“You are lying, Nicholas. You never could lie to me. I know you too
well. You are up to something. You will tell me about it when you need
“And you will still give me your help?”
“Of course. You saved my life twice.”
“Even once is enough,” said Mek Nimmur.
while they talked, the sun slanted down the sky.
“You are my guests for tonight,” Mek Nimmur told them formally. “In the
morning I will escort you back to your camp at the monastery of St..
That is also my destination. My men and I are going to the monastery to
celebrate the festival of Timkat- The abbot, Jali Hora, is a friend and
“And the monastery is probably your deep cover base.
You use it and the monks for resupply and intelligence.
Am I right?”
“You know me too well, Nicholas.”Mek Nimmur shook his head ruefully.
“You taught me much of what I know, so why should you not be able to
guess my strategy? The monastery makes a perfect base of operations.
It’s close enough to the border-‘ he broke off, smiling. “But there is
no need to explain it to you, of all people.”
Mek had his men build a night shelter for Nicholas and Royan, and cut a
mattress of grass to cushion their sleep. They lay close together under
the flimsy roof. The night was sultry, and they did not miss their
Nicholas had a tube of insect repellent in his pack to keep the
mosquitoes at bay After they had settled down on the grass mattress,
their heads were close enough together to allow them to converse in
quiet tones. When he turned his head Nicholas could see the dark
silhouettes of Mek Nimmur and Tessay still sitting close together by the
“Ethiopian girls are different from the Arabs, and from most other
African women.” Royan too was watching the other couple. “No Arab girl
would dare be alone with a man like that. Especially if she were a
“Any way you cut it, they make a damned fine pair,” he gave his opinion.
“Good luck to them. Tessay hasn’t had much of that lately – she is
He turned his head and looked into her face, “What about you, Royan,
what are you? Are you a decorous, submissive Arab, or an independent,
assertive Western girl?”
“It’s both a little early and much too late for intimate questions of
that nature,” she told him, and turned over, presenting him with her
“Ah, we are standing on ceremony this evening!
Goodnight, Woizero Royan.”
“Goodnight, Alto Nicholas,” she replied, keeping her face turned away
from him so that he could not see her smile.
The gorilla column moved out before dawn the next morning. They marched
in full battle order, with scouts moving ahead and flankers covering
each side of the path.
“The army come down here into the gorge very seldom, but we are always
ready for them when they do come,” Mek Nimmur explained. “We try to give
them a hearty welcome.”
Tessay was watching Mek Nimmur as he spoke; indeed, she had seldom taken
her eyes off him that morning. Now she murmured to Royan, “He is a truly
great man, a man who could unite our land, perhaps for the first time in
a thousand years. I feel humble in his presence, and yet I also feel
like a young girl again, filled with joy and hope.”
The march back to the monastery took the entire morning. When they came
in sight of the Dandera. river, Mek Nimmur drew his men back off the
path into thick bush, while sending only one scout forward. After an
hour’s wait, a party of acolytes came up from the monastery, each
carrying a large bundle balanced upon his head.
They greeted Mek with deep reverence, and handed over their bundles to
his men before returning down the pathway into the gorge of the Abbay.
The bundles contained priestly shammas, headcloths and sandals. Mek’s
men changed out of their camouflage fatigues into these garments, all of
which were well worn and unwashed for the sake of authenticity. They
wore only their sidearms under the robes. All their other weapons and
equipment they cached in one of the caves in the limestone Cliffs, and
left a detachment to guard them.
Now as a party of monks they covered the last few miles to the
monastery, to be welcomed joyously by the community there. Here Nicholas
and the women left Mek, and climbed the steep path up into the grove of
wild fig trees. Boris was waiting for them, pacing about the camp, angry
“Where the hell have you been, woman?” he snarled at Tessay. “Been
whoring around all night, have you?”
“We lost our way yesterday evening.” Nicholas fed him the cover story
that they had agreed with Mek Nimmur, to maintain his security. Boris
was hardly the man to trust.
“And we were picked up by a party of monks from the monastery this
morning. They brought us back.”
“You are the big hunter and tracker, are you?” Boris sneered at him.
“You didn’t need me to guide you, hey? You got yourself lost, did you,
English? I see now why you want only to shoot dik-dik.” He guffawed
without humour, and looked at Tessay with those pale dead eyes. “I will
talk to you later, woman. Go and see to the food.”
Despite the heat, both Nicholas and Royan were hungry. In short order,
Tessay was able to serve a tasty cold lunch under the shady branches of
the fig trees. Nicholas refused the wine that Boris offered him.
want to go out hunting again this afternoon. I have lost almost a whole
“You want me to hold your hand this time, English?
Make sure you don’t lose yourself again?”
“Thanks, old chap, but I think I can manage without you.”
While they ate Nicholas nudged Royan and told her, “Your admirer has
He jerked his head at the lanky, ungainly figure of Tamre, who had
sneaked up quietly and was now sitting near the kitchen hut, As soon as
Royan looked at him his face split into a doting idiotic grin, and he
bobbed his head and squirmed with ecstatic shyness.
“I will not come with you this afternoon,” Royan told Nicholas quietly,
when Boris was not listening. “I think there is going to be trouble
between him and Tessay. I want to stay here with her. Take Tamre with
“My word, what an attractive alternative. All my life I have waited for
this moment.” But when he had picked up his rifle and pack, he beckoned
the boy to follow him.
Tamre looked around eagerly for Royan, but she was in her hut. At last,
dragging his feet, he followed Nicholas up the valley.
“Take me to the other side of the river,” he told the boy. “Show me how
to reach the side where the holy creature lives.” Tamre perked up at the
prospect, and broke into a shambling trot as he led Nicholas over the
suspension bridge below the pink cliffs.
For an hour they followed the path, but gradually it petered out until
it ended in bad and broken ground amongst the erosion’carved hills.
Undeterred, Tamre plunged into the thorny scrub, and for another two
hours they scrambled over rocky ridges and through thorn-choked valleys.
“I can see why you didn’t want to bring Royan this way here. You will
not move. You will not speak. You will even breathe very, very quietly,
until I come back to fetch you.
If you utter even one little prayer before I return, I will personally
start you on your journey to meet St.. Peter at the gates of heaven. Do
you understand me?”
He went forward alone, but the little antelope was thoroughly alarmed by
now Nicholas saw it twice more, but he only had fleeting glimpses of
ruddy brown movement almost entirely screened by bush. He stood
directing bitter imprecations towards the boy monk and listening to the
tick of small hooves on dry earth as it raced away, deeper into the
thickets. In the end he was forced to give up the hunt for that day.
It was after dark when he and Tamre got back to camp.
As soon as Nicholas stepped into the circle of firelight, Royan came to
“What happened?” she asked. “Did you see the dik-dik again?”
“Don’t ask me. Ask your accomplice. He scared it off.
It is probably still running.”
“Tamre,’you are a fine young man, and I am very proud of you,” she told
him. The boy wriggled like a puppy, giggling and hugging himself with
the joy of her approval as he scurried away down the path to the
Royan was so pleased with the outcome of the hunt that she poured
Nicholas a whisky with her own hand and brought it to him as he sagged
wearily by the fire.
He tasted it and shuddered, “Never let a teetotaller pour for you. With
a heavy hand like that you should take UP tossing the caber or
blacksmithing.” Despite the complaint, he took another tentative sip.
She sat close to him, fidgeting with excitement, but it was a while
before he became aware of her agitation.
“What is it? Something is eating you alive.”
She threw a cautionary glance in the direction of where Boris sat on the
opposite side of the fire, and then dropped her voice, leaned close to
him and spoke in Arabic.
“Tessay and I went down to the monastery this afternoon to see Mek
Nimmur. Tessay asked me to go with her, just in case Boris – well, you
know what I mean.”
“I have a vague idea. You were playing chaperone.” Nicholas took another
sip of the whisky and gasped. He exhaled sharply and his voice was
husky. “Go on,” he invited her.
“At one stage, before I left them alone together, we were discussing the
festival of Timkat. On the fifth day the abbot takes the tabot down to
the Abbay. Mek tells us there is a path down the cLiff to the water’s
“Yes, we know that.”
“This is the interesting part – this you didn’t know.
Everybody joins the procession down to the river. Everybody. The abbot,
all the priests, the acolytes, every true believer, even Mek and all his
men, they all go down to the river and stay there overnight. For one
whole day and night the monastery is deserted. Empty. Nobody there at
He stared at her over the rim of his glass, and then slowly he began to
smile, “Now that is very interesting indeed,” he admitted.
“Don’t forget, I am coming with you,” she told him severely. “Don’t you
dare to even think of leaving me behind.”
Nicholas went to her hut again that evening after dinner. This was the
only place in camp where they could be sure of privacy, and where they
were safe from eavesdropping. However, this time he did not make the
mistake of sitting on her bed.
While she perched on the end of it, he took the stool opposite her.
“Before we start planning this thing, let me ask you one question. Have
you considered the possible consequences?”
“You mean, what happens if the monks catch us at it?” Royan asked.
“At the very least we can expect them to run us out of the valley. The
abbot has a tremendous amount of power.
At the worst we can be physically attacked,” Nicholas told her. “This is
one of the most sacred sites in their religion, and don’t underestimate
that fact. There is a great deal of danger involved. It could go as far
as a knife between the ribs, or something nasty in our food.”
“We would also alienate Tessay. She is a deeply religious woman,’Royan
“Even more importantly, we would probably outrage Mek Nimmur as well.”
Nicholas looked distressed at the thought. “I don’t know what he would
do, but I don’t think our friendship would stand the test.”
They were both quiet for a while, considering the cost that they might
have to pay. Nicholas broke the silence.
“Then again, have you considered your own position?
After all, it is your own Church that we will be desecrating.
You are a committed Christian. Can you justify this to yourself?”
“I have thought about it, she admitted. “And I am not altogether happy
about it, but it isn’t really my Church. It’s a different branch of the
“Splitting hairs, aren’t we?”
“The Egyptian Church does not deny anyone access to even the most sacred
precincts of its church building. I do not feel myself bound by the
abbot’s prohibition. I feel that as a believing Christian I have the
right to enter any part of the cathedral that I wish.”
He whistled softly, “And you are the one who once said that I should
have been a lawyer.”
“Please don’t, Nicky. It’s not something you should joke about. All I
know is that, no matter what, I have to go in there. Even if I die to do
“You could let me do it for you,” he suggested. “After all, I am an old
heathen. It would not spoil my chances of salvation. I don’t have any.”
“No.” She shook her head firmly. “If there is an inscription or
something of that nature, I need to see it.
You read hieroglyphics quite well, but not as well as I do, and you
don’t know the hieratic script. I am the expert you are just a gifted
amateur. You need me. I am going in there with you.”
“All right. That is settled, then,” he said with finality.
“Let’s start planning. We had better draw up a list of equipment that we
may need. Flashlight, knife, Polaroid camera, spare film-‘
“Art paper and soft pencils to lift an impression of any inscriptions,’
she added to the list.
“Hell!” He snapped his fingers with chagrin. “I didn’t think to bring
“See what I mean? Amateur. I did.”
They talked on until late, and at last Nicholas glanced at his
wrist-watch and stood up.
“Long after midnight. I am scheduled to turn into a pumpkin at any
“There are still two days of the festival before the tabot is taken down
to the river. Nothing we can do until then.
What are your plans
“Tomorrow I am going back after that damned little Bambi. It has made a
fool of me twice already.”
“I am coming with you,” she said firmly, and that simple declaration
gave him a disproportionate amount of pleasure.
“Just as long as you leave Tamre at home,” he warned her as he stooped
out through the door.
