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   Chapter 1 The encounter

The Curse of Kalaan By Linda Saint Jalmes Characters: 22552

Updated: 2018-05-17 15:14


"My dear Kalaan! I'm delighted that fate has finally brought us together here in this country!" exclaimed Jean-Fran?ois Champollion, two hours after their unexpected encounter at Tell el-Amarna. He had briefly toured a section of the extensive ruins, first with the members of his expeditionary corps, then accompanied solely by the count.

After a moment of thought, he spoke again.

"These ruins are true to the descriptions the Jesuit Claude Sicard published in his letters in 1714. And Mister Jomard's1 report from thirty years ago is just as truthful; what we have here is utter desolation. There is good cause to believe that all the pillaging these ancient sites are being subjected to has worsened their condition. My colleagues and I have observed that time was not the only culprit in the destruction of the remains. Men armed with pickaxes and hammers have made a considerable contribution to this dilapidation. 'Tis such devastation! There is nothing left to raise and the few reliefs, hieroglyphs or fragments of statues that we've spotted, have all been severely damaged."

"In the two days I've been here, I have come to the same conclusion, " sighed Kalaan gloomily with some bitterness in his voice, his amber-green eyes scanning the ruins across to the steep chalky cliffs rising to the east. They loomed just above what had once most certainly been the foundations of an immense ancient Egyptian city.

"Anything new on this Akhenaten's identity?"

"No, my friend, and it saddens me somewhat, " replied Champollion wearily, pursing his lips. "For the life of me, I simply cannot place this mysterious figure in the long list of kings, queens or pharaohs. I admit I am starting to feel the same as my colleagues, who affirm that Akhenaten was, in truth, a woman. It's quite odd... as if the world had resolved to erase all trace of her, or him, and her reign — or his. If ever there really was a reign."

Jean-Fran?ois distractedly took a whitish object from his pocket, which aroused the Count of Croz's curiosity.

"What's that?"

"Hmh?" Champollion, who seemed preoccupied, looked up at Kalaan and stared at him questioningly. "Oh! This? Just a fragment of crystallized limestone. Notice how it is polished to perfection. From its shape we assume it belonged to a knee from a statue, probably that of a woman, which would confirm that Akhenaten was a member of the weaker sex. Here again, we may well never know."

"Maybe, or maybe not, " replied Kalaan, enigmatically. "Have you forgotten that I wish to share one of my recent discoveries with you? And what if I announced that it could provide many answers to our questions?"

Champollion's disbelief was visible and his brown eyes sparkled with keen interest. However, Kalaan had already turned away and with no further explanation, was striding towards the banks of the Nile, where the boats were docked. The rascal! He was so certain he had succeeded in sparking his colleague's curiosity that he didn't doubt for a moment he would follow!

And how could Champollion not follow? Kalaan's strong charismatic aura as well as his physical appearance commanded respect. He was endowed with an impressive stature, and moved lithely among the ruins of Tell el-Amarna like a feline reveling in the sun. He was dressed in a white linen tunic, close-fitting light-colored suede breeches and high boots crafted from thick leather — essential attire for protection against the snakes and scorpions that abounded in the area.

To protect himself from the sun, Champollion had only brought an ordinary straw hat, whereas Kalaan had opted for a black cheich2, which did not, by any means, tarnish his stately bearing, quite the opposite, in fact. His appearance was enhanced by the fabric that concealed his dark sun-streaked chestnut brown hair. The young count's locks were worn longer than was fashionable for the period and he kept them tied at the nape by a simple leather cord.

His face did not exactly meet the beauty standards of the period, which admired men who had softer, more feminine, features. His chin was a little too strong and his lips a little too full. All together his features were intensely masculine. Despite this, Kalaan was still one of the most handsome and sought after specimens of the time.

