The lines shifted as his fingers walked the page. The symbols, so familiar after long hours of study, blurred and danced across the ancient scroll, evading translation. Cyrus knew he would have to stop soon. He was doing no good by pushing so hard, and he’d have to go over anything accomplished in such a state for errors. Wasted time. Better to start fresh. But the symbols would not be still. Patterns shifted. Cyrus blinked.
Stick-footed birds and dog-headed Anubis swirled over reeds and crocodiles; the names of kings long dead shifted and blended, creating new names — new sounds and words. Cyrus’ eyelids drooped, and he fought to remain upright. He cursed his own lack of common sense. No coffee. Not enough light. Not enough sleep.
He shifted in his seat, trying to use the motion and the discomfort of sitting in one position for too long to fight off the fog stealing over his thoughts. In his left hand he held a coin formed of hand-beaten gold. It was very old, and the front was emblazoned with the likeness of Mark Anthony. Roman. Like a Centurion, he sent it marching across the tops of his fingers, flipping it along with a solemn dexterity. The gold caught the dim light, flashing rhythmically.
Cyrus was a sight. His hair stood out at odd angles, half the product of heat, the other of humidity. Too many sliding fingers where a comb would fear to tread. His glasses were fogged around the edges and his eyes burned at the corners from the sweat. It was hot. It was late. He needed to sleep.
The scroll beckoned like a long lost lover.
His thoughts shifted from the present, and he drifted. Three years back, in a tent in a fly-by-night carnival just outside Chicago, Illinois, he’d had a “past lives” reading. Wax dripping into a bowl of tepid water and too-long, gaudily painted fingernails tracing the shapes. Eyes lined in every color of the rainbow — melting ghost-like to pale, white cheeks. Long, dark hair that might have been real — or not.
The interior of the tent had been draped in deep colors. Royal Blue. Scarlet. Gold. Imperial Purple. Tapestries depicted scenes from the worlds behind the world. The past. Temples and kings. Pharaohs and queens. Cards had lined the edge of that table, untouched. The Fool. The Universe. Crystals of all shapes and sizes glittered and spun on chains and leather thongs, catching the candlelight and flinging it about the room.
“Old.” The voice was powerful — quiet — insidious. Old. “You are old. Your flesh is of this time, but your soul has walked before.”
“What do you mean?” His own words drifting back to him, stinking of the inanity he’d felt.
“Old is what it is. Nothing more to be said.” Long nails swirled wax droplets. The silence reverberated with those sounds that are only present in the absence of other sound. Breathing. Heartbeats. Soft, better-left un-defined skittering in the corners of the tent.
“Words,” she breathed softly. “Words were your life. Words and life. Bound. You brought life to the words — words to the life and they took it. All gone. Took it away and burned.”
Cyrus shook his head and glanced to the side. The light of the lantern flickered. He was momentarily trapped in the vision of flames. Within those flames hieroglyphs danced and screamed. Sound that should have been silence — sound in a moment that was all silence — surfaced, and he shook his head. Enough.
Rising carefully, he stepped back and drew the plastic shield down over the surface of the table. He worked on the scroll directly, but when he was not working, it was sealed from the environment by a clear acrylic cover. He knew he should keep the shield in place at all times. That was the rule, but the feel of the parchment helped his concentration. It felt — right. When it was late enough that the others would not see, he always drew aside the protective cover.
The light flickered, and he stepped away from the table, turning to grab the nearest lantern. He moved about the tent, dousing the rest quickly. Outside, wind whispered across the dunes. Sand danced and shifted. Insects whirred. At night, the desert lived.
Cyrus closed his eyes and leaned against the table, catching his breath. The old woman’s words flickered through his mind and he shook his head, trying to dislodge them. Why now, he wondered. Why now, after all these years, that voice? The words continued to buzz in his ears like flies.
