Wilbur Smith – The Seventh Scroll part-5

part-5

“Not a bad try,” she admitted, “but then why go to all the trouble of

building a scaffold? Why not just use the dry river bed as an access?

Then again, surely the attraction of the spot for Taita was the river.

If it was dry, then it would be just like a thousand other places in

this gorge.

No, I have a feeling that the fact that it was so inaccessible was the

main, if not the only, reason he chose to wo there.”

“I suspect that you are correct,” he agreed.

“So if the river was running, even at itS lowest level as it is now, how

on earth did he manage to carve those niches below the surface? And what

would be the point in having scaffolding under water?”

“Beats me. I have no idea he admitted.

“All right, let’s leave that for the moment. Now lets go over your

description of the sink-hole that almost sucked you in. Did you form any

estimate of the size of the opening?”

He shook his head. “It is almost totally dark down there. I could not

see more than two or three feet in front of me.”

“Was the entrance directly between the two tows of niches?”

“No, not directly,” he said thoughtfully. “It was slightly to one side.

I hit the bottom of the pool with my feet, and was just about to push

off when it grabbed me.”

“So it must be at the very bottom of the pool, and slightly downstream

from the scaffolding. You say that the entrance seemed to have a square

coping?”

“I am not absolutely sure of that – remember that I could see very

little. But that was the impression I received.”

“It may have been another man-made structure, then perhaps some type of

adit shaft driven into the side of the pool?”

“It’s possible,” he agreed reluctantly. “But on the other hand it could

just as easily be a natural fault in the strata that the river is

draining into.”

She stood up to leave, and he demanded, “Where are you going?”

“I won’t be long. I am going to my hut to fetch my notes, and the

material from the stele. Back in a moment.”

When she returned she sat on the floor beside his bed, with her legs

drawn up under her in that double-jointed feminine fashion. As she

spread her papers around her, he pulled up the edge of the mosquito net

and looked down at what she was doing.

“Yesterday, while you were busy building the gantry, I was able to

decipher most of the rest of the “spring” face of the stele.” She moved

her notebook so that he was able to overlook the pages she had opened.

“These are my preliminary notes. You will see where I have inserted a

number of question marks – here and here, for instance. That is where I

am uncertain of the translation, or where Taita has used a new and

strange symbol. I will have to give more time and consideration to those

later.”

I follow you,” he said, and she went on.

“These sections that I have highlighted with green are quotations from

the standard version of the Book of the Dead. Take this one here: “The

universe is drawn in circles, the disc of the sun- god, Ra. The life of

man is a circle that begins in the womb and ends in the tomb. The circle

of the chariot wheel foreshadows the death of the serpent that it

crushes beneath its rim. “Yes, I recognize the quotation,” he said.

“On the other hand, these parts of the text that I have highlighted in

yellow are original Taita writings, or at least are not quotations from

the Book of the Dead or any other source that I am aware of This

paragraph here in particular is the one that I wanted to bring to your

attention.”

She traced a section with her forefinger as she read it aloud, “‘The

daughter of the goddess has conceived. She has been impregnated by the

one who is without seed. She has begotten her own twin sister. The fetus

lies forever -coiled in her own womb. Her twin shall never be born. She

will never see the light of day. She will five for ever in the darkness.

In the womb of the sister her bridegroom claims her in eternal marriage.

The unborn twin becomes the bride of the god, who was a man Their

destinies are intertwined. They shall live for ever. They Sul not

perish.”‘

She looked up from the notebook. “When I first read it, I was satisfied

that the daughter of the goddess was the Dandera river, as we had

already agreed. I was also pretty sure that the god that was once a man

must be Pharaoh.

Mamose was only deified on his ascension to the throne of Egypt. Before

that he was a man.”

Nicholas nodded. !The seedless one is obviously Taita himself. He makes

repeated references to the fact that he was a eunuch. But now,’ he

suggested, “if you have some new ideas about the mysterious twin sister,

let’s hear them.”

The twin of the river would most likely be a branch, or a fork of the

stream, wouldn’t it?”

“Ah, I see what you are driving at, You are suggesting that the

sink-hole is the twin. Down there in the gorge it will never see the

Llight of day. Taita, the seedless one, claims paternity, So he is

telling us that he is the architect.”

“Exactly, and he has married the twin of the river to Pharaoh Mamose for

all eternity. Putting that all together, I have come to the conclusion

that we will never find the location of Pharaoh Mamose’s tomb until we

explore thoroughly that sink-hole that nearly drowned you.”

“How do you suggest we do that?” he asked, and she shrugged.

“I am not the engineer, Nicky. I leave that to you to arrange. All I

know is that Taita devised some way of doing it – not only of getting

there but of working down there. If our interpretation of the stele is

correct, then he carried out extensive mining operations at the bottom

of the pool.

If he could do it, then there is no reason why you can’t do it also.”

“Ah!” he dernurred. “Taita was a genius. He says so repeatedly. I am

just an old plodder.”

“I have got all my bets on you, Nicky. You won’t let me down, will you?”

There was no call for intensive bushcraft to follow this spoor. His

quarry had taken very few anti-tracking precautions. Quite openly they

were following the main trail down the Abbay gorge, heading directly

westwards towards the Sudanese border.

Mek Nimmur was on his way back to his own stronghold.

Boris estimated that he had between fifteen and twenty men with him. It

was difficult to be certain, for the tracks on the pathway overlapped

each other, and of course he would have scouts on the’point ahead of him

and sweeping his flanks. There would also be a rear guard dragging the

trail behind him.

They were making good time, but such a large party would not be able to

outpace a single pursuer. He was sure he was gaining on them. He

reckoned that he had started four hours behind them, but judging by

recent signs he was now less than two hours adrift.

Without breaking his trot, he stooped to pick thing up from the path. As

he ran on he examined it. It was a twig, the soft tip shoot of a

kusagga-sagga plant that grew beside the track. One of the men ahead of

him had brushed against it as he passed, and snapped it off the main

branch. It gave Boris a fairly accurate gauge of how far he was behind.

Even in the heat of the gorge, the tender shoot had barely begun to

wilt. He was even closer than he had estimated.

He slowed down., a little as he considered his next move. He knew this

part of the valley fairly well. The previous year he had hunted over

much of this terrain with an American client, who had been looking for a

trophy Walia ibex. They had spent almost a month combing these same

gullies and wooded ravines before they had brought down a huge old ram,

black with age and carrying a pair of curled, back-sweeping horns that

ranked as the tenth largest ever in the Rowland Ward record book.

He knew that two or three miles ahead the Nile began another oxbow loop

out to the south, and that it then doubled back upon itself. The main

trail followed the river, because a series of sheer and formidable

cliffs guarded the high groupd in the centre of the loop of the river.

It was, however, possible to cut the corner. Boris had’done it before,

while following the wounded ibex.

The American hunter had not killed cleanly his bullet had struck the ram

too far back, missing the heartlung cavity and piercing the gut. The

stricken wild goat had taken to the high ground, following one of its

secret paths up amongst the crags. Boris and the American had followed

it up and over the mountain. Boris remembered how dangerous and

treacherous the path had been, but when it descended the far side of the

mountain it had cut off nearly ten miles.

If he could find the beginning of the goat path again, there was every

chance that he would be able to get ahead of Mek Nimmur and be lying in

wait for him on the far side. That would give him an enormous advantage.

The guerrilla leader would be expecting pursuit, not ambush.

He would be covering his back trail, and it was highly unlikely that

Boris would be able to slip past the rear guard without alerting his

intended victims. On the other hand, once he was ahead of them he would

be in control. Then he could choose his own killing ground.

As the trail and the main flow of the Nile started to turn away towards

the south, he kept watching the high ground above it, seeking a familiar

landmark. He had not gone another half-mile before he found it. Here

there was a break in the line of dark cliffs, a heavily forested

reentrant, that cut into the wall of basalt.

He stopped and mopped the sweat from his face and neck. “Too much

vodka,” he grunted, “you are getting soft.” His shirt was as sodden as

though he had plunged in the river.

He changed the slin of the rifle to his other shoulder, lifted his

binoculars and swept the sides of the wooded gully. They appeared sheer

and unscalable, but then he picked out the stunted shape of a small tree

that grew out of a narrow crack in the face. It looked like a Japanese

bonsai, with a twisted, malformed trunk and tortured branches.

The Walia ibex had been standing on the ledge just above that tree when

the American had fired. In his mind’s eye Boris could still see the way

in which the wild goat had hunched its back as the bullet struck, and

then spun around and raced away up the cliff. He panned the glasses

upwards gently, and could just make out the inclination of the narrow

ledge as it angled up the face.

“Da, da. This is the spot.” He was thinking in his mother tongue again.

