Royan followed him down to the river and helped him fill two small
canvas bags with white river sand. He laid them on top of a convenient
rock and they formed a firm but malleable rest for the rifle as he
settled it over them.
Using the open hillside as a safe back’stop, he “stepped out two hundred
yards and at that range set up a cardboard carton on which he had taped
a Bisley’type target. He came back to where Royan waited and then
settled down behind the rock on which the weapon lay.
Royan was unprepared for the report of the first shot from the dainty,
almost feminine-looking rifle. She jumped involuntarily, and her ears
“What a horrible, vicious thing!” she exclaimed. “How can you bring
yourself to kill lovely animals with a highpowered gun like that?” she
“Rifle,” he corrected her, as he noted the strike of the shot through
his binoculars. “Would it make you feel better if I used a low-powered
rifle, or beat them to death with a stick?”
The shot had struck three inches right and two inches low. As he
adjusted the telescopic sight he attempted to explain. “An ethical
hunter does everything in his power to kill as swiftly and as cleanly as
is possible, and that means stalking in as close as he is able to do,
using a weapon of adequate power and sighting it the best way he knows
His next shot struck exactly on line but only an inch above the
bull’s-eye. He wanted it to shoot three inches high at that range. He
worked on the sight again.
“Gun or rifle, but I don’t understand why you would want to deliberately
kill any of God’s creatures,” she protested.
“That I can never explain to you.” He aimed deliberately and fired once.
Even through the lower magnification of the sight lens he could see that
the bullet had struck exactly three inches high.
“It is something to do with an atavistic urge that few men, no matter
how Cultured and civilized they deem themselves, can deny completely.”
He fired a second time.
“Some of them work it out in the board room, others on the golf course
or the tennis court, and some of us on a salmon river, in the ocean
deeps or in the hunting field.”
He fired a third shot, merely to confirm the previous two, and then went
on, “As for God’s creatures, he gave them to us. You are the believer.
Quote me Acts 10, verses 12 and 13.”
“Sorry.” She shook her head. “You tell me.
… all manner Of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and
creeping things, and fowL of the air,”‘
Nicholas obliged her. “‘And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter;
kill, and eat., “You should have been a lawyer,” she moaned in mock
“Or a priest,” he suggested, and went forward to retrieve the target. He
found that his last three shots had punched a tiny symmetrical rosette
three inches above the bull, all three bullet holes just touching each
He patted the butt stock of the little rifle, “That’s my lovely darling,
Lucrezia Borgia.” He had named the rifle for her beauty and for her
He slid the rifle back into its leather slip case and they walked back
together. As they came in sight of the camp, Nicholas pulled up short.
“Visitors,” he said, and raised his binoculars. “Aha! We have flushed
something out of the undergrowth. That is a Pegasus truck parked there
and, unless I am much mistaken, one of our visitors is the charming
laddie from Abilene.
Let’s go down and find out what is going on.”
As they drew closer to camp, they realized that there were a dozen or
more heavily armed, uniformed soldiers clustered around the red and
green Pegasus truck, and that Jake Helm and an Ethiopian army officer
were seated under the awning of the dining tent in serious and intent
conversation with Boris, A
s soon as Nicholas entered the tent, Boris introduced him to the
bespectacled Ethiopian officer. “This is Colonel Tuma Nogo, the military
commander of the southern Goiam region.”
“How do you do?” Nicholas greeted him, but the colonel ignored the
“I want to see your passport, and your firearms licence, he ordered
arrogantly, while Jake Helm chewed complacently on the evil-smelling
butt of an extinguished cigar.
“Yes, of course,” Nicholas agreed, and went to his own tent to fetch his
briefcase. He opened it on the dining table, and smiled at the officer.
“I am sure you will also want to see my letter of introduction from the
British Foreign Secretary in London, and this one from the British
Ambassador in Addis Ababa. Here is another from the Ethiopian Ambassador
to the Court of St. James, and this is from your own Minister of
Defence, General Abraha.”
The colonel stared in consternation at this fruit salad of ornate
official letterheads and scarlet beribboned seals.
Behind the gold-rimmed glasses his eyes were bemused and confused.
“Sir!” He jumped to his feet and saluted. “You are a friend of General
Abraha? I did not know. Nobody informed me. I beg your pardon for this
He saluted again, and his embarrassment made him awkward and ungainly.
“I came to warn you only that the Pegasus Company is conducting drilling
and blasting operations. There may be some danger. Please be alert. Also
there are many bandits and outlaws, shufta, operating in this area.”
Colonel Nogo was flustered and barely coherent.
He stopped and drew a deep breath to steady himself. “You see, I have
been ordered to provide an escort for the employees of the Pegasus
Company. If you yourself experience any trouble while you are here, or
if you need assistance for any reason you have only to call on me, sir.”
“That is extremely civil of you, colonel.”
“I will detain you no longer, sir.” He saluted a third time and backed
off towards the Pegasus truck, taking the Texan foreman along with him.
Jake Helm’had not uttered a word since their arrival, and now he left
without a farewell.
Colonel Nogo gave Nicholas his fourth and final salute through the cab
window as the truck pulled away.
Deuce!” Nicholas told Royan, as he acknowledged the salute with a
nonchalant wave. “I think that point was definitely ours. Now at least
we know that, for whatever reason, Mr Pegasus definitely does not want
us in his hair. I think we can expect his next service fairly promptly.,
They walked back to where Boris sat in the dining tent and Nicholas told
him, “All we need now are your mules.”
“I have sent three of my men to the village to find them. They should
have been here yesterday.” The mules arrived early the next morning, six
big sturdy animals, each accompanied by a driver dressed in the
ubiquitous-jodhpurs and shawl. By midmorning they were loaded and ready
to begin the descent into the gorge.
Boris paused at the head of the pathway, and looked out over that
valley. For once even he -seemed to be subdued and awed by the immensity
of the drop and the rugged splendour of the gorge.
“You will be Passing into another land in another age,” he warned them
in an uncharacteristically philosophical mood. “They say that this trail
is two thousand years old, as old as Christ.” He spread his hands in a
“The old black priest in the church at Debra Maryam will tell you that
the Virgin Mary passed this way when she fled from Israel after the
crucifixion.” He shook his head. “But then these people will believe
anything.” And he “stepped out on to the pathway.
It clung to the cliff, descending at such an angle that each pace was
down a rock step so deep that it stretched the-tendons and the sinews in
their groins and knees, and jarred their spines. They were forced to use
their hands to scramble the rougher and steeper sections, where it was
almost as though they were descending a ladder.
It seemed impossible that the mules under their heavy packs could follow
them down. The plucky beasts lunged down each of the rock steps, landing
heavily on their forelegs, then gathered themselves for the next drop.
The trail was so narrow that the bulky packs scraped against the rock
wall on one hand, while on the other hand the drop sucked at them
When the path dog-legged and changed direction, the mules could not make
the turn in one attempt. They were forced to back and fill, edging their
way round the narrow trail, sweating with terror and their eyes rolling
until the whites flashed. The drivers urged them on with wild cries and
At places the pathway entered the body of the mountain, passing behind
butts and needles of rock that time and erosion had prised away from the
cliff face. These rocky gateways were so narrow that the mules had to be
unloaded and the packs carried through by the drivers, and then the
mules were reloaded on the far side.
Look!” Royan cried in astonishment and pointed out into the void. A
black vulture rose up out of the depths on widespread pinions and
floated past them almost within arm’s length, turning its gruesome naked
head of pink lappeted skin to stare at them with inscrutable black eyes
before sailing away.
“He is using the thermals of heated air from the valley for lift,’
Nicholas explained to her. He pointed out along the cliff to an
overhanging buttress on the same level as themselves. “There is one of
their nests.” It was a shaggy mound of sticks piled on an inaccessible
ledge. The excrement of the birds that had inhabited it over the ages
had painted the cliff face below with streaks of brilliant white, and
even at this distance they could catch whiffs of rotting offal and
All that day they clung to the precipitous track as they eased their way
down that terrible wall. It was late afternoon, and they were only
halfway down, when the trail turned back upon itself once more and they
heard the rumble of the falls ahead. The sound grew louder and became a
thunderous roar as they moved around the corner of another buttress and
came in full sight of the falls.
The wind created by the torrent tugged at them and forced them to clutch
for handholds. The spray blew around them and wetted their upturned
faces, but the i: Ethiopian guide led them straight on until it seemed
that they must be washed away into the valley still hundreds of feet
Then, miraculously, the waters parted and they stepped behind the great
translucent curtain into a deep recess of moss-covered and gleaming wet
rock, carved from the cliff by the force of water over the aeons. The
only light in this gloomy place was filtered through the waterfall,
green and mysterious like some undersea cavern.
“This is where we sleep tonight,” Boris announced, obviously enjoying
their astonishment. He pointed to bundles of firewood piled at the rear
of the cave, and the smoke-blackened wall above the stone hearth. The
muleteers carrying food and supplies down to the priests in the
monastery have used this place for centuries.”
As they moved deeper into the cavern, the sound of falling water became
muted to a dull background rumble and the rock underfoot was dry. Once
the servants had lit the fire, it became -a warm and comfortable, not to
say romantic, lodging.
With an old soldier’s eye for the most comfortable spot, Nicholas laid
out his sleeping bag in a corner at the back of the cave, and quite
naturally Royan unrolled hers beside his. They were both tired out by
the unusual exertion of climbing down the cliff wall, and after supper
they stretched out in their sleeping bags in companionable silence and
watched the firelight playing on the roof of the cave.
“Just think!” Royan whispered. “Tomorrow we will be retracing the
footsteps of old Taita himself.”
“To say nothing of the Virgin Mary,’Nicholas smiled.
“You are a horrid old cynic,” she sighed. “And what is more, you
“You are about to find out the hard way,” he told her, but she was
asleep before him. Her breathing was gentle and even, and he could just
hear it above the sound of the water. It was a long time since he had
had a lovely woman lying at his side. When he was sure she was deeply
under, he reached across and touched her cheek gently.
“Pleasant dreams, little one,” he whispered tenderly.
“You have had a busy day.” That was the way he had often bid his younger
The muleteers were stirring long before the dawn, and the whole party
was on the path, way again as soon as the light was strong enough to
reveal their footing. When the early sun struck the upper walls of the
cliff face, they were still high enough above the valley floor to have
an aerial view of the terrain.
Nicholas drew Royan aside and they let the rest of the caravan go on
down ahead of them.
He found a place to sit and unrolled the satellite photograph between
them. Picking out the major peaks and features of the scene, they
orientated themselves and began to make some order out of the
cataclysmic landscape that rioted below them.
“We can’t see the Abbay river from here,” Nicholas pointed out. “It’s
still deep in the sub-gorge. We will probably only get our first glimpse
of it from almost directly above.”
“If we have identified our present position accurately, then the river
will make two ox’bow bends around that bluff over there.”
“Yes, and the confluence of the Dandera river with the Abbay is over
there, below those cliffs.” He used his thumb knuckle as a rough scale
measure. “About fifteen miles from here.”
“It looks as though the Dandera has changed its course many times over
the centuries.-I can see at least two gullies that look like ancient
river beds.” She pointed down: “Mere, and there. They are all choked
with jungle now.” She looked crestfallen, “Oh, Nicholas, it is such a
huge and confused area. How are we ever going to find the single
entrance to a tomb hidden in all that?”
“Tomb? What tomb is this?” Boris demanded with interest. He had come
back up the trail to find them. They had not heard his approach, and now
he stood over them.
“What tomb are you talking about?, “Why, the tomb of St. Frumentius, of
course,” Nicholas told him smoothly, showing no concern at having been
“Isn’t the monastery dedicated to the saint?” Royan asked as smoothly,
as she rolled up the photograph.
“Da.” He nodded, looking disappointed, as though he expected something
of more interest. “Yes, St. Frumentius.
