As lovely as driving in the Wadi Rum desert had been in the early dawn light, with the rising sun staining the rocks gorgeous shades of purple, orange and salmon pink, by nine a.m. it was warming up, so Natasha unzipped her fleece jacket and pulled it off, stuffing it into the backpack at her feet. Their ancient jeep/truck/monster bumped along the dirt road, merrily driven by Dr. Ahmed Khamash, Director of Antiquities at the Royal Jordan Museum. Hills the color of toffee and marmalade swept by in dramatic upsweeps of strata and weather-worn pillars, like a giant, exuberant potter throwing slabs of orange clay.
Unlike the chilly wet weather of her hometown of Vancouver, BC, Natasha was enjoying the warmth and sunshine of December in Jordan. A few maverick clouds dotted the winter sky, but most of it was a pure, bright blue, like the sky in a Ghibli anime. She pulled her sunscreen from her backpack and applied some to her face, neck and forearms, a precaution she had to take because her summer tan had long since faded in the last few months of overcast skies back home. Finally, after ninety minutes of bouncing around in the back seat of the ancient utility vehicle, Natasha was relieved to hear Dr. Khamash tell her father in the front passenger seat, “Harold, look! Just around that bluff up ahead; we’re almost at the dig site.”
Nat glanced over at Marcus, sitting next to her in the middle seat, and they shared a look that meant both “Thank all the gods,” as well as, “Here we go again.” Marcus’ mother, June, sitting on the other side of him, by the window, rummaged around in her equipment bag, unpacking an expensive digital camera. She grinned excitedly over at Nat and Marcus, then leaned forward to the front seat and squeezed Harold’s shoulder. “I can’t wait to see Khirbet Edh-Dharih,” she told him. “I’ve been looking forward to this for months!”
June, Marcus and Natasha had just flown into Jordan from Toronto (where Nat had met up with them) two days earlier. The long series of flights had left the two teens tired and cranky, but June remained her always-cheerful, energetic self. After one night at a hotel in the capitol city of Amman, they had stocked up on travel necessities, including dried fruit and nuts, lightweight scarves, and bottles of water. Then the next morning the trio had been driven four hours south to Aqaba by Michael, one of Dr. Khamash’s archaeology grad students. Natasha, used to the lush temperate forests of BC, had enjoyed the drive through the desert on the smooth, fast highway. The scenery was so different; craggy rock formations and a thousand shades of brown, pink and gold. Once in a while they passed a river valley with a stand of trees, but for the most part, everything looked dry and uninhabitable.
Dr. Harold Anderson, Natasha’s father, was an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. From a young age she’d been digging ‘fossils’ out of the sandbox while all her preschool friends were pushing plastic trucks around. Her mom was not impressed when the ‘coprolites’ her daughter proudly showed her were actually just dried-up cat poop. Later, when her classmates were reading Rainbow Fairies and Captain Underpants, she was reading back issues of National Geographic. She and her dad had a close relationship when he was teaching classes at home, but every year he’d take at least one semester to travel to exotic lands for research and digs. She loved the stories he told her about his trips to Morocco, Guatemala, Egypt and Sri Lanka. She wanted to hear about ancient civilizations; how they lived, what they ate, and the tiny, seemingly insignificant clues he and his colleagues used to put those stories together.
Eventually her mother decided that she wanted a husband who was home the whole year round, and her parents had divorced when she was about eight; her mom remarried a year later. Natasha had stayed at home with her mom, step-dad and half brother for most of her dad’s previous research trips, but now she was a senior in high school. She’d just finished the last semester that counted for college transcripts, and she had three weeks off to spend with her dad in Jordan. This was the first vacation time she’d spent with him since he got remarried the previous August, and they didn’t want her to miss out on seeing each other just because he was working half a world away.
Harold had rented a flat in Aqaba for the duration of his participation in Dr. Khamash’s dig. He’d rented a large enough place for himself and his new wife June, their two kids, and an extra study for the loads of electronics he and June needed for their research and analysis. Dr. Juniper Bale, an engineer and expert on using LiDAR technology to find undiscovered archaeological sites, was joining the research team now that her teaching sabbatical had begun, and she’d brought her only son Marcus, so that the four of them could bond as a new family.
Marcus was… interesting, Nat thought. As pale as her, but with almost white-blond hair instead of her chocolate brown, he was even less suited to this climate of plentiful sunshine. Although December was the beginning of the rainy season, Marcus would be staying here with his mom for the duration of the study, at least six months, and Natasha didn’t know how he would survive a summer in the Middle Eastern desert. He was a few inches taller than herself, even though at sixteen and a half, he was almost a year younger. He’d grown up in many different places, homeschooled by his single mom and dragged along to whichever university or dig site she happened to be working at that year. He’d lived in Peru, Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, Scotland, India, and Israel for months at a time, interspersed with a few years each in Toronto, San Francisco and Vancouver. He spoke goodness knows how many languages, seemed to know everything about his mother’s work, and was chatty with every adult they met. With Natasha, however, he had very little to say. They had hung out a little bit before and after their parents’ wedding the summer before, and she had tried to break the ice with him several times, but despite a few times when she thought he might have smiled a little at her jokes, he never seemed to have much to talk about with her.
She thought she might have broken through his shell last night in Aqaba. They’d arrived just before dinner, and eaten with Dr. Khamash, Harold and June, but when the grownups started talking shop, she grabbed Marcus by the wrist, shouted, “We’re exploring the city!” and dragged him out the door. “Don’t forget your headscarf, Nat!” June reminded them. They were, after all in a country where women usually covered their heads, and Nat didn’t want to offend anyone.
Natasha and Marcus explored the area around their flat, bought sweet flaky pastries and apricots at a nearby market, and walked toward the azure water of the Gulf of Aqaba, a ways down the hill from where they were staying. Marcus steered her away from dodgy-looking alleys and groups of men talking at them in muttered Arabic; he seemed to have an instinct for navigating the strange city, probably from years of travel. The ocean was gorgeous. They sat on a bench along the seawall, eating their snack, and watched the stars come out over the ancient city. People in a nearby café were playing music and singing, and for the first time, the silence between herself and Marcus hadn’t felt awkward.