It was a relief after these last days of having to struggle in French

and English.

Before he began the climb, he left the trail and scrambled down the

boulder-strewn slope to the river. He knelt at the edge of the Nile and

splashed double handfuls over himself, soaking his cropped head and

sluicing the sweat from his face and neck. He drained and refilled his

water bottle, then drank until his belly was painfully full.

Then he rinsed out the bottle and refilled it. There was no water on the

mountain. Finally he dipped his bush hat in the river and placed it back

on his head, sodden and streaming water down his neck and face.

He climbed back to the main trail and followed it for another hundred

paces, moving slowly and studying the “ground. At one place there was a

rock boulder almost blocking the path. The men ahead of him had been

forced to step over this obstruction, on to a patch of talcum-fine dust

beyond it. They had left perfect impressions of their footprints for him

to read.

Most of the men were wearing Israeli-style para boots with a

zigzag-patterned sole, and those coming up from behind had overtrodden

the spoor of the leaders. He had to go down on one knee to examine the

signs minutely before he could pick out the imprint of a much smaller

and more delicately formed foot, a lighter, unmistakably feminine tread.

It was partially obliterated by other larger masculine footprints, but

the outline of the toe was clear, and the pattern was that of a smooth

rubber-soled Bata tennis shoe. He would have recognized it from ten

thousand others.

He was relieved to find that Tessay was still with the group, and that

she and her lover had not left and taken another path. Mek Nimmur was a

sly one, and cunning.

He had escaped from Boris’s clutches once before. But not this time! The

Russian shook his head vehemently: not this time.

He gave his full attention to the female footprint once again. It gave

him a pang to look at it. His anger returned in full force. He did not

consider his feelings for the woman. Love and desire did not enter into

the equation.

She was his chattel, and she had been stolen from him. It was only the

insult that had significance for him. She had rejected and humiliated

him, and for that she was going to die.

He felt the old thrill run through his blood at the thought of the kill.

Killing had always been his trade and his vocation, but no matter how

often he exercised his craft the thrill was never blunted, the pleasure

never satiated. Perhaps it was the only true pleasure left to him, pure

and unjaded – not even the vodka could weaken and dilute it as it had

the physical act of copulation. He would enjoy killing her even more

than he had once enjoyed coupling with her.

These past few years he had hunted only the lower animals, but he had

never forgotten what it was like to hunt down and to kill a human being,

more especially a woman. He wanted Mek Nimmur, but he wanted the woman

more.

In the days of President Mengistu, when he had been the head of

counter-intelligence, -his men had known his tastes and had picked the

pretty ones for him. He had only one regret now, and that was that this

time he would have to do it swiftly. There could be no question of

drawing it i out and savouring the pleasure. Not like some of the other

experiences, which had lasted for hours, sometimes for days.

“Bitch,” he mouthed, and kicked at the dust, stamping on the faint

outline of her footprint, obliterating it just as he would do to her.

“Black fomicating bitch.”

He ran now with fresh strength and determination as he left the trail

and climbed up towards the deformed tree and the beginning of the goat

track up, the cliff.

Exactly where he expected it, he found the start of the track and

followed it upwards. The higher he climbed, the steeper it became. Often

he had to use both hands to haul himself up a gradient, or to work his

way along a narrow traverse.

The first time he had climbed this mountain he had been following the

blood spoor of the wounded ibex, but now he did not have those

splattered droplets to guide him, and twice he missed the path and found

himself in a dead end on the cliff face. He was forced to edge back from

the drop and retrace his footsteps until he found the correct urning.

Each time he did so he was aware that he was losing time, and that Mek

Nimmur might pass before he was able to intercept him.

Once he startled a small troop of wild goats which were lying on a ledge

halfway up the cliff. They went bounding away up the rock face, more

like birds than animals bound by the laws of gravity. They were led by a

huge male with a streaming beard and long spiral horns, which in its

flight showed Boris a direct route to the top of the cliff.

He tore the skin off his fingertips dragging himself up the last steep

pitch, but finally he reached the top and wormed his way over the

skyline, never lifting his head. A i human form silhouetted against the

clear, eggshell-blue sky would be visible from miles around. He moved

along behind the crest until he found a small clump of sanseveria to

give him cover, and used the erect, spiny leaves to break up the outline

of his head as he surveyed the valley a thousand feet below through the

binoculars.

From this height the Nile was a broad, glittering serpent uncoiling into

the first bend of the oxbow, its surface ruffled by rapids and rocky

reefs. The high ground on either bank formed standing waves of up-thrust

basalt, turbulent and chopped into confusion like a storm sea in a

tropical typhoon. The whole danced and shimmered in the heat and the sun

beat down with the blows of an executioner’s axe, pounding this universe

of red rock into heat exhausted submission.

Though the air danced and trembled with the mirage in the tenses of his

binoculars, Boris traced out the rough trail beside the rier, and

followed it down the valley to the point where it was hidden by the

bend. It was deserted, with no sign of human presence, and he knew that

his quarry had moved on out of sight. He had no way of telling how far

down the trail they had travelled – he knew only that he must hurry on

if he were to cut them off on the far side of the mountain.

For the first time since he had left the’river, he drank sparingly from

the water bottle. He realized how the heat and the exertion of the climb

had dehydrated him. In these conditions a man without water might be

dead in hours. It was not in the least surprising that there was so

little permanent human habitation down here in the gorge.

When he backed off the skyline he felt rejuvenated, and set out to cross

the saddle of the mountain. It was less than a mile across, and without

warning he came out on the top of the cliffs on the far side. One more

unwary pace and he would have stepped off into space and plunged down a

thousand feet. Once again he moved along the crest until he found a

concealed vantage point from which to spy the terrain below.

The river was the same – a wide and confused expanse of white-ruffled

rapids, running back towards him as it turned through the leg of the

oxbow. The trail followed the near bank, except where it was forced to

detour inland by the rugged bluffs and stone needles which rose out of

the Nile waters.

In the great desolation of the gorge he could pick out no movement other

than the run of wild waters and the ceaseless dance of the heat mirage.

He knew it was not possible that Mek Nimmur had moved fast enough to

have passed completely ahead of him; therefore he must still be coming

around the bend of the oxbow.

He drank again, and rested for almost half an hour.

At the end of that time he felt strong and fully recovered.

He debated with himself whether to descend immediately and stake out an

ambush on the’ trail, but in the end decided to keep to the high ground

until he had his quarry in sight.

He checked his rifle carefully, making sure that the telescopic sight

had not been bumped out of alignment during the climb, and then emptied

the magazine and examined the five cartridges. The brass case of one of

them was dented and discoloured, so he discarded it and reloaded with

another from his belt. He chambered a round and setthe safety-catch.

He set the weapon aside while he changed his sweat, dampened socks with

a fresh dry pair from his pack and retied his bootlaces with care. Only

a novice would risk blistered feet in these conditions, for within hours

they would be infected and festering.

He drank once more, and then stood up and stung the 30/06 on his

shoulder. Ready now for anything that the goddess of the chase could

send his way, he moved off along the crest to intercept the war party.

From every vantage point along the rim he glassed the valley below, each

time without spying his quarry, and the afternoon passed “swiftly. He

was just beginning to worry that Mek Nimmur had somehow managed to slip

past him unseen, that he had crossed the river at some secret ford or

taken another path through a hidden valley, when there came a plaintive

and querulous cry on the heat-hushed air.

He looked up. A pair of kites were circling over one particular clump of

Thorn scrub on the river bank.

The yellow’billed kite is one of the most ubiquitous scavengers in

Africa. It exists in close symbiotic association with man, feeding off

his rubbish, picking up his leavings, soaring and circling over his

villages or his temporary campsites, watching for his scraps or waiting

patiently for him to squat in the bushes and then dropping down

immediately he has finished his private business, acting as a universal

sewage disposal agent.

Boris studied this pair of birds through his binoculars as they sailed

idly in the heated air, always circling directly over that same patch of

river in bush. They had a distinctive manner of steering with their long

bifurcated tails, twisting them from side to side as they flirted with

the breeze. Their bright yellow beaks showed clearly as they turned

their heads to look down at something in the scrub.

He smiled coldly to himself. “Da! Nimmur has gone into camp early.

Perhaps the heat and the pace are too fierce for his new woman, or

perhaps he has stopped to play with her a little.”

He moved on along the rim until he could look down directly into the

patch of bush. He studied it through the binoculars, but without picking

out any signs of human presence. After almost two hours he was becoming

uncertain of his original assumption. The only thing that retained his

attention was the pair of kites, which had settled in a treetop

overlooking the patch of scrub. He had to trust that they were watching

the men hidden in the scrub.