A lock of hair was constantly falling across his wide forehead, which gave him a rebellious look. His dark expressive eyebrows could easily switch from displaying determination, to derision, to deep annoyance. His alluring amber-green eyes were magnetic and the people around him often found them unsettling. Kalaan was a formidable adversary for his male colleagues and a fawned upon rake for women.

Unlike the dainty aristocrats who cultivated their pretentious delicate features and never did anything useful with their hands, Kalaan spared no efforts in digging the earth, lifting rocks, and carrying heavy weights just like the laborers he employed on his excavation sites. As a result he had a magnificently proportioned athletic body for which his men had nicknamed him 'the Lion of Egypt.'

Scarcely half an hour later, after reaching the camp on the eastern bank of the Nile, the young count slipped away from the members of Champollion's expeditionary force, which included his closest friends Ippolito Rosellini3 and Nestor L'H?te4.His mysterious attitude was starting to annoy the linguist.

"All this mystery concerning your discovery is somewhat agitating, if you don't mind my saying so, " murmured Champollion, whose brown eyes were shining with elation. "My Italian friend and colleague, Rosellini, must certainly suspect that we are not going to inspect a mere 'hole in the desert' as you have just led him to believe."

"Infested with snakes and scorpions, " Kalaan teasingly added, in his warm, deep voice.

Under his tan Ippolito Rosellini had turned very pale after hearing Kalaan's words and hadn't insisted on accompanying them despite the immense curiosity that was tormenting both him, and Nestor L'H?te. And yet this was neither the first site the two men had visited with Champollion, nor would it be the last, and they had already seen more than their share of reptiles. The men displayed their disappointment and their eyes never left Champollion and his friend while boarding the Horus where the Count of Croz had invited them for refreshments.

As Kalaan had politely suggested, "To slake your thirst and take shelter from the heat..."

It was all only ruse and diversion, and Champollion was bursting with impatience to lay eyes on the troubling discovery that had not yet been disturbed by any human presence other than the count's.

Kalaan and Jean-Fran?ois embarked on a felucca to cross to the west bank of the Nile where Salam, Kalaan's faithful Tuareg friend, was waiting for them, with Lil' Louis, the count's right hand man who followed him on all his expeditions, as well as the count's henchmen.

"Really... a hole?" teased Jean-Fran?ois once more, as he took his seat on the small boat."

Kalaan shot him a cryptic look, a sardonic smile on his full lips, and took the helm of their little boat, steering it in the right direction. His gestures were calm and sure, as though he'd been doing this all his life, although he was only thirty years old. Seeing him in this light, as a hardened navigator, no one could ever doubt his Breton origins.

It was a secret for no one that the young count, as well as being a renowned Egyptologist, had been a buccaneer. He began in the service of Napoleon Bonaparte when he was only fourteen and then went on to serve Louis XVIII and Charles X, following the Restoration of 1814, which had brought back the Bourbon monarchy.

Kalaan, whose father had been a buccaneer before him, followed in his father's footsteps; but the old Count of Croz had disappeared at sea during a dangerous mission against the British, well before the new King of France returned to the throne.

A buccaneer is exactly how Champollion, who never tried to hide his admiration, saw Kalaan, imagining him upright and proud at the helm of his frigate, unaffected by the cascades of salt water pelting down on him, while facing the unleashed elements of a powerful storm.

The two men had run into each other several times in Paris, usually at the Louvre Museum. Their most recent encounter was during the inauguration of the Musée Charles X, where eight new rooms in the south wing of the Cour Carré, were devoted to Egyptian and Greco-Roman antiquities. At the time Jean-Fran?ois hung on every word the count said after returning from one of his numerous expeditions to Egypt, whereas Champollion, the 'decipherer of hieroglyphs' only dreamed of discovering that faraway land that called to him. His dream had always slipped through his fingers just as he thought it might come true.