“I wish we’d had time to go swimming yesterday before we left Amman,” Marcus said. Nat nodded in agreement, and he went on. “The Dead Sea is really cool for swimming, because of all the salt.”
“Yeah,” Nat said. “I remember my dad telling me about it when I was a kid. He put one egg in a glass of regular water, and another egg in a glass of salt water, and the salty one floated higher, just like the Dead Sea, he said.” She slid down a little and rested her head against the back of the bench, looking up at the darkening night sky. “Maybe we’ll get a chance after we get back from the dig next week.” Nat turned her head slightly and thought she caught Marcus looking at her, before he quickly looked away.
Nat studied Marcus’ profile as he looked out across the sea. His light blue eyes and blond hair seemed to sparkle with the reflections of the street lamps and stars, just beginning to glow. His eyebrows and eyelashes were several shades darker, and they set off his features in a way that made her a little jealous of his looks. Add to that his lush lips and slim, straight nose, and he was probably the best-looking boy she’d ever seen, maybe even prettier than most girls she knew. She sighed to herself. As much as she found him attractive, putting the moves on her new stepbrother while they were stuck together, living under the same roof (or tent, later), was probably a terrible idea. What if he just thought it was creepy, and then they couldn’t get away from each other for weeks? No thanks, that would just be unbearably awkward, she thought.
Most of this story is already written, so chapter postings will be pretty regular. Please enjoy, and let me know what you think! Comments are always welcome.
Chapter 2: Welcome to Khirbet Edh-Dharih
Marcus breaks the ice with his step-sister, giving her a little background in Nabataean history.
I’m unbearably awkward, Marcus thought. Why can’t I talk to girls, even my own stepsister? Stepsister, he mused. Weird, weird, weird. Having a family bigger than just himself and his mom still seemed weird to him. He could speak seven different languages, he got hit on by both men and women wherever he went, but he still couldn’t string together more than two sentences after knowing Natasha for months. He returned her look of relief as the jeep approached the ruins, and looked back out the Jeep’s window, although all he saw in his mind’s eye was her lovely face. Large hazel eyes and dark, shiny brown hair; she was a beauty, and totally out of his league. She was normal; on the track team and the swim team in school, a straight-A student, going off to university next year. She was the perfect all-American (well, Canadian, actually) girl. He would just have to try not to be so weird around her for a few weeks, and then when she flew home he could go back to the regular, everyday awkwardness of being around his newlywed mom and his new stepdad, Harold.
“Take care of my girl,” Harold had said when they’d had a moment alone together the day before, in Aqaba. “She hasn’t traveled as much as you, and doesn’t know what to expect in these sorts of places.” He gave Marcus an assessing once-over. “I know you’re up to the challenge,” Harold said trustingly. And Marcus was. His mom had realized fairly early on that a boy as pretty as Marcus was going to need a few extra survival skills. She had enrolled him in martial arts classes wherever they lived, and she trained alongside him most of the time. They’d learned Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, Jiu Jitsu, and Capoeira. He loved the challenge, the exercise, and he really appreciated having a way to protect himself from bullies and weirdos wherever he went.
Speaking of which, he was glad that Natasha didn’t catch the comments of those skeezy guys they’d passed the night before on the street. “Mmmhmm, look at that ass.” One of them had muttered. “Which one? They both look pretty fuckable,” said another. Ew. Marcus was sick of hearing shit like that wherever he went. At least when they lived in California he had blended in with all the blonds, passed for normal on the outside. Here, in the Middle East, he was like a shining beacon of otherness, turning heads again. He wished he could get away with wearing a headscarf and veil, but that was not really an option for him, either.
“Marcus?” his mom asked from the seat beside him, “Do you have your water bottle?”
“Yes, mom.” He rolled his eyes. What was he, ten years old? They’d arrived at the dig site now, and Marcus could see the tents set up around the ruins and the staked out squares where today’s dig was happening.
“Do you want to fill Nat in on the history of Khirbet Edh-Dharih while we unload and set up?” She asked. Marcus obediently nodded, despite the butterflies in his stomach, and got out of the truck.
Nat looked at him expectantly. Marcus swallowed down his nervousness and tried to sound normal. “Help me unload these cases from the back while I catch you up,” he said.
“Okay,” she smiled, and started to pull black hardshell cases out of the trunk of the Jeep.
Marcus took a deep breath and asked, “Do you know much about the Nabataeans?”
Natasha said, “Just a little. They were the nomadic people who traded spices and stuff up and down the Arabian peninsula, right? Back in ancient times?”
“Yeah,” Marcus confirmed, picking up another case and carrying it over to the nearest tent. “They harvested frankincense and myrrh from local trees, and traded silks and things from the Orient, and for a while they were the main transporters of goods between India in the East and the Roman Empire and Egypt in the West.”
“It must have been hard to live in such a dry place,” she remarked, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “And the summers must be so hot!”
“I don’t think it was always this dry.” Marcus said. “The Middle East used to be a lot more fertile a couple thousand years ago. It wasn’t like you see it now.” He looked around at the absolutely parched hills and valleys that surrounded them. “Although that’s hard to believe when you actually see the place.”
He and Natasha unloaded a few more boxes from the truck. “What do our parents hope to find here?” she asked.
Marcus helped her with a particularly heavy case that had handles on both sides. “They’re going to fly mom’s drones around and look for evidence of hydro engineering techniques, as well as earlier settlements. The Nabataeans must have had some sophisticated systems to store water or else they wouldn’t have been able to build amazing cities like Petra, which is a World Heritage Site. Mom was telling me about some of the cisterns they’ve discovered, dug into the rocky hills north of here.”
“Wow.” Natasha looked around the small valley, and pointed at some regular dark holes carved into the rocks. “Are those manmade?” she asked.
“I think so,” Marcus replied. “They look like the sort of holes the Anasazi in New Mexico dug around their dwellings, to hold tent posts, so it’s probably pretty similar for the Nabataean nomads. You want to check them out later?”
“Sure!” Natasha readily agreed. They both looked towards the tent where Harold and June were waving them over. “I think we’re being paged,” she joked, and headed off. Okay, Marcus thought, she seemed to appreciate your history lesson. Nice work.