He glanced at the sun anxiously. It was sliding down towards the horizon

at last and losing its furious heat. Then he looked down into the valley

again.

Directly below the patch of bush was an indentation in the river bank

that formed a backwater, almost a small lagoon, When the river was in

flood it would be inundated, but now there was a small strip of gravel

bank exposed. On this bank stood a number of boulders that had tumbled

down from the cliff above. Some of them were lying on the beach, while

others had rolled into the river and were half, submerged. The largest

was the size of a cottage, a great round mass of dark rock.

As he watched, a man emerged unexpectedly from the scrub. Boris’s pulse

quickened as he watched him scramble down on to one of the smaller

boulders and jump from there on to the gravel bank. He knelt at the

water’s edge and filled a canvas bucket -with water, then climbed back

and disappeared into the bush again.

“Ah! The heat is too much even for them. They must drink, and that gives

them away. If it had not been for the birds I would never have known

that they were there.” He clucked softly with reluctant admiration.

“Nimmur is a careful man. No wonder he has survived so long. He keeps

tight control. But even he must have water.”

Boris kept watching through the glasses as he tried to guess what Mek

Nimmur would do next. “He has lost much time here by sheltering from the

heat. He will march again as soon as it is cooler. He will make a night

march,” he decided, as he looked at the sun again. “Three hours until

dark. I must make my move before then. Once it is dark it will be

difficult to pick my targets.”

Before he stood up he wriggled back from the skyline.

He retraced his steps back along the Mountainside until a bluff shielded

him from the eyes of Mek Nimmur’s sentries.

Then he started down. There was no goat track here and he had to make

his own going, but after a few false starts he discovered an inclined

rock shelf that afforded him a fairly easy path down the face. When he

reached the bottom of the gorge, he took careful stock of the lie and

run of the . stratum so as to be able to find it again in an emergency.

It was a good escape route, and he knew that he might soon be under

pursuit and duress.

It had taken him over an hour to negotiate the descent, and he knew that

he was running out of time. He reached the trail at the water’s edge,

and started back along it towards Mek Nimmur’s camp. He was in a hurry

now, but even then he was careful to take anti-tracking precautions. He

walked on the edge of the trail, stepping only on the stony ground,

careful to leave no sign of his passing.

But despite his caution, he nearly walked right into them.

He had not covered the first two hundred metres when in the back of his

mind he registered the low, mournful whistle of a pale-winged starting,

and almost ignored it until alarm bells sounded in his mind. The timing

was all wrong. The starling only gave that particular call at dawn when

it left its nesting site high up in the cliffs. This was late afternoon

down in the heated depths of the gorge. He guessed that it was a signal

from one of the scouts coming up the trail towards him. Mek Nimmur’s

party was on the move.

Boris reacted instantly. He slipped off the trail, and ran back the way

he had come until he reathed the beginning of the pathway along which he

had descended the cliff. He climbed just high enough to be able to

overlook the trail. However, he realized that he had lost Much of the

advantage that he had built up by cutting across the mountain. This was

not the ideal ambush position, and his escape route was exposed to enemy

fire from below – he would be lucky to make it to the top. But the .

idea of abandoning his vengeance never occurred to him. As soon as his

targets were in’his sights, he would shoot from this stance.

However, he acknowledged to himself that Mek Nimmur had taken him by

surprise. Boris had not anticipated that he would move before the sun

had set. He had expected to be able to take up a position above the camp

in the thorn patch and to be able to get off two careful, well-aimed

shots before he was forced to run.

It was also part of his calculations that, once he had dropped Mek

Nimmur, his men would not be eager to follow up with too much despatch.

Boris planned to make a running retreat, stopping at every defensible

strong point to fire a few shots, knock down one or two of them, and

keep the pursuit circumspect and cautious until they eventually lost

their taste for the game and let him go.

However, all that had now changed. He would have to take the first

opportunity that presented itself – almost certainly a moving target –

and as soon as he had fired he would be exposed on the path up the cliff

face. His one advantage here was that his hunting rifle was a superbly

accurate piece, whereas Mek Nimmur’s men were all armed with AK-47

assault rifles, rapid-firing but notoriously wild at longer range, and

more especially in the hands of these shufta. With proper training, the

fighting tribesmen of Africa made some of the finest troops in the

world. They possessed all the necessary skills, with one exception –

they were notoriously poor marksmen.

He lay flat on the ledge, and the rock under him was so hot from the

direct sunlight that it burned painfully even through his clothin – He

pulled the pack from his 9 back and set it up in front of him, settling

the forestock of the, rifle over it to give himself a dead rest. He

peered through the telescope, wriggling into a comfortable position,

sighting on a small rock beside the main trail and then swinging the

barrel from side to side to make certain that he had a clear arc of

fire.

Satisfied that this was the best stance he could find in the short time

left to him, -he set the rifle aside and picked up a handful of dirt. He

rubbed this gently into his face, and the sweat turned it to mud that

coated his pate skin and dulled the shine that an alert scout might pick

out at long range. His last concern was to check the angle of the sun,

and to satisfy himself that it was not reflecting off the lens of his

scope or off any of the metal parts of the rifle.

He reached over and pulled at the branch of the shrub beside him so that

it cast its shadow over the weapon.

At last he settled down behind the rifle and cuddled the butt into his

shoulder, regulating his breathing to a deep slow rhythm, dropping his

pulse rate and steadying his hands. He did not have long to wait. He

heard the bird-call again, but this time much nearer at hand. It was

answered immediately from the far side of the trail, down closer to the

river bank.

“The flankers will be having difficulty maintaining station over this

terrain.” He grinned without hurriour, a death’s-head grimace. They will

be bunching and straggling.” As he thought it, a man came into view

around the bend of the trail, about five hundred metres, dead ahead.

Boris picked him up in the magni of ens.

He was a typical African guerrilla, a shufta dressed in a tattered and

faded motley of camouflage and civilian clothing, festooned with pack

and water bottle, ammunition and grenades, carrying his AK at high port.

He hatted the moment he came through the turn, and crouched into cover

behind a boulder at the side of the trail.

For a long minute he surveyed the lie of the land ahead of him, his head

turning slowly from side to side. At one point he seemed to be staring

directly at Boris, who held his breath and lay as still as the rock

beside him. But finally the shufta straightened up and gave a hand

signal to those out of sight behind him. Then he came on down the trail

at a trot. When he had covered fifty metres the rest of the party began

to appear, keeping their intervals as precisely as beads on a string. It

would not be possible to enfilade this line even with an RPD from a

prepared position.

“Good!” Boris approved. “These are crack troops. Mek must have

hand-picked them.” He watched them through the lens, examining the

features of each man as he came into view, searching for Mek Nimmur.

There were seven of them spread out down the trail now, but still no

sign of their leader. The man on the point drew level with Boris’s

position and then went on past him. A pair of flankers passed directly

beneath where he lay, rustling softly by in the scrub not more than a

dozen paces from him. He lay like a stone and let them go. The rest of

them passed his position, well spaced and moving swiftly. For some

minutes after the last of them had gone, the gorge seemed deserted and

devoid of all human presence. Then there was another stealthy movement

out there.

“The rear guard,” Boris grunted softly. “Mek is keeping the woman at the

rear. His new plaything.”He is taking great care of her.”

He slipped the safety-catch on the rifle gently, making certain that no

alien metallic sound fell on the heated and hushed air.

“Now let them come,” he breathed. “I will take Mek first. Nothing fancy,

no head shots. Squarely in the centre of the chest. The woman will

freeze when he goes down.

She does not have the reflexes of a warrior. She will give me a second

unhurried shot. At this range there will be no question of a miss. Right

between those pretty little black tits of hers.” He became sexually

charged by the image of blood and violent death set opposite Tessay’s

loveliness and grace. “I might even have a chance to get one of the

others. But I can’t bank on that. These men are good.

More likely that they will dive into cover before I have even had time

to kill the woman.”

He watched the faces of the rear guard as, one at a time, carefully

spaced, they came into view. Each time he felt his heart trip with

disappointment. In the end there were three of them on the path, moving

past him at a steady, businesslike jog-trot. But no sign of Mek and the

woman. The rear guard disappeared down the path, and the small sounds of

their progress dwindled into silence. Boris lay alone on the ledge, his

heart thumping and the sour taste of disappointment in the back of his

throat.

“Where are they?” he thought bitterly. “Where the hell is MeV And the

obvious answer to his own question occurred to him immediately. They had

taken a different trail. Mek had used this patrol as a decoy to lure him

away.

He lay quietly for a measured five minutes by his wristwatch, just in

case there might be more men coming up the trail. His mind was racing.

His last definite placin of 9 Tessay had been the glimpse of her

footprint on the trail at the far bend of the oxbow.

