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I have seen him in his every outline, Avoiding his pain, with no turmoil in him. —Recited by the priestess at the Opening of the Mouth and Eyes Ceremony
The Nubian Desert, Upper Egypt
The first time she saw him, he took her breath away.
Gillian Haliday would never forget that fateful moment as long as she lived. And that, it seemed, could be for a very, very long time….
* * *
Dawar, Gillian's mount for the day, pawed the hot Egyptian sand and pranced restlessly as she tethered him in the stingy shade of a date palm. It was noon and her sisters had just bounced up in the Land Rover to share lunch and a much-needed break from a long morning's work.
"What is it, boy?" she murmured, stroking Da-war's silky muzzle to soothe him. He was probably just as thirsty and tired as she was. Signaling to her assistant, Mehmet, to take over the horse's care, she headed for the ruins of an ancient temple of Sekhmet, where her sisters were spreading the picnic rug.
But something…she wasn't sure what…brought her to a halt. The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled.
Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the blazing sun, she squinted and turned in a full circle to look around.
To the east in the distance shimmered the graceful, muddy curve of the Nile River, banked by a narrow parallel band of lush green fields. The vivid green ended abruptly in the harsh browns and blacks of the West Bank landscape. The rough dirt track that served the few intrepid farmers, thieves and archaeologists who ventured to this side of the river cut its shallow twin ruts, hugging the edge of the fields like a child terrified to stray too far from its mother's hand. From the track, the land began a gradual upward slope for about three-quarters of a mile, where it was blocked to the west by the rugged, towering sandstone cliffs of the gebel. It was there, hidden deep in the forbidding shadows of the cliffs, that the realm of the dead, the famous tombs of the ancients, could be found, and just below, the scattered vestiges of their holy temples.
The gebel marked the western border of the Nile Valley, the distinct limits of civilization—ancient and modern—and the universally recognized line beyond which anyone who valued their life dared not venture.
"Hey!" Gillian's sister Gemma called out to her. "You snakebit or what? Get over here and help."
Gillian tried to shake off the weird feeling still coursing through her body like a hum of electricity. "Be right there!" she called back cheerfully. All morning she'd looked forward to sharing a meal with her sisters. It happened all too rarely these days.
But the creepy feeling wouldn't leave her alone. It was like she was being watched….
Following where the feeling led, her gaze was drawn upward. All the way up to the crest of the gebel above.
She gasped, not believing what she saw.
A huge black stallion stood very still at the apex of the vertical cliffs, his elegant ears pricked in her direction. Backlit against the bright yellow orb of the sun, the stunning Arabian's coat gleamed like black obsidian, hauntingly silhouetted, every muscle in his body rippling with power.
Not what she had expected. Her breath tried to ease out. But then caught again, arrested by the sheer strength of his presence. He was magnificent!
Impossible that the stallion could be wild. Not in this region, not for centuries. And yet, he appeared to be just that. Feral. Untamed. Au savage. She could tell with a single glance, this beast had never felt the bit between his teeth.
It might have been the blistering noonday heat, or perhaps her exhaustion after the grueling hours of the morning's trek, but it seemed to Gillian that the creature was actually staring at her. Deliberately watching her.
Her heartbeat jumped. And despite the hundred-degree temperature, a shiver tingled over her arms.
Suddenly, he reared, shaking his splendid head, his thick mane and long tail flying as his forelegs pumped the heat-shimmering air. Good lord. There was no doubt whatsoever that this was a stallion. The sight of him, wild, rampant and unfettered, sent heat blazing through her cheeks.
"My God," she murmured, then spun to wave at her sister. "Look! Do you see that?" She pointed up at the cliff.
Gemma paused in her unpacking of the luncheon sandwiches from a cooler strapped to the tailgate of the Land Rover. "See what?"
"There! Up on the gebel."
They both glanced upward. But the only thing now at the top of the rocky cliff was the blazing sun above it.
The stallion was gone.
Gillian frowned. "But—he was just there!"
"Who was just where?" their other sister, Josslyn, asked, emerging from the temple ruin and striding up to the Land Rover. She removed her cloth hat and whacked it against her thigh, raising a cloud of dust. Joss was the oldest sister, an archaeologist.
"There was a wild horse up on the gebel," Gillian told her excitedly. "An intact stallion," she added, ignoring the lingering remnants of her blush.
Joss clucked her tongue as she took a bottle of water from Gemma. "No wild horses in this part of Egypt, jelly bean."
"Oh, but you should have seen him! He was amazing."
"It must have gotten loose from one of the nomad encampments upriver," Gemma said logically, and handed Gillian an icy bottle of water, too. All three sisters poured a few drops of water onto the ground. "I'm sure its owners will be by soon, looking for it."
Gillian shook her head. "Trust me, that stallion has no owner."
Both of the other women glanced at her, brows hiked.
"Well, then," Joss said, leaning in with hushed drama in her voice, her eyes twinkling, "you must have seen al Fahl."
