Damn, but she loved that woman!
When Willy returned she took the artificial limb from a surprised Cheops. It was a complex bit of engineering. The plastic ankle was actually a ball joint that allowed flexibility, while still providing support. The top had been molded specifically to Cheops' leg. Bending over she kissed the partial leg softly. "Okay, you explain to me how I put this together."
Cheops looked uncomfortable and embarrassed. "I can do it, Will," she protested.
"No!" Willy responded sharply. "I..If we are going to try to rebuild something between us, then you have to let me deal with your disability. Okay?"
Cheops nodded, as she blinked back tears. "This padding lines the top, to stop my leg from rubbing." Will pushed the pad into place and carefully smoothed it. Then she looked up at Cheops for more instructions. "Now these padded leather straps go through the slots on the two flat arms that extend up on each side. They reduce any side movement of my leg in the socket and also provide the support for buckling the prosthesis to my leg."
Willy manipulated the straps into place and when she was finished Cheops reached for the assembled prosthesis. "No," stated Willy firmly. Cheops licked her lips nervously but leaned back, allowing Willy to place the artificial lower leg over her stump and fasten it into place. When she was finished, she ran her fingers over the plastic and then up the inside of Cheops' leg passed her knee. Willy was rewarded by a soft moan of pleasure.
Sitting back she looked at Cheops. "You turn me on because of what you are and what you do to me in here," whispered Willy, patting her heart. She smiled, "I would show you just how much I mean that, if I could, right here and now!"
"Thank you, Will," Cheops responded her chin quivering with emotion. "I'll take a rain check on that promise, okay."
Willy rolled down Cheops' pant leg, "Count on it," she said confidently, looking up to meet Cheops' beautiful eyes.
Cheops and Willy arrived in Edfu in the late afternoon. A horse and buggy took them from the small air strip down to the landing dock. Both women had been tired by the time they had landed, having used up any reserve of energy they had. But the buggy ride through the old streets, as they secretly held hands, had rejuvenated them and filled their senses with the majestic beauty that is Egypt.
Once at the dock, Willy hopped out and reached up to swing Cheops to the ground. Cheops used the excuse of the uneven stone stairs leading down the river bank to the boat ramp to continue to hold onto Will. They were barely inside the ship, when they found themselves being embraced by the Laytons and Brants.
"Cheops! Honest to God, woman you gave us all a scare! Honey, don't ever do that again," ordered Betty, hugging the stuffings out of Cheops after Jean had let her go.
Will found herself being hugged by Abe and patted on the back by Bill at the same time. "Damn good to see you Major! Knew you'd be back!" Bill pounded happily.
"This calls for a happy hour!" suggested Jean. "I move that we head up to the lounge and insist on hearing the parts of the story we don't already know!"
"I second that motion!" sang out Bill.
Cheops looked at Will and then said quietly, "Actually, we need to talk to the Scotts first."
The group went quiet and looked at Bill Brant, who had handled the rather nasty situation. "There have been some rather surprising developments here, while you were gone, ladies. I think, if you will accept our invitation, you'll find we have quite a story to relate too."
The group sat in comfortable chairs around a coffee table loaded down with bar snacks and glasses. The quaint sailboats of the Nile slipped by outside the window as they talked. Cheops had related their story to a spellbound audience, embarrassing Willy know end. Then, it had been Bill's turn. The police inspector was firm but fair with Bob, Bill related. 'Truthfully, it didn't take much to get the boy to confess. He was pretty proud of himself for having got even with both of you for giving him grief. It was hardest on Arron. But I think, in the end, he had at last accepted how disturbed his son really was, and was prepared to take steps to have him hospitalized for treatment."
"The next step is up to you, ladies. The inspector will be here tomorrow to see if you want to press charges. If you do, Bob will go to trial and be jailed here. If you don't, Arron will take him home and have him committed."
Cheops looked up into eyes the colour of ice. "Will, I don't want to hurt Arron anymore than he already has been. Bob is not responsible for his actions."
Willy nodded, "I agree."
The group relaxed then, and after a few more drinks, Cheops began telling stories of close encounters with mummies that had them all in stitches. Willy, who couldn't drink, sipped her coffee and revelled in being home at last.