It had finally happened! Champollion was living his adventure and savoring every minute of it. Sumptuous Egypt seemed to open her arms and constantly thrilled him with her rich and mysterious history. And now, on this seventh day of November in 1828, adrenalin was rushing through his veins again and he was getting restless waiting to hear what it was that Kalaan so wanted to keep secret.

Unable to control himself any longer, Jean-Fran?ois asked questions rapidly, one after the other, and only stopped when he realized he hadn't given the count, who was looking at him with amusement, the chance to answer — as if he would even deign to do so.

The small boat shook as its hull slid squealing onto the sand of the west bank. They were already at their destination and Kalaan's men were quickly pulling the felucca to higher ground. They helped Champollion out onto land while Kalaan, who had jumped into the water before they hit the sand, was heading towards the dry desert zone that could be seen just beyond the lush green belt. Despite being a nobleman, the Count of Croz, totally lacked the manners and courtesy that would have him wait for his guest. Only Lil' Louis, the young aristocrat's sturdy right-hand man, who was well into his fifties and Salam, Kalaan's mysterious Tuareg friend, stayed back with him, exchanging embarrassed glances. Kalaan's lack of good manners obviously disturbed them.

"Lil' Louis!" exclaimed Champollion, warmly shaking the man's large hand. "What a pleasure to see you again!"

"Likewise, " the old seafarer replied cheerfully, "Mighty pleased t'see ye. The sooner ye get the lad outta this hole, the sooner we go home. Oy'm fed up with guzzling sand!"

Champollion burst out laughing at Lil' Louis' outspokenness. With his graying hair, pudgy cheeks and round belly, the little fellow, whose trousers were always falling, cut a comic figure and, with Kalaan, the two of them formed an odd couple. Jean-Fran?ois cleared his throat to regain composure and turned to Salam, whom Lil' Louis quickly introduced.

He was what they call a 'blue man'5, tall and imposing, dressed from head to foot in a takakat6 and an indigo cheich, the long traditional costume of his people. The cloth across his face hid everything but his dark, unfathomable almond-shaped eyes, thick dark eyelashes and well-defined eyebrows. The man was heavily armed,

wearing a takoba7, held at the waist by a brown leather belt. It was only visible by its cross-shaped hilt sticking out of a brown leather sheath. The blue man also carried a spear and a goatskin shield and was most certainly wearing a telak, the traditional Tuareg dagger, under his left sleeve.

On seeing the blue man, Jean-Fran?ois thought of the count and had a troubling idea, "God has united the light and the shadows about me, the light in Kalaan and the shadows in Salam. Could this be a sign?"

"As salaam alaykum, peace be upon you." Bowing his head with respect, the Tuareg spoke in Arabic, not in Berber8. His voice was rich and gravely.

"Wa 'alaykum salaam, upon you be peace, " replied Jean-Fran?ois, who spoke Arabic fluently.

The brief exchange stopped there and, following Salam's signal, the three men headed in the same direction as Kalaan had just a few minutes earlier. The heat on this side of the Nile was strangely heavier than on the east bank at the ruins of Tell el-Amarna. Jean-Fran?ois was soon aware that Lil' Louis, who was on his right, appeared to suffer even more; and his breathing became more and more labored with each heavy step.

As they pushed on, leaving behind the greenery and flat ground, and got closer to the blazing furnace of the dunes, it became more and more difficult to walk. It was almost as if the fine sand into which their feet were sinking deeply, was trying to break their will to continue.

The wretched sand... It got into everything. It made their mouths gritty and cottony and their eyes were so irritated that there were tears in them. The clothes became rough and itchy and even the boots, which were supposed to serve as protection became torture. With each step forward the desert took its retribution, and put the men through cruel torment.

About a hundred yards further they finally reached the count who had deigned to wait for them. He lowered the bottom strip of his cheich, thus uncovering his face, and handed a goatskin canteen full of water to his Egyptologist friend.

"Drink. Now is not the time to fall to sunstroke. You too Lil' Louis, " he said scolding, when he noticed the sorry state his old friend was in. "Good heavens, perhaps the next time you will listen to me and stay on the boat!"

