Bonnie Waites wiped the sweat from her brow and looked out over the archaeological excavation she directed. Thirty university students labored under the hot Armenian sun, scraping away layers of dirt in the hopes of revealing the ancient city that an earlier survey—and legend—had indicated were here.
The archaeologist stood on a low rise, a good vantage point for seeing the excavation as a whole. Her dirty t-shirt and shorts revealed a trim, athletic body that made her look younger than her actual thirty-five years. Bright blue eyes squinted in the glaring sun, and her long blond hair was tied up in a bun, hidden under a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap.
The work was going well. The expedition had only arrived a week before, and after some initial training of the volunteers—most were U.S. or Armenian college kids who had never been on a dig before—they had set to their backbreaking labor with gusto.
All the young men had their shirts off, tanned and muscled torsos glistening in the sun. She let her gaze linger on a few of the more impressive specimens for a moment, then chuckled to herself and went back to looking at the work those bodies were doing. Plenty of professors slept with their students, but she was not one of them. She’d leave them to the young women on the dig. Most of them wore little more than boys, and the glances they exchanged showed they’d soon be pairing up.
That was typical on excavations. Take a group of young, healthy people, isolate them in a strange land, make them work hard together, and relationships inevitably formed. Some started the first day. By the second week anyone who wanted a partner usually had one.
Bonnie didn’t need to pair up. As she looked out over the sweating bodies she spotted Reg, her assistant director. Reginald Hardin was his full name, but he’d gotten into so many fights in school with kids who’d called him “Raging Hard-On” that he was now Reggie or Reg to everyone. Both he and Bonnie taught archaeology at Arizona State University. Bonnie felt bad that his career, unlike hers, wasn’t taking off like a rocket. Still, he was a reasonably capable archaeologist and, since he had no project of his own, he was a natural choice to bring on as an assistant.
Not that that had been the only reason. Reg and Bonnie were lovers. No one suspected at their department. It was their secret. She watched him as he stalked through the excavation, shouting out instructions to the students. He’d taken his shirt off too, revealing a well-cut physique and smooth skin tanned a deep brown. As he bent over to examine a sherd of pottery sticking up from the earth, his well-worn cut-offs clung to his tight butt. She noticed a few of the female students glance over, and felt a smug satisfaction knowing that was all they were going to get to do.
Go ahead and look, girls. He’s mine, she thought.
That thought wasn’t as pleasurable as Bonnie wished it would be. Reg was an excellent lover, no doubt about that, but male archaeologists tended to be a macho group and Reg was no exception. Although he had never put it into words, he made it clear he didn’t like being ordered around by a woman. Sometimes he’d argue with her decisions or would be unnecessarily slow to carry out her instructions.
It was frustrating. She was a rising star in her field and deserved respect, but old attitudes died hard. The only male archaeologist who had ever really treated her as an equal had been Professor Durham, her advisor in graduate school. He had given her the international connections that made this project possible.
Now, sadly, her old mentor was dead. That loss had left her very much alone.
Bonnie shook her head.
Ah well, back to work.
Back to work. Her constant refrain. She could never find a relationship that truly fulfilled her. She’d had great lovers, yes, but never a soul mate. Never someone who appreciated her for her mind as well as her body. No one who really saw her for who she truly was.
So it was back to work. In her career, at least, she could have everything she wanted. She examined the excavation once again.
So far they hadn’t dug much. The first few days had been spent surveying the area and setting up a grid system of stakes and string. This helped with the mapping. Bonnie always had to explain to curious visitors that archaeologists didn’t just dig a hole and pull up buried treasure, or run around in trap-laden temples like Indiana Jones. Archaeology was a science and had to be undertaken methodically. She was always annoyed by jokes that all she did was play in the dirt.
“Yeah, I play in the dirt,” she’d say under her breath, “play in the dirt, write books, and speak five languages.”
Once the crew had laid out the grid, Bonnie created teams to work on selected squares. After breaking up the topsoil with pickaxes, a task Reg reveled in since it gave him a chance to show off his strength to the younger men, they took the subsoil down gradually, layer by layer, to reveal the hidden secrets beneath.
That phase of the excavation had started the day before. Bonnie eagerly anticipated what they would find in the coming weeks.