The blond woman stood in the shadows cast by the tangled foliage and looked at the old, cracked grave. She wasn't sure how she had ended up here, but she knew she was in the right spot. Turkey was a long way a way from Tallahasse, Florida, and yet, she felt as if she had come home.
"Can I help you?" asked a deep, melodic voice with a faint and lyrical accent. Robin gasped in surprise, then almost fainted in seeing in front of her someone who looked so very much like Joanne.
The woman stepped forward and grasped Robin by the forearm. "Are you all right?"
Robin's mouth moved but no words came out for a few seconds. The tall, exotic woman waited patiently. "I..I'm sorry. You surprised me! You look like someone I once knew, only Joanne's black," rambled Robin, trying to pull her wits about her.
An eyebrow went up, just the way Joanne's used to do. "Would that be Joanne Tsakiris?"
"You know, Joanne?! Are you related?" Robin asked in complete surprise.
"No, I do not know Joanne Tsakiris, and yes, I believe in the distant past, we might have shared an ancestor. She is, I know, an American of black ancestry, you have an American accent and you said your friend was black, so I assumed that must be the Joanne to whom you were referring. I have often been told we look alike. Having won the Nobel Prize for Peace, she is a very famous person, and I have seen her picture in the papers."
"This is my property. I am General Gunnul Dedeman. You have come because the grave has called you, no?"
Robin looked surprised, "Yes. Yes, that's it! It calls to me. I...I just sort of ended up here. It is hard to explain."
"There is no reason to, you are not the first to come. Those who share a part of this story seem to be called to this place. There has been a crisis," explained Gunnul, touching the cracked grave sadly. " But, I think, the worst is over now. The grave no longer is cracking. Please, you will come to our house and meet my partner, Jamie. There is much we must share with you."
Robin nodded dumbly and followed the tall Turk through the underbrush and out into beautiful manicured gardens. Together, they walked side by side up to a magnificent house that was framed by the Mediterranean Sea and the Toros Mountains.
Jamie sat on the huge, stone patio, typing on the laptop that Gunnul had bought her for her birthday. Gunnul spoiled her terribly! Even after all this time, there was in Gunnul this fear that her dark side might scare Jamie away. Jamie needed always to reassure her lover that she was not afraid of her strange strength and abilities. It was, in fact, the contrast between Gunnul's violent soul and her caring disposition that Jamie found so fascinating.
Jamie gave a start, as long arms wrapped around her and Gunnul bent to kiss the top of her head. "Jamie, I have found another one," she said seriously. Jamie looked up to see someone remarkably like herself looking back at her. "This is Robin Bradly, of Tallahassee, Florida. She knows Joanne Tsakiris," Gunnul explained.
"Jamie stood and placed the crutch under her arm, "Welcome, Robin! I bet we are a bit of a surprise to you! Please sit down, and I will see to welcoming you properly."
Gunnul talk quietly to Robin about Turkey until Jamie returned with a crystal bottle of lemon cologne. "When I first came to Turkey, Gunnul greeted me in the traditional manner of her people. Cup your hands. This is a delicate lemon alcohol. You rub it on your hands and face to refresh yourself after your travels."
Gunnul sat with pride and watched, a lump in her throat. Jamie had, over the last two years, become her partner in every sense of the word. They shared a daughter, a bed, and ran together a vast business empire. But in the past, Jamie had never taken the lead in entertaining. Whenever they entertained guests, she would stay quietly in the background.
This had worried Gunnul. Did Jamie not see their homes as hers too? If she did not see herself as the hostess of their homes, might she not leave some day? It was a small thing, but it had quietly rubbed on Gunnul's insecurities. Those fears had been renewed lately, with the crisis of the grave. Today, for the first time, Jamie was playing the hostess and doing so, Gunnul thought, with beautiful grace and charm.
A servant had wheeled out a trolley, and from it, Jamie had offered Robin Turkish Delights to sweeten her palate. Now, she limped to her lover's side and offered her one of the sweet, jelly treats too. She looked up into blue eyes that danced with joy and pride and knew instantly what Gunnul was feeling.