But they will not let you visit the tomb. They will not let you into the
inner part of the monastery. Only the priests are allowed in there.”
He removed his cap and scratched the short, stiff bristles that covered
his scalp. They rasped like wire under his fingernails. “This week is
the ceremony of Timkat, the Blessing of the Tabot. There will be a great
deal of excitement down there. You will find it very interesting, but
you will not be able to enter the Holy of Holies, nor will you be able
to see the actual tomb. I have never met any white man who has seen it.”
He squinted up at the sun. “We must get on. It looks close, but it will
take us two more days to reach the Abbay.
It is bad ground down there. A long march, even for a famous dik-dik
hunter.” He laughed delightedly at his own joke, and turned away down
As they approached the bottom of the cliff, the gradient of the trail
smoothed out and the steps became shallower and further apart. The going
became easier and their progress swifter, but the air had changed in
quality and taste. It was no longer cool, bracing mountain air but the
languid, enervating air of the equator, with the smell and taste of the
“Hod’ said Royan, shrugging out of the woollen shawl.
“Ten degrees hotter, at least,” Nicholas agreed. He pulled his old army
jersey over his head, leaving.his hair in curly disarray. “And we can
expect it to get hotter before we reach the Abbay. We still have to
descend another three thousand feet.”
Now the path followed the Dandera river for a while.
Sometimes they were several hundred feet above it, and shortly
afterwards they splashed waist-deep through a ford, hanging on to the
panniers of the mules to keep themselves from being swept away on the
Then the gorge of the Dandera river was too deep and steep to follow any
longer, as sheer cliffs dropped into dark pools. So they left the river
and followed the track that squirmed like a dying snake amongst eroded
hills and tall red stone bluffs.
A mile or two further downstream they rejoined the river in a different
mood as it rippled through dense forest.
The dangling lianas swept the surface and tree moss brushed their heads
as they passed, straggling and unkempt as the beard of the old priest at
Debra Maryam. Vervet monkeys chattered at them from the treetops and
ducked their heads in wide-eyed outrage at the human intrusion into
these secret places. Once a large animal crashed away through the
undergrowth, and Nicholas glanced across at Boris.
The Russian shook his head, laughing. “No, English, not dik-dik. Only
On the hillside above them the kudu paused to look back. He was a large
bull with full twists to his wide corkscrew horns, a magnificent beast
with a maned dewlap and pricked ears shaped like trumpets. He stared at
them with huge, startled eyes. Boris whistled softly and his attitude
“Those horns are over fifty inches. They would get a place right at the
top of Rowland Ward.” He was referring to the register of big game which
was the Bible of the trophy hunter. “Don’t you want to take him,
English?” He ran to the nearest mule and pulled the Rigby rifle from its
slip case, then ran back and offered it to Nicholas.
“Let him go.” Nicholas shook his head. “Only dik-dik for me.”
With a flirt of his white powder-puff tail, the bull was gone over the
ridge. Boris shook his head disgustedly and spat into the river.
“Why did he try to insist that you kill it?” Royan demanded as they went
“A photograph of a record pair of horns like that would look good on his
advertising brochure. Suck in them clients.”
All day they followed the winding trail, and in the late afternoon they
camped in a clearing above the river where it was evident that other
caravans had camped many times before them. It seemed obvious that this
road was divided into time-honoured stages: every traveller took three
full days from the top of the falls to reach the monastery, and they all
camped at the same sites.
“Sorry. No shower here,” Boris told his clients. “If you want to wash,
there is a safe pool around the first bend upstream.”
Royan looked appealingly at Nicholas, “I am so tired and sweaty. Please
won’t you stand guard for me, where you can hear me call if I need you?”
So he lay on the mossy bank just below the bend, out of sight but close
enough to hear her splash and squeal at the cold embrace of the water.
Once when he turned his head he realized that the current must have
drifted her downstream, for through the trees he caught a flash of a
naked back, and the curve of a buttock, creamy and glistening wet with
water. He looked away again guiltily, but he was startled by the
intensity of his physical arousal brought on by that brief glimpse of
lambent skin dappled with the late sunlight through the trees.
When she came downstream along the bank, singing softly, towelling her
wet hair, she called to him, “Your turn.
Do you want me to stand guard for you?”
“I am a big boy now.” He shook his head, but as she passed him he
noticed the saucy glint in her eye, and he ly if she had been fully
aware of just how wondered sudden far downstream she had swum, and how
much he had seen.
He was titillated by the thought.
He went upstream to the pool alone, and as he stripped he looked down at
himself and felt guilty when he saw how she had moved him- Since
Rosalind, no other woman had had this effect on him.
“A nice cold plunge won’t do you any harm, my lad.” He threw his jeans
over a bush, and dived into the pool.
sat at the campfire after the evening meal, olas looked up suddenly and
“Am I hearing things?” he wondered.
“No,” Tessay laughed. “That is singing you hear. The priests from the
monastery are coming to welcome us.”
They saw the torches then, winding up the hillside in procession,
flickering through the trees as they approached the camp. The muleteers
and the servants crowded forward, singing and clapping rhythmically to
greet the deputation from the monastery.
The deep male voices soared and then dropped away, almost to a whisper,
then rose again in descant, haunting and beautiful, the sound of Africa
in the night. It drove icy thrills down Nicholas’s spine, so that he
Then they saw the white robes of the priests, flitting like moths in the
torchlight as they wound along the trail The camp servants fell on their
knees as the first of the holy men entered the perimeter of the camp.
They were young acolytes, bare-headed and barefooted. They were followed
by the monks, wearing long robes and tall turbans.
Their ranks wheeled aside and opened up, an honour guard for the phalanx
of deacons and fully ordained priests in their gaudy embroidered robes
Each of them carried a heavy Coptic cross, set on a tall staff and
intricately chased and worked innative silver.
They in turn opened into two ranks, still chanting, and allowed the
canopied palanquin to be carried forward by four hefty young acolytes
and placed in the centre of the camp. The crimson and yellow silk
curtains shimmered in the light of the camp lanterns and the torches of
“We must go forward to welcome the abbot,” Boris told Nicholas in a
stage whisper. “His name is Jali Hora.” As they stepped up to the
litter, the curtains were drawn dramatically aside and a tall figure
stepped down to earth.
Both Tessay and Royan sank to their knees respectfully, and clasped
their hands at the breast. However, Nicholas and Boris remained on their
feet, and Nicholas inspected the abbot with interest.
jali Hora was skeletally thin. Beneath the skirts of his robe his legs
were like sticks of cured tobacco, tar’black and twisted, with
desiccated sinew and stringy muscle. His robe was green and gold, worked
with gold thread that glittered in the firelight. On his head he wore a
tall hat with a flat top embroidered with a pattern of crosses and
The abbot’s face -was dead sooty black, the skin wrinkled and riven with
the deep etchings of age. There were few teeth behind his puckered lips,
and even those were yellowed and askew. His beard was startling silver
white, breaking like storm surf on the old bones of his jaw.
One eye was opaque blue and blinded with tropical ophthalmia, but the
other eye glistened like that of a hunting leopard.
He began to speak in a high, quavering voice. “A blessing,” Boris warned
Nicholas, and they both bowed their heads respectfully. The assembled
priests came in with the chanted response each time the old man paused.
When at last he had finished giving his blessing jali Hora made the sign
of the cross in four directions, rotating slowly towards each point of
the compass, while two altar boys swung their silver censers vigorously,
deluging the night with pungent clouds of incense smoke.
After the blessing the two women came forward to kneel before the abbot.
He stooped over them and struck them lightly on each cheek with his
silver cross, chanting a falsetto blessing over them.
“They say the old man is over a hundred years old,” Boris whispered to
Two white-robed debteras brought forward a stool of African ebony, so
beautifully carved that Nicholas eyed it acquisitively. He guessed that
it was probably centuries old, and would have made a handsome addition
to the museum collection. The two debteras took Jah Hora’s elbows and
gently seated him on the stool. Then the rest of the company sank to the
earth in a congregation around him, their black faces lifted towards him
Tessay sat at his feet, and when her husband spoke she translated
quietly for him into Amharic. “It is a great pleasure and an honour for
me to greet you again, Holy Father.”
The old man nodded, and Boris went on, “I have brought an English
nobleman of royal blood to, visit the monastery of St. Frumentius.”
“I say, steady on, old boy!, Nicholas protested, but all the
congregation studied him with expectant interest.
“What do I do now?” he asked Boris out of the corner of his mouth.
“What do You think he came all this way for?” Boris grinned maliciously.
“He wants a gift. Money,’
“Maria Theresa dollars?” he enquired, referring to the centuries-old
traditional currency of Ethiopia, “Not necessarily. Times have changed.
jali Hora will be happy to take Yankee green-backs.”
“You are a nobleman of royal blood. You will be hunting in his valley.
Five hundred dollars at least.”
Nicholas winced and went to fetch his bag from one of the mule panniers.
When he came back he bowed to the abbot and placed the sheaf of currency
in his outstretched, pink-palmed claw. The abbot smiled, exposing the
yellow stumps of his teeth, and spoke briefly.
Tessay translated for him, “He says, “Welcome to the monastery of St.
Frumentius and the season of Timkat.” He wishes you good hunting on the
banks of the Abbay river.”
Immediately the solemn mood of the devout company changed. They broke
out in smiles and laughter, and the abbot looked expectantly at Boris.
“The holy abbot says it has been a thirsty journey,” Tessay translated.
“The old devil loves his brandy,” Boris explained, and shouted to the
camp butler. With some ceremony a bottle of brandy was brought and
placed on the camp table in front of the abbot, shoulder to shoulder
with the bottle of vodka in front of Boris. They toasted each other, and
the abbot tossed back a dram that made his good eye weep with tears, and
his voice husky as he directed a question at Royan.
“He asks you, Woizero Royan, where do you come from, daughter, that you
follow the true path of Christ the Saviour of man?”
“I am an Egyptian, of the old religion,” Royan replied.
The abbot and all his priests nodded and beamed with approval.
“We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, the Egyptians and the
Ethiopians,” the abbot told her. “Even the word Coptic derives from the
Greek for Egyptian. For over sixteen hundred years the Abuna, the
bishop, of Ethiopia was always appointed by the Patriarch in Cairo. Only
the Emperor Haile Selassie changed that in 1959, but we still follow the
true road to Christ. You are welcome, my daughter.”
His debtera poured another dram of brandy and the old man swallowed it
at a gulp. Even Boris looked impressed, “Where does the skinny old black
tortoise put it?” he wondered aloud. Tessay did not translate, but she
lowered her eyes and the hurt she felt for the insult to the holy man
showed on her madonna features.
Jah Hora turned to Nicholas. “He wants to know what animals you have
come to hunt here in his valley,” Tessay told him.
Nicholas steeled himself and then replied carefully.
There was a long moment of disbelief, then the abbot cackled happily and
the assembled priests shouted with incredulous mirth.
“A dik-dik! You have come to hunt a dikdik! But there is no meat on an
animal that size.”
Nicholas let them get over the first shock, and then produced a
photograph of the mounted specimen of Moquoda harPerU from the museum.
He placed it on the table in front of Jah Hora.
“This is no ordinary dik-dik. It is a holy dik-dik,” he told them in
portentous tones, nodding at Tessay for the translation. “Let me recount
the legend.” They were silenced by the prospect of a good story with
religious overtones. Even the abbot arrested the glass on its way to his
lips and replaced it on the table. His one eye swivelled from the
photograph to Nicholas’s face.
“When John the Baptist was dying of starvation in the desert,” Nicholas
began, and a few of the priests crossed themselves at the mention of the
saint’s name, “he had been thirty days and thirty nights without a
morsel passing his lips-‘ Nicholas spun out the yarn for a while,
dwellin on the extremities of hunger endured by the saint, details
savoured by his audience who liked their holy men to suffer in the name
“In the end the Lord took mercy on his servant and placed a small
antelope in a thicket of acacia, held fast by the thorns. He said unto
the saint: “I have prepared a meal for you that you shall not die. Take
of this meat and eat.”
