The queen of the damned, p.31

The Queen Of The Damned, page 31

 part  #3 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


The Queen Of The Damned

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Chapter 28


  "At first I thought it was Amel doing some trick, and I awoke in a frenzy. But Khayman gestured for me to be quiet. He was in a terrible state. He wore only a simple bed gown and no sandals, and his hair was mussed. It seemed he'd been weeping. His eyes were red.

  "He sat down beside me. Tell me, is this true, what you said of the spirits?' I didn't bother to tell him it was Mekare who said it. People always confused us or thought of us as one being. I merely to!d him, yes, it was true.

  "I explained that there have always been these invisible entities; that they themselves had told us there were no gods or goddesses of which they knew. They had bragged to us often of the tricks they played at Sumer or Jericho or in Nineveh at the great temples. Now and then they would come booming that they were this or that god. But we knew their personalities, and when we called them by their old names, they gave up the new game at once.

  "What I did not say was that I wished Mekare had never made known such things. What purpose could it serve now?

  "He sat there defeated, listening to me, listening as if he had been a man lied to all his life and now he saw truth. For he had been deeply moved when he had seen the spirits strike up the wind on our mountain and he had seen a shower of leaves fall upon the soldiers; it had chilled his soul. And that is always what produces , that mixture of truth and a physical manifestation.

  'But then I perceived there was an even greater burden upon his conscience, or on his reason, one might say. 'And the massacre of your people, this was a holy war; it was not a selfish thing, as you said. '

  " 'Oh, no,' I told him. 'It was a selfish and simple thing, I can't say otherwise. ' I told him of the tablet sent to us by the messenger, of what the spirits had said, of my mother's fear and her illness, and of my own power to hear the truth in the Queen's words, the truth which she herself might not be able to accept.

  "But long before I'd finished, he was defeated again. He knew, from his own observations, that what I was saying was true. He had fought at the King's side through many a campaign against foreign peoples. That an army should fight for gain was nothing to him. He had seen massacres and cities burned; he had seen slaves taken; he had seen men return laden with booty. And though he himself was no soldier, these things he understood.

  "But there had been no booty worth taking in our villages; there had been no territory which the King would retain. Yes, it had been fought for our capture, he knew it. And he too felt the distaste for the lie of a holy war against flesh eaters. And he felt a sadness that was even greater than his defeat. He was of an old family; he had eaten the flesh of his ancestors; and he found himself now punishing such traditions among those whom he had known and loved. He thought of the mummification of the dead with repugnance, but more truly he felt repugnance for the ceremony which accompanied it, for the depth of superstition in which the land had been steeped. So much wealth heaped upon the dead; so much attention to those putrefying bodies simply so men and women would not feel guilty for abandoning the older customs.

  "Such thoughts exhausted him; they weren't natural to him; what obsessed him finally were the deaths he had seen; executions; massacres. Just as the Queen could not grasp such things, he could not forget them and he was a man losing his stamina; a man drawn into a mire in which he might drown.

  "Finally he took his leave of me. But before he went he promised that he would do his best to see that we were released. He did not know how he could do it, but he would try to do it. And he begged me not to be afraid. I felt a great love for him at thai moment. He had then the same beautiful face and form which he has now; only then he was dark-skinned and leaner and the curls had been ironed from his hair and it had been plaited and hung long to his shoulders, and he had the air of the court about him, the air of one who commands, and one who stands in the warm love of his prince.

  "The following morning the Queen sent for us again. And this time we were brought privately to her chamber, where only the King was with her, and Khayman.

  "It was a more lavish place even than the great hall of the palace; it was stuffed to overflowing with fine things, with a couch made of carved leopards, and a bed hung with sheer silk; and with polished mirrors of seemingly magical perfection. And the Queen herself, like a temptress she was, bedecked with finery and perfume, and fashioned by nature into a thing as lovely as any treasure around her.

  "Once again she put her questions.

  "Standing together, our hands bound, we had to listen to the same nonsense.

  "And once again Mekare told the Queen of the spirits; she explained that the spirits have always existed; she told how they bragged of playing with the priests of other lands. She told how the spirits had said the songs and chants of the Egyptians pleased them. It was all a game to the spirits, and no more.

