“After they buried Miriam,” Fatima whispered, “The well no longer traveled with the Hebrews, and, though he tried, Moses could not duplicate her feats. They say the Hebrews were sore oppressed afterwards!”
They were headed east. Out in the desert, Miri felt free and the worries of life seemed to fall from her like petals from a fruit tree. She was relieved at the turn of events but her mind fretted about the Celt, Redbeard. She was sure he would not last in the hot desert.
At the foot of Mount Horeb, her worst fears were confirmed.
They came across the Celt tied to the twisted trunk and gnarled lower branches of an ancient acacia tree, long dead. His skin was burnt bright red, great whitened flaps sloughed from his exposed skin. A diadem of thorns crowned his head and streaks caked brown and glistening bright red marked a myriad of paths from his head, to his chest and shoulders. He had been flayed, but not skinned. Hands reached for talismans and the caravan stopped. A cloth tied to his wrist was covered in a writing Miri did not understand but her companions did.
“He is a jinn!” whispered Fatima.
“No!” said Miri fiercely, and slipped from the shoulder of her camel and the shelter of the canopy mounted upon it. She ran to the Celt before her new friends could stop her.
He was alive!
She lifted her own water skin to his lips and poured a mouthful onto his lips and the Celt stirred.
“Oh Dear Mother!” wailed Miri, “Redbeard! Wake up!”
His eyes fluttered, caught sight of her and closed. He smiled, though his weak smile cracked his lips, “Well, to be sure, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” he whispered and lost consciousness.
It took a great deal of persuasion for Miri to persuade the Bedouin to help the Celt. Not until they set a fire from parts of the tree and burned purifying aromatics about him, would they render aid, though they did pass items to help with the Celt’s recovery to Miri so she could minister to him. Finally, after they cut him down, and watered and oiled him, they manufactured a covered travois for one of the camels and set off for Rekem, though none would ride with either Miri or Redbeard.
It took all of Miri’s skill as a physician to maintain the life of the Celt, but with help from her friends gathering herbs in the desert and within another three days, they approached the gates flanking the mountain entrance to Rekem. As with all cities, they encountered a graves and tombs scattered about the city gate. They passed a massive quarry and several stelae dedicated to the deities of the townspeople.
“Petra!” croaked Redbeard, as the party came to a halt in the hectic marketplace that almost completely blocked the road. All manner of goods were traded from spice to slaves. It was an unofficial market and designed simply to avoid taxes in the marketplace within the city itself. But the goods here were on the whole, a lower quality and questionable value. The Roman phrase “Caveat Emptor” applied here more than most places in the world. The Nabateans were not only shrewd businessmen, but had a reputation as pirates of the seas and brigands of the sands.
“Listen,” whispered Miri to Redbeard, “We have thrown away your Roman auxiliary uniform, and you will not be welcome here if your connection with the Imperial family is known. Being a Celt, you can probably create an illusion of antagonism to the Imperial See.”
Redbeard smiled, “No doubt,” he rasped. “But I shall remain mute!”
“We’ll get some honey to cure that silver tongue, Celt!” said Miri.
None of Barak’s family wanted to enter the city proper, preferring to camp well into the desert away from the frantic activity, but Barak’s sons Hassan and Saifal-Uzza, two handsome and strong young men agreed to accompany Miri and Redbeard into the city. “But where is the city?” asked Miriam, for she could see neither walls nor watchtowers.
“Inside the mountain!” declared Hassan, “Rekkem is protected by the Lady of the Mountain!”
The four travellers mounted their camels and as they traveled toward the face of the eastern wall of the Shat al Arabba, the walls of the city, not at first noticeable, now reared above them. The walls of Rekkem stretched across the entire canyon, its crenellated walls merging with the sandstone cliffs on both sides of the canyon. The travellers presented themselves as travellers at the gates of Petra by the causeway before the triumphal arch. In the shade of the guard post house, a large group of armed soldiers barred the way. Travellers were queued before the gate and Miri and her companions. To escape the glare of the sun, they waited in the shade of their camels.
Finally their turn came and Haran spoke with the guard, who looked at Miri and Redbeard suspiciously. Finally, he nodded, then disappeared into the gloom of the cleft in the mountain that led to Petra. After a brief pause, he returned with a superior officer who, with an officious air, asked, “Who is Miriam of Magadha from Alexandria?”
The answer was obvious to all in line, for Miri was the only woman standing in view in the first several cubits of the lineup. The question was intended to throw her off guard and put her in her place, but Miri was nonplussed by the officers staged arrogance.
“That would be me,” she answered.
“And who is that?” asked the chief gatekeeper, pointing at Redbeard, as her red-headed companion stood head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.
“The Celt?” replied Miri offhandedly, “He is a slave!”
“You won’t get a copper for one in that condition!”
“He is not used to the sun!” said Miri.
Everyone in earshot laughed at her remark.
“You and your slave are under arrest!” said the officer.
“For what?” cried Miri, her hackles instantly up.
“Silence!” snapped the officer. Redbeard, strode forward instantly, sensing something was wrong, and at his advance a phalanx of spears lowered and circled the four travellers. The officer briefly glanced at Haran and his brother and tossed them a leather pouch. Miri heard the clink of coins as Haran caught the pouch, and he nodded and smiled triumphantly at Miri and led the camels away.
Flanked by a nest of sharp points, Redbeard and Miri stood absolutely still.
“You will come with us!” said the officer and prompted by spear thrusts, Miri and Redbeard stepped forward. They trudged under the great gate that marked the official entrance to Rekem, and into the Valley of Rekkem.