The site was high on the plateau of southwestern Armenia, near the border with Turkey, a perfect location for an ancient city. A nearby river snaked through the open grassland, and not far to the west lay a mountain pass. It had been a path since prehistoric times and was now a paved highway. Far in the distance, on the Turkish side of the border, rose the snowy peak of Mount Ararat. The heat shimmering off the plains made the lower slopes all but invisible, so that its snowy crest appeared to hover in the air. Not far to the south was the border with Iran, a land as ancient as Armenia. This region had been a center of trade for millennia.
A survey done by a Soviet team back in the ’80s had shown the site’s promise. She looked at that survey now, flipping through the typed sheets and detailed maps, puzzling out the Cyrillic letters. She knew Russian, but the language’s complex grammar proved troublesome for anyone who wasn’t a native speaker.
Yes, here it was, the description of her site. The Russian crew had found artifacts from half a dozen civilizations here, mostly in the form of broken sherds of pottery strewn on the surface. They’d also found a couple of Byzantine and Sassanid Persian coins, and intriguing fragments of sculpture. Local farmers had told the team they often uncovered artifacts during plowing, and had related folktales that alluded to an ancient city in the vicinity that was once a center of great military power.
The red skin on the back of her hands distracted her study. She was getting too much sun. She rummaged through a canvas bag at her feet and pulled out a tube of SPF 80. Before she’d become an archaeologist she didn’t know they made sunscreen that strong. Now she thanked the manufacturer every day. A Wisconsin native with Swedish and English ancestry shouldn’t be standing out all day under the hot Central Asian sun.
She chuckled to herself as she remembered how she had eagerly signed up for her first dig in Armenia, back when she was still studying under old Professor Durham. She’d been expecting a cool 70 degrees. The country had been part of the Soviet Union, after all, and that was a cold country, right? Wrong. Armenia was one of the southernmost of the old Soviet republics, positioned between Azerbaijan to the east, Iran to the south, and Turkey to the west. Yep, that Turkey, the one in the Middle East. Not the one she felt like when she realized what she’d signed up for. Perhaps she should have looked more closely at the map.
She wiped her brow again. The thermometer at the bunkhouse had registered 102 degrees yesterday. It felt even hotter today.
Checking her watch, she sauntered down the hillside to the work site. Reg came over to join her.
“Quitting time,” she said.
“My favorite time of the day,” Reg said under his breath. A trace of a smile flickered across his lips.
Bonnie’s heart fluttered. She felt grateful her sunburn would hide her blush. After work she and Reg had a special place they liked to go so they could have a little quiet time together—if you consider ardent lovemaking accompanied by loud moans of pleasure to be “quiet time.”
Reg spun around and put his fingers to his lips, letting out a piercing whistle. Bonnie took the chance to steal a look at his behind.
“OK folks, quitting time!” Reg bellowed. “Let’s pack everything up and get back to the bunkhouse!”
Bonnie almost melted at the commanding tone of his voice and the ease at which he exerted authority. At the same time, she felt a little niggle of annoyance. Too often, he acted like he directed the project, not she.
The crew gathered up their gear and placed tarpaulins over the excavated squares in the unlikely event that it would rain overnight. Someone from each team came over to Bonnie with their artifact bags, carefully labeled with the date and coordinates and a description of what the bags contained. Reg and Bonnie looked over them together.
“Not much yet,” Reg muttered.
“Give it time, we’re just beginning,” Bonnie replied.
Most of the bags held pottery. Pots were a dig’s lifeblood. There were always a lot of them, and the styles regularly changed over the centuries, making them useful for dating the various layers of soil. The examples Bonnie looked at were all dated to the 5th century A.D., about 1,500 years old, and were Armenian, not imported wares. Not much was known about that period of Armenian history, a time when the country was being fought over in a bitter religious war between the Christian Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Sassanids. If they uncovered a town from that period, it would open up a whole new era of history.
Bonnie smiled in satisfaction. She’d chosen her site well.
“Like what you see, kiddo?” asked an older man as he strode up.
Vic Townsend wasn’t an archaeology student. He’d been an investment banker who had struck it rich in the ’90s during the dot com boom. He recognized it for the gold rush that it was, made millions off of stock, and bailed out before everything crashed. Now 65, a millionaire, and retired, he spent most of his time volunteering for excavations. He was reliable, knowledgeable, and helped train the students.
Bonnie didn’t mind that he called her “kiddo.” He called everybody “kiddo,” even Reg.
