The day passed peacefully. The wind blew from the north and the ship ran swiftly before the wind. That night, they set a sea anchor as far into the channel as possible because Alexander was unsure of the route south and wanted to avoid grounding and port fees. Miri spent the next day lazily on deck with Drusilla and Portia. Or at least Miri spent the day lazily. Both handmaids bounced about the ship from stem to stern and port to starboard, finding myriad wonders in the azure blue sea: porpoises, jellyfish, the wave of the sea cut by the prow or the foam of the ship's wake. The two hung so far over the rail that even the crew men were anxious about the girls' antics. From time to time The Heart of Isis passed other merchant ships, some of great size, mostly Roman, a Greek, some eastern ships, Nabataean, and a great number of fishing boats of various sizes, shapes and condition.
And so a routine on board began.
When Drusilla and Portia tired of running about, Miri had them read from the papyrus rolls she had brought with her. She was determined to have them learn Greek for it was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean. They could speak a passable Greek, Drusilla better than Portia, but their words were tinged with a strong Kemetic accent. Though they were slow readers, they were determined, and Miri delighted in their effort. Of the texts, they enjoyed the fables of Aesop, though they were inclined to believe the events described in the parables were factual. The girls enjoyed trying to imagine what sort of an accent each animal would have when speaking. The characters and the story occupied their attention and left no room for the final moral for which the story was intended to illustrate to find a roost. However, the fox and the grapes story impressed them enough to declare “Sour Grapes!” every time anyone took a sip of wine. This invariably reduced them to a fit of laughter, much to everyone’s annoyance. The more surly the response to their declaration, the longer they laughed.
But their Greek lessons were not always fun and games. They kept always within reach a Greek manual to guide seafarers sailing to the Land of the Hindus. Miri had purchased the original manuscript written in Aramaic by a Nabataean merchant and translated it to Greek herself while in Koptos. Drusilla adopted the scroll and whenever they passed one of the points mentioned in the manuscript, she wrote an equivalent entry based on the rather dry navigator’s text on a blank scroll. Portia always attended Drusilla’s writing, and commented from time to time on the veracity of the particular description, and the two of them added their own notes and observances to the document.
Though they had paid the export tax at Myos Hormos, Alexander told Miri he was going to avoid Berenike, as he had heard they would have to pay an additional non-documented fee to the harbor master to avoid complications in their export permits. So, instead of heaving to, they slipped several stadia out into the channel before they passed Berenike. As the Heart of the Isis veered from the coast, the wind blew stronger off the cape, veering them beyond the center of the channel, Drusilla read from her periplus.
“Of the designated Ptolemaic ports on the Erythraean Sea,” she began, “and the market-towns around it, the first is the Egyptian port of Mussel Harbor.”
“That was to the north of Myos Hormos” said Miri helpfully.
“Yes,” said Drusilla, slightly peeved her reading had been interrupted. She smoothed down the papyrus and her finger traced the point she had stopped reading and she began again. "To those sailing down from that place, to portside," She pointed to the headland, "There!" and continued reading, "That's after eighteen hundred stadia, from Mussel Harbor… Berenike. The harbors of both are at the boundary of Egypt, and are bays opening from the Erythraean Sea. On the right-hand coast next below Berenike is the country of the Berbers. Along the shore live Fish-Eaters, living in scattered caves in the narrow valleys. Further inland are the Berbers, and beyond them the Wild-Flesh-Eaters and Calf-Eaters, each tribe governed by its chief; and behind them, further inland, in the country towards the west, there lies a city called Meroway.”
“We eat fish,” declared Portia.
“And calves,” she added after some thought.
“And wild meat,” added Drusilla.
Miri had been taken back by the mention of Meroway, and suddenly vivid memories of the Amniteri, Apusim and Aristothenes overwhelmed her. "I was in Meroway.” She said it without thinking.
“Really?” asked Drusilla, “Did you live in a cave?”
Miri shook her head. “A palace.”
The girls interest instantly boiled over and they insisted on being told of Miri's adventures in Meroway. Miri was reluctant to talk about her experience in Meroway for she had carefully hidden her past from the friends she had made in Koptos, but already the ship had passed the border between Axum and Egypt. For a moment she considered editing her story, omitting the details that she was a priestess of Auset, but the story made no sense without it.
The girls were delighted by her tale, and for most of the voyage they prodded her for more details, insisting upon hearing about Miri's life in the nunnery. It became very difficult to relate some of her experiences without speaking of Setem. Once more, his spectre weighed heavily upon her. He appeared again at her bedside that night and for nights afterward. Thankfully, upon waking he would disappear. Miri took to drinking wine before bed to dull her sleep, but combined with the rolling of the ship, her drinking led to vomiting over the side. After three nights Alexander came to her cabin to speak to her.
“You must stop drinking,” he said firmly.
Miri said nothing.
“The men are talking,” he said after a long silence. “I will have a difficult time enforcing their sobriety if you cannot curb your drinking. You smell.”
His distain was evident. There was no place to bathe on ship.
He turned and stood in the doorway. “I am taking the wine and sealing it.”
Miri rolled over and faced the wall. The wine had dulled her wits, and she wished she could pull Alexander down upon her, but she needed Alexander to come to her of his own accord.
She closed her eyes tightly. Alexander’s belt clinked on the wine amphora, and she listened to his footsteps across the deck. She heard the splash of the amphora in the sea, and fell asleep.
The next morning, Miri crawled out onto the deck. The ship lay calmed and everyone lolled about the deck. Alexander held a chart and was speaking animatedly with Polydeuces. Castor, lying with Cepheus, stood up.
“Well, how are we today?”
Miri grunted. Her head hurt and she felt woozy.
“I have a treat for you!” he said excitedly. “We, the crew and I, have arranged for a royal bath!”
Her head, still dull from the wine allowed Castor and Cepheus to lead her to the side of the ship. There, they wrapped her into a harness, and before she knew what was happening, the harness snapped her into the air and over the side. Miri screamed as she dangled over the water.
“Castor!” she shrieked, “Put me down!”
“As you wish!” replied Castor, and Miri plummeted into the ocean. Miri screamed, but the water enveloped her in a soothing rush that washed away the sludge and dregs of the wine that coated her body and soul. When she surfaced, the entire crew stared over the rail at her and cheered, hooted and clapped. Though there was a certain degree of good nature to their attention, Miri sensed an undercurrent of lust. It brought back the memory of her rape in the oasis, and she protested her handling loudly. If only the water wasn’t so soothing!
“Castor! Put me back this moment!”
Her clothes ballooned about her, and she realized the wet cloth revealed her body to the crew, a fact of which the entire crew was already aware. She splashed water at them but the wave hardly reached the side of the ship. Alexander appeared at the rail. Seeing Miri so exposed, he commanded the men to return to work. At first, they stared at him dumbly, as none of them had been working nor had work to do, but then, under his glare, they reluctantly returned to the places they had kept before Miri’s dunking.
“Reel her in!” he commanded Cepheus and Castor. Drusilla and Portia appeared at the rail and squealed in delight at their mistress in the sea.
“Me next!” cried Portia.
As Miri stepped onto the deck, Alexander turned on his heels.
“Me next!” demanded Portia. Castor beamed at Miri.
“Very funny!” said Miri to Castor.
“Can I go, too?” asked Portia.
“Me too!” cried Drusilla.
“Wear your woolens!” she said and the two girls squealed and disappeared into the cabin to change.
“Thank you!” Miri whispered to Castor and hugged him tightly. He handed her a towel. Miri returned to her cabin to change into dry clothes. Already changed, Drusilla and Portia squeezed past her in the doorway. The water had purified and invigorated her. Alexander appeared in the doorway. Still dripping, and cooled by evaporation, she turned to face him. Not wanting to suffer any admonishment, she slipped her arms about his waist and kissed him. She could feel him respond instantly. In a frenzied whirlwind, they fused together and made love. Within a twinkling, they lay spent, exhausted and knotted together.
“Time for another dip!” said Miri playfully and Alexander smiled.
A shout interrupted their idyll.
Quickly Miri wrapped her dress about her, but Alexander was already ahead of her. The girls were screaming hysterically. Miri ran onto deck.
Drusilla, in the harness flew up and splashed onto the deck, terrified and dripping wet. Miri rushed to the side. A school of sharks swarmed about the boat searching the area where Drusilla had been splashing about. One of the crew members tied the harness about him and spear in hand, his crew mates lowered him over the side. They cheered him on as he stabbed at the sharks. He managed to gaff three and haul them on board. The three fish thrashed about wildly on deck, and men alternately scattered and swarmed the sharks, but eventually clubbed the fish to death.
The excitement over, the fish gutted and flesh drying on deck, everyone returned to rest. The current had carried them closer to shore and the wind picked up. As soon as the first breath of wind rippled the ocean about them, the sail was unfurled and everyone aboard had a purpose again.
At some point the ship came close to grounding in an area scattered with coral reefs. Alexander commanded the sail furled and set Drusilla and Portia, in his opinion the two most idle crew members, to hang over the bow and watch for high reefs. The crew set to oars and soon the ship approached a strange island without vegetation that did not appear on any charts. Seeking water, Alexander heaved to and sent out a boat. There were a few meager huts on the island fabricated from flotsam, and the inhabitants were very dark-skinned. Upon landing, the crew discovered that the island was really a huge hill of seashells rising from the water.
They took anchorage there overnight, and traded a few pots for a dye made from the shells of the molluscs that comprised the main composition of the island. The seafarers dined on seafood provided by the islanders, and over a camp fire listened to the history of the island’s founding.
Apparently, the island was conceived by the combined efforts of two lovers from separate clans. They had been denied betrothal to each other by their fathers and by the tradition of their clans for there was a blood feud between their two great families. Yet they determined to meet. So every night for a year, they joined their families diving for sea shells and pearls. As was their custom in that area, each diver paddled to their secret spots in their own canoe, and in the darkness, the boy Musawa and the girl Dahlak, met and made love. Together they dove for shellfish and together, shucked the meat from the shells in their trysting spot, and within a year, the empty shells formed an underwater mound in which creatures of the sea found shelter. Soon, however, Dahlak was with child, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to hide her condition. Their mound had broken the surface, and they decided that they would make it their home. So on a designated night, they smuggled all they would need from their homes and pledged each other never to leave the island they had created. To seal their pledge, they gave sacrifice to the goddess of the sea, and in return, she covered the island with a mist that only those truly in love could penetrate. So for the two lovers, their island was a sun filled place and swarmed with fish and crabs and shellfish, and for all others, the place was shrouded by mist that none dared enter.
Back on land, both Dahlak and Musawa's families cried out to the gods for the return of their children, but the gods, knowing that the goddess of the sea had pledged to keep them hidden could do nothing to help the kin reunite with the two lovers. And because they were gods, they also knew that relieving the sorrow of the two clans would mean the separation and eternal unhappiness of Musawa and Dahlak. So the villagers from both places held a ceremony for the dead as they had concluded their lost children had drowned or been taken by sharks.
Dahlak gave birth to twin daughters. They grew as children grow, one day at a time, and each year a year older, until they reached puberty, at which time they became restless on the little island. And, because the two girls were not in love, the mist about the island blocked out the sun, and they found the island dreary. It was not long before the twins paddled their own canoe out past the curtain of the magic mist, despite the admonitions of their parents. The moment they appeared from seemingly nowhere, a young fisherboy from Musawa's village caught sight of them and at once fell in love. The twins caught sight of the boy and paddled quickly back to the sanctuary of their sea shell island home, but because he had fallen in love, he could see through the magical mist masking the island.
When he returned to his home, he told everyone of the twins and the island. His father went back out to sea with him to seek the island, but because he was not in love for his wife had died giving birth to the boy, he could not see the protected island. The boy took his cousin with him the next night, and that day the twins, curious about the boy they had seen, also took to their boat. The gods could see all this and directed the two canoes to each other, and the twins and the cousins spied each other and love filled the air and opened their eyes. All four could see through the mist. And the next day, the island was sunny for the twins and they could see beyond and through the veil. The boys told their kin when they returned home of the meeting with the strange girls, and the elders fearing that some bewitchment or curse had befallen them, not only forbad the boys to dive for pearls and shellfish, but all the boys in the village. And so a tradition of women diving for shellfish began in their village. But the boys snuck away and finally went to live with the twins. They married and had children, another set of twins, each set a boy and a girl. And they grew as children grow, one day at a time, and each year a year older, until they reached puberty, at which time they became restless on the little island. This time two cousins, sons of two cousins, paddled away from the island and, as luck would have it chanced upon two girls from the village of Dahlak. Again the blindness of love bestowed sight that others do not have to the girls of Dahlak, and the girls saw the island for the first time. They returned home and told of the two boys appearing from nowhere and the magic island. Fearing for their daughters, the village elders banned girls from going diving from that day on. But over time, one or two of each new generation of teenagers disappeared from the villages of Musawa and Dahlak, and so the islanders clan began. Over the years, the gods rose to heaven and from time to time the wind blew in just the right way and the mist lifted and could be seen by whoever passed that way. And now, as had happened to other ships, the crew of the Heart of Isis had seen the island, they would be blessed in love.
At that pronouncement the crew of the Heart of Isis applauded the island story teller, and broke into song. A great night of merry making began, and islanders and crew partied into the wee hours. In the morning gifts were exchanged and water shared. And, smitten by new-found love, three of the crew stayed behind. The Heart of Isis weighed anchor, but as the first oar stroke dipped into the sea, Portia screamed. All heads turned. The island had vanished.
Further to the south, the coasts of Africa and Arabia closed in the ship, the currents became stronger than the wind, which was fortunate, for the monsoon winds from the open sea beyond the mouth of the Red Sea pushed harder from the south. Portia counted several sails out loud, a habit she had developed leaving Myos Hormos.
“Look, that one is very near!”
Miri had been dozing but she opened her eyes and shaded them with her hand. Indeed, a sail was closer than the others, and as she could see it head on to starboard, it was obvious it was heading directly for the Isis. She sat up quickly.
“Sail to starboard!” Cepheus, chosen for his keen eyesight, called urgently from the crow's nest basket tied to the main mast. The entire focus of everyone on board turned to the east. Alexander called out instantly.
“Man the oars!”
The deck of the Isis erupted into frantic activity. The knots were pulled from the stack of huge oars roped to the deck, and the oarsmen scrambled to retrieve them and fit them to their places. The timekeeper ran to his place, calling to the oarsmen to hurry, and began to drum immediately, readying the timing for the instant all oars were set and ready.
“All others to arms!” cried Alexander above the cacophony of the crew's calling. For a moment his eyes met Miri's. She moved instantly to the cabin. She threw open the lid of her travelling chest and dove into the cloth and papyrii. She grasped her bow and pulled loose her quiver. The arrows caught on her stored clothing and she frantically disentangled her apparel from her weapons. She pulled her robe from her shoulders, stripped down to her short tunic and raced out to the deck. She ran into Drusilla and Portia as they scuttled for safety in the cabin and the two girls screamed in surprise. Miri shrugged past them and strung an arrow to her bow as she stepped out onto the deck, just as the helmsman called oars up.
The strange ship was close enough she could see the faces of the men aboard her. They were armed and intentionally menacing. Pirates! It was a Nabataean ship, the oars dipping feverishly to close in on the Heart of Isis. At pirate ship’s bow was a ballista, primed and armed with a sharp grappling hook. “Oars down!” called the helmsman, and the oars of the Isis dropped into the sea. At that moment the ballista was released and the huge grappling hook whistled across the bow of the Isis. More of an arrow than hook, it glanced off the deck and embedded itself in the rise in the forecastle. Cepheus, down form the crow’s next and armed with a short battle axe, leaped to the forecastle as the pirate crew reeled in the rope of the grappling hook. Cepheus swung at the grappling rope. His first blow had little effect on the rope, but the line snapped taut as the pirates heaved on the line to haul in the Isis. With the rope held tight, Cepheus quickly chopped through the rope.
The grappling line splashed into the sea and the helmsman called "Heave!" The crew bent to the oars pulled hard. The pirate ship passed to their stern and dug in her starboard oars. Starboard oars pushing and port oars pulling, she came about rapidly and chased after the Isis. The wind had dropped and the sail now was slowing the Isis. The pirates had already furled their sail; they knew the waters and knew the wind would fail. Sailors on the Isis dropped armour and scrambled to haul in the main sail.
The pirates were closing; the ballista was being cranked and reloaded.
Miri stepped past the helm without stopping, exchanging a quick glance with Alexander. Within that glance and a heartbeat, they became friends and allies - proud of each other - both were at their best when faced with such a challenge. Miri fitted an arrow to Cleopatra's bow and whispered a quick invocation to Sekhet as, in one swift motion, she aimed and released the arrow. It arced and bounced off the ballista, but it forced the men arming it to take cover. One of the pirates recovered instantly and leapt back to his post, only to be felled by the second arrow from Miri's bow. Miri’s shipmates took her cue and stood alongside her. In unison, they released a volley of arrows at the pirates. A massive flight of arrows returned from the pirate ship caught them all by surprise. One of the Isis's oarsmen was hit, but he managed to lift and pull in his oar without entangling the others. A comrade took his place, and the oarsmen that had thought to grab them, slipped their shields over their backs without missing a stroke. Though the Isis pulled slowly away from the pirates, they were still well within range of the bowmen and another flight of arrows clattered onto the deck of the Isis. A crewman called Aristophanes gasped weakly as an arrow buried deep into his chest, and fell dead on the deck.
Miri and her comrades returned a volley, felling two pirate oarsmen. But the ballista armourers had not given up. A second hook smashed viciously into the hull of the Isis, aft, barely above the waterline. The oars of the pirate ship lifted from the water and the Nabatean ship became dead weight. The Isis shuddered and slowed. The pirates instantly began winching the cable in with a capstan. As the cable tightened, it bound the starboard rudder oar of the Isis tight against the hull.
“Prepare to be boarded!” cried Alexander. He knew the Nabateans wanted the cargo on board the Heart of Isis and would not ram her, but they would have to fight for their lives to keep it. The pirates used their archers to great effect, pinning the crew of the Isis under whatever cover they could find while the pirate capstan team reeled in the Isis. Without a thought to his own safety, Cepheus slipped into the harness he and Castor had fashioned for Miri, looped a rope about the rail and leapt over the side of the Isis. Castor leapt to his feet with a cry of alarm. Cepheus banged heavily against the hull, and the thud of his body against the wood echoed through the Isis. Cepheus swung his battle axe at the cable, but the angle was awkward, and it flew from his hand and disappeared beneath the waves. Distraught, Castor ran to aid Cepheus, but stood helpless as his friend, clutching the rope, kicked at the grappling hook to loosen it. The iron head was fast in the wooden hull. After a few jabs with one foot, Cepheus slid lower and wrestled with the shaft. The hook moved side to side along a seam between two hull planks, but would not let go. The pirates noticed his efforts and a few arrows rained about him. He glanced quickly at Castor fretting at the rail.