Oh, Gunnul! This was important to you, wasn't it and I didn't realize! You needed me to welcome guests to our home. Jamie reached out and squeezed Gunnul's arm before turning away to the trolley, to light the burner on the small brass stove to make the Turkish coffee. She promised herself that when they were alone tonight, she would lie in Gunnul's arms and they would talk.
For now, she had to concentrate on what she was doing. The thick, boiled coffee had to be made just right, with lots of froth on the top and a rich, sweet texture. As was tradition, she made each cup separately, serving Robin first. She made Gunnul's extra sweet as a symbol of her love. The gesture was not lost on her lover, who took a slip and then smiled with delight.
The three women sat on lounges and looked out over the aqua sea. "You and Joanne are soulmates?" asked Gunnul in her straightforward manner.
Robin's hands shook, as she held the small cup. "No. I was a street kid she took in. I was fifteen. Joanna was only twenty two then, and was just finishing her doctorate. She is something else, you know."
Gunnul's eyes met her partner's in question. "She means that Joanne Tsakiris is an amazing person," Jamie explained. Gunnul tended to take all statements literally. Although her English was excellent, she did not always understand English expressions.
Gunnul nodded in understanding and continued her probing. "You are not together?"
Robin snorted and put the cup on the table before her trembling hands dropped it. "I haven't seen her in years. I was a very confused kid. I...I...was doing drugs and making anyone who would buy them for me.....Joanne....It was winter....We were living in Chicargo, then. Joanne told me later that..."
The windshield wipers were only just keeping the heavy snow off the window. Twice, Joanne had had to stop and get out into the swirling wind to remove the ridge of snow that was building up at the sides of the windscreen, and reducing her area of visibility. It was a hell of a night, and she cursed herself for working so late at the university library.
She was anxious to get home, not so much for herself but because of the kid that had been sleeping in the back of her parent's garage. She had been there several weeks now. Ever since the weather had turned cold and nasty. She came after dark and left in the early morning, sleeping curled up under some cardboard that Joanne had forgotten to put out in the garbage.
Had Joanne's parents been there, they would have called the police and had the vagrant removed. But her parents were away on a cruise, so Joanne had ignored the intruder and left the sheets of cardboard in the garage. Over the last few weeks, she had left a few old blankets on a shelf for the small girl to use, and a bushel of apples in a back corner. The blond waif looked half starved.
Tonight was cruelly cold, and Joanne was worried about her garage stowaway. Luckily, the garden service had been out and plowed the driveway, although it was drifting over again quickly. She pulled into the long lane and circled behind the Tsakiris home to the garage. It was actually a large carriage house that had been modified to suit modern times. It was only when she pulled up that she realized the garden service had conscientiously locked the garage before leaving.
Joanne had taken a flashlight and looked around but no windows were broken and the street kid was not around. Joanne checked for footprints but saw none. If the child had come, her footprints had long been covered in. It was only later, when she stood inside at the kitchen window watching her Golden Retriever, Nugget, running in circles through the new snow, that she finally found her. Nugget suddenly stopped, sniffed under the low, thick branches of a blue spruce, then backed off and started to bark.
Joanne was out the door immediately. The sudden tightness in her heart had told her that it was the teen. She was unconscious and curled in a small ball, like a wild animal's cub. Joanne had lifted her carefully into her arms and carried her into the house.
"So she cared for me. Bought me clothes, gave me a room and food. She even took me to movies and things. She...she was a real friend," finished Robin, tears painting patterns down her cheeks.
"What happened?" asked Jamie, reaching over to touch her counterpart's arm.
Robin's head dropped in shame. "I had hid some drugs in Joanne's car without her knowing. She got pulled over and busted. Her parents had to fly home. You know, they were big society people. It was an awful scandal. I went to the police and confessed how I'd been using the carriage house to ... make money for drugs."
"You were a prostitute?" asked Gunnul bluntly.
Robin blushed deeply and stared at her hands. "I'd been sleeping with the man who supplied me whenever he wanted it. Joanne, she was there in the room when I made my statement. It was awful."