He staggered away from the table and lurched through the flap of the tent into the darkness beyond. Cyrus’ own quarters were down several rows of nondescript tents, just past the mess tent. No one stirred at that late hour. No one but Cyrus, who was caught up in the histories and mysteries of years so long fallen to dust that it could take days just to bring a single sentence to light. The others cared, each in his or her own way, but they didn’t feel it the way Cyrus felt it. They didn’t share his dreams — or his nightmares.
Something moved in the shadows to his left and Cyrus flinched, staggering into the wall of a tent three away from his own. Cursing, he righted himself, extricating his foot from the cables and stakes. He stopped and waited, but no one had noticed.
Again the motion to his left. Metal banged on metal, the tone echoing. Cyrus grew very still. His breath slid slowly in and out of his lungs, and he fought to slow it further. Who else was awake? What were they doing?
Sound. Nothing was clear, no words, but the whispered rasp of low toned voices carried on the breeze. They came from the direction of the ruins. Lovers, slipping off into the dunes at night? Cyrus’ mind sifted quickly through those who shared his days and evenings. There were couples, but it was difficult to imagine any of them carrying on so late, or so openly. In the world of academics and science, appearances were often the key to success. It wasn’t what you knew, but how it was presented, to whom, and how it was received that could make the difference.
Who else, though? The sound repeated — and again. The echoes were loud enough that Cyrus began to wonder why no one else was up to investigate. The voices, while not loud, were constant — crying out one to another in the darkness. The sound of footsteps joined that of metal on metal, and Cyrus pressed himself against the canvas of one of the tents, staring off through the shadows.
Nothing. He saw nothing. There was a slight darkening of the skyline where the pyramid rose above the sand. Beyond that, not even the stars shone in the sky. No moon illuminated the sky. A complete void. Cyrus’ heartbeat slammed in his chest. His breath grew short, and his eyes closed tight against the nothingness that confronted him. There was nothing there. Nothing could be there. Nothing.
Flames licked at walls of wood, flickering upward and crackling. The snap of sparks reverberated through his mind. Cyrus turned and pressed between the last two tents, found the flap to his own and stumbled through. He brought two fingers to his cheek.
His skin was hot — damp from sweat. Too hot for just the heat of the desert at night. Now he felt the chill as the damp sweat met the cooler air of his tent, and he shivered. The fan in the corner spun lazily in an arc, turning his skin clammy.
Cyrus turned, lit the lantern beside his cot and turned up the wick. Long shadows danced along the canvas walls, but they were all born of the internal workings of his life — the fly strips whirling and reflecting light. The fan, endlessly panning the tent’s interior. Each was a familiar shadow. They didn’t join with the sounds beyond his tent — beyond the camp.
They were a part of Cyrus’ own world.
Lying back on the firm cot, his pillow tucked beneath his neck, he closed his eyes and drifted. Nothing felt right, but fatigue would not be denied. His temples ached. His eyes burned from too many hours spent scrutinizing words that were written for people so long dead he could be treading on their bones, the dust beneath his feet, and never know it. A dull throb numbed the back of his head.
The voices in the distance grew clearer as he drifted. He could make out a word here, another there. For some reason he couldn’t follow the conversation. Something was a little off, the echo of the sound, or maybe they were just too distant.
Cyrus blinked sleepily. The words focused more clearly. Something about fire. Orders cried out into the darkness. Burning. He heard what sounded like flames lapping at wooden walls. His memories shifted and re-arranged. He saw the apartment building down the street from where he’d grown up, charring steadily, and the whitewashed walls blackening as orange and yellow flames licked their way up the side. Destroying. Canvas tents flapping in the wind. Nothing but canvas.
The words faded. Softened.
The scrolls were stacked haphazardly — forming a small mountain of papyrus and vellum that stretched toward the sky, tube shaped fingers of words wound upon words. Cyrus stared upward from where they’d bound him, kneeling in the sand. His heartbeat was a dull, thudding drone.