“Get down here!” he roared.
“Oh, Mother of God!” declared Castor in horror and cast his eyes about him. He spied a looped rope, slipped a noose about his chest and climbed clumsily over the rail. He closed his eyes to block out his fear. A second grappling iron smashed through the railing to his left, and with a shriek Castor let go, falling directly into the water. The grappling iron skidded across the deck harmlessly, but as it was hauled back, it caught on the mast and held. The Isis yawed suddenly. The mass of the pirate ship swung the Isis about and the pirates wound her toward their ship to attack the Heart of Isis broadside.
Cepheus quickly reeled Castor in. Unfortunately the rope that Castor had secured to himself was not tied to anything else and now trailed in the wake of the Isis, and its weight hampered Castor’s movements. Castor and Cepheus bound themselves together and both heaved on the grappling iron. Thankfully it released its bite on the Isis, but the sudden snap of the cable jerked the two men further into the water and the rail to which they were tied cracked loudly and fell into the sea beside them. Tangled in the grappling cable they were swept swiftly from the Isis toward the pirate ship At the same moment, two men on deck hacked through the cable caught on the mast, and the Isis was free. The oarsmen, armed at their stations immediately threw down their weapons and leaped to their rowing positions. One of them called “oars up”; the timekeeper hit the drum; the helmsman called “oars down” and with a great shout, the entire crew shouted “Heave!” The oars pushed the ocean backwards and the prow of the Heart of Isis once again parted the waters of the Red Sea. The members of pirate crew scrambled back to oars, but they were not prepared for their quarry’s rapid recovery.
Alexander clenched his jaws. It was not in his nature to back down and run; his heart needed to rescue Castor and Cepheus, but he knew he must outrun the pirate ship. Miri watched in agony as her faithful Castor was hauled aboard the pirate ship. The Isis had already gained three hundred cubits on the pirates and she could not ascertain the fate of her companion and his lover. The Nabataeans set to oars, but the gap the Heart of Isis had put between them lengthened.
Still in shock over the loss of Castor, unwilling to believe he had been taken, Miri stared helplessly to the pirate ship. Her heart willed the pirates to catch the Isis so that Castor could be brought back to her. From behind, Alexander slipped his hands around her shoulder and held her tight.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her ear, “There is nothing I can do.”
Miri reached back with her left hand and clutched his arm. Alexander turned her around, and he wrapped himself about her. Miri pressed her face into his chest, and sobbed. At that moment, the breeze picked up and Alexander called out for sail. He released her and Miri would have fallen to the deck had she not grabbed the rail. The huge mainsail dropped with a roar, flapped for a moment like the wings of a great bird, and then pregnant with a full wind, billowed magnificently southward and the Isis hissed through the water. The pirate ship had furled their mainsail and within moments released a smaller topsail, but the distance between the two ships was too great despite the extra sail, and soon they dropped behind, losing heart for the chase. The Heart of Isis soon outran the pirate ship and the coast of Arabia faded into the horizon. Griefstruck, Miri stared out to the stern long after the pirate ship disappeared to starboard.
As the pirates were Nabataean, Alexander decided they would tack across the straight toward the distant African coast. He ordered the hull cable tightened and the ship groaned and creaked as the tension in her hull increased. The prow of the Heart of the Isis rose higher over the waves and she swept swiftly through the sea. Unfortunately once committed to heaving to the African side of the strait, the tide and the winds blew the Heart of Isis towards the open sea, and soon neither Africa nor Arabia were visible. They sailed at a great pace and as the sun floated toward the west, and the lookout in the crow's nest basket called land to portside. Unfortunately, the wind blew directly from the shore, and the Heart of the Isis was swept eastward. The current sided with the wind and the ship sailed beyond the eastern Horn of Africa further into the main basin of the Erythraean Sea. Once carried from the lee of the cape, the winds picked up and Africa shrank rapidly in their wake. Eventually, a lookout spied an island and the Isis hauled towards it hoping to cross the lee side for an anchorage out of the way of the strong monsoon winds blowing from the south. The island loomed higher and wider, but their targeted sanctuary grew into a menacing wall of rock. Fearing they would be blown into the island cliffs, the crew furled the main sail, then to lower the ship's profile further, Alexander ordered the main spar lowered. In a frenzy of activity, the men untied the oars and hauled as hard as they could. The waves were strong, The Heart of Isis laboured heavily and the men were tested sorely, but by nightfall they had cleared the island without finding safe harbor.
Alexander and Polydeuces decided they had reached the islands of the Dioscores Archipelego and if they headed east northeast, they would pass to the lee of the largest of the islands, and there, according to their chart, they should be able to anchor in the island lee on a wide beach, that was mentioned in the Periplus of Antiachardes. They could sail around the north west point of the island and anchor by a turtle beach. Polydeuces said they could find trees inland and repair the damage to the hull. By dawn the Heart of the Isis lay in the lee of the island of Socotra.
“Island of the Phoenix,” whispered Alexander in awe. As the sun rose on the mountains of Socotra, trepidation filled the hearts of the crew. None had ever set foot on this land before and they decided they should set up an altar to Amon on the beach and pray for his protection and benevolence. The beach was soft and at low tide, the Heart of Isis settled on a sandbar, and listed gently to port. The crew disembarked and set up an altar in the dunes. Alexander, Polydeuces and Sylvanius organized a party to head inland for suitable lumber. They selected four men to accompany them into the interior: Mopsus, a lancer and of late, oarsman, who had replaced Cepheus in the crow’s nest; Canthus, who came from the city of Eritria on the island of Euboea and swore allegiance to the goddess Cerinthus; Typhon the helmsman, and Simon Zetes, the sailmaker from Alexandria.
When it was apparent Alexander intended to head inland without her, Miri confronted him.
“I am coming with you!” she told him.
“It is too dangerous!”
“How so?” asked Miri.
“We know little of the people here.”
“The inhabitants are few and they live on the coast toward the north,” piped in Drusilla from her lessons in Greek. “They are foreigners, a mixture of Arabs and Indus and Greeks, who have emigrated to carry on trade here.”
“And they eat turtles,” added Portia helpfully, nodding.
Alexander shook his head in defeat. He had no heart or time for argument with these three determined adversaries. “Never argue with the triad of the Moirai,” he whispered under his breath, shaking his head, “The anchorage is not secure, and we must hurry!”
“Who are the Moirai?” whispered Portia in alarm.
“The three Fates,” replied Miri.
“He thinks we are the three Fates,” Drusilla told her sister.
“The Greeks say the Moirai weave the fabric of our lives,” explained Miri, “when we are born, how we live, and when we shall die,” explained Miri. “Klotho spins out the thread that determines the length of your life when you are born. Atropos weaves the thread that reveals the pattern your life will take, and Lachesis snips the thread when your time is at and end. Even the gods must submit to their design.”
“Is that true?” asked Portia.
Miri smiled. “What do you think?”
“I would hope they are looking the other way.”
Drusilla laughed. “We should be the three Fates! I want to be the one that snips the thread!” She pantomimed cutting with her fingers. “You’d better watch out Alexander! Snip, snip, snip!”
Alexander crossed himself against the evil eye. “You should pray to the gods for forgiveness. They do not take kindly to such disrespect!”
“They will have to pay attention, then, before I snip them too!”
“Drusilla, stop!” snapped Miri, sensing Alexander’s agitation. She could tell he considered such sacrilege a bad omen for their expedition inland. “You had better apologize to the gods.”
Drusilla held her hands up in prayer.
“Forgive me!” she cried to the sky, “I am mad and don’t know what I am doing!”
Portia seemed uneasy with her sister’s insincere apology. As did both Alexander and Sylvanius. Still, everyone held their tongue for fear of prodding the young woman into greater provocation of the gods. Alexander growled under his breath and Sylvanius rubbed the talisman about his neck.
“Lord, preserve us,” he muttered to Amon.
A change had taken place in Drusilla. On the beach, she had suddenly seemed more assertive and less childlike. As they walked single file along an overgrown goat path through the scrub Miri watched her closely. Drusilla seemed drawn along the path by some unseen force. She marched with a serious determination, and though Drusilla paid attention to make sure Portia could keep up the pace Alexander had set, Miri sensed Drusilla was as determined as Alexander to ensure that Portia did not slow the expedition.
Alexander, she thought, had set a high pace to punish Miri and the girls for insisting on joining the expedition. The island was dry. They had clambered over a large tract of huge sand dunes littered with tufts of hardy grass, and scattered clumps of cacti, but the sand soon gave way to mountain slopes. Alexander had planned on climbing high enough to scan the island for trees that might be suitable for repairing the Isis.
Alexander stopped on a rise and the party bunched up behind him. The slope before them was dotted with strange umbrella-like trees. A flock of sheep rested in the shade beneath a grove of the strange trees. Within the grove stood a modest stone thatched hut. Smoke curled from within. The explorers exchanged quick glances, drew their collective breath and walked slowly toward the thicket. Alexander called out in Aramaic. Miri had never heard him speak Aramaic and it surprised her. He smiled at her.
“Aramaic.” He said simply.
“I speak Aramaic,” replied Miri.
“You speak it very well,” he replied.
“It is my mother tongue.” It was his turn to raise an eyebrow.
“I had no idea,” he said primly.
“You learn something new everyday,” piped in Drusilla, “Shall we go?”
The hut was empty. Alexander was perturbed, and the other men looked about with a degree of trepidation.
“There is a fire,” stated Alexander, “There should be someone about.” The sheep stared curiously at the newcomers. “I don’t like it!”
“We should cut down a tree and leave!” suggested Typhon nervously.
“Not these trees!” whispered Canthus, “This grove is protected. We should select one of the other trees.” He pointed west. “That one over there!”
Mopsus and Simon Zetes nodded in agreement.
Alexander shook his head. He was counting out the time they were spending on their trip, and was champing at the bit. Miri smiled, for his impatience was sometimes as endearing as it was frustrating.
“Let’s go!” he said grimly.
“Do we have to?” Portia sat forlornly with her back resting against one of the great umbrella trees. Alexander had no time or patience to reply and strode toward the distant tree. One by one, the other men filed reluctantly after him. Miri crouched in front of Portia.
“Are you okay, honey?” Miri stroked her hair.
“I’m tired,” whined Portia. “Can I stay here?”
“It is someone’s home,” said Miri, “They might return.”
“I don’t care,” said Portia stubbornly.
“I will stay with her,” said Drusilla. “We’ll be fine.”
Miri judged the distance to the other tree. “Take this,” she said unstrapping her leather belt and sheathed dagger. “Do not draw it unless you need it.”
“Stay with us,” pleaded Portia.
Miri hesitated. She was drawn to joining the men.
“They won’t let you help cut it down,” said Portia.
Drusilla nodded. “She’s right! You’ll just have to stand and watch. You might as well stay.”
Miri buckled her belt back on. “You win!” she said as she planted herself down beside Portia.
“This is strange,” said Drusilla as she approached one of the trees.
The men meanwhile arrived at the nearest tree. With the exception of Polydeuces, they stood for a moment, hands on hips staring at the giant tree. “What do you see?” asked Polydeuces.
“It is some kind of a palm,” Sylvanius staring up into the branches. “Five cubits. The trunk is straight.” He took Polydeuces arm and introduced him to the tree. “Dark, flattened spines. The leaves are feathered.”
“You know the rib we are replacing?” asked Polydeuces as he ran his hand over the rough bark. “Are the branches large enough?”
“There!” cried Canthus pointing into the foliage.
“Yes,” replied Sylvanius.
“Let’s get to it!” ordered Alexander.
“Wait!” called Canthus. “We must first give an offering to the tree and ask for the spirit to yield to us.”
“We have no time!” said Alexander impatiently.
The others exchanged worried glances.
“Alright!” He glared at the men for their superstition. “Who wants to do it?”
“We need an offering for the spirit,” said Mopsus, “Did anyone bring an offering?”
The men looked blankly about and then began digging in their bags. Each came up with a portion of a snack they had brought with them, but as they had not planned on more than a day trip, the pickings were meagre. They set the food at the base of the tree.
“Do you think it’s enough? Asked Mopsus doubtfully.
“It’s all we have,” whispered Simon.
“Well, let’s chop it down!” said Typhon.
“Wait!” Canthus grabbed Typhon’s axe as he drew it back for a blow. “Should we not just chop away what we need from the branches and allow the tree to live?”
Typhon laughed. “It’s a tree! There are others for the dryad to inhabit!”
He swung the axe against the trunk. Once. Twice. Thrice.
Mopsus cried out in alarm.
He was right. Thick red blood oozed from the scar in the bole. The men scrambled back from the tree and stood at a respectful distance, but from their new vantage point they could not readily examine the dripping wound in the tree.
“I think I heard it cry out,” whispered Simon in awe. Even Alexander was loathe to approach the tree.
“There are more of them!” said Drusilla. She dipped her finger in the clay vessel hanging from the tree. Blood glistened on her finger and dripped on her tunic. Portia and Miri touched their fingers to hers, and they all examined the blood from the tree.
“It is dragon’s blood!”
The voice startled them. An old African woman waddled toward them, a large bundle of firewood balanced on her head.
“Dragon’s blood?” Portia sniffed at her fingers, “Is it poisonous?”
“It is healing blood,” puffed the old woman as she dumped her bundle at their feet. “You can taste it, but too much of a good thing can kill you.”
Portia touched the tip of her tongue to the blood. “It’s sweet.”
“Where are you young ladies from?”
“We came from the land of Kemet,” replied Portia helpfully.
“By ship!” added Drusilla.
“My! My! I thought you had all flown here!” teased the old woman.
“We needed to find wood to repair the damage to our ship,” explained Miri, “Our friends have traveled to another tree to retrieve ribs for our hull.”
“Where?” asked the woman in alarm.
“Over there!” Drusilla pointed to the tree to the west.
“What are they doing?” asked Miri. The group, barely discernable, huddled together some distance from the lone tree.
“The tree is keeping them at bay.” said the old woman, “It will not allow them to cut from it until they have performed the sacred rituals to the dragon within each tree.”
Portia, who had been leaning against the spiny trunk, spring away from the tree and stared at it in fear.
“It does not hurt you,” said Drusilla to the old woman, “You are collecting the blood from the trees. What do you use it for?”
“It is dried to make cinnabar,” said the old woman, “It adds the power of life to any spell or herb. It is,” she said with a sly smile, “very, very, powerful for potions of love.”
“We use it to paint wounds and stop bleeding,” said Miri remembering her medical studies in Philae. “Also during menstruation to clean the blood.”
“You are a woman of learning,” The old woman smiled. “You must forgive me, my manners, my girl. I am Kaysah.”
“Are you a witch?” asked Drusilla.
Kaysah chuckled. “There are men who would think that.”
“Is it real dragon’s blood?” asked Portia.
The old woman nodded. “It is.”
“What do you use it for? asked Drusilla.
"Protection, purification, and energy,” replied Kaysha. “Dragon's Blood holds great power. Adding Dragon's Blood to any potion increases its power. The cinnabar has the blessing of Apedemek. I add a pinch of Dragon's Blood to incense to increase power to cleanse. I add it to love sachets and romantic oils, and in the bath. A piece of Dragon's Blood under the mattress or pillow adds vigour to a man’s lovemaking. Burnt in the house, the fumes will drive away evil and negativity.”
Kaysha came close to Drusilla and her nostrils flared as the old woman breathed in Drusilla’s scent. She smiled.
“If your lover leaves you, you can bring him back by placing a lamp in the window and burning dragon’s blood in it. You must sit beside the lamp in the open window, so the smoke will carry your scent to your lover. Add a pot of sandalwood to the hearth and a dash of cinnamon and he is yours forever. If there is strife in your house, you must mix the powder with salt and secret it in a vial where no one can find it. Then peace and quiet will reign within your walls.”
“How does it get in the tree?” asked Portia, squeezing herself protectively beside her sister, and drawing Kaysha’s focus from Drusilla.
“The tree is the dragon,” replied the woman. “At night, when no one is about, the branches of the tree unfold into wings and the dragon emerges. It must return by daybreak, or both the tree and the dragon will die.”
Portia peered doubtfully into the canopy above her head. “They are in the branches? Will they eat us?”
The woman laughed loudly. “If you sacrifice to them in the proscribed manner, they will not harm you.”
The small group of men was returning from the western tree more quickly than they had approached it. As Miri stared at them she realized they were running.
“Quickly!” cried Kaysha, “Help me move the sheep inside!” She ran to the nearest sheep and kicked the animal in the rump. “Get up! Get up, you lazy old sheep!”
Miri ran to another, clutching one of the sticks the old woman had dropped earlier and took the switch to her animals, which clumsily struggled to their feet in dumfounded alarm. Portia and Drusilla joined in, and the sheep, galvanized by the sudden flurry of activity came to their feet bawling in complaint.
“Run!” Alexander called out to them, “Run for your lives!” The men raced quickly toward the grove that sheltered the woman and sheep. Their feet thudded on the dry sandy soil. Hard on their heels were huge lizards, as long as crocodiles, but with legs and bodies built for land.
“Dragons!” screamed Portia and she leapt at a sheep balking in the doorway, physically driving it into the darkened interior.
Mopsus screamed. A dragon had caught him by the leg and shook him as a dog shakes a rat. Canthus turned to help him, and ran at the dragon with his axe upraised. He cried out as the creature lashed out with its tail and swept his feet out from beneath him. Typhon ran pell mell into the grove, and instantly grasping the situation, began flocking the livestock into the safety of the house walls. Alexander ran to the aid of Canthus and Mopsus. Miri unsheathed her bow, bent it to the string and ran toward the struggling men. She notched an arrow to the bow and stood firm and released an arrow. It bounced off the hide of the dragon, but another huge beast was running to her flank and she immediately turned on her heels and ran for the house.
Canthus and Alexander held Mopsus, engaged in a deadly tug of war with the dragon, but the reptile would not release its hold on its prize. Two more great reptiles joined against the men and the screaming Mopsus was ripped in two. He did not die immediately; the dragons, in a feeding frenzy ate him alive. With the screams of their dying comrade piercing their ears, Alexander and Canthus fled.
Their flight drew the dragons after them, and they barely managed to dive into the stone house, dragons snapping at their heels. Typhon slammed the wooden door shut and the bar was dropped across it. The air was filled with the hissing of the dragons and the rasping of their claws and scales against the stone walls of the farm house.
“What creatures be they?” asked Canthus breathlessly.
“Dragons!” cried Drusilla breathlessly.
