In the Valley of the Kings
The sun was hot for so late in the year. Three years in this place and I still wasn't used to this damned unending summer. Damned weather, damned place. It wasn't even a real valley, just a big ditch carved out by water during the rainy season. Whoever called it the Valley of the Kings was looking for romance, not practicality when he - it always men who did the naming, thanks to Adam - chose that name. Honestly, how much romance can anyone find in a graveyard filled with bodies that have been decomposing for the past two thousand years? There is the treasure aspect to take into account, and after Rider Haggard and that Stoker fellow had it seemed like everyone and their mother wanted a piece of it, but few of the tombs they'd uncovered these last few years had contained more than smashed pottery and an empty sarcophagus.
Until now. Until Tutankhamun.
This glorious new tomb was why a crowd had gathered by this old rubbish pile. No one was certain what kind of tomb Mr. Carter had stumbled upon. It could have merely been another cache of mummies. The optimists believed that the find would not only be a tomb, but one still intact. That was the only bloody reason I was standing in the crowd getting burnt by the sun as an egg is fried on a hot stove.
Despite everything, I was still optimistic.
Three years had passed since I'd left England, alone and free. I hated the first and basked in the other. I was free to stand here in the sun in this damnable valley for as long as I wanted.
Yes, freedom. Ha! Upon my arrival in Egypt, I had used the few skills I had to survive. I was a young, unprotected white female lost in a foreign city with limited positions, primarily horizontal in nature. For once my accomplishments came in handy. I was able to do somewhat better, gaining employment with a producer of fake antiquities, painting the faces on poorly-sculpted Egyptian deities. I came to know the names of all these deities and more. Thus I began to learn the history of this country.
Half a year later, I found myself at the Luxor train station with money in the pocket of my ragged coat. The knowledge I had of Egyptian history was patchy, but I conned into a secretarial job with an old professor of Egyptology. The way he lectured on and on about history meant he knew I was a fraud. He must have kept me on for my looks more than anything. Dear old Hubert.
He was still a man. He had needs. I left him when they came to include me.
Once again I was on my own, not that I complained about it. There were just some things that a person didn’t bother to complain about, especially when in my position. I took on small jobs with museums or even with archaeologists if I was lucky, though not too many of them were happy to find that I was a woman. A pretty one, so they didn't mind too much, but sometimes the price was one I refused to negotiate.
Eventually things came to the point where I stood in the dusty valley in the scorching sunlight among a crowd of increasingly malodorous individuals, unemployed for three weeks and starting to feel it in the pit of my stomach. But it hadn't been long enough that I couldn't still convince myself that, if not for the lack of money (and the unpleasant looks I received from my landlady's son), I would have been happy.
At least, I'd like to think I would be.
It was opening day for the one tomb that every person in the crowd had waited weeks to see, even if it was only to have view the smallest statue or piece of jewellery. No one really expected to see very much until Mr. Carter had conducted his obsessively careful excavation, and so I turned my attention to the crowd. It is never a wasted task to watch people, to see how they function, to measure their expressions, their behaviour. I was certain that most of these people cared only about the treasure, anything of monetary value that private collectors would love to hide away in purchased baronial manors alongside other pilfered items that belonged in museums.
There is no doubt that the crowd was sprinkled with thieves biding their time, observing every nook and cranny in the Valley, every object brought forth from the tomb. The man standing beside me, with his swarthy skin, unshaven cheeks, and leering eyes, could have walked the boards as the Pirate King with very little effort.
His dark eyes watched every movement made by the workers gathered around the tomb entrance, and while he appeared at ease, a vein pulsated against his temple and the small finger of his left hand twitched periodically.
If this man wasn't a thief, then I was a Squib.
Before I could look away, he caught my gaze and actually winked. His less-than-white teeth showed when he smiled. I responded to neither.
"Exciting occasion, isn't it?"
Wonderful. An American. It would certainly explain his - shall I say troubled? - sense of hygiene.
I affected the finest British drawl I could manage. "Indeed. Quite a cause for celebration."
The crowd had blocked me in. Damn. No chance to retreat into anonymity and avoid further conversation.
"So why're you here then? Surely a pretty lady like you should have better things to do with your time."
My warning glare had no effect on his apparent cheerfulness. If anything, it did the opposite. His grin widened, eyes looking me over with unbridled interest.
“I am an Egyptologist."
Amateur would be more accurate, but I wasn't going to blurt out my life story. I was a fake, just like those antiquities I'd helped make.
“Lucky you. I'm just here for the spectacle. Amazing stuff they keep bringing out, don't you think? It's better than those motion pictures."
So my initial suspicions about his trade were very possibly true. It was becoming more and more likely that at that moment I was standing beside a tomb robber who would whisk away all the treasures in a bat of an eye. Hell, he'd probably sell his mother, too, if she was in that tomb. Good old Hubert would have been outraged, screaming to the heavens that every antiquity should be in a museum, especially the British Museum.
"So you're a lady archaeologist then? Fascinating what you girls get up to these days."
I scowled, which was considerably less than he deserved. My hand was itching for my wand, which was safely hidden in an inner pocket of my jacket. A nice jinx would do this man well, teaching him a lesson he would never dare forget.