Blood trickled down his forehead, gift of the heavy butt of a Roman sword. The sand was losing the heat of the day, and the wind held a chill driven from the heart of despair. Voices called out all around him. Torches flickered, dim echoes of the deeper flames from the city. So much destruction. So much waste.
The words would have preserved it, he knew. The words would have painted the city in her glory, the history and the inventories, the finances and the great loves. All in the words. All in a mangled heap circled in stones and reduced to flapping bits of tinder, awaiting the torch.
Cyrus could see the Queen’s eyes, filled with reproach. That was the last expression he’d seen on her beautiful face, and as he remembered, tears trickled from the corners of his eyes to etch lines in the grime coating his face. He could not reach up to brush them away, so they tortured him as he remembered. The words had been his to protect. His to preserve. Hers for eternity. She was Queen, but she was Isis Walking, as well, and he had failed her. He had failed them all.
All around him, booted feet clattered. The sound of more boxes and bundles being dragged from the libraries and from the temples echoed and twined with the cries of warriors, the sobs of young women and boys, the snorting of impatient animals left too long without care — and the moaning wails of death. Cyrus lowered his eyes from the pyre and softly mumbled prayers to Anubis - prayers of death - if not for those destroying his world, then for himself. Swiftly
Footsteps grew nearer and suddenly Cyrus was sent sprawling as a huge hand slapped flat to the back of his head. Roaring laughter punctuated the pain, and with no hands to break the fall, Cyrus hit the sand so swiftly he barely had time to turn his head. His cheek burned where the grit bit deep.
“You are the scribe.” It was not a question. The voice behind the words dripped contempt.
Cyrus said nothing. He lay in the sand, eyes closed, trying not to think of the pain in his cheek, or the flames drawing nearer to the pyre. Trying not to think of the Queen and her deep, disappointed eyes.
A boot crashed into his ribs. The words were repeated in Greek, and this time the inflection made them a question.
Unable even to breathe, Cyrus nodded. His head wore a rut in the sand, and the pain nearly blacked out the world. Salt blinded him, and he could not brush it away, or the sand. His lips were crusted with it, thick with blood.
A huge, powerful hand gripped him by his hair and lifted. Cyrus struggled weakly, but there was no way to get purchase with his wrists bound, and he had no strength to match his tormentor. His gaze was turned inexorably up, following the rising mountain of paper. Wind whipped the loose sheets of papyrus about in crazy whirling forms that, through the haze of sweat and pain, looked almost like ghosts.
Cyrus closed his eyes, but moments later a fist slammed into the side of his head, and he felt the flesh of his ear expanding — ballooning out to impossible dimensions. His head throbbed hotly and he gagged, held from the ground only by the fist tight in his hair.
“You will watch.” That voice was close in his ear, the breath hot and tepid — stinking of rotted meat and mead. The stench of the man’s sweat was horrifying, and the sting at the roots of Cyrus’ hair was unbearable. He was shamed by his weakness, but he did not close his eyes again.
Moments later, a short, swarthy Roman swaggered from the shadows, torch held high, and moved to the pyre. The scrolls seemed to stretch forever. Cyrus could not see the top of the mountain — could not bear to see it. Though his tongue was thick as a sausage and his throat parched to the point of cutting off his breath, he watched, tears streaming from the corners of his eyes and running down through the blood-soaked sand caked on his cheeks.
The torch dipped — hesitated. A wide, half-toothed grin slipped over the soldier’s face, and he turned, staring straight into Cyrus’ eyes. The torch dropped and the flames leapt to the sky like birds startled from the rushes. The darkness parted and a wave of heat and light seared Cyrus’s skin — blinded him
“No,” he tried to whisper but the sound was so much sand drifting across the dry and rocky ground. “No.”
Cyrus woke. The flapping of the tents was louder. A wind had risen from the desert, and sand hissed between the tents. The stakes holding the canvas tightly in place strained, and Cyrus could feel the tension on the ropes. He was bathed in sweat. His scalp tingled with the memory of another’s pain, and his eyes would not adjust to the darkness immediately. Strobed images of licking flames and crooked, yellowed teeth filled his mind.