“Dragons?” The word passed over the lips of the men and they clutched at whatever protection they thought best against such an adversary.
“Now what?” asked Miri.
“We wait!” announced Kaysha, and silence settled over the crew.
The dragons had more patience than their trapped human quarry. The adventurers fretted inside the confines of the stone building. The sheep sat calmly through the siege chewing their cud. Drusilla helped Kaysha pull hay from the rafters and distribute armfuls to the sheep. Miri snuggled up against Alexander and Portia rested her head in Miri’s lap. One by one, they fell asleep. The sun sank over the crest of the mountain to the west and darkness fell over the land quickly, but the dragons still paced back and forth outside the stone enclosure.
All was quiet at dawn. Kaysha sat upright and waited patiently as her visitors awoke one by one. Instinctively everyone remained still and quiet. There was no sound from outside the walls, but they all knew that predators could spend hours waiting in ambush, and dragons who lived forever, by extension could probably wait far longer than more conventional animals.
“What now?’ asked Typhon finally.
“We must get the wood and return to the ship,” said Alexander decisively.
“It will not be as easy as that,” cautioned Kaysha. “Now you have aroused the dragons, they will protect the tree unless you bring them an offering.”
“An offering?” asked Miri.
“We have nothing!” declared Alexander, “We used the last of our food as offering to the tree yesterday!”
“In the case of dragons, you have a greater problem,” said Kaysha. “The offering can only be made by a virgin.”
All eyes turned to Drusilla and Portia. Portia gulped and Drusilla cleared her throat.
“I, uh,” Drusilla began slowly. She glanced at Miri guiltily. “I can’t…”
“Drusilla!” whispered Portia, “You mean you…”
Drusilla shook her head.
“You didn’t tell me?” The realization she was the only virgin in the room and its implications suddenly dawned on Portia.
“I can’t!” she declared.
“You don’t even know what you have to do yet!” said Drusilla impatiently. “I’ll help you!” She paused for a moment and glanced at her colleagues. “Whatever it is.” She added weakly.
“What do we have to do?” asked Alexander.
“You must climb the Jabal Dracensis and collect the ashes of the phoenix, but the child must go on her own to retrieve it, for only a virgin may approach the nest of the phoenix!”
“We can accompany her of course!” said Alexander, unwilling to place their fate in the hands of the diminutive Portia.
“As far as the frankincense trees, and no further. There you must purify the child and yourselves. But you must be careful for the dragon may discover you before she can return. It may be safer for her to travel alone.”
“I can’t go on my own!” wailed Portia.
“Of course not!” Miri wrapped her arms about the poor girl. “We will all go with you!”
Alexander was about to say something, but a glance from Miri silenced him.
“So how do we deal with dragons?” asked Canthus.
“We will kill them!” declared Alexander.
The old woman snorted. “You think the answer is to kill them? How little you know of the world!”
“Then what?” asked Typhon, “Tell us!”
“You must find out for yourselves!” declared the old woman.
The party stirred and cautiously peered outside. One by one, they emerged into the hot morning sun. The dragons had moved away.
“They will not be far!” Kaysha told them. “Stay alert!”
“You can bathe at the spring to the west. Wash there. You will then travel through the frankincense forest, upward from the cucumber tree garden to the west of the river. Where the aloe begins, the child must continue on her own up the mountain along the ridge. Beyond you will see the dragon trees and there you will find the nest of the phoenix!”
“How will I know it?” whined Portia.
“You will know it!” declared Kaysha.
Under the hot glare of the equatorial sun, the band of explorers trudged single file behind Kaysha up the steep slope along a thin barely used trail through the scrub. Portia and Drusilla each led a sheep, one white, one black. Near the top of a small rise they encountered an invisible wall of frankincense perfume. The smell was so intense it took their breath away, and Alexander called a halt, then motioned the others to stop. Kaysha turned to the band.
“What is wrong?” she asked.
“We will rest here, before we continue!” said Alexander, breathless from the overpowering scent. He motioned the others back. Covering their mouths, the explorers retreated until they were outside the zone permeated by frankincense.
“This place is bewitched!” muttered Typhon, as he sat dejectedly on a stone.
“Nonsense!” retorted Alexander.
“Then you tell me why the air is as thick as water!” challenged Canthus.
“It is…” Alexander was at a loss to explain the phenomenum.
“It is as thick as jasmine,” said Miri.
“The sun draws out the perfume,” said Kaysha as she joined the visitors.
“We should sacrifice the sheep to Amon and ask for his protection!” declared Typhon.
“The sheep are for the dragon!” said Kaysha, “Without the sacrifice, our daughter Portia would not be safe.”
“So you say!” said Typhon, “But a dragon is only a dragon, and Amon is the god of gods! Only he could protect us from dragons, devils or whatever we encounter! Once we have sacrificed to Amon, then he would provide us his divine protection, and we could take what we need from the dragon!”
Canthus nodded in agreement, and turned to Alexander for an answer. Miri knew Alexander would opt for action.
“It is not for us to decide the ways of the island while we are here! We could sacrifice to Amon and then take the wood perhaps, but Kaysha must live with the dragons. Are we to kill them all for her? And what then? Perhaps the dragons would be replaced by something worse?”
“Something more sinister?” asked Polydeuces.
“Or more dexter!” said Drusilla contemptuously. “I say we sacrifice to the dragon, for the dragon protects the tree. We must yield to the dragon so that the dragon will yield to us what we need. We have no need for Amon if we honour the pact with the dragon.”
Miri stared in disbelief at the wisdom of her handmaid. Since Drusilla first set foot on the island, she had become more assertive, and now she stood, hands on her hips defiantly facing men twice her size.
Drusilla wagged her finger at Typhon.
“You can stay here if you wish!” she scolded him, “Hide behind the robes of your god Amon, but the true heart will never stand alone if is righteous! Portia and I will go without you and speak with the dragon if that is necessary! Besides, my sister is the only one among us that can receive the wood we need from the dragon tree!”
“So she says!” retorted Typhon, pointing at Kaysha. “How do we know her belief is righteous?”
“Do you know it’s not?” shouted Drusilla. “Stay here! We can go on without you!”
“Enough!” shouted Alexander. The group snapped uncomfortably and sullenly silent. The tension was broken when one of the sheep bleated, and the entire crew burst out laughing.
“You have balls!” said Typhon to Drusilla and held out his hand to her.
Drusilla was about to retort, but a look from Miri stopped her. Drusilla accepted Typhon’s hand in reconciliation.
“Let’s go!” Typhon said with a grin.
The crew gathered themselves together and entered the frankincese grove. Birds fluttered from the trees as they passed. At one point Kaysha stopped before a thorn bush with strange angular branches and cut a branch from the bush. She handed it to Miri who at once recognized the smell of myrrh, though she had until now, only encountered it in resin form. The branch was difficult to carry as the thorns were large and very sharp. They walked on through the frankincense forest. All about them were plants so alien as to not be plants at all, and the band of adventurers appeared to be as uncourageous and so bereft of boldness as they stepped carefully along the path through the forest, that they would flee at the slightest sound. Though the air was heavy, and their lungs filled with the thick balm of frankincense, the band reached a wadi that cut a four-cubit gouge into the mountain. The sides were narrow and steep, but the shapes carved into the limestone by the water allowed them to climb into the narrow cleft. The sheep clambered down the wall easily. At the bottom, their feet sank into the cool sand. The river itself was no more than a few handbreadths wide.
“Oh my Mother!” declared Drusilla as her feet sank into the wet sand, “That feels nice!”
“This way!” whispered Kaysha, “There is a pool downstream where we can cleanse ourselves!”
They walked through the shadow of the gorge, the steep overhanging walls closed in on them, and there was a sense of impending evil about them. Canthus clutched at the staff of the spear he carried and Typhon reached down and picked up a protruding piece of driftwood and tested its strength. Satisfied, he pulled it from the sand and hefted the wood in his hands. Suddenly the gorge opened out and a beautiful still pool lay before them. To the west, the small wadi flattened into a green pasture.
Kaysha wrapped an arm about Portia who was visibly nervous.
“I can’t do this!” she wailed. She was close to tears.
“You’ll be fine!” said Kaysha.
“No, I won’t!”
As men of action are wont to do when their fate rested not in their own hands, but in that of the gods, the men milled about restlessly, and eyed Portia and Drusilla with great uncertainty. The sheep, unconcerned by the vagaries of the Fates, wandered to the water’s edge to drink.
Under Kaysha’s direction the party cleansed themselves. In order to complete the purification they needed to completely submerge themselves under the water and allow the current to wash away the grime of their journey and the sins of the world. After they had bathed, Kaysha anointed Portia with oil and frankincense.
“You must make a crown of the myrhh for Portia,” said Kaysha to Miri.
“But there great thorns in it!” cried Drusilla.
“Then you must be careful,” replied Kaysha, “It is very important that the thorns remain!” she cautioned.
Miri and Drusilla wove sprigs of myrrh into her hair from the branch Miri had carried with her from the forest. The task was difficult, as the sprigs were barbed with large thorns, and the fragrant resin stuck to their fingers as they broke the sprigs from the angular branch. Drusilla broke the thorns from one of the sprigs, but Kaysha held Drusilla back from inserting the piece into Portia’s hair.
“The thorns must remain!” she said sternly and took the debarbed sprig from Drusilla. “Face the spikes outward, and she will feel no pain!”
“Ouch!” cried Portia as Miri accidentally poked her with a thorn.
Drusilla snorted and abandoned adornment of her sister to Miri.
“What was that about?” asked Typhon as she approached the group of men sitting idly on the sunny side of the pool.
“Nothing!” replied Drusilla petulantly as she plunked herself beside her comrades.
The sun was at its zenith.
“It is time!” announced Kaysha. She stood before Portia and held the girl by her arms. “It is time for you to go!” She motioned to Sylvanius who held the two sheep by a rope about their necks. He gave the tethers to Portia who took them reluctantly.
“You will cross the stream and travel over the pasture. Do not let the sheep eat from the grass for they will sicken and die. You will find a path through the rocks at the far end. Follow the path and you will find the Garden of the Phoenix. You must reach the nest before nightfall. For, if you do not, your fate will be sealed by the Mother and Queen of the Dragons. Only beneath the nest of the phoenix will you find a safe haven. There you will remain until daybreak.”
“What about the sheep?” asked Portia plaintively.
“You will know what to do with them when the time comes. It is important that you take the ashes of the Phoenix from the nest before the moon rises. Once you hold the ashes, you will command the respect of the Dragon Queen and will be in a position to ask for a tree for your vessel, and you may leave the island unharmed. It is time to go!”
Portia did not move.
“It is time to go!” commanded Kaysha.
Tears welled in Portia’s eyes and she stifled a sniff. Drusilla ran to her and hugged her. “It’ll be alright, honey!”
“Come with me!” wailed Portia and wrapped her arms tightly about her sister. She began to cry. Drusilla struggled, but could not break free of her sister.
“Mirrrumphh!” she called from Portia’s hug, a free hand waving in the general direction of Miri. Miri ran to her aid and manages to free Drusilla from Portia’s clutches, only to become ensared herself. One by one, Portia entangled the other members of the party in her clutches, until she no longer had anyone to cling to and she stood pathetically alone, ankle deep in the stream, her black and white charges, freshly bathed, bleating beside her.
Her despair was mirrored by all, for not one person had the confidence in Portia’s ability to accomplish the task set before her. In unison, her fellow travelers waved feebly at her, but Portia stood desperately alone.
There was some uncomfortable throat clearing and still Portia stood still. Someone motioned for her to leave. Finally, Portia mouthed a silent, tearful farewell, and shoulders drooping, turned her back on her comrades and took the first step of her journey. However, the sheep were unaware of the move and stayed put, resulting in the ropes about their necks pulled tight and pulling Portia backward. She let out a brief squeal and fell flat onto her back with a huge splash into the water. The sight of her legs splaying high into the air caused everyone else to break out laughing.
Now that her dignity was completely destroyed, the laughter of her companions was more than she could bear and she lost her temper, and stormed off, dragging the complaining sheep behind her. Miri and the others found the sight of her angry tramping through the pasture just as hilarious, but one by one, they sobered at the thought of the child marching into the jaws of the dragon’s lair, and it was with much anguish that they stared after the diminishing figure of the girl as she crossed the pasture to the path to the Garden of the Phoenix.
Drusilla pressed her head into Miri’s breast. “Mother preserve her!” she whispered and wrapped her arms tightly about her mistress.
Before night fell, the band of adventurers retired to a small cave and lit a fire within it from dried branches they had gathered in the afternoon. At either side of the cave stood two large myrrh thorn bushes, three cubits high, and the sailors tied branches of the two trees together to form a barrier across the mouth of the cave. Safe within the limestone cave, their thoughts and prayers were directed to Portia somewhere alone in the darkness.
Though if she were truthful about her anger, Portia would have admitted that her ire had been raised only momentarily by her embarrassment at being felled by the sheep, but it had lasted long enough for her to turn about and take the first steps across the stream. From the time she had halfway scaled the low bank on the far side of the stream, her real anger had already subsided and the impetus for her continuing steps was directed at teaching her companions a lesson for their rudeness, though even that was beginning to wear thin by the time she only crossed halfway through the pasture. She directed her anger then at her two ovine companions who were intent on stopping to graze.
“No stopping!” she commanded them, and yanked on their ropes. The sheep bleated at such unkindness, and their resistance strengthened her resolve to continue. She and the sheep remained on an adversarial relationship until she entered an open area of low plants dotted quite generously with cucumber trees. The sheep took to the cucumbers quite readily, and the moisture dripping from their mouths amplified the thirst in her own throat and she tentatively snapped a cucumber from a tree and bit into it.
The succulent flesh beneath the rind seduced her into a bonding moment with her two companions. She shared her cucumbers with the two sheep and called the white one Flopsy and the black one Mopsy. Before their meal was over, Portia realized she could not bring herself to sacrifice either Flopsy or Mopsy to the dragons, and that everyone had made a terrible mistake in sending her on this quest.
“Serves them right!” she said decisively, and stood up.
Flopsy and Mopsy, not realizing that the cucumbers Portia fed them came from the tree, followed Portia eagerly as she set out along the path. The three had bonded, as most do, over a fine meal and now were a flock. None would stray far from the other, and together, they were safer than apart. The path became steeper, and Portia laboured more than her companions. She stopped quite frequently, and Flopsy and Mopsy would stop with her and, if some tasty vegetation was available, pull on that until their shepherdess gained her energy and continued on. It was no longer necessary to hold the ropes about Flopsy and Mopsy, so Portia slipped the ropes from her charges and wrapped them about her tunic.
Such was the nature of the day and the pleasantness of the surroundings, Portia, being the creature she was, quite forgot about her quest. In an alpine meadow, she sat in the grass and wove a garland of flowers to decorate her crown of thorns, feeding every second or third flower to Flopsy or Mopsy, whoever happened to be nearby. The three were quite well suited to each other and all three tended to become involved in whatever presented itself to them in the moment, and were, therefore, focusing more on the plants than the passage of the sun through the sky.
So, they were involved in gathering wild flowers, when Portia looked up and noticed the shadows were quite long and the sun but a finger’s breadth from the horizon. Already the mountain peaks to the east were tinged with gold, and the valley slopes were filling with purple shadow. Her heart instantly increased its beat and Flopsy and Mopsy started at the change rhythm in their partner. And their heads popped up from the tall grass and they looked furtively about. The three of them realized they were exposed in the field and that danger was approaching with the evening shades.
“Oh Good Mother!” whispered Portia, “Time to go!”
Remembering Kaysha’s words, Portia knew their only hope was to run for the Garden of the Phoenix, but she had no idea how far it would be. It could not be very far, she reasoned, for Kaysha would not send her on an impossible errand. Would she? Panic overtook the three of them. Though at times they don’t seem to be the most aware of animals, sheep are very alert to mood swings, and this time was no exception. The moment that Portia began to run, so did Flopsy and Mopsy. Despite the fact that sheep are able to run faster than people, neither Flopsy nor Mopsy took the lead, though they did stay close on Portia’s heels.
Portia’s lungs burned after a couple of hundred cubits of fleeing through the waist high grass, but she swore that she could here footsteps mixed in with Flopsy and Mopsy’s, and that whatever was running after them was gaining on her. She was wrong of course.
The danger in actual fact, was ahead of them, sleeping on a rock that was on the cusp of cooling, and that the cooling would soon awaken the dragon that lay upon it, and that the rock jutted out at a curve in the road, only steps ahead of the three fugitives. Fortuitously, Portia ran out of breath two steps her side of the curve and stopped just out of sight of and barely within hearing distance of the sleeping dragon. At that point, several succulent cacti caught the eye of Flopsy, and while Portia caught her breath, the two sheep silently picked at the roadside plants.
Drusilla lay motionless in the darkened cave. Curled into a ball, she remained as still as death for fear the slightest motion would awaken one of her companions. Each heartbeat lasted an eternity and she measured her own breathing in teaspoons. Every breath she took seemed as loud as the thundering wind of a sandstorm in the great Western Desert. She was clutched by the fear that all people have from the land of Kemet, that one who died far from the Nile, would forever wander the face of the Earth, searching for Ausar and the land of Paradise. She imagined Portia ripped to shreds by the dragons and no amount of self-persuasion could shake the image from her mind. From the outset, she had determined she would go after Portia at the earliest opportunity, but the right time never seemed to present itself. She knew each and every one of her companions would hold her back if they discovered her setting out after her sister, so she lay tensely silent, listening to every breath to ensure that Alexander and his men were soundly asleep before she made her escape. After an eternity, the snores and grunts and deep breathing told her it was time to make her move.
She arose and slipped beneath the thorns of the myrrh bushes. Her shawl snagged on a spiny branch, and she swore under her breath. The spines cut into her arms and hands as she tried to disentangle her clothes, but every movement only served to create a new entanglement. She panicked. She was sure that Kaysha had commanded the trees to prevent her from following her sister to the Garden of the Phoenix. A hand suddenly closed over her mouth and, though she screamed, the hand prevented all but a muffled sound from escaping her throat. She was spun roughly about and realized Typhon had seized her.
“Where are you going?” demanded Typhon in a fierce whisper.
“I, uh…Nowhere!” Drusilla hissed back, “I have to… go… I have to relieve myself!”
“I don’t believe you!”
“Suit yourself!” snapped Drusilla, “But if you hold me back, one of us will have to sleep on a wet spot!”
“I am going with you!” growled Typhon. Drusilla was about to protest, but Typhon touched his finger to her lips. “It’s a long, lonely road to the Garden of the Phoenix!” He tapped his great double-headed axe, “You will need a friend or two at your back!”
As the two stepped from the thorn-covered entrance to the cave, they clutched at each other, for a diaphanous white figure floated in the moonlight before them.