For a few minutes, they sat in silence giving Robin time to pull herself together. Gunnul's jaw worked angrily and Jamie made eye contact, sending a silent plea to her soulmate not to loss her temper. Gunnul was faithful to her Moslem faith and expected people to live by high moral standards. For Gunnul too, it was harder because naturally she identified with Joanne, her look-a-like.
The ice blue of Gunnul's eyes melted a bit. "Then what happened?" she asked softly.
"I was jailed for six months and I never saw Joanne again. It would be ten years ago this winter...I've never forgotten her. Never forgiven myself."
"You still take drugs?"
"No! I never touched them again. I owed Joanne that at least. I went back to school and after got a job down in Florida as a journalist for a small newspaper. I just had a novel published and it is doing well. It gave me enough money to come here."
"What is the title of your novel?" asked Jamie with interest, trying to draw Robin away from her pain.
"You are R. R. Bradly?! We've read your excellent novel. It's on the best seller list this week!"
Robin nodded and looked out across the sea. "I went to a travel agent and when I saw the brochures on Turkey, I just knew that I'd find answers here. So I came, and I've been searching ever since, until I ended up here this morning. Tell me what is going on. Why can't I let Joanne go from my heart? " begged Robin looking up at the two women, whose life so reflected the special bond she had glimpsed briefly with Joanne.
"We have been trying desperately to find the answer to that question," explained Gunnul. "We have made discreet inquires, run ads, talked to, as one woman called them, the Others, and researched the local history closely."
"The grave belongs to a warrior and a bard," said Jamie taking up the story, "They traveled together and fought for justice during the time when this land was part of ancient Greece. There appear to be decedents of that remarkable pair, that share the same distinct characteristics. My Gunnul and your Joanne take after the warrior. You and I have the qualities of the Bard. So far, we are aware of six couples and two single individuals, who seem to be part of this genetic web."
"But what does it mean?" asked Robin.
"We are not sure. One of the women we talked to seemed convinced that the original pair were, well, not quite human, that they were somehow related to the Greek gods!" laughed Jamie and they all smiled. "What we do know is that the original pair faced a crisis in their relationship. At that time, the grave started to crack and more and more people were drawn to it."
"We believe," Gunnul said, "that the grave is drawing the energy from our loves to some how help those in the past. That could be very important to all of us. Can we exist today, if the original pair's strange relationship did not survive? We seem to be part of a loop in the space/time continuum."
Jamie nodded and took over the story again, "Two significant things have happened in the last twenty-four hours; the grave has stopped disintegrating and you have shown up."
"Yes, you are not lame and you have no contact with drugs now. That makes you unique. I think you might be the link to a time after the crisis. When the Host pair stopped crippling each other and the confusion, lies and misunderstandings that existed between them started to clear."
"All the other couples who have made contact with us, have had a lame bard character and a warrior involved with drugs in some manner. Somehow, whatever the events are in the past involving the Bard, they seem to cripple the present day character. I think the Bard must have experienced great pain."
It was Gunnul who continued the explanation. " The warrior, we think must have been very confused, and made decisions that were not wise. That is why so many of the warrior Others have been involved in things...," Jamie's hand came out and took Gunnul's knowing the pain she felt because of the many lives she had taken in defense of her country, "they regret."
"But your story is different. We think it is very important that you make contact with Joanne," said Jamie, taking up the conversation again. "The grave called you, so you must be part of the process to help the Hosts. Do you know where to find Joanne?"
Robin nodded, her jade green eyes filled with hope and worry, as she looked out over the sea. "Yes, she is the American Ambassador to Peru."
Willy paced back and forth while Cheops talked in Egyptian on the phone. Cheops looked very serious and the conversation had been going on for some time. Cheops was talking to the agency which was looking after Amand and Zahi. Willy paced some more. Finally, Cheops hung up and looked at Willy. "So, would you like to stick around, and help me raise two children?" she asked.
"Yes!" Willy cheered throwing her head back and closing her eyes. Then she looked at the small, brave woman standing across the room and went to her, wrapping her gently in her arms.
"You are wonderful. I don't know what I did to be allowed to have this second chance at life, but I am so very blessed."