“We’ve got a promising site here,” Bonnie answered, smiling at him.
“You bet.” Vic beamed, the lines in his face deepening as he smiled. “Let me take those bags and put them in the jeep.”
Bonnie handed them over as one of the female students walked by in a tank top and shorts. Vic’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
“Um … Sylvia? Would you mind helping a poor old fellow carry these heavy bags?”
“Not at all,” the student replied, giving him a chipper smile.
Reg and Bonnie chuckled as they watched the pair walk off to the half dozen jeeps parked nearby.
“Why, that dirty old man,” Reg chuckled.
“Oh stop, he’s sweet,” Bonnie rejoined.
“Just as long as the old fart doesn’t get sweet on you.”
Bonnie rolled her eyes. Reg was a bit possessive. Not that he had anything to worry about. Vic was too old for her, millionaire or no millionaire, and he wasn’t offering anyway. Nineteen-year-old coeds were more his style. Reg had nothing to worry about on this dig.
Their work finished, everyone began piling into the jeeps. Bonnie congratulated the crew on a good day’s work and announced that she and Reg were going into town for supplies and to meet with a local scholar.
“Town” was the dusty little city of Taperakan, situated along a river a few miles from the dig site. It was the closest place with any shops, but it held a greater attraction. Reg had scouted it out on the first day and found a quiet little dacha, or hunting lodge, left over from the Soviet days. It made for a perfect hideaway, far from the isolated bunkhouse where they and the crew were staying. They slipped away to their secret spot every time they could. No one seemed to wonder why she and Reg had to go shopping so often.
One by one the jeeps pulled away, kicking up clouds of dust on the dirt road as they headed for home. Reg and Bonnie hopped into another jeep. Reg revved up the engine, popped into gear, and drove onto the dirt track, headed in the other direction. Soon the rest of the crew dwindled out of sight behind them.
Bonnie leaned over and planted a kiss on Reg’s cheek. The salty tang of his sweat sizzled on her lips; the grit of the day’s dirt enticed her. She breathed in the heady aroma of his sweat.
She’d never been attracted to average men, the sexless office workers modern society had created. Men were supposed to be strong, work outdoors, be able to handle themselves. Professionals bored her. Even though she was a scientist and a scholar, she found herself attracted to men who worked with their hands, put in an honest day’s labor and earned a living from the sweat of their brow. Weekend quarterbacks didn’t do it for her.
She ran her hand down the hard bulk of Reg’s bicep, smiling with appreciation as he shifted gears and the muscles of his arm rippled under his t-shirt. She kissed him again, enjoying the musty smell of his sweat. Her lips worked up his neck to his ear. She gave it a little nibble and heard Reg inhale sharply. That was one of his spots. She felt the jeep accelerate.
“In a hurry?” she purred.
Reg grinned and flashed her a hot stare with his brilliant blue eyes. He took his hand off the stick shift and gently but firmly pressed her back into her seat.
“Sit back and relax,” he ordered.
His hand slid down her neck, sending shivers down her spine and all the way to her toes. As he kneaded her shoulder, stiff and tired from work, she sighed in contentment and looked out over the landscape. For miles around there was only rolling grassland underneath an open sky dotted with puffy white clouds. In the distance, a shepherd covered in a loose, white-hooded robe tended his flock. Far ahead, a distant line of trees indicated the river and the town of Taperakan.
* * * *
For the umpteenth time she marveled at how a small-town girl from the Cheese State ended up running her own dig in Armenia. She’d always been fascinated by the past. As a little girl she she’d been a voracious reader, devouring books on Rome and Egypt. As she grew older she discovered more worlds than just those two. She began to read obscure books on equally obscure cultures. She discovered the Sassanid Persians, who had ruled an empire that rivaled Rome, and the Byzantines, who had founded a Christian empire based in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Her parents had laughed at the strange titles she wrote on her Christmas lists, but they’d always hunted them down and put them under the tree.
There had never been any doubt about what she was going to be when she grew up. In her first year of college she signed up for every archaeology course her schedule would allow. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin with honors and got accepted into the doctorate program at Harvard.