The tiny antelope stepped out from the deep shadow of the thorn thicket,
and the early morning sunlight gleamed on the silky pelt, It kept
walking steadily across the narrow clearing.
Nicholas’s breathing quickened with excitement as he followed it with
the telescopic sight. It was ridiculous that he should feel so wrought
up with the hunting of such a humble little animal, but his previous
failures had sharpened his anticipation. Added to that was the peculiar
passion that drives the true collector. Since he had lost Rosalind and
the girls, he had thrown all his energy into the building up of the
collection at Quenton Park. Now, suddenly, procuring this specimen for
it had become a matter of supreme importance to him.
His forefinger rested lightly on the side of the trigger guard. He would
not fire until the dik-dik came to a standstill. Even that walking pace
would make the shot uncertain. He had to place his bullet precisely, to
kill swiftly but at the same time to inflict the least possible damage
to the skin.
To this end he had loaded the Rigby with full metal jacket bullets –
ones that would not expand on impact and open a wide wound channel, nor
rip out a gaping hole in the coat as they exited. These solid bullets
would punch a tiny hole the size of a pencil that the taxidermist at the
museum would be able to repair invisibly.
He felt his nerves screwing up as he realized that the dik-dik was not
going to stop in the open. It made steadily for the thick scrub on the
far side of the clearing. This might be his last chance. He fought the
temptation to take the shot at the moving target, and it required an
effort of will to lift his finger off the trigger again.
The antelope reached the wall of thorn scrub -and, the moment before it
disappeared, stopped abruptly and thrust its tiny head into the depths
of one of the low bushes.
Standing broadside to Nicholas, it began to nibble at the pate green
tufts of new leaves. The head was screened, so he had to abandon his
intention of going for that shot.
However, the shoulder was exposed. He could make out the clear outline
of the blade beneath the glossy red-brown skin. The dik-dik was angled
slightly away from him, in the perfect position for the heart shot,
tucked in low behind the shoulder.
Unhurriedly he settled the reticule of the scope on the precise spot,
and squeezed the trigger.
The shot whip-cracked in the heavy heated air and the tiny antelope
bounded high, coming down to touch the earth already at a full run. Like
a rapier rather than a cutlass, the solid bullet had not struck with
sufficient shock to knock the dik-dik over. Head down, the dik-dik
dashed away in the typical frantic reaction to a bullet through the
heart. It was dead already, running only on the last dregs of oxygen in
“Oh, no! Not that way,” Nicholas cried as he jumped to his feet. The
tiny creature was racing straight towards the lip of the cliff. Blindly
leaped out into empty space and flipped into a somersault as it fell,
dropping from their sight, down almost two hundred feet into the chasm
of the Dandera river.
“That was a filthy bit of luck.” Nicholas jumped over the bush that had
hidden them and ran to the rim of the chasm. Royan followed him and the
two of them stood peering down into the giddy void.
“There it is!” She pointed, and he nodded. “Yes, I can see it.”
The carcass lay directly below them, caught on an islet of rock in the
middle of the stream.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’ll have to go down and get it.” He straightened up and stepped back
from the brink. “Fortunately it’s still early.
We have plenty of time to get the job done before dark.
I’ll have to go back to camp to fetch the rope and to get some help.”
It was afternoon before they returned, panied by Boris, both his
trackers and two of the skinners. They brought with them four coils of
Nicholas leaned out over the cliff and grunted with relief “Well, the
carcass is still down there. I had visions of it being washed away.” He
supervised the trackers as they uncoiled the rope and laid it out down
the length of the clearing.
“We will need two coils of it to get down to the bottom he estimated
and joined them, painstakingly tying and checking the knot himself. Then
he plumbed the drop, lowering the end of the rope down the cliff until
it touch the surface of the water, and then hauling it back and
measuring it between the spread of his arms.
“Thirty fathoms. One hundred and eighty feet. I won’t be able to climb
back that high,” he told Boris. “You and your gang will have to haul me
He anchored the rope end with a bowline to the hole of one of the wiry
thorn trees. Then he again tested it meticulously, getting all four of
the trackers and skinners to heave on it with their combined weight.
“That should do it,” he gave his opinion as he stripped to his shirt and
khaki shorts and pulled off his chukka boots. On the tip of the cliff he
leaned out backwards with the rope draped over his shoulder and the tail
brought back between his legs in the classic. absed style.
“Coming in on a wing and a prayerP he said, and jumped out backwards
into the chasm. He controlled his fall by allowing the rope to pay out
over his shoulder, braking with the turn over his thigh, swinging like a
pendulum and kicking himself off the rock wall with both feet. He went
down swiftly until his feet dangled into the rush of water, and the
current pushed him into a spin on the end of the rope. He was a few
yards short of the spur of rock on which the dead dik-dik lay, and he,
was forced to let himself drop into the river. With the end of the rope
held between his teeth he swam the last short distance with a furious
overarm crawl, just beating the current’s attempt to sweep him away
He dragged himself up on to the island and took a few moments to catch
his breath, before he could admire the beautiful little creature he had
killed. He felt the familiar melancholy and guilt as he stroked the
glossy hide and examined the perfect head with the extraordinary
proboscis. However, there was no time now for regrets, nor for the
searching of his hunter’s conscience.
He trussed up the dik-dik, tying all four of its legs together securely,
then he stepped back and looked up. He could see Boris’s face peering
down at him.
“Haul it up!” he shouted, and gave three yanks on the rope as the agreed
signal. The trackers were hidden from his view, but the slack in the
rope was taken up and then the dik-dik lifted clear of the island and
rose jerkily up the wall of the chasm. Nicholas watched it anxiously.
There was a moment when the rope seemed to snag when the carcass was
two-thirds of the way to the top, but then it freed itself and snaked on
up the cliff.
Eventually the dik-dik disappeared from his sight, and there was a long
delay until the rope end dropped back over the tip. Boris had been
sensible enough to weight it with a round stone the size of a man’s
head, and he was hanging over the top of the cliff, watching its
progress and signalling to his men to control the descent.
When the end of the weighted line touched the surface of the water it
was just out of Nicholas’s reach. From the top of the cliff Boris began
to swing the line until the end of it pendulumed close enough for
Nicholas to grab it.
With a bowline knot Nicholas tied a loop in the end of the line and
slipped it under his armpits. Then he looked up at Boris.
“Heave away!” he yelled, and tugged the dangling rope three times. The
slack tightened and then he was lifted off his feet. He began to ascend
in a series of spiralling jerks and heaves. As he rose, the belled wall
of the chasm arched in to meet him, until he could fend off from the
rock with his bare feet and stop himself spiralling at the end of the
rope. He was fifty feet from the top of the cliff when suddenly he
stopped abruptly, dangling helplessly against the rock face.
“What’s going on?” he shouted up at Boris.
“Bloody rope has jammed,” Boris yelled back. “Can you see where it is
Nicholas peered up and realized that the rope had rolled into a vertical
crack in the face, probably the same one that had almost stopped the
dik-dik reaching the top.
However, his own weight was almost five times that of the little
antelope, and had forced the rope much more deeply into the crack.
He was suspended high in the air, with a drop of almost a hundred feet
“Try and swing yourself loose! Boris shouted down at him. Obediently,
Nicholas kicked himself back and twisted on the rope to try and roll it
clear. He worked until the sweat streamed down into his eyes and the
rope had rubbed him raw under the arms.
“No use,” he shouted back at Boris. “Try to haul it out with brute
There was a pause, and then he saw the rope above the crack tighten like
a bar of iron as five strong men hauled on the top end with all their
strength. He could hear the trackers chanting their working chorus as
they threw all their combined weight on the line.
His end of the line did not budge. It was a solid jam, and he knew then
that they were not going to clear it. He looked down. The surface of the
water seemed much further than a hundred feet below.
“The terminal velocity of the human body is one hundred and fifty miles
an hour,” he reminded himself. At that speed the water would be like
concrete. “I won’t be going that fast when I hit, will I? he tried to
He looked up again. The men on the top of the cliff were still hauling
with all their weight and strength. At that moment one of the strands of
the nylon rope sheared against the cutting edge of the rock crack, and
began to uncurl like a long green worm.
“Stop pulling!” Nicholas screamed. “Vast heaving!” But Boris was no
longer in sight. He was helping his trackers, adding his weight to the
The second strand of the rope parted and unravelled.
There was only a single strand holding him now.
It was going to go at any moment, he realized. “Boris, you ham-fisted
bastard, stop pulling!” But his voice never reached the Russian, and
with a pop like a champagne cork the third and final strand of the rope
He plunged downwards, with the loose end of the severed rope fluttering
above his head. Flinging both arms straight upwards over his head to
stabilize his flight, he straightened his legs, arrowing his body to hit
He thought about the island under him. Would he miss its red rock fangs
or would he smash into it and shatter every bone in his lower body? He
dared not look down to judge it in case he destabilized – his fall and
tumbled in midair. If he hit the water flat it would crush his ribs or
snap his spine.
His guts seemed to be forced into his throat by the speed of his fall,
and he drew one last breath as he hit the surface feet first. The force
of it was stunning. It was transmitted up his spine into the back of his
skull, so that his teeth cracked against each other and bright lights
starred his vision. The river swallowed him under. He went down deep,
but he was still moving so fast when he hit the rocky bottom that his
legs were jarred to the hips. He felt his knees buckle under the strain,
and he thought that both his legs had been broken.
The impact drove the air out of his lungs, and it was only when he
kicked off the bottom, desperate for air, that -he realized with a rush
of relief that both his legs were still intact. He broke out through the
surface, wheezing an coughing, and realized that he must have missed the
island by only the length of his body. However, by now the current had
carried him well clear of it.
He trod water on the racing stream, shook the water from his eyes and
looked around him swiftly. The walls of the chasm were streaming past
him, and he estimated his speed at around ten knots – fast enough to
break bone if he hit a rock. As he thought it, another small island
flashed past him almost close enough to touch. He rolled on to his back
and thrust both feet out ahead of him, ready to fend off should he be
thrown on to another outcrop.
“You are in for the whole ride, he told himself grimly.
“There is only one way out, and that is to ride it to the bottom.”
He was trying to calculate how far he was above the point where the
river debauched from the chasm through the pink stone archway, how far
he still had to swim.
“Three or four miles, at the least, and the river falls almost a
thousand feet. There are bound to be rapids and probably waterfalls
ahead,” he decided. “From here it does not look good. I’ say the betting
is three to one against getting through without leaving some skin and
meat on the rocks behind you.”
He looked up. The walls canted in from each side, so that at places they
almost met directly over his head. There was only a narrow strip of blue
sky showing, and the depths were gloomy and dank. Over the ages the
river had scoured the rock as it cut its way through.
“Damned lucky this is the dry season. What is it like down in here in
the rainy season?” he wondered. He looked up at the high-water mark
etched on the rock fifteen or twenty feet above his head.
Shuddering at the image he looked down again, concentrating on the river
ahead. He had his breath back by now, and he checked his body for any
damage. With relief he decided that, apart from some bruising and what
felt like a sprained knee, he was unhurt. All his limbs were responding,
and when he swam a few strokes to one side to avoid another spur of
rock, even the sore knee worked well enough to get him out of trouble.
Gradually he became aware of a new sound in the canyon. It was a dull
roar, growing stronger as he sped onward down The walls of the chasm
converged upon each other, the gut of rock narrowed and the flood seemed
to accelerate as it was squeezed in and confined. The sound of water
built up rapidly into a thunder that reverberated in the canyon.
Nicholas rolled over and swam with all his strength across the current
until he reached the nearest rock wall.
He tried to find a handhold, a place where he could anchor himself, but
the rock was polished smooth by the river. It slipped past under his
desperately grasping hands, and the river bellowed in his head. He saw
the surface around him flatten out and smooth like solid glass. Like a
horse laying back its ears as it gathers itself for a jump, the river
had sensed what lay ahead.