That was several hours ago, and if she and Mek had given him the slip

they could be anywhere by now. Mek might have won himself a start of a

full day or more – it might take Boris that long to work the spoor

through.

Feeling waves of anger overwhelm him, he had to close his eyes and fight

it off in order to keep his sense of reason from being swamped. He had

to think clearly now, not go rushing at the problem like a wounded

buffalo. He knew that this was one of his weaknesses: he had to keep

tight control of himself.

When he opened his eyes again, his anger had become cold and functional.

He knew precisely what he had to do and the order in which he must do

it. The very first task was t& sweep and check the back trail. He had to

establish the point at which Mek had left the main detachment of shufta.

He slipped down off the ledge and through the scrub to the open trail.

Still anti-tracking, but moving swiftly, he made his way upstream, back

towards the patch of Thorn scrub where the party of shufta had lain up

in the heat of the day. The first thing he noticed was that the pair of

kites had gone. But he did not take this as proof that the bush was

deserted! and began to circle it carefully. First he worked the incoming

trail on the far side of the patch of bush. Although several hours old

now, it was still clear enough to read.

Suddenly he stopped in the centre of the trail and felt the hair rise on

his forearms and down the back of his neck as he stared at the sign in

the dust of the path. He realized that he had walked into Mek’s trap.

There lay the distinctive imprint of a Bata tennis shoe.

Mek and the woman had gone into the patch of scrub and had not come out

again. They were still in there, and Boris was seized by the strong

premonition that Mek was watching him even at that moment, over the open

sights of his AK. While he was out in the open like this, stooped over

the spoor, Boris was completely vulnerable.

Hurling himself sideways off the path, he landed like a cat in the wire

grass beside it, with the rifle at the ready. It took many minutes for

his heartbeats to return to normal, and then he rose again into a

stealthy crouch and began circling the patch of scrub very cautiously.

His nerves were as taut as guitar strings, and his pale eyes darted from

side to side. His finger lay upon the trigger of the 30/06 and he kept

the muzzle weaving slowly, like the head of a cobra ready to strike in

any direction.

He moved down towards the bank of the river, where A the noise of the

rapids would mask any sound he might make. But when he had almost

reached the shelter of the house -sized boulder that he had noticed from

the mountain crest he froze again. He had heard a sound that carried

over the sound of Nile waters – a sound so incongnious in this place and

at this time that for a moment he doubted his own hearing. It was the

sound of a woman’s laughter, sweet and clear as the tinkle of a crystal

chandelier swinging in the breeze.

The sound came from below him, from the river bank beyond the tumbled

boulder. He crept towards the boulder, determined to use it for cover

and as a vantage point from which he could cover the bank beyond it. But

before he reached it he heard the splash of some heavy object striking

the surfac& of the river, and an excited female squeal, both playful and

provocative.

Reaching the side of the boulder, and keeping close in under its

protective bulk, he stole towards the corner, from which he could

overlook the gravel bank beyond. Then, peeping cautiously around the

angle of the boulder, he stared in amazement. He could barely believe

what he was seeing. He could not credit this kind of stupidity from a

man like Mek Nimmur. This was the hard man, the seasoned warrior and

survivor of twenty years of bloody bush war acting like a love-sick

teenage booby.

Mek Nimmur had sent his men away so that he could be alone to frolic

with his new paramour. Boris took time to make absolutely certain that

this was not some elaborate trap that had been set for him. It seemed

too fortuitous, too heaven-sent to be really true. He searched every

inch of the bank in both directions for hidden gunmen before he smiled

his cold little smile.

“Of course they are alone. Mek would never let one of his men see Tessay

naked like this.” His smile grew broader as he recognized the full

extent of his luck. “He must have gone crazy. Did he not realize that I

would follow him? Did he think he was far enough ahead to be able to

indulge tu himself like this? Is there anything in this world as pid and

as shortsighted as a standing prick?” Boris was gloating delightedly

now.

uple had stripped off their clothes and left them The coin a pile on the

beach of grey basalt gravel in the shade of AL

the tall boulder. They were splashing together in the slack water of the

river at the edge of the main current. Both Of them were stark

mother-naked. Mek Nimmur was broadshouldered, with a heavily muscled

back and hard, tight buttocks. Beside him Tessay was slim as a river

reed, her waist tiny and her hips narrow. Her skin was the colour of

wild honey. They were completely absorbed in each other, without eyes or

ears for anything else in this world.

“He must have left men guarding his back trail.” Boris gave Mek the

benefit of some sense. “He never expected me to be ahead of him on the

trail. He thinks they are completely secure. Look at the fool,” he

gloated, as Mek chased the girl and she let herself be caught. They fell

into the shallow water locked in each other’s embrace, mouths seeking

each other as they surfaced again, laughing as the water streamed down

their darkly beautiful faces, the epitome of handsome masculinity and

lovely womanhood, the image of an African Adam and Eve captured for a

moment in their own little carefree paradise.

Boris tore his eyes from them, and looked to where their clothing had

been abandoned on the gravel bar.

Mek’s AK rifle lay carelessly on top of his camouflage jacket, within a

few paces of where Boris stood. He crossed the open gravel bar with a

few quick strides, picked up the AK, unclipped the curved magazine and

dropped it into his pocket, ejected the round from the chamber and let

it fly away into the gravel, replaced the unloaded rifle on the jacket,

and rapidly returned to the tee of the boulder. Both Mek and Tessay

remained utterly oblivious to what had happened.

Boris stood there quietly in the shadow of the rock, watching them at

play in the river. They were almost childlike in their love and their

complete preoccupation with each other.

Tessay at last broke from Mek’s embrace and left the water. She came up

the gravel bar, running long-legged and coltish, her wet silken breasts

swinging and jostling each other at each stride as she looked back at

him over her shoulder in open invitation. Mek followed her out, the

water glistening in the dense curls of his barrel chest, his genitals

weighty and puissant.

He caught her before she could reach her clothing and she struggled

playfully for a while in his arms, until his mouth clamped down over

hers. Then she gave herself up to him completely. While he kissed her

his hands ran down her back and over her wet glistening buttocks.

Pressing herself against him she moved her feet apart and spread her

thighs, inviting him to explore the secrets of her body. She groaned

with desire as his hand cupped her sex gently.

Boris felt his anger mingle with the perverse voyeuristic thrill of

watching his own wife being taken by another man. A devil’s brew of

emotions bubbled up inside him.

He felt his loins engorging and stiffening almost painfully with

excitement, but at the same time his rage shook him like the branch of a

tree in a gale of wind.

The lovers sank down on to their knees. Still locked together, Tessay

fell backwards and pulled him over on top of herself.

Boris called out loudly, “By God, Mek Nimmur, you will never know how

ridiculous you look with your bare backside in the air like that.”

Mek reacted as swiftly as a leopard surprised on his kill. With a blur

of movement he flipped over and reached for the AK-47. Although Boris

was ready for him, covering him with the 30/06, aiming at the back of

his neck when he shouted to him, Mek was so quick that he had swept up

the AK from where it lay and had it pointed at Boris’s belly before he

could move. Mek pressed the trigger in the same instant as the muzzle

came to bear.

The firing-pin fell on the empty chamber with a futile click, and the

two men stared at each other across the gravel beach, both with their

weapons levelled. Tessay was curled naked where Mek had left her, her

dark eyes liquid with pain and horror as she watched her husband and

realized that Mek was about to die.

Boris chuckled softly, throatily. “Where do you want it, Mek? How about

I shoot the head off that filthy black tool of yours, while it is still

standing up in the air like that?”

Mek Nimmur’s eyes darted away from his adversary’s face, back towards

the mountain, and Boris realized that his guess had been correct. Mek

had some of his men up there, but they were keeping out of view of the

beach while their commander indulged himself.

“Don’t worry about them. You will both be dead long before your chimps

can get down here to save you.” Boris chuckled again. “I am enjoying

this. You and I had an appointment once before, but you broke it. Never

mind this is going to be even more fun.” He knew that it was not wise to

delay with a man like this. Mek had made one mistake, and it was highly

unlikely that he would make another. He should blow his head off now,

and that would give him a few minutes more to deal with Tessay. But the

temptation to gloat over him was too strong.

“I have good news for you, Mek. You will live a few seconds longer. I am

going to kill the whore first, and I am going to let you watch. I hope

you enjoy it as much as I am going to.” He sidled away from the shelter

of the boulder, edging towards where Tessay lay curled on the gravel

beach. She was turned half away from him, trying to cover her breasts

and her pubic area with hands too small and delicate for the job. Even

as he approached the woman, Boris was watching Mek with his full

attention. Mek was the danger, and he never took his eyes off him. It

was a mistake. He had underestimated the woman.