Where John the Baptist touched the small creature, the marks of his
thumb and fingers were imprinted upon its back for all time, and all
generations to come.” They were silent and impressed.
Nicholas passed the photograph to the abbot. “See the prints of the
saint’s fingers upon it.”
The old man studied the print avidly, holding it up to his single eye,
and at last he exclaimed, “It is true. The marks of the saint’s fingers
are clear to see.”
He passed it to his deacons. Encouraged by the abbot’s endorsement, they
exclaimed and wondered over the picture of the insignificant creature in
its coat of striped fur’.
“Have any of your men ever laid eyes upon one of these animals?”
Nicholas demanded, and one after the other they shook their heads. The
photograph completed the circle and was passed to the rank of squatting
Suddenly one of them leaped to his feet prancing, brandishing the
photograph and gibbering with excitement.
“I have seen this holy creature! With my very own eyes, I have seen it.”
He was a young boy, barely adolescent.
There were cries of derision and disbelief from the others. One of them
snatched the print from the boy’s grasp and waved it out of his reach,
taunting him with it.
“The child is soft in the head, and often possessed by demons and
fits,’Jali Hora explained sorrowfully. “Take no notice of him, poor
Tamre’s eyes were wild as he ran down the rank of acolytes, trying
desperately to recapture the photograph.
But they passed it back and forth, keeping it just out of his reach,
teasing him and jeering at his antics.
Nicholas rose to his feet to intervene. He found this taunting of a
weak’minded lad offensive, but at that moment something tripped in the
boy’s mind, and he fell to the ground as though struck down by a club.
His back arched and his limbs twitched and jerked uncontrollably, his
eyes rolled back into his skull until only the whites showed, and white
froth creamed on his lips that were drawn back in a grinning rictus.
Before Nicholas could go to him, four of his peers picked him up bodily
and carried him away. Their laughter dwindled into the night. The others
acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary, and Jali Hora
nodded to his debtera to refill his glass.
it was late when at last Jah Hora took his leave and was helped into the
palanquin by his deacons. He took the remains of the brandy with him,
clutching the halfempty bottle in one clawed hand and tossing out
benedictions with the other.
“You made a good impression, Milord English,” Boris told him. “He liked
your story of John the Baptist, but he liked your money even more.”
When they set out the next morning, the path followed the river for a
while. But within a mile the waters quickened their pace, and then raced
through the narrow opening between high red cliffs and plunged over
Nicholas left the welltrodden trail and went down to the brink of the
falls. He looked down two hundred feet into a deep cleft in the rock,
only just wide enough to allow the angry river to squeeze through. He
could have thrown a stone across the gap. There was no path nor foothold
in that chasm, and he turned back and rejoined the rest of the caravan
as it detoured away from the river and into another thickly wooded
“This was probably once the course of the Dandera river, before it cut a
fresh bed for itself through the chasm.” Royan pointed to the high
ground on each side of the path, and then to the water-worn boulders
that littered the trail.
“I think you are right,” Nicholas agreed. These cliffs seem to be an
intrusion of limestone through the basalt and sandstone. The whole area
has been severely faulted and cut up by erosion and the ever-changing
river. You can be certain that those limestone cliffs are riddled with
caves and springs.”
Now the trail descended rapidly towards the Blue Nile, falling away
almost fifteen hundred feet in altitude’ in the last few miles. The
sides of the valley were heavily covered with vegetation and at many
places small springs of water oozed from the limestone and trickled down
the old river bed.
The heat built up steadily as they went down, and soon even Royan’s
khaki shirt was stained with dark patches of sweat between her shoulder
At one stage a freshet of clear water gushed from an area of dense bush
high up the hillside and swelled the stream into a small river. Then
they turned a corner of the valley and found that they and the stream
had rejoined the main flow of the Dandera river. Looking back up the
gorge, they could see where the river had emerged from the chasm through
a narrow archway in the cliff. The rock surrounding the cleft was a
peculiar pink in colour, smooth and polished, folded back upon itself,
so that it resembled the mucous membrane on the inside of a pair of
The rock -was of such an unusual colour and texture that they were both
struck by it. They turned aside to study it while the mules went on
downwards, the clatter of their receding hoofbeats and the voices of the
men echoing and reverberating weirdly in this confined and unearthly
“It looks like some monstrous gargoyle, gushing water through its
mouth,” Royan whispered, looking up at the cleft and at those strange
rock formations. “I can imagine how the ancient Egyptians, led by Taita
and Prince Memnon, would have been moved if they had ever reached this
place. &at mystical connotations would they have attributed to such a
Nicholas was silent, studying her face. Her eyes were dark with awe, and
her expression solemn. In this setting she reminded him strongly of a
portrait that he had in his collection at Quenton Park, It was a
fragment of a fresco from the Valley of the Kings, depicting a
Why should that surprise you?” he asked himself. “The very same blood
runs in her veins.”
She turned to face him, “Give me hope, Nicky. Tell me that I have not
dreamed all this. Tell me that we are going to find what we are looking
for, and that we are going to vindicate Duraid’s death.”
Her face was upturned to his, and it seemed to glow under the light dew
of perspiration and the strength of her commitment. He was seized by an
almost overwhelming urge to take her up in his arms and kiss those
moistly parted lips, but instead he turned away and started down the
He dared not look back at her until he had himself fully under control.
After a while he heard her quick, light tread on the rock behind him.
They went on down in silence, and he was so preoccupied that he was
unprepared for the sudden stunning vista that opened abruptly before
They stood high on a ledge above the sub-gorge of the Nile. Below them
was a mighty cauldron of red rock five hundred feet deep. The main flow
of the legendary river plunged in a green torrent into the shadowy
abyss. It was so deep that the sunlight did not reach down into it.
Beside them the sparser waters of the Dandera river took the same leap,
falling white as an egret’s feather, twisting and blowing in the false
wind of the gorge. In the depths the waters mingled, churning and
roiling together in a welter of foam, turning upon themselves like a
great wheel, weighty and viscous as oil, until at last they found the
exit gorge and tore away down it with irresistible force and power.
“You sailed through that in a boat?”Royan asked, with awe in her voice.
“We were young and foolish, then,’Nicholas said with a sad little smile
that was haunted by old memories.
They were silent for a long while. Then RQyan said softly, “One can see
how this would have stopped Taita and his prince as they came upstream.”
She looked about her, and then pointed down the gorge towards the west.
“They certainly could never have come up the sub-gorge itself. They must
have followed the line of the top of the cliffs, right along here where
we are standing.” Her voice took on an edge of excitement at the
“Unless they came up the other side of the river,” Nicholas suggested to
tease her, and her face fell.
“I hadn’t thought of that. Of course it’s possible. How would we ever
cross over, if we find no evidence on this side?
“Let’s consider that only when it’s forced upon us. We have enough to
contend with as it is, without looking for more hardships.”
Again they were silent, both of them considering the magnitude and
uncertainty of the task that they had taken on. Then Royan roused
“Where is the monastery? I can see no sign of it.”
“It’s in the cliff right under our feet.”
“Will we camp down there?”
“I doubt it. Let’s catch up with Boris and find out what he intends to
They followed the trail along the edge of the cauldron, and came up with
the mule caravan at a spot where the track forked. One branch turned
away from the river into a wooded depression, while the other still
hugged the rimrock.
Boris was waiting for them, and he indicated the track that led away
from the river. “There is a good campsite up there in the trees where I
stayed last time I hunted down here.”
There were several tall wild fig trees throwing shade across this glade,
and a spring of fresh water at the head.
To minimize the loads, Boris had not carried tents down into the gorge.
So as soon as the mules were unloaded he set his men to building three
small thatched huts for their accommodation, and to digging a pit
latrine well away from the spring.
While this work was going on, Nicholas beckoned to Royan and Tessay, and
the three of them set off to explore the monastery. Where the trail
forked, Tessay led them along the path that skirted the cliff top, and
soon they came to a broad rock staircase that descended the cliff face.
There was a party of white-robed monks coming UP the stone stairway, and
Tessay stopped briefly to chat to them. As they went on she told
Nicholas and Royan, “Today is Katera, the eve of the festival of Timkat,
which begins tomorrow. They are very excited. It is one of the major
events of the religious year.”
“What does the festival celebrate?” Royan asked. “It is not part of the
Church calendar in Egypt.”
“It’s the Ethiopian Epiphany, celebrating the baptis of Christ,’ Tessay
explained. “During the ceremony the tabot will be taken down to the
river to be rededicated and revitalized, and the acolytes will receive
baptism, as did Jesus Christ at the hand of the Baptist.”
They followed the staircase down the sheer cliff face.
The treads of the steps had been dished by the passage of bare feet over
the centuries. Down they went, with the great cauldron of the Nile
boiling and hissing and steaming with spray hundreds of feet below them.
Suddenly they came out on to a wide terrace that had been hewn by man’s
hand from the living rock. The red rock overhung it, forming a roof to
the cloister with arches of stone left in place by the ancient builders
to support it.
The interior wall of the long covered terrace was riddled with the
entrances to the catacombs beyond. Over the ages the cliff face had been
mined and burrowed to form the halls and cells, the vestibules, churches
and shrines of the monastic community which had inhabited them for well
over a thousand years.
There were groups of monks seated along the length of the terrace. Some
of them were listening to one of the deacons reading aloud from an
illuminated copy of the scriptures.
“So many of them are illiterate,” Tessay sighed. “The Bible must be read
and explained to even the monks, for most of them are unable to read it
“This was what the Church of Constantine was like, the Church of
Byzantium,” Nicholas pointed out quietly.
“It remains the Church of cross and book, of elaborate and sumptuous
ritual in a predominantly illiterate world today.” As they wandered
slowly down the cloister they passed other seated groups who, under the
direction of a precentor, were chanting and singing the Amharic psalms
>From the interior of the cells and caves there came the IC hum of
voices raised in prayer or supplication, and the air was thick with the
smell of human occupation that had taken place over hundreds of years.
It was the smell of wood smoke and incense, of stale food and excrement,
of sweat and piety, of suffering and of sickness. Amongst the groups of
monks were the pilgrims who had made the journey, or been carried by
their relatives, down into the gorge to make petition to the saint, or
to seek from him a cure for their disease and suffering.
There were blind children weeping in their mothers’ arms, and lepers
with the flesh rotting and falling from their bones, and still others in
the coma of sleeping sickness or some other terrible tropical
affliction. Their whines and moans of agony blended with the chanting of
the monks, and with the distant clamour of the Nile as it cascaded into
They came at last to the entrance to the cavern cathedral of St.
Frumentius. It was a circular opening like the mouth of a fish, but the
surrounds of the portals were painted with a dense border of stars and
crosses, and of saintly heads. The portraits were primitive, and
rendered in ochre and soft earthy tones that were all the more appealing
for their childlike simplicity. The eyes of the saints were huge and
outlined in charcoal, their expressions tranquil and benign.
A deacon in a grubby green velvet robe guarded the entrance, but when
Tessay spoke to him he smiled and nodded and gestured for them to enter.
The lintel was low and Nicholas had to duck his head to pass under it,
but on the far side he raised it again to look about him in amazement.
The roof of the cavern was so high that it was lost in the gloom. The
rock walls -were covered with murals, a celestial host of angels and
archangels who flickered and wavered in the light of the candles and oil
lamps. They were partially obscured by the long tapestry banners that
hung down the walls, grimy with incense soot, their fringes frayed and
tattered. On one of these St. Michael rode a prancing white horse, on
another the Virgin knelt at the foot of the cross, while above her the
pate body of Christ bled from the wound of the Roman spear in his side.