Nicholas pushed himself away from the rock wall to try and give himself
room in which to manoeuvre, and pointed his feet once more down river.
Abruptly the air opened under him and he was launched out into space.
All around him white spurning water filled the air, and he was swirled
off balance and tossed like a leaf in the torrent The drop seemed to
last for ever, and his stomach swooped against his ribs. Then once more
he struck with all his weight and was driven far below the surface.
He fought his way up and abruptly burst out through the surface with his
breathing whistling up his throat.
Through streaming eyes he saw that he was caught up in the bowl of
swirling water below the falls. The waters revolved and eddied, turning
in a stately minuet upon themselves.
As he turned, he saw first the high sheet of white water of the falls
down which he had tumbled, and then still turning, the narrow exit from
the basin through which the river resumed its mad career downstream. But
for the moment he was safe and quiet here in the back-eddy below the
falls. The current pushed him against the side of the basin, close in
beneath the chute of the falls. He reached out and found a handhold on a
clump of mossy fern growing out of a crack in the wall.
Here, at last, he had a chance to rest and consider his position. It did
not take him long, however, to realize that his only way out of the
chasm was to follow the course of the river and to take his chances with
whatever lay downstream. He could expect rapids, if not another set of
falls like this one that thundered away close beside him.
If only there were some way up the wall! He looked up, but his spirits
quailed as he considered the overhang that formed a cathedral roof high
While he still stared upwards, something caught his eye. Something too
regular and regimented to be natural.
There was a double row of dark marks running vertically up the wall of
rock, beginning at the surface of the water and climbing up the wall to
the rim almost two hundred feet overhead. He relinquished his hold on
the clump of fern and dog-paddled slowly down to where these marks
reached the water.
As he reached them he realized that they were niches, cut about four
inches square into the wall. The two rows were twice the spread of his
arms apart, and the niche in one row lined up in the horizontal plane
exactly with its neighbour in the second row.
Thrusting his hand into the nearest opening, he found that it was deep
enough to accommodate his arm to the elbow. This opening, being below
the flood level of the waters, was smoothed and worn, but when he looked
to those higher up the wall, above the water mark, he saw that they had
retained their shape much more clearly. The edges were sharp and square.
“My word, how old are they to have been worn like that?” he marvelled.
“And how the hell did anybody get down here to cut them?”
He hung on to the niche nearest him and studied the pattern in the cliff
face. “Why would anybody go to all that amount of trouble?” He could
think of no reason nor purpose. “Who did this work? What would they want
down here?” It was an intriguing mystery.
Then suddenly something else caught his eye. It was a circular
indentation in the rock, precisely between the two rows of niches and
above the high-water mark. From so far below it looked to be perfectly
round – another shape that was not natural.
He paddled further around, trying to reach a position from which he
would have a clearer view of it. It seemed to be some sort of rock
engraving, a plaque that reminded him strongly of those marks in the
black boulders that flank the Nile below the first cataract at Aswan,
placed there in antiquity to measure the flood levels of the river
waters. But the light was too poor and the angle too acute for him to be
certain that it was man-made, let alone to recognize or read any script
or lettering that might have been incorporated in the design.
Hoping to devise some way of climbing closer, he tried to use the stone
niches as aids. With a great deal of effort, usin them as foot- and
hand-holds, he managed to lift himself out of the water. But the
distances between holds were too great and he fell back with a splash,
swallowing more water.
“Take it easy, my lad – you still have to swim out of here. No profit in
exhausting yourself. You will just have to come back another day to get
a closer look at whatever it is up there.”
Only then did he realize how close he was to total exhaustion. This
water coming down from the Choke mountains was still cold with the
memories of the high snows. He was shivering until his teeth chattered.
“Not far from hypothermia. Have to get out of here now, while you still
have the strength.”
Reluctantly he pushed himself away from the wall of rock and paddled
towards the narrow opening through which the Dandera river resumed the
headlong rush to join her mother Nile. He felt the current pick him up
and bear him forward, and he stopped swimming and let it take him.
“The Devil’s roller-coaster!” he told himself. “Down and down she goes,
and where she stops nobody knows.”
The first set of rapids battered him. They seemed endless, but at last
he was spewed out into the run of slower water below them. He floated on
his back, taking full advantage of this respite, and looked upwards.
There was very little light showing above him, for the rock almost met
overhead. The air was dank and dark and stank of bats. However, there
was little time to examine his surroundings, for once again the river
began to roar ahead of him. He braced himself rilentally for the assault
of turbulent waters, and went cascading down the next steep slide.
After a while he lost track of how far he had been carried, and how many
cataracts he had survived. It was a constant battle against the cold and
the pain of sodden lungs and strained muscle and overtaxed sinew. The
river mauled him.
Suddenly the light changed. After the gloom at the bottom of the high
cliffs it was as though a searchlight had been shone directly into his
eyes, and he felt the force and ferocity of the river abating. He
squinted up into bright sunlight, and then looked back and saw that he
had passed out below the archway of pink rock into that familiar part of
the river which he had explored with Royan. Coming up ahead of him was
the rope suspension bridge, and he had just sufficient strength
remaining to paddle feebly towards the small beach of white sand below
One of the hairy tattered ropes dangled to the surface of the water, and
he managed to catch hold of it as he drifted past and swing himself in
towards the beach. He tried to crawl fully ashore, but he collapsed with
his face in the sand and vomited out the water he had swallowed. It felt
so good just to be able to lie without effort and rest.
His lower body still hung into the river, but he had neither the
strength nor the inclination to drag himself fully ashore.
“I am alive,” he marvelled, and fell into a state halfway between sleep
never knew how long he had been lying like that, but when he felt a
hand shaking his shoulder, and a voice calling softly to him, he was
annoyed that his rest had been disturbed.
“Effendi, wake up! They seek you. The beautiful Woizero seeks you.”
With a huge effort Nicholas roused himself and sat up slowly. Tamre
knelt over him, grinning and waggling his head.
(Please, effendi, come with me. The Woizero is searching the river bank
on the far side. She is weeping and calling your name,’ Tamre told him.
He was the only person Nicholas had ever met who contrived to look
worried and to grin at the same time. Nicholas looked beyond him and saw
that it must be late afternoon, for the sun sat fat and red on the lip
of the escarpment.
While still sitting in the sand Nicholas checked his body, making an
inventory of his injuries. He ached in every muscle, and his legs and
arms were scraped and bruised, but he could detect no broken bones. And
although there was a tender lump on’the side of his he ad where he had
glanced off a rock, his mind was clear.
“Help me upP he ordered Tamre. The boy put his shoulder under Nicholas’s
armpit, where the. rope had burnt him, and hoisted him to his feet. The
two of them struggled up to the bank and on to the path, and then.
hobbled slowly across the swinging bridge.
He had hardly reached the other bank when there was a joyous shout from
close at hand.
“Nicky! Oh, dear God! You are safe.” Royan ran down the path and threw
her arms around him. “I have been frantic. I thought that-‘ she broke
off, and held him at arms length to look at him. “Are you all right? I
was expecting to find your broken bodym—‘
“You know me,” he grinned at her and tried not to i limp. “Ten’feet tall
and-bullet-proof You don’t get rid of Me that easily. I only did it just
to get a hug from you.”
She released him hurriedly. “Don’t read anything into that. I am kind to
all beaten puppies, and other dumb animals.” But her smile belied the
words. “Nevertheless, it’s good to have you back in one piece, Nicky.”
“Where is Boris?”he asked.
“He and the trackers are searching the banks lower down the river. I
think he is looking forward to finding your corpse.”
“What has he done with my dik-dik?”
ainly nothing too much the matter with
“There is cert you if you can worry about that. The skinners have taken
it down to the camp.”
“Damn it to hell! I must supervise the skinning and tion of the trophy
myself. They will ruin id’ He put prepara his arm around Tamre’s
shoulder. “Come on, my lad! Let’s see if I can break into a trot.”
las knew that in this heat the carcass of icho the little antelope would
decompose swiftly, and the hair would slough from the hide if it were
not treated immediately. It was imperative to skin it out immediately.
Already it had been left too long, and the preparation of a hide for a
full body mount was a skilled and painstaking procedure.
it was already dark as they limped into the camp.
Nicholas shouted for the skinners in Arabic.
“Ya, Kif! Ya, SalinP and when they came running from living huts he
asked anxiously, “Have you begun?” their
“Not yet, effendi. We were having our dinner first.”
“For once gluttony is a virtue. Do not touch the creature until I come.
While you are waiting for me, fetch one of the gas lights!” He limped to
his own hut as fast as his aches would allow. There he stripped and
anointed all his visible scrapes and abrasions with Mercurochrome, flung
on fresh dry clothes, rummaged in his bag until he found the canvas roll
which contained his knives, and hurried down to the skinning hut.
By the brilliant white glare of the butane gas lantern he had only just
completed the initial skin incisions down the inside of the dik-dik’s
legs and belly when Boris pushed open the door of the hut.
“Did you have a good swim, English?”
“Bracing, thank you.” Nicholas smiled. “I don’t expect you want to eat
your words about my striped dik-dik, do you?” he asked mildly. “No such
bloody animal, I think you said., “It is like a rat. A true hunter would
not bother himself with such rubbish,” Boris replied haughtily. “Now
that you have your rat, perhaps we can go back to Addis, English?”
“I paid you for three weeks. It is my safari. We go when I say
so,’Nicholas told him. Boris grunted and backed out of the hut.
Nicholas worked swiftly. His knives were of a special design to
facilitate the fine work, and he stropped them at regular intervals on a
ceramic sharpening rod until he could shave the hairs from his forearm
with just the lightest touch.
The legs had to be skinned out with the tiny hooves still attached.
Before he had completed this part of the work, another figure stooped
into the hut. He was dressed in a priest’s shamma and headcloth, and
until he spoke Nicholas did not recognize Mek Nimmur.
“I hear that you have been looking for trouble again, Nicholas. I came
to make sure that you were still alive.
There was a rumour at the monastery that you had drowned yourself,
though I knew it was not possible. You will not die so easily.”
“I hope you are right, Mek,” Nicholas laughed at him.
Mek squatted opposite him. “Give me one of your knives and I will finish
the hooves. It will go quicker if I help you.”
Without comment Nicholas passed him one of the knives. He knew that Mek
could skin out the hooves, for years before he had taught him the art.
With two of them working on the pelt, it would go that much faster. The
sooner the skin was off, the less chance there would be of
He turned his attention to the head. This was the most delicate part of
the process. The skin had to be peeled off like a glove, and the eyelids
and lips and nostrils must be worked from the inside. The ears were
perhaps the most difficult to lift away from the gristle in one piece.
They worked in companionable silence for a while, which Mek broke at
“How well do you know your Russian, Boris Brusilov?” he asked.
“I met him for the first time when I stepped off the plane. He was
recommended by a friend.”
“Not a very good friend.” Mek looked up at him and his expression was
grim. “I came to warn you about him, Nicholas.”
“I a listening,” said Nicholas quietly.
“In “85 I was captured by Mengistu’s thugs. They kept me in the Karl
Marx prison camp near Addis. Brusilov was one of the interrogators
there. He was KGB in those days.
His favourite trick was to stick the pressure hose from a compressor up
the anus of the man or woman he was questioning and turn on the tap.
They blew up like a balloon, until the gut burst.” He stopped speaking
while he moved around to work on the other hoof of the antelope.
“I escaped before he got around to questioning me. He retired when
Mengistu fled, and went hunting. I don’t know how he persuaded Tessay to
marry him, ut knowing what I do of the man, I expect she did not have
much choice in the matter.”