While pretending to turn away from him modestly, Tessay had reached down

between her thighs and found a round, water-worn stone that fitted

neatly into her small fist. Suddenly she uncoiled her lithe body and

used all the strength of it to hurl the stone at his head. Boris caught

the movement from the corner of his eye and flung up his arm to shield

his head.

The stone, flying with surprising force at close range, never struck its

target. Instead it caught the point of Boris’s upraised elbow. His

sleeves were rolled up high around his biceps, and there was no padding

to cushion the impact of the stone; his arm was bent and flexed, the

thin covering of skin drawn tightly over the bone of the joint. The head

of the ulna cracked like glass, and Boris howled at the excruciating

agony. His hand opened involuntarily, and his forefinger jerked away

from the trigger without the strength to fire the shot he was aiming at

Mek’s belly.

Mek rolled to his feet, and before Boris could change the rifle to his

other hand he disappeared behind the angle of the giant boulder.

With his left hand Boris swung the butt of the rifle at Tessay’s head,

knocking her backwards into the sand. Then he thrust the muzzle into her

throat, pinning her there while he shouted angrily. “I am going to kill

her, you black bastard! If you want your whore, you’ better come fetch

her!” The pain of the shattered elbow rendered his voice hoarse and

brutish.

From somewhere behind the boulder Mek Nimmur’s voice fang out strongly

and clearly, calling a single word in Amharic that echoed along the

cliffs. Then he spoke in English, “My men will be here in a moment.

Leave the woman and I will spare you. Harm her and I will make you plead

for death.”

Boris stooped over Tessay and dragged her to her feet with his good arm

locked around her throat. He held the rifle in the same hand, pointing

it over her shoulder. The hand of his injured arm had recovered

sufficiently from the first shock to be able to hold the pistol grip and

to manipulate the trigger.

“She will be dead long before your men get here,” he shouted back as he

started to drag her away from the boulder. “Come and get her yourself,

Mek. She is here if you want her.”

He tightened his lock around her throat, choking her until she struggled

and gasped, tearing at his arm with her nails and leaving long red welts

across the tanned skin.

“Listen to her! I am crushing this pretty neck. Listen to her choking.”

He tightened his grip, forcing the sounds of distress out of her.

Boris was watching the corner of the boulder where Mek had disappeared.

At the same time he was backing away from it, giving himself space in

which to work. His mind was racing, for he knew that he could not

escape. His right arm was barely usable, and there were too many of

Mek’s shufta companions. He had the woman, but he wanted the man as

well. That was the best trade that he could hope for – both of them, he

had to have both of them.

He heard a shout, a strange voice from higher up the slope. Mek’s men

were on their way. He was desperate now. Mek was not going to be drawn;

he had not heard him speak or move for almost two minutes. He had lost

him – by this time he could be anywhere.

“Too late,” Boris realized. “I am not going to get him.

Only the woman. But I must do it now.” He forced her to her knees and

stooped over her, shifting the lock of his arm around her throat.

“Goodbye, Tessay,” he grated in her ear. He tightened his arm muscles

and felt the vertebrae in her neck arched to breaking point. It needed

only an ounce more pressure.

“It’s all over for you,” he whispered, and began the final pressure. He

knew from long experience the sound, that the vertebrae would make as

they gave, and he tensed himself for it, poised for that crackle like

the breaking of a green branch, and the stack weight of her corpse in

his grip.

Then something crashed into his back with a force that seemed to drive

in his backbone and crush his ribs.

Both the strength and the direction were entirely unexpected. It did not

seem possible that Mek Nimmur could have moved so far and so swiftly. He

must have left the shelter of the boulder and circled out through the

scrub.

Now he had come at Boris from behind.

His attack was so savage that the arm that Boris had wound around

Tessay’s neck opened.- She drew in a wheezing, strangled breath and

twisted out of his grip. Boris tried to turn and swing the rifle around,

but Mek was on him again, seizing the rifle and trying to wrest it from

Boris’s hands.

The Russian’s finger was still on the trigger, and a shot went off white

the muzzle was level with Mek’s face. The detonation stunned him for an

instant, and he released the rifle and staggered backwards with his ears

ringing.

Boris backed away from him, struggling with the weapon, trying to open

the bolt and crank another cartridge into the chamber, but his crippled

right arm’made his movements clumsy and awkward. Mek gathered himself

and charged head down across the gravel beach. He drove into Boris with

all his weight, and the rifle flew out of the Russian’s hands. Locked

chest to chest the two of them spun around in a macabre waltz, trying to

throw each other, wrestling for the advantage, until they tripped and

went over backwards into the river.

They came to the surface still grappling and rolling over each other,

first one on top and then the other, a fearful parody of the lovemaking

which Boris had watched a few minutes earlier. Punching and straining

and tripping each other, they struggled in the shallows. But every time

they fell back into the water the slope of the bank beneath their feet

forced them further out, until, when they were waist-deep, the main

current of the Nile suddenly picked them up and swept them away

downstream. They were still locked together, their heads bobbing in the

tumble of waters, their arms thrashing the water white around them,

bellowing at each other in primeval rage.

Tessay heard the men that Mek had called coming down through the scrub

at the run. She snatched up her shamnw and pulled it over her head as

she ran to meet them. As the first of them burst on to the gravel bar

with his AK cocked, she shouted to him in Amharic.

“There! Mek is in the water. He is fighting the Russian.

Help him!” She ran with them along the bank. As they drew level with the

two men in midstream one of the men stopped and levelled his AK, but

Tessay rushed at him and struck up the barrel.

“You fool!” she shouted angrily. “You will hit Mek.” Jumping to the top

of one of the riverside boulders, she shaded her eyes against the

dazzling reflection of the low sun off the water. With a sick feeling in

the pit of her stomach she saw that Boris had managed to get behind Mek

and had a half nelson hold around his throat. He was forcing Mek’s head

under the surface. Mek was struggling like a hooked salmon in his grip

as they were swept into a long chute of white water.

Tessay jumped down from the rock and ran on down the bank to the next

point, from which she could only watch helplessly.

Boris was still holding Mek’s head under water as they were home

together into the head of the chute. Fangs of black rock flashed by them

on each side as they gathered speed. Mek was a powerful man and Boris

had to exert every last ounce of his own strength to hold him, and he

knew he could not do so much longer. Suddenly Mek reared back, and for a

moment his head came out. He sucked a quick breath of air before Boris

could force him under again, but that breath seemed to have renewed his

strength.

Desperately Boris looked ahead to the tail of the chute as they sped

towards it. There were more rocks there. Boris picked out one great

black slab over which the waters poured in a standing wave three feet

high. He steered for it, kicking and hauling Mek’s body around with the

last of his strength.

They flew down the slope of racing water with the rock slab waiting for

them at the end like a lurking seamonster. Boris continued to wrestle

with Mek, until he had turned him into a position ahead of him. He

planned to steer him into a head-on collision with the rock and use

Mek’s body to cushion his own impact.

At the very last moment before they struck Mek dragged his head out from

the surface, and as he grabbed a precious lungful of air he saw the rock

and realized the danger. With a single violent effort he ducked forward

below the surface again and rolle over head-first. It was so powerful

and unexpected that Boris was unable to resist.

Instinctively he maintained his lock around Mek’s neck and was carried

forward over his back until their positions were reversed. Now Mek had

managed to interpose Boris between himself and the rock, so that when

they slammed into it it was the Russian who bore the full brunt of the

impact.

Boris’s right shoulder crunched like a walnut in the jaws of a steel

cracker. Although his head was still under water he screamed at the

brutal agony of it, and his lungs filled with water. He relinquished his

grip and was flung clear of Mek. When he came to the surface he was

floundering like a drowned insect, his tight arm shattered in two

places, his good arm flailing weakly, and his sodden lungs wheezing and

pumping.

Mek exploded through the surface only a few yards behind him. Looking

around quickly as he strained for air, he spotted Boris’s bobbing head

almost immediately and with a few powerful overarm strokes came up

behind him.

Boris was so far gone that he was not aware of Mek’s intentions until he

seized his shirt collar from behind and twisted it like a strangler’s

garotte. With his other hand, below the surface, Mek secured a grip on

the back of Boris’s wide leather belt and used it like the helm of a

rudder to steer him towards the next reef of rocks that was boiling the

water ahead of them.

Through his waterlogged lungs Boris was trying to shout invective at

him. “Bastard! Black swine! Filthy-‘ But his voice was barely audible

above the rush of the waters and the growl of the rocky spur that lay

across their path. Mek rode him head-first into the rock and he felt the

impact transferred through Boris’s skull to jolt the straining muscles

of his forearms. Instantly Boris went slack in his grip, his head lolled

and his limbs became as limp and soft as strands of kelp washing in the

surf.