This was the outer nave of the church. In the far wall “. the doorway to
the middle chamber was guarded by a massive pair of wooden doors that
stood open. The three of them crossed the stone floor, picking their way
between the kneeling petitioners and pilgrims in their rags and tatters,
in their misery and their religious ecstasy. In the feeble light of the
lamps and the blue haze of incense smoke they seemed lost souls
languishing eternally in the outer darkness of purgatory.
The visitors reached the set of three stone steps that led up to the
inner doors, but their way was blocked at the threshold by two robed
deacons in tall, flat-topped hats.
One of these addressed Tessay sternly.
“They will not even let us enter the qiddist, the middle chamber,’
Tessay told them regretfully. “Beyond that lies the maqdas, the Holy of
They peered past the guards, and in the gloom of the qiddist could just
make out the door to the inner sanctum.
“Only the ordained priests are allowed to enter the maqdas, for it
contains the tabot and the entrance to the tomb of the saint.”
Disappointed and frustrated, they made their way out of the cavern and
back along the terrace. They ate their dinner under a sky full of stars.
The air was still stiflingly hot, and clouds of mosquitoes hovered just
out of range of the repellents with which they had all smeared their
“And so, English, I have got you where you wanted to be. Now, how are
you going to find this animal that you have come so far to hunt?” The
vodka was making Boris belligerent again.
“At first light I want you to send out your trackers to work the country
downstream from here,” Nicholas told him. “Dik-dik are usually active in
the early morning, and again late in the afternoon.”
“You are teaching your grandpapa to skin a cat,” said Boris, angling
the metaphor. He poured himself another vodka.
“Tell them to check for spoor.” Nicholas deliberately laboured his
point. “I imagine that the tracks of the striped variety will look very
similar to those of the common dikdik. If they find indications, then
they must sit quietly along the edge of the thickest patches of bush and
watch for any movement of the animals. Dik-dik are very territorial.
They won’t stray far from their own turf.”
“Da! Da! I will tell them. But what will you do? Will you spend the day
in camp with the ladies, English?” He grinned slyly. “If you are lucky,
you may soon not need separate huts?” He guffawed at his own wit,.and
Tessay , looked distressed and stood up with the excuse that she was
going to the kitchen hut to supervise the chef.
Nicholas ignored the boorish pleasantry. “Royan and I will work the
river in bush along the banks of the Dandera river. It looked very
promising habitat for dik-dik. Warn your people to keep clear of the
river. I don’t want the game disturbed.”
They left camp the next morning in the glimmer of the dawn. Nicholas
carried the Rigby rifle and a light day pack, and led Royan along the
bank of the Dandera. They moved slowly, stopping every dozen paces to
look and listen. The thickets were alive with the sounds and movements
of the small mammals and birds.
“The Ethiopians do not have a hunting tradition, and I imagine the monks
never disturb the wildlife here in the gorge.” He pointed to the tracks
of a small antelope in the moist earth of the bank. “Bushbuck,” he told
her. “Menelik’s bushbuck. Unique to this part of the world. A much
“Do you really expect to find your great-grandfather’s dik-dik?” she
asked. “You seemed so determined when you discussed it with Boris.”
“Of course not,” he grinned. “I think the old man made it up. It should
rather have been named Harper’s chimera.
It probably was the skin of a striped mongoose that he used after all.
We Harpers didn’t get on in the world by always sticking to the literal
They paused to watch a Tacazze suribird fluttering over a bunch of
yellow blossoms high above them in the canopy of the river in forest.
The tiny bird’s plumage sparkled like a tiara of emeralds.
“Still, it gives us a wonderful excuse to fossick about in the bushes.”
He glanced back to make certain that they were well clear of the camp,
and then gestured for her to sit beside him on a fallen treetrunk. “So,
let’s get it clear in our minds what we are looking for. You tell me.”
“We are looking for the remains of a funerary temple, or the ruins of
the necropolis where the workers lived while they were excavating
Pharaoh Mamose’s tomb.”
“Any sort of masonry or stonework,” he agreed, especially Ily some sort
of column or monument.”
Taita’s stone testament,” se noc “It’s engraved or chiselled with
hieroglyphics. Probably badly weathered, fallen over, covered with
vegetation – I don’t know. Anything at all. We are fishing blind in dark
“Well, why are we still sitting here? Let’s start fishing.” In the
middle of the morning Nicholas found the tracks of a dik-dik along the
river bank. They took up a position against the hole of one of the big
trees and sat quietly for a while in the shadows of the forest, until at
last they were rewarded by a glimpse of one of the tiny creatures. It
passed close to where they sat, wriggling its trunklike proboscis,
stepping daintily on its fill hooves, nipping a leaf from a low-hanging
branch, and munching it busily. However, its coat was a uniform drab
grey, unrelieved by stripes of any kind.
When it disappeared into the undergrowth, Nicholas stood up. “No luck.
Common variety,” he whispered. “Let’s get on.”
A little after noon they reached the spot where the river issued from
between the pink flesh-coloured cliffs of the chasm. They explored these
as far as they were able before their way was blocked by the cliffs. The
rock fell straight into the flood, and there was no foothold at the
water’s edge that would allow them to penetrate further.
They retreated downstream, and crossed to the far bank over a primitive
suspension bridge of lianas and hairy flax rope that Nicholas guessed
had been built by the monks from the monastery. Once again they tried to
push on into the chasm. Nicholas even attempted to wade around of pink
rock that barred the way, around the first bus but the current was too
strong and threatened to sweep him off his feet. He was forced to
abandon the attempt.
“If we can’t get through there, then it’s highly unlikely that Taita and
his workmen would have done so.”
They went back as far as the hanging bridge and found a shady place
close to the water to eat the lunch that Tessay had packed for them. The
heat in the middle of the day was stupefying. Royan wet her cotton
neckerchief in the river and dabbed at her face as she lay beside him.
Nicholas lay on his back and studied every inch of the pink cliffs
through his binoculars. He was looking for any cleft or opening in their
smooth polished surfaces.
He spoke without lowering the binoculars. “Reading River God, it looks
as if Taita actually enlisted help to switch the bodies of Tanus, Great
Lion of Egypt, and the Pharaoh himself.” He lowered the glasses and
looked at Royan. “I find that puzzling, for it would have been an
outrageous thing to do in terms of his period and belief Is that a fair
translation of the scrolls? Did Taita truly switch the bodies?”
She laughed and rolled over to face him. “Your old chum Wilbur has an
overheated imagination. The only basis for that whole bit of
story-telling is a single line in the scrolls. “To me he was more a king
than ever Pharaoh been.”‘ She rolled on to her back again. “That is a
good example of my objection to the book. He mixes fact and fantasy into
an inextricable stew. As far as I know and believe, Tanus rests in his
own tomb and the Pharaoh in his., “Pity!” Nicholas sighed and stuffed
the book back in his pack. “It was a romantic little touch that I
enjoyed.” He glanced at his wrist-watch and stood up. “Come on, I want
to do a recon down the other spur of the valley. I spotted some
interesting ground up there whilst we were on the approach march
It was late afternoon when they arrived back at the camp, and Tessay
hurried out of her kitchen hut to greet them.
“I have been waiting for you to return. We have had an interesting
invitation from Jali Hora, the abbot. He has invited us to a banquet in
the monastery to celebrate Kateral the eve of Timkat. The servants have
set up your, shower, and the water is hot. There is just time for you to
change before we go down to the monastery.”
The abbot sent a party of young acolytes to escort them to the
banqueting hall. These IMC_ , young men arrived in the short African
twilight, carrying torches to light the way.
Royan recognized one of these as Tamre, the epileptic boy. When she
singled him out for her warmest smile, he came forward shyly and offered
her a bouquet of wild flowers that he had picked from beside the river.
She was unprepared for this courtesy, and without thinking she thanked
him in Arabic.
“Taffa”,” the boy replied immediately, using the correct gender of the
response, and in an accent that told her instantly that he was fluent in
“How do you speak Arabic so well?” she asked, intrigued.
The boy hung his head with embarrassment and mumbled, “My mother is from
Massawa, on the Red Sea. It is the language of my childhood., When they
set off for the monastery, the boy monk followed Royan like a puppy.
Once more they descended the stairway down the cliff and came out on to
the torchlit terrace. The narrow cloisters were packed with humanity,
and as they made their way through the press, with the honour guard of
acolytes clearing a way for them, black faces called Amharic greetings
and black hands reached out to touch them.
They stooped through the low entrance to the outer nave of the
cathedral. The chamber was lit with oil lamps an torches, so that the
murals of saints and angels danced in the uncertain light. The stone
floor was covered with a carpet of freshly cut reeds and rushes, their
sweet herbal perfume leavening the heavy, smoky air. It seemed that the
entire brotherhood of monks were seated cross-legged on this spongy
carpet. They greeted the entrance of the little party of ferengi with
cries of welcome and shouts of benediction. Beside each seated figure
stood a flask of tej, the honey mead of the country. It was clear from
the happy, sweaty faces that the flasks had already done good service.
The visitors were led forward to a spot that had been left clear for
them directly in front of the wooden doors to the qkUst, the middle
chamber. Their escort urged them to sit and make themselves comfortable
in this space. As soon as they were settled, another party of acolytes
came in from the terrace bearing flasks of tej, and knelt to place a
separate pottery flask in front of each of them.
Tessay leaned across to whisper, “Better you let me sample this tej
before you try it. The strength and colour and taste vary in every place
that it is served, and some of it is ferocious.” She raised her flask
and drank directly from the elongated neck. When she lowered the flask
she smiled, “This is a good brew. If you are careful, you will be all
right with it., The monks seated around them were urging them to drink,
and Nicholas raised his flask. The monks clapped and laughed as he
tasted the liquor. It was light and pleasant, with a strong bouquet of
wild honey. “Not bad!” he gave his opinion, but Tessay warned him,
“Later they will almost certainly offer you katikala. Be very careful of
that! It is distilled from fermented grain and it will take your head
off at the shoulders.”
The monks were concentrating their hospitality on Royan now. The fac t
that she was a Coptic Christian, a true believer, had impressed them. It
was obvious also that her beauty had not gone entirely unremarked by
this company of holy and celibate men.
Nicholas leaned close to her, and whispered, “You will have to fake it
for their benefit. Hold it up to your lips and pretend to swallow, or
they will not leave you in peace.”
As she lifted the&ask the monks hooted with delight and saluted her with
their own upraised flasks. She lowered the flask again, and whispered to
“It’s delicious. It tastes of honey.”
“You broke your vow of abstinence!” he chided her laughing. “Did you?”
“Just a drop,” she admitted, “and anyway I never made any vows.”
The acolytes knelt in turn in front of each guest, offering them a bowl
of hot water in which to wash their right hands in preparation for the
Suddenly there was the sound of music and drums, and a band of musicians
filed through the open doors of the qiddist. They took up their
positions along the side walls of the chamber, while the congregation
craned expectantly to peer into its dim interior.
At last Jali Hora, the ancient abbot, appeared at the head of the steps.
He wore a full-length robe of crimson satin, with a gold
thread-embroidered stole around his shoulders. On his head was a massive
crown. Though it glittered like gold, Nicholas knew that it was gilt
brass, and the multi’coloured stones with- which it was set were just as
certainly glass and paste.
JahbHora raised his crook, which was surmounted by an ornate silver
cross, and a weighty silence fell upon the company.
“Now he will say the grace,” Tessay told them, and bowedh’er head.
JahHora’s grace was fervent and lengthy, his reedy falsetto punctuated
by devout responses from the monks.
When at last he came to the end, two splendidly robed debteras helped
Jali Hora down the stairs and seated him on his carved jimmera stool at
the head of the circle of senior deacons and priests.
The religious mood of the monks changed to one of festive bonhomie as a
procession of acolytes entered from the terrace, each of them bearing
upon his head a flat woven reed basket the size of a wagon wheel. They
placed one of these in the centre of each circle of guests.