Chapter 3: Exploring the Valley
Nat and Marcus begin to explore the valley, and get to know each other a little better.
Dad’s tour of the ruins of Khirbet Edh-Dharih was pretty cool, Nat thought after lunch, but just then she didn’t feel like spending her first afternoon in the desert sifting through bushel after bushel of dirt, hoping to find tiny broken shards of pottery and seeds. She was so tired from the trip that she would probably miss some itty-bitty puzzle piece. June was pretty busy conferring with the other scientists and planning where to send her robot drones to scan the area. Nat took a short nap to help get over her jetlag, drank some cold mint tea, then filled her pockets with a couple of bags of dates and almonds. She felt like exploring and getting the lay of the land. She slung her canteen over her shoulder and wandered over to the biggest tent, where all the communal stuff was happening.
Marcus was hanging back behind the scientists, listening to their debate about the amount of heat the drone’s batteries could tolerate. Luckily for Nat, all the scientists spoke to each other in English. Nat’s French was great, but her Arabic was pretty rudimentary; she’d only started learning it a few months ago, when they planned this trip. She didn’t want to travel to a country where she didn’t know any words in the local language. Marcus’s Arabic was supposedly much better than hers, although she hadn’t heard him use it much. At the moment he looked rather bored, hanging back a few feet behind the adults.
She sidled up to him and whispered in his ear, “Wanna blow this popsicle stand?”
He snorted and whispered back, “You just wish they had popsicles here!”
“Do I ever!” she agreed. “Come on.” They left through the side of the tent and headed toward the rocky hillside Nat had pointed out that morning. The sun was far enough past its zenith that most of the western side of the valley was in shadow. The holes in the sandstone hills didn’t look very large from the dig site, but perspective was deceiving at that distance. Within 15 minutes, they came up to the rocky wall of the valley. They marveled aloud at the amount of time it must have taken people only equipped with hand tools to dig out such a large hole. Nat stepped inside one of the large holes. It was about three meters wide, two meters deep, and as high as Nat could reach above her head. It seemed like a small cave, about the size of an airstream trailer. Above the entrance were about a dozen smaller holes in a long line, about the diameter of a fist.
“That’s where their tent poles would go,” Marcus said, joining her inside. “They dug into the rock to make small shelters, and expanded them with tent poles and animal skins to make a pretty cozy little house.”
Nat smiled and looked around. “I like it,” she said. “Can you imagine living here?” She pointed out the cave entrance, “Beautiful view of the valley,” gestured upwards, “Waterproof roof,” and then sat on a raised platform at the rear of the shelter. “Look, here’s the bed!”
“They probably covered this with furs or sheepskin,” Marcus suggested as he sat down next to her. “Pretty cozy.”
Nat laid back and looked up at the warm glow of the sandstone in the afternoon light. “The light would come in from the East in the morning to warm things up.”
Marcus reclined next to her, head propped on one hand. “But it’s cool and shady in the afternoon. These interior designers were no dummies.”
Nat turned her head to smile at him. She caught his aquamarine eyes and momentarily got lost in them. Beautiful, she thought. Surprisingly, Marcus’s eyes flicked down to her lips and back up to her eyes. She half-consciously licked her lips, and he looked at them again. Her smile widened even more. “Hey there,” she said.
“Hey.” He lowered his head just a little. “Do you think anyone’s wondering where we are?” he asked.
“Probably not,” she said. There’s not really anywhere to go, she thought. Dad and June would be busy for ages working through their plans with Dr. Khamash and the others. She raised her chin a little in invitation. He could take it or leave it; she wasn’t exactly throwing herself at him, and she hadn’t forced him to lie down next to her in the cave.
Marcus swallowed deeply; she watched his Adam’s apple bob in his throat. He hesitated for what seemed like an age, then slowly lowered his lips to hers. His kiss was brief, tentative, and he quickly pulled back, searching her face, looking like he expected a rejection. Nat was fairly sure that despite his looks, Marcus had kissed even fewer people than she had, so she raised her hand and ran her fingers along the back of his neck, asking for more without words.
This time Marcus’ lips came down with more assurance, and tingles started to run down her body from her shoulders to her thighs. “Mmmm,” she hummed, and said, “That’s nice,” when he pulled back. Nat got to see an absolutely gorgeous blush blossom on his pale cheeks, and cupped both sides of his face, pulling him back down again.
They opened their lips and began to explore each other’s mouths, clumsily at first, and then with more passion. When they parted slightly to breathe again, he said, “You taste sweet,” then blushed even more deeply.
“You are sweet,” she said, and laughed, too happy to think too hard about what it all meant, kissing her step brother and loving every second of it.
Chapter 4: Getting to Know You
Nat and Marcus find more than one way to pass the time while their parents are working.
By unspoken agreement, Marcus and Natasha decided not to tell their parents about their… thing… or whatever it was, Marcus wasn’t sure. At night, they slept on opposite sides of their family tent, their parents behind a cloth wall for privacy. Even though they could technically sneak into one another’s sleeping bag without being seen, being heard was another matter, and if the cloth wall didn’t hide their parents’ whispers from them, it certainly wouldn’t hide any noises made on their side, either. Each day when Harold and June went to work digging, scanning, and analyzing new data, the teens would go exploring the valley, returning for lunch and to help with the excavations in the afternoon. Sometimes they headed back out for a couple of hours before dinner, but at night the desert could get pretty cold, so they always made sure to be back by evening.
As soon as they were out of sight of the others, Nat reached for Marcus’ hand. He loved the contact. Having moved around so much, and rarely getting to know kids his age, meant that Marcus had never had a girlfriend before, and Nat’s touch thrilled him to the core. She was so open, so joyful. She shared her smiles, and her kisses, freely with him.
On the second day they were hiking up a trail and Nat was several meters ahead of him. When he caught up to her, she was leaning against a large boulder in the shade. “Nice of you to join me,” she quipped. She grabbed him by the t-shirt as he came close enough, pulled him in, and kissed him deeply on the mouth, wrapping her arms around his neck. He practically collapsed against her, partly tired from the climb, partly just to feel the softness of her body against his own. He closed his eyes, enjoying the kiss, and ran his hands down her sides, stroking her skin gently where the bottom edge of her shirt had lifted. She sighed into the kiss, encouraging him, and his hands began to roam more freely over the skin of her stomach, sides and back.