“Oh Lord Amon, preserve us!” wailed Typhon.
“Well said, Typhon!” replied the figure.
“Mistress!” cried Drusilla and rushed to hug Miri.
Having finished the most succulent of the cacti, Flopsy and Mopsy decided they would venture further up the mountain, and being sheep, they scampered directly up the cliff face that overlooked the path upon which they had been previously traveling. “Oh Great Mother!” cried Portia as her charges disappeared from view above her head. “Get back here!” Neither Flopsy nor Mopsy understood a word she had said and continued on their way up the mountain. Portia had no choice but to climb up the cliff after them.
It was at that moment that the great dragon around the corner awoke with a great hiss, and Portia screamed for she knew the sound. Her scream alerted the dragon who twirled about and glared up at her, where she hung only a foot or two above his head. All this happened in a twinkling, and the dragon lunged at Portia, who scampered up the rock face. She missed being dinner for the dragon by a hairsbreadth. The dragon was not as adept as Portia in climbing, but he gave her a run for her money. The altercation was over in a very few seconds, but Portia was terrified and the dragon, hungry after his deep sleep, knew the smell of warm-blooded quarry. He stared intently after Portia as she made her way up the side of the mountain, looked both ways along the path that he guarded and decided the only direction to go to trap the prey he had just missed, was up.
Miri, Drusilla and Typhon made good time through the pasture and up to the meadow where Portia had rested. Typhon was an accomplished hunter and Miri still remembered her days in the oasis with Ayamu. With Typhon’s great axe and Cleopatra’s bow, she had confidence in their ability to deal with a dragon. Drusilla had thoughtfully armed herself with the denuded myrrh branch, but it had proved to be too unwieldy and heavy to carry for a great distance, so she abandoned it quite quickly. She was far more agile and fleet of foot than Miri and Typhon, and they found it necessary to hiss at her often to keep her within a circle within which they could protect her.
“You must stay with us!” whispered Typhon. “You will cover your sister’s footfall and miss her path!”
“Perhaps I should find swifter companions!” she retorted, but regretted her outburst instantly.
“You are right,” she admitted contritely, “I am sorry!”
Typhon ruffled her hair and chuckled. “The gods will forgive you!”
Somewhere in the darkness, the faint echo of a terrible drawn out scream was carried on the breeze from the mountains and the three adventurers froze in place.
The sheep had led Portia almost straight up the mountainside. The rock face rapidly became more and more vertical. At one point she scrambled up a tree trunk that had served as a bridge across a narrow cleft. Unexpectedly, the trunk crackled and crumbled as she stepped from it, and tumbled noisily down the mountain. She realized that she could no longer descend the mountain, for where she stood, the mountain dropped straight down into a darkened abyss, and the more gentle slope she had ascended was now inaccessible across the mountain cleft. Spurred by fear, she climbed higher. She could not believe that the goats could climb so steep an incline so nimbly on only cloven hooves, when she was barely able to find a finger hold in the rock. Her foot slipped, and in an instant, Portia began to slide downward. Nothing she grasped, stone or plant, stayed attached to the mountain. She scrambled frantically at the ground and screamed as she had never screamed before. Finally a small bush, rooted enough within a crack in the rock, brought her to a halt, bent under her weight, and her legs and torso were suddenly unsupported by firm ground. Though she held the bush with her left hand, her grip slipped along the branches and she scrambled frantically at the rock with her left, found a finger hold and she dangled precariously over a vertical drop. Her sandal fell end over end into the darkness below. From where she hung, she could see the ship in the bay, the sparkle of the fires on the beach, and could not believe that she was about to die while all her traveling companions were calmly sleeping below her, and all but the uncaring gods above were oblivious to her fate.
Within a heartbeat of the long agonizing scream, Miri, Drusilla and Typhon raced along the path through the cucumber forest and out into the alpine meadow. Again they froze, for the entire meadow was filled by at least a dozen dragons. At the sound of Miri, Typhon and Drusilla in the grass, every dragons’ head rose alert, eyes ears and nostrils wide open. Typhon raised his hand to still his companions, but neither Miri nor Drusilla needed to be told to stay as still as possible. The entire landscape held its breath. A breeze ruffled the grass, and raised waves through the pasture. Typhon moved carefully with the passage of the wind, and discovered the place in the meadow where Portia had stopped to pick wildflowers. A dark line of bent grass led through the moonlight silvered sheen across the meadow and toward the mountain. The way however, wound beneath the raised dragon heads that turned quickly as the breeze ran through the tall grass.
Typhon slipped quietly back to the waiting women.
“We must crawl through the grass,” he whispered. “move only when the wind crosses your face. “We will be downwind of the dragons. Except one.”
“Which one? Asked Drusilla, popping her head up to look out over the meadow.
“The biggest one!” whispered Typhon, pointing to a dragon that stood at least two cubits taller than the others.
“Let’s do it!” whispered Drusilla dropping to all fours. At that moment the breeze picked up and all three scrambled through the grass. As the breeze passed away, they came to a halt, breathing hard, straining to control the sound of their breathing. Nearby a dragon swung it terrible face towards their hiding place, its tongue testing the wind. A few cubits at a time, the three crawled through the meadow.
As they reached the end of the meadow, Typhon turned to smile at Miri and Drusilla. “We made it!” he whispered, but before either Drusilla or Miri could reply, he was snapped up between the teeth of the largest dragon. The dragon had been stalking them as slyly as the trio had crawled through the grass, moving only when they moved, until he was within striking distance. The huge reptile shook Typhon as a dog shakes a rat, Typhon still held his axe, but the angle was such that he could get no leverage on the shaft to strike back at the dragon’s face. Miri reacted instantly, stringing an arrow to her bow, but her first arrow bounced harmlessly off the dragon’s back. She armed the bow again, but could find no target,
“Throw me the axe!” screamed Drusilla to Typhon. The poor man hesitated for a moment, but realizing he had no chance to use his weapon, he released his grip on it. It fell to the ground and Drusilla darted under the neck of the dragon to retrieve it. It was heavier than she had expected and she was forced to drag it along the ground. The dragon was so intent upon Typhon, it paid no attention to her. Which was its first mistake. Though the axe was too heavy for her to use effectively as a battle weapon, in her excited state, Drusilla raised the great axe above her head and with a great cry, she swung wildy at the dragon and the head of the axe sliced open its neck. Seizing the opportunity, Miri released her arrow and the arrow buried completely within the gash across the dragon’s fleshy throat. The monster scratched at its throat and spat Typhon out at the same time. Drusilla ran to his aid and stepped forward and Miri released another arrow into the eye of the dragon. It flailed madly about, but Miri stood her ground, threading another arrow to the bow. Her next arrow found a place in its underbelly and snapped off. The dragon’s frantic struggle drew its companions, who closed menacingly in on the thrashing dragon. Miri ran to aid Drusilla and they dragged Typhon away into the shelter of some large boulders. The dragons roared as they ripped apart the wounded animal, but none noticed the three human figures that staggered away from the melee in the meadow.
Typhon was barely conscious. His body had been badly punctured by the dragon’s daggered teeth.
“You must go on without me!” he croaked. “I will cover myself beneath that outcrop!” He pointed feebly at the silhouette of an outcrop close by.
“We will come back for you!” whispered Miri. She stripped off her dress and wrapped his wounds with strips torn from it.
“Kiss me!” he whispered to her as she finished wrapping his wounds.
“What?” The request took her by surprise.
He closed his eyes slowly. He licked his lips and swallowed with great difficulty. “I have never been loved by a woman that I have loved. I want to die with the taste of your lips on mine.”
Miri pushed his matted hair from his eyes. Cradling his head in her arms she bent her neck and kissed Typhon on the lips. She tasted his blood, his soul passed through her, and he went limp in her embrace. He was dead. She lowered him to the ground.
“Let’s go!” she said tersely to Drusilla, who hesitated beside Typhon’s limp body.
“He’s dead!” said Miri without emotion. “We must find Portia!”
Drusilla glanced down tearfully at Typhon’s corpse, shouldered his battleaxe and followed her mistress into the darkness.
Flopsy and Mopsy stared down at their mistress with, considering Portia’s precarious position, an inappropriate lack of concern. Flopsy bleated at Portia to let her know it was time to leave. Portia gripped the bush more tightly, and Mopsy took Portia’s movement as an invitation and began to nibble on the leaves.
“Bad Sheep!” scolded Portia through her teeth, “Stop!”
Mopsy stopped for a brief moment, then not understanding, took another mouthful of leaves from the bush. Not wanting to miss out on a meal, Flopsy took a bite from the bush as well.
“Stop it!” screeched Portia which alarmed the two sheep enough to make them stop eating the bush.
Portia banged her knee badly trying to find a foothold, but her sandaled foot slipped on the rock. She scrambled desperately, and finally her bare foot found a toe hold. Just as the two sheep pulled more foliage from the bush. The stem of the bush snapped, and Portia squealed as it dropped her down. Her other foot dropped to a wider ledge, and afforded her an easier purchase point, but the change gave her less purchase with her arms above the sheer face.
“Oh Mother!” she wailed plaintively. Her hope was fast dissolving and she began to wonder how much longer she would be able to hold on before she fell. Her answer was not long in coming for the bush finally released itself from the cleft in which it had grown and with a meek gasp, Portia lost her grip on the mountain and tumbled into the abyss.
Portia opened here eyes. The rope that she had wrapped about her after she had untied the two sheep, had caught on a short broken stub of a branch of a very large tree and now she dangled in mid air. She was still several cubits above the ground and the rope cut into her flesh, but she was alive and had not expected to be. She swung herself about and grasped the tree trunk. Unfortunately she could not disentangle herself from the rope as the knots were out of reach. She managed to wriggle partially into the fork between the stubby branch and the tree trunk. Her perch was enough to give her respite and stop the rope cutting into her chest, but she was still unable to untie herself. True to her nature, she took the opportunity to rest and closed her eyes.
Drusilla and Miri ran until they could no longer breathe. They had passed through the meadow and now followed the path up the side of the mountain. Drusilla was worn out and the strap from Typhon’s heavy battleaxe pressed deeply into her shoulder muscle. She shifted the weight, but she strained to carry the weapon. Tearful, she slowed to a halt and unshouldered the axe.
“Perhaps you should leave it,” whispered Miri.
Drusilla bit her lip. “I can’t!”
Miri unshouldered her bow and quiver. “We’ll switch.”
Thankfully, Drusilla took Cleopatra’s bow and quiver. Miri hefted the axe and threw it over her shoulder. It was heavier than she had expected. Still, it had proved an effective defense against the dragon, and it would be worth carrying. Though they both were weary, they knew that they would have to press on quickly to overtake Portia. Perhaps because they were fatigued, neither noticed that the boulder they had stopped beside had now unwrapped itself and become a dragon.
It was the same dragon that had almost caught Portia, but it now had decided on a more stealthy approach to stalking this new prey that so much resembled the creature it had almost caught.
“Well, well, what have we here?”
The voice caught Portia as she was drifting off to sleep and she was not sure she had heard the voice at all. She looked about her, but saw nothing in the moonlight.
“Up here,” prompted the voice. Bent over the fork in the tree Portia glanced up as best she could.
In a flurry of wings, a huge red and gold hawk sat upon a branch above her head. It cocked its head to examine her more closely.
“Who are you?” the hawk asked Portia.
Portia gasped and covered her mouth.
“You can talk!” she whispered excitedly.
“Well, it seems we all have a similar ability!” replied the hawk. “We are the bennu-bird. You have come to our holy island, yet we would wonder why and how a young virgin would fall from the sky onto our sacred tree.”
“I have come to find the Phoenix bird,” replied Portia matter-of-factly.
“And what do you want from this,” the bird paused. “…this Phoenix?”
“I must take the ashes of the Phoenix from the nest before the moon rises. Once I hold the ashes, I ask the Dragon Queen for a tree for our boat and we can continue our-”
“So if you came by boat, how is it you fell from the sky?” asked the golden bird.
“I fell from the mountain,” replied Portia.
“Oh!” said the bird, “So you are not some mythical creature…”
“Of course not!” replied Portia. “I was the only one on the crew who was a virgin and-”
“A most unholy group, that only one is a virgin!”
“You should not interrupt so much!” replied Portia indignantly.
“Forgive us, sweet virgin” apologized the bird, “So how do you propose to find this Phoenix?”
“I am to follow the path up the mountain to the Garden of the Phoenix. There I will get the ashes of the Phoenix…” a slow dawning lit Portia’s face. “You!” she cried “You are the Phoenix.
The bird bowed.
“I should have known when you introduced yourself! You are the Bennu Bird!”
“One in the same!” announced the bird proudly, “All for one and one for all!”
“But how can I carry your ashes?” Portia asked. “You are very much alive!”
“Very!” acknowledged the bird, ruffling its feathers. Little sparks of golden light twinkled amongst the feathers like small sparks from the sun. The hawk blinked. “We must die in order to be reborn!”
“I do not wish you to die!” Portia blurted out.
“Yet you wish to speak to the Queen of the Dragons, and that you cannot do without the protection of a vial containing our ashes. We must die and be reborn in order to remain immortal. And for that a virgin must bring the sacred flame to us. You are that virgin!”
“How can I do that?” asked Portia.
“First,” answered the Phoenix, “You must bring the holy flame from its resting place in the cave within the roots of this tree. In the darkness your task shall not be easy! Go! We shall await your return!”
“I can’t!” whined Portia. “I am still tied to the tree and cannot reach the knots to untie myself!”
“Hmmm,” mused the bird. He flapped to the branch from which Portia hung. He cocked his head this way, then that and decided on a course of action. He hopped onto Portia’s shoulder and pecked at the knot binding the rope about Portia’s body.
“Stop!” cried Portia, “I’ll fall!”
“No you won’t!” replied the bird and yanked on the rope. The knot unraveled and Portia fell.
“Ooops!” said the bird cheekily.
Portia fell two feet and landed amongst the foliage on a broad branch beneath her. “Very funny!” She wrapped the rope about her middle, and tied both strands to her waist.
“Don’t be so serious!” retorted the bird. “We don’t get much fun about here! Everyone who comes to this tree is on some quest or another, and none are in much of a mood to play!”
“Neither am I!” replied Portia.
“Very well,” replied the Phoenix haughtily, “Our nest is at the top of the tree, the sacred flame is at the bottom. You must bring the flame from the roots to the crown. We shall await your arrival!” The Phoenix flapped its wings and flew up the tree.
“Wait!” called Portia, but the bird was already out of sight.
Portia was tired, but knew she would have to go to the bottom of the tree and find the sacred flame, then climb back to the top of the tree. She closed here eyes and took a deep breath. “Oh Mother! Give me strength!” She sighed and peered down through the leaves. She could not see the ground below her, but the network of branches told her she had a fair distance to cover.
She clambered down arm over arm until she reached the bottom-most branch. She could see the ground, but it was still a few cubits below the branch upon which she now sat. She unwrapped the cords about her waist, tied them together and lowered the rope hand over hand from her perch. The end of the rope dangled at least two people lengths above the ground. Portia fretted. If she tied the rope to the branch, she would not be able to reach either the rope or the branch once she dropped to the ground. She hauled the rope in and looped it about her waist again, closed her eyes and jumped.
Miri became uneasy. She glanced behind her several times but could see nothing in the darkness. She sensed a menacing presence, but neither her eyes, ears or nose confirmed her feelings. Drusilla had none of Miri’s misgivings. She was driven to find her sister and nothing along the path was enough to deter her quest. Miri unshouldered the double-headed axe. She knew it was too heavy to swing with any great skill or finesse, but holding it ready brought her a greater sense of comfort. Drusilla suddenly came to an abrupt stop and Miri bumped into her.
“What is it?” asked Miri.
“A fork in the path!” whispered Drusilla.
“Which way do you think she would have gone?” asked Miri.
“To the right!” replied Drusilla. They exchanged a brief glance. “Or the left!”
Drusilla took in their surroundings. “It would all depend…” She hesitated.
At that moment, a small stone fell from the mountainside and rolled to a stop at their feet. Miri and Drusilla stood motionless.
“Don’t move!” whispered Miri. Drusilla rolled her eyes at Miri’s advice for she had no intention of moving. More stones rattled from the mountainside and instinctively, Miri ducked. Drusilla glanced up the mountain and screamed.
Five cubits above their heads a horned creature stared down at them. It shook its head and bleated. It was Flopsy. Mopsy appeared and stared down at the two astonished women. Happy to see people and assuming they had food, the two goats bounced down the rock face and trotted expectantly toward Miri and Drusilla.
Suddenly huge jaws snapped up the white goat. The dragon had seen his opportunity and struck swiftly. Screams of terror filled the air. Mopsy bolted instantly, followed by Drusilla. Miri hesitated a moment, considering swinging the battle axe at the dragon, decided the heavy weapon was a liability, threw it to the ground and ran after Drusilla. Distracted by their movement, the dragon swung its head toward the fleeing figures, Flopsy hanging lifeless and disemboweled from the predator’s mouth. Deciding the victim in it’s mouth was preferable to the three succulent morsels fleeing into the darkness, the dragon grasped the body with a front claw and began to devour the hapless Flopsy.
Out of sight and several hundred cubits down the path and breathless, Miri and Drusilla stopped before a great cavern. The path led directly into the yawning opening in the side of the mountain.
“I don’t like this!” muttered Drusilla.
Mopsy bleated. The scent drifting from the cave definitely spooked her. Miri and Drusilla stepped forward to investigate the cave. The black goat balked, unable to follow her companions into the cave, and immobilized by the memory of Flopsy’s swift demise. As Miri and Drusilla entered the cave mouth, a flurry of wings exploded above their heads. The flight of bats flapped from the opening and spooked Mopsy. The goat bleated and scrambled up the cliff face and disappeared into the night.
“I don’t like this one bit!” repeated Drusilla. She reached out to hold Miri’s hand and stepped forward. She screamed as the ground gave way beneath her and she and Miri tumbled into a pitch-black abyss.
Portia landed on her feet, but fell and rolled as she hit the ground. She twisted her foot, and the pain stabbed up her right leg. Though it ached, it did not cause her an undue amount of pain. She stood up and looked about her. She was indeed, within a garden filled with wild flowers that were closed tight for the night. The roots of the tree were gigantic and twisted about the garden creating a tangled maze. Off to her left was a winding path that went under and over the roots. Without a moment’s thought she set off at once. Where the path went over a root, steps were cut into the wood and passage along the path was easy. The path forked several times, but Portia kept to the left, as that was always the direction that was closest to the tree. She did this without question for it seemed right, and Portia was not a creature to question and eventually her path led her to a small ornate door nestled within the roots of the great tree. A light flickered within it and she bent down and squeezed through the narrow opening.