  " 'But these spirits! They are the gods, then, that is what you are saying!* Akasha said with great fervor. 'And you speak to them? I want to see you do it! Do it for me now. '

  " 'But they are not gods,' I said. That is what we are trying to tell you. And they do not abhor the eaters of the flesh as you say your gods do. They don't care about such things. They never have. ' Painstakingly I strove to convey the difference; these spirits had no code; they were morally inferior to us. Yet I knew this woman couldn't grasp what I was telling her.

  "I perceived the war inside her, between the handmaiden of the goddess Inanna who wanted to believe herself blessed, and the dark brooding soul who believed finally in nothing. A chill place was her soul; her religious fervor was nothing but a blaze which she fed constantly, seeking to warm that chill place.

  " 'Everything you say is a lie!' she said finally. 'You are evil women!' She ordered our execution. We should be burnt alive the next day and together, so that we might see each other suffer and die. Why had she ever bothered with us?

  "At once the King interrupted her. He told her that he had seen the power of the spirits; so had Khayman. What might not the spirits do if we were so treated? Wouldn't it be better to let us go?

  "But there was something ugly and hard in the Queen's gaze. The King's words meant nothing; our lives were being taken from us. What could we do? And it seemed she was angry with us because we had not been able to frame our truths in ways which she could use or take pleasure in. Ah, it was an agony to deal with her. Yet her mind is a common mind; there are countless human beings who think and feel as she did then; and does now, in all likelihood.

  "Finally Mekare seized the moment. She did the thing which I did not dare to do. She called the spirits-all of them by name, but so quickly this Queen would never remember the words. She screamed for them to come to her and do her bidding; and she told them to show their displeasure at what was happening to those mortals-Maharet and Mekare-whom they claimed to love.

  "It was a gamble. But if nothing happened, if they had deserted us as I feared, well, then she could call on Amel, for he was there, lurking, waiting. And it was the only chance we had finally.

  "Within an instant the wind had begun. It howled through the courtyard and whistled through the corridors of the palace. The draperies were torn by it; doors slammed; fragile vessels were smashed. The Queen was in a state of terror as she felt it surround her. Then small objects began to fly through the air. The spirits gathered up the ornaments of her dressing table and hurled them at her; the King stood beside her, striving to protect her, and Khayman was rigid with fear.

  "Now, this was the very limit of the spirits' power; and they would not be able to keep it up for very long. But before the demonstration stopped, Khayman begged the King and Queen to revoke the sentence of execution. And on the spot they did.

  "At once Mekare, sensing that the spirits were spent anyway, ordered them with great pomp to stop. Silence fell. And the terrified slaves ran here and there to gather up what had been thrown about.

  "The Queen was overcome. The King tried to tell her that he had seen this spectacle before and it had not
harmed him; but something deep had been violated within the Queen's heart. She'd never witnessed the slightest proof of the supernatural; and she was struck dumb and still now. In that dark faithless place within her, there had been a spark of light; true light. And so old and certain was her secret skepticism, that this small miracle had been for her a revelation of great magnitude; it was as if she had seen the face of her gods.

  "She sent the King and Khayman away from her. She said she would speak with us alone. And then she implored us to talk to the spirits so that she could hear it. There were tears in her eyes.

  "It was an extraordinary moment, for I sensed now what I'd sensed months ago when I'd touched the clay tablet-a mixture of good and evil that seemed more dangerous than evil itself.

  "Of course we couldn't make the spirits speak so that she could understand it, we told her. But perhaps she would give us some questions that they might answer. At once she did.

  "These were no more than the questions which people have been putting to wizards and witches and saints ever since. 'Where is the necklace I lost as a child? What did my mother want to tell me the night she died when she could no longer speak? Why does my sister detest my company? Will my son grow to manhood? Will he be brave and strong?'

  "Struggling for our lives, we put these questions patiently to the spirits, cajoling them and flattering them to make them pay attention. And we got answers which veritably astonished Aka-sha. The spirits knew the name of her sister; they knew the name of her son. She seemed on the edge of madness as she considered these simple tricks.