"Oy promised yer mother oy'd not let ye outta me sight, lad!"

"Did you also promise her to die of stupidity? Drink!"

Champollion gratefully accepted the water, which, despite its unpleasantly warm temperature, was refreshing. After quenching his thirst, he quickly handed it to the old seafarer. The old man in turn slaked his own thirst and handed the canteen to Salam, who declined, shaking his head.

"For sure, " Lil' Louis grumbled, "No one tells off the blue warrior, right!"

"This is Salaam's home, " Kalaan replied stiffly, as if he'd already said the same thing a hundred times. "You can't possibly compare his tolerance to this heat with yours."

Jean-Fran?ois couldn't help but show his curiosity about the blue man. Kalaan realized this and smiled before speaking again.

"Salam wanted to welcome you with honor, wearing his full ceremonial attire. He would like to be dressed entirely in white, to express his respect for you, but unfortunately he'd only packed his indigo twill."

"I thank him for that, " said Champollion particularly touched by such deference, for he felt he was nothing more than a small ordinary man. He had such a mistaken opinion of himself, while the world of explorers both respected and envied him for being the first person to decipher hieroglyphs. In Salam's eyes, he was a man among men.

"We're only a few steps away, " Kalaan revealed pointing towards a stretch of high dunes.

The blazing heat was now unbearable and strange spiraling arabesques were rising in the air, making the view hazy for miles around in all directions.

Suddenly, there was an extraordinary, bloodcurdling sound, then a second one that sounded like a muffled moan, immediately followed by another, one wave of sound after another. There! The sound shifted again and little by little transformed into something resembling the beating of drums, getting louder and louder. No! Now it was a low moan again!

"We call it the 'song of the dunes'9, " Salam explained in his richly accented voice, influenced by his native Berber tongue. The ancient ones used to say that these songs either called us to death, or announced it."

Champollion started shivering from head to foot; not from cold but from fear, a fear that had been constantly with him for some time now, the fear that his demise was imminent and that he would die before he could complete his voyage and see all that the world had to offer.

"'Tis nothing but a legend, Jean-Fran?ois, " Kalaan tried to reassure him. "The noise comes from the wind caressing the dunes, or when our feet dig into them creating little sand avalanches. But I can understand your consternation. I felt the same way the first time I experienced the phenomenon. So, shall we go?" he urged, no longer concerned with his friend's distress. And he swirled around to start back on his forced march.

Once again, he didn't wait for his companions. Champollion shook off his morbid thoughts and ordered his unwilling body to follow the young nobleman.

"Zounds! He trembled like a weak woman, " mumbled Lil' Louis so that only Champollion could hear him. The Egyptologist stifled his laugh with a cough as Kalaan opened his mouth to speak again.

"Fear can be respectable when it pushes us to make the right choices!" he said over his shoulder. "Only fools and imbeciles can't understand this."

"And you my, friend? Is there anything on this earth that terrifies you? You look solid as a rock, so much so that it is hard for me to imagine you could feel such an emotion."

Kalaan broke into a hearty laugh and turned to look into Champollion's eyes.

"If I were to confess what gives me cold sweats, you wouldn't believe me."

"You could always try, unless it must remain a secret."

"Aye, we're all ears now, " the old sailor added in a honeyed voice.

Kalaan looked down at him, his lips pursed in a cynical, almost bitter expression. "I have no secrets. Well, since you insist on knowing, what frightens me more than anything are women!"

Champollion looked dumbstruck for an instant, thinking he hadn't heard correctly. He then burst out laughing, but quickly regained his composure when he saw the vexed look on the face of the Adonis, beloved by all women. That didn't stop Lil' Louis from guffawing and slapping his knee. Salam simply nodded silently.

Champollion realized with stupefaction that the count wasn't joking. This womanizing rake was afraid of women! The announcement was hard to believe.