As they tumbled into the next run of open water, Mek used his grip on

the back of Boris’s collar to lift the Russian’s face above the surface.

For a moment even he was struck with horror at the injury that he had

inflicted.

Boris’s forehead was staved in. The skin was unbroken, but there was a

deep indentation in his skull into which Mek could have thrust his

thumb. And Boris’s eyes bulged, pushed out of their sockets like those

of a battered doll.

Mek swung the inert carcass around in the water, and stared at the

broken head from a distance of only a few inches. He reached up and

touched the depressed area of the skull with his fingertips, and felt

the shards of splintered , bone grate and give beneath the skin.

Once again he thrust the shattered head below the surface and held it

there, while he crabbed sideways across the current towards the bank.

There was no resistance from Boris, but Mek kept his head submerged for

the rest of that long tortuous swim across the Nile.

“How do you kill a monster?” he thought grimly. “I should bury him at a

crossroads with a stake through his heart.” But instead he drowned him

fifty times over, and at the next bend of the river they were washed

into the bank.

Mek’s men were waiting for him there. They supported him when his legs

sagged under him, and they helped him up the bank. When they started to

drag Boris’s corpse out of the river, Mek stopped them abruptly.

him for the crocodiles. After what he has done

“Leave to our country and our people, he deserves nothing better.” But

even in his anger and his hatred he did not want Tessay to have to look

at that mutilated head. She had been unable to keep pace with the men,

but she was coming along the bank towards him now.

One of his men pushed Boris’s corpse back into the current, and as it

floated away he unstung his AK rifle from his shoulder and let off a

burst of automatic fire. The bullets chopped up the surface around

Boris’s head, and socked heavily into his back. They tore holes in his

wet shirt and kicked out lumps of raw flesh. The other men on the bank

shouted with laughter and joined in the fusillade, emptying their

magazines into the lifeless body. Mek did them. Some of their close

relatives not attempt to prevent had died most horribly under the

Russian’s care. The corpse rolled over in a pink cloud of its own blood,

and for a moment Boris’s pate bulging eyes stared at the sky. Then he

sank away beneath the surface.

Mek stood up slowly and went to meet Tessay. He took her in his arms,

and as he held her to his chest he whispered to her softly.

“It’s all right. He won’t ever hurt you again. It’s all over. You are my

woman now – for ever!’

Since -Boris and Tessay had left the camp there was no longer any reason

to maintain security, and Nicholas -and Royan were no longer obliged to

skulk in Royan’s hut when they discussed their search for the tomb.

Nicholas transferred their headquarters into the dining hut, and had the

camp staff build another large table on which they could spread the

satellite photographs and all the other maps and material that they had

accumulated.

The chef sent a steady supply of coffee from the kitchen, while they

pored over the papers and discussed their discoveries in Taita’s pool

and every theory that either of them dreamed up, no matter how

far-fetched.

“We will never be certain if that shaft was made by Taita, or whether it

was a natural sink-hole, until we can get back in there with the right

equipment.”

“What type of equipment are you talking about?” she wanted to know.

“Scuba, not oxygen rebreathers. Although the navy rebreathing outfits

are much lighter and more compact, you cannot use them below a’depth of

thirty-three feet, the equivalent of one atmosphere of water. After that

pure oxygen becomes lethal. Have you ever used an aqualung?”

She nodded. “When Dutaid and I were on honeymoon at a resort on the Red

Sea. I had a few lessons and made three or four open-water dives, but

let me hasten to add that I am no expert.”

“I promise not to send you down there,” he smiled, “but I think we can

safely say that we have found enough evidence both in Tanus’s tomb and

Taita’s pool to make it imperative that we mount the second phase of

this operation.”

She nodded agreement. “We will have to return with a much more extensive

range of equipment, and some expert help. But you are not going to be

able to pose as a- tourist Sportsman next time around. What possible

excuse are we going to find for returning that will not set off all the

alarm bells in the minds of Ethiopian bureaucracy?”

“You are speaking to the man who has paid unofficial and uninvited

visits to both those charming lads Gadaffi and Saddam. Ethiopia should

be a Sunday-school picnic in comparison.”

“When do the big rains start up in the mountains?” she asked suddenly.

“Yes!” His expression became serious. That is the jackpot question. You

only have to look at the high-water mark on the walls of Taita’s pool to

have some idea what it must be like in there when the river is in full

flood.” He flipped over the pages of his pocket diary. “Luckily, we

still have a bit of time – not a great deal, but’enough. We will need to

move pretty smartly. We have to get back home before I can start work on

planning phase two.”

“We should pack up right away, then.”

“Yes, we should. But it seems a damned shame not to take full advantage

of every moment we are here, having come all this way. I think we can

spare just a few more days to sound out some ideas that I have about

Taita’s pool and the sink-hole, to try to arrive at some sort of

informed guess about what we will need when we return.”

“You are the boss.”

“My word, how pleasant to hear a lady say that.” She smiled sweetly.

“Enjoy the moment,” she counselled him, “it may never happen again.” And

then she became serious again. “What are these ideas that you have?

“What goes up must come down, what goes in must come out,” he said

mysteriously. “The water going into the sink’hole under such pressure

must be going somewhere.

Unless it joins a subterranean water system and makes its way into the

Nile that way, then it should come to the surface where we can find it.”

“Go on,” she invited.

40the thing is certain. Nobody is going to get into the sink-hole from

the pool. The pressure is lethal. But if we can find the outlet, we may

be able to explore it from the other end.”

“That’s a fascinating possibility.” She looked impressed, and turned to

the satellite photograph. Nicholas had identified the monastery and

ringed it on the photograph.

He had marked in the approximate course of the river through the chasm,

although the gorge itself was too narrow and covered with bush to show

up on the smallscale picture, even under the high-powered magnifying

lens.

“Here is the point where the river enters the chasm.” She pointed it out

to him. “And here is the side valley down which the trail detours.

Okay?”

“Okay,” he nodded. “What are you driving at?”

“On our approach march, we remarked that this valley might at one time

have been the original course of the Dandera river, and that it seemed

to have cut a new bed for itself through the chasm.”

“That’s right,’Nicholas agreed. “I am still listening.”

“The fall of the land towards the Nile is very steep at this point,

isn’t it? Well, do you recall we crossed another smaller, but still

pretty substantial, stream on our way down the dry valley? That stream

seemed to emerge from somewhere on the eastern side of the valley.”

All right, I am with you now. You are suggesting that this may be the

overflow from the sinkholes Clever little devil, aren’t you?”

“Just capitalizing on your genius.” She cast down her eyes modestly, and

looked up at him from under her lashes.

She was clowning, but her lashes were long and dense and curling, and

her eyes were the colour of burnt honey with tiny golden highlights in

their depths. At this close range he found them disturbing.

He stood up and suggested, “Why don’t we go and take a look?”

Nicholas went to fetch his camera bag and the light day’pack from his

hut, and when he returned he found Royan ready to go. But she was not

alone.

I see that you are bringing your chaperon with you,” he remarked with

resignation.

“Unless you are tough enough to send him away.” Royan smiled

encouragement at Tamre who stood at her side, grinning and bobbing and

hugging his shoulders in the ecstasy of being in the presence of his

idol.

“Oh, very well.” Nicholas gave in without a struggle.

“Let the little devil come along.”

Tamre lolloped away up the path ahead of them, his grubby shamma

flapping around his long skinny legs, chanting the repetitive chorus of

an Amharic psalm, and every few minutes looking back to make certain

that Royan was still following him. It was a hard pull up the valley,

and the noonday heat was debilitating. Although Tamre seemed totally

unaffected, the other two were both sweating in dark patches through

their shirts by the time they reached the point where the stream

debauched into the valley. Gratefully, they sought the shade of a patch

of acacia trees, and while they rested Nicholas glassed the side of the

valley through his binoculars.

“How are they after the dunking I gave them?” she asked.

“Waterproof,” he grunted, “full marks to Herr Zeiss.”

“What do you see up there?”

“Not much. The bush is too thick. We will have to foot’slog up the side.

Sorry.”

They left the shade and made their way up the side of the valley in the

direct burning sunlight. The stream tumbled down a series of cascades,

each with a pool at its foot. The bush crowded the banks, lush and green

where the roots had been able to reach the water. Clouds of black and

yellow butterflies danced over the Pools, and a black and white wagtail

patrolled the moss-green rocks along the edge, its long tail gyrating

back and forth like the needle of a metronome.

Halfway up the slope they paused beside one of the pools to rest, and

Nicholas used his hat like a fly-swatter to stun a brown and yellow

grasshopper. He tossed the insect on to the surface of the pool, and as

it kicked weakly and floated towards the exit a long dark shadow rose

from the bottom. There was a swirl and a mirrorlike flash of a scaly

silver belly, and the grasshopper disappeared.