Slowly, he released his grip on the sheets. He hadn’t noticed, at first, that he was clutching his hands tightly at his sides, as though anchoring himself in place. As though he might be carried away. What was that sound?
The voices were loud and insistent, and he heard the distinct ring of metal on metal, a grating sound that could only come from equipment being moved — and roughly. Or . . .
The vision of short, broad swords glinting in the searing brilliance of firelight too close — too hot — shifted across his vision. The scuff of sandals on sand. Stones falling.
He shook his head and sat up, sliding his legs off the side of his cot.
“Jesus,” he muttered. He could feel the exhaustion that must show in his eyes, but there was no way to sleep. His sheets felt like hot sand.
He rose quickly and moved back to the flap of his tent. The lantern hung on a hook at one side of the door, but he ignored it. The moon would be enough to see by, and he only wanted a glance — a single stabilizing sight of some idiot dragging a crate of equipment between the tents in the middle of the night, to calm his nerves. Whoever it was had questions to answer, that much was certain. Cyrus would see to it. Sleep was a valuable commodity to the obsessed, and he couldn’t afford any lost without good cause.
He couldn’t afford the dreams.
The sand danced its lonely dance, whipping into the tents to either side of the narrow path between. There was no one. There was nothing to see. In the not-so-distance the sounds echoed. Cyrus glanced in the direction of the city, ancient and modern, not even a soft glow of light at this hour, though not so distant.
Alexandria. He stared into the distance, as if he could melt the miles with his mind and draw her closer. The city had been a Mecca of learning, a haven for words in a world filled with the imminence of action.
So long ago.
Cleopatra had walked there. Proud queen, one of a hundred by that same name, walking the footsteps of a Goddess and living the life of an aristocratic nightmare world where intelligence fell to brute strength. A world where the learning of Greece and the dreams of even Alexander had fallen to dust. Or been burned.
The wind picked up suddenly, and sand wisped around his feet. The sound was the voice of asps. Slithering. Hissing against the tent. Cyrus shuddered involuntarily and took half a step back toward his tent. He heard a shout: a wild, wailing cry of pain. He heard footsteps, some rushing as if propelled by madness, some slower, methodical and steady. He heard only the sand, felt it sliding over his ankles and slipping up under the cuffs of his pants. He heard the clatter of steel on steel, deep guttural voices that made no sense, words that whirled in his mind, echoed at the edge of consciousness — then cleared.
Roman. He was hearing voices crying out in Latin so archaic, so off kilter from any he’d spoken or heard spoken, in school or on the site, that it jarred his senses loose from their moorings. The pronunciations and inflections were unfamiliar. Wrong. No . . . he staggered back toward his tent again, tripping over his own feet and falling heavily toward the sand. Not wrong. Jesus, not wrong at all.
Cyrus didn’t break his fall. His hands never moved to catch against the floor of his tent. The words had startled something out of him, something deep and resonant, and he was unable to concentrate on anything but the sound. The pure, “correct” sound. Latin. The absolute. The reality. Not an exercise in pronunciation and history being bandied about by foppish professors, but gut-true speech.
The hard smack of his head on the ground sent stars spinning through the words, confusing them again. Darkness coalesced before his eyes, blocking the dim light of the stars, then dropped over his mind and eyes like a shroud. Cyrus passed into that darkness, and he dreamed.
The heat was tremendous. Cyrus knew he was too close to the fire, but he didn’t care. His eyes were closed again. The soldiers seemed to have temporarily lost interest in their captive as the fire leaped to the sky, dancing up the pyre of scrolls and parchment like a band of howling demons. It was so quick to give in, that pile of words. So many lives and loves, hours and dreams had gone into the compiling and transcribing that it was beyond simple comprehension, except in a moment like this. Except when it was all a single spark, blazing toward ash. Except when the words condensed to a single roar and spewed to the heavens, dispersed with no more thought or reason than could be found in the swirling of the sand.