Then she had to make a choice. Who you studied under determined where you dug and the contacts that would build your career. She had three options. One professor dug prehistoric hunting camps up in the Canadian arctic. He’d found some fascinating sites where ancient hunters had tracked down wooly mammoths, but she’d had enough of cold weather in Wisconsin. Another professor had a famous excavation in Greece. She’d talked with him and for the entire hour his eyes had never strayed above her breasts. She’d felt like getting one of those t-shirts with an arrow pointing upwards and the words “I’m up here.” There was no way she’d play in that sleaze’s sandbox.
The third option intrigued her. Professor Arthur Durham had been digging in Armenia since the days when it was part of the Soviet Union. Durham was a British academic of the old style. The bespectacled, silver-haired gentleman always called her “Ms. Waites” and served her Earl Grey tea when she visited his office. Even better, he actually looked her in the eye. She appreciated the respect, which was rare among the all-male faculty, but it was his descriptions of Armenia’s little-known yet dramatic history that truly drew her in.
And what a history that was! It seemed that every culture in Europe and Asia had fought for its rich plains and crystal clear lakes. Mongols, Parthians, Byzantines, Sassanids, Arabs, and Turks all left their mark on the country. Yet the Armenians had always weathered these invaders and proudly clung to their own culture and traditions.
A few miles off to their left Bonnie spotted a rocky crag rising several hundred feet above the plain. Thick stone walls mounted to its summit. Crumbled towers and a yawning gate showed that it had once been a castle. A corner of it had been converted into a modern home. Concrete shored up the gaps in the wall, but the house still incorporated one of the old towers. She longed to go up there and study the architecture; she loved castles, but the locals had told her it was private property and the strange recluse who lived there didn’t take kindly to visitors. More than once she had wondered what kind of man would live in such an isolated place.
* * * *
As Reg steered the jeep with one hand, he slid his other hand further down her body, pausing to brush against her breast. Her nipple hardened in anticipation. His hand continued down past her midriff and to that warm, hidden spot between her legs. She moaned with anticipation as his fingers slipped between her legs. He pulled on her thighs, spreading her legs apart, then ran his hand up and down between them.
She moaned at the feel of his probing fingers against the fabric of her shorts. She opened her legs a little wider, surrendering herself to the pleasure he was giving her. His rough fingers kept searching. She felt the rasp of his work-roughened hand against the smooth flesh of her inner thigh.
His fingers disappeared up the leg of her shorts. They slipped under the edge of her cotton panties and brushed against her labia.
She closed her eyes and lay back in the seat, angling her hips to allow him better access. Waves of warm pleasure washed over her body. She felt herself moistening, the lips of her sex engorging, aching to devour his hard fingers.
Then he pushed inside her. First one, then two of his strong fingers slipped into that dark, private place. The rough skin of his calloused hand rasped against her clit, making her moan softly.
Ah, this was contentment. The wind in her hair, an exotic landscape, and the touch of an attractive man…
* * * *
The Watcher followed the lone jeep with his gaze. From his window high atop the rocky crag, he could see the two figures in the vehicle as they headed for town.
He had guarded this land since time immemorial, protected its people from invaders, saw civilizations rise and fall. He had lived for more than a thousand years, and had seen many people come and go from his domain.
Yet he always watched alone.
Ever since he had given up his mortal life to become one of the Deathless, he had spurned human company. But he had watched them from a distance, longing.
Time passed. His castle became a ruin and he built himself this house. The people of the valley, who once served and feared him, had now all but forgotten him. Those he protected now looked upon him as little more than a myth.
And these new intruders? They did not threaten the people of the valley. They were here to study, not to conquer like so many before them. He only wished they hadn’t chosen this particular spot.
Where so many memories lay buried…
He studied the jeep as it drove away, a plume of dust in its wake. He spied a woman there, and a man. He reached out with his mind and felt their joining, could almost smell the sex emanating from the woman.
He looked into the woman’s spirit. His breath hissed in awe at what he saw there. It contained a strength he had not seen in many years, a reservoir of willpower of which even this woman was not fully aware. And there was more, a free spirit and an integrity so rare in the modern world and was, despite the nostalgia of the mortals, not common in any century.
He looked into the man’s heart, and found it wanting.
Then his attention was diverted to the north. There was a disturbance out there. The Watcher squinted and expanded his mind outwards.
Danger was coming.
Of what? That he could not tell. It was still day and, despite the superstitions of the ignorant, he could still function, although in a weakened state.
He would have to wait until nightfall, when his power bloomed in full. Then he would look again.
Yes, he would watch the north.
And he would watch the woman as well.
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