“Ten’pounder,’Nicholas lamented. “Why didn’t I bring my rod?”

Tamre was crouched near Nicholas on the pool bank, and suddenly he

lifted his hand and held it out. Almost at once one of the circling

butterflies settled upon his finger.

It perched there with its velvety black and yellow wings fanning gently.

They stared at him in astonishment, for it was as though the insect had

come to his bidding. Tamre giggled and offered the butterfly to Royan.

When she held out her hand, he gently transferred the gorgeous insect to

her palm.

“Thank you, Tamre. That is a wonderful gift. Now my gift to you is to

set it free again.” She pursed her lips and blew it softly into flight.

They watched the butterfly climb high above the pool, and Tamre clapped

his hands and laughed with delight.

“Strange,” Nicholas murmured. “He seems to have a special empathy with

all the creatures of the wilderness. I think that Jali Hora, the abbot,

does not try to control him, but lets him do very much as his simple

fancy dictates.

Special treatment for a fey soul, one that hears a different tune and

dances to it. I must admit that, despite myself, I am becoming quite

fond of the lad.”

It was only another fifty feet higher that they came to the source.

There was a low cliff of red sandstone, from a grotto at whose foot the

stream gushed. The entrance was screened by a heavy growth of ferns, and

Nicholas went down on his knees to pull them aside and peer into the low

opening.

“What can you see?” Royan demanded behind him.

“Not much. It’s dark in there, but it seems to go in for quite some

way.”

“You are too big to get in there. You had better let me go in.”

“Good place for water cobra,” he remarked. “Lots of frogs for them to

eat. Are you sure you want to go?”

“I never said that I wanted to.” She sat on the bank while she unlaced

her shoes, then lowered herself into the stream. It came halfway up her

thighs, and she waded forward against the flow with difficulty.

She was forced to bend almost double to creep under the overhanging roof

of the grotto. As she moved deeper in, her voice came back to him.

“The roof gets lower.”

“Be careful, dear girl. Don’t take any chances.”

“I do wish you wouldn’t call me “dear girl”.” Her voice resonated

strangely from the cave entrance.

“Well, you are both those things, a girl and dear. How about if I call

you “young lady?

“Not that either. My name is Royan.”There was silence for a while, then

she called again. “This is as far as I can go. It all narrows down into

a shaft of some sort.”

“A shaft?” he demanded.

“Well, at least a roughly rectangular opening.”

“Do you think it is the work of humans?”

“Impossible to tell. The water is coming out of it like the spout of a

bath tap. A solid jet.”

“No evidence of any excavation? No marks of tools on the rock?”

“Nothing. It’s slick and water-worn, covered with moss and algae.”

“Could a man get into the opening, I mean if it were not for the water

pressure?”

“If he was a pygmy or a dwarf.”

“Or a childT he suggested.

“Or a child,” she agreed. “But who would send a child in there?”

“The ancients often used child-slaves. Taita might have done the same.”

“Don’t suggest it. You are destroying my high opinion of Taita,” she

told him as she backed out of the entrance of the grotto. There were

pieces of fern and moss in her hair, and she was soaked from the waist

downwards. He gave her a hand and boosted her back on to the bank. The

curve of her bottom was clearly visible through her wet trousers. He

forced himself not to dwell upon the view.

“So we have to conclude that the shaft is a natural flaw in the

limestone, and not a man-made tunnel?”

“I didn’t say that. No. I said that I couldn’t be sure.

You might be correct. Children might have been used to dig it. After

all, they were used in the coalmines during the industrial revolution.”

“But there is no way that we would be able to explore the tunnel from

this end?”

“Impossible.” She was vehement. “The water is pouring out under enormous

pressure. I tried to push my arrn up the shaft, but I did not have the

strength.”

“Pity! I was hoping for some more irrefutable evidence, or at least

another lead.” He sat down beside her on the bank, and ferreted in his

pack. She looked at him quizzically when he brought out a small black

anodized instrument and opened the lid.

“Aneroid barometer,” he explained. “Every good navigator should have

one.” He studied it for a moment and then made a note of the reading.

“Explain,” she invited.

“I want to know if this spring is below the level of the entrance to the

sink-hole in Taita’s pool. If it is not, then we can cross it off our

list of possibilities.”

He stood up. “If you are ready, we can move on.”

“Where to?”

“Why, Taita’s pool, of course. We need a reading up there to establish

the difference in altitude between the two points.”

nce Tamre knew where they were headed he showed them a shortcuts so it

took them just under two hours from the fountain head to the top of the

cliff face above Taita’s pool.

While they rested, Royan remarked, “Tamre seems to spend most of his

days wandering around in the bush. He knows every path and game trail.

He is an excellent guide.”

“Better than Boris, at least,” Nicholas agreed, as he fished out his

barometer and took another reading.

“You look particularly pleased with yourself.” Royan watched his face as

he studied the instrument.

“Every reason to be,” he told her. “Allowing one hundred and eighty feet

for the height of the cliff below us, and another fifty feet for the

depth of the pool, the entrance to the sink-hole is still over a hundred

feet higher than your outlet through the fern grotto on the other side

of the ridge.”

“Which means?”

“Which means that there is a distinct possibility that the streams are

one and the same. The inflow is here in Taita’s pool and the outflow is

from your grotto.”

“How on earth did Taita do it?” she puzzled. “How did he get to the

bottom of the pool? You are the engineering marvel. Tell me how you

would do it.”

He shrugged, but she persisted. “I mean, there must be some established

way of doing things like that, of working under water. How do they build

the piers of a bridge, or the foundations of a dam, or – or – or how did

Taita himself build the shaft below the level of the Nile to measure the

flow of the river? You remember the description that he gives of his

hydrograph in River God?”

“The accepted technique is to build a coffer dam ” Nicholas said

casually, and then broke off and stared at her. “My oath, you really are

a corker. A dam! What if that old ruffian, Taita, dammed the whole

flipping river!”

“Would that have been possible?”

“I am beginning to believe that with Taita anything is possible. He

certainly had unlimited manpower at his disposal, and if he could build

the hydrograph on the Nile at Aswan, then he understood very clearly the

principles of hydrodynamics. After all, the old Egyptians’ lives were

completely bound up with the seasonal inundations of the river and the

management of the floods. From what we have gathered about the old man,

it certainly seems Possible.”

“How could we prove it?”

“By finding the remains of his dam. It had to be a hell of a work to

hold the Dandera river. There is a good chance that some evidence of it

remains.”

“Where would he have built the dam?” she asked excitedly. “Or let me put

it another way, where would you site the dam if you had to do it?,

“There is one natural place for it,” he answered promptly. “The spot

where the trail leaves the river and detours down the valley, and the

river falls into the chasm.

They both turned their heads in unison and looked upstream.

“What are we waiting for?” she asked, and sprang to her feet. “Let’s go

look-see!

Their excitement was infectious, and Tamre giggled and danced ahead of

them along the trail through the thorns and then up the valley to the

point where it rejoined the river. The sun had lost the worst of its

heat by the time they stood once again above the falls where the

Dandera. river plunged into the mouth of the chasm, and began its last

lap in the race to join the Nile.

“If Taita. had thrown a dam across here – ” Nicholas made a sweep of his

arms across the mouth of the gorge, he could have diverted the river

down the side valley here.”

“It looks possible,” she laughed. Tamre giggled in sympathy, not

understanding a word of what they were saying, but enjoying himself

immensely.

“I would need a dumpy level to take some shots of the actual fall of the

land. It can be very deceptive, but with the naked eye it does look

possible, as you say.” He shaded his eyes and looked up the bluffs on

each side of the waterfall. They formed two craggy portals of limestone,

between which the river roared as it plunged over the lip.

“I would like to climb up there to get a clearer picture of the layout

of the terrain. Are you game?”

“Try and stop me,’, she challenged him, and led the climb. It was a

heavy scramble, and in some places the limestone was rotten and

crumbling dangerously. However, when they came out on the summit of the

eastern portal they were rewarded with a splendid overall view of the

ground below.

Directly to the north, the escarpment rose like a sheer wall with its

battlements crenellated and serrated. Above and beyond it there was a

dream of further mountains, the high peaks of the Choke, blue as a

heron’s plumage against the clearer distant blue of the African sky.

All around them were the badlands of the gorge, a vast confusion of

ridges and spines and reefs of rock of fifty different hues, some

ash-grey and white, others black as the hide of a bull buffalo, or red

as his heart blood. The river in bush was green, the poisonous vivid

green of the mamba in the treetop, while further from the water the

scrub was grey and sear, and along the spines of the broken kopjes stood

the stark outlines of ancient drought-struck trees, their tortured limbs

twisted and black against the sky.

