Hands, hands everywhere, touching, clutching, searching, grabbing; cold hands, frail hands, pale hands, swarthy hands, chains around thin wrists, dirt under broken nails, dark red welts and abrasions covering fingers and knuckles...
The pharaoh thrashes on his bed, caught in his nightmare once again, throwing aside his sweat-drenched covers and lashing out blindly, attempting either to strike the nonexistent enemy or to find a friendly shoulder to lean on – or both...
...he finds nothing.
Nothing but those hands, hands, hands everywhere; and he cannot move, because there are hands pinning him down, feeling him over, wandering over his rigid body; and he cannot cry, because there are hands pressing firmly against his mouth; and there are hands tugging his head backwards, and there are firm fingers clenching around his exposed throat, and he is suffocating, and there is no air, and please, gods, just make this end already, because he, Rameses the mighty son of Seti, Rameses the Morning and Evening Star, Rameses the Pharaoh of Egypt cannot bear this torture anymore!
...the pharaoh wakes with a gasp, launching himself from the bed in the direction of a threat visible to him alone, a faint outline of a human body in the moonlight. He slams into the wall because there is no one there to attack, and nothing to stop his movement; and then he sinks down to the floor against this wall with a shuddering sigh, fists clenched, short but sharp nails breaking the skin of his palms and drawing blood.
This damned nightmare makes him hate his own hands, and seeing blood seep out of semi-circular wounds fills him with a dark, ugly, twisted pleasure. That's right, his hands deserve this pain, for they are no better than the hands of those slaves that keep torturing him every night since his brother's exile.
His brother. Oh yes, that stupid, beloved fool of a brother. Gods only know where he is now. Will they ever see each other again? They must, if only Moses is still alive... No, he is alive! If Moses were dead, he'd know. Maybe they are not related by blood, but no one was closer to Rameses than his younger brother, Hebrew or not; and no one was dearer to the young ruler. Even the beautiful Nefertari, his childhood friend and now wife and queen, held a smaller place in his heart. And she was another painful reminder of Moses; for they both loved him dearly, and the pain of his exile bound them in ways nothing else could. What could be more bitter than two people loving the one lost to them? They were forever bound by this loss; and the tenderness with which the somber Rameses held the crying Nefertari did nothing to diminish the pain of Moses' absence.
So yes, if Moses were dead, Rameses would know.
For he would not outlive his brother for longer than a day.
Moses might come back now that Seti is dead, Rameses tells himself; he would be pardoned and welcomed. Rameses would pardon his brother anything but his worst nightmare, which is the said brother's death. Surely Moses must know that? Surely he will come back now that his brother is Pharaoh?..
...he will not, the young ruler admits with a sigh; he will not. Probably that time after the trial was indeed the last time they had seen each other.
His palms are sticky with his own blood when he presses them to his tired eyes. The faint copper smell calms him down a bit. Moses is alive and hopefully well; the gods will not leave the Prince of Egypt unprotected – for whatever blood may flow in his veins, he is the rightful Prince and Pharaoh's brother, and nothing will ever change that.
Moses will be safe, for sure; the torment of the painful farewell will probably fade with time, even if the nightmares do not; and there still is a chance, however tiny, that they will see each other again. What else is there to wish for?..
He is Pharaoh.
He can't be weak.
So he doesn't cry.
It is Nefertari who cries for the both of them, alone in her chambers during the long hours of darkness. While her husband suffers from his torturous nightmares, she deals with her loss on her own.
But she is not just a woman – she is Queen of Egypt now. It is all wrong, so wrong; but what other choice do they have? Egypt needs his Queen no less than it needs his Pharaoh.
In the early mornings, when her husband comes to her chamber, Nefertari cannot help but notice his all too gaunt features, the dried blood on his palms, and his eyes bright with unshed tears; and it is okay if he shifts away from her outstretched hand, not wanting her to treat his injuries.
Rameses, in turn, sees his wife's pallor and the slight tremor of her nimble fingers; and he chooses to ignore how she trembles in his embrace and clutches at him almost desperately every time they share the marital bed, bound by love, and loss, and pain, and immense solitude.
But they both smile at each other. They are Egypt. They will make it through.
If only the nightmares would leave him alone.
