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In the beginning was the Sun -- Ra. Under His fiery gaze stretched the serpentine dunes that marked the home of His tribe, the people of the desert who called upon Him as Sky Father and on His Lady as both Moon Goddess and Earth Mother.
For generations the children of Ra traveled the desert, living in harmony with the harsh elements and fellow travelers of their land, setting up their colorful tents at the various sanctuaries given to them by their Father, oases nourished by the life-blood bubbling out of their Mother. It was at these camps that the tribe would hold their festivals, inviting the other desert people to join them in their magic and merry making; and racing and trading the fine-boned horses that were the pride of the tribe.
At the center of the camp stood the large striped tents of the Spirit Guild -- the heart of the tribe -- a cadre of priests and priestesses who swore binding oaths to each other and to their Gods in return for the gifts they were given to serve their people. The Guild served as teachers, healers, musicians, dancers, animal tamers, guides, water finders, seekers, storytellers and diviners. They lived as a family, joined by bonds of blood, marriage and magic. Their oaths bound them to a very deliberate life... whether in passion or pain, even the smallest of decisions had consequences, and all events had meaning. They had surrendered their wills to the Will of the Gods and walked even the hardest roads with contentment, knowing that everything in life happened for a reason.
Each member of the Guild was marked with a sacred symbol -- two writhing snakes joined at their tails by the Eye of Ra, in the shape of an 'S'. This symbol placed the wearer under the protection of Ra the Father, but also served as a constant reminder of the promises made to Ra the Oathtaker when the mark was made -- oaths that could not be broken even in death.
It was during the preparations for the funeral of the leaders of the tribe -- the Lady and her Consort -- that the strangers appeared -- two brothers dressed as warriors, following the scent of death like vultures, hoping to serve as the swift arm of revenge...for a price. They were bemused to find the matrilineal tribe was now lead by twin sisters, the daughters of the previous Lady. They were not as amused by the young women's quiet acceptance of their Lady's death. Rather than seeking revenge, they were content to let the Gods work Their will and balance the scales of Ma'at in Their own good time. The brothers were preparing to ride back out into the desert when the women invited them to stay and enjoy the hospitality of the upcoming funeral feast. Although the brothers found this tribe's gentle attitude strange and disconcerting, journeys through the desert are long and hard, and offers of hospitality, especially when made by mismatched twin sisters -- one bright like starlight on water, the other dark like a moonless desert night -- are few and far between.
After the feast the two brothers walked to the top of a dune to discuss their next day's ride and to observe the strange and, to them, primitive funeral rituals of the peculiar desert tribe. The dune looked over a large bowl-shaped depression near the encampment. There the members of the tribe were gathered around the pyres of their deceased leaders. As the brothers watched, a procession of the Guild -- each robed and veiled in garments made exclusively of their personal colors -- walked from the camp to the gathering below. The two sisters -- the darker garbed in rich green; the lighter in brilliant purple -- lead the procession hand in hand. The others followed in single file, like a rainbow flowing across the sand.
As they approached, the sound of the drums carried by several of the Guild began echoing off the surrounding dunes, signaling the beginning of the ritual. The procession circled the pyres, spiraling in until the two sisters and a companion couple reached the bonfire at the center of the sacred space cast by the bodies and will of their Guildmates. As the drums changed tempo, the priestesses sat together in the sand-- facing each other, their hands almost touching -- and the couple with them began to dance. The woman was garbed in red and was draped with living serpents which joined her in the dance, coiling around her neck and waist, spiraling up and down her arms as the drumbeat intensified. On the other side of the fire, her companion -- a man dressed in the deepest midnight blue -- lost himself in an ecstatic trance, his body and spirit guided around the circle by the collective heartbeat of his tribe. Beyond the circle formed by the Guild the rest of the tribe gathered -- some dancing, some drumming -- all sending their energy to the focal points of the circle -- the pyres, the sisters, the dancers.
From their vantage point on the dune the two brothers watched intently, each mesmerized by the sight before them, but for very different reasons. One brother watched with avarice, seeing only the wealth of the tribe and the beauty of its women, feeling only a raw desire to possess them as his own. The other watched in wonder, seeing the aura of magic spread from the hands of the sisters out to the dancers, then to the Guild circle, and finally reaching out to encompass the entire tribe. It was unlike anything he'd seen before, even in the most elaborate rituals of his homeland, those lead by his father, who ruled as both king and high priest. As he watched, the glowing serpent of energy continued to spiral out -- reaching towards him -- calling him to the center. He stood and began to walk towards the glowing circle. He felt his brother grab at the back of his jerkin, but against the call of the magic it had no more strength than the grasp of a newborn.