"It's not as easy as it looks."
His eyes betrayed the sort of admiration I found it best to avoid.
Yes, he was definitely interested in looks. Mine in particular.
"Your own profession doesn't seem to have much in the looks category." I gave him a once-over with my eyes, noting the impressive musculature without looking much impressed at all.
When he began to laugh, I wondered why my sarcasm was only making this predicament worse. Most men would cringe and slide away quietly, their pride severely damaged. This man, however, was actually amused by my words. I stared at him as though he'd turned into a flying monkey, the expression intensifying when he reached out his hand.
“It’s certainly been awhile since I’ve met a lady with a head on her shoulders." There was something genuine in his laughing voice. “The name’s Moody. Alexander Moody of Lima, Ohio.” His pronunciation was exquisite.
I shook his hand, feeling the thick callouses on the palm. A farm-boy then. How original. And there I'd thought he was a thief.
"And you are?"
Hades, he was persistent. I thought of making something up, but went with the truth. Maybe he wouldn't believe it.
"Helen Black. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Well, not the entire truth.
“I'm sure you are, Miss Black." He winked again. Disgusting. "It's pleasant to be in such company. Never thought I'd find something more blinding than that damned sun, 'cuse my French."
My jaw clenched. Insolence. My hand twitched near my wand. Just a little jinx, escalating into a few curses, than an Unforgivable or two. The Ministry had fingers down here, but there was so much magic in this Valley that they would never know. Imperio
was awfully tempting. Make him jump around, like a monkey or better yet, a ferret. It could be the highlight of my year...
"You're a quiet one now. Most English ladies don't know how to stop talking, especially to me. Perhaps you can explain it, Miss Black."
Was there someone emerging from the staircase? I couldn't see from back here. This is what came of having a lie in. Getting stuck at the back of the crowd beside a nosy American who could have passed for a pirate.
"Explain what? My silence or their stupidity."
When he began to laugh, attracting the gaze of others around us, I bristled further. Bad, very bad, to attract attention. At any moment I could be recognized, yet here I was in broad daylight, offering my name to some stranger who could very well have been sent to find me. Anger turning to fear, not yet terror, I suppressed a shiver.
"Why Miss Black, is something the matter?"
Genuine again. This man actually felt the words he spoke. But I didn't have time for him, or anyone else.
"I must go. Excuse me, Mr. Moody."
As I made my escape, my thoughts rushed in an unwanted direction. He may have just been flirting with me, but what if he had been following me, tracking me down like a dog on the hunt? Damn the tomb, I had to get away, just for a little while. If he had found me here, perhaps he had not yet found my lodgings. But if he knew those, too, then I'd leave, find another place. Luxor was small, but still large enough to get lost in.
I ducked behind a carriage dumping off another load of tourists. The encounter with Moody brought back too much. He may have just been a random man looking for a good time with a pretty girl, but I was still afraid of being found, being dragged back to England to marry Canis Malfoy. Or would that be such a bad thing after all? My current existence was almost pointless, based entirely off a freedom that I never actually experienced. I was and had always been irresponsible, thinking of myself before others.
I had abandoned my family, leaving my brother’s orphaned child with my overbearing mother and the man she would have married me off to. I could have had a family, money, material comfort. Were my fears only delusions? Would they put forth the effort to seek me out after all this time?
It was too late now to go back. Father was probably dead, murdered by Mother and whoever else she could get under her graceful thumb. Orion was probably being spoiled to death by nursemaids, destined to become a little brat, as arrogant and selfish as every other Black in existence. Canis had either married Mother, became her lover, or had married a distant cousin who resembled me enough to take my place at the altar. That world should be no more than a passing thought, a mere thing that passed through my head only to be forgotten again. The world I'd grown up in, believed in, no longer existed.
The carriage drew away. I rejoined the crowd, eyes on guard for any approach by Moody. His curly black hair was visible past a group of Scandinavians. They were a convenient group, their colouring so similar to mine that I appeared as one of them. Amusing, how easy it was to become someone else, if only for a short time. I was comfortable to belong nowhere, to no one.
The noise of excitement drew my attention, and that of everyone else, to the narrow staircase in the cliff. It sounded as though the door had finally been broken through, and the ancient seal had been removed from the door it had been placed upon thousands of years before. I wondered if the seal had to have been completely destroyed in order to get through the doorway, though that was likely the case. The incantations and spells on that seal would have been fascinating to read (not that I would ever have been given the chance). How much were they similar to the ones that were taught in the present? I had tried many times to trace Ancient Egyptian spells, even try them out myself, but something was missing, preventing my success. I needed a key of some sort to fully understand Egyptian magic. It could very well be that this tomb, whatever was within it, held the key to comprehending and using the magic of the Ancient Ones.
As the archaeologists carefully brushed away the debris from the broken door, something in the air changed. The sky seemed to darken and the wind rose, blowing sand and dust into my eyes. Swirling dust clouds danced across the valley floor, causing the horses and camels to stomp their feet in protest. The perspiration on my skin that had been building up for the past hour suddenly chilled, and I hugged my arms close to my chest. No one else appeared to notice any of these mysterious signs of nature, that anything different had happened at all. They simply continued to stare toward the tomb, enthralled by nothing more than the sixteen steps that led to a dark doorway and the noises emerging from that void.