They do not. Not after a year, not even after a decade do his nightmares leave. They are now less frequent but so much more powerful, and every time the Pharaoh wakes up suffocating, it takes him almost the entire day to calm down fully. He is used to the routine now; and Nefertari is used to seeing her husband's bloodied palms and hearing the name loved by both of them fall from his lips in his delirium.
The birth of their first child seems to hold the nightmares at bay for some time; but then they come crushing back, with a new plot and a new power. The first time the Pharaoh dreams about the lifeless body of his son, mummified and buried, he rushes to the boy's side in the dead of night. This is where Nefertari finds him in the morning, on his knees next to the child's cradle, eyes wide and anxious.
She calms his as much as she can; but it is not enough. She is not enough.
They are not enough for each other.
The worst thing is that they both know it.
Years pass by. More children are born, more beautiful buildings are erected, more wars are waged and won. Egypt stands tall, with its pyramids as proud and enigmatic as its Pharaoh, the mighty Rameses II, loved and respected by many for his deeds, and his wisdom, and the power he wields; and hated by many for his cruelty.
Years pass but the nightmares still haunt him. They are now filled with voices, too; thousands of voices muttering "Deliver us". He even tried to reply several times, to establish some contact, before realizing that the plea is not directed at him at all. Is it meant for that faint presence he feels every time he wakes up from yet another nightmare? For he can swear that there is someone there when he opens his eyes; but the next moment, the presence is gone. That's how it happens every time, and Rameses has gotten used to it.
He does not tell the priests about his dreams. He does not tell anyone, for that matter; it is bad enough that Nefertari knows of their existence. He does not want to worry her further with their content, not when the dreams may turn out to be prophetic.
He is Pharaoh.
He can't be weak.
So he says nothing.
When the last dream comes, it is different from the others. For there are no hands trying to kill him, and there is no dead body of his son stretched in front of him; there are only those voices muttering, "Deliver us", and the face of his brother, frightened, desperate, eyes filled with raw pain, mouth open, as if screaming something Rameses can't hear...
Moses reaches out to him, as if in warning; and then a huge wave comes crushing down on the Pharaoh's head, and everything is dark.
The next evening Rameses almost laughs at himself. This stranger with his brother's face and a shepherd’s staff could never care this much. These emotions from his dream could have belonged to his brother, his real brother; but the man standing in front of him is not the Moses he knows.
It is easier for the pharaoh to think that the Moses he knows died in the Egyptian desert years ago than to believe that it is indeed him who repeats calmly, "I have come to deliver my people", his words echoing terribly with the plea from his nightmares.
It is easier to say no to a stranger than to a long-lost brother who is now your enemy.
And he says no.
And then the plagues come.
His country is in ruins.
His people are suffering and dying of hunger and illnesses.
His wife spends days and nights in the room of their son, not letting him out of sight.
The Egyptians are panicked.
The Hebrews are patient.
But the Pharaoh is relentless.
His own body is sore, but he cannot see it in the terrible darkness that engulfs the entire country. If he could, he would see that his hands now look exactly like those from his nightmares, only his are not injured because of hard work but covered with ulcers and lacerations sent by that nameless god of the Hebrews.
He takes a sip from his goblet, not knowing what he is drinking – both water and wine are blood red these days.
He really, really does not care.
The night of his son’s death is pitch black.
Despite the darkness, the pharaoh can clearly see and feel this terrible moment when his little boy, whom he hugs to his chest seeking desperately to protect him, just stops breathing.
He has never felt such pain before.
He almost envies his wife the next day. Nefertari is a mother, and it is easy for her to hate her child’s killer. She does not even think to blame Rameses for their son’s death, even though he could have prevented it all. Instead, she clings to him and holds on for dear life, weeping and cursing Moses.
Rameses does not agree.
His brother is not the one to blame.
Hatred is easier to deal with, thinks Rameses as the Egyptian chariots race towards the seashore. Love is another matter.
The Hebrews have almost finished crossing the sea, and he dares not question how it is possible – after what he has already witnessed, the wide expanse of dry land flanked by parted waters does not even surprise him. Or rather, he does not care.
Two huge waves tower over him as he walks towards the other shore. He forbids his warriors to follow him. No more deaths. This is his battle, and his alone.
He is not expecting to win it.
His brother – for it is indeed his brother – is already waiting for him. He is alone, too. His expression is no longer distant or menacing – no, Moses watches him with a deep sorrow that mirrors his own, a desperate plea for forgiveness hidden behind dark eyelids.