“Of course, I had my suspicions about him,” Nicholas admitted.
They were quiet after that until Mek whispered, “I came to tell you that
I may have to kill him.”
Neither of them spoke again until Mek had finished working on all four
hooves. Then he stood up. “These days, life is uncertain, Nicholas. If I
have to leave here in a hurry, and I do not have a chance to say goodbye
to you, then there is somebody in Addis who will pass a message to me if
you ever need me. His name is Colonel Maryam Kidane in the Ministry of
Defence. He is a friend. My code name is the Swallow. He will know who
you are talking about.”
They embraced briefly. “Go with GodV said Mek, and left the hut quietly.
The night swallowed his robed figure and Nicholas stood for a long time
at the door, until at last he turned back to finish the work.
It was late by the time he had rubbed every inch of the skin with a
mixture of rock salt and Kabra dip to cure it and protect it from the
ravages of the bacon beetle and other insects and bacteria. At last he
laid it out on the floor of the hut with the wet side uppermost and
packed more rock salt on the raw areas.
The walls of the hut were reinforced with mesh netting to keep out
hyenas. One of these foul creatures could gobble down the pelt in a few
seconds. He made certain the door was wired shut before he carried the
lantern up to the dining hut. The others had all eaten and gone to bed
hours earlier, but Tessay had left his dinner in the charge of the
Ethiopian chef. He had not realized how hungry he was until he smelt it.
The next morning Nicholas was so stiff that he hobbled down to the
skinning hut like an old man. First he checked the pelt and poured
fresh salt over it, then he ordered Kif and Satin to bury the skull of
the dik-dik in an ant heap to allow the insects to remove the surplus
flesh and scour the brain pan. He preferred this method to boiling the
Satisfied that the trophy was in good condition, he went on down to the
dining hut, where Boris greeted him jovially.
“And so, English. We leave for Addis now, da? “thing more to do here.”
“We will stay to photograph the ceremony of Timkat at the
monastery,’Nicholas told him. “And after that I may want to hunt a
Menelik’s bushbuck. Who knows? I’ve told you before. We go when I say
Boris looked disgruntled. “You are crazy, English. Why do you want to
stay in this heat to watch these people and their mumbo’jumbo?”
“Today I will go fishing, and tomorrow we will watch Timkat.”
“You do not have a fishing rod,” Boris protested, but pened the small
canvas roll no larger than a Nicholas woman’s handbag and showed him
the four-piece Hardy Smuggler rod nestling in it.
He looked across the table at Royan, “Are you coming along to ghillie
for me?” he asked.
They went upstream to the suspension bridge where Nicholas set up the
rodand tied a fly on to his leader.
“Royal Coachm ” He held it up for her appraisal.
“Fish love them anywhere in the world, from Patagonia to Alaska. We
shall soon find out if they are as popular here in Ethiopia, as well.”
She watched from the top of the bank as he shot out line, rolling it
upon itself in flight, sailing the weightless fly out to midstream, and
then laying it gently on the surface of the water so that it floated
lightly on the ripples. On his second cast there was a swirl under the
fly. The rod tip arced over sharply, the reel whined and Nicholas let
out a whoop.
“Gotcha, my beauty!’
watched him indulgently from the top of the bank.
Sh In his excitement and enthusiasm he was like a small boy.
She smiled when she noticed how his injuries had miraculously healed
themselves, and how he no longer limped as he ran back and forth along
the water’s edge, playing the fish. Ten minutes later he slid it,
gleaming like a bar of freshly minted gold as long as his arm, sopping
and flapping up on to the beach.
“Yellow fish,” he told her triumphantly. “Scrumptious.
Breakfast for tomorrow morning.”
He came up the bank and dropped down in the grass beside her. “The
fishing was really just an excuse to get away from Boris. I brought you
here to tell you about what I found up there yesterday.” He pointed up
through the archway of pink stone above the bridge. She came up on her
elbow and watched him with her full attention.
“Of course, I have no way of telling if it has anything to do with our
search, but somebody has been working in there.” He described the niches
that he had found carved into the canyon wall. “They reach from the lip
right down to the water’s edge. Those below the high-water mark have
been severely eroded by the floods. I could not reach those higher up,
but from what I could see they have been protected from wind and rain by
the dished shape of the Cliff., it has formed a veranda roof over them.
They appear to be in pristine condition, very much in contrast to those
“What do we deduce from that?” she asked.
“That they are very old,” he answered. “Certainly the basalt is pretty
hard. It has taken a long, long time for water to wear it down the way
“What do you think was the purpose of those holes?”
am not sure he admitted.
“Could it be that they were the anchor points for some sort of
scaffolding? she asked, and he looked impressed.
“Good thinking. They could be, he agreed.
“What other ideas occur to you?”
“Ritual designs,” he suggested. “A religious motif.” He smiled as he saw
her expression of doubt. “Not very convincing, I agree.”
“All right, let’s consider the idea of scaffolding. Why would anybody
want to erect scaffolding in a place like that?” She lay back in the
grass and picked a straw which she nibbled reflectively.
He shrugged. “To anchor a1adder or a gantry, to gain access to the
bottom of the chasm?”
“What other reason?”
“I can’t think of any other.”
After a while she shook her head. “Nor can She spat out the piece of
grass. “If that is the motive, then they were fairly committed to the
project. From your description it must have been a substantial
structure, designed to support the weight of a, lot of men or heavy
“In North America the Red Indians built fishing platforms over
waterfalls like that from which they netted the salmon.”
“Have there ever been great runs of fish through these waters?” she
asked, and he shrugged again.
“Nobody can answer that. Perhaps long ago who knows.”
“Was that all you saw down there?”
“High up the wall, aligned with mathematical precision between the two
lines of stone niches, there was something that looked like a has-relief
She sat up with a jerk and stared at him avidly. “Could it clearly? Was
it script, or was it a design? What you see was the style of the
“No such luck. It was too high, and the light is very poor down there. I
am not even certain that it wasn’t’a natural flaw in the rock.”
Her disappointment was palpable, but after a pause she asked,
“Was there anything else?”
“Yes,” he grinned. “Lots and lots of water moving very very fast.”
“What are we going to do about this putative has-relief of yours?” she
“I don’t like the idea in the least, but I will have to go back in there
and have another look.”
“tomorrow. Our one chance to get into the maqdas of the cathedral. After
that we will make a plan to explore the gorge.”
“We are running out of time, Nicky, just when things are getting really
“You can say that again!’. he murmured. She felt his breath on her lips,
for their faces were as close together as those of conspirators or of
lovers, and she realized the double meaning of her own words. She jumped
to her feet and slapped the dust and loose straw from her jodhpurs.
“You only’have one fish to feed the multitude. Either you have a very
high opinion of yourself, or you had better get fishing.”
wo debteras who had been detailed by the bishop to escort them tried to
force a way for them through the crowds. However, they had not reached
the foot of the staircase before the escort itself was swallowed up and
lost. Nicholas and Royan became separated from the other couple.
“Keep close,” Nicholas told Royan, and maintained a firm grip on her
upper arm as he used his shoulder to open a path for them. He drew her
along with him. Naturally, he had deliberately contrived to lose Boris
and Tessay in the crush, and it had worked out nicely the way he had
At last they reached a position where Nicholas could set his back firmly
against one of the stone columns of the terrace, to prevent the crowd
jostling him. He also had a good view of the entrance to the cavern
cathedral. Royan was not tall enough to see over the heads of the men in
front of her, so Nicholas lifted her up on to the balustrade of the
staircase and anchored her firmly against the column.
She clung to his shoulder for support, for the drop into the Nile opened
behind her, The worshippers kept up a low monotonous chant, while a
dozen separate bands of musicians tapped their drums and rattled their
sistrums. Each band surrounded its own patron, a chieftain in splendid
robes, sheltering under a huge gaudy umbrella.
There was an air of excitement and expectation almost as fierce as the
heat and the stink. It built up steadily and, as the reased in pitch and
volume, the crowd singing inc began to sway and undulate like a single
organism, some grotesque amoeba, pulsing with life.
Suddenly from within the precincts of the cathedral there came the
chiming of brass bells, and immediately a hundred horns and trumpets
answered. From the head of the stairway there was a fusillade of gunfire
as the bodyguards of the chieftains fired their weapons in the air.
Some of them were armed with automatic rifles, and the clatter of AK-47
fire blended with the thunder of ancient black powder muzzle-loaders.
Clouds of blue gunsmoke blew over the congregation, and bullets
ricocheted from the cliff and sang away over the gorge. Women shrieked
and utulated, an eerie, blood-chilling sound. The men’s faces were
alight with the fires of religious fervour.
They fell to their knees and lifted their hands high in adoration,
chanting and crying out to God for blessing.
The women held their infants aloft, and tears of religious frenzy
streaked their dark cheeks.
From the gateway of the underground church emerged a procession of
priests and monks. First came the debteras in long white robes, and then
the acolytes who were to be baptized at the riverside. Royan recognized
Tamre, his long gangling frame standing a head above the boys around
She waved over the crowd and he saw her and grinned shyly before he
followed the debteras on to the pathway to the river.
By this time night was falling. The depths of the cauldron were obscured
by shadows, and hanging over it the sky was a purple canopy pricked by
the first bright stars.
At the head of the pathway burned a brass brazier. As each of the
priests passed it he thrust his unlit torch into the flames and, as soon
as it flared, he held it aloft.
Like a stream of molten lava the torchlit procession began to uncoil
down the cliff face, the priests chanting dolefully and the drums
booming and echoing from the cliffs across the river.
Following the baptism candidates through the stone gateway came the
ordained priests in their tawdry robes, bearing the processional crosses
of silver and glittering brass, and the banners of embroidered silk,
with their depictions of the saints in the agony of martyrdom and the
ecstasy of adoration. They clanged their bells and blew their fifes, and
sweated and chanted until their eyes rolled white in dark faces.
Behind them, home by two priests in the most sumptuous robes and tall,
jewel-encrusted head-dresses, came the tabot. The Ark of the Tabernacle
was covered with a crimson cloth that hung to the ground, for it was too
holy to be desecrated by the gaze of the profane.
The worshippers threw themselves down upon the ground in fresh paroxysms
of adoration. Even the chiefs prostrated themselves upon the soiled
pavement of the terrace, and some of them wept with the fervour of their
Last in the procession came Jali Hora, wearing not the crown with the
blue stone, but another even more splendid creation, the Epiphany crown,
a mass of gleaming metal and flashing faux jewels which seemed too heavy
for his ancient scrawny neck to support. Two debteras held his elbows
and guided his uncertain footsteps on to the stairway that led down to
As the procession descended, so those worshippers nearest to the head of
the stairs rose to their feet, lit their torches at the brazier and
followed the abbot down. There was a general movement along the terrace
to join the flow, and as it began to empty, Nicholas lifted Royan down
from her perch on the balustrade.
“We must get into the church while “there are still enough people around
to cover us,” he whispered. Leading her by the hand, with his other hand
hanging on to the strap of his camera bag, he joined the movement down
the terrace. He allowed them to be carried forward, but all the time he
was edging across the stream of humanity towards the entrance to the
church. He saw Boris and Tessay in the crush ahead of him, but they had
not seen him, and he crouched lower so as to screen himself from them.
As he and Royan reached the gateway to the outer the eased them out of
the throng of chamber of the church, humanity and drew her gently
through the low entrance into the dim, deserted interior. With a quick
glance he made certain that they were alone, and that the guards were no
longer at their stations beside the inner gates.
Then he moved quickly along the side wall, to where one of the
soot’grimed tapestries hung from the ceiling to the stone floor. He
lifted the folds of heavy woven wool and drew Royan behind them, letting
them fall back into place, concealing them both.