  "Then Amel, the evil one, appeared-obviously jealous of all these goings-on-and suddenly flung down before Akasha the lost necklace of which she'd been speaking-a necklace lost in Uruk; and this was the final blow. Akasha was thunderstruck.

  "She wept now, holding on to this necklace. And then she begged us to put to the spirits the really important questions whose answers she must know.

  "Yes, the gods were made up by her people, the spirits said. No, the names in the prayers didn't matter. The spirits merely liked the music and rhythm of the language-the shape of the words, so to speak. Yes, there were bad spirits who liked to hurt people, and why not? And there were good spirits who loved them, too. And would they speak to Akasha if we were to leave the kingdom? Never. They were speaking now, and she couldn't hear them, what did she expect them to do? But yes, there were witches in the kingdom who could hear them, and they would tell those witches to come to the court at once if that was what she wanted.

  "But as this communication progressed, a terrible change came over Akasha.

  "She went from jubilance to suspicion and then misery. Because these spirits were only telling her the same dismal things that we had already told her.

  " 'What do you know of the life after?' she asked. And when the spirits said only that the souls of the dead either hovered about the earth, confused and suffering, or rose and vanished from it completely, she was brutally disappointed. Her eyes dulled; she was losing all appetite for this. When she asked what of those who had lived bad lives, as opposed to those who had lived good lives, the spirits could give no answer. They didn't know what she meant.

  "Yet it continued, this interrogation. And we could sense that the spirits were tiring of it, and playing with her now, and that the answers would become more and more idiotic.

  " 'What is the will of the gods?' she asked. 'That you sing all the time,' said the spirits. 'We like it. '

  "Then all of a sudden, Amel, the evil one, so proud of the trick with the necklace, flung another great string of jewels before Akasha. But from this she shrank back in horror.

  "At once we saw the error. It had been her mother's necklace, and lay on her mother's body in the tomb near Uruk, and of course Amel, being only a spirit, couldn't guess how bizarre and distasteful it could be to bring this thing here. Even now he did not catch on. He had seen this necklace in Akasha's mind when she had spoken of the other one. Why didn't she want it too? Didn't she like necklaces?

  "Mekare told Amel this had not pleased. It was the wrong miracle. Would he please wait for her command, as she understood this Queen and he didn't.

  "But it was too late. Something had happened to the Queen which was irrevocable. She had seen two pieces of evidence as to the power of the spirits, and she had heard truth and nonsense, neither of which could compare to the beauty of the mythology of her gods which she had always forced herself to believe in. Yet the spirits were destroying her fragile faith. How would she ever escape the dark skepticism in her own soul if these demonstrations continued?

  "She bent down and picked up the necklace from her mother's tomb. 'How was this got!* she demanded. But her heart wasn't really in the question. She knew the answer would be more of what she'd been hearing since we had arrived. She was frightened.

  "Nevertheless I explained; and she listened to every word.

  "The spirits read our minds; and they are enormous and powerful. Their true size is difficult for us to imagine; and they can move with the swiftness of thought; when Akasha thought of this second necklace, the spirit saw it; he went to look for it; after all, one necklace had pleased her, so why not another? And so he had found it in her mother's tomb; and brought it out by means perhaps of some small opening. For surely it could not pass through stone. That was ridiculous.

  "But as I said this last part I realized the truth. This necklace had probably been stolen from the body of Akasha's mother, and very possibly by Akasha's father. It had never been buried in any tomb. That is why Amel could find it. Maybe even a priest had stolen it. Or so it very likely seemed to Akasha, who was holding the necklace in her hand. She loathed this spirit that he made known such an awful thing to her.

  "In sum, all the illusions of this woman lay now in complete ruin; yet she was left with the sterile truth she had always known. She had asked her questions of the supernatural-a very unwise thing to do-and the supernatural had given her answers which she could not accept; yet she could not refute them either.

  " 'Where are the souls of the dead?" she whispered, staring at this necklace.