She found herself within a tiny sanctuary cut from rock. The ceiling above her was a tangle of twisted roots. In a rock niche a lamp flickered and illuminated the room with dancing shadows that seemed to cause the entire room to writhe snake-like about her.
The sacred flame danced within a large granite bowl filled with water. Just as she was not one to question her world, neither was she a person easily to wonder at it. She dipped her fingers into the water and sniffed them. She detected a brief pungent floral aroma, but could not identify the flower. The ripples she had created by dipping her fingers caused the flame to flare and flicker. Though the place was an eternal sanctuary and she was vaguely aware that the passage of time simply ceased to be within it, her task at hand was foremost within her consciousness, and she paid no attention to the holiness of the shrine. She tried to lift the bowl from its niche in the wall, but it was too hot to touch. Frowning, she looked about her for something suitable in which to carry the flame. Two unlit torches were attached to brackets in the wall either side of the sacred flame. She removed the torch on the left from its bracket. She held the torch above the bowl, the flame flared so brightly it blinded her. She closed her eyes and held her torch to the fire. As Portia withdrew the torch from the lamp both the torch she held and the companion to it burst into flame. At the same time the flame dancing in the bowl went out and Portia was temporarily alarmed by its disappearance. She examined the torch and satisfied the fire would remain alive on her torch, she stepped from the sanctuary. Beneath the sacred tree, she held the torch aloft. The closed buds that dotted the garden opened wide to greet the magical flame, and the entire garden came alive beneath the light Portia held aloft.
Portia was delighted and swung the flame this way and that and everywhere the flowers spread their corollae wide and swung under the direction of her movements. Her delight in their reaction, caused her to dance with the flame and the flowers, and it was some time before she realized she had left the path altogether. She looked about her and nowhere could she find the path she had followed to the shrine of the flame. The flowers somehow had closed around her, and now she was held in their thrall. The scents of a thousand blossoms filled her nose and even seemed to wrap about her body and form a sticky film on her skin. The garden was a living, breathing, creature that now seemed intent upon swallowing her up. Panic filled Portia, while at the same time, she began to succumb to a growing drowsiness. Her limbs grew heavy and it took a great effort of will for her to hold the torch aloft. Though physically the sensations were pleasant, she sensed an underlying malevolence in the garden’s intentions, and she realized if she fell asleep there she would never awaken.
She shook her head, but the movement made her dizzy. Her legs could no longer support her weight and she fell to her knees. Summoning what little energy she had left, Portia pushed the handle of the torch into the earth and fell into a deep sleep.
Miri and Drusilla fell through the darkness and splashed into a cool pool of water. A sparkling phosphorescence blossomed out through the water from where they hit the water, and the pool was lit with a strange iridescence. As they splashed about in the pool, the water reacted to their movements in a strange ballet of light. The illumination gave Miri a chance to orient herself.
“Over here!” she called to Drusilla as she spied a small beach across the water. She swam toward the beach and within two strokes, her feet touched bottom. As she stepped from the water, she left damp phosphorescent footprints on the rocky shore that drained away in little rivulets and faded to black. Drusilla glowed from the illuminated water as she stepped from the pool.
“Now what?” Drusilla asked impatiently, shaking the water from her arms. The drops that spun away from her sparkled and faded like liquid glow worms. “Wow!” she said in awe. She clapped her hands, and where her hands met, the phosphorescence flared anew. Scattered about the beach were hundreds of pots. Miri picked one up and dipped it in the pool. She covered the mouth of the pot with her hand and shook it vigorously. Water splashed about in the jar and the spillage glowed brightly between her fingers.
Drusilla took her cue from Miri and picked up another pot, dipped it in the water and shook it. The pot leaked, but the agitated water glowed brightly as it spilled out onto the beach.
“See if you can find a glass jar!” urged Miri. They stepped amongst the ceramic clutter shaking the water-filled pots they held as they walked.
“Here!” cried Drusilla after a few minutes. She reached down and poured the remaining water in her pot into a glass vial. And shook it. It glowed brightly. Drusilla laughed in delight. “Look Miriam!” she cried. “I will find one for you!”
They eventually found several glass containers, and set them in a row. The water glowed very brightly after being shaken, and faded slowly, and the glass jars acted like little lanterns for at least twenty deep breaths, and once their eyes adjusted to the dark, they could see that it never completely faded. About them lay scattered clay receptacles of many shapes and sizes. They contained a strange ash, that Miri eventually identified.
Drusilla promptly dropped the vase she was examining. “Eeeuuwww!”
It was then apparent that amongst the sacred vessels were a large number of bones: thighs, ribs and the like. Drusilla put her hand accidentally on a grotesque skull and screamed. Miri laughed.
“It’s a goat!” Two horns protruded from the skull certainly giving the decayed head a more sinister appearance than the living animal it had once been.
“It’s creepy!” declared Drusilla with obvious distaste.
“Here!” Miri threw a pot into Drusilla’s lap. “Untie the twine from the pot. We shall tie them about the glass and use them as handles.” Miri began unknotting rope netting wrapped about a clay pot. Centuries of detritus lay about them, and Miri used a broken bone to cut the rope and then shape some cork stoppers to fit the glass containers she and Drusilla had collected. Soon they had fashioned a belt each from which dangled several glass vials that they filled with water and sealed. Drusilla had gathered some wood, and using Cleopatra’s bow and an arrow soon had a warm fire burning. The smoke curled slowly upward, and several arm lengths above them a wind caught it and wafted the column swiftly up the way they had come.
“Now what?” Drusilla asked.
Before Miri could answer a loud hiss echoed through the chamber. Miri placed her finger to her lips. As the phosphorescent vials dimmed, Miri caught a movement in the corner of her eye. An extremely large cobra slithered through the ostracae, and rose above and behind Drusilla’s shoulder, its neck expanding into a hood as it rose. Drusilla did not have to be told the serpent was there; she could feel it and she cringed in fear, stifling a whimper.
Miri reached slowly for Cleopatra’s bow. The great King Cobra dipped, waved and hissed, and Miri froze. She waited until the serpent had settled, then wrapped her hands about the bow. Again the great cobra hissed, its tongue flicking at the air. A hairbreadth at a time, Miri notched an arrow in Cleopatra’s bow and slowly brought her weapon up until she had the arrow lined at the huge serpent’s hood. She knew she would have only one chance to save Drusilla and that the arrow must catch in the snake in order for it to throw the creature backward. Such was the angle of her shot, Miri would have to set the arrow on a path close to Drusilla’s head.
“Drusilla,” she whispered, “When I release the arrow, dive to your right, and then roll away as fast as you can!”
Drusilla’s eyes acknowledged she understood Miri’s instructions.
Miri tensed and drew back the bow. The shaft creaked under the leather binding. She did not pull the bow to its furthest extent, for the arrow would then pass through the cobra’s hood. She needed to strike the cobra and pin it as a seamstress would hold a hem. Miri took a deep breath and opened herself to the snake. A line stretched through the arrow to the serpent’s throat. The light from the jars had dimmed to almost nothing, and she knew she had but a moment before the cobra would become invisible and gain the advantage in the darkness.
The voice was deep and commanding and echoed within the confines of the cavern. The snake suddenly twisted about to face the sound. Drusilla, without hesitation, dived, rolled and spun to avoid, then face the snake. Her belt of glasses clinked and the liquid shaken by her movement cast a pale circle of light about her. She found herself at the feet of an old man who supported himself with a great staff, the head of which was carved in the shape of a reptilian head.
“Ladies,” he announced, “This place is sacred and may not be entered by any but the Prophet of the Dragon Queen!”
“Then you must be the prophet,” replied Miri, “We did not enter by choice.”
“Very few do,” countered the old man, “But perhaps you could be of service to the Queen, and your trespasses could be forgiven.”
Service?” asked Drusilla doubtfully.
“Yes, well,” the old man began slowly. He stared intently at Miri, then addressed Drusilla, “If one of you were a virgin..,”
“We could gather the ashes of the phoenix?” finished Miri.
The old man was taken aback, but recovered quite swiftly. “Oh, yes, but you see, it is not quite as simple as you might imagine. You see, although a virgin must set fire to the nest of the phoenix, it is not quite as cut and dried as gathering his ashes.” He motioned the two women to sit and they obliged by perching upon a stalagmite formation that lent itself to a useful bench.
“You see, the phoenix and the dragon are like the male and female of other beings.”
“You mean-” interrupted Drusilla.
“No!” snapped the Prophet. “That is why a virgin must be the one to gather the ashes.” He took a deep breath. “You see, the ashes of the Phoenix must be fed to the Dragon Queen and through his sacrifice, her vitality is renewed. Once she has become revitalized, she then lays a sacred egg. That must then be carried to the nest of the Phoenix, and, incubated by the rays of the Sun, the Phoenix is once again brought forth.”
“That’s what we came to do!” cried out Drusilla.
“But neither of you is a virgin!”
“But my sister is!”
The Prophet’s eyes lit up excitedly. “Excellent!” he declared, then frowned and looked about the cave. “Where is she?”
There was an overly prolonged silence.
“We don’t know,” admitted Miri.
“We were following her when we fell into this hole.”
“She is alone?” asked the Prophet, and concern crossed his face.
“It is of no concern!” declared the Prophet falsely.
“What is wrong?” asked Drusilla.
“We must find your sister immediately!” declared the Prophet and stood up quickly. “Follow me!” he commanded and, in a swirl of robes, turned on his heels and strode across the subterranean beach. Miri and Drusilla scrambled after him. They soon came to a passageway, and as they marched along the corridor, Miri noticed the large king cobra followed on the heels of the Prophet just as a dog follows its master.
“Is it far?” asked Drusilla.
“Is what far?” asked the Prophet.
“The place where we are going?”
“It depends…” replied the Prophet somewhat distractedly.
“Where are we going?” Drusilla asked impatiently.
“To the Sacred Tree of the Phoenix!”
“Is it far?”
The Prophet did not answer.
Drusilla had to increase her step to keep on his heels.
“When will we get there?”
The old man did not reply directly to Drusilla, and began to mutter under his breath, though the words were unintelligible.
Portia awoke refreshed and clear eyed. Never had she slept so well. She stretched and stared up at the clear blue sky.
“Did you sleep well?”
Portia started. Beside her bower sat an old woman dressed in rags.
“You slept well?” asked the woman.
“Yes, thank you,” replied Portia politely. The woman’s presence drew reverence from deep within Portia’s soul, though Portia was unaware of the connecting path between their hearts. She was struck only with the thought that this woman was her own mother, though somewhere in the back of her head, also unnoticed, was the thought that her own mother was not as welcoming or nurturing as the creature before her.
“You are very brave,” said the old woman.
“I am?” asked Portia.
The crone stood up and held her hand out to Portia. “Come with me,” she said.
Portia reached for the woman’s hand, but the crone withdrew it.
“You must bring the flame with you!” said the old woman. Portia grasped the torch, still burning, and they walked side by side down a verdant tree-lined grassy path toward a distant brilliant light shining at the end of the corridor formed by the lush overhanging foliage.
“You don’t talk much,” commented Drusilla as she stepped in the Prophet’s footsteps. The cobra slithered silently beside her, and it seemed to Miri that the snake was more wary of Drusilla than the girl was of the serpent.
The Prophet harrumped.
“How much farther is it?”
The Prophet came to an abrupt halt and turned to face Drusilla. “Stop asking me questions!” he exclaimed.
The Prophet could only reply with and exasperated gasp and turned on his heels. “You are very irritating!” he declared as he strode along.
“I just want to know when we are going to get there!” retorted Drusilla as she scuttled after him.
“Soon!” snapped the old man.
“That’s not a very good answer,” admonished Drusilla without breaking stride.
“You are very impertinent!”
“I am just curious, that’s all! Here we are marching to heaven knows where and you still haven’t really told us where this path is leading or how long we must travel along it.”
“Alright!” sighed the Prophet. “If I tell you where we are going and why, will you stop pestering me?”
“Of course!” replied Drusilla.
The sage pulled at his beard and frowned. “I am not sure how to begin…” he murmered.
“At the beginning!” directed Drusilla, “Begin at the beginning!”
“Hmmm, I suppose I must,” murmered the Prophet, “But how can I speak as I walk?”
“It will be no different than muttering to yourself than to us,” suggested Drusilla helpfully.
This last impertinence set the Prophet muttering again, though after some outward reflection, he actually began to speak.
“In the time before Time,” he began, “there was Tiamaat, the ever-changing Mother of Chaos. Alone, Tiamaat moved unknown upon the face of darkness for there were none but Tiamaat within the great Void, and she, being alone knew only emptiness. In the time before Time, from her loneliness and from her formless mouth sprang Apsu, Devouring God of the Great Void. Apsu, born of Tiammat’s yearning moved swiftly across the face of darkness. Tiamaat, seeing Apsu with her sightless eyes, became restless and in awakening, from her blossoming womb, flowed Mummu, God of the twilight, Lord of spaces neither here nor there, born of Tiamaat’s desire, he too, moved silently upon the face of darkness.
So the Three, their awareness brought into being by the being of each other, sometimes together and alone or in pairs, moved upon the face of the darkness according to their own desire. And so it was the Three, all within and without, Tiamaat and her consorts Apsu and Mummu, begat the Old Gods, both male and female, and from the Gods, male and female, were born to each pair, their domains.
The Ancient Gods moved across the face of the primeval waters, and from their union and council came the shapers of the universal Mei, who, both together and alone, began the shape of what was to come.
Ansargal, known as The Great Heavenly Horizon and Lord of the Primordial City begat Order, and shaped the world's form, and within that form, Uras, who is called Great Mother of All Earths, gathered land out of the sea, so that all would have a place to stand.
Erishkegal, Queen of Namtar, the Great Land of Desire, begat Death in all it's many forms, so that the land may never become too crowded, and Nergal became Lord of the Land of the Dead.
And again, the younger three came together for council and for pleasure, and from their union came the Imin-namtar-ede-abba, the Seven who Keep the Fates. From among the Imin-namtar-ede-abba came the Fifty Anunna, who guard the creations of the Ancient Ones, and the myriad Iggi, the daemons who carry out the desires of the gods.
But this beginning was also the end!
For all that is without is within. Though their realms were endless, the fifty Anunna lived within the great womb of The Great Mother, Tiamaat. In her belly, Tiamaat felt the Ancient Gods move. Upon Her waters, Tiamaat felt them move. Within Her firmament, Tiamaat felt the Anunna move.
“Who is this that pains me so?” Cried the First Mother in the darkness. “What is moving within me?” she called out to the void. “Stop what you are doing!” cried the First Mother, “Your creations pain me so!”
But in her belly, rebellion rumbled. In her belly creation continued.
“Mummu!” called out Tiamaat, “Please help remove these children from my belly!” cried Tiamaat. “Place them outside! They are growing too many! I can no longer contain them within me!”
Yet Mummu was not able to help Tiamaat birth her rebellious children
“Quiet these children!” cried Tiamaat. “Let me have peace!”
Yet Mummu could not cause the children to become quiet.
“They do not wish to leave,” replied Mummu. “They are content where they are. From your womb, they receive their food, from your veins they drink the warmth from your blood, they have no wish to leave their Mother! They will not leave, and are too busy to listen to me, nor can I make them silent.”
“Aagh!” cried Tiamaat, “My pain is so great, I cannot bear it! Mummu, how can this be so? How can my children cause me so much pain? How many are there, who are content with the state I am in?”
“There are more, so many more, than I can give count, replied Mummu helplessly. All of the world twists and turns inside of your belly.”
“The pain is too great!” cried Tiamaat, “I can bear them no longer. I must force them out!” With a heave of her belly, Tiamaat tried to expel her rebellious children. With groaning labor, the First Mother tried to birth them.
“Oh! The pain!” cried the Mother of all Oceans. “Oh! My back! Oh, My belly! Why do my children pain me so!”
But none within her, listened to hear groans and cries, for the tumult they created was too loud to hear the pain of their Great Mother. Labor as she might, though the effort should split her in twain, Tiamaat could not rid her body of the Anunna. Try as she might, she could not expel them into the void.
Mummu could not quell the cacophony of the Young Gods in Tiamaat’s belly. Neither could Apsu could silence them and they were rendered speechless in the face of the noisy Young Gods and their clamorous rebellion. The Anunna had no ears for the Old Gods and would not quiet, and the noise rang out even into the void.
In the void, Tiamaat cried out, for the pain grew. In the darkness, Tiamaat wept, and her wailing filled the Void, for she wished neither Apsu nor the Anunna harm. But distraught in her agony, commanded Apsu, her consort, to seek the upstart gods and wage war upon their children.
“If they will not come out into the void, though the void echoes with their incessant chatter, then the Void shall too take them!” Apsu swore to his mistress. Wrapped himself a cloak of impenetrable darkness, Apsu transformed himself into an evil wind, and on silent wings, flew swiftly across the face of the waters. Apsu, in his guise as an evil wind, breathed upon the gods and brought death to those who cannot die.
But Apsu did not prevail, though his spells were stronger than any twelve of the Anunna. Apsu, Lord of the Abyss, was discovered and overcome by the combined arts and skills of the Anunna and The Fifty, now Five Hundred, and they slew the Lord of the Abyss.
In the furthest crevice, Tiamaat prepared a crypt for her beloved Apsu. In the darkest pit, she laboured on his tomb. In the deepest shadow, Mummu found his beloved, trembling with her agony and his heart was moved.
In the deepest shadow, Mummu swore an oath to Tiamaat. “If they will not come out into the void, though the void echoes with their incessant chatter, then the Void shall too take them! Apsu shall be avenged!” Tiamaat could not protest for the pain within her gripped her heart. Transformed to black water, Mummu wrapped himself a cloak of impenetrable darkness, and swam swiftly below the face of the waters. And as an evil flood, Apsu crept amongst the gods and brought death those who cannot die.
But Mummu fared as badly as his brother Apsu, though his spells were stronger than any twelve of the Anunna. Mummu, Lord of the Twilight, was discovered and overcome by the combined arts and skills of the Anunna and the Five Hundred slew the Lord of Change.
Tiamaat, though knew nothing of the loss of her brother Mummu, for the tumult of the Anunnu and the pain they caused her drowned out all else. In the deepest shadow, and writhing in agony, she swore an oath.
Apsu would be avenged.
Anger rising in her blood, she prepared the body of Apsu. From his seed she took thirteen drops. From his flesh she cut thirteen parts. From his blood she dipped her finger thirteen times. From his lips she withdrew thirteen breaths. From the flesh of Apsu, Tiamaat created the instrument of Apsu's revenge.
Thirteen warriors, each created from the bones of Apsu, each from the breath of Apsu. From his seed were these warriors born, and from his flesh, and from his blood and from the agony and vengeance of Tiamaat. And to each of her creations, did Tiamaat grant her own power.