They were only just in time, for hardly had they flattened their backs
against the wall and let the tapestry settle when they heard footsteps
approaching from the qiddist. Nicholas peeked around the corner of the
tapestry and saw four white-robed priests cross the outer chamber and
swing the main doors closed as they left the church.
There was a weighty thud from outside as they dropped the locking beam
into place, and then a profound silence pervaded the cavern.
“I didn’t reckon on that,” Nicholas whispered. “They have locked us in
for the night.”
“At least it means that we won’t be disturbed,” Royan replied briskly.
“We can get to work right away.”
Stealthily they emerged from their hiding-place, and moved across the
outer chamber to the doorway of the qiddist. Here Nicholas paused and
cautioned her with a hand on her arm. “From here on we are in forbidden
territory. Better let me go ahead and scout the lie of the land.”
She shook her head firmly. “You are not leaving me here. I am coming
with you all the way.” He knew better than to argue.
“Come on, then.” He led her up the steps and into the middle chamber.
It was smaller and lower than the room they had left.
The wall hangings were richer and in a better state of repair. The floor
was bare, except for a pyramid-shaped framework of hand-hewn native
timber upon which stood rows of brass lamps, each with the wick floating
in a puddle of melted oil. The meagre light they provided was all that
there was, and it left the ceiling and the recesses of the chamber in
As they crossed the floor towards the gates that closed off the maqdas,
Nicholas took two electric torches from his camera bag and handed one to
her. “New batteries,” he told her, “but don’t waste them. We may be here
They stopped in front of the doors to the Holy Of Holies. Quickly
Nicholas examined them. There were A, engravings of St.. Frumentius on
each panel, his head enclosed in a nimbus of celestial radiance and his
right hand lifted in the act of benediction.
“Primitive lock,” he murmured, “must be hundreds of years old. You could
throw your hat through the gap between the hasp and the tongue.” He
slipped his hand into the bag and brought out a Leatherman tool.
“Clever little job, this is. With it you do anything from digging the
stones out of a horse’s hoof, to opening the lock on a chastity belt.”
He knelt in front of the massive iron lock and unfolded one of the
multiple blades of the tool. She watched anxiously as he worked, and
then gave a little start as with satisfying clunk the tongue of the lock
a Mis-spent youth?” she asked. “Burglary amongst your many talents?”
“You don’t really want to know.” He stood up and put his shoulder to one
leaf of the door. It gave with a groan of unlubricated hinges, and he
pushed it open only just wide enough for them to squeeze through, then
immediately shut it behind them.
They stood side by side on the threshold of the maqdas and gazed about
them in silent awe.
The Holy of Holies was a small chamber, much smaller than either of them
had expected. Nicholas could have crossed it in a dozen strides. The
vaulted roof was so low that by standing on tiptoe he could have touched
it with his outstretched fingertips.
or upwards the walls were lined with From the flo shelves upon which
stood the gifts and offerings of the faithful, icons of the Trinity and
the Virgin rendered in Byzantine style, framed in ornate silver. There
were ranks of statuettes of saints and emperors, medallions and wreaths
made of polished metal, pots and bowls and jewelled boxes, candelabra
with many branches, on each of which the votive candles burned providing
an uncertain wavering light. It was an extraordinary collection of junk
and treasures, of objects of virtue and garish bric-A-brac, offered as
articles of faith by the emperors and chieftains of Ethiopia over the
In the centre of the floor stood the altar of cedarwood, the panels
carved with visionary, scenes of revelation and creation, of the
temptation and the fall from Eden, and of the Last judgement. The altar
cloth was crocheted raw silk, and the cross and the chalice were in
massive worked silver. The abbot’s crown gleamed in the candlelight,
with the blue ceramic seal of Taita in the centre of its brow.
Royan crossed the floor and knelt in front of the altar.
She bowed her head in prayer. Nicholas waited respectfully at the
threshold until she rose to her feet again, and then he went to join
“The tabot stoneV He pointed beyond the altar, and they went forward
side by side. At the back of the maqdas stood an object covered with a
heavy damask cloth encrusted with embroidered thread of silver and gold.
From the outline beneath the covering they could see that it was of
elegant and pleasing proportions, as tall as a man, but slender with a
They both circled it, studying the cloaked shape avidly, but reluctant
to touch it or to uncover it, fearful that their expectations might
prove unwarranted, and that their ..hopes would be dashed like the
turbulent river waters plunging into the cauldron of the Nile. Nicholas
broke the tension that gripped them by turning away from the tabot stone
to the barred gate in the back wall of the sanctuary.
“The tomb of St. Frumentius!” he said, and went to the grille. She came
to his side, and together they peered through the square openings in the
woodwork that was black with age. The interior was in darkness. Nicholas
prodded his torch through one of the openings and pressed the switch.
The tomb lit up in a rainbow of colour so bright in the beam of the
torch that their eyes took a few moments to adjust and then Royan gasped
“Oh, sweet heaven!” She began to tremble as if in high fever, and her
face went creamy pale as all the blood drained from it.
The coffin was set into a stone shelf in the rear wall of the cell-like
tomb. On the exterior was painted the likeness of the man within.
Although it was badly faded and most of the paint had flaked away, the
pale face and reddish beard of the dead man were still discernible.
This was not the only reason for Royan’s amazement.
She was staring at the walls above and on either side of the shelf on
which the coffin lay. They were a riot of colour, every inch of them
covered with the most intricate and elaborate paintings that had
miraculously weathered the passage of the millennia.
Nicholas played his torch beam over them in awestruck silence, and Royan
clung to his arm as if to save herself from falling. She dug her sharp
nails into his flesh, but he was heedless of the pain.
There were scenes of great battles, fighting galleys locked in terrible
combat upon the blue eternal waters of the river. There were scenes of
the hunt, the pursuit of the river horse and of great elephants with
long tusks of gleaming ivory. There were battle scenes of regiments
plumed and armoured, raging in their fury and blood lust.
Squadrons of chariots wheeled and charged each other across these narrow
walls, half obscured by the dust of their own mad career.
The foreground of each mural was dominated by the same tall heroic
figure. In one scene he drew the bow to full stretch, in another he
swung high the blade of bronze.
His enemies quailed before him, he trod them underfoot or gathered
together their severed heads like a bouquet of flowers.
Nicholas played the beam over all this splendid array of art, and
brought it to a stop upon the central panel that covered the entire main
wall above the shelf on which the rotting coffin lay. Here the same
godlike figure rode the footplate of his chariot. In one hand he held
the bow and in the other a bundle of javelins. His head was bare of any
helmet, and his hair flowed out behind him in the wind of his passage, a
thick golden braid like the tail of a lion. His features were noble and
proud, his gaze direct and indomitable.
Below him was a legen in classical Egyptian hieroglyphics. In a
sepulchral whisper Royan translated them aloud:
Great Lion of Egypt.
Best of One Hundred Thousand Holder of the Gold of Valour Pharaoh’s Sole
Companion Warrior of all the Gods May you live for ever!
Her hand shook upon his arm, and her voice choked and died away, stifled
with emotion. She gave a little sob, and then shook herself as she
brought herself back under control.
“I know this artist,” she said softly. “I have spent five years studying
his work. I would know it anywhere.” She drew a breath. “I know with
utter certainty that nearly four thousand years ago Taita the slave
decorated these walls and designed this tomb.”
She pointed to the name of the dead man carved into the stone above the
shelf on which his coffin lay.
“This is not the tomb of a Christian saint. Centuries ago some old
priest must have stumbled upon it and, in his ignorance, usurped it for
his own religion.” She drew another shaky breath. “Look there! That is
the seal of Tanus, Lord Harreb, the commander of all the armies of
Egypt, lover of Queen Lostris and the natural father of Prince Memnon,
who became the Pharaoh Tamose.”
They were both silent then, lost in the wonder of their discovery.
Nicholas broke the silence at last.
“It’s all true, then. The secrets of the seventh scroll are all here for
us, if we can find the key to them.”
“Yes,” she said softly. “The key. Taita’s stone testament.” She turned
back towards the tabot stone and approached it slowly, almost fearfully.
“I can’t bring myself to look, Nicky. I am terrified that it’s not what
we hope it is. You do itV
He went directly to the column, and with a magician’s flourish jerked
away the damask cloth that covered it. They stared at the pillar of pink
mottled granite that he had revealed. It was about six feet high and a
foot square at the base, tapering up to half that width at the flat
pedestal of the summit. The granite had been polished, and then
Royan stepped forward and touched the cold stone, running her fingers
lingeringly over the hieroglyphic’script in the way a blind man reads
“Taita’s letter to us,” she whispered, picking out the symbol of the
hawk with a broken wing from the mass of close-chiselled script, tracing
the outline with a long, slim forefinger that trembled softly. “Written
almost four thousand years ago, waiting all these ages for us to read
and understand it. See how he has signed it.” Slowly she circled the
granite pillar, studying each of the four sides in turn, smiling and
nodding, frowning and shaking her head, then smiling again as if it were
a love letter.
“Read it to me,” Nicholas invited. “It’s too complicated for me – I
understand the characters, but I cannot follow the sense or the meaning.
Explain it to me.”
“It’s pure Taita.” She laughed, her awe and wonder at last giving way to
excitement. “He is being his usual obscure and capricious self.” It was
as though she were talking of a beloved but infuriating old friend.
“It’s all in verse and is probably some esoteric code of his own.” She
picked out a line of hieroglyphics, and followed them with her finger as
she read aloud, “‘The vulture rises on mighty pinions to greet the sun.
The jackal howls and turns upon his tail. The river flows towards the
earth. Beware, you violators of the sacred places, lest the wrath of all
the gods descend upon you!”‘
“It’s nonsense jargon. It does not make sense,” he pretested.
“Oh, yes, it makes sense all right. Taita always makes sense, once you
follow the way his oblique mind is working.” She turned to face him
squarely. “Don’t look so glum, Nicky. You can’t expect to read Taita
like an editorial in The Times. He has set us a riddle that may take
weeks and months of work to unravel.”
“Well, one thing is certain. We can’t stay here in the maqdas for weeks
and months while, we puzzle it out. Let’s get to work.”
“Photographs first.” She became brisk and businesslike.
“Then we can lift impressions from the stone.”
He set down the camera bag and knelt over it to open the flap. “I will
shoot two rolls of colour first, and then use the Polaroid. That will
give us something to work on until we can have the colour developed.”
She stood out of his way as he circled the pillar on his knees, keeping
the angle correct so as not to distort the perspective. He took a series
of shots of each of the four sides, using different shutter speeds and
“Don’t use up all your film,” she warned him. “We need some shots of the
walls of the tomb itself.”
Obediently he went to the grille gates and studied the locking system.
“This is a bit more complicated than the outer gate. If I try to get in
here, I might do some damage.
I don’t think it will be worth the risk of being discovered.”
“All right,” she agreed. “Work through the openings in the grille.”
He filmed as best he was able, extending the camera through the openings
at the full stretch of his arms, and estimating his focus.
“That’s the lot,” he told her at last. “Now for the Polaroids.”
“He changed cameras and repeated the entire process, but this time Royan
held a small tape measure against the pillar to give the scale.
As he exposed each plate he handed it to her to check the development.
Once or twice when the flash setting on the camera had either
overexposed or rendered the subject too dull, or for some other reason
she was not satisfied, she asked him to repeat the shot.
After almost two hours’ work they had a complete set Of Polaroids, and
Nicholas packed his cameras away and brought out the roll of art paper.
Working together, they stretched it over one face of the pillar and
secured it in place with masking tape. Then he started at the top and
she at the bottom. Each with a black art crayon, they rubbed the precise
shape and form of the engravings on to the sheet of blank paper.