  "As softly as I could I said, The spirits simply do not know. '

  "Horror. Fear. And then her mind began to work, to do what it had always done-find some grand system to explain away what caused pain; some grand way to accommodate what she saw before her. The dark secret place inside her was becoming larger; it was threatening to consume her from within; she could not let such a thing happen; she had to go on. She was the Queen of Kernel.

  "On the other hand, she was angry, and the rage she felt was against her parents and against her teachers, and against the priests and priestesses of her childhood, and against the gods she had worshiped and against anyone who had ever comforted her, or told her that life was good.

  "A moment of silence had fallen; something was happening in her expression; fear and wonder had gone; there was something cold and disenchanted and, finally, malicious in her gaze.

  "And then with her mother's necklace in hand she rose and declared that all we had said were lies. These were demons to whom we were speaking, demons who sought to subvert her and her gods, who looked with favor upon her people. The more she spoke the more she believed what she was saying; the more the elegance of her beliefs seized her; the more she surrendered to their logic. Until finally she was weeping and denouncing us, and the darkness within had been denied. She evoked the images of her gods; she evoked her holy language.

  "But then she looked again at the necklace; and the evil spirit, Amel, in a great rage-furious that she was not pleased with his little gift and was once again angry with us-told us to tell her that if she did us any harm he would hurl at her every object, jewel, wine cup, looking glass, comb, or other such item that she ever so much as asked for, or imagined, or remembered, or wished for, or missed.

  "I could have laughed had we not been in such danger; it was such a wonderful solution in the mind of the spirit; and s
o perfectly ridiculous from a human point of view. Yet it certainly wasn't something that one would want to happen.

  "And Mekare told Akasha exactly what Amel had said.

  " 'He that can produce this necklace can inundate you in such reminders of suffering,' Mekare said. 'And I do not know that any witch on earth can stop him, should he so begin. '

  " 'Where is he?' Akasha screamed. 'Let me see this demon thing you speak to!'

  "And at this, Amel, in vanity and rage, concentrated all his power and dove at Akasha, declaring 'I am Amel, the evil one, who pierces!' and he made the great gale around her that he had made around our mother; only it was ten times that. Never had I seen such fury. The room itself appeared to tremble as this immense spirit compressed himself and directed himself into this tiny place. I could hear the cracking of the brick walls. And all over the Queen's beautiful face and arms the tiny bitelike wounds appeared as so many red dots of blood.

  "She screamed helplessly. Amel was in ecstasy. Amel could do wondrous things! Mekare and I were in terror.

  "Mekare commanded him to stop. And now she heaped flattery upon him, and great thanks, and told him he was very simply the most powerful of all spirits, but he must obey her now, to demonstrate his great wit as well as his power; and that she would allow him to strike again at the right time.

  "Meantime, the King rushed to the aid of Akasha; Khayman ran to her; all the guards ran to her. But when the guards raised their swords to strike us down, she ordered them to leave us alone. Mekare and I stood staring at her, silently threatening her with this spirit's power, for it was all that we had left. And Amel, the evil one, hovered above us, filling the air with the most eerie of all sounds, the great hollow laughter of a spirit, that seemed then to fill the entire world.

  "Alone in our cell again, we could not think what to do or how to use what little advantage we now had in Amel.

  "As for Amel himself, he would not leave us. He ranted and stormed in the little cell; he made the reed mats rustle, and made our garments move; he sent winds through our hair. It was a nuisance. But what frightened me was to hear the things of which he boasted. That he liked to draw blood; that it plumped him up inside and made him slow; but that it tasted good; and when the peoples of the world made blood sacrifice upon their altars he liked to come down and slurp up that blood. After all, it was there for him, was it not? More laughter.

  "There was a great recoiling in the other spirits. Mekare and I both sensed this. Except for those who were faintly jealous and demanded to know what this blood tasted like, and why he liked such a thing so much.

  "And then it came out-that hatred and jealousy of the flesh which is in so many evil spirits, that feeling that we are abominations, we humans, because we have both body and soul, which should not exist on this earth. Amel ranted of the times when there had been but mountains and oceans and forests and no living things such as us. He told us that to have spirit within mortal bodies was a curse.