Nat just naturally seemed to know how to push his buttons, how to encourage him and lead him without having to say very much. A soft sigh or moan when he touched her here, a gentle nudge in the right direction when she wanted more pressure there, and before he knew it, Marcus had discovered the weight and softness of her breasts, the rich, salty flavor of the skin of her throat, and the perfect way the skin of her arse felt under his palms. They hadn’t taken their clothes off yet, but by the third afternoon one of their stolen moments turned into something even more intense.
Marcus and Nat were sketching some petroglyphs on a rock face about half an hour from camp. The slanted late afternoon light made the etchings stand out in stronger relief, easier to see. Marcus looked up from one of his drawings to find Nat watching him, a goofy look on her face. “What?” he asked. “Do I look funny?”
“Always,” she laughed, and dropped her pen and pad to straddle his lap. She covered his face with little kisses, never letting him catch her mouth. Finally she blew a big raspberry on his forehead and burst out laughing at the incredulous look on his face. Nobody had ever teased him this way before, and he didn’t quite know how to react to it.
Finally fed up with her teasing, he leaned forward, pushing her onto her back, and settling between her legs on the ground. “Oh, Marcus, yes,” she moaned as he ground his hardness onto her clothed pussy. Her head tilted back, and he latched his mouth onto her throat, licking and sucking at the skin there. He rocked into her again, and shivered all over at the incredible sensations shooting through his body, straight from his cock. He couldn’t stop himself from doing it again and again, and Nat seemed to be enjoying it too much to slow down, too. She was gripping his arse now, pulling him closer in a sinful rhythm. “Aaah, fuck! Marcus!” She shuddered and jolted, her back arching and grip tightening. Did she just—
“Ohh, oh my god!” Marcus cried out too, as his orgasm overtook him, too. His hips pushed forward harder, rhythm broken and stuttered, drawing a few more gasps from Nat below him.
“Wow. That was. Wow.” Nat’s usual mastery of the English language seemed to escape her as they lay there for a minute, until— “Can you please get off of me? The ground’s not exactly cushiony here.”
Marcus rolled over and stared up at the cloudless sky, wondering how on earth he had ever gotten so lucky as to find this girl. I want her to be mine, he thought. “Will you be my girlfriend?” he blurted out, and then slapped his forehead with his palm at the horrible lack of coolness in what he just said.
Nat’s startled laughter quickly gave way to snorting, then coughing, as she was overcome by the hilarity of the moment. “Yes!” she finally wheezed out. “Yeah, for sure!” Her face was shining with joy as she pulled his hand away from his eyes and leaned over him to bless him with the sweetest kiss in the world, then asked, “Got any tissues?”
Chapter 5: The Altar
They examine a mysterious relic from the past.
“Nat, sweetheart, come and take a look at this!” her dad led Nat over to a recently excavated patch of stone in the center of the temple, the largest building of the ruins. The ruins of the small town they’d uncovered were a labyrinth of stone walls, delineating the spaces of small homes and a much larger temple at one end. The entire settlement was enclosed in a thick stone wall, for protection, but the whole town wasn’t much bigger than Nat’s high school in area. June and Marcus were already there, crouching down to see the low-relief artwork engraved on the roughly half-meter by two meter block of stone.
Nat hurriedly walked across the compound, hopping over a few low stone walls. The ruins of the temple itself were laid out in a rough square about twenty meters wide, with a raised platform in the center and thick stone columns gracing the corners. The block in question was near the middle of the platform, so Nat hauled herself up to observe it more closely.
“Look here,” her dad pointed to a beautifully carved image of an Ibex, its head and huge, curved horns turned toward the viewer, but its body in profile. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”
Nat nodded, her hand itching to touch the noble animal. Near the Ibex she saw other creatures on the carved panel; a fox, a jerboa with its long tail and rabbit-like ears, and some large, fearsome catlike animal. “What’s that one called?” she asked, pointing to a large grazing animal with tall, straight horns.
June answered, “That’s an Arabian Oryx. They’re extinct in the wild now, but back then they must have grazed these flatlands in huge numbers.” She saw that the teens were still interested, and went on, “These nomads weren’t typically farmers, we think, so they must have relied heavily on hunting these animals up and down the Arabian peninsula. It was important to mark, or commemorate, the ones they considered the most important. We think this was a religious building, and possibly the artist was celebrating the sacrifices the people had made on this altar to their gods.”
Marcus asked, “Why do you think this was a sacrificial altar, Mom?”
“Well, look at these holes here, and here,” she said, pointing to two round holes, about five centimeters across. “We think this is where the blood would have drained down after the sacrifice.” She gave the teens a moment to get over their discomfort at the image of dripping blood where they’d just touched the stone. “The really curious thing is here,” she said, and pointed out two figures carved into the edge of the tableau.
Natasha bent down and looked closer at the panel. Two human figures, a boy and a girl, stood side by side, clasping hands. They were contained inside a rounded rectangle with a long, stretched-out top edge, as if they were trapped within a giant wine jug. “I don’t get it; why would people be on here? Did they make human sacrifices too?”
“No records exist of human sacrifices amongst the Nabataeans,” her dad answered. “If that’s what these are, and that’s a very big if, then this would be the first record of such a thing.”
“The way these two are contained within a jar shape is really unusual,” June said. “It’s like they’re an offering, or maybe a gift. I’d like to scan this panel and do some more analysis on the computer.” She motioned for the other three to give her some extra space, and she took multiple photos of the carvings from slightly different angles with her high resolution camera. “I can combine these photos together on the computer to create a 3-D relief map of the carvings. It’s incredibly cool.” She smiled and got to work.
Chapter 6: Solitary Swim
Marcus and Natasha find a very private place to swim.