Gavonshi the first avenging angel was named, and to him was given the power of clear sight.
Enikkimu was the second angel of darkness named, and he was granted swift and silent death.
Uttukku was the third winged warrior named, and she was given power over the waters.
Gayal was fourth, and he held power over the false creations of the Ancient Ones.
Maromen fifth was named, and Tiamaat gave him the keys to Eriskighal's realm.
Uborus was sixth, whose gift was over the passage of the stars and fates.
Pelvor was the seventh born, to whom the gift rulership was given.
Strigorus was the eighth, became the master of the hunt.
Vouldalag was ninth, was granted a beauty awful to behold.
Nalapos was the tenth, who was clad in the darkness of the abyss.
Tzokalak, the eleventh, was given charms and spells that flew as swift as arrows.
Asvank was the twelfth born, and was granted knowledge of Apsu’s ways.
For Ropizdomen the last, there was nothing left to give and he was cursed with his mother’s madness, but as a blessing he was also given insight that none other could match.”
“Well, this is a great tale,” declared Drusilla at length, “But what does it have to do with us?”
The Prophet stopped and turned to face Drusilla and the great cobra hissed angrily. The Prophet raised a forefinger and held it to Drusilla’s nose. The digit vibrated in frustration in front of her face, but Drusilla still remained non-plussed. The old man rubbed his eyes, pulled at his beard, then resumed his walking.
When he began to speak his voice was louder, as though the volume of his speech would penetrate the thick stubborn skull of the girl behind him. Miri glanced at the snake. It had, she sensed, taken a liking to her, and the serpent no longer followed the Prophet but wavered by her side. She reached out to touch it and it rose to meet her hand. As the cobra’s head touched the palm of her outstretched hand, Miri thought she heard a voice.
It came from the great snake.
“Misssstresss!” it hissed, Miri pulled back her hand in shock.
“Ninshubar!” she cried recognizing the voice instantly.
“Shhhhhhhhhh!” whispered the snake as Miri’s outburst had drawn the attention of the Prophet and Drusilla.
“Did you say something?” asked the Prophet, for he knew the name she had called but was not sure he had heard it correctly.
“I- I stubbed my toe,” replied Miri weakly.
Drusilla shrugged and the party continued on its way through the caves of the Dragon Queen.
“You are quite different than I last saw you,” whispered Miri.
“Yet you recognized me,” replied the snake.
“What are you doing here?” Miri asked.
“I am always Here to serve you Mistress,” replied Ninshubar, “But you do not always know me, and I do not always wish to be known.”
“But you do now!”
“The other girl, Portia, is in mortal danger, and we must act soon to save her!”
“Tell me what to do!” whispered Miri.
“When the time comes!” replied the snake, and slithered after the Prophet. Drusilla and the old man were locked in a verbal combat.
“Where are we going!” asked Drusilla impatiently, “It seems like we’re not getting anywhere!”
“It is not far now!” replied the Prophet, but his tone lacked a confident certainty. Portia narrowed her eyes.
“Are you really a Prophet?” she asked, staring intently at the old man’s face.
“Of course!” he replied with a rather feigned indignity.
“I think,” said Drusilla firmly, “we’ve been wandering around in circles.”
“Nonsense!” retorted the Prophet.
“Then how much longer until we reach my sister?” she demanded.
“Time as you know it has no meaning here.”
“It seems to me you are being purposefully vague to cover for your ignorance!”
“Drusilla!” commanded Miri, “That’s enough!”
“What a peculiar child!” mused the Prophet, thankful that Miri had interrupted the argument. “Shall we continue?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heels.
“He’s insane!” Drusilla whispered to Miri who shushed her handmaiden.
“I heard that!” called out the Prophet, not wavering in his stride. They continued in silence for a short while until the Prophet cleared his throat. “We all serve a purpose!” he declared, “and I have been given the task of guide, but the direction I provide is not simply from one place to another, but from one awareness to another.”
“You, child,” he turned his head to Drusilla, “Must hear the rest of my tale. I don’t know why, but it is so, and I am the one to tell it. Do you wish to proceed?”
Drusilla shrugged, non-commitedly, which the Prophet interpreted as an affirmative reply.
“Tiamaat had created the Thirteen Angels to avenge the death of Apsu, but only when her Angels of Darkness were clad in their mei and ready to wage war, did Tiamaat set out upon the waters. Tiamaat, filled with an evil wind, began to work her charms.
Tiamaat, hurled about awful incantations, and directed them toward the Anunna.
“Let us create monsters,” she cried to the four winds, “Let us do battle with these ill-wrought Sons of Iniquity! We shall unleash demons that none can resist to destroy these evil doers! We shall make an end to that which is endless!”
From her wrath, arose Hubur, who fashions all things. Hubur, the goddess whose power is like that of En Ki, made matchless weapons that to this day define Hubris and whose will gives it power.
On that day, at her mother’s bidding, Huber created dragons. At her mother”s bidding, worms from the bones of Apsu were made as snakes. Lions, whose bodies were as fire and brimstone were brought into being at the command of Tiamaat. Demons did Hubur make, of every kind, and so arose the Azonei, who dwell beyond the stars. All these creatures were raised as an army against the Anunnu who plagued the Great Goddess.
Kingu, lord of the Azonei, descended from the stars at his mistress’s bidding. and swore an oath to Tiamaat that the Anunnu would die. And Tiamaat clad Kingu, general to the armies of Tiamaat, in the Tablets of Destiny, whose raiment would make him safe from harm.
To Kingu, said Tiamaat, “Set sail upon the waters, and howl as an evil wind. Go, into the realms of the gods, as locust upon the fields. Go forth, and take your armies with you. Leave none of the immortals living!”
And to Pelvor, Mistress among the avenging angels, Tiamaat said, “Go, and swim through the waters. Go, and seek out Erishkigal's realm. Go, to that place of last refuge, where the deathless dwell in death. For when the armies of Kingu are victorious, there will the Anunnu go. There, when the armies of Kingu taste victory, shall you slake your hunger for revenge, and in that eternal place you shall create such suffering that the dead will cry for mercy!”
From above Kingu and the hordes of Tiamaat descended upon the Anunnu. Their battle cry was so terrible that even the Anunnu were at last silenced. Though fear made the Five Hundred tremble, they stood firm against the onslaught of the Thirteen Angels and emboldened and empowered by the magic words of his father En Ki, the :Lord Marduk exhorted the Anunnu and through their wiles and their valour, the Anunnu fought off the cohorts of Kingu and the armies of Tiamaat.
Marduk, finding Kingu washing in a still pool, stole the tablets of destiny as they lay on the bank. Though Kingu caught Marduk as he fled with the tablets in his arms, Marduk killed Kingu in fair and valiant combat. Marduk, arraigned in the vestments of Kingu, clad in the armor of Destiny, routed the armies of Tiamaat and scattered the Thirteen Angels, chasing them to the ends of the Earth. Thus the Anunnu discovered their world was enclosed within the womb of the Great Mother, and the Young Gods cut their way out of her body, and in escaping from the womb, brought death to the Great Tiamaat.
In the realm of bitter darkness, the Thirteen Angels wept tears of dust. Even in the Great Land of Desire, the death of Tiamaat could be felt. She from whom all is made, was herself unmade. She from whom all was born, had been slain by her first sons and daughters. She who was uncalled by name, whom no rod could measure, whose destiny was unknown and undetermined, was ended at last.
Yet hark, the last of the Thirteen, Ropizdomen in his madness isolated from grief that was felt by the others, spoke a simple truth.
“Death is but Transformation,” he said. Thus spoke the Idiot God, “An eternal state for all but the One. For She-Who-is-Chaos-Incarnate, transformation is inevitable. For She-Who-is-Without-Ending, ending be beginning. She who is the Mother of all Creation shall rise again and become her own mother, for death has no power over her. She was in the time before Time and shall live beyond the End of Time. Though she will die evermore, so Tiamaat shall awaken again and again!”
With a cry, the Thirteen declared that this must be so. The Thirteen then climbed the seven tiers of darkness, emerging through the Caesarian chasm carved by the Anunnu in the womb of Tiamaat, which now is the world below as her body is the world-above. There they found that, in mockery of their own birth, the Anunnu had carved thirteen tribes from the blood and flesh of Mummu.
These tribes were the Thirteen Human Tribes, made to serve the gods.
Oh, you see, that is how in humanity, flows with the blood of Kingu, used by En Ki to quicken their beginning. So, within man were the seeds of Tiamaat's revenge, and within man was the Amaranth to keep the Ancient Ones strong, for without their Mother, nothing could be endless, and even the gods might die.
Among the thirteen human tribes, in secret and in stealth, each among the Thirteen Angels took their place. To each was given some part of the world, and there did each tribe make it's home. Hidden from the watchful eyes of the Gods, the Thirteen took their place, for the Gods watched the firmament, that the Azonei who had fled back to the stars might forever be kept at bay. Even Erishkegal had no knowledge that another knew the ways of her realm. Even She had no knowledge of the end.”
The Prophet came to an abrupt halt.
“We are there!” he announced proudly,
“My arms are tired!” whined Portia.
The woman neither answered her nor changed her pace. Portia’s arms dropped loosely by her side.
“My legs are tired!” announced Portia and dropped to her knees. This time, the woman stopped and turned impatiently to face Portia.
Portia suddenly became afraid, and the woman’s demeanor changed instantly from irritation to a mask of great concern. “I am sorry, it is not much further,” she said sweetly.
“Portia’s very, very…” Portia’s eyelids fluttered and closed. “…tired!” she finished in a whisper and slid softly down onto the grass, sound asleep.
“Damn!” spit out the woman vehemently. She reached out to grasp the sleeping girl, but held back. Her entire body vibrated in a tense stasis. She wanted desperately to lift Portia and carry her to the portal still far along the pathway, but knew that the child must enter of her own free will. Time was running out. With an evil smile, the crone passed her hand over the sacred flame and the fire instantly died and the cavern was plunged into an eerie twilight.
Miri’s eyes snapped open. Drusilla and the Prophet sat silently in the dark. Miri had a sense she had reached Portia, but the memory of their contact was just beyond her reach; only the sense of their meeting remained.
“Mistress!” whispered the snake in greeting.
“Ninshubar!” acknowledged Miri.
“Yesss! You have sensed our daughter Portia,” prompted Ninshubar, “We must press on!”
“Since the time of the first death of Tiamaat the gods have railed against the Thirteen. They need each of the tribes to serve them, but within each tribe is hidden one of the Thirteen Avengers, Unseen among us, they work their spell and magic to undo what the Gods have done, The Daemons of Tiamaat still live amongst us, but only one Dragon remains. Her children hatch from eggs, but none are as strong and as wise as she. She alone remembers Tiamaat amongst the mortals, but without a mate, she cannot bear children who are her equal. Her fate is tied to the Phoenix, for only when she swallows his ashes, can her vitality be replenished.
She then falls into a deep sleep and gestation after which she lays a golden egg, and when that egg is laid in the nest of the Phoenix` the Phoenix also is reborn from that egg, Her only hope is to survive long enough to see the return of Tiamaat who has the power to give her a true mate”
“Where are the others?” asked Drusilla.
“Killed by men ruled by the gods!” declared the Prophet vehemently. “I am afraid that the Phoenix may also be killed by other men, It will be the end of the Queen of the Dragons, should that ever come about.”
“And then what?” asked Drusilla.
“Tiamaat also will die, and the Earth will grow dark and cold, the skies will cloud over and all life on the world will come to an end!”
“So why are you telling us this?”
“You must see the importance of resurrecting the Phoenix and rejuvenating the Queen of the Dragons, for only she knows the secret incantations required to revive Tiamaat!”
“So why doesn’t she do that right away?”
“The time is not right.”
“Oh,” replied Drusilla. She looked at Miri and twirled her hand in a circle beside her head to indicate she thought the Prophet was a tile short of a roof. Their eyes had adjusted to the dark, and it was now apparent that they stood in front of an extremely large bronze-clad door.
That door is big enough to take our ship!” she declared,
“Or a dragon,” gulped Drusilla for at that very moment with a massive creaking and screeching, the massive doors slowly swung open.
A strange sweet aroma filled Portia’s groggy brain. Though she had been overwhelmed by sleep, she no longer felt the dulling of her thoughts. In fact, her thoughts raced rapidly through her head, yet strangely her body had numbed somewhat. She opened her eyes. The woman stood before her, transformed, and Portia, though she had never set eyes on the Queen of The Underworld, knew instantly who it was
“Hello, Portia,” replied Erishkigal. Her voice was as warm and smooth as a bowl of milk and honey. “You slept well, I hope.”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Portia politely.
“We must continue our journey,” said Ersihkigal. She lifted her hand as to embrace Portia and guide her toward the First Gate of the Underworld, but her hand stopped a hair’s breadth from touching the young girl.
“Let me take your crown of flowers.” Erishkigal held her hand out.
Portia raised her hand to her head to lift the crown of thorns from her hair when a voice rang out.
Portia whirled at the sound of her sister’s voice.
“Drusilla!” she squealed and ran to greet her sister. The two girls collided enthusiastically and happily embraced each other, both talking at the same time, and within the space of a breath and a half had told each other most of what had transpired in the other’s absence. Portia turned to introduce Drusilla to Erishkigal, but the dark queen had vanished. Portia, not one to ponder life’s mysteries, stared quizzically at the Prophet.
“Who’s that?” she asked Drusilla.
“This is the Prophet of The Dragon Queen,” said Drusilla. “He’s going to help us find the Phoenix!”
”What’s his name?” asked Portia.
Both girls turned and stared at the Prophet.
He smiled wanly. “I…” he cleared his throat, “am sometimes known as Ropizdomen-“
“The Idiot God!” cried Drusilla, “I would have never guessed!”
“You’re a god?” asked Portia. She gaped at him for a moment, but then frowned.
“You don’t look like an idiot.” She paused for a moment to examine his demeanour more closely. “Or a god,” she added.
“That is the point!” Ropizdomen.
Both girls stared without understanding his point.
Ropizdomen sighed in exasperation. “Any god that depends on fire and brimstone is just not worth his salt! One must travel incognito amongst the human race to find a true believer. Otherwise, any oath sworn before me or any other god, would be faith brought about by coercion. Besides I’m not a real god. I’m an angel.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Portia.
Ropizdomen thought for a moment. “I’m not sure there is a way to respond to that. Most mortals would not be able to determine the difference between any god or angel. We are, simply the same force under a different order. Perhaps to say we are an incarnation of part of a god. For some people have difficulty in understanding the entirety and need to focus upon a-”
“You’re a demi god?” Asked Drusilla.
Ropizdomen sighed heavily. Thankfully, he spied Miri approaching. She had fallen behind the others in order to speak with Ninshubar.
“Portia!” cried Miri as she spied the two girls.
She hurried to greet them but stopped short, for mirroring her movement on the other side of the vast cavern was Erishkigal.
“Mother!” cried Miri in shock.
Erishkigal smiled. “Inanna! How nice to see you again!”
Ninshubar hissed defensively and coiled about Miri’s legs for protection.
“What do you want with my handmaiden?” asked Miri.
Who says that I want her at all?” countered Erishkigal. “Perhaps I just wanted to get to know some of my sister’s friends.”
“I am not your sister!”
Erishkigal smiled and stepped toward the band of explorers. “No, of course not!”
Drusilla wrapped a protective arm around Portia and the two girls stepped closer to Rhopizdomen. For his part the Prophet seemed very uncomfortable in the presence of Erishkigal, a discomfort that Erishkigal relished.
“Do you not bow before Allat, Ropizdomen?” the Queen of the Underworld demanded, “Or is the Thirteenth Angel of the opinion that he is superior to the Queen who commands the World of the Dead?”
“I am not so mad as to imagine such a thing, Queen Allat. Though I have sworn to serve Tiamaat, I will defer to the honour accorded to you, of course.” He bowed before her. She walked past him without so much as another glance and came face to face with Miri. Ninshubar hissed and writhed about Miri and his huge hood extended, his head raised above hers like a great reptilian parasol.
“And you, sister, do you have need for so many servants?”
Miri raised herself taller. She and Allat Erishkigal were the same height. Facing the Queen of the Underworld was not an easy task, for Allat’s gaze was powerfully hypnotic, erotic, and the depth of darkness within her eyes beckoned each and every soul to enter. Miri averted her eyes, for she could feel herself being drawn into Erishkigal’s being, and she knew once she united in such a fashion, there would be no return to the world above.
A sudden rush of wind swept into the cavern and with a great roar, a monstrous winged dragon descended into the great cavern. The huge creature roared in fiery fury as its great claws landed on the cavern floor. The ground shook from the impact.
“Erishkigal! You cannot leave the Underworld! This is the Law!”
“Well little lap dog,” snarled Erishkigal. “The Law is an Ass and you are its hind end!”
“You are lucky I am in a good mood today, Sister Erishkigal!” replied the dragon, “You have passed through the gates without sacrificing your mei. Return at once!”
Erishkigal growled in frustration. She glared at the dragon and smiled sweetly at Miri. “Till we meet again!” With that she vanished.
Ropizdomen sighed in relief. “Well, that was something!”
“Why did you not summon me?” the dragon asked the angel.
“I- ” Ropizdomen thought for a moment, “-was curious!”
“Do not allow your errant curiosity to interfere with your duty! You are safe here only because of me!”
The great beast turned her head to Miri and her handmaids.
“And who are you?” Her great nostrils flared as she sniffed the three humans before her.
“These, my liege,” replied Ropizdomen. “have been sent to sacrifice the phoenix.”
The scaly nose of the dragon came closer to inspect the three. Each, she sniffed and her gaze and attention settled on Portia. “This is the one!” A low guttural warbling came from her throat. “And the others?”
“I am her sister!” cried Drusilla defiantly.
The dragon smiled. “No finer companion could be found, I’m sure!”
“And you,” said the dragon as she turned to Miri, “It seems that you have captured the soul of one of my servants. Release her!”
With a great hiss, Ninshubar released the great cobra wrapped about Miri and the snake uncoiled itself from about Miri’s body and slithered away into the dark edges of the cavern.
“You have great power for one so young!” commented the dragon as she scrutinized Miri, then straightened herself up. “I am Tanis, the last of the great Dragons of Tiamaat! I alone have been allowed to remain in this place by the Anunnu as long as I ensure that none may leave the Underworld once they have passed through the gates. This the Anunnu have commanded and for this I have a mei of unlimited power. Not even, and especially, can Erishkigal be allowed to leave, for if she were to climb into the world above, death would sweep on eagle’s wings over the Earth. For this, they have given me the power over all.”