As if snapping free of a dream, one of the soldiers turned, noted Cyrus’ closed eyelids, and cuffed him hard on the side of the head.
“Open your eyes, scribe. Watch. You will see, and you will remember.”
Cyrus would remember. He would see, even when his eyes were closed. He would know the sound of a thousand thousand words screaming at once until the thread that was his own in the tapestry of fate wound to its end and faded into oblivion. His eyes watered, and then poured salty tears. The tears formed a rainbow-esque halo around the soaring flames, and the pain at the roots of his hair kept his nerves taut and screaming in time with the crackle and pop from the fire.
Cyrus’ hands scraped roughly across the sand, tearing at his flesh and imbedding the grit in the new cuts. His head was pounding, and his eyes streamed with the tears from his dream. Dream? How could he have been dreaming? A vision?
Cyrus shook his head, regretted the action, and then shook it again anyway. He had to get control. The moon was bright overhead, and the wind tossed sand into his face with every gust, threatening to blind him.
The tears dried on his cheeks, leaving them cold and clammy. His armpits were clammy, as well, and his thighs. Sweat coated him in a thin veil of ice.
Cyrus rose, aware that he flinched, expecting somehow the tight grip of strong fingers in his hair. Nobody else moved in the camp. Nobody was ever moving in the camp at that hour, but Cyrus glanced first one way, then the other, shivering. He rose to a kneeling position and wrapped his arms across his chest.
“Christ,” he whispered.
He glanced up, and over the line of tents directly ahead, he saw a bright, flickering glow. Too bright to be a lantern, too distant. Alexandria was the other direction, so it could not be the city. Had the people of the city gone up in arms against their digging? Were there hundreds of torch bearing Egyptians descending on the camp?
Cyrus rose. He tried to paint that picture in his mind, bringing up memories of Frankenstein movies and angry villagers. He couldn’t make the leap. His mind echoed with the sounds of swords sliding in and out of scabbards, the roar of flames, and the hoarse Latin words grated in his ear.
Stumbling to his feet, Cyrus turned and moved through the tents. He had to see. He had to know where the light was coming from, had to know who and what was making those sounds. His throat was so dry he could scarcely breathe. His eyes were filled with salt water and grit, but he squinted and continued on, not bothering to wipe them clean.
Cyrus kept his gaze pointed straight ahead, into the desert, but he couldn’t quite clear his sight. Images itched at his thoughts, begging for attention. The scrolls. Behind him, held safe from wind and rain, oxygen and groping fingers beneath their protective covering. So many hours — too many hours — brow drenched in sweat and fingers brushing that parchment. As if the words and symbols could be fathomed by touch, ancient Braille reaching out to him across the centuries. Braille was an apt description — he felt blind.
After all their efforts, uncovering the ruins, painstakingly sifting through sand and grit, stone chambers and pots, the scrolls were all they had. The answers they needed to complete their work were tangled in the scrawled symbols, enigmatic and dense. They had found a huge, underground vault of a ruin. They had found evidence of civilization from the era of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and Hollywood’s Caesar, but they had found no reason — not even a scrap of a reason, as a matter of fact — for the place’s existence.
Too far from the city to be part of the city. Too far from the Nile for tilling or growing. Too deeply buried for anything but a secret, and the secrets of the ancients were that much more difficult to unravel, buried as they were in sand and years.
Cyrus believed he’d find the answer. He believed the words would speak to him, and the belief was an odd one. It was more a remembering, an act of reacquainting himself with facts long known, but buried deep in his mind. Deeper than he was comfortable delving. Deeper than he knew how to reach, but still there.
The wind grew stronger. Sand swirled around his ankles, tore into his arms, and his legs, stung his neck and slipped in through every opening in his clothing. He walked steadily on, ignoring the whirling cloud of desert that rose to escort him. A minute? Ten? He turned for just an instant, but the camp — the tents and the scrolls, professors and students — might as well not have existed. It didn’t matter. The whirling sand formed hieroglyphs, spinning madly — out of control. Indecipherable. Lost.