On the fourth morning Marcus and Nat went out for a hike after breakfast. They climbed over a ridge of the valley wall, about a kilometer south of their camp. From the peak of the ridge they could see the dig site around the ruins in the distance. There was quite a good view of the whole valley from this spot, so they took a moment to drink some water and appreciate it. From there, they descended the far side gradually through a narrow slot canyon. The width of the canyon got narrower and narrower as they went lower, and just as Marcus was beginning to think they’d better turn around before they got stuck, the canyon widened out and gave them some breathing space. They were in a high-sided courtyard-type space with a sandy floor and very steep overhanging walls, probably formed by heavy water runoff during the rainy season. He noticed a tall, narrow, dark hole under a red sandstone arch, about one meter above ground level. It might have been a cave entrance, and he wanted to check it out. “Do you see that?” he asked Nat.
Her eyes lit up and she stepped forwards to get a better view. “Let’s go see what’s in there,” she said.
The hole was large enough for a grown person to slide into, but only just. Nat turned on her phone flashlight, and lit up the interior, checking for evidence of animal occupation, but they didn’t find any. After twenty or so steps, Marcus thought he saw a light ahead. “Shut off your light, Nat. I think I see something.” In a few more steps, the passageway turned slightly, and opened up into a small room with a skylight of sorts; a small hole in the rock, high overhead.
The light shone down and lit up a gorgeous pool of clear water, about half the size of a backyard swimming pool. The teens’ breath escaped them when they saw it. Marcus knew there were hidden cisterns all over these mountains, designed by Nabataean engineers to collect and store the infrequent rains for the thousands of people who used to live in these valleys. This one, though, felt less manmade and more, well, magical. Marcus wasn’t sure what it was that made him think of gods and rituals, but he felt a sense of quiet reverence wash over him when they slipped out of the narrow passage of stone and beheld the small pool of water, with its otherworldly lighting.
“Maybe it’s one of those cisterns we heard about,” Nat voiced Marcus’ thoughts. “D’you feel like going for a swim? I’m pretty hot from that hike.”
Marcus hesitated, even as Nat sat down on a rock ledge, where she set down her backpack and started untying her hiking boots. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to at least cool our feet off,” he said. He joined her on the ledge and pulled off his shoes and socks, then rolled up the legs of his pants to just above the knee. As he shed his pack and slipped his feet into the water, it was so blessedly cool he breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Oh boy, this is delicious.” He immediately relaxed.
They splashed their feet around for a while, until Nat got a mischievous look on her face and began to unbutton her long-sleeved overshirt. “What are you doing?” Marcus asked, pretty sure he already knew the answer. She didn’t answer, just peeled off the thin cambric shirt. Her sleeveless undershirt was still underneath, but she crossed her arms in front of her body and grabbed the bottom hem, lifting it slowly, inch by inch, until she’d revealed her belly, then ribs, and finally a satiny, aqua-colored bra. Marcus sucked in a breath and stared. Beautiful. She was so, so beautiful.
Nat laughed and jumped up as Marcus began to reach for her, undoing the button on her light khaki hiking pants. Marcus felt saliva start to pool in his mouth as she slowly lowered the zipper, just a few feet away from him, and teasingly began to lower the pants down over her hips.
It wasn’t until the pants dropped around her ankles that Marcus snapped out of his trance and into action. Nat screeched as he leaped up and tried to grab her, and she turned and jumped straight into the pool in just her knickers and bra. Marcus yanked off his t-shirt and cargo pants; he didn’t think he’d ever undressed more quickly in his life.
He jumped in after her. The water was perfect; cool and refreshing, but not enough to give them a chill. The pool was deep enough to be over their heads; perfect for dunking each other. Marcus tried to catch Nat, but she was too strong a swimmer, and he was too much of a gentleman to grab at her long, flowing brown hair. After getting dunked for the third time, he sputtered, “Mercy! Stop, stop!” and Nat let up on him, bobbing a few feet away.
“Come here,” she said coyly.
“Not if you’re just going to dunk me again.”
She pouted innocently. “Would I do a mean thing like that?”
“Not if you want any more kisses today,” he said, moving a little closer.
She smiled wickedly, “Oh, that’s not all I want today.”
They both reached out and linked their fingers together, pulling close as they treaded water. Marcus drank in the incredible sight of her. Nat’s cheeks were flushed pink and dewy with small beads of water. Her wet hair, darkened to ebony by the water, clung to her shoulders and the sides of her face in whorls and ribbons, a stark contrast against her creamy skin. Her eyes, though, were the most mesmerizing. Sparkling droplets clung to her long, dark eyelashes. The light, which was directly overhead, bounced off the water and around the cave, and lit up the fascinating mixture of greens and browns of her irises. I can see entire nebulas in her eyes, Marcus thought.
Marcus unlinked one hand from Nat’s and used it to wrap around her waist, relishing the feel of her warm skin in the cool water. Their legs bumped, then intertwined as they got closer, and before he knew it, they were kissing. “Mmmm,” she hummed, her eyes closing. Marcus couldn’t close his eyes, struck by the need to watch her black lashes fall and reveal the delicate lavender skin of her eyelids. He slid his tongue against hers and shivers ran through his entire body. In response, he gripped her more tightly so that their entire bodies were pressed together; her breasts against his hard chest, their stomachs and hips, and his hardening arousal causing returning shivers to run through her body. He felt them and sighed, overjoyed that he could make her feel the same way.
Nat pulled back just enough to say in a whisper, “I wish I could capture this moment in time, and keep it forever.” She glanced up at the sun, which was directly overhead, falling straight down through the round hole in the ceiling. In a somewhat louder voice she asked, “Is it noon already? Have we been here that long?”
Marcus instinctively glanced over to the dry ledge, where his phone lay in the pocket of his cargo pants. “I don’t know. If it is, we’re going to be late getting back for lunch. I hope they don’t send out a search party for us.” He reluctantly let her go and swam toward the edge of the pool. Behind him, he heard an alarmed gasp. Turning, he looked back to see her shocked face, looking around the pool in alarm.
Chapter 7: Sandstone Gravitron
In which things get weird.