Suddenly there is no war to wage and no battle to lose anymore.
The moment Rameses meets his brother’s eyes everything is forgiven and forgotten. Pains and losses, pride and hatred, the long years spent away from each other; everything is forgotten. The only thing that remains is their love, deep and unwavering; even though its taste is bitter, for the wall that separates their nations is too high, the chasm too deep, the gap too wide. But love is the only thing that matters.
Moses is the first to move. He grabs the Egyptian’s hand in his, ignoring the ugly abrasions covering the other man’s dark skin, and steps closer.
“I’m sorry, brother.”
“This god of yours… will he help you? Will he help you lead your people?”
Moses frowns, surprised.
“He will, Rameses. You know that.”
“I only know that he is cruel. Don’t!” The pharaoh raises his free arm to prevent Moses from speaking. “Don’t say anything. He was nothing but cruel to my people. But he is on your side, and I’m glad it is so. Do not make him you enemy… brother. If I can’t have you by my side, at least let me be sure that you are safe.”
“The blood of your son is on my hands, and you worry about me?”
“The blood of your people is on my father’s hands and on mine, and yet you call me brother.” Rameses looks at their joined hands, the Hebrew’s pale fingers against the broken, disfigured skin of his own arm, and sighs. “I’m sorry too.”
The next moment Moses draws him into an embrace so tight that the pharaoh can barely breathe; and the Egyptian responds with equal strength, savouring these last moments of being close to his beloved brother. For they are both aware that this time, it is indeed their final goodbye.
Neither of them wants to break the embrace, but suddenly the air is filled with ominous rumbling that seems to be coming from everywhere at once. The brothers step back simultaneously, looking around. What they see is frightening: the parted waters are slowly starting to move again, threatening to wash the two men away like tiny straws.
“Go, Rameses.” There is genuine fear in his brother’s dark eyes, and his voice trembles a little. “Please go. I want you safe.”
The Egyptian looks over his shoulder only to see that the waters are almost closing over the expanse of land that leads to his shore. He smiles ironically.
“But your god doesn’t.”
“Then come with me! You’ll never make it back in time, come with me! We’ll find a way to help you get back, I promise! Now come on!”
The pharaoh makes another step back, never breaking eye contact. His brother’s face is exactly as he remembers it from that last dream – frightened, desperate, eyes filled with raw pain and denial. Moses shakes his head, unwilling to understand.
“What are you doing? This is suicide!”
This time, unlike in the dream, Rameses can hear his words and is able to reply.
“I will never come with you, brother.” Because I am too proud to succumb to this nameless, faceless, cruel god, he adds silently. Because my pride is the only thing left stable in the mad world that is crumbling under my feet.
Because I love you, brother, and coming with you means going against your god’s will. I will not be the cause of your punishment.
“Why must you die?”
Gods, how helpless it sounds. It is almost as if they are still children back in the palace, and the young Moses, distressed over something he can’t understand, turns to his big brother for advice and support, as usual. Rameses has always given his brother everything he could; and he can still give him the answer he is seeking. One last time. Even though the only thing he really wants to do is to grab his brother again and never, never let go.
But he is Pharaoh.
He can’t be weak.
So he smiles.
“Because I want to.”
The waters are now almost blocking his way to the Egyptian shore; but Moses can still reach his people safely, even though the path is narrow. Good. For his death is Rameses’ worst nightmare, worse than the damned hands that have turned into his own, worse even than his son’s death – he had failed to prevent that one. He will not fail twice.
“Go, Moses. Let your god do what he wants to.”
“You don’t understand! He doesn’t want to kill you; He is giving you a chance! Please come with me!”
He ignores his brother’s outstretched hand and the deep sadness in his eyes.
“I don’t need his chances. I need nothing from him. Go now, and be safe, brother mine. Your people need you.”
The hulking mass of water is close behind him. Maybe it is not the perfect death; but it is going to be good enough.
Unwittingly, Moses takes a step back. Then another, and another. The waters part wider as he moves away from the motionless Rameses. Good. At least that god of his will keep him safe.
The last thing he remembers is his beloved brother’s face, the sheer terror in his dark eyes, a desperate plea in his voice. Rameses would like to tell him many things, but he only has time for one.
“Farewell, brother mine.”
And as the huge wave comes crushing down on his head, Rameses smiles.