Monday, October 1, 2012

The Secret Prologue: The Mummy

Here it is:  The first part of the new first chapter of the sequel to Limbo's Child.  Those of you who know me, know I like to do this a lot.  I get the plot settled and then BAM!  I have to change it all at the last moment.  Oh well.  It's a goodie.

This might make it in the final book it might not.  I meant it to replace the old first chapter (available here) but my wife begged me to keep that one in.   At the moment I consider this a "secret" chapter.  That is, it's not really crucial to the rest of the story, it just contains relevant backstory that would make the story more enjoyable.  These "secret" chapters contain some mild spoilers, but nothing too bad, but you've been warned, so no whining if you read on. Ok?  BTW - this has been through exactly one edit, by me, and not my editor, so it's kinda rough in places.

Parts II and III will be posted later this week.  And I will be doing a live reading of the entire chapter on Livestream this week so stay tuned for details.

And with all that throat-clearing out of the way...I give you, The Secret Prologue:  The Mummy Part I.

The Secret Prologue:
The Mummy

The body had been dead for forty days, but Pepy was still terrified of it.  It wasn’t that he was squeamish around bodies.   As the head royal embalmer he had mummified twenty-two royal persons.  As apprentice to the last head embalmer he had assisted with forty-five!  No it wasn’t dead bodies that bothered him.  It was this particular dead body.
She was a lovely thing, young, no more than fourteen, a daughter of one of the pharaoh’s minor wives, but a favored one, but it wasn’t her age that was so troubling, many died young, even in the palaces of the god-king.  No, it was the manner in which she died.  She was found, in the dawn, pale and lifeless on her own bed, safe in the palace.  The only mark on her was a subtle wound on the neck, two tiny punctures, small and needle like, like the bite of an asp, but the fang holes were so far apart, it could only have been made by an enormous asp with a mouth the size of a hyena.  Not another  trace of disease or injury was on her, but there she was, calm and peaceful, like she was sleeping with her arms crossed, as if someone had arranged the corpse for death, but the doors had been locked, from the inside.
The priests were beside themselves with anxiety and thought it a terrible omen.  They wanted her chopped into pieces and tossed into the Nile but the pharaoh forbad it.  Things only got worse from there.  Pepy himself had to make the small incision to remove the internal organs in preparation of embalming, but when the knife cut the flesh, it was utterly bloodless.  Not a single drop of blood was left in the girl.  Her flesh was as bloodless as a piece of salted beef in the marketplace.  Half the priests and nearly all of his assistants attempted to flee the room at that point until forced back at the point of the guards’ spears.  Pepy had nearly blanched himself, but he carried on.  Ramses the Great was not a man you wanted to disobey.  He had to carry on alone though.  The others wouldn’t pull themselves away from the walls.  Pepy dutifully removed the lungs, stomach, liver and intestine and placed them for preservation in the four sacred canopic jars with the heads of the four sons of Horus.  He took the heart, he yib, the seat of truth and knowledge and placed it carefully back into the body.  She would need it when her soul would be judged.  He packed the empty abdominal cavity with linen and natrun, the sacred salt that dried out the body, but he had to say all the prayers himself.  The priests were too scared.
Now he was back to finish her.  The body had been sealed in this chamber forty days ago.  She needed to be wrapped in the precious linens and resins.  When he broke the seal and entered the chamber, everything seemed normal, but that all changed when he pulled back the mummies linen covering.  In forty days the mummy should have browned, the eyes and cheeks becoming sunken, the lips taut.  She had hardly changed at all.  There was some anxious foot-shuffling on the stone floor when they saw her, but the others kept their tongues.  There was nothing to do but get on with it.
            As he went about wrapping her body in the resin-drenched linens, placing the sacred eye of Horus over the small incision on her stomach, intoning the sacred prayers beneath his breath because the priests were too scared to, Pepy couldn’t help but think that everything about this was wrong.  These rituals should be completed in the daylight, with great ceremony, but here they were in the middle of the night, with only a handful of priests and guards.  The pharaoh had insisted it be done as soon as the fortieth day had set, so here they were, after sunrise, in the embalming chamber with only a few oil lamps to light the way.  The pharoah had procured a dozen large jars of the most precious resin for the process, but he could only persuade two of his apprentices to come, so he had to carry two of the jars himself.  But the worst part, the very worst part of it all was him.