  "Now, I had heard these complaints among the evil ones before; but I had never thought much about them. For the first time I believed them, just a little, as I lay there and I saw my people put to the sword in my mind's eye. I thought as many a man or woman has thought before and since that maybe it was a curse to have the concept of immortality without the body to go with it.

  "Or as you said, on this very night, Marius-life seemed not worth it; it seemed a joke. My world was darkness at that moment, darkness and suffering. All that I was no longer mattered; nothing I looked at could make me want to be alive.

  "But Mekare began to speak to Amel again, informing him that she would much rather be what she was than what he was- drifting about forever with nothing important to do. And this sent Amel into a rage again. He would show her what he could do!

  " 'When I command you, Amel!* she said. 'Count upon me to choose the moment. Then all men will know what you can do. ' And this childish vain spirit was contented, and spread himself out again over the dark sky.

  "For three nights and days we were kept prisoner. The guards would not look at us or come near us. Neither would the slaves. In fact, we would have starved had it not been for Khayman, the royal steward, who brought us food with his own hands.

  "Then he told us what the spirits had already told us. A great controversy raged; the priests wanted us put to death. But the Queen was afraid to kill us, that we'd loose these spirits on her, and there would be no way she could drive them off. The King was intrigued by what had happened; he believed that more could be learned from us; he was curious about the power of the spirits, and to what uses it could be put. But the Queen feared it; the Queen had seen enough.

  "Finally we were brought before the entire court in the great open atrium of the palace.

  "It was high noon in the kingdom and the King and Queen made their offerings to the sun god Ra as was the custom, and this we were made to watch. It meant nothing to us to see this solemnity; we were afraid these were the last hours of our lives. I dreamed then of our mountain, our caves; I dreamed of the children we might have borne-fine sons and daughters, and some of them who would have inherited our power-I dreamed of the life that had been taken from us, of the annihilation of our kith and kindred which might soon be complete. I thanked whatever powers that be that I could see blue sky above my head, and that Mekare and I were still together.

  "At last the King spoke. There was a terrible sadness and weariness in him. Young as he was, he had something of an old man's soul in these moments. Ours was a great gift, he told us, but we had misused it, clearly, and could be no use to anyone else. For lies, for the worship of demons, for black magic, he denounced us. He would have us burned, he said, to please the people; but he and his Queen felt sorry for us. The Queen in particular wanted him to have mercy on us.

  "It was a damnable lie, but one look at her face told us she'd convinced herself that it was true. And of course the King believed it. But what did this matter? What was this mercy, we wondered, trying to look deeper into their souls.

  "And now the Queen told us in tender words that our great magic had brought her the two necklaces she most wanted in all the world and for this and this alone she would let us live. In sum, the lie she spun grew larger and more intricate, and more distant from the truth.

  "And then the King said he would release us, but first he would demonstrate to all the court that we had no power, and therefore the priests would be appeased.

  "And if at any moment an evil demon should manifest himself and seek to abuse the just worshipers of Ra or Osiris, then our pardon should be revoked and we should be put to death at once. For surely the power of our demons would die with us. And we would have forfeited the Queen's mercy which we scarce deserved as it was.

  "Of course we realized what was to happen; we saw it now in the hearts of the King and the Queen. A compromise had been struck. And we had been offered a bargain. As the King removed his gold chain and medallion and put it around the neck of Khayman, we knew that we were to be raped before the court, raped as common female prisoners or slaves would have been raped in any war. And if we called the spirits we'd die. That was our position.

  " 'But for the love of my Queen,' said Enkil, 'I would take my pleasure of these two women, which is my right; I would do it before you all to show that they have no power and are not great witches, but are merely women, and my chief steward, Khayman, my beloved Khayman, will be given the privilege of doing it in my stead. '

  "All the court waited in silence as Khayman looked at us, and prepared to obey the King's command. We stared at him, daring him in our helplessness not to do it-not to lay hands upon us or to violate us, before these uncaring eyes.

  "We could feel the pain in him and the tumult. We could feel the danger that surrounded him, for were he to disobey he would surely have died. Yet this was our honor he meant to take; he meant to desecrate us; ruin us as it were; and we who had lived always in the sunshine and peace on our mountain knew nothing reall
y of the act which he meant to perform.