“I have learned how important this is when dealing with Taita. If you
are not able to work with the original, then you must have an exact
copy. Sometimes the most minute detail of the engraving may change the
entire sense and meaning of the script. He layers everything with hidden
depths. You have read in River God how he cons’ ers himself to be the
riddler and punster par excellence id and the greatest exponent of the
game of bao that ever lived. Well, that much of the book is accurate.
Wherever he is now, he knows the game is on and he is revelling in every
move we make. I can just imagine him giggling and gether with glee.”
rubbing his hands to
“Bit fanciful, dear girl.” He settled back to work. “But I know what you
The task of transferring the outline of the designs on to the blank
sheets of art paper was painstaking and monotonous, and the hours passed
as they laboured on hands and knees or crouched over the granite pillar.
At last Nicholas stepped back and massaged his aching back.
“That does it, then. All finished.”
a She stood up beside him. “What time is it?” she asked, and he checked
“Four in the morning. We had better tidy up in here.
Make certain we leave no sign of our visit.”
“One last thing,” Royan said, tearing a corner off one of the sheets of
art paper. With it she went to the altar where the abbot’s crown lay.
Quickly she taped the scrap of paper over the blue ceramic seal in the
centre of the crown, and filled it with a rubbing of the design of the
hawk with a broken wing.
Just for luck,” she explained to him, as she came back to help him fold
the long sheets of paper and pack them back in the bag. Then they
gathered up the shreds of discarded masking tape and the empty film
wrappers that he had strewn on the stone slabs.
Before they covered the granite stele with the damask cloth, Royan
caressed the stone panels of script as if to take leave of them for
ever. Then she nodded at Nicholas.
He spread the cloth over the pillar and they adjusted the folds to hang
as they had found them. From the threshold of the brass-bound door they
surveyed the maqdas for the last time, then he opened the door a rack
“Let’s go!” She squeezed through and he followed her out into the
qiddist of the church. It took him only a few minutes to slide the
tongue of the lock back into place.
“How will we get out through the main doors?” she asked.
“I don’t think that will be necessary. The priests obviously have
another entrance from their quarters directly into the qiddist. You very
seldom see them using the main gates.” He stood in the centre of the
floor, and looked around carefully. “It must be on this side if it leads
directly into the monks’ living quarters-‘ he broke off with a grunt of
satisfaction. “Aha! You can see where all their feet have actually worn
a pathway over the centuries.” He pointed out a smooth area of dished
and worn stone near the side wall. “And look at the marks of grubby
fingers on the tapestry over there.” He crossed quickly to the hanging
and drew a fold aside. “I thought as much.” There was a narrow doorway
concealed behind the hanging.
They found themselves in a dark passageway through the living rock.
Nicholas flashed his torch down its length, ? A
but he masked the bulb with his hand to show only as ,much light as they
needed. “This way.”
The passage turned at right-angles and ahead they could make out a dull
illumination. Nicholas switched off the torch and led her on.
Now there was the smell of stale food and humanity, and they passed the
doorless entrance to a monk’s rock cell. Nicholas flashed his torch into
it. It was deserted and bare. A wooden cross hung on the wall with a
truckle bed below it. There were no other furnishings. They went on past
a dozen others which were almost identical.
At the next turning of the passage Nicholas paused.
He felt a tiny draught on his cheek, and the taste of fresh air on his
tongue. “This way he whispered.
They hurried on, until suddenly Royan grabbed his shoulder from behind
and forced him to stop.
“What-‘ he began, but she squeezed his shoulder to silence him. He heard
it then, the sound of a human voice, echoing eerily through the
labyrinth of passageways.
Then came a weird haunting cry, that of a soul in agony, wailing and
sobbing. They crept forward, trying to make their escape before they
were discovered, but the sounds grew stronger as they went on.
“Dead ahead,” Nicholas warned her in a whisper. “We are going to have to
Now they saw soft yellow lamplight spilling from the doorway of one of
the cells into the passage. There came another heart-rending female cry
that echoed down the passage and froze them in their tracks.
“That’s a woman’s voice. What is happening?” Royan breathed, ut he
shook his head for silence and led her on.
They had to pass the open door of the lit cell. Nicholas edged towards
it with his back flattened to the opposite wall. She followed him,
keeping close and clinging to his arm for comfort.
As they looked into the cell the woman cried out again, but this time
her voice blended with that of a man.
It was a duet without words, but racked with all the feral agony of a
passion too fierce to be borne in silence.
In their full view a couple lay naked upon the truckle bed. The woman
lay spread-eagled, holding the man’s hips between her uplifted knees.
Her arms wound hard around his back, upon which each separate muscle
stood out proudly and gleamed with sweat. He thrust down into her
savagely, his buttocks bunching and pounding with the force of a great
black battering ram.
She rolled her head from side to side as another incoherent cry was torn
from her straining throat. It seemed too much for the man above her to
bear, and he reared back like a flaring cobra, his pelvis still locked
to hers, but his back arched like a war bow. Spasm after spasm gripped
him. The sinews in the back of his legs were stretched to snapping
point, and the muscles in his back fluttered and jumped like separate
The woman opened her eyes and looked directly at them as they stood
transfixed in the doorway, but she was blinded with the strength of her
passion. Her eyes were sightless, as she cried aloud to the man above
Nicholas drew Royan away, and they slipped down the passageway and out
on to the deserted terrace. They stopped at the foot of the staircase,
and breathed the sweet cool night air that was perfumed by the waters of
“Tessay has gone to him,’Royan whispered softly.
“For tonight at least,’Nicholas agreed.
“No,” Royan denied. “You saw her face, Nicky. She belongs to Mek Nimmur
The dawn was flushing the serrated crests of the escarpment to the
colours; of port wine and roses when they reached camp and separated at
the door to Royan’s hut.
“I am bushed,” she told Nicholas. The excitement has been too much for
me. You won’t see me again before noon.”
“Good thinking! Sleep as long as you wish. I want you scintillating and
perceptive when we start going over the material which we gathered last
It was long before noon, however, when Nicholas was woken from a deep
sleep by the harsh and intrusive bellows of Boris as he stormed into the
“English, wake up! I must talk to you. Wake up, man, wake up.”
Nicholas rolled over and thrust one arm out from under the mosquito net
as he groped for his wrist-watch.
“Damn you, Brusilov! What the hell do you want?”
“My wife! Have you seen my wife?”
“Now what has your wife got to do with me?”
“She has gone! I have not seen her since last night.”
“The way you treat her, that comes as no stunning surprise. Now go away
and leave me to sleep.”
“The whore has run off with that black bastard, Mek Nimmur. I know all
about them. Don’t try and protect her, English. I know everything that
goes on around here. You are trying to cover for her – admit it!’
“Get out of here, Boris. Don’t try an involve me in your sordid private
life.” saw you and that shufta bastard talking in the skinning hut the
other night. Don’t try to deny it, English.
You are in this thing with them.”
Nicholas flung back the mosquito net and jumped out of his bed. “Kindly
moderate your language when you talk to me, you great oaf’
Boris backed off towards the door. “I know that she has run away with
him. I searched for them all last night at the river. They have gone,
and most of his men with them.”
“Good for Tessay.- She is showing some taste in men for a change.”
“You think I will let the whore get away with this? You are wrong, very
wrong. I am going to follow them and kill them both. I know which way
they are headed. You think I am a fool. I know all about Mek Nimmur. I
was head of intelligence-‘ He broke off as he realized what he had said.
“I will shoot him in the belly and let that whore Tessay watch him die.”
“If you are going after Mek Nimmur,.then my bet is that you won’t be
“You don’t know me, English. You beat me up one night when I had a
bottle of vodka in my belly, so you think I am easy, da? Well, Mek
Nimmur will see now how easy I am.”
Boris dung out of the hut. Nicholas pulled on a shirt over his shorts
and followed him.
Back in his own hut, Boris had flung a few essential items into a light
pack. Now he was stuffing cartridges into the magazine of his 30/06
“Let them go, Boris,” Nicholas advised him in a more reasonable tone of
voice “Mek is a tough lad – they don’t come tougher – and he has a war
party of fifty men with him. You are old enough to know that you can
never hold on to a woman by force. Let her go!
“I do not want to hold on to her. I want to kill her.
The safari is over, English.” He flung a pair of keys on a. leather tag
on the floor at Nicholas’s feet. “There are the keys of the Land
Cruiser. You can make your own way back to Addis from here. I will leave
four of my best men to look after you, and hold your hand. Leave the big
truck for me to use. When you get to Addis, leave the keys of the Land
Cruiser with my tracker, Aly. I will know where to find him later. I
will send you the money I owe you for cancellation. Don’t worry – I am a
man of principles.”
“How could I ever doubt it?” Nicholas smiled. “Good bye, old chum. I
wish you luck. You’ll need plenty of that if you are going up against
Boris was several hours behind his quarry, and as soon as he had left
the camp he broke into a jog trot that carried him down the pathway to
join the main track to the west, towards the Sudanese border. He ran
like a scout, with an easy swinging gait that ate up the ground.
“Looks as though he is still in good shape, even with the vodka.”
Despite himself Nicholas was impressed as he watched him go. “But I
wonder how long he will be able to keep up that pace?”
He turned back to’his own quarters to get a little more sleep, but as he
passed her hut Royan popped her head out.
“What was all the shouting about? I thought that you and Boris were
having another little difference of opinion.”
“Tessay has done a bunk. Boris has guessed that she has gone off with
Mek, and he is chasing after them.”
“Oh, icky! Can’t we warn them?
“No chance of that, but unless Mek has gone soft he will be expecting
Boris to come after him. In fact, now that I come to think of it, he is
probably hoping for just that chance to even the score. No, Mek doesn’t
need any more help from us. Go back to sleep!
“I can’t possibly sleep now. I am so worked up. I have been looking at
the Polaroids that we took last night. Taita has given us an overflowing
cup. Come and have a look at this.”
“Just one hour’s sleep moreP He made a mock plea.
“Immediately, if not sooner.”She laughed at him.
In her hut she had the Polaroids and the rubbings spread out on the camp
table, and she beckoned him to take the seat beside her.
“While you were snoring your head off, I made some progress.” She laid
four Polaroids side by side, and placed her large magnifying glass over
them. It was a professional land surveyor’s model on folding legs, and
under it every detail of the photographs was revealed. “Taita has headed
each of the sides of the stele with the name of one of the seasons of
the year – spring, summer, autumn and winter.
What do you think he was getting at?”
“Exactly my own thought,” she agreed. “The Egyptians considered spring
as the beginning of all new life. He is telling us in which order to
read the panels. This one is spring.” She selected one of the
“It starts with four standard quotations from the Book of the Dead.” She
quoted the first few lines of the opening section: “‘I am the first
breeze blowing softly over the dark ocean of eternity. I am the first
sunrise. The first glimmer of light. A white feather blowing in the dawn
wind. I am Ra. I am the beginning of all things. I will live for ever. I
shall never perish.”‘ Still holding the glass poised, she looked up at
him. “As far as I can see, they do not differ “Substantially from the
original. My instinct is to set these aside for the time being. We can
always come back to them later.”
“Let’s go with your instinct,” he suggested. “Read the next section.”
She held the glass to the Polaroid. “I am not going to look at you while
I read this. Taita. can be as earthy as Rabelais when he is in the mood.
Anyway, here goes. “The daughter of the goddess pines for her dam. She
roars like a lioness as she hurries to meet her. She leaps from the
mountain, and her fangs are white. She is the harlot of all the world.
Her vagina pisseth out great torrents. Her vagina has swallowed an army
of men. Her sex eateth up the masons and the workers of stone. Her
vagina is an octopus that has swallowed up a king.”‘
“Whoa there!” Nicholas chuckled. “Pretty fruity stuff, don’t you think?”