Natasha stared at the hole in the ceiling, where just a moment before, the sun had been shining down, but now showed only blue sky. She thought she heard a soft, droning, buzzing noise, like a hive of bees, while they were kissing a minute ago, but now it was getting noticeably louder, and she looked around for the source of the noise. Was there a beehive somewhere in the cave that they hadn’t noticed before?
The walls remained perfectly smooth all around, but looking down now, she saw a bright spot on the water, moving fairly quickly across the surface. A moving light source? Where was it coming from? “Marcus? What’s that light?” Alarmed now, she began to swim towards him. She needed to get out of the pool.
Marcus obviously felt the same way. He’d lost all color in his face, and was holding on to the rock ledge with one arm, reaching the other out toward her. “Nat, hurry!” he croaked in a voice dry with alarm. Nat tracked the path of the light, moving straight across the bottom of the cistern, accelerating as it went. By the time it reached the edge of the water, it was moving so quickly that Nat thought there must be a helicopter with a spotlight overhead, shining down into the cave. The droning buzz, however, didn’t sound mechanical; it was more like a church full of monks chanting, low in pitch but gradually rising.
She reached the edge and pulled herself out of the pool, and as soon as she did, she noticed the spin. It felt like the world was turning, and she couldn’t get her balance well enough to stand up. Marcus seemed a bit wobbly, too. The light was now rising up the cave wall behind him, and the cave was darkening, as if the sun was setting, very, very quickly. They both pulled on their clothing, trying all the while to make sense of what was happening.
Hearts racing, and too dizzy to stand up, they watched as the light disappeared and the cave darkened to blackness. “What the hell is going on?” Nat whispered, and she felt Marcus’ trembling arms wrap around her shoulders. They leaned up against the wall of the cave, fearfully listening to the droning sound, feeling the sideways pull, as gravity seemed to be all out of whack.
“I have no bloody idea,” Marcus groaned, as the darkness passed and light returned to the cave. They watched, horrified, as the spot of light hit the opposite wall, high up, and then quickly descended as the cave grew bright again. It crossed the pool towards them, and they caught a glimpse of the sun through the ceiling hole before it moved away, up the near wall, and darkness fell again, even quicker this time.
In a moment the light was back. It zipped through the cave in mere seconds this time, and then everything was black once more. Again and again, the dark and the light spun through the cave, increasing in speed until it was a pulse, then a strobe, and then it was going too fast for their eyes to process, and everything seemed like a gray blur. The noise increased too, from a faint low buzzing when it began, it had increased in pitch and volume, and was now a screaming whine. They held each other closely, unable to lean forward against the centrifugal force pushing them against the wall.
Nat watched in horror as the water in the pool seemed to spread out, creeping toward them as the room spun wildly. She remembered the time her mom had taken her to a carnival as a child, and they rode in The Gravitron, a fast-spinning, circular chamber. When it spun at top speed, the floor slid away, and they stayed up, feet not touching the ground. She nudged at Marcus’ arms and shouted back at him, “Stand up!” She didn’t know if he could hear her, or just read her lips, but he cooperated. Gradually, they stretched their legs, pushing upwards with feet and hands, their backs against the wall. The water sloshed towards them, but only rose as high as their feet.
Minute after minute went by, and Nat hoped she wouldn’t be sick. They were helpless to do anything, until eventually she thought she might have noticed a lowering of the pitch of the sound, and perhaps a slight slowing of the spin. The gray light began to flicker, then strobe, and before she knew it, the patch of light was again visible as it streaked through the room between cycles of darkness. They slid down the wall as their legs gave out.
Chapter 8: Nazim
They meet a tall, dark and handsome stranger. Yes, really.
Breathing heavily, as if he’d just run a race, Marcus sat bonelessly against the cave wall. He clung on to Natasha’s hand as if his life depended on it. What had just happened? “Are you okay?” he asked her, as soon as he was able to produce speech. He turned to look at her. “Natasha?”
She stared ahead blankly for another moment, then seemed to register that he was talking to her. He felt her give his hand a squeeze, as if to reassure him, or herself. “I’m all in one piece, if that’s what you mean.” Her voice sounded a little weak, but no worse than his own. “Devil of a headache, though.” She winced a little. “Between the spinning and the noise, it’s going to take a while for my head to recover.”
“Me too. I feel super weird.” Marcus winced and let go of her hand to rub his temples. “As soon as we can move, I think we’d better get out of here.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I have no idea what time it is, but I’d really like to get back to camp and lie down.”
They rested for another ten minutes, until their limbs, at least, felt almost normal. Climbing out through the narrow tunnel wasn’t difficult, with the walls to cling to, but the drop down at the opening proved a little more challenging. Marcus couldn’t see much at the threshold. The wider opening of the canyon walls filled the area with sunlight, and his eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the brighter light. He turned to help Nat get down, then heard, only a few steps behind himself, a man’s deep voice.
Marcus whipped around, stunned at the appearance of a tall man in the center of the narrow canyon. The man repeated himself, frowning in obvious confusion, and although the words sounded vaguely familiar, he had spoken too quickly for Marcus to decipher them. The man was handsome; dark-haired and olive-skinned, obviously native to the area. He had a short, neatly trimmed beard, and he looked about twenty years old.
Marcus had no idea where this fellow had come from; he wasn’t dressed like any of the archaeology students in Dr. Khamash’s crew. He was dressed in flowing robes of light, neutral colors. In careful Arabic, Marcus said “Hello, my name is Marcus.”
The man responded, speaking more slowly, and this time Marcus thought he understood. Although he didn’t recognize some of the words, and the accent was quite different from the Arabic he’d learned in Turkey, he thought he got the gist of it. “I am Nazim,” he said, tapping his chest at the name. “How did you get here? The Vessel of Al-Uzza only has one entrance, and I have been camping here all night.” He gestured around himself at the small campfire, now burning low, the remains of a meal he must have been eating before they arrived, and a folded blanket spread out on the ground behind him. It looked like he’d been there for a while.
“The ‘Vessel of Al-Uzza’?” Marcus asked. “What is that?”
Nazim pointed behind them to the opening through which they’d come. “It’s a holy well, sacred to the goddess Al-Uzza. I came here to pray and ask for her blessings.” He continued, seemingly to himself, and Marcus thought he heard Nazim say, “Maybe this boy and girl are the blessings she has sent me.”