Then at a signal from JahHora, acting in unison they whipped the lid off
each basket. A jovial cheer went up from the monks, for each basket
contained a shallow brass bowl that was filled from rim to rim with
round sheets of the flat grey unleavened iniera bread.
Two acolytes staggered in from the terrace, barely able to carry between
them a steaming brass pot filled with gallons of wat, a spicy stew of
fat mutton. Over each of the bowls of injera bread they tipped the great
pot and slopped gouts of the runny red-brown wat, the surface glistening
with hot grease.
The assembly fell on the food voraciously. They tore off wads of injera
and scooped up the mess of wat with it, and then stuffed the parcel into
their open mouths, which remained open as they chewed. They washed it
down with long swallows from the flasks, before wrapping themselves
another parcel of running wat. Soon every one of them was greasy to the
elbow and their chins were smeared thickly, as they chewed and drank and
shouted with laughter.
The serving acolytes dumped thick cakes of another type of injera beside
each guest. These were stiffer and less yeasty in taste, friable and
crumbling, unlike the latex rubber consistency of the thin grey sheets
of the first kind.
Nicholas and Royan tried to show their appreciation of the food without
coating themselves with layers of it as the oth _rs were doing. Despite
its appearance the wat was really rather tasty, and the dry yellow
injera helped to cut the grease.
The communal brass bowls were emptied in remarkably short order. Only
the churned up mess of bread and grease remained when the acolytes came
tottering in under the weight of another set of pots, this time filled
to overflowing with curried chicken wat. This was splashed into the
bowls on top of the remains of the mutton, and again the monks had at
While they gobbled up the chicken, the tej flasks were replenished and
the monks became more raucous.
“I don’t think I can take much more of this,” Royan told Nicholas
“Close your eyes and think of England,” he advised her.
“You are the star of the evening. They aren’t going to let you escape.”
As soon as the chicken was eaten, the servers were back with fresh pots,
this time brimming with fiery beef wat. They dumped this on the remnants
of both the mutton and the chicken.
The monk in the circle opposite Royan emptied his flask, and when an
acolyte tried to refill it, he waved the lad away with a shout of,
The -cry was taken up by the other monks. “Katikala!
Katikalar The acolytes hurried out and returned with dozens of bottles
of the gin-clear liquor and brass bowls the size of tea cups.
“This is the stuff to be careful of,” Tessay told them.
Surreptitiously both Nicholas and Royan were able to dribble the
contents of their bowls into the mat of reeds on which they were
sitting, but the monks guzzled theirs down greedily.
“Boris is getting his share,” Nicholas remarked to Royan. The Russian
was red-faced and sweating, grinnin 9 like an idiot as he downed another
Enlivened by the katikala the monks started playing a game. One of them
would wrap a packet of beef wat with a sheet of injera, and then, as it
dripped fat from his poised right hand, he would turn to the monk
beside. The victim would open his mouth until his jaws were at full
stretch, and the packet would be stuffed into it by his considerate
neighbour. The morsel was, of course, as large as a human gape could
possibly accommodate, and in order to engulf it the victim had to risk
death by asphyxiation.
The rules of the game seemed to be that he was not allowed to use his
hands to get it into his own mouth, neither should he dribble down the
front of his robe, nor splutter gravy over those seated near to him. His
contortions, together with his gulping and choking and gasping for air,
were the source of uncontrollable hilarity. When at last he succeeded in
getting it down, a brass bowl of katikala was held to his lips as a
reward. He was expected to send the contents in the same direction as
the parcel of injera.
Jali Hora, by now warmed with tej and kadkala, lurched to his feet. In
his right hand he held aloft a streaming parcel of injera. As he began
an unsteady progress across the chamber, with his shiny crown awry, they
did not at first realize his intentions. The entire company’watched him
Then suddenly Royan stiffened and whispered with horror, “No! Please,
no. Save me, Nicky. Don’t let this happen to me.”
“This is the price you pay for being the leading lady,” he told her.
Jali Hora was making his rather erratic way towards where she sat. The
gravy from the morsel he carried for her was trickling down his forearm
and dripping from his elbow.
The band standing along the side wall struck up a lively air. As the
abbot came to a halt in front of Royan, rocking on his suspension like
an ancien ” carriage, they fiddled and fifed and the drummers broke out
in a frenzy.
The abbot presented his gift, and with one last despairing glance at
Nicholas Royan faced the inevitable. She closed her eyes and opened her
To roars of encouragement and the urgings of LIFE and drum, she
struggled and chewed. Her face turned rosy and her eyes watered. At one
point Nicholas thought she would admit defeat and spit it out on to the
reed-covered have to floor. But slowly and courageously, a bit at a
time, she forced it down and then fell back exhausted.
Her audience, clapping and hooting loved every moment of it. The abbot
sank stiffly to his knees in front of her and embraced her, almost
losing his crown in the ess. Then without relinquishing his embrace proc
he made himself a place beside her.
“It looks as though you have made another conquest,” Nicholas told her
dryly. “I think he will be on your lap at moment, if you don’t duck and
run.” any Royan reacted swiftly. She reached across and grabbed a bottle
of kadkala, and a bowl which she filled to the brim.
“Drink it up, Pops!” she told him, and held the bowl to his lips. Jab
Hora accepted the challenge, but he had to release her to drink from her
Suddenly Royan started so violently that she spilled what was left in
the bowl down the old man’s robe. The blood drained from her face and
she began to tremble as though in a high fever as she stared at Jab
Hora’s crown, which had slipped forward over his eyes.
What is it?” Nicholas demanded quietly but urgently, and he reached
across to steady her with a hand on her arm. Nobody else in the chamber
had noticed her distress, but he was fully attuned to her moods by now.
Still staring ashen-faced at the crown, she dropped the bowl and reached
down and grasped his wrist. He was startled by her strength. Her grip
was painful,,and he saw that she had driven her nails into his flesh so
hard that she had broken the skin.
“Look at his crown! The jewel! The blue jewel!” she gasped.
He saw it then, amongst the gaudy shards of glass and pebbles of
semi-precious garnets and rock crystal. The size of a silver dollar, it
was a seal of blue ceramic, perfectly round, and baked to a hard,
impervious finish. In the centre of the disc was an etching of an
Egyptian war chariot, and above it the distinctive and unmistakable
outline of the hawk with the broken wing. Around the circumference was a
legend engraved in hieroglyphics. It took him only a few moments to read
it to himself:
I COMMAND TEN THOUSAND CHARIOTS.
I AM TAITA, MASTER OF THE ROYAL HORSE.
Royan desperately wanted to escape from the oppressive atmosphere of the
cavern. The parcel of wat that the abbot had forced upon her had mixed
heavily with the few mouthfuls of tej she had swallowed, and this
feeling in Turn was aggravated by the smell of the dirty food bowls
thick with congealing grease and the fumes of raw katikala.
if Already some of the monks were puking drunk, and the smell of vomit
added to the cloying miasma of incense smoke within the chamber.
However, she was still the centre of the abbot’s attention. He sat
beside her stroking her bare arm and reciting garbled extracts from the
Amharic scriptures; Tessay had long ago given up translating for her.
Royan looked hopefully at Nicholas but he was withdrawn and silent,
seeming oblivious of his surroundings. She knew that he was thinking
about the ceramic seal in the abbot’s crown, for his eyes kept
returning thoughtfully to it.
She wanted to be alone with him to discuss this extraordinary discovery.
Her excitement outweighed the distress of her overloaded stomach. She
felt her cheeks flushed with it. Every time she looked up at the old
man’s crown her heart fluttered, and she had to make an effort to stop
herself reaching up, seizing the shiny blue seal and ripping it from its
setting to examine it more closely.
She knew how unwise it was to draw attention to the scrap of ceramic,
but when she glanced across the circle she saw that Boris was far past
noticing anything other than the bowl of kadkala in his hand. In the end
it was who gave her the excuse for which she had been Boris seeking. He
tried to get to his feet, but his legs collapsed under him. He sagged
forward quite gracefully, and his face dropped into the bowl of
grease-sodden injera bread.
He lay there snoring noisily, and Tessay appealed to Nicholas.
“Alto Nicholas, what am I to do?”
Nicholas considered the unlovely spectacle of the rate hunter. There
were scraps of bread and beef stew prost sticking like confetti in his
cropped ginger hair.
“I rather suspect Prince Charming has had enough for one night the
stood up, stooped over Boris and gripped one wrist.
He With a sudden jerk he lifted him into a sitting position, nd then
heaved him upright and over his shoulder in a a fireman’s lift.
“Good night, all!” he told the assembled monks, very few of whom were in
any condition to respond. Then he carried Boris away, draped over his
shoulders with head and feet dangling. The two women had to hurry to
keep up with Nicholas as he strode down the terrace and then up the
stone stairway without a pause.
“I did not realize Alto Nicholas was so strong,” Tessay panted, for the
stairs were steep and the pace was hard.
didn’t either,” Royan admitted. She experienced a ridiculous proprietary
pride in his feat, and smiled at herself in the darkness as they
approached the camp.
“Don’t be silly,” she admonished herself. “He isn’t yours to boast
about.” Nicholas threw his burden down on Boris’s own bed in thatched
hut and stood back panting heavily, the sweat trickling down his cheeks.
“That’s a pretty good recipe for a heart attack,” he gasped.
Boris groaned, rolled over and vomited copiously over his pillows and
“On that pleasant note I will bid you all goodnight and sweet dreams,’
Nicholas told Tessay, stepping out of the hut into the warm African
He breathed in the smell of the forest and the river with relief, and
then turned to Royan as she gripped his arm.
“Did you see-‘ she burst out excitedly, but he laid his fingers on her
lips to silence her, and with a cautionary frown in the direction of
Boris’s hut led her away to her own hut.
“Did you see it?” she demanded, unable to contain herself longer. “Could
you read it?”
“‘I command ten thousand chariots,”‘ he recited.
“‘I am Taita, master of the royal horse,”‘ she completed it for him. “He
was here. Oh, Nicky! He was here. Taita was here. That’s the proof we
wanted. Now we know that we are not wasting our time.”
She flopped down on her camp bed and hugged herself ecstatically. “Do
you think the abbot will let us examine the sealT
He shook his head, “My guess is no. The crown is one of the monastery
treasures. Even for you, his favourite lady, I don’t think he would do
it. Anyway, it would not be wise to show any great interest in it. Jali
Hora obviously does not have any idea of its significance. Apart from
that, we don’t want to alert Boris.”
suppose you are right.” She moved over on the bed to make room for him.
He sat down beside her, and she asked, “Where do you suppose the seal
came from? Who found it? Where, and when?”
“Steady on, dear girl. That’s four questions in one, and I don’t have an
answer to any of them.”
“Guess!” she invited him. “Speculate! Throw some ideas around!’
“Very well,” he agreed. “The seal was manufactured in Hong Kong. There
is a little factory there that turns them out by the thousands. Jali
Hora bought it from a souvenir store in Luxor when he was on holiday in
Egypt last month.”
She punched his arm, hard. “Be serious,” she ordered.
can do better,” he invited her, rubbing
“Let’s hear if yo his arm.
“Okay, here I go. Taita dropped the seal here in the gorge while he was
working on the construction of Pharaoh’s tomb. Three thousand years
later an old monk, one of the very first to live here at the monastery,
picked it up. Of course, he could not read the hieroglyphics. He -took
it to the abbot, who declared it to be a relic of St. Frumentius, and
had it set in the crown.”
“And they all lived happily ever after,” Nicholas agreed.
“Not a bad shot.”
ny holes?” she demanded, and he shook Can you find a head. “Then you
agree that this proves that Taita really his was here, and that it
proves our theories are correct?” -Proves” is too strong a word. Let’s
just say that it points in that direction,” he demurred.