He leaned forward to study her face, for it was still turned away from
him. “Och, lassie, you have roses in your bonny cheeks. Not a blush,
“Your Scots accent is not in the least convincing,” she told him coldly,
still not looking at him. “When you have finished being clever at my
expense, what do you think of what I have just read?”
“Apart from the obvious, I have’t any idea.”
“I want to show you something.” She stood up and packed the photographs
and the rolls of art paper back into the haversack. “You’ll need to get
your boots on. I am taking you on a little walk.”
An hour later they stood in the centre of the suspension bridge, swaying
gently high above the swift waters of the Dandera river.
“Hapi is the goddess of the Nile. Is this river not then her daughter,
pining to meet her, leaping from the mountain top, roaring like a
lioness, her fangs white with spume?” she asked him.
They stared in silence at the archway of pink stone through which the
river poured, and suddenly Nicholas grinned lasciviously. “I think that
I know what you are going to say next. That’s what I first thought of
when I looked at that cleft. You said it was like a gargoyle’s mouth,
but I had another image.”
“All I can say is that you must have some extraordinary lady friends,’
she said, and then covered her mouth. “Ooops!
I didn’t mean to say that. I am being as disgusting as either you or
“The workmen swallowed up in there!” His voice became more excite& “The
masons and the workers in stone!’
“Pharaoh Mamose was a god. The river has swallowed up a god with her –
with her stone archway.” She was equally excited. “I must admit that I
would not have made the association if you hadn’t explored the interior
of the cavern, and found those niches in the wall.” She shook his arm.
“Nicky, we have to get in there again. We have to get a clearer look at
that has-relief you found on the cavern wall.”
“It will take some preparation,” he said dubiously. “I will have to
splice the ropes and make some sort of pulley system, and I will have to
drill Aly and the other men to avoid a repetition of my last little
fiasco. We won’t be ready to make the attempt until tomorrow morning at
the very earliest.”
“You get on with it. I will have plenty to keep me occupied with the
translation of the stele.” Then she stopped and looked up at the sky.
“Listen!” she whispered.
He cocked his head and above the sound of the river, heard the whining
flutter of rotors in the air.
“Dammit!” he snapped. “I thought we had lost the Pegasus presence. Come
on!” He grabbed her arm and hustled her off the bridge. When they
reached the land he jumped down on to the beach, and she followed him.
The two of them crept under the hanging eaves of the bridge.
They sat quietly on the white sandy beach and listened to the Jet Ranger
helicopter approaching swiftly, and then circling back over the hills
beyond the pink cliffs. This time the pilot had not spotted them, for he
turned away and began to patrol up and down the line of the chasm.
Suddenly the engine-beat changed dramatically as the pitch altered and
the pilot pulled up the collective.
“Sounds as if he is going in for a landing up there in the hills,,
Nicholas said as he crawled out from under the bridge. “I would feel a
lot easier without them snooping around.”
“I don’t think we have too much to worry about,” Royan disagreed. “Even
if they are connected with Duraid’s killers, we are still way out ahead
of them. Obviously they have not tumbled to the importance of the
monastery, and the stele.”
“I hope you are right. Let’s get back to camp. We must not let them see
us in the vicinity of the chasm again. It will be too much of a
coincidence for them to find us hanging around here every time they come
while Royan went to her hut and pored over her photographs and etchings,
Nicholas worked with the trackers and skinners. He spliced the
unravelled end of the nylon rope to the second Thank, to make a single
length five hundred feet long. Then he cannibalized the canvas fly of
the cooking hut, cutting it up and whipping the raw edges to make a
sling seat. He fashioned the ends of the rope into a harness which he
spliced into the four corners of the canvas seat.
He had no block and tackle, so he put together a crude gantry of poles
which could be extended out over the cliff edge to keep the rope clear
of the rock. The rope would run through the groove that he drilled in
the end of the central beam with a red-hot iron. He lubricated it with
It was the middle of the afternoon by the time he had completed his
preparations. Then, leaving Royan in camp, he led his men, burdened with
the coils of rope and the pole sections of the gantry, back up the
pathway to the spot where he had abseiled down into the ravine to
retrieve the carcass of the dik-dik. From there they worked their way
downstream, following the rim of the cliff. It was heavy going for Thorn
scrub grew right up to the edge, and in many places they were forced to
use their-machetes to hack their way through.
The sound of the waterfall guided him. As they moved down river it grew
louder, until the rock seemed to quiver under his feet with the roar of
falling waters. Finally, by leaning out over the edge and peering
downwards, Nicholas could make out the flash of spray in the depths
This is the spot.” He grunted with satisfaction, and explained to Aly in
Arabic what he wanted done.
In order to determine the exact position in which to set up the gantry,
Nicholas climbed into the canvas sling seat and had them lower him
twenty feet down the cliff face, just as far as the beginning of the
overhang. Up to that point he was able to keep the nylon rope from
abrading on the rock, but he was also able to see around the bulge of
Hanging backwards over the falls and the rocky bowl of the river one
hundred and fifty feet below him, he was able at last to see the double
row of niches in the rock face.
However, the has-relief engraving was still hidden from view by the
tumblehome of the cliff. He gave Aly the signal and they hauled him up.
“We must set up the gantry a little further down,” he told him, and
directed them as they hacked away the dense shrubbery that choked the
rim. Then suddenly he exclaimed, “I’ll be damned!” He went down on one
knee to examine the rim rock that the thorns had concealed.
“There are more excavations here.”
Exposed to the elements, unlike those works further down that had been
protected by the overhang, these were badly eroded. There were just
vague traces remaining in the rim rock, but he was certain that these
indentations were the upper anchor points for the ancient scaffoldin
9They set up their own gantry on the same levelled area, and extended
the long pole out over the drop. Then they rigged and secured it with a
crude cantilever system of ropes and lighter poles.
When they were finished, Nicholas crawled out to the end to test the
structure and to run the end of the rope through the slot he had
prepared for it. The whole structure seemed solid and firm.
Nevertheless, it was with relief that he crawled back to solid ground.
He stood up and looked over the tops of the thorn scrub to where the
lowering sun was fuming red and angry on the horizon.
“Enough for one day,” he decided. “The rest can wait for-tomorrow.”
The next morning Nicholas and Royan were both up and drinking coffee at
the campfire while it was still dark. Aly and his men were squatting at
their own fire near by, talking quietly and coughing over the first
cigarettes of the day. The project seemed to have caught their
imagination. They had no inkling of the reason for this second descent
into the chasm, but the enthusiasm of the two ferengi was infectious.
As soon as it was light enough to see the path, Nicholas led them back
up into the hills. The men chatted cheerfully amongst themselves in
Amharic as they hurried through the thorn scrub, and they came out on
the rim rock just as the sun broke out over the eastern escarpment of
the valley. Nicholas had drilled the men the previous day, and he and
Royan had sat half the night going over the plans, so each of them knew
their part and they lost little time in setting themselves up for the
Nicholas had stripped to shorts and tennis shoes, but this time he had
brought along an old Barbarians rugby jersey for warmth. While he pulled
this over his head he pointed out to Royan the platform that had been
dug out from the solid rock.
She examined it carefully. “It’s very hard to be sure, but I think you
are right. This probably is man-made.”
“When you get further down you will have no doubts.
There is very little weathering of the face under the overhang, and the
niches are almost perfectly preserved until they reach the high-water
mark, that is,” he told her, as he took his seat in the sling and swung
out over the cliff.
Dangling from the end of the gantry he gave Aly the sign, and the men
lowered him down into the gorge. The rope ran smoothly through the
He saw at once that he had judged it correctly, and that he was
descending in line with the double row of -niches. He came level with
the enigmatic circle on the cliff face, but it was fifty feet from him,
and a growth of gaudy Coloured lichens had streaked and discotoured the
rock, partially obscuring the details, so that he still could not be
certain that. it was not a natural flaw. He passed it and went on down
as Aly and his team paid out the rope from above.
When he reached the surface of the water he slipped out of the sling and
dropped in. The water was very cold.
He trod water, gasping, until his body became acclimatized.
Then he gave Aly three tugs on the signal rope. While the canvas seat
was hauled up he swam to the side of the pool and held on to one of the
carved stone niches for support.
He had forgotten how gloomy and cold and lonely it was here in the
bottom of the chasm.
After a long delay he craned his head backwards and watched Royan come
into sight around the bulge of the overhang, dangling in the sling seat
and revolving slowly at the end of the nylon rope. She looked down and
waved at him cheerfully.
“Full marks to that girl,” he grinned. “Not much puts the wind up her.”
He wanted to shout encouragement, but he knew it was futile because the
thunder of the falls smothered all other sound. So he contented himself
with returning her wave.
Halfway down he saw her tugging frantically on the signal rope. Aly had
been warned to expect this, and her i4 descent was hatted immediately..
Then she leaned back in the sling, hanging on with only her left hand,
as she groped for Nicholas’s binoculars which hung from their strap on
to her chest. She was twisted at an awkward angle as she held the
glasses to her eyes and tried to manipulate the focus wheel with one
hand. He saw that she was obviously having difficulty picking up the
round mark on the wall and keeping it in the field of the lens, for the
sling was swinging from side to side and at the same time revolving
She struggled at the end of the rope for what seemed to Nicholas a very
long time, but probably was no more than a few minutes. Then abruptly
she dropped the binoculars on to her chest, threw back her head and let
out a scream that, despite the roar of falling water, carried clearly to
Nicholas a hundred feet beneath her. She was kicking her legs joyfully
and waving her free hand at him, wild with excitement, as Aly began
paying out the rope once more. Still screaming incoherently, she was
looking down at him with a face that seemed to light up the cathedral
gloom of the gorge.
“I can’t hear you,” he yelled back, but the falls defeated both their
efforts to communicate.
Royan was wriggling about in her seat, shouting and gesticulating
wildly, and now she let go the harness with her other hand and leaned
further out to keep him in sight as the sling revolved. She was still
twenty feet above the water when she almost lost her balance entirely,
and very nearly toppled backwards out of the sling.
“Careful there,” he yelled up at her. “Those glasses are Zeiss. Two
thousand quid at the Zurich duty-free!’
This time his vo’ must have carried, for she stuck her tongue out at
him in a schoolgirlish gesture. But her movements became more
circumspect. When her feet were almost touching the water she signalled
on the rope to stop her descent and hung there, fifty feet across the
pool from him.
“What did you find?” he shouted across.
“You were right, you wonderful man!’
“Is it man-made? Is it an inscription? Could you read it?, “Yes, yes and
yes to all three of your questions! She grinned triumphantly as she
“Don’t be infuriating. Tell me.”
“Taita’s ego got the better of him once again. He couldn’t resist
signing his work.” She laughed. “He has left us his autograph – the hawk
with a broken wing!’
“Marvellous! Plain bloody marvelous!the exalted.
“Proof that Taita was here, Nicky. To carve that cartouche, he must have
been standing on a scaffolding.
Our first guess was right. That niche you are holding on to is part of
his ladder to the bottom of the gorge.”
“Yes, but why, Royan?” he yelled back at her. “Why was Taita down here?
There is no evidence of any excavation or building work.”
They both looked around the gloomy cavern. Apart from the tiny rows of
niches, the walls were unbroken, smooth and inscrutable until they
plunged into the dark water.
Under the falls?” she shouted across. “Is there a cutback in the rock?
Can you get across there?”
He pushed off from the cliff, and swam towards the thundering chute of
water. Halfway across, the current caught him and he had to swim with
all his strength to make any headway against it. Thrashing the water
with flailing arms and kicking out strongly, he managed to reach a spur
of polished, algae-stick rock at the nearest end of the falls.