  "I think, as he came towards us, I believed he could not do it, that a man could not feel the pain which he felt and still sharpen his passion for this ugly work. But I knew little of men then, of how the pleasures of the flesh can combine in them with hatred and anger; of how they can hurt as they perform the act which women perform, more often than not, for love.

  "Our spirits clamored against what was to happen; but for our very lives, we told them to be quiet. Silently I pressed Mekare's hand; I gave her to know that we would live when this was over; we would be free; this was not death after all; and we would leave these miserable desert people to their lies and their illusions; to their idiot customs; we would go home.

  "And then Khayman set about to do what he had to do. Khayman untied our bonds; he took Mekare to himself first, forcing her down on her back against the matted floor, and lifting her gown, as I stood transfixed and unable to stop him, and then I was subjected to the same fate.

  "But in his mind, we were not the women whom Khayman raped. As his soul trembled, as his body trembled, he stoked the fire of his passion with fantasies of nameless beauties and half remembered moments so that body and soul could be one.

  "And we, our eyes averted, closed our souls to him and to these vile Egyptians who had done to us these terrible things; our souls were alone and untouched within our bodies; and all around us, I heard without doubt the weeping of the spirits, the sad, terrible weeping, and in the distance, the low rolling thunder of Amel.

  "You are fools to bear this, witches.

  "It was nightfall when we were left at the edge of the desert. The soldiers gave us what food and drink was allowed. It was nightfall as we started our long journey north. Our rage then was as great as it had ever been.

  "And Amel came, taunting us and raging at us; why did we not want him to exact vengeance?

  " 'They will come after us and kill us!' Mekare said. 'Now go away from us. ' But that did not do the trick. So finally she tried to put Amel to work on something important. 'Amel, we want to reach our home alive. Make cool winds for us; and show us where we can find water. '

  "But these are things which evil spirits never do. Amel lost interest. And Amel faded away, and we walked on through the cold desert wind, arm in arm, trying not to think of the miles that lay before us.

  "Many things befell us on our long journey which are too numerous here to tell.

  "But the good spirits had not deserted us; they made the cooling winds, and they led us to springs where we could find water and a few dates to eat; and they made 'little rain' for us as long as they could; but finally we were too deep in the desert for such a thing, and we were dying, and I knew I had a child from Khayman in my womb, and I wanted my child to live.

  "It was then that the spirits led us to the Bedouin peoples, and they took us in, they cared for us.

  "I was sick, and for days I lay singing to my child inside my body, and driving away my sickness and my moments of worst remembering with my songs. Mekare lay beside me, holding me in her arms.

  "Months passed before I was strong enough to leave the Bedouin camps, and then I wanted my child to be born in our land and I begged Mekare that we should continue our journey.

  "At last, with the food and drink the Bedouins had given us, and the spirits to guide us, we came into the green fields of Palestine, and found the foot of the mountain and the shepherd peoples-so like our own tribe-who had come down to claim our old grazing places.

  "They knew us as they had known our mother and all our kindred and they called us by name, and immediately took us in.

  "And we were so happy again, among the green grasses and the trees and the flowers that we knew, and my child was growing bigger inside my womb. It would live; the desert had not killed it.

  "So, in my own land I gave birth to my daughter and named her Miriam as my mother had been named before me. She had Khayman's black hair but the green eyes of her mother. And the love I felt for her and the joy I knew in her were the greatest curative my soul could desire. We were three again. Mekare, who knew the birth pain with me, and who lifted the child out of my body, carried Miriam in her arms by the hour and sang to her just as I did. The child was ours, as much as it was mine. And we tried to forget the horrors we had seen in Egypt.

  "Miriam thrived. And finally Mekare and I vowed to climb the mountain and find the caves in which we'd been born. We did not know yet how we would live or what we would do, so many miles from our new people. But with Miriam, we would go back to the place where we had been so happy; and we would call the spirits to us, and we would make the miracle of rain to bless my newborn child.

  "But this was never to be. Not any of it.
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