She wriggled around on the bed to face him squarely.
“Oh, Nicky, I am so excited. I swear I will not be able to sleep a wink
tonight. I just can’t wait for tomorrow, to get out there and start
Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks flushed a warm rosy brown. Her lips
were parted, and he could see the pink tip of her tongue between them.
This time he could not stop himself. He leaned very slowly towards her,
treating her gently, giving her every opportunity to pull away if she
wished to avoid him. She did not move, but her shining expression turned
slowly to one of apprehension. She stared into his eyes, as if seeking
something, some reassurance.
When their lips were an inch apart, Nicholas stopped, and it was she who
made the last movement. She brought their mouths together.
At first it was soft, just a light mingling of their breath, and then it
became harsher, more urgent. For a long, heartstopping moment they
devoured each other, and her mouth tasted soft and sweet as ripe fruit.
Then suddenly she whimpered, and with a huge effort of will tore herself
out of his arms. They stared at each other, both of them shaken and
“No,” she whispered. “Please, Nicky, not yet. I am not ready yet.”
He picked up her hand and turned it between his palms. Then lightly he
kissed the tips of her fingers, savouring the smell and the taste of her
“I’ll see you in the morning.” He dropped her hand and stood up. “Early.
Be ready!the said, and stooped out through the doorway of the hut.
was dressing the next morning he heard her moving a round in her hut,
and when he whistled softly at her door she stepped out to meet him,
dressed and eager to start.
“Boris is not awake yet,’Tessay told them as she served their breakfast.
“Now that is a great surprise to me,” Nicholas said, without looking up
from his plate. He and Royan were still slightly awkward in each other’s
presence, remembering the circumstances in which they had parted the
previous evening. However, as Nicholas slung the rifle and the pack 0
ver his shoulder and they set off up the valley, their mood changed to
one of anticipation.
They had been going for an hour when Nicholas glanced over his shoulder
and then cautioned her with a frown. “We are being followed.”
Taking her wrist, he drew her behind a slab of sandstone. He flattened
himself against the rock and stured at her to do the same. Then he
poised himself, ge an suddenly leaped forward to seize the lanky figure
in a dirty white shamnw who was sneaking up the valley behind them. With
a howl the creature fell to his knees, and began gibbering with terror.
Nicholas hauled him to his feet. “Tamre! What are you doing following
us? Who sent you?” he demanded in Arabic.
The boy rolled his eyes towards Royan. “No, please, effendi, do not hurt
me. I meant no harm.”
“Leave the child, Nicky. You will precipitate another fit,” Royan
intervened. Tamre scurried behind her and clung to her hand for
protection, peering out around her shoulder at Nicholas as though his
life were in danger.
“Peace, Tamre,” Nicholas soothed him. “I will not hurt you, unless you
lie to me. If you do, then I will thrash you until there is no skin on
your back. Who sent you to follow us?”
“I came alone. Nobody sent me,” blubbered the boy. “I came to show you
where I saw the holy animal with the fingermarks -of the Baptist on his
Nicholas stared at him for a moment, before he began to laugh softly.
“I’ll be damned if the boy doesn’t really believe he saw
great-grandfather’s dik-dik.” Then he scowled ferociously. “Remember
what will happen to you, if you are lying.”
“It is true, effendi,” Tamre sobbed, and Royan came to his defence.
Don’t badger him. He is harmless. Leave the poor , A hild.”
“All right, Tamre. I will give you a chance. Take us to where you saw
the holy animal.”
Tamre would not relinquish his grip on Royan’s hand.
He clung to it as he danced beside her, leading her along, and within a
hundred yards his terror had faded and he was smiling and giggling at
For an hour he led them away from the Dandera rier and up over the high
ground above the valley, into an area of thick scrub and up-thrust
ridges of weathered limestone.
The thorny branches of the bush were densely intertwined, and grew so
close to the ground that there seemed to be no way through them.
However, Tamre led them on to a narrow twisting path, just wide enough
for them to avoid the red-tipped hook thorns on each side of them. Then
abruptly he stopped and pulled Royan to a halt beside him.
He pointed down, almost at his own toes.
“The riverPhe announced importantly. Nicholas came up beside them and
whistled softly with surprise. Tamre had led them around in a wide
circle to the west, and then brought them back to the Dandera river at a
point where it still ran in the bed of the deep ravine.
Now they stood on the very edge of the chasm. He saw at once that,
although the top of the rocky ravine was less than a hundred feet wide,
the chasm opened out below the rim. From the surface of the water far
below, the rock wall belled out in the shape of one of the pottery tej
It narrowed again as it neared the top where they stood.
saw the holy thing over there.”Tamre pointed to the far side of the
chasm where a small feeder spring meandered out of the thorny bush.
Streamers of bright green moss, nourished by the spring, hung from the
lip of the concave rock wall, and the water trickled down them and
dripped from the tips into the river two hundred feet below.
“If you saw it there, why did you bring us to this side of the
Tamre looked as though he were on the point of tears.
This side is easier. There is no path through the bush on the other
side. The thorns would hurt Woizero Royan.”
“Don’t be a bully,” Royan told him, and put her arm around the boy’s
Nicholas shrugged, “It looks like the two of you are ganging up on me.
Well, seeing that we are here, we might as well sit a while and see if
great-grandpa’s dik-dik puts in an appearance.”
He picked out a spot in the shade of one of the stunted trees that hung
on the lip of the chasm, and with his hat swept the ground clear of
fallen thorns until there was a place for them to sit. He placed his
back against the trunk of the thorn tree and laid the Rigby rifle across
By this time it was past noon, and the heat was stifling.
He passed the water bottle to Royan and, while she drank, glanced at
Tamre and suggested to her in English, “This might be a good time to
find out what, if anything, the lad knows about the Taita ceramic in the
crown. He is besotted with you. He will tell you anything you want to
She began gently, chatting softly to the boy. Occasionally she stroked
his head and petted him as though he were a puppy- She spoke to him of
the previous night’s banquet, the beauty of the underground church, and
the antiquity of the murals and the tapestries, and then at last
mentioned the abbot’s crown.
“Yes. Yes. That is the stone of the saint,” he agreed readily. “The blue
stone of St. Frumentius.”
“Where did it come from?” she asked. “Do you know?” The boy looked
embarrassed, “I do not know. It is very old, perhaps as old as Christ
the Saviour. That is what the priests say.”
“You do not know where it was found?”
He shook his head, but then, eager to please her, he suggested, “Perhaps
it fell from heaven.”
“Perhaps.” Royan glanced at Nicholas, who rolled his eyes upwards and
then pushed his hat forward to cover his face.
“Perhaps St.. Frumentius gave it to the first abbot when he died.” Tamre
warmed to the subject. “Or perhaps it was in his coffin with him when he
was placed in his tomb.”
“All these things are possible, Tamre,’ Royan agreed.
“Have you seen the tomb of St. Frumentius?”
He looked around him guiltily. “Only the ordained priests are allowed
into the tnaqdas, the Holy of Holies,” he hung his head and whispered.
“You have seen it, Tamre,” she accused him gently, stroking his head.
She was intrigued by the boy’s guilt. “You can tell me. I will not tell
“Only once,” he admitted. “The other boys. They sent me to touch the
tabot stone. They would have beaten me if I had not. All the new
acolytes are made to do this.” He began to babble with the horror of the
memory of his initiation ordeal. “I was alone. I was very afraid. It was
after midnight when the priests were asleep. Dark. The maqdas is haunted
by the ghost of the saint. They told me that if I was unworthy the saint
would strike me down with lightning.”
Nicholas removed the hat from his face and straightened up slowly. “My
word, the child is telling the truth,” he said softly. “He has been into
the Holy of Holies-‘Then he looked across at Royan, “Keep questioning
him. He may just give us something useful. Ask him about the tomb of St.
“Did you see the tomb of the saint?” she asked, and the boy nodded
vigorously. “Did you go into the tomb?” This time he shook his head.
“No. There are bars across the entrance. Only the abbot is allowed into
the tomb, on the birthday of the saint.”
“Did you look through the bars?”
“Yes, but it is very dark. I saw the coffin of the saint. It is wood and
there is painting on it, the face of the saint.”
“Is he a black man?”
“No – a white man with a red beard. The painting is very old. The
picture is faded, and the wood of the coffin is rotting and crumbling.”
“Is it lying on the floor of the tomb?” Tamre screwed up his face in
thought, then after careful consideration shook his head. “No, it is on
a shelf of stone in the wall.”
“Is there anything else you remember about the tomb of the saint?” Royan
tried to prod his memory, but Tamre shook his head.
“It was very dark, and the opening in the bars is small, he apologized.
“It does not matter. Is the tomb in the back wall of the rrtmdu?”
.”Yes, it is behind the altar and the tabot stone.”
“What is the altar made of – stone?”
“No. It is wood, cedarwood. There are candies, and a big cross, and the
many crowns of the abbot, and the chalice and staff.”
“Is it painted?”
“No, it is carved with pictures. But they are different from the
pictures inside the tomb of the saint.”
“What is different? Tell me, Tamre.”
“I don’t know. The faces are funny. They wear different clothes. There
are horses.” He looked puzzled. “They are different.”
Royan tried for a while to get a clearer description from him, but he
became more and more confused and contradictorywhen she pushed him, so
she changed tack.
“Tell me about the tabot,” she suggested, but Nicholas forestalled her.
“No, you tell me about the tabot,” he demanded of her.
“Is it similar to the Jewish Tabernacle?”
“Yes, at least in the Egypti She turned to him, an Church it is. It is
usually kept in a jewelled box and wrapped in an embroidered cloth of
gold. The only difference is that the Jewish Tabernacle is carved with
the ten commandments, but in our Church it is carved with the words of
dedication of the particular church that houses it.
It is the living heart of the Church.”
“What is the tabot stone?” Nicholas frowned with concentration.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Our Church does not have a tabot stone.”
“Tell me about the tabot stone, Tamre.”
“It is so high, and so square.” He indicated a height of a little above
his own shoulder, and the width of his spread hands.
“And the tabot stands on top of this stone?” Royan guessed.
“Why did they send you to touch the stone and not the tabot itself?”
Nicholas demanded, but Royan shook her head to silence him.
“Let me do the talking. You are too harsh with him. She turned back to
the boy. “Why the stone, rather than the Ark of the tabot that stands on
top of it?”
Tamre shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. They just did.”
“What does the stone look like? Are there paintings on it also?”
“I don’t know.” He looked distraught at not being able to satisfy her.
He wanted desperately to please her. don’t know. The stone is wrapped
Nicholas and Royan exchanged startled glances, and then Royan turned
back to the boy.
“Covered?” Royan leaned closer to him. “The stone is covered?, “They say
that it is only uncovered by the abbot on the birthday of St..
Again Nicholas and Royan stared at each other, and then he smiled
thoughtfully. “I would rather like to have a look at the tomb of the
saint, and the tabot stone – in its uncovered state.”
“You’ have to wait for the saint’s birthday,” she said, she broke and
have yourself ordained. Only the priests off and stared at him again.
“You aren’t thinking of – no, you wouldn’t, would you?”
“Who, me?” he grinned. “Perish the thought.”
“If they caught you in the maqdas, they would tear you to little
“The answer, then, would be not to let them catch me.”
“If you go, I am going with you. How are we going to manage it?”
“Throttle back, dear girl. The thought only occurred to me ten seconds
ago. Even on my good days, I need at least ten minutes to come up wit a
brilliant plan of action.”
They both stared out across the chasm in silence, until Royan whispered
softly, “The covered stone. Taita’s stone testament?”
“Don’t say it aloud,” he pleaded, and made the sign against the evil
eye. “Don’t even think it aloud. The Devil is listening.”