Cyrus tripped, stumbling forward with his arms stretched out before him. He couldn’t see where he was going, what he was falling toward. He closed his eyes and braced himself, almost prepared when his hands brushed the ground. Almost, but not quite. His forehead struck hard, and bright pinpoints of light scattered the sand into diamond-flashes of pain.
He lay still for a moment, sand whirling around and over him, into his mouth and against the lids of his eyes. He knew he had to get up, but his head was pounding, and he couldn’t order his thoughts. He kept his eyes closed tightly, pressed his palms to the sand, and gathered his strength.
Before he could push upright, something gripped his hair so tightly he felt the roots screaming for release from his scalp. Cyrus cried out, but this allowed the sand to whip between his lips and he bit it off. He was dragged to his knees and held, though he raised his hands over his head and tried desperately to rip that hellish grip away and free himself.
The wind died down perceptibly. Cyrus felt a pounding in his forehead, and knew there was a nasty knot there from his fall. He tried again to tear free, only managing to send a second wave of searing pain through his scalp. The roar of wind and sand was shifting. It didn’t grow any quieter, but shifted in tone — in rhythm. Cyrus felt sweat dripping down his cheeks and reached to brush it away. The sand had stopped whipping against his face, but he did not open his eyes.
Then something struck him, hard, on the side of the head. The bright spots of pain returned, spreading down from his forehead toward his ear. He heard a voice, guttural and incomprehensible, grating near his ear.
Cyrus shook himself violently, trying to rise, but a second rocking blow to the head brought him up short. The voice grew louder and more commanding, and Cyrus forced himself to listen. If he didn’t figure this one out quickly, he had the feeling his days of figuring things out would come to an abrupt halt.
The voice sounded again, and Cyrus caught a single word (Latin for eyes). He opened his eyes quickly, and a flash of his dream passed through his mind.
“Open your eyes, scribe.”
The roar suddenly took a shape in his mind’s eye, and Cyrus forced himself to look up. It could not be there, but it was, the pyre, flames leaping to the sky with fingers that groped and tongues of destruction that leaped and danced. He could make out the shapes beneath the flames, through the billowing smoke and the shimmering heat. Even the sweat dripping into his eyes and forcing him to bite back tears that would blur things more completely couldn’t fully disguise the scrolls. Thousands of scrolls, and not like those so carefully pinned beneath the protective covers in the tents behind him, but full scrolls, rolled and yanked from the ornate canisters that had housed them. Soot and ash rose from the fire and shot to the sky, and each one seemed to form a letter, or a word, darting away forever.
Thoughts crowded in on him. Cyrus recognized the thoughts, and yet, he didn’t. He tried to twist his head, to get a glimpse of the man gripping his hair, but this won him a hard shake that nearly made him pass out, and he gave it up. The fire blazed.
More voices sounded to his right, loud and insistent, and there was a flurry of motion and sound. Cyrus couldn’t see what it was, but he sensed that whatever it was, it was important. Those around him scuttled in all directions. Only his captor stood firm and silent.
A face haunted him. A woman’s face, foreign and unfamiliar, yet not. As close to his heart as the image of his mother, or the first girl he’d ever loved. Perhaps closer. She was frowning at him, disapproving. Tears rolled from his eyes to trickle down his cheeks, and Cyrus cursed silently because he knew they’d see the weeping as weakness. They would believe it was because of the hand in his hair and the sand grinding into his knees. In his mind, the woman wept with him.
The words snapped from Cyrus’ right side. For a long moment, the grip in his hair tightened, as if willing the words away. With a quick snap downward that forced Cyrus’ eyes to the ground, the hand was gone, and though he knelt in the sand, tears running down his cheeks and his head pounding from the falls and the cuffs of those he could not see, he was free. He did not move.