Nat had been silent throughout this exchange, but now she whispered in Marcus’ ear, “What’s going on? What is he talking about?”
Marcus replied in a low voice, “His name is Nazim, and he’s speaking Arabic, but it’s a really strange dialect I’ve never heard before.” He looked back at Nazim and tried to explain their presence there. “I’m sorry we intruded upon your holy place; we were just exploring the area and had no idea this was a sacred site.” He put his arm around Nat’s shoulders and tried to guide her slowly around Nazim’s campsite.
Quick as a flash, Nazim blocked the slot canyon, the way they’d come. “Oh no, my friend,” he said in a low, dark voice that sent a shudder down Marcus’ spine. “There will be more talking before I can let you go.” He gestured to his blanket as if it were a fancy brocade-upholstered sofa. “Please. Be seated.”
Marcus had a moment where he wondered if he should fight this guy or acquiesce. Part of him just wanted to knock Nazim out and run with Natasha back to the camp. He was fairly sure that with the element of surprise, he could take this guy down. He’d fought bigger opponents before, and even though Nazim was a few inches taller and a little broader in the shoulders, he wasn’t a tank, and he probably didn’t know half the moves Marcus had under his belt.
On the other hand, Marcus was intrigued. Nazim had a grace and self-confidence that spoke of education and power, and there was a sparkle in the depths of his dark brown eyes that hinted at secrets Marcus thought he might like to know. Other than the uncanny speed with which he reacted to their attempt to leave, he had not acted aggressively towards them. He mostly seemed motivated by curiosity, which, Marcus had to be honest to himself, he also shared.
Marcus gave Natasha’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “He just wants to talk,” he told her in English. “Let’s sit down, and I’ll try to translate for you.”
“Marcus,” she said in a soft, but urgent, voice, “We need to get back to camp.”
Marcus nodded, but said firmly, “This guy seems to know something about that cave we were just in, and he says it’s a special place, ‘holy’ he called it. Don’t you want to find out what just happened in there?” He held her eyes for a minute, waiting for her answer, and eventually she gave him a sharp nod.
“Okay,” she said. “as long as you think he’s not dangerous.”
“I don’t get that feeling from him,” Marcus said, although he couldn’t exactly say why.
When they sat down, Nazim produced a small pot and a beautifully decorated animal skin bag, from which he poured water into the pot. He set it over the low fire to heat. From his supplies he retrieved a jar, which he opened to reveal dried, shredded leaves. “Mint,” he said, “and a few other herbs,” and offered it to them to smell. The fragrance was lovely, and Marcus smiled at Nazim, who smiled back warmly and added a few leaves each to three small cups. Once the water was hot, Nazim carefully poured it into the cups and handed one to each of his guests.
“Now then,” Nazim began. “You are obviously from a very far country, for I have seen no one like you this far to the South.” When Marcus nodded, he went on, “The only person I have ever seen with skin and hair as fair as yours was a traveler from a Roman province called Gaul.”
Marcus jerked in surprise, almost dropping his cup of hot tea. Gaul? Roman province? No one besides historians had referred to France with that name for over a thousand years!
Nazim observed Marcus’ reaction and leaned closer, looking deeply into his eyes as he went on, “You are not from Gaul, then? Where were you born?”
Marcus felt Natasha grip his arm in alarm at his reaction. “What’s wrong? What did he say?”
He turned to her and said, “He thought we were from Gaul, the old Roman name for France. He says he’s never seen a blonde person before except for one traveler from Gaul.”
Nat raised her eyebrows and turned to look at Nazim more closely. She took in his clothing, his camping gear, and bedroll. “Marcus, I just noticed something really strange.”
“There’s nothing on this guy, or any of his stuff, that couldn’t have been made a long time ago. No zippers, no plastic, no chrome plating. Everything is either carved wood, or tied sashes, or ceramics. It’s nice stuff, and it looks pretty new, but it also looks really… old.” Natasha pointed out the decorated skin bag. “I’ve only seen things like this in museums. Maybe he’s a historian or an anthropologist doing some research, you think?”
Marcus, noticing now what she was talking about, nodded in agreement. “If he is on some sort of reenactment research trip, he’s gone really, really deeply into it.”
Marcus switched back to Arabic. “We did travel a very long way. We’re from Canada.”
Nazim scrunched up his eyebrows and repeated, “Kah-nah-dah?” He looked exactly as if he’d never heard the word before. “Where is this?” He spread his arm out in a sweeping arc, as if asking Marcus to point in the right direction.
Marcus scratched his head. Wow, this guy was a great actor. “You know,” he said, “Next to the U.S.” At Nazim’s blank look, he went on, “The United States of America.”
Nazim shook his head and let out a small, self-deprecating laugh. “Just what I suspected. Al-Uzza has dragged you unknowingly from your world, and dropped you into mine. Please, drink your tea. I will try to be the most gracious host I can for as long as the goddess wishes me to have you.”
Marcus translated this enigmatic statement to Nat as best he could, then asked Nazim, “have you had guests brought to you by Al-Uzza before?”
Nazim shook his head in the negative. “No one in my tribe has been so lucky for many, many years, but there is always hope. The princes of my kingdom have been coming here on spiritual quests for many generations, asking the goddess for her blessing, and hoping for the gift of a sacred virgin to wed.”
Chapter 9: The Match
Marcus gets to show off his martial arts skills.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
All of a sudden, Marcus leapt to his feet. He grabbed Nat by the wrist, causing her to drop her teacup on the blanket, and backed away from Nazim. He shouted “LA!” at the man, which even Nat with her beginner Arabic knew was a hard ‘NO’. Nazim’s smile disappeared, and his whole countenance darkened.
Marcus switched to English without looking away from Nazim. “This guy thinks that a goddess brought us here, as a gift for him. I wasn’t too worried; I thought he was just being hospitable until he mentioned marrying a virgin. Now I think you’re right—we’d better get out of here.” As he spoke, Nazim set down his cup and slowly rose to his feet. He looked very calm in the face of their obvious distress. Marcus motioned her towards the slot canyon’s entrance. “You’ve gotta make a run for it. I’ll handle him.”