The water crashed over his head, but he edged his way along under the
rock step into the heart of the cascade.
Halfway across, the water overwhelmed him. It tore him off his
precarious perch, hurled him back into the basin below and swirled him
end over end. He surfaced in the middle of the pool, and once again had
to Swim with all his strength to break free of the grip of the current
and to reach the slack water below the wall again. He clung to his
handhold in the stone niche, and panted like a bellows.
“Nothing?” she called.
He shook his head, unable to answer until he had finally regained his
breath. Finally he managed: “Nothing.
It’s a solid rock wall behind the falls.” He gasped another breath, and
then invited sarcastically, “Next bright idea, madam?”
She was silent and he was glad of the respite. Then she called again,
“Nicky, how far do those niches go down?”
“You can see,” he told her, “right to the one I am holding on to.”
“What about below the surface?”
“Don’t be silly, woman.” He was getting cold and irritable. “How the
hell could there be cuttings below the surface?”
“Try!” she yelled almost as iff itably. He shook his head pityingly, and
drew a deep breath. Still clinging to his handhold, he extended his
limbs and body to their full stretch. Then his head went under the dark
surface as he groped down as far as he could reach with his toes.
Suddenly he shot back, snorting for air with a startled look on his
face. “By Jove!” he shouted. “You are right!
There is another niche down there!’
“I hate to say I told you so.” Even at that range he could see the smug
expression on her face.
“What are you? Some kind of witch?” Then he broke off and rolled his
eyes heavenward in despair. “I know what you are going to ask me to do
“How far do the niches go down?” she called in honeyed tones. “Will you
dive down for me, dear Nicky?”
“That’s it,” he said. “I knew it. I am going to speak to my shop
steward. This is slave labour. From now onwards I am on strike.”
He hung in the water’pumping air in and out of his lungs,
hyperventilating, flushing his . bloodstream with oxygen to increase his
underwater endurance to its limits.
In the end he expelled the contents of his lungs completely, squeezing
out the last breath until his chest ached with the effort, and then he
sucked in again, filling his lungs to their capacity with fresh air.
Finally, with his chest fully expanded, he duck-dived, standing on his
head with his legs high out of the water and letting their weight drive
Sliding head-first down the submerged wall, he reached down, groping for
the next niche below the surface. He found it, and used it to accelerate
his dive, pulling himself on downwards.
He found the second niche below that, and pulled himself on downwards.
The niches were about six feet apart – a nautical fathom. Using them as
a measure, he was able to calculate his progress accurately.
Swimming on downwards, he found another niche, then another. Four rows
of niches, twenty-four feet below the surface. His ears were popping and
squeaking as the pressure squeezed the air out of his Eustachian tubes.
He kept on downwards and found the fifth row of niches. Now the air in
his lungs was compressing to almost half its surface volume, and as his
buoyancy decreased so his descent became easier and more rapid.
His eyes were wide open, but the waters below him were dark and turbid.
He could make out only the surface of the wall directly in front of his
face. He saw the sixth niche appear ahead of him and he grasped it, then
“Thirty-six feet of depth already, and no sign yet of bottom he
thought. There had been a time, when he was spearfishing competitively
with the army team, that he could free-dive to sixty feet and stay at
that depth for a full minute. But he had been younger then and in peak
“Just one more niche,” he promised himself, “and then back up to the
surface.” His chest was beginning to throb and burn with the need to
breathe, but he pulled hard on his handhold and shot down. He saw the
vague shape of the seventh niche appear out of the murk below him’
“They go right to the bottom,” he realized with amazeMent. “How on’earth
did Taita do it? They had no diving equipment.” He grasped the niche and
hovered there for a moment, undecided if he should risk going further.
He knew he was almost at his physical limit. Already he was hunting for
air, his chest beginning to convulse involuntarily.
“What about one more for the hell of it!” He was beginning to feel
light-headed, and a strange glow of euphoria came over him. He
recognized the danger signs, and looked down at his own body. Through
the murk he saw that his skin was wrinkled and folded by the pressure of
water. There were over two atmospheres’weight bearing down upon him,
crushing in his chest. His brain was becoming starved of oxygen, and he
felt reckless and invulnerable.
“Once more into the breach, dear friends,” he thought drunkenly, and
went on down.
“Number eight, and the doctor’s at the gate.” He felt the eighth niche
under his fingers. He was thinking in gibberish now: “Number eight, and
I’ll have her on a plate.” He turned to go up again, and his feet
touched bottom. -Fifty feet deep,” he realized even through his fuddled
“I have left it too late. Got to get back. Got to breathe.” He was
bracing himself to push off from the bottom when something grabbed his
legs and dragged him hard against the rock wall.
ctopus!” he thought, remembering the line from Taita’s stele, “Her
vagina is an octopus that has swallowed up a king.”
He tried to kick out, but his legs were bound as if by the arms of a sea
monster; some cold, insidious embrace held him captive. “Taita’s
octopus. My oath! He meant it literally. It’s got me.”
He was pinned against the wall, crushed, helpless.
Terror seized him, and the rush of it through his blood flushed away the
hallucinations of his oxygen-impoverished brain. He realized what had
happened to him.
“No octopus. This is water pressure.” He had experienced the same
phenomenon once before. On an army training exercise, while diving near
the inlet to the turbines of the generators in Loch Arran, his buddy
diver who was roped to him had drifted into their terrible suction. His
companion had been sucked against the grille of the intake and his body
had been crushed so that the splinters of his ribs had been driven
through the flesh of his chest and had come out through the black
neoprene rubber of his suit like daggers.
Nicholas had narrowly escaped the same fate. The fact that he was a few
feet to one side of his buddy had meant that he escaped the full brunt
of the rush of water into the turbine intake. Nevertheless, one of his
legs was broken, and it had taken the strength of two other army divers
to prise him out of the grip of the current.
This time he was at the limit of his air, and there was no other diver
to assist him. He was being sucked into a narrow opening in the rock,
the mouth of an underwater tunnel, a subaqueous shaft that bored into
the rock wall.
His upper body was free of the baleful influence of the rushing flood,
but his legs were being drawn inexorably into it. He was aware that the
surrounds of the opening were sharply demarcated, as straight and as
square as a lintel hewn by a mason. He was being dragged over and around
this lintel. Spreading out his arms, he resisted with all his strength,
but his hooked fingers slid over the polished, slimy surface of the
“This is the big one,” he thought. “This is the one punch that you can’t
duck.” He hooked his fingers, and felt his nails tear and break as they
rasped against the rock.
Then suddenly they locked into the last niche in the wall above the
sink-hole which was sucking him under.
Now at least he had an anchor point. With both hands he clung to the
niche, and fought the pull of the water. He fought it with all his
remaining strength and all his heart, but he was near the end of his
store of both. He strained until he felt the muscles in both arms
popping, until the sinews in his neck stood out in steely cords and he
felt something in his head must burst. But he had halted the insidious
slide of his body into the sink-hole.
“One more,” he thought. “Just one more try.” And he knew that was all he
had left within him. His air was all used up, and so were his courage
and his resolve. His mind swirled, and dark shapes clouded his vision.
From somewhere deep inside himself he drew out the last reserves, and
pulled until the darkness in his head exploded in sheets of bright
colours, shooting stars and Catherine wheels that dazzled him. But he
kept on pulling.
He felt his legs coming out of it, the grip of the waters weakening, and
he pulled once more with strength that he had never realized he
Then suddenly he was free and shooting towards the surface, but it was
too late. The darkness filled his head and in his ears was a sound like
the roaring of the waterfall in the abyss. He was drowning. He was all
used up. He had no knowledge of where he was, how much further he had to
go to the surface, but he knew only that he was not going to make it. He
When he came out through the surface, he did not know that he had done
so, and he did not have enough strength left to lift his face out of the
water and to breathe.
He wallowed the’re like a waterlogged carcass, face down and dying. Then
he felt Royan’s fingers lock into the hair in the back of his head, and
the cold air on his face as she lifted it clear.
“Nicky!” she screamed at him. “Breathe, “Nicky, breathe!’
He opened his mouth and let out a spray of water and saliva and stale
air, and then gagged and gasped.
“You’re still alive! Oh, thank God. You were down for so long. I thought
you had drowned.”
As he coughed and fought for air and his senses returned, he realized in
a vague way that she must have dropped out of the sting seat and come to
“You were under for so long. I could not believe it.” She held his head
up, clinging with her free hand to the niche in the wall. “You are going
to be all right now. I have got you. just take it easy for a while. It’s
going to be all right.” It was amazing how much her voice encouraged
The air tasted good and sweet and he felt his strength slowly returning.
“We have to get you up,” she told him. “A few minutes more to get
yourself together, and then I will help you into the sling.”
She swam with him across to the dangling sling and signalled to the men
at the top of the cliff to lower it into the water. Then she held the
folds of canvas open so that he could slip his legs into them.
“Are you all right, Nicky?” she demanded anxiously.
“Hang on until you get to the top.” She placed his hands on the side
ropes of the harness. “Hold tight!’
“Can’t leave you down here,” he blurted groggily.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “Just have Aly send the seat down again
When he was halfway up he looked down and saw her head bobbing in the
dark waters. She looked very small and lonely, and her face pate and
“Guts!” His voice was so weak and hoarse that he did not recognize it.
“You’ve got real guts.” But already he was too high for the words to
carry down to her.
When they had got Royan safely up out of the ravine, Nicholas ordered
Aly to dismantle the gantry and hide the sections in the thorn scrub.
From the helicopter it would be highly visible and he did not wish to
stir Jake Helm’s curiosity.
He was in no shape to give the men a hand, but lay in the shade of one
of the Thorn trees with Royan tending to him. He was dismayed to find
how much his near-drowning had taken out of him. He had a blinding
headache, caused by oxygen starvation. His chest was very painful and
stabbed him every time he breathed: in his struggles he must have torn
or sprained something.
He was impressed with Royan’s forbearance. She made no attempt to
question him about his discoveries in the bottom of the gorge, and
seemed genuinely more concerned with his well being than with the
progress of their exploration.
When she helped him to his feet and they started back towards camp, he
moved like an old man, lame and stiff. Every muscle and sinew in his
body ached. He knew that the lactic acid and nitrogen that had built up
in his tissues would take some time to be reabsorbed and dispersed.
Once they reached camp Royan led him to his hut and fussed over him as
she settled him under the mosquito net.
By this time he was feeling a lot better, but he neglected to inform her
of this fact. It was pleasant to have a woman caring for him again. She
brought him a couple of aspirin tablets and a steaming mug of tea, stiff
with sugar. He was putting it on a little when he asked weakly for a
Sitting beside his bed, she solicitously watched him drink it. “Better?”
she asked, when he had finished.
“The odds are two to one that I Will survive,” he told her, and she
“I can see that you are better. Your cheek is showing again. You gave me
an awful scare, you know.”
“Anything to get your attention.”
“Now that we have decided that you will live, tell me what happened.
What sort of trouble did you run into down there in the pool?”
“What you really want to know is what I found down there. Am I correct?”
“That too, she admitted.
Then he told her everything that he had discovered and how he had been
caught in the inflow of the underwater sink-hole. She listened without
interruption, and even when he had finished speaking she said nothing
for a while, but frowned with concentrated thought.
At last she looked up at him. “You mean that Taita was able to take
those stone niches right down to the very bottom of the pool, fifty feet
below the surface? and when he nodded, she was silent again. Then she
said, “How on earth did he accomplish that? What are your thoughts on
the subject?” -Tour thousand years ago the water level may have been
lower. There may have been a drought year when the river dried up, and
enabled him to get in there. How am I doing?”