            He had arrived late, dressed in long blue-black linens and wearing the mask of the jackal-headed god Anubis, which completely covered his face.  When he entered the guards and priests turned their backs to him and studiously stared at the walls, avoiding even looking at him, almost as if pretending he didn’t exist.  Pepy’s assistants obviously didn’t know the protocol, but quickly stumbled over each other to shove their noses in the nearest corners of the room they could find like naughty school-children.  He was tall and gaunt and though no one saw his eyes, you could tell he was watching you, intently.  Pepy didn’t even know who he was.  He wondered if anyone did.  He had never seen him before.  He had only heard rumors.  He was nameless, faceless and appeared only at the most dire times, plague, famine, war or perhaps the death of a pharaoh.  He never spoke, and even the Priests of Amun were afraid of him and bowed and backed away whenever he entered.  If he ever spoke or held counsel with anyone, it was only with the Pharaoh and then only in private.  He could disappear for years, but in times of distress, he would appear, and it was rumored that he had been doing it, since the days of Djoser the Great more than a thousand years ago.   No one could be certain it was the same figure behind the mask but everyone thought so.  Some said he was the god Anubis himself, others, only that he was an ancient magician.  Pepy wasn’t given to idle rumors or superstition, but the fact that he appeared here, at the embalming of a minor princess was troubling and Pepy was already nervous enough. But he couldn’t do his work with his nose to the wall, so he carried on, and tried not to think of the bloodless corpse, the fang marks or the ominous figure hovering over him like a vulture.
            Soon, however, he found his rhythm despite his fear and worked quickly but carefully through the night, wrapping the body, working from the abdomen to the feet and then from the feet back to the head, placing the sacred amulets between the folds of linen at their proper places.   He placed the golden finger-coverings on each of the dead princesses’ delicate digits, then placed the ankh, the symbol of life in the palm of her hand before wrapping each hand carefully.  Then he folded the arms across the chest and wrapped them against the body, binding them tight in layer after layer, so that she had the same repose she had had when they found her dead.  He worked carefully this way through eleven layers of linens and resins until he reached her neck and head.  He placed a tiny amulet in the shape of a headrest, behind her head, an emblem of the hope that she would at last find rest in the afterlife.  It was nearing dawn, under the best conditions it took days to properly do the job, and with his assistants’ noses planted firmly against the wall, it should have taken even longer, but somehow he had managed it, and gave the princess a respectable wrapping.  He was about to place the last amulet, the eye of Ra, over her mouth and finish the wrapping when the “vulture” spoke.
            “Stop.”  The black draped figure behind Pepy said in a low voice.
            Something clattered to the ground.  Pepy spun around.  He checked his hand.   He hadn’t dropped the amulet.   Thank the gods! That would have been sacrilege.  He glanced around.  A guard was slowly crouching down to retrieve his spear from the floor.  By Horus! thought Pepy, what courage! he thought sarcastically, but then he noticed he was clutching his own heart with the hand that didn’t hold the amulet.  It was pounding.
            The figure for his part, was calm and inscrutable.  For a minute Pepy wasn’t certain he hadn’t imagined it speaking, but then it took a step forward and spoke again.
            “I will finish her.”
            Pepy froze, blinked and knew not what to say.  Was the menacing figure a royal embalmer as well as a magician?  Pepy looked around the room.  The guards were frozen, the priests were muttering prayers for their own salvation, and his assistants were grinding their own faces into the relief sculpture as if they were hoping they disappear into the decoration.  Pepy looked down at the mummy of the princess, her pale face shining and all too life-like and then at the amulet in his hand.  When he looked up a pale, gaunt, corpse-like white hand had reached out from behind the tall figure’s robes.  It had fingering coverings of its own, made of silver, as if it were a mummy itself!  Pepy decided not to question him.  He put a knee to the ground, bowed his head, and offered up the amulet.  The black masked figure took the amulet and moved past him noiselessly. When it reached the other side of the chamber it inclined and its head to them and spoke one last time.
            “Go.” He said again in a voice like death. “Seal the chamber, return in thirty days to entomb her.”
            No one waited for a second command.  The guards and priests piled up at the door, only a scornful look by their master kept Pepy’s apprentices from doing the same.  They danced on their feet until he got to the door, but couldn’t bear it anymore.  Once it was clear they were outside.  Pepy would have to reprimand them later.  He was a master embalmer after all and they should have followed him dutifully out of the tomb, but their scolding would have to wait.  He too was anxious to leave.  At the doorway Pepy looked back at the black figure standing over the body of the princess.  “Seal the doors?” he thought.  There was only one door to the embalming chamber.  He opened his mouth and nearly spoke the question, but then he looked into the empty eyes of the Anubis mask and thought better of it.  Best not to question the mysterious person.  He certainly had his own way of getting out.  Or at least he hoped he did.  He would hate to come back and find him there, though something told Pepy the mysterious figure could survive the thirty days internment without any effort.   Pepy gave one short bow from the neck which the figure graciously returned, though more slowly.  Pepy swallowed hard before he pulled the doors shut.  He quickly pulled a cord from his side and ran it through both door handles and tied it off.  He then produced a lump of soft beeswax mixed with clay from a small pouch and pressed the wax tightly around the knot.  As he pressed the seal of his signet ring into the wax he spoke over his shoulder to his frightened apprentices.
            “No one is to speak of this. Understood?”
            Pepy turned around but his inquiry was met only with the sound of sandals on stone departing into the predawn darkness.  He huffed an angry sigh for the moment, but then, alone in the dark, he decided to drop his remaining dignity and follow his apprentices’ prudent example and fled.

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