The two women kissed tenderly and stood in each other's arms for a very long time. Then they went to find the tour group. In the late afternoon they had continued the tour, Cheops taking them to see the imposing, Temple of Horus with its brooding black, stone statue of the falcon god. The building still had its immense stone ceiling intact and within its walls, the cool, shaded interior, housed massive murals and capitols of carved stone. It was when they got back to the boat that they found a message waiting for Cheops to call the orphanage about Amand and Zahi.
Bill and Abe sat at the bar having a beer and talking baseball. The two women had moved to the far end of the ship to watch the sun set over the Nile, while they waited to hear Cheops news about the children.
"Ahhh, Betty, in Salt Lake City, we tend to be pretty conservative and well, I might sound rather stupid here, but Bill said he thought Cheops and Willy were, well, ahhh...gay," Jean stumbled out.
Betty laughed out loud. "I think they're two women very much in love! You see a lot of that in New York."
Jean blushed and looked awkward. "I've never met any before. They are both really nice. I was raised to think this sort of thing was a sin and perverted but well, I don't think it's for me to judge. They seem happy and I would be proud to have them visit me anytime. Although, God knows what the neighbours would say!"
Betty chuckled happily and petted the confused woman's hand. "Live and let live, I always say.
I always think it's a shame that gays are labeled by their bedroom practices. I mean, no one ever asks me what Abe and I are doing in our bedroom."
"Well, it's true! Jean, my advice is don't speculate on their sex life, just enjoy their company like you do any other couple. They are a pair of remarkable women."
"But Betty, what about the children?!"
"They would be better off half starved in the hold of a ship?! What kid ever believes their parents are having sex, anyway?!"
Jean laughed and buried her red face in her hands before looking up at Betty. "Betty, you sure put things in perspective! I'm sure my parents never had sex!"
"Mine neither, our entire generation must have been adopted!" The two women shared another laugh and then saw Cheops and Willy. They met them over where the men stood at the bar.
"I'm going to be able to adopt the children," Cheops announced happily.
Jean stepped forward and hugged Cheops and then Willy, with the others following in turn. "That is wonderful news!" Jean exclaimed. "You two will be wonderful parents for Amand and Zahi."
Bill looked over Willy's shoulder at his conservative wife in surprise. Willy looked down at Cheops, her face showing all her love openly now, as she slipped a protective arm around the archaeologist. Bill saw the red creeping up his wife's neck and smiled; new liberated thought is one thing, but old attitudes die hard!
After a loud and merry celebration, Cheops and Willy said their goodnights and walked hand in hand back to their cabin. It was funny, Cheops thought, as she tried to look busy tidying up things. They had been lovers and yet now she felt as embarrassed and awkward as a girl on her first date. Long arms wrapped around her and Willy whispered softly into her ear. "I want to be your soulmate, Malone. I can be a better partner, I know. Can you be patient with me, until these drugs get out of my system?"
Cheops turned, trusting Willy to support her if she went off balance. For a second, she looked deep into those powerful eyes and then gently pulled Will's head down to kiss her passionately. Some minutes later, she released Willy long enough to lift an chain from around her neck. Willy's eyes brimmed with emotion as she realized that the ring she had given Cheops, that wonderful season two years ago, was attached. Cheops slipped it off and placed it in Willy's palm, then held out her hand for the warrior to place it back on her finger.
Gently, Willy took Cheops' hand and slipped the simple gold band into place. "I love you, as the strong river wind, embraces the fragile reed. Please, do me the honour of being my soulmate in life," Willy whispered, lifting Cheops' hand to place it on her lips.
"You are the river that runs through my lands and my heart, my warrior," responded Cheops, tears running down her face. Their night was spent in each other's arms, rediscovering the magic of their bond. Only in the small hours of the morning did they fall into an exhausted sleep. To the east, the sun slowly rose from the under world, filling the desert sky with light. The eastern side of the Nile. The side of life.
A thousand miles away, the cracks in an old grave slowly knit together. A soft breeze blew through the foliage and on it was the sweet scent of spice and sun drenched herbs.
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