“You can defy death?” asked Portia.
Again the dragon smiled, “None can defy death, only delay it!”
She stretched her great wings. “And that is why you three, my Moriae, are here! For only the death and resurrection of the Phoenix can ensure my own life! We must go now!” She lowered her great bulk to the ground, and Ropizdomen helped the three climb onto the dragon’s great clawed hand and along her arm to her shoulder. Once Miri, Portia and Drusilla were nestled between two great ridges of scales on the back of the dragon’s neck, Ropizdomen drew back his cloak. Two magnificent wings sprung from his back and he gracefully pushed away from Tanis and floated light as a feather to the ground. He waved goodbye, Tanis flapped her great wings, her passengers clinging tightly to the great scales that lined her backbone. They were airborne. Miri, Portia and Drusilla clung to the huge hard spinal scales of the dragon. Tanis spiraled upwards through a great vertical underground shaft. Passing through plumes of evil-smelling sulphurous smoke and steam, they finally encountered daylight, and emerged from the gaping maw of a volcanic cone.
The island of Socotra shrank below them. There seemed to be no sign below of the Heart of Isis or her crew. Tanis suddenly stopped flapping her wings and arched them wide. Their ascent slowed, stopped, and for one glorious moment they hung motionless in the air. The great dragon tipped slightly, and to the delighted squeals of the girls, began to slip towards the ground in a great lazy spiral, gathering speed through the descent. The air clutched at their hair and clothes and the ground rapidly grew closer. Miri had more of a sense of falling than flying, but her heart raced and she too reveled in the exhilaration of the ride. Just as it seemed they would be dashed to the ground, Tanis arched her wings and flapped to a complete halt only an arm’s length from the ground and set down gently on a rocky outcrop.
Portia instantly recognized the place.
“This is the Garden of the Phoenix!” she cried and scrambled from Tanis’ back. She stood with her hands on her hips. From where she stood she could see the Tree of Life that held the nest of the Phoenix.
“You must finish what you came to do!” said Tanis.
“Oh, Good Mother!” Portia cried in alarm, “I left the torch back in the cave!”
“There is another!” replied Tanis.
“But the flame went out when I lit the torch.”
“You must bring the bowl here and I will establish the flame for you!”
“Couldn’t you just fly me down there?” asked Portia.
“The Anunnu have declared I cannot. I would die were I to enter the garden! You will have to climb down there yourself and bring the bowl here. Do not spill the water from it, or the flame can never be rekindled.”
“Can we go with her?” asked Miri.
The Dragon thought for a moment. “There is no spell for or against companions in the garden, though I do not believe it has ever happened.” Tanis cleared her great throat. “It flies in the face of tradition and it has been many eons since the spells were cast, so I hope my memory does not fail me.” Tanis frowned. “Well, from what I can recall, you may accompany her, but you cannot either touch the bowl, the flame or the tree.
The three gingerly began their descent. Halfway down the cliff, Typhon’s battle axe slipped from Miri’s shoulder, barely missed Drusilla’s head and tumbled a toe length past Portia’s foot, flinging itself end over end down the rock face before she could call out a warning. They reached the foot of the cliff without further incident and Miri retrieved the axe.
“This way!” declared Portia. The three made their way along a narrow path. Stone guardians stood at the edge of the Garden of the Phoenix. The Tree of Life was flanked by two large statues of angels, head down and hands crossed together on the hilt of a sword. Drusilla eyed them warily, but Portia passed by them without even a glance. Miri and Drusilla exchanged looks, and shared the same thought of remaining wary.
Beyond the stone angels, the roots of the tree twisted about the garden in a tangled maze. Without a moment’s thought Portia set off at once. Miri and Drusilla followed. Finally they stood before the small ornate door nestled within the roots of the great tree. Portia stopped before it, smiled at the others, bent down and squeezed through the narrow opening.
It was dark within the tiny sanctuary below the tree and Portia had to feel her way about. As she came upon the niche that held the bowl of the sacred light, her hand accidentally tipped it and liquid spilled from the bowl. She cried out and Drusilla instinctively pushed forward to help her sister. Miri grasped Drusilla and held her shoulders a heart beat before Drusilla touched the pillars of the opening.
“Wait!” she whispered before Drusilla could protest, “We are forbidden to touch the tree!”
The large granite bowl was perfectly balanced on a rounded bottom, The slightest touch, Portia discovered, would tilt it one way or another. The bowl was very heavy and she bent her knees to lift it and gingerly turned for the door. She found carrying it a tremendous strain, and her back ached as she took one heavy step after another. As she reached the portal, the edges of the bowl wedged into the frame of the doorway.
She was greeted by quizzical stares from Miri and Drusilla.
“I’m stuck,” she said weakly. Drusilla moved forward to help her, but once again Miri held her back.
“Tilt it sideways,” suggested Drusilla.
Portia made an attempt to tilt the bowl but water splashed from it. “I can’t!” she whined, “The water is spilling!”
“Set it down!” suggested Miri.
Portia backed up and set the bowl inside the sanctuary, the stepped through the doorway. She stood back to assess the situation and pointed to Typhon’s axe. “Maybe you could chop a piece from the door post,” she suggested.
I am not allowed to touch the tree,” said Miri. “I think hitting it with an axe would not be a good thing.”
“Perhaps Portia could chop a piece off!” suggested Drusilla, “She is not barred from touching the tree.”
Miri was doubtful, but at length she relented. “It’s worth a try, I suppose!”
She unshouldered Typhon’s axe, and handed it to Portia, who could not hold it up. Miri side stepped quickly to avoid the great blade and the axe head hit the ground still warm from her footstep.
“Sorry!” said Portia apologetically. With a great effort she hefted the axe waist high and let it fall against the door post. It barely grazed the wood and bounced against the bowl, spilling even more liquid and all three shrieked as water splashed on the ground. The scar that the axe had caused oozed red blood.
They were interrupted by a loud shriek. The Phoenix flapped frantically above their heads. “Stop that! What in the name of the Great Mother do you think you’re doing?” He spied the bowl in the doorway. “What have you done to the flame?” He was apoplectic.
“We need to get the bowl out so Tanis can rekindle the flame!” explained Portia in a tone that indicated she thought it was apparent what they were doing.
“Tanis is here?” asked the bird, looking about expectantly.
“No,” replied Miri. “She is waiting above” She pointed to the mountain ledge where Tanis sat. From the garden she was little more than a dot in the distance.
The Bennu Bird seemed disappointed, yet the sight of the distant Tanis also calmed him and he perched on a low branch.
“You will need to put the water in a container and then remove the bowl.” He said indignantly, “When you have removed the bowl you can refill it.”
“How will we carry the bowl up the mountain?” asked Drusilla.
“Fill it at the top.”
“Couldn’t we take the torch up the mountain and have Tanis set fire to that?”
“She can only rekindle the sacred water in the bowl. Only a virgin can light the torch.”
“So can I light the torch from the bowl?”
“Once you have returned it to the sanctuary.”
Miri, Portia and Drusilla sat down at once. It was obvious that it was going to be more difficult than they thought.
“All we wanted was a stick of wood for our stupid boat!” she moaned and flopped backward onto a soft verdant moss.
“So, we can put the sacred water into another container?” asked Miri finally after an extremely long silence.
“Yes,” said the Phoenix.
“Can it be any container?”
“It must be stone.”
“Can anyone hold the container?”
“Only the Virgin,” replied the bird.
“My name is Portia!” interrupted Portia grumpily.
“Only Portia may hold the container,” repeated the bird.
“While it is full?”
“Once the bowl is empty, can anyone hold it?”
No, only the- Only Portia may carry that.”
“My head hurts!” moaned Portia.
“If I picked up the bowl with, say, a pair of tongs?” asked Drusilla
“It’s still you working through the tongs.”
“Inside a bag?”
“Only the Vir-Portia can move the Sacred Chalice, the Water of Life or the Flame,” replied the bennu bird testily.
“Let’s do it then!” declared Drusilla and Portia groaned loudly.
Drusilla slipped her girdle of glass from her waist and uncorked them one by one, and poured the fluorescent water onto the ground. “We’ll use these!” she announced and carried them to the bowl.
“They are not made of stone!” protested the Phoenix.
Drusilla smiled. “I once spied on a Phoenician glass maker, while he thought no one was watching. In his furnace he placed sand. The sand glowed red hot and became as water, then he placed a tube within it and gathered the glass. He breathed his life essence into the glob of liquid and it bellowed out, pregnant with air and became a glass. Sand is nothing more than a collection of tiny stones! Ergo, glass is stone.”
The Phoenix cocked his head to one side. Then the other.
“Very Greek!” he declared. “But we think you are right! We are in agreement! Glass is stone!”
Miri very quickly unwrapped her girdle of glasses, drained them and placed them empty beside Drusilla’s. The actual pouring out of the chalice was very slow and delicate, for Portia had to constantly step over the bowl, climbing into the doorway to pour out the water and out again to move the containers one by one. It was impossible to perform the task without spilling some of the water, and every drop seemed precious that all would stop their activity at every loss. Eventually the task was complete. The bowl empty, the glasses filled and sealed. Portia turned the bowl on its edge and triumphantly rolled it through the doorway.
Using her robe, Drusilla and Miri directed Portia in wrapping the glass jars into a bundle and then securing the glasses inside the stone bowl. Using their leather girdles, the women creating a back pack out of the bundled bowl. Portia, with the glass-filled bowl on her back resembles a human turtle.
“It’s very heavy,” she complained.
Drusilla kissed her on the cheek. “You can do it!” she whispered softly.
They climbed slowly, for the weight of the bowl and the water weighed Portia down terribly. Both Miri and Drusilla supported the poor girl as best they could during the climb, and they had to stop several times along the way. The phoenix flapped and fussed about their heads, and became so irritating Miri asked him to return to the tree to wait.
“Very well,” he replied in a huff, “I was about to leave anyway. I cannot leave the Garden.” He spread his wings wide and descended the side of the mountain in a slow lazy spiral. Though he had been an annoyance, the rest of the climb without him seemed more desolate. Finally, with a boost from Miri and Drusilla, Portia crawled onto the ledge and found herself at Tanis’ magnificent clawed feet.
Poor Portia was exhausted. She lay face down on the ground. The bowl still tied to her back. Miri and Drusilla waited helplessly while Portia rested for they knew neither one of them could touch the bowl or relieve Portia of her burden.
“Once we fill the bowl,” began Drusilla slowly, “and Tanis lights the flame, how will she carry it back down without spilling it?”
Miri and Drusilla stared dumbly at each other. After an extremely long silence they both turned to Tanis for advice. The great dragon growled; the great rumble shook loose a few small stones from the side of the mountain, but did not answer Drusilla’s question. “Time is wasting,” the great dragon grumbled, “Set out the bowl. I must light it and move on!”
“We need a pulley,” said Portia wearily, ignoring the dragon’s impatience. Portia’s eyes remained closed and other to speak, she had not moved. Neither Miri nor Drusilla had expected a solution to come from Portia, nor so quickly. “Just like on the ship!” Portia added as she sat up.
Drusilla looked about, as if she were expecting to find a block and tackle lying on the ledge somewhere, but none was to be seen. Miri pointed to a gnarled and knotted frankincense tree. “We could throw a rope over that tree and Portia could lower the bowl down to the ground!”
“Excellent!” agreed Tanis, “Let’s get started!”
Portia groaned and opened her eyes reluctantly. With a great effort, she lifted the stone bowl from her body and set it open-mouthed upon the ground at the great dragon’s feet. She unwrapped the glass jars, handing the robe to Drusilla. One by one she poured the water back into the bowl from the glass containers. It was not as full as it had been before they had emptied it.
“Stand back!” commanded Tanis and she took a deep breath. Miri, Portia and Drusilla scrambled away just as the dragon released a great rush of fiery air from her lungs. Flame engulfed the bowl but it did not catch. “Hmmmpf!” declared Tanis, and took a deeper breath. This time the flames leapt from her mouth in a great fury of flame. Miri and the girls had to cover their faces to shelter from the heat. The flame flickered blue then green on the surface of the water in the bowl then suddenly found a purchase and a purpose, and a bright blue flame danced upon the surface of the water.
“There!” declared Tanis triumphantly. “Good as new!” She stretched out her huge wings, yawned and shook her body and head vigourously as a dog shakes water from its back after a swim. He noise of her great scales rattled noisily and echoed through the hills. She lowered her great head closer to Miri and the girls. “I must leave for there is a disturbance at the gates to the underworld. I must leave you now!”
She opened her great wings and launched herself from the mountainside with a great push of her hind legs. She dropped quickly away from the little band, but the wind soon lifted her up and she flapped away into the night. Miri, Portia and Drusilla stared after her for a moment, then turned to their task of returning the flame to its resting place within the sanctuary.
Together, Miri and the girls wove a rope basket about the bowl and threw the end of Portia’s rope over the overhanging sycamore. They stood staring at their handiwork.
“The way I see it,” said Miri to Drusilla, “Only Portia can lower the bowl using the rope. Once it begins its journey, neither of us can help her.”
“Let’s test it out!” suggested Drusilla.
Tentatively, Portia pulled the rope taught and then gave it a test heave. The bowl slid sideways to the edge of the cliff and Drusilla lunged to save it.
“No!” cried Miri, grabbing Drusilla to prevent her touching the bowl.
“Oh dear Mother!” cried Drusilla as the bowl swung out from their reach and dangled crazily on the end of the rope. It twisted and twirled, swinging from the sycamore. They decided the best course of action would be to lower the bowl as far as they could, then tie the rope to the sycamore, so that Portia could descend the cliff to unwrap the bowl at the bottom. Unfortunately the rope did not reach very far before the end was in Portia’s hands. Miri climbed down the mountain in order to reconnoiter the ground by the bowl. There was a ledge just above the bowl where it could be set down, so she called to Portia to raise the bowl and once the bowl dangled by the ledge, she called for Portia to tie off the rope. Portia tied off the rope and climbed down the mountain to Miri. Drusilla stayed by the sycamore while Portia released the bowl from the rope cradle. Once the rope was removed, Drusilla untied the rope and brought it down to Portia. So, one rope length, one ledge and one tree at a time the three lowered the bowl down the steep mountainside.
Miri finally reached the garden of the sanctuary and called for Portia to tie off the rope. A great deal of water had spilled, but the flame remained alive, and Miri was thankful the ordeal was over. The bowl swung at shoulder height, and the hairs on Miri’s head tingled. The rope had begun to smolder from the heat of the sacred flame!
“Portia!” she called out, “Hurry!”
“I’m coming as fast as I can!” replied Portia irritably from somewhere above.
“The rope is on fire!” shouted Miri. As if she had called it into being the rope suddenly burst into a bright flame. Portia screamed as she saw the flame and Drusilla slid frantically down the rock face after her sister.
The rope began to unravel strand by strand as the flame ate through the twisted fibres. Miri held her hands out beneath the bowl, for it began to tilt as the rope unraveled, She was torn, for she knew that if she caught the bowl, she would break its spell.
“Hurry!” she called.
Portia and Drusilla both lost their grip and tumbled the last few cubits down the slope and landed in a heap at Miri’s feet. All three screamed, for at that very moment, the bowl dropped from the cradle and crashed to the ground. In an instant it shattered and the sacred water spilled onto the ground, and the great stone bowl split into three pieces. Each of the women scrambled to save the bowl, and each ended up holding a single piece of the bowl. Drusilla had caught hers upside down, but both Miri and Portia caught theirs so that water remained in the curve of the bowl. Miri stared unbelievingly at the piece she held and to her great relief the flame still burned in the water. But also, at that same moment she realized that was of no avail for she was not a virgin. As the thought passed through her, the flame flickered and died and she looked helplessly at Portia.
Portia too, had caught a piece of the bowl, and a small amount of the water remained in the curve of the stone she held. But there was no flame!
Or so it had seemed at first, but miraculously, all three spied a tiny blue shiver across the surface of the sloshing water that danced to keep a foothold on the liquid, and as the surface of the water swilled and then settled down, the flame caught and danced merrily on the water. All three squealed in delight!
“Quickly!” whispered Miri and she and Portia guided Portia toward the sanctuary entrance. Fortuitously, the cracked bowl now worked in their favour for it was small enough to pass through the doorway without being tilted sideways. While Miri and Drusilla remained in the doorway, Portia carried the broken shard to the bowl’s resting place in the centre of the sanctuary. When she placed it on the tripod, the flame rose higher and glowed brighter and whiter. Portia stepped back and all three shielded their eyes, then to their amazement, the bowl,fused by the power of the sacred flame began to grow and assume its former shape, until finally it sat as it had been before it was removed.
Portia clapped her hands with glee and rushed to hug her sister. Drusilla, Portia and Miri embraced joyfully. They were interrupted by a voice from outside.
It was the Phoenix.
“Remember us? We’re the reason you’re here! Can we please get this over with?”
“The torch!” said Miri.
Portia removed the second torch from its bracket and touched it to the sacred flame. It caught fire and she strode quickly through the door and into the garden. She gained a new strength from the torch as if energy passed from the flame through the handle, along her arm and into her body. Elated, she stood triumphantly before the bennu bird.
The Phoenix was not in as good a shape as the young girl. His feathers had begun to molt and had lost their brilliance.
“We are afraid we cannot fly!” he announced, “You must carry us to our nest.”
Portia’s heart melted at the sight of the bedraggled bird. She immediately stuck the handle of the torch into the ground and picked up the miserable bird. She cradled him in her arms and stroked him gently.
“Thank you.” He said gratefully, “We do not have much time. You must carry us to our nest.” Portia placed him upon her shoulder and strode toward the sacred tree.
“Hold on!” she cried as she swung herself into the branches, and the Phoenix squawked as he clung to her shoulder. Though she had started strongly, Portia was quite weary by the time she reached the nest.
“We hate to say this again,” said the Phoenix, “but time is of the essence. You must bring the torch immediately!”
“No rest for the wicked!” commented the bird.
“I’m a virgin!” Portia retorted.
“Right!” said the bird.
Portia made a face at the bird, “I’ll be back!” and she disappeared into the foliage.
The bird sat as Portia had left him, and as she climbed the last few branches to his nest, he opened his eyes and stared at her unblinking.
“Oh, you have brought us the sacred fire! Now, you must set fire to this nest upon which we sit!”
“Don’t flinch! This must be done that we can rise again!”
She pulled herself to the last branch and hesitantly touched flame to the nest.
The wood crackled as a small flame flickered in the entwined twigs, then danced from branch to branch and twig-to-twig. The phoenix ruffled his feathers and sat calmly within the fire. He spread his wings out and within a few heartbeats, his feathers suddenly ignited with a brilliant searing light, so bright, Portia was blinded. She held her hands out in front of her to shield her eyes, and accidentally dropped the burning torch.