They were silent again, both of them thinking furiously. Then Royan
started, “Nicky, what if-‘ she broke off. “No, that won’t. work.” She
relapsed into frowning silence again.
Tamre broke the quiet with a sudden squeak of excitement, “There it is.
They were both startled by the interruption. “What is it?” Royan turned
Tamre seized her arm and shook it. He was trembling with emotion. “There
it is. I told you.” With his other hand he was pointing out across the
river, “There at the edge of the thorn bushes. Can’t you see it?”
“What is it? What can you see?”
“The animal of John the Baptist. The holy marked creature.”
Following the direction of his outflung arm, she picked out a soft,
brownish blur of movement at the edge of the thicket on the far bank. “I
don’t know. It is too far-‘
Nicholas scrabbled in his pack and brought out his binoculars. He lifted
and focused them, and then he began to chuckle.
“Hallelujah! Great-grandpa’s reputation is safe at last.” He passed the
binoculars to Royan. She focused them and found the little creature in
the field. It was three hundred yards away, but through the ten-power
lens she could make it out in detail.
It was almost half as large again as the common dikdik that they had
seen the previous day, and instead of drab grey its coat was a rich red
brown. Its most striking feature, however, was the distinct dark bars of
chocolate colour across its shoulders and back – five evenly spaced
markings that did indeed look like the imprint of fingers and thumb.
“Madoqua harperii, no less,” Nicholas whispered to her.
“Sorry, great-grandfather, for doubting you.”
The dik-dik stood half in shadow, wriggling its nose as it snuffled the
air. Its head was held high, suspicious and alert. The soft breeze was
quartering between them and the animal, but every so often a wayward
eddy gave it the faint whiff of humanity that had alarmed it.
Royan heard the snick of the rifle action as Nicholas worked the bolt
and chambered a round. Hurriedly she lowered the glasses, and glanced at
him. “You aren’t going to shoot it?” she demanded.
“No, not at that range. Over three hundred yards, and a small target.
I’ll wait for it to get closer.”
“How can you bring yourself to do it?”
“How can I not? That’s what I came here to do, amongst other things.”
“But it’s so beautiful.”
“I take it, then, that it would be perfectly all right to whack it if it
She said nothing, but raised the binoculars again. The eddy of the wind
must have changed, for the dik-dik lowered its head to nibble at a tuft
of coarse brown grass.
Then lifted its head again and came on down the clearing in the Thorn
scrub, stepping daintily, pausing every few paces to feed again.
“Go back. She tried to will it into safety, but it kept on coming,
meandering towards the edge of the chasm.
Nicholas rolled on to his stomach and settled himself behind the trunk
of the tree. He screwed up his hat into a soft pad on which to rest the
“Two hundred yards,” he muttered to himself “That’s a fair shot. No
further.” Resting the cushioned rifle on the twisted root, he aimed
through the telescopic sight. Then he lifted his head, waiting to let it
come within certain range.
Abruptly the dik-dik lifted its head again and came to a halt, quivering
“Something he doesn’t like. Dammit all, wind must have changed again,’
Nicholas growled. At that moment the little antelope bolted. It streaked
across the clearing, back the way it had come, and disappeared into the
“Go, dik-dik, go!” said Royan smugly, and Nicholas sat up and grunted
“I can’t make out what frightened him.” Then his expression changed and
he cocked his head. There was an alien sound on the air growing each
second – a harsh, rising clatter and a shrill, whining whistle.
“Chopper! What the hell!” Nicholas recognized the sound immediately. He
took the binoculars from Royan’s hand and turned them to the sky,
sweeping the cloudless blue emptiness above the tops of the escarpment.
“There it is,” he said grimly, adding, “Bell Jet Ranger,” as he
recognized the profile. “Coming this way, by the looks of it. No point
in drawing attention to ourselves. Let’s get under cover.”
He shepherded Royan and the boy under the spread branches of the thorn
tree. “Sit tight,” he told her. “No chance they will spot us under
He watched the. approaching helicopter through the binoculars. “Probably
Ethiopian air force,” he said softly.
“Anti-shufta patrol, most likely. Both Boris and Colonel Nogo warned us
that there are a lot of rebels and bandits operating down here in the
gorge-‘ he broke off abruptly.
“No. Hold on. That’s not military. Green and red fuselage, and the red
horse emblem. None other than your old friends from Pegasus
The sound of the rotors crescendoed, and now with her naked eye Royan
could make out the flying horse on the fuselage of the helicopter as it
flew low across their front, half a mile out, headed down towards the
Neither of them paid any attention to Tamre as he crouched behind Royan,
trying to hide behind her body.
His teeth were chattering with terror and his eyes rolled until the
“It looks as if our friend Jake Helm has got himself some fancy
transport. If Pegasus is in any way connected with Duraid’s murder and
the other attempts on your life, then we can expect them to be breathing
heavily down our necks from now on. They are now in a position to
overlook us at will.” Nicholas was still watching the aircraft through
“When your enemy is up in the air, it gives you a helpless feeling.”
Royan edged instinctively closer to him, staring up.
The green and scarlet machine disappeared over the hump of the subgorge,
down towards the monastery.
“Unless he’s just on a joy-ride, he’s probably looking for our camp,’
Nicholas guessed. “Under orders from the main man to keep tabs on us.”
“He will have no trouble finding it. Boris made no attempt to conceal
the huts,” Royan said uneasily. “Let’s get out of here, then.” She stood
“Good plan.” Nicholas was about to follow her, when suddenly he caught
her hand and drew her down again.
“Hold it. They are coming back this way.”
The engine beat was rising again. Then they caught a glimpse of the
helicopter through the canopy of leaves and thorn branches overhead.
“Now he is following the river. Still searching for something, by the
looks of it.”
“Us?”Royan asked nervously.
“If they are under orders from the head man, could be,” Nicholas agreed.
The machine was very close now, and the shrill whine of the engine was
At that moment Tamre’s nerve broke. He let out a wail of terror, “It is
the Devil, come to take me; Save me, Jesus Christ the Saviour, save me!’
Nicholas put out a hand to restrain him, but he was not quick enough.
Tamre broke free and leaped to his feet.
Still howling with fear of the pit and the flames of hell, he darted
away down the path into the Thorn scrub, the skirts of his shamma
swirling about his skinny legs and his shiny black face swivelled back
over his shoulder to watch the approaching machine.
The pilot spotted him immediately, and the nose of the helicopter sank
in their direction. It came directly towards them, slowing as it
approached the lip of the chasm. They could make out the heads of the
two occupants behind the windscreen of the forward cabin. Still
decelerating, the aircraft hung suspended over the river, pivoting on
the spinning disc of its rotor, while Royan and Nicholas crouched down
in the scrub, trying to avoid detection.
“That’s the American from the prospecting camp.” Royan recognized Jake
Helm, despite the bulky radio earphones and the mirrored dark glasses.
He and the black pilot were craning their necks to search the river
“They haven’t spotted us-‘ But even as Nicholas said it, Jake Helm
looked directly at them across the open void.
Although his expression did not change, he tapped the pilot’s shoulder
and pointed down at them.
The pilot let the helicopter sink lower until it hovered in the opening
of the chasm, almost on the same level as they were. Only a hundred feet
separated them now. No longer making any attempt at concealment,
Nicholas leaned back against the hole of the Thorn tree. He tipped his
Panama hat forward over one eye and gave Jake Helm a laconic wave.
The foreman made no response to the greeting. He regarded Nicholas with
a flat, baleful stare, then struck a match and held the flame to the tip
of the half-smoked cigar between his lips. He flipped the dead match
away and blew a feather of smoke in Nicholas’s direction. Still without
change of expression, he said something to the pilot out of the corner
of his mouth.
Immediately the helicopter rose vertically and banked away to the north,
heading back directly towards the wall of the escarpment and the base
camp on its summit.
“Mission accomplished. He found what he was looking for.”Royan sat up.
“And he must have spotted the camp. He knows where to find us
Royan shivered and hugged herself briefly. “He gives me the creeps, that
one. He looks like a toad.”
“Oh, come on!” Nicholas chided her. “What have you got against toads?”
He stood up. “I don’t think we are going to see great-grandfather’s
dik-dik again today. He has been thoroughly shaken up by the chopper.
I’ll come back for another try tomorrow.”
“We should go and look for Tamre. He has probably had another fit, the
poor little fellow.”
She was wrong. They found the boy beside the path.
He was still shivering and weeping, but had not suffered another
seizure. He calmed down quickly when Royan soothed him, and followed
them back towards the camp.
However, when they neared the grove he slipped away in the direction of
That evening, while it was still light, Nicholas took Royan back to the
“I believe that the criminal fraternity refer to a reconnaissance of
this nature as “casing the joint”,” he remarked, as they stooped through
the entrance of the rock cathedral and joined the throng of worshippers
in the outer chamber.
“From what Tamre says, it sounds as though the novices wait until they
know that the priests on duty are ones that will nod off during their
watch,” Royan told him softly, as they paused to gaze through the doors
into the middle chamber.
“We don’t have that sort of insider knowledge,” Nicholas pointed out.
There were priests passing backwards and forwards through the doors as
“There doesn’t seem to be any sort of procedure,” Nicholas noted. “No
password or ritual to allow them through.”
“On the other hand, they greeted the guards at the door by name. It’s a
small community. They must all know each other intimately.”
“There doesn’t seem any chance at all that I could dress up like a monk
and brazen my way through,’Nicholas agreed-A wonder what they do to
intruders in the sacred areas?”
“Throw them off the terrace to the crocodiles in the cauldron of the
Nile?” she suggested maliciously. “Anyway, you are not going in there
This was not the time to argue, he decided, and instead he tried to see
as much as possible through the open doors of the qiddist. The middle
chamber seemed much smaller than the outer chamber in which they stood.
He could just make out the shadowy murals that covered the portions of
the inner walls that he could see. In the facing wall was another
doorway. From Tamre’s description, he realized that this must be the
entrance to the maqdas. The opening was barred by a heavy grille gate of
dark wooden beams, the joints of the cross-pieces reinforced with
gussets of hand hammered native iron.
On each side of the doorway, from rock ceiling to floor, hung long
embroidered tapestries depicting scenes from the life of St. Frumentius.
In one he was preaching to a kneeling congregation, with the Bible in
one hand and his right hand raised in benediction. In the other tapestry
he was baptizing an emperor. The king wore a high golden crown like that
of Jali Hora, and the saint’s head was surrounded by a halo. The saint’s
face was white, while the emperor’s was black.
“Politically correct?” Nicholas asked himself, with a smile.
“What is amusing you?” Royan asked. “Have you thought of a way of
getting in there?”
“No, I was thinking of dinner. Let’s go!
At dinner Boris showed no ill effects from the previous night’s debauch.
During the day he had taken out his shotgun and shot a bunch of green
pigeons. Tessay had marinated these and barbecued them over the coals.
“Tell me, English, how was the hunting today? Did you get attacked by
the deadly striped dik-dik? Hey? Hey?” He bellowed with laughter.
“Did your trackers have any success?” Nicholas asked mildly.
.”Da! Da! They found kudu and hushbuck and buffalo.
They even found dik-dik, but no stripes. Sorry, no stripes.”
Royan leaned forward and opened her mouth to intervene, but Nicholas
cautioned her with a shake of the head. She shut her mouth again and
looked down at her plate, slicing a morsel from the breast of a pigeon.
“We don’t really need company tomorrow,” Nicholas explained mildly in
Arabic. “If he knew, he would insist on coming with us.”
“Did your Mummy never teach you no manners, English? It’s rude to talk
in a language that others can’t understand. Have a vodka.”
“You have my share,” Nicholas invited him. “I know when I am
During the rest of the meal Tessay replied only in low monosyllables
when Royan tried to draw her into the conversation. She looked tragic
and defeated. She never looked at her husband, even when he was at his
loudest and most overbearing. When the meal ended, they left her sitting
with Boris at the fire. Boris had a fresh bottle of vodka on the table
“The way he is pumping the liquor, it looks as if I might be called out
on another midnight rescue mission,” Nicholas remarked as they made
their way to their own huts.