Gillian blinked, then grinned. "Al Fahl? You mean the shape-shifter from the crazy story villagers tell their kids to scare them into behaving?"
"You know very well the native legends aren't crazy," Gemma scolded mildly. "Many of them have a basis in—"
"Fact." Joss mimicked the word, rolling her eyes. "More like a load of bull."
This was an old argument. Gemma was a cultural anthropologist, a specialist in traditional Nubian stories and lore. But for scientist Josslyn, only hard, quantifiable facts could convince her of anything. Thank goodness Gillian was a historian, and usually able to avoid being dragged into their spirited anthropological debates.
"Al Fahl." She pursed her lips, vaguely recalling this particular legend. "The ghost stallion."
"An evil shape-shifter," Gemma elaborated, "who gallops from village to village stealing away young women—"
"Virgins," Joss corrected acidly.
"—and men, to become human servants—"
"Sex slaves," Joss sang.
"—servants to the powerful demigod Seth-Aziz—"
"In his underground palace," Joss completed, snorting as they settled onto the rug they'd laid in a sliver of shade next to the crumbling temple wall. "Yeah, right."
"Seth-Aziz…" Gillian pondered, her gaze landing on a weathered depiction of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, known for her taste for human blood. "Isn't he supposed to be some kind of vampire?"
"Oh, my God. Not you, too," Joss moaned. "There's no such thing as a freaking vampire!"
"How can you be sure?" Gemma insisted. "Every single known culture on earth has had a vampire myth. That's quite a statistical anomaly if they don't actually exist," she argued, playing to the one thing that would shut Joss up.
Gillian dropped her jaw as the three of them spread the picnic on the rug. "Every known culture?"
Gemma wagged her finger at Joss. "Explain that, smarty pants."
Joss chuckled, taking a sip of water. "Uh. Hello? How about the boundless capacity of mankind to invent lame stories to explain every little bump in the night?"
Gemma let out a huff of outrage. "Says you, who routinely invents lame explanations for why people threw out piles of broken junk five thousand years ago. Like that's any mystery. It's broken!"
Rather than be offended, Joss just laughed. She'd heard it a hundred times before. "Whatever. Besides, what would Gillian's wild horse be doing working for a vampire, anyway?"
"Not a horse. A man who turns into a horse. A shape-shifter."
"Stallion," Gillian corrected, glancing up at the cliff top. "A magnificent wild stallion who lures unwitting virgins with his untamed beauty."
"And his magnificent untamed coc—"
"Josslyn Haliday!" Gillian and Gemma erupted in unison, scandalized. Okay, not really. More like greatly amused. No doubt Joss was right about his lure.
"Still…" Joss tossed them each a wrapped pita sandwich. "Better watch out, jelly bean. If it is an intact stallion you saw up there, wild or not, he's probably after your little mare."
Gillian unwrapped her sandwich and grinned. "In that case he'll be sorely disappointed. I'm riding Dawar today. A gelding."
Gemma winked, playfully bumping shoulders with her. "Better be careful anyway, baby sister. Al Fahl might just be after you!"
Joss snickered. "Then he'll be really dis appointed."
Gillian let out a mock gasp, giving her sister a teasing poke in the arm. "Don't worry, I'll just send him your way."
They stuck out their tongues, making faces at each other as their laugher echoed off the gebel, the hot desert air ringing with their merriment.
God, how she loved being with her sisters again!
They had been apart far too long. With Gemma's new teaching position at Duke University in the States, Joss's work for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Gillian's own doctoral studies in Oxford, England, it seemed the only time the three of them ever saw each other was when they were all in Egypt at the same time doing research.
Egypt. The country where they'd grown up, traveling with their Egyptologist father who had determinedly excavated tomb after tomb as he'd pursued his dark demons after their mother's death two decades ago, not far from here. Their father had returned obsessively to this remote place on the West Bank, a bit north of the first Nile cataract, season after season, year after year. Eventually he had abandoned their South Side Chicago home for the country he'd loved, until he, too, had deliberately walked into the endless sands to die, and be forever close to the woman he'd loved too much to ever get past her loss.
Gillian would never forgive him for that. For giving up. For leaving his three daughters alone in the world. For taking the easy way out. Life was a gift. It shouldn't be squandered.
She sighed and rested her back against the sandstone blocks of the temple wall, eating her pita and letting her gaze meander over her happily chatting sisters and the stark, rugged desert landscape that surrounded them. People often asked how they could bear to come back to the unforgiving country that had robbed them of both parents. Not to mention that this place was rife with terrorism and unpredictable political unrest. But the answer was simple.
All three sisters loved Egypt with a passion that flowed in their blood like the waters of the Nile. Despite the glaring cultural differences, despite the very real dangers and despite the heartaches it reminded them of, more than anywhere else in the world, Egypt was their home.
"Hello? Earth to Gillian."
Her sisters were looking at her, smiling with indulgence. How long had they been calling her? She shook off her melancholy and smiled back.