"I can no longer stand their tittering, their simpering, their frivolity and their guiles! They're all the same, not one better than the other. Except, of course, for my sister Isabelle and my mother, " he muttered, apologetically thinking of the two ladies in question. "I loathe them so much, I could almost become a monk!"

"You are joking, aren't you?" Champollion exclaimed.

"Absolutely not! I must have liked them at some point, or at least enjoyed their company. But today I'm tired of them. All I see when I look at women now is their duplicity and their abounding hypocrisy. Don't be mistaken, I'm no monk; they serve me well ... for dalliances, I must admit. But it stops at that."

Jean-Fran?ois thought he saw a spark of humor in the dark eyes of the ever-silent Salaam, and began to think about the young count's words. He was a strong handsome man, rich and free; and certainly all the matriarchs of French nobility were aware of this. Kalaan most likely had to suffer all the marriageable young ladies from all over France being paraded at his door. He was also said to be an excellent lover, and every widow or unhappily married woman probably did everything possible to add him to their list of conquests.

Seen from that point of view, the fairer sex could be considered somewhat frightening. Now Jean-Fran?ois could understand and give credit to Kalaan's words. However, he would have liked to have the same type of fear as his friend, rather than one of an early demise.

"The tomb is just down there, " the count announced, pulling Champollion from his thoughts.

A tomb? Where? They were standing at the ridge of a high dune and nothing around them could confirm what Kalaan said.

However, when he followed Kalaan's eyes and looked further down, Jean-Fran?ois couldn't suppress an exclamation of surprise. There, at the foot of the dune, what looked like stone walls most likely of human construction, had been revealed. The ancient earthy coating had been partially removed and clearly marked the entrance to something resembling a mausoleum. Yet it remained completely invisible to anyone standing at the edge of Tell el-Amarna.

Kalaan's baritone voice cut through the silence. "The desert jealously hides its secrets and nature, either by whim or as a joke, and enjoys teasing us by raising storms to reveal to the world what should never have reappeared. We are the first to have laid eyes on this edifice since time immemorial. It has never been charted by Sicard, or by the scientists who were here during the Egyptian campaign10, nor by Belzoni11 and most certainly not by the vile French consul Drovetti12. I have made certain of this. We are standing before a great discovery!"

"Or a great curse, " added Salam, under his breath gloomier than ever. "This is not a tomb, " he insisted, as he already had numerous times, since they discovered the site the previous day. "No pharaoh, queen, prince, or high dignitary rests here."

Champollion began trembling uncontrollably. The Tuareg's alarming words echoed the horrible feeling that had suddenly come over him.

"Jean-Fran?ois is here to either prove or contradict what you are saying, " Kalaan muttered, knitting his brow. "Why place such a building so far from Tell el-Amarna?" he added thoughtfully, as if to himself.

"So men wilna come stomping 'round the place, " Lil' Louis muttered nervously. "Will we g'back to the boat now, lad?"

"No!" exclaimed Kalaan, stubbornly.

"This edifice is here to protect living creatures from whatever it contains, "Salam replied sharply.

Kalaan shot a heavy look at his Tuareg friend and turned to look at Jean-Fran?ois, before speaking again.

"My dear friend, you are the only one who can tell us the truth. Can you translate the hieroglyphs on the door, as they hold the answers to our questions? Thanks to your studies and catalogues, I can manage somewhat; however, I am just a beginner. Will you do it for us?"

The Egyptologist only hesitated a moment. He had to admit that although his feeling of foreboding was strong, he felt the same exhilarating curiosity as Kalaan and wanted to see this new adventure through to the very end, despite all the possible dangers.

"I'm bursting with impatience, " he responded in a loud, yet trembling, voice. "Let us go!"

"The Lord 'ave pity on us, " Lil' Louis mumbled, before tumbling down the slope leading to the mysterious mausoleum on his buttocks.

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