“Tessay has been in camp all day with him. There has been more trouble
between them. She told me that as soon as they get back to Addis Ababa
she is going to leave him.
She can’t take any more of this.”
“The only thing I find surprising is that she ever got mixed up with an
animal like Boris in the first place. She is a lovely woman. She could
pick and choose.”
“Some women are drawn to animals,” Royan shrugged.
“I suppose it must be the thrill of danger. Anyway, Tessay has asked me
if she can come with us tomorrow. She cannot stand another day in camp
with Boris on her own.
I think she is really afraid of him now. She says that she has never
seen him drink like this before.”
“Tell her to come along, Nicholas said resignedly. “The more of us the
merrier. Perhaps we will be able to frighten the dik-dik to death by
sheer weight of numbers. Save me wasting ammunition.”
It was still dark when the three of them left camp the next morning.
There was no sign of Boris and, when Nicholas asked about him, Tessay
said simply, “After you went to bed last night he finished the bottle.
He won’t be out of his hut before noon. He won’t miss me.”
Carrying the Rigby, Nicholas led them tip into the weathered limestone
hills, retracing the path along which Tamre had taken them the previous
day. As they walked, Nicholas heard the two women talking behind him.
Royan was explaining to Tessay how they had sighted the striped dik-dik,
and what they planned.
The sun was well up by the time they again reached the spot under the
thorn tree on the lip of the chasm, and settled down to wait in ambush.
“How will you retrieve the carcass, if you do manage to shoot the poor
little creature?” Royan asked.
“I made certain of that before we left camp,” he explained. “I spoke to
the head tracker. If he hears a shot he will bring up the ropes and help
me get across to the other side.”
“I wouldn’t like to make the journey across there.” Tessay eyed the drop
“They teach you some useful things in the army, along with all the
rubbish,” Nicholas replied. He made himself comfortable against the
thorn tree, the rifle ready in his lap.
The women lay close by him, talking together softly.
It was unlikely that the sound of their low voices would carry across
the ravine, Nicholas decided, so he did not try to hush them.
He expected that if it came at all, the dik-dik would show itself early.
But he was wrong. By noon there was still no sign of it. The valley
sweltered in the midday sun. The distant wall of the escarpment, veiled
in the blue heat haze, looked like jagged blue glass, and the mirage
danced across the rocky ridges and shimmered like the waters of a silver
lake above the tops of the thorn thickets.
The women had long ago given up talking, and they lay somnolent in the
heat. The whole world was silent and heat-struck. Only a bush dove broke
the silence with its mournful lament, “My wife is dead, my children are
dead, Oh, me! Oh, my! Oh, me!’Nicholas found his own eyelids becoming
leaden. His head nodded involuntarily, and he jerked it up only to have
it flop forward again. On the very edge of sleep he heard a sound, close
by in the thorn scrub behind him.
It was a tiny sound, but one that he knew so well. A sound that
whiplashed across his nerve endings and jerked him back to full
consciousness, with his pulse racing and the coppery taste of fear in
the back of his throat. It was the metallic sound of the safety-catch on
an AK-47 assault rifle being slipped forward into the “Fire’ position.
In one fluid movement he lifted the rifle out of his lap and rolled
twice, twisting his body to cover the two women who lay beside him. At
the same time he brought the Rigby into his shoulder, aimed into the
scrub behind him from where the sound had come.
“Down!” he hissed at his companions. “Keep your heads down!’
His finger was on the trigger and, even though it was a puny weapon with
which to take on a Kalashnikov, he was ready to return fire. He picked
up his target immediately, and swung on to it.
There was a man crouched twenty paces away, the assault rifle he carried
aimed into Nicholas’s face. He was black, dressed in worn and tattered
camouflage fatigues and a soft cap of the same material. His webbing
held a bush-knife and grenades, water bottle’ and all the other
accoutrements of a guerrilla fighter.
“Shufta!” thought Nicholas. “A real pro. Don’t take chances with this
one.” Yet at the same time he realized that if the intention had been to
kill him, then he would be dead already.
He aimed the Rigby an inch over the muzzle of the assault rifle, into
the bloodshot right eye of the shufta behind it. The man acknowledged
the stand-off with a narrowing of his eyes, and then gave an order in
“Salim, cover the women. Shoot them if he moves.
Nicholas heard movement on his flank and glanced in that direction,
still keeping the shufta in his peripheral vision.
Another guerrilla stepped out of the scrub. He was all: similarly
dressed, but he carried a Soviet RPD light machine gun on his hip. The
barrel was sawn off short to make the weapon more handy for bush
fighting, and there was a loop of ammunition belt draped around his
neck. He came forward carefully, the RPD aimed point-blank at the two
women. Nicholas knew that, with a touch on the trigger, he could chop
them both to mincemeat.
There were other stealthy rustling sounds in the bush all around them.
These two were not the only ones, Nicholas realized. This was a large
war party. He might be able to get off one shot with the Rigby, but by
then Royan and Tessay would be dead. And he would not be far behind
Very slowly and deliberately he lowered the muzzle of the rifle until it
was pointing at the ground. Then he laid the weapon down and raised his
“Get your hands up,” he told the women. “Do exactly what they tell you.”
The guerrilla leader acknowledged his surrender by coming to his full
height and speaking rapidly to his men, still in Arabic.
“Get the rifle and his pack.”
“We are British subjects,” Nicholas told him loudly, and the guerrilla
looked surprised by his use of Arabic. “We are simple tourists. We are
not military. We are not government people.”
Be quiet. Shut your face!” he ordered, as the rest of the guerrilla
patrol emerged from cover. Nicholas counted five of them all told,
though he knew there were probably others who had not come forward. They
were very professional as they rounded up their prisoners. They never
blocked each other’s field of fire, nor offered an opportunity of
escape. Quickly they searched them for weapons, then closed in around
them and hustled them on to the path.
“Where are you taking us?”Nicholas demanded.
“No questions!” The butt of an AK-47 smashed between his shoulder blades
and almost knocked him off his feet.
“Steady on, chaps,” he murmured mildly in English.
“That wasn’t really called for.”
They were forced to keep marching through the heat of the afternoon.
Nicholas kept a check on the position of the sun and the distant
glimpses of the escarpment wall.
He realized that they were heading westwards, following the course of
the Nile towards the Sudanese border. It was late afternoon, and
Nicholas estimated that they had covered some ten miles, before they
came upon a side shoot of the main valley. The slopes were heavily
wooded, and the three prisoners were herded into a patch of this forest.
They were actually within the perimeter of the guerrilla camp before
they were aware of its existence. Cunningly camouflaged, it consisted
merely of a few crude lean, to shelters and a ring of weapons
emplacements. The sentries were well placed, and all the light machine
guns in the foxholes were manned.
They were led to one of the shelters in the centre of the camp, where
three men were squatting around a map spread on a low camp table. These
were obviously officers, and there was no mistaking which of the three
was the commander. The leader of the patrol which had captured them went
to this man, saluted him deferentially and then spoke to him urgently,
pointing at his captives.
The guerrilla commander straightened up from the table, and came out
into the sunlight. He was of medium height, but was imbued with such an
air of authority that he seemed taller. His shoulders were broad and his
body square and chunky, with the beginning of a dignified spread around
the waist. He wore a short curly beard which contained a few strands of
grey, and his features were refined and handsome. His skin tones were
amber and copper. His dark eyes were intelligent, his gaze quick and
“My men tell me that you speak Arabic,” he said to -Nicholas.
“Better than you do, Mek Nimmur,’Nicholas told him.
“So now you are the leader of a bunch of bandits and kidnappers? I
always told you that you would never get to heaven, you old reprobate.”
Mek Nimmur stared at him in astonishment, and then began to smile.
“Nicholas! I did not recognize you. You are older. Look at the grey on
He opened his arms wide and folded Nicholas into a bear hug.
“Nicholas! Nicholas!” He kissed him once on each cheek. Then he held him
at arm’s length and looked at the two women, who were standing amazed.
“He saved my life,” he explained to them.
“You make me blush, Mek.” Mek kissed him again’ “He saved my life
“Once,” Nicholas contradicted him. “The second time was a mistake. I
should have let them shoot you.”
Mek laughed delightedly. “How long ago was it, Nicholas?”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Fifteen years ago at least,’.Mek said. “Are you still in the British
army? What is your rank? You must be a general by now!’
“Reserves only,” Nicholas shook his head. “I have been back in civvy
street a long time now.”
Still hugging Nicholas, Mek Nimmur looked at the women with interest.
“Nicholas taught me most of what I know about soldiering,” he told them.
His eyes flicked from Royan to Tessay, and then stayed on the Ethiopian
girl’s dark and lovely face.
“I know you,” he said. “I saw you in Addis, years ago.
You were a young girl then. Your father was Alto Zemen, a great and good
man. He was murdered by the tyrant Mengistu.”
“I know you also, Alto Mek. My father held you in high esteem. There are
many of us who believe that you should be the president of this Ethiopia
of ours, in place of that other one.” She dropped him a graceful little
curtsey, hanging her head in a shy but appealing gesture of respect.
“I am flattered by your opinion of me.” He took her hand and lifted her
to her full height. Then he turned back to Nicholas, “I am sorry for the
rough welcome, Some of my men are over-enthusiastic. I knew that there
were ferengi asking questions at the monastery. But enough, you are with
friends here. I bid you welcome.”
Mek Nimmur led them to his shelter, where one of his men brought a
soot-blackened kettle from the fire and poured viscous black coffee into
mugs for them.
He and Nicholas plunged into reminiscences of the days prior to the
Falklands war when they had fought side by side, Nicholas as a covert
military adviser, and Mek as a young freedom fighter opposing the
tyranny of Mengistu.
“But the war is over now, Mek, Nicholas remonstrated at last. “The
battle is won. Why are you still out in the bush with your men? Why
aren’t you getting rich and fat in Addis, like all the others?”
“In the interim government in Addis there are enemies Of mine, men like
Mengistu. When we have got rid of them, then I will come out of the
He and Nicholas embarked into a spirited discussion of African politics,
so deep and complicated that Royan knew very few of the personalities
whom they were discussing. Nor could she follow the nuances and the
subtlety of religious and tribal prejudices and intolerance that had
persisted for a thousand years. She was, however, impressed by
Nicholas’s knowledge and understanding of the situation, and the way in
which a man like Mek Nimmur asked his opinion and listened to his
In the end Nicholas asked him, “So now you have carried the war beyond
the borders of Ethiopia itself? You are operating in Sudan, as well?”
“The war in the Sudan has been raging for twenty years,” Mek confirmed.
“The Christians in the south fighting against the persecution of the
Moslem nor the-”
“I am well aware of that, Mek. But that is not Ethiopia.
It’s not your war.”
“They are Christians, and they suffer injustice. I am a soldier and a
Christian. Of course it is my war.” Tessay had ty to every word that Mek
spoke, and been listening avid now she nodded her head in agreement, her
eyes dark and solemn with hero worship.
“Alto Mek is a crusader for Christ and the rights of the common
man,’Tessa told Nicholas in awed tones.
“And he dearly loves a good fight,” Nicholas laughed, punching his
shoulder affectionately. It was a familiar gesture which could easily
have given offence, but Mek accepted it readily and laughed back at him.
“What are you doing here yourself, Nicholas, if you are no longer a
soldier? There was a time when you also loved a good fight.”
“I am completely reformed. No more fighting. I have come to the Abbay
gorge to hunt dik-dik.”
“Dik-dik?l Mek Nimmur stared at him with disbelief, and then he roared
with laughter. “I don’t believe it. Not you. Not dik-dik. You are up to
“It is the truth.”