“The picture of devastation,” Royan whispered as she looked around her,

‘untamed and untaniable. No wonder Taita chose this place. It repels all

intruders.”

They were both silent for a while, awed by the wild grandeur of the

scene, but as soon as they had recovered from the exertion of the climb

their enthusiasm resurfaced.

“Now you can get a good picture of it.” Nicholas pointed down into the

valley below them. “There is a clear divide at the fork of the valley.

You can see the natural fall of the ground. There, from that side of the

gorge to that point below us, is the narrowest part. It is a neck where

the river squeezes through – the natural site for a dam.” He swivelled

and pointed down to the left of where they sat.

‘it would not take much to spill the river into the valley.

Once he had finished whatever he was up to in the chasm, it would taken

even less to break down the wall of the dam and let the river resume its

natural course again.”

Tamre watched their faces eagerly, turning his head to each speaker in

turn, uncomprehending, but aping Royan’s expression like a mirror. If

she nodded he nodded, when she frowned he did the same, and when she

smiled he giggled happily.

“It’s a big river.” Royan shook her head, while Tamre wagged his from

side to side in sympathy and looked wise.

“What method would he have used? An earthen dam?

Surely not?” i “The Egyptians used earthen canals and dams for a great

many of their irrigation works,’Nicholas mused. “On the other hand, when

they had rock available to work with ..”, they used it extensively. They

were expert masons. You have stood in the quarries at Aswan.”

“Not much topsoil here in the gorge,” she pointed out.

“But on the other hand, there is plenty of rock. It’s like a geological

museum. Every type of rock that you could wish for.”

“I agree,” he said. “Rather than an earthen wall, Taita would most

probably have used a masonry and rock fill.

That is the type of dam the ancients built in Egypt, long before his

time. If that is the case, there is a chance that traces of it have

survived.”

“Okay. Let’s work on that hypothesis. Taita built a dam of rock stabs,

and then he breached it again. Where would we find the remains of it?”

“We would have to start searching on the actual site,” he answered.

“There at the neck of the gorge. Then we would have to search downstream

from there.”

They scrambled down the slope again, with Tamre picking out the easiest

route for Royan, stopping to beckon her whenever she faltered or paused

for breath. They came out in the neck of the valley and stood on the

rocky bank of the river, looking about them.

“How high would the wall have been?” Royan asked.

“Not too high. Again, I can’t give you a precise answer until I have

shot the levels.” He climbed a little way up the side of the wall. There

he squatted and turned his head back and forth, looking first down the

length of the valley and then towards the lip of the waterfall that

dropped into the mouth of the chasm.

Three times he changed his position, on each occasion moving a few paces

higher up the slope. The cliff became steeper the higher he climbed. In

the end he was clinging precariously to the side of it, but he seemed

satisfied. Then he called down to her.

“I would say this is about it, where I am now. This would be the height

of the dam wall. It looks about fifteen feet high to me.”

Royan was still standing on the bank, and now she turned and stared

across at the far bank of the river, estimating the distance to the

limestone cliff rising above it.

“Roughly a hundred feet across,” she shouted up to him.

“About that,” he agreed. “A lot of work, but not impossible.”

“Taita. was never one to be daunted by size or difficulty.” She cupped

her hands around her mouth to shout up to him. “While you are up there,

can you see any sign of works? Taita would have had to pin the dam wall

into the cliff.”

He scrambled along the cliff, keeping to the same level, until he was

almost directly above the falls and could go no further. Then he slid

down to where Royan and Tamre waited.

“Nothing?” she anticipated, and he shook his head.

“No, but you can’t really expect that there would be anything left after

nearly four thousand years. These cliffs have been exposed to wind and

weather for all that time. I think our best bet will be to look for any

surviving blocks from the dam wall that might have been carried away

when Taita. breached it to flood the chasm again.”

They started down the valley, where Royan came upon a chunk of stone

that seemed to be of a different type from the surrounding country rock.

It was the size of an oldfashioned cabin trunk. Although it was

halfcovered by undergrowth, the uppermost end – the one that was exposed

– had a definite right-angled corner to it. She called Nicholas across

to her.

“Look at that.” Royan patted it proudly. “What do you think of that?”

He climbed down beside herand ran his hands over the exposed surface of

the stab. “Possible,” he repeated. “But to be certain we would have to

find the chisel marks where the “old masons started the fracture. As you

know, they chiselled a hole into the stone, and then wedged it open

until it split.”

Both of them went over the exposed surface carefully, and although Royan

found an indentation that she declared was a weathered chisel mark,

Nicholas gave her only four out of ten on the scale of probability.

“We are running out of time,” he said, enticing her away from her find,

‘and we still have a lot of ground to cover.”

They searched the valley floor for half a kilometer further, and then

Nicholas called it off. “Even in the heaviest flood it is unlikely that

any blocks would have been carried down this far. Let’s go back and -see

if anything was washed over the falls into the mouth of the chasm.”

They returned to the bank of the Dandera and worked their way down as

far as the falls. Nicholas peered over.

“It’s not as deep here as it is further down,” he estimated. “I would

guess that it is less than a hundred feet.”

“Do you think you could get down there?” she asked dubiously. Spray blew

back out of the depths into their faces, and they had to shout at each

other to make themselves heard over the thunder of the waters.

“Not without a rope, and some muscle men to haul me back out of there.”

He perched himself on the brink and focused the binoculars down into the

bowl. There was a jumble of loose rock down the – small, rounded

boulders, and one or two very much larger. Some of them were angular,

and some with a little imagination could be called rectangular. However,

their surfaces had been smoothed by the rushing waters, and were

gleaming wet. All of them seemed partially submerged or obscured by

spray.

“I don’t think we can decide anything from up here, and to tell the

truth I don’t fancy going down there – not this evening anyway.”

Royan sat down beside him and hugged her knees to her chest. She was

dispirited. “So there is nothing we can be certain about. Did Taita dam

the river, or didn’t he?” Quite naturally he placed his arm around her

shoulders to console her, and after a moment she relaxed and leaned

against him. They stared down into the chasm in silence.

At last she drew back from him gently, and stood up.

“I suppose we should start back to camp. How long will it take us?”

“At least three hours.” He stood up beside her. “You are right. It will

be dark before we get back, and there is no moon tonight.”

“Funny how tired you feel after a disappointment,” she said, and

stretched. “I could lie down and sleep right here on one of Taita’s

stone blocks.” She broke off and stared at him. “Nicky, where did he get

them?”

“Where did he get what?” He looked puzzled.

“Don’t you see! We are going at it from the wrong end.

We have been trying to find out what happened to the blocks. This

morning you mentioned the quarries at Aswan. Shouldn’t we consider where

Taita found the blocks for his dam, rather than what happened to them

afterwards?”

“The quarry!” Nicholas exclaimed. “My word, you are right. The

beginning, not the end. We should be looking for the quarry, not the

remnants of the dam wall.”

“Where do we start?”

“I hoped you were going to tell me.” He laughed out loud, and

immediately Tamre bubbled with sympathetic laughter. They both looked at

the boy.

“I think we should start with Tamre, our faithful guide,” she said, and

took his hand. “Listen to me, Tamre. Listen very carefully!” Obediently

he cocked his head and stared at her face, summoning all his errant

concentration.

“We are looking for a place where the square stones come from.” He

looked mystified, so she tried again. “Long ago there were men who cut

the rock from the mountains.

Somewhere near here, they left a big hole. Perhaps there are still

square blocks of stone lying in the hole?”

Suddenly the boy’s face cleared and split into a beatific smile. “The

Jesus stone!the cried happily.

He sprang to his feet without relinquishing his grip on her hand. “I

show you my Jesus stone.” He dragged her after him as he bounded away

down the valley.

“Wait, Tamre! she pleaded. “Not so fast.” But in vain.

Tamre kept up the pace and burst into an Amharic hymn as he ran.

Nicholas followed at a more sedate pace, and caught up with them a

quarter of a mile down the valley.

There he found Tamre on his knees, pressing his forehead against the

rock wall of the valley, his eyes shut tightly as he prayed. He had

dragged Royan down beside him.

“What on earth are you doing?”Nicholas demanded, as he came up.

“We are praying,” she told him primly. “Tamre’s instructions. We have to

pray before we can go to the Jesus stone.” She turned away from

Nicholas, closed her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her eyes,

then began to pray softly.

Nicholas found a seat on a boulder a little way from them. “I don’t

suppose it can do any harm,” he consoled himself, as he settled down to

wait.

Abruptly Tamre sprang to his feet and performed a giddy little dance,

flapping his arms and