Nat was aghast. If Marcus thought he was taking on this big, scary guy alone, he must be insane. She started looking around for something she could use as a weapon; a stick of firewood, a rock, anything. Marcus never took his eyes off of Nazim, but carefully slipped off his backpack, which would disadvantage him in a fight. He widened his stance slightly, centered himself, and waited to see what the older man would do. Nazim spread his hands in a gesture of peace and began to talk calmly, soothingly, like he was trying to convince Marcus of something inevitable. All the while, he slowly approached.
When Nazim attacked, it was like she was watching a sped-up film. He moved with the grace of a large cat, taking swipes at his smaller prey. Marcus blocked every blow, jumped over Nazim’s kicks, and just managed to stay an arm’s length away, although it was difficult in such a confined space. Nat retreated to the entrance of the slot canyon, trying to stay out of both of their ways, but unable to leave Marcus alone to fight this mysterious opponent. Her heart was racing a mile a minute, and she tried to think of what she could do, but mostly all she could do was watch.
Minutes passed, and even though Marcus had mad skills for a sixteen-year-old, Natasha got the sense that this stranger was a skilled warrior, and that he was not actually trying to hurt Marcus; just tire him out. Marcus did seem to be slowing down a little, and eventually he wasn’t able to jump out of the way of one of Nazim’s kicks. His legs got swept out from under him, and Nazim was on him, holding Marcus’ arms down with his knees. Nat rushed over to hit the back of his head with a grapefruit-sized rock she’d picked up, but Nazim caught her wrist and twisted it, forcing her to drop the rock on the sand.
Marcus’ face was red and blotchy from the exertion, and his eyes were shooting daggers at Nazim, but Nazim didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, his mouth was spread in a wide, radiant smile as he looked down at his captive. He said something to Marcus that instantly turned his fury to shock, and then he renewed his struggles, almost managing to unseat the man on top of him.
Nat tried to loosen Nazim’s hand on her wrist. She gasped in pain as he tightened his hold. He pulled loose the sash around his waist, and when she tried to hit him with her other hand, he deftly tied both of her hands together in front of her. Still holding the other end of the sash, he ordered Marcus to stop moving, she assumed, because Marcus went still. Nazim backed off of the boy, and in a movement so graceful it almost seemed choreographed, he flipped Marcus over and tied his hands behind his back with the other end of the sash.
Marcus growled, “DAMMIT!” Nazim retrieved another length of rope from his supplies, and tied their feet together so they couldn’t run away. Then he cupped his hands to his mouth and let out an incredibly loud, long whistle, followed by three short ones. He calmly put out his fire, covered it with sand, rolled up his bedroll and packed all of his supplies. Once he was ready to go, he turned toward the entrance to the sacred cave, bowed deeply, and sang a brief, quiet melody.
By the time he finished, Nat could hear the pounding of running footsteps coming closer through the narrow canyon.
Most of what I know about martial arts comes from watching Avatar: The Last Airbender repeatedly, so if their fight doesn't sound plausible, I hope I can be forgiven. It's just not really my thing. Ask me again about ancient architecture!
Chapter 10: Captives
Marcus weighs their options for escape.
“You have a choice, Mahakus,” for that was how Nazim pronounced his name. “Please explain to…” he gestured to Nat and looked questioningly back at him.
“Natasha.” Marcus spat out.
“Natasha. What a beautiful name,” Nazim said with a smile, and Marcus ground his teeth together as Nat stared at them. “Tell her that you are both coming with me and my friends, that we will treat you well, and you are free to walk in comfort, as long as there is no more fighting.” Nazim stroked Nat’s cheek with one hand, and stroked Marcus’ opposite cheek with the other. He seemed fond of them both, as if there was some deep emotional connection between them, like dear friends or… lovers.
Marcus grit out the translation, trying to decide what to do. Two more men had joined them in the canyon, and it looked like he and Nat would be going along with Nazim no matter what stunt Marcus tried to pull. Frankly, he’d rather walk out on his own than have to be lugged out in a fireman’s carry, or worse, dragged. An unwanted cartoon image of a caveman dragging his conquest by her long hair flickered across his mind before he shut that down. No way, Marcus thought, I am NOT a damsel in distress. Shit, he thought. I am.
For the millionth time, Marcus cursed his looks. Earlier, when he was lying helplessly under Nazim’s heavy body, the man’s dazzling smile had warmed him even in defeat, until he’d said those words: “I hope you bring this much fire and passion to our bed, my boy.” Until then, Marcus had been thinking that the “virgin” Nazim wanted to “wed” was Natasha. But Nazim’s words made it clear that it was actually Marcus, or maybe both of them, he wanted.
Now as Nazim stroked his cheek, Marcus trembled. He was honest enough with himself to admit that as far as men went, Nazim was a stunningly attractive one, with his mile-long lashes and full, sensual lips. Marcus had had thoughts about handsome guys before; they just weren’t usually the ones who hit on him. If they’d met at a coffee shop in Toronto, and flirted, and exchanged numbers, he would probably have dated this guy. But this wasn’t a coffee shop, and Marcus wasn’t being given a choice about when he’d like to meet up again. Besides, he was with Nat now, and she was everything he’d ever wanted, or at least seemed to be, after only a few days together.
“Okay,” Nat said. “We’ll walk.” Marcus nodded, and repeated her decision in Arabic. Nazim untied their legs, but left their hands bound. He cut the sash in the middle so they were no longer tied together, and helped them up to a standing position. Natasha was still wearing her backpack, but Marcus’ was on the ground. When Nazim saw it, he instructed one of his men to retrieve it, and guiding Natasha by the elbow, he led the way out, through the slot canyon.
They had to walk in single file a long ways, until the canyon widened enough for two to walk abreast. Not much was said, and Marcus used the time to try to figure out what to do. If they took the same route down out of the hills, they would end up shouting distance from the dig site, and since they weren’t gagged (yet), enough screaming would probably bring the archaeologists running. He clung to that thought until they got to the end of the canyon, and the whole vista of the valley opened up before them. What he saw nearly made him fall over. This was not the same valley.