Ignoring his brother's calls, he continued toward the ritual circle. As he crossed the outermost circle formed by the tribe, the sisters opened their eyes and met his unfocused gaze. As he approached the inner circle of the Guild, the drumming stopped and the drummers focused their attention on him as well. As the final drumbeats faded, the dancers also stopped and turned toward the entranced mercenary. In a silence broken only by the sharp sounds of the bonfire, one of the serpents slipped off the Snake Dancer onto the sand and approached him. He felt frozen in place -- awestruck, but unafraid. As it climbed his body and coiled around his arm, the dancer approached. When she reached out to retrieve her familiar, another serpent joined her arm to his. On their outstretched arms the two serpents danced, each in turn weaving close to his face, then hers, drawing them to meet each others eyes. As they did, it was as if a burst of light had gone off in his eyes and instead of the present he saw visions of the future, and felt both joy and pain beyond his understanding.
When he returned to the present he found that the dancer had retrieved her serpents and returned to the fire, leaving him face to face with the twin priestesses. He looked from one to the other, seeing reflections of his visions in the light of their eyes. As they each took one of his hands and lead him out into the desert, away from the continuing ritual, he looked over his shoulder toward his brother. He saw him silhouetted at the top of the dune, sword drawn, and a chill ran down his spine.
As the mercenary prince and the sisters walked together into the darkness of the desert, two shadowy figures left the ritual circle and followed at a discrete distance. The tall, thin one -- known as 'Nomad' in honor of his wandering past -- was barely recognizable as the trance dancer, for he had changed his midnight blue Guild robe for the jet black garb and fine Damascus steel of a guardian. The other man, who was slightly shorter but much heavier, was his sword brother and fellow guardian, but was not a member of the Guild. The two had served as bodyguards, companions and teachers to the young priestesses since the girls' fifth birthday and it spoke well of their skills and vigilance that the mischievous young women had survived to succeed their Lady as leaders of the tribe and the Guild.
Their wariness would serve them well again on this night, for the hot-tempered brother of the bewitched prince was also on the move, determined to share (or more likely steal) the women his brother had dared to sneak away with. His fear and distrust of the magic had only spurred his anger and lust to greater heights and as he trailed them into the darkness he fantasized about beating his brother back into his rightfully subordinate role and then taking both of the women in front of him as he lay there bleeding, thus satisfying two of his favorite pursuits at once. His thoughts distracted him so much that he did not sense the guardians approach him until it was too late. The last thing he saw before he was knocked unconscious was his brother stretched out on the sand with a priestess lying on either side of him. As his eyelids flickered closed he thought he saw a glowing ball of light leave the women's clasped hands and enter his brother's chest.
While the heavier guardian dragged the would-be ravager away and Nomad resumed his quiet watchfulness, the priestesses continued their private ritual. The darker sister, Zohara -- the eldest and therefore the new Lady of the tribe -- wanted to take the mercenary prince as her Lord and King, rather than the servile Consort her father had been. She and her sister, Aostara, had long discussed overturning the domination of men passed down to them as tradition from their Lady's line, having learned from their lovers, guardians and brothers that men and women could live and work as equal partners. Now, with the death of the previous Lady, Zohara wanted to start her own tradition. Aostara knew that precious few of the tribe were ready to accept a "feral beast out of the night" (as she had heard several of them comment) as their Lady's lover, let alone the heretical concept of making him of all people a King. Perhaps one of their own... but she could see that her sister's heart was already lost to the prince, as his was to her. So, since no one could refuse her sister anything she truly desired -- least of all her -- she agreed to take the mercenary into her household as a slave and train him to know the true price and pride of service, since a true King must be the servant of his people. It was obvious from his brother's actions that such understanding was sorely lacking in the kingdom of their birth. The trick, and the goal of their ritual, would be to ensnare the young prince into the life of a slave without him realizing it until the deed was done and he was too far removed from his old life to ever want to return.