She thought for a moment she saw an old man within the light. He sat cross-legged upon a lotus flower of brilliant flame, but he faded from view as the light intensified. Portia was forced to close her eyes and retreat from the nest. The smoke drifted about her and filled her lungs with the smell and taste of sandalwood and cinnamon incense. The aroma was as intense as the flower garden, and she felt the same light headedness returning. She quickly scrambled down the tree. As she reached the bottom most branch, Miri, alerted by the torch that tumbled to her feet, called out to her.
“I…” began Portia groggily, “I…” She tumbled unconscious from the tree.
Miri caught Portia and the two of them collapsed on the moss covered ground. Drusilla ran to them and lifted Portia’s head, cradling it in her arms.
“Hey!” she urged, “Don’t go to sleep!”
Portia stared groggily up at her and smiled languidly. “I love you,” she whispered.
“Here!” Miri held her waterskin to Portia’s lips. The water dripped down her chin and Portia opened her eyes again and licked her lips.
“More!” she urged and Miri poured water into Portia’s mouth. The water from the underground spring revived the young girl, and she soon regained her senses. “You must go back and retrieve the ashes!” said Miri.
“Can’t you get it for me?” she complained.
She glanced from Miri to Drusilla and back again. Miri handed Portia one of the larger glass jars they had carried with them. “Here, take this. You can carry the ashes in this.”
Portia cinched the jar to her girdle. “Boost me up!” she cried gamely.
Miri and Drusilla waited quietly at the base of the sacred tree. Miri sensed Drusilla was discomforted and turned to her handmaiden. Tears streaked Drusilla’s cheeks. Miri shifted closer and wrapped her arms about the girl.
“She is so brave!” cried Drusilla.
“It’s alright,” she whispered, “It’s alright!”
The torch lying by their feet flickered and died, and the two of them sat silently in the darkness. They were enveloped by a comfortable listlessness, and both drifted into the twilight of sleep.
Portia once again reached the top of the sacred tree, and the ashes of the Phoenix covered the bottom of the half-burned nest. She sighed and swept the ashes into a small pile. She scooped the ash into her jar. Once she was finished she looked about. The dark indigo band of night was giving way to the promise of the golden rose dawn along the eastern horizon. A breeze ruffled her hair and clothing and she looked up and screamed with surprise as great claws curled about her and lifted her from her perch.
Her scream roused Miri and Drusilla from their somnolent reverie and they leapt to their feet. Unable to restrain herself, Drusilla leaped into the tree. Miri reached to stop her, but missed her foot by a hairsbreadth. She shouted after the girl, sighed in frustration and hauled herself up into the greenery. Deciding that saving Portia was more important than the taboo of touching the sacred tree, Miri scrambled quickly up the tree. There were more than enough branches to use as hand and footholds, though she twisted about to avoid the vast array of foliage amongst the branches. Breathless, she came to the crown a fraction of a second after Drusilla, and hauled herself in to the charred nest of the Phoenix. Portia was nowhere to be seen. Drusilla wailed in exasperation. Her hands stretched out to heaven as if she would pull it to earth to answer for its injustice, and her movements caused little puffs of ash to take flight with the breeze.
“Are you alright?” a woman’s voice called from the garden below.
Miri and Drusilla craned their necks to peer below, but could see nothing through the leaves.
Miri grasped Drusilla’s hand. “Come on, sweetie, there’s nothing to be done from here!” They descended the sacred tree slowly, for Drusilla was immobilized by grief.
When they reached the ground, much to their surprise they were greeted by Kaysha. She smiled at Miri and her handmaid.
“A strange pair of birds you two are!” said the voice, “Are you alright?”
“Portia is gone!” wailed Drusilla and both Miri and Kaysha wrapped their arms about the poor girl.
On a rocky outcrop, Portia sat facing her abductor.
“You could have warned me!” she said, “ I am sure Drusilla is beside herself worrying about me!”
“No doubt!” admitted Tanis, “I apologize. Though I have dispatched Ropizdomen to inform them of your whereabouts. However, I wish to speak to you alone.”
“I have no secrets from my sister!” retorted Portia.
“Yet she has from you, and you from your mistress,” said Tanis sharply, “I can brook no such behaviour from you. I have need of your blood!”
Portia drew back. “My blood?”
“Yesss!” hissed the great dragon, “Have you never heard tales of dragons and young maidens?”
“Of course,” lied Portia, “Often!”
A short burst of flame snorted from Tanis’s nostrils. “You have never heard of them before, Portia. You cannot lie to me!” The great dragon’s face closed on the hapless girl and she growled menacingly. “Do not lie to me!” she commanded. “My life depends on it, and as only I can take you from this place, even you can see your life depends on your truthfulness!”
Portia cringed beneath Tanis’s stare. Once Portia had seen a crocodile as close, and though she was reminded of one by the other and could sense death within both, the crocodilian eyes were cold, whereas a more fearful eternity glowed within the great dragon’s golden orbs. This she sensed rather than thought. An ensuing smallness enveloped her, and she began to tremble.
Tears welled in her eyes. “It’s not fair!” she sobbed, “Why do you need my blood?”
“You are a virgin, and only blood from a maiden can be mixed with the ashes of the Phoenix.”
Portia stared at the jar of ashes that she still held. She immediately held the jar out and removed the stopper. The dragon drew back quickly.
“If I spilled this out, would you still need my blood?” she demanded.
“What are you doing?” asked Tanis in horror. “You must give your blood to me!”
“I don’t want to!” replied Portia defiantly, “Why should I die so that you can live?”
“If…” replied Tanis slowly, “If I cannot mix your blood with the ashes of the Phoenix, then the spell will be broken, and I will die.”
“So?” asked Portia.
“So, if I am not rejuvenated through your sacrifice, there will be no one to stop Erishkigal, her minions, or the souls of the dead from leaving the Underworld!”
“And?” demanded Portia.
“And,” replied Tanis slowly, “The dead would swarm the World above and suck the life from it. The crops would wither in the fields, the fruit shrivel on the trees, kith and kine would waste away, no babies born-”
“Alright, I get it!” interrupted Portia, though she did not lower the flask of ashes. She thought a moment. “You need all my blood?”
“Of your own free will!” replied Tanis. “You must give your blood to me by your own hand.”
“How?” asked Portia despondently.
The dragon spread apart her legs to reveal a large basin. “You must place the ashes in the bowl and cut your wrists and allow your blood to mix with the ashes.”
“All my blood?” asked Portia.
“Yes,” replied Tanis.
A long silence enveloped them. At some point, Portia stepped to the edge of the basin. She placed the jar of ashes on the rim of the basin and stared into the basin. Its centre was blackened by the blood of ages.
“You must wash first,” said Tanis gently. As the words left her mouth, a trickle of water appeared, gained strength and became a waterfall. Portia stared at Tanis for a moment and stepped gingerly to the waterfall. She stretched out her hand into the stream of falling water. It was warm and soft. Such was the allure of the water, Portia, slipped off her tunic and stepped into the comforting waters. The water wrapped about her like a warm blanket, and her aches and pains, of which she realized she had many, washed from her body. Never had she felt so cleansed. She closed here eyes and reveled in the great comfort the shower brought her. She knew in her mind now that to sacrifice herself was the right thing to do. She felt soft hands caressing her, and she opened her eyes suddenly and the water stopped. A cold breeze chilled her instantly and she shivered, naked in a diminishing pool of water.
She sensed she would feel warmer closer to Tanis and the sacrificial bowl. Rubbing her arms vigorously, she stepped awkwardly to the shelter of the dragon and the gaping basin. Now, it seemed to beckon to her, and she knew she would find warmth only by sitting within the basin. This she did slowly and with a great deal of trepidation. Grasping both edges of the basin she lowered her body into the shallow depression. The basin was oval shaped and large enough to hold her. She knew at that instant, that this was always to be her fate, and that her life had been solely for the one purpose of prolonging Tanis’s reign. She gently lifted the urn containing the ashes of the Phoenix, and upturned the vessel. The ashes flowed from the mouth of the jar and fell upon her fair unblemished skin, covering her breasts and belly. It seemed a never-ending flow of ash, and soon she was covered almost entirely by the white powder. Though she had never noticed before, the ash was not gray, but composed of small black, silver and gold particles. And the black particles, she realized were iridescent and contained within them the entire spectrum of the rainbow. The particles sparkled in the netherworld light, and their beauty overwhelmed her.
With a growl of pain, Tanis reached and removed one of her smaller teeth and handed it, still dripping with dragon blood to Portia. “They grow back,” Tanis explained as Portia took the tooth. The tooth was errated along one edge and as she touched it with a forefinger, it cut her skin and a small drop of blood fell from her finger. When it hit the ash, it glowed with an intense golden light, and the ash about it sizzled, spreading outward from the impact, an incorporate crystalline golden bubble passed through her body, Portia felt a wave of pleasure like no other she had sensed. With the wave, came a feeling of great power, and she felt intoxicated by its strength.
With no hesitation she slashed her wrists! Once! Twice! The blood flowed freely from her wrists, pouring into the basin. A staccato bursting of light crackled about her as the blood impacted and mixed with the ashes of the phoenix, and Portia could feel herself being drained of life, yet somehow she was not afraid. Her body dissolved in the mixture, and within the bursting of light she saw thousands of young women, smiling to her in greeting and the golden maidens reached out to caress and welcome her. Her pleasure multiplied and a great orgasm and ecstasy flooded her body and filled her soul. As all that she had once been peeled away from her, her true nature, that which was her soul, was slowly released from its physical shell. And she realized then that all her life, the world she had known had been an illusion, a prison she had built, stone by stone about herself, and now, as the layers of existence peeled away, she rejoined the great soul of Cosmic Consciousness, and she had nothing to fear for she had never been alone, though she had always thought so. Within that instant, the mortal remains of Portia breathed their last gasping rattle, and the dragon’s perch was dark again. Tanis drank the dull glowing red paste that remained in the bowl. Her great forked toungue cleaned every last remnant of the substance. The bowl cleansed by a dragon took on a greenish-gold hue. After a brief nurturing meditation, Tanis flew back to the Garden of the Phoenix.
Drusilla was beside herself. She threw herself upon Miri the iridescent corpse of her sister and wailed inconsolably.
“She needs this time!” Kaysha said quietly. At the base of the sacred tree the two women stood vigil over the wailing Drusilla. Above them, Tanis perched upon the nest of the Phoenix and peered down at the three humans wrapped in their grief below her. Though she had sympathy for their plight, she knew the moment would pass as every moment will do. But even dragons do not have the privilege of eternal acceptance. The sky to the east was lightening, and as twilight approached, Tanis settled into the nest. She closed her eyes, though not completely for dragons do not close off the world when they sleep. A part of her always remained vigilant and aware of her universe. None, it is said can sneak upon a sleeping dragon. Only a privileged few have ever witnessed a somnolent dragon, and of these, none ever told the tale.
“When I was a child,” said Kaysha at length, “My younger sister also passed on under the same circumstance.”
Miri stared at Kaysha in disbelief. “You knowingly sent Portia to her death?”
“It was not I who sent her,” replied Kaysha, “I merely pointed her in the direction she was meant to travel.”
“Why did you not warn her?” asked Drusilla sharply, her grief turning quickly to anger.
“You would have tried to stop her,” replied Kaysha with a shrug. “Just as I would have tried to stop my own sister.”
At that moment the first rays of the morning sun touched the crown of the sacred tree, and with a loud screech. Tanis flapped noisily away up the side of the mountain.
“It is done!” whispered Kaysha. “The Phoenix will be reborn!”
Her own life force rejuvenated, Tanis had laid the new egg of the Phoenix.
“Come!” Kaysha beckoned Miri and Portia to follow. Miri took Drusilla’s hand and they followed the old woman along a footpath through the graden. The path led steadily and steeply upward. Soon they came upon a natural ledge in the mountain that afforded them a magnificent view of the Sacred Tree. At the crown, within the nest of the Phoenix sat a large iridescent golden egg. The pinked fingers of the rising sun caressed the egg and it glowed faintly. The sun rose higher, filling the air with warmth and the sky with a cerulean blue. Miri, Kaysha and Drusilla sat huddled together for comfort, subdued by their mutual loss. When the sun crested the mountain and shone directly down on the sacred tree, the smoky smell of cinnamon and myrrh rose from the egg and it began to smolder.
Miri stood up.
At first, smoke obscured the great egg, but leared and, there, in place of the egg, sat a wet and bedraggled Phoenix. He flapped his gorgeous wings to dry them in the warming sun. He preened his feathers until the amniotic fluid covering him had dissipated into the warm morning air. Finally, he tilted his head sideways at the women.
“We thank you,” he said happily and tested his wings. “Ahh!” he sighed, “That’s better! As good as new!”
“There is someone here you must talk to,” declared Kaysha, her hand extending toward Drusilla.
“Of course!” He fluttered over to the women and perched on a nearby thorn bush and addressed Drusilla, “We have someone here who wishes to speak!”
He cleared his throat and a babble of female voices emanated from his throat.
“Stop it!” commanded a familiar voice.
“Portia!” cried Drusilla.
“Hello, Drew,” the bird replied in Portia’s voice, “Please don’t be angry with me!”
“Angry?” Drusilla whispered, “Please Portia…”
“I had to do this. It is why we came here...”
“Hush!” Drusilla put her fingers to the bird’s mouth and stroked his crest. “I love you, baby girl!”
“And I you, Drew.”
Miri wrapped her arms about Drusilla and held her tight as the handmaid began again to sob. Portia’s soul released the bird, and slid into the background.
“Your sister lives within us,” the bird told Drusilla, “as does Kashta, sister of Kaysha. There are others within us, and we find great comfort with each other.”
“Through the Phoenix that they are given everlasting life,” explained Kaysha, “All would perish without him, and be doomed to serve under Erishkigal.”
“Why did it have to be her?” wailed Drusilla.
“It was always her,” replied Kaysha.
“If only I hadn’t lost my maidenhood,” wailed Drusilaa, “ I could have taken her place!”
“I could not have lived without you,” spoke Portia again through the bird, “Drew, here I am loved and will never be alone. If you had given yourself instead of me, I would not fare as well as you will. You know that in your heart as well as I.”
Drusilla shook her head and then pushed into Miri’s breast. “It’s not fair!” she whispered, “It’s not fair.”
“We must go!” said the Phoenix, “and continue upon our path.” The bird flapped soundlessly into the air and disappeared into the glare of the overhead sun.
Kaysha sang a spell to the air, and within moments Tanis appeared and landed beside them.
“Portia has fulfilled her quest, and you will be granted your wish for the wood you require.” The dragon stretched a great claw and wrenched a dragon’s blood tree from the ground. She closed her great jaws over the tree and stripped the branches and leaves from the main trunk. This she did to six more trees and laid the trunks before the women.
“You must climb upon my back and I will carry you back to your ship. Once you leave this island you must swear never to reveal what has transpired. If you do not agree, then you must remain on the island and serve me.”
“Of course,” replied Miri, “You have my word!”
”I cannot leave without Portia,” cried Drusilla. Together, Kaysha and Miri dragged Drusilla onto the dragon’s back and wedged themselves between the huge upright double scales on Tanis’s spine. With her passengers clinging tightly to the great scales along her backbone, Tanis flapped her wings vigorously and they were airborne. Tanis had grasped the seven dragon’s blood trees in her hind legs, and they rose high above the island, climbing into the clouds. The cold, clammy mist raised goosebumps upon their skin, and in a gut-wrenching dive, Tanis folded her wings dropped toward the earth.
Suddenly the downward movement ceased and Tanis landed smoothly upon a fog-shrouded beach. “Thank you!” said Tanis to Drusilla, “Your sister’s great sacrifice ensures I will still live to guard the Gates of the Underworld, but your sacrifice is greater than hers! She is no longer alone, but you will be. You are a very brave companion indeed, and I shall miss your courage, little one!”
“I am not leaving,” said Drusilla with a dark determination.
“What?” Miri’s heart leapt to her mouth. The thought of living without either of her handmaids left her empty. She realized in that instant how very much they had made her feel loved and alive. More than any of her companions Drusilla and Portia had brought her life where none had seemed to exist. “You can’t stay here!”
“Portia remains here in the bennu-bird,” explained Portia, “and I must stay with her! With your leave. Mistress, I will serve The Queen of The Dragons!”
Miri was shocked by the abandonment, and had no energy to reply.
“It is as it should be!” Tanis said delightedly, “Kaysha could use some help, and there is much for a girl like you to learn!”
With that, the Queen of the Dragons flapped into the air and up into the mist which rose with her and lifted from the beach revealing the Heart of the Isis laying in the shallows. Only a few cubits from the women, sat the crew on a circle of driftwood cooking a sheep on an open spit. The men gasped at the sight of the women and most reached for their amulets, for none of them had seen the fog, and it seemed from their vantage that the women had appeared from nowhere.
Alexander was the first to recover from shock and stood up to face Miri. Their eyes met and his heart melted at the sight of her safe and sound. Almost as quickly he noticed Portia was absent.
After a thousand questions, and several evasive answers, Kaysha wove a tale not much unlike that they had experienced, more physical than metaphysical, as noble and enduring as the reality yet more real to the listeners than the truth would have been. They then set out a great funeral feast and carried Portia’s body to a cave in the limestone hills where Kaysha’s sister’s Kashta also resided.
It took two days to repair the Heart of Isis, but on the third day, her soul returned and the tide lifted her from the beach. Drusilla gave each of the crew a garland of flowers and a farewell kiss in blessing before they stepped onto the deck of the ship. Her last blessing was for Miri, and Miri and Drusilla shared a tearful farewell.
“I will return for you,” promised Miri.
“I will watch for you, Mistress,” replied Drusilla, fighting back her tears, “I will leave a lamp lighted for you!”
Miri slipped her gold ring from her finger. It was an ornate ruby eye, a ruby of unforgettable size. It had been part of the treasure Miri had confiscated from her rapists in the western desert. The heiroglyphs about the magnificent ruby invoked protection to the bearer from Auset-Het-heru.
“This will protect you from harm,” whispered Miri.
Tears filling her eyes, Drusilla slipped the ring on her finger.
“I will promise to preserve it,” said Drusilla tearfully, “for it was given by you.”
Finally, they had to part. Kaysha gently pulled Drusilla from Miri and Alexander wrapped his arms about Miri and lead her to the ship.
Kaysha was pleased with her new companion’s first spells.
Alexander called “Oars Up” and the crew responded with a shout to Poseidon to warn of their coming. At the shout of “Oars Down”, the bank of oars splashed into the water and on “Heave!” the ship slowly moved out to sea.
Drusilla squirmed. “Oh good Mother, what have I got myself into?” she cried.