templeremus (templeremus) wrote in who_contest,

An Antique Land ( "Crowds" enty)

Title: An Antique Land
Rating: PG
Genre: Character Study/Angst

Word Count: 1960
Summary: Nefertiti and Riddell, and the return to Earth.
Character spoilers for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

John has plans to take her to Cairo for the winter.

They will hire a boat to carry them up the Nile. He will trade ivory for the best one available and have it lined with furs. He talks like this whenever he has had too much sun or anything stronger than water to drink: so flushed with ambition that Nefertiti can barely keep from laughing. But laughter might hurt him, and so she contents herself with a smile as her hands reach for his by the half-light of their campfire.

"And after that, what? Would you parade me through the streets? Have me crowned a second time?"

Misunderstanding, he turns sombre. "If you like."

Men expect power as their birthright. Women and slaves know the price that every generation must pay for it. As a girl in the royal court, Nefertiti had memorised the names of all the cities under the king's domain. The scribes who served under Amenhotep could list the ruling families going back to the mythical days of Ra. With time, she had learnt those too. Each name was a link in the chain that tethered her to the household, stronger than any which binds a slave to his master. John has never heard of Amenhotep, or of any of Nefertiti's children. The years have swallowed them up as completely as the sun takes the morning dew. She is a relic in her own land, and the chains of power have been struck from her at last. She has no wish to reclaim them.

By dawn the whole plan seems forgotten. Over breakfast Nefertiti plots their next route, all of it through unfamiliar territory. The weapons from the Silurian ark have changed the nature of the hunt. With no need for ammunition or blades to carve up the kill, they can move fast and bed down wherever they please. A single expedition can go on for days; the excitement is in the chase and not the prize. When the tracks turn fresh, John's garrulousness dries up. His strides get longer and Nefertiti drops close to the ground, watching the scrub on either side for any movement. They do this without thinking, matching each other beat for beat: a dance without music or audience, intimate as lovemaking and old as the land itself.

"Not Cairo, then," he says. "What about England?"

It is almost evening. Their pursuit has ended at the cusp of a low valley. A river snakes out lazily before them, catching the last rays of the sunset. Away to their right, a giraffe is sleeping off the effects of the stun gun. Nefertiti is near enough to feel the animal's body-warmth. She watches the pattern on its flanks rise and fall as it draws breath. "For the winter, you mean."

"The winter, the spring. Maybe even the whole year. It's about time I got re-acquainted with the place."

The giraffe unfolds itself like a newborn, dark-fringed eyes blinking at them in astonishment. John raises one hand in a salute as it lurches off. "Well run, sir. So how about it, Neffie? There's no big country house, but I've a very ancient and very dotty aunt who'd surely have us in."

At first, she can't work out what has put this mood on him. The England which he has described for her on previous occasions, all grey skies over grey stone buildings, sounds about as welcoming as a cage. People display animals in those buildings, he's told her: corpses made stiff with wires and fixed onto platforms for the admiration of crowds. It's an image that she hates all the more because she recognises it. During her time in the king's household, visitors would bring her exotic creatures as presents. They would have tame birds fly about the room as they danced attendance, bowing and scraping, trying to gauge her reaction without being so presumptuous as to look her in the eye. She thinks that the plight of the birds disturbed her - or perhaps it didn't. Perhaps she enjoyed the spectacle, in the listless way that she enjoyed many things before the Doctor came. Memories tend to be kinder towards us than we deserve.

When she thinks of England, she pictures a crowd of white faces, all wearing the sleek, hungry look of those flatterers from Egypt. Sealed in their grey stone buildings, keeping watch over dead things that they have claimed for themselves. They would keep someone like her, too, if they got the chance. Men like the trader Solomon are not forged solely among the stars: they are made wherever there is profit.

John is looping a strand of her hair around one finger, with a nonchalance that would have angered her back in the old days. Not even her husband touched her like that, except when he was caught up in the excitement of some new political intrigue. She lived by different rules then, when each gesture had its own meaning and each decision shaped a kingdom. Out on the plains, the rules are hazier. She could scorn John, make him plead, walk away, and there would be no revolt or counter-conspiracy. It would matter little to anyone but them.

Then she looks a second time, and sees that his carelessness is nothing of the kind. He is in earnest. More than that, he is afraid. This is a betrothal in all but name. He is setting out his two lives like market wares, and inviting her to choose the one she would like best.

In that moment her answer counts for more than any kingdom. She offers a silent prayer to Aten for the right words. "Let us say we got to England. Who would I be there? Your wife, or something else?"

John looks at her as if she's mad. "You'd be Nefertiti." And then, with a sudden vehemence quite unlike him: "Any chap who objects can go hang."