Footsteps drew near — slow, odd steps. Uneven and not too heavy. Cyrus could just make out the sound over the crackling of the flames. He wanted to scream, but no sound would come. Nothing. His chest had constricted so tightly with pain, frustration, and sorrow that he could scarcely believe it was possible to breathe. The emotions were off-kilter, some his own, some those of another or not exactly another, but another Cyrus. The pain he understood. The sorrow he felt more deeply, and the frustration, but he could not assign them a place in his mind. He did not understand the fire — not exactly. He knew that it hurt to watch it, and that he should stop it, should fling himself on it and burn with the words, leaving the nightmares behind.
“They burn well.”
The voice was the same that had demanded his release. The words came so suddenly that Cyrus nearly missed them in the sound and well of emotion.
“It is almost as if,” the voice continued — in Latin, Cyrus understood that much by now — “the demons trapped in those scrolls were screaming for release.”
“Demons?” Cyrus’ voice cracked. His dry throat proved unfit for the task of translating his thoughts, and beside the smooth, articulate voice of whoever stood beside him, he knew he sounded crude. His face burned with indignation, and anger.
“Oh yes,” the voice continued.
Cyrus stole a quick glance to the side. He caught sight of one sandaled foot and the hem of a robe — toga? It was ornate, decorated in gold. Elegant. “The demons are banished with the words, scribe. They flee before us, as your armies fled — as your queen would have fled, given the chance. They flee us because they are evil, warping the minds of good Roman citizens and reaching out to ensnare even our leader, and because we are strong.”
Words floated up from somewhere deep within Cyrus’ mind. Not his own, he knew, not his own because the words weren’t in his own tongue. He did not reply in Latin, but in Greek, fluid, easy speech that belied the difficulty of the translation. Greek because it was what the man beside him hated, symbolizing things beyond his grasp.
“The words aren’t evil,” he spat. “Their destruction — that is evil. The burning of history, one page at a time, one scroll after the other. You can’t kill the past by destroying its records, you only deny yourself the chance to experience it.”
The guard drew back his arm and smashed a fist hard into the side of Cyrus’ head. He nearly bit his tongue as the pain shot through his temple, exploding in a thousand sparks that flew up to join the flames in his vision. He heard voices from far away, but he could no longer quite make out what they were saying. He would have fallen, but again, the rough hand of the guard gripped his hair, and sagging, Cyrus leaned forward, letting his full weight hang from that grip.
He felt a shift, and knew the guard was drawing back to strike again, but the blow never fell.
“Take him away.” The words filtered through it all, and Cyrus staggered to his feet as the guard turned without a word and started walking, never loosening his grip.
“Keep him alive. He has seen, and he will remember. When we return to Alexandria, he will write of our conquest. He will preserve our deeds — or die.”
Cyrus shook his head, regretted it as the tear on his hair screamed through his brain with stabbing lances of pain.
“No,” he whispered. He couldn’t tell what language, but he knew what he was thinking — what they were thinking — what must be said and done and not done. “No,” he repeated.
And then there was darkness. Blessed, complete darkness. He dreamed of letters that streamed from spiraling smoke into a papyrus sky. He dreamed of her face — a woman he didn’t know — a queen he loved. He dreamed of asps and through it all, a voice whispered to his mind of Rome and conquest, war and always in Latin. He knew the voice now, knew it could be none other, and he tried to silence the words, but there was a power in them he could not deny. A destiny. Octavian was mad, but he was Imperator. He was conqueror. He would take the queen to his homeland in chains and parade her like an animal if he could, but this did not frighten Cyrus. He dreamed of asps, and his joined mind, then and now, gone and back again, knew the simple truth.
Cleopatra would die.
Cyrus would not.
The great library was a ruin. Ashes blended with sand on the hot wind, no more a record of history than the sand itself. Lost. The second library, the hidden place that was to have preserved so much, was a ruin as well. An urn for the cremation of history. They had found it, and they had found him — and he had not died. The life he should have taken had been taken from him, instead, and the words he’d learned — the words he’d sworn to protect — had been taken as well, replaced by lies, and deceit, histories that were not and never had been, and yet endured. Endured because he, Cyrus, had carefully recorded them, as he was told, a dog on a leash with quill in hand. The final betrayal.