The beginning of the young prince's transformation the part of the ritual that his brother had witnessed was his renaming from Jacob to Ziusud. As young girls the sisters had heard the stories of Ziusudra, a pious and wise leader who had saved his people from the great flood and earned eternal life as his reward; and although he could not earn the honorific 'Ra' until he was ready to swear his oaths and have the sacred symbol of the Guild permanently cut into his flesh, the sisters hoped that the subtle significance of his new name would influence the slave's progress. With the energy they raised, they spoke the name and their dreams of the future directly to his heart; with gentle whispers they encouraged the awestruck young virgin (for so they had learned from his brother's crude boasting) to undress. As Zohara began the chant that would join them in spirit for the prince's physical initiation into their world, Aostara reopened the cut on the back of her left hand and offered her oath to Ra and His Ladies in return for Ziusud's acceptance of his new life, she would have no lovers other than him until his training was done. As she slipped out of her robe and into his arms, she felt Zohara's presence enter her mind and she gazed upon the naked prince with a strange double vision. With Zohara's empty shell waiting patiently nearby, the twinned spirits bound the prince to his new life using tricks passed down to them from that most ancient of temptresses, Lilith.
Stretching like a cat, Aostara watched as Ziusud awoke to the brilliant colors of a desert sunrise and tried to get his bearings. Zohara had only a few moments before disappeared over the dunes toward their encampment, her body cold and stiff after a long night of sitting unattended. His blue eyes met hers shyly at first, then grew sharp as memory of the night before returned. She realized immediately that this one, with his strange combination of submissiveness and arrogance, was going to be a challenge. As he reached for her, she rose. Tossing him a cutting glance and a curt "You'll do," she allowed Nomad to help her into her robe and followed her sister's fading footsteps. "Nomad, bring him to my tent and get him settled in," was all she said as she left, but she couldn't resist looking back to see the former prince's response. He sat naked in the sand, confused, but quickly grabbed his clothes and rose to follow her.
Ziusud's instruction went both more slowly and more quickly than Aostara had anticipated. He was a bright boy, with a quick wit and ready sense of humor, and showed a natural aptitude for entertainment as well as cooking. There were many nights that, after preparing and serving the feast at one of the parties she and her sister were infamous for, Ziusud would entertain them and their guests with songs and stories of the places he'd been and the oddities he'd seen. But it was after those nights, when faced with stacks of pots to be scrubbed and piles of newly stained rugs to be cleaned that his princely arrogance reawakened, perhaps roused by the memories of his days o n the road with his brother, who was a grim and skulking shadow at each feast. It was on those days that Aostara, often with Zohara's help, had to come up with inventive humiliations for the boy, for other than keeping him from seeing Zohara by closing the heavy flaps between their tents or sending her on a journey into the desert that was his most feared punishment. It most often involved counting, the one part of the language that did not come easily to him. She herself lost count of the times she sent him off to capture a certain number of animals for a feast only to twist the words around just when he thought he was done, daring him to contradict her. After the first few times, each one marked by several days without a glimpse of Zohara, he learned not to, but she often saw him quieting repeating the numbers to himself, counting on his fingers over and over again.
The one punishment she never used was the one he most expected physical violence. It made him feel, despite his ever-present duties and leather bindings, that he wasn't truly a slave, for in his father's kingdom no slave was left unbeaten, or given enough food to eat, or a clean pallet to lay on. But the children of Ra did not keep slaves out of cruelty, but rather to teach vital lessons of humility, service, and, paradoxically, self-worth and self-confidence. Once the lesson was learned, the slave was either released or transferred to another teacher. Even the twin sisters spent time in servitude, learning to control their willfulness lest it control them, and honing their intuition of others' unspoken needs to better serve the tribe some of the very lessons that Aostara struggled to teach Ziusud. She missed her own master's good advice now that she had stepped into his role, for Ziusud was the first she was to train on her own.
Denatra and Faruk sang one of the traveling songs of their tribe as they rode, moving comfortably with the sway of their camels. They resisted the urge to hurry their mounts, knowing that they were finally within minutes of their tribe's encampment and reunion with their family. It had been a long and lonely six months in Damascus for Denatra, serving out the next step of his apprenticeship with the same master craftsman who had forged the blades of the guardians, so he'd been pleasantly surprised when Faruk arrived to accompany him home. They were as close as brothers, but it wasn't often Faruk left the tribe for more than a day's ride, let alone the several weeks it often took to travel to and from Damascus. As always, he was mysterious about his reasons, much like his namesake, for 'Faruk' was a nickname taken from the stories they had loved as children about a wise and magical cat who was both a trickster and a teacher. It was highly fitting and what everyone called him, except his younger sister who had dubbed him 'Fuki' when she was too young to manage his Guild name, Fukhara. He had simply commented that he had felt it was an appropriate time to be away from camp.