His fingers have moved to the line of her collarbone. She can taste the earth on him when they kiss. "And your aunt too, if she objects."

"Oh, hanging'd never finish the old bird, she's tough as boots. We'll settle for being truly, revoltingly in love and making sure all the neighbours know it."

At that he is off across the valley, the supply bag hitched over one shoulder and his weight bearing down on the gun like a walking stick. When he reaches the water's edge he puts everything aside and lets his bare feet sink into the mud, beckoning for her to join him. The river is choked with silt that eddies about their ankles. They give up trying to wash and beat the worst of the dirt from their clothes by hand. As John gets the evening fire started, Nefertiti heaps their furs into a makeshift bed. "We should eat first," she says. "Get our strength back. Are you hungry?"

"No. Later, perhaps." He sounds almost tipsy, though it must be exhaustion; what supplies they have left wouldn't get a rat drunk. The twilight makes his skin, sun-weathered and insect-bitten, look ghostly pale. She touches the dinosaur tooth around his neck. Closes her fingers over the cord. On nights such as these, the gulf between her world and his falls away. There is only the present moment, crafted entirely for them, and no shadows cast by the past or the future can reach it.

Still unused to sleeping out of doors, she is always the first awake. The plains are full of whispers and rustlings, and she likes to spend half an hour with her eyes closed, listening in. On this occasion, though, she is bolt upright before she quite knows where she is. The air has lost its early-morning sharpness - the prelude to another dry day. John has his face pressed into the crook of his arm, as if the light hurts him. The neck of his undershirt is soaked through with sweat when she touches it. "Neffie. Let's not go yet. It's so damnably cold."

Nefertiti remembers how her daughter's teeth chattered, towards the end. The royal doctors called it swamp fever, but the white men give it another name that now escapes her. Not that the name would make a difference. No execration ritual or amulet worked last time.

Fear cramps in her stomach, but she forces it back. Panic is a luxury that nobody out here can afford. The general in her takes over, marshalling her thoughts like troops. It is a day's hike to the nearest encampment, even if she ignores the possibility of any error in their maps. Besides the clothes she stands up in, she has the guns, the furs, a tinder-box, a pocketknife and the food in the supply bag. Sewn into the bag's lining is something which she doesn't recognise, an ivory flask etched with crude patterns. The contents, once uncapped, almost make her recoil: gunpowder. She smelt traces of it on John's fingers when they first met, acrid and hot like pepper.

"Neffie," John says again, and she makes up her mind.

Outside the valley the sun is already oppressive. The scrub on the hilltop has been baked the colour of ash. It catches at the first spark from the firesteel. She throws one of the pelts onto the flames and the smoke thickens, stinging her nose and throat. The last ingredient is her votive offering, an appeal to a god this world forgot many generations back. Before the powder flask can start to burn she is off again, running as though the enemy is at her heels. Her eyes are streaming and she is half-blind, but she doesn't dare wait. There is too much else at risk.

It is still quiet beside the river. John breathes shallowly, but he breathes. Their own campfire is almost out and she talks to him as she revives it: old stories, half-memories, confessions that she won't remember by tomorrow.  An explosion, louder than a thunderclap, cuts her off mid-sentence. She can feel its aftershocks as they echo down the slope. There were people in Egypt once who would have traded armies for magic half as powerful.

"You see, my dear? Even the oceans will have heard that."

The wait begins again, more painful than before. Every hour or so she scales the hillside to pile fuel on her beacon, then all the way down to fetch more water. Partway back to camp on one such trip, she sees them: four silhouettes dotted against the skyline, unfocused through the heat and smoke. From their outline she can tell they are on horseback, but nothing beyond that. Someone dismounts and she throws both hands up, expecting gunfire. Instead the approaching figure copies her, fingers clasped behind its head it descends. Raw-boned with a boy's thin wrists, the skin darker than hers: a hunter's knife glinting on a belt.

Help us, she tries to say. Her throat is dry enough to hurt. When he reaches the place where John is lying, the hunter-boy stops. One of the three onlookers calls out: a command or a question, she can't be sure which. The hunter-boy swings himself round to face them, making a barrier with his arms. Even with his back turned Nefertiti can see the fear in him, taut across every limb. She can see, too, that the hand nearest to her is no longer raised but flat, the palm outstretched.

It's all the signal she needs. She starts to move again, the way she would if an animal were nearby and the faintest noise might startle it. Head up, body close to the ground, watching the scrub for any movement. And John, just a few steps ahead of her.

Little by little, the distance between them shortens.
Tags: one-shot challenge

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