Though he slept, he wept. The silence dragged him in and down, and the world swirled away into accusing silence. Her eyes glared from the depths of shadow, accusing and dark.
Cyrus woke to hands shaking him by his shoulder. He jerked back, smacking his head solidly into whoever was behind him. There was a cry and the sound of stumbling footsteps.
“Christ, what the hell is wrong with you?” He knew the voice, but it took him a moment to place it, to clear the Greek and the Latin from his mind and focus. Professor Rosenman.
Cyrus spun, nearly falling from his seat as his stiff arms and legs ignored the commands he sent them, stiff from being too long in one position. His head pounded.
“Where are they?” he asked, catching himself on the edge of the table.
“Where did they go? The fire . . . I—”
“Take it easy, Cyrus,” Rosenman snapped. “Jesus, you fell asleep on the god damned table. Who are you talking about? And what is all . . . that?”
Cyrus started to ask more questions, bit off the words, and spun back to the table. He was seated in the work tent — somehow, impossibly — and the table was covered with scribbled notes. Page after page of notes littered every inch of the work surface. The cover was open, and his pen lay dangerously close to the scroll — too close — close enough to damage, or stain — for ink to blot. He grabbed the offending pen and gripped it tightly, grabbing a page off the desk at the same time and staring at it — reading what had been written. What he had written. He mouthed the words, hearing that voice in his head that was so close to his own.
His mind spun again, the tent — the carnival — so many years before, and so few in the scope of the moment.
“Words.” the old woman breathed softly. “Words were your life. Words and life. Bound. You brought life to the words — words to the life and they took it. All gone. Took it away and burned it.”
He let his hand fall to the table and he stared at the wall across from him. He was shaking. His heartbeat was out of control, and his breath was short and harsh. Behind him, he felt Rosenman’s eyes boring into the back of his head.
“You’d better have a damned good reason for this,” the older man said at last. “You’ve broken every rule we have, worked too long, too late, let alone took the cover off the scroll.”
Cyrus turned, and he spoke, his voice seeming to drift in from the distance. “I’m finished,” he said softly. “It is done.”
“What is done?” Rosenman growled, stepping suddenly forward and grabbing at one of the sheets in irritation. “What in the hell do you think you’ve done?”
Rosenman started to read, but Cyrus was already standing, staggering toward the door. He knew what he’d done. He knew what was written on those sheets, because he’d written the words, once and again — one language, one world, to the next. His words. He’d betrayed his queen, and he’d warped the passage of time into a romanticized version of Roman glory — but he’d written the truth, as well. Without a backward glance, Cyrus staggered into the bright sunlight of morning.
Rosenman read, eyes growing wide, then sat down before his knees could give way.
“They stole the words and set them free. The queen was strong, and she escaped through the portals of time, but I am left behind to record.
The words were my responsibility, and I betrayed her trust. I did not join her, I cowered, and I served those who burned time. In the hours between midnight and the dawn, I have set myself the task of atonement.
I leave these words with a prayer to the Goddess Isis that they will be found, and that they will be understood. In time, perhaps, time can right itself. This is my story.”
Rosenman set the paper aside carefully and leaned hurriedly to the beginning of the scroll. He worked slowly, meticulously, and somehow — symbols that had seemed obscure became clearer. Things he had not seen, or had ignored, became truth. Hands trembling, he began to gather the papers, not bothering to cover the scroll, or to reach for the gloves he knew he should wear. Not daring to read further.
He felt the sudden weight of eyes on his shoulder, standing the hairs on his neck on end. The image of a woman’s face flashed through his mind, and then was gone. Gathering the papers, he hurried after Cyrus.
Behind them, left alone, the scroll flapped gently in the breeze, as if waving in approval.