As they entered the outskirts of the camp, a buzz started and quickly spread. "The young masters have returned! Have they heard? Do the twins know they're back?" proceeded them into the encampment. They exchanged puzzled glances as they halted their camels in front of the conjoined tents of the sisters. As the flaps flew open and a flurry of animals burst forth, the young men truly felt at home, for their soft-hearted sisters had ever brought home every half-starved and wounded creature for the Lady to heal and ended up keeping most of them as pets. Their feet had barely hit the sand before Zohara and Aostara threw themselves into their arms, laughing and crying at the same time, explaining as briefly as they could the death of the Lady and her Consort and the strange guests at the funeral. As the women spoke, their brothers noticed the constant shadows of the guardians, as always, and a new face a fresh young slave with a prideful bearing, who stared at them curiously.
Ziusud was confused. He'd often wondered how twin sisters could look so different and now he was confronted with their equally mismatched older brothers, one light like his mistress, the other dark like his heart's desire. And the way they looked at each other, dark to light it was not the way he was taught siblings should look at one another. Flustered, he slipped into the tent and began setting out refreshments for the travelers. As the four entered the tent, Aostara noticed his suddenly perfect obedience, a sure sign that Ziusud was feeling unsure of himself and was desperate to get something under his control. Stepping slightly away from the others, she confronted him, demanding to know his thoughts. As he stammered out his confusion, she began to laugh. "Don't you know anything, Ziusud? Of course you don't, you feral beast!" she cried, for the first of many, many times. Still laughing, she explained to the abashed former prince that although she and Zohara were born on the same day and were twins in soul, they were born of different mothers. Faruk and Zohara's mother was the Lady whose funeral rite he had witnessed, while she and Denatra were born to the Lady's younger sister and handmaiden, who still stayed primarily in her tent, deeply in mourning for her sister. She also explained to him that she and her sister had their own time of service from dark until dawn Faruk was her master, as Denatra was Zohara's. As she watched the conflicting emotions cross Ziusud's face, she experienced a mixture of her own on the one hand, her oath would greatly change her relationship with Faruk (and to a lesser degree, with Nomad), but on the other hand, Denatra's return would give her plenty of opportunity to teach Ziusud some profound lessons on the futility of jealousy. She would just have Ziusud move his pallet so that he would have an unobstructed view of Zohara's bedchamber on the nights that Denatra was home.
When she joined the others at the low table for refreshments, she could see the questions in the men's eyes, and in the way Denatra stroked his beard with both hands. She knew it would only be a matter of time before "Now what have you girls done?" Faruk asked, repeating the constant refrain of their childhood. Aostara looked to her sister, expecting that she would as usual begin the explanation her brother requested. Instead she found Zohara lost in dreams, staring at Ziusud across the tent, while he found tasks that would allow him to sneak glances at her as well. Sighing, she turned to her brother and master. "Look at them with your own eyes and tell me if you know another way."
After sending Ziusud out to tend the camels thus getting him well out of earshot they began to explain the events of the past month and their plans for the future. Aostara stirred uncomfortably as Zohara related the details of her new oath, even though she knew that it was well within her rights, for neither master nor mistress could stand between a person and the Gods. She could only hope that Faruk wouldn't completely lose interest in the upcoming months, for his infamous reserve always left her guessing about his true feelings for her. Little did any of them know that night that it would be five years before Ziusud would learn his final lesson under Aostara's tutelage.
Denatra on the other hand was intrigued by the new arrangement having Ziusud as an unwilling voyeur renewed his interest in a relationship that had plateaued, for the love that he and Zohara shared was one of friendship, respect and physical attraction, not the overwhelming bond of potential soulmates that he already sensed between her and the new slave. Ziusud would have to learn to trust in that bond if he was to earn his freedom; to trust that regardless of who temporarily possessed her body, Zohara would be his in heart and soul. For without that trust, his jealousy and desperation feelings so foreign to those most respected in their tribe would keep them from becoming the Queen and King they were meant to be.
To be continued.... (?)
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