Whispers, only whispers, speaking of love and hate, of war and peace, of plenty and deprivation. They told of what had been and what was to come. They said everything that had ever been spoken as well as the words that each being until eternity would speak. The timbre of each voice was so widely different that I wondered how any one thing could create them. Yet somehow I knew that one being was making all this happen, making me see these visions and hear those voices.
Something had come from the tomb. Something magical. And dangerous.
The crowd was buzzing with excitement, not noticing the ominous signs of the tomb's guardian. It had to be a guardian, that could be the only thing that emerged from a Pharaoh's tomb. I'd read of them, vaguely mentioned in Dark Arts books (there was something to be said about growing up Black with access to all sorts of dark magic), but I'd never pursued the subject in detail. Perhaps other tombs hadn't required a guardian summoned from another world. If this was Tutankhamun's tomb, shoved into some random hole at short notice, then there wouldn't have been time to create the usual man-made safeguards, what some liked to call booby-traps. Powerful magic would have been a necessity to keep the Pharaoh, and more importantly his treasures, safe from tomb robbers.
But that didn't explain why no one else was noticing its presence. Surely they felt the chill in the air, or the sudden deepening of the shadows around them. Why me? Why only me?
I would have at least expected Gringotts to send an emissary to witness this opening, to make sure that the Muggles weren't bombarded with curses.
Then came the wind.
It gathered around me like the fabric of a silky dress, wrapping itself around me, running itself up and down my body, touching every inch of skin possible and more. It was as gentle as the hands of a lover, but without that lust that tainted all men, all the men I had known. Its softness against my skin only increased my shivering so that I could have been in the Arctic instead of the Egyptian desert. Against my own will, it played a intimate game with me, forcing a quiet sigh from my lips as it brushed across my mouth and throat. Unseen hands played with the loose strands of hair at the nape of my neck, while another part of the breeze caressed by fingers. It was far from anything I had ever known or experienced. Far from anything that existed in the secular world. Only magic could do such a thing. Only magic could strike such a fear into my heart.
I didn't know why, but it sent my nerves tingling. I was afraid of this being, this thing that was doing this to me. What was it that played such games, tricked the senses into seeing and hearing things that were not really there? And why did it play with me and me alone? Whatever it was seemed to be enjoying itself at my expense, and I hated that, just as I hated anyone with that power.
It whispered something in my ear in a language I could not recognize, then it pulled away, pulled back into the tomb. I took in a deep breath of air, as though I was emerging from the water. Certainly the exhaustion that overtook me suddenly was similar to that of a long-distance swimmer. Nothing around me was out of place, no one seemed to notice anything out of sort. They did not appear to see my flushed skin or shaking hands. I was invisible.
They gave a collective oooh and ahhh, even though there was nothing to see. Ugh, tourists.
Pinching the skin on my arm to see if I was still real, I turned away from the tomb entrance, feeling the need to take a very long and cold bath. I only hoped that whatever it was that came out of that tomb, for that was the only place I could think of such a thing coming from, would not return. But, of course, hope never got a person very far in life - it only makes one feel better about it.
I could hope that Mr. Carter would magically hire me (that was an idea!). Or that I would return home to find Mother gone and my Father welcoming me back with open arms (equally improbable). Or that a prince in shining armour would appear to whisk me off to his castle (slightly disturbing).
Damn. Moody again. Waving absently in his direction, I hid behind the Scandinavians once more. Thank Merlin they were so tall, and that they were moving in the same direction as where I'd left my ride.
The best I could realistically hope for was that I'd have enough courage to come back and witness more of the tomb's opening, including the removal of whatever lay within. That is, if nothing else, be it spectres or assumed thieves, got in my way.
I should have hoped they would. Luck enjoyed playing the reverse psychology game with me. Tomb guardians were supposed to do more than flirt with whatever witches happened to be nearby. Their job was to guard the tomb at all costs or face eternal damnation, one's soul wiped out of existence. Usually it meant being consumed by that crocodile-headed creature who sat by the great weigh scale. Never could remember its name. He wasn't a popular one among the tourists.
Checking every other second that Mr. Moody wasn't on my tail, or rather the tail of my mule, I took myself off to my lodgings for dinner. Another hopeless prospect. Back to my books, perhaps I could learn hieroglyphics by dinner. That would be just fantastic. Not to mention impossible.
If any curses came my way, I'd probably welcome them, just to break up the monotony of things. What was that horrible novel again? She
? Or was it King Solomon's Mines?
Or the other one? A hidden treasure, an ancient daemon come to protect it, destroying all who got in its way. Yes, that would make a delicious story.
The mule brayed. Probably wanted to dump me off (or take a dump of its own).
"Shut up, you ass."
Thankfully, there was no one around to see how much the sun had affected my brain. Maybe the spectre was not a fabled tomb guardian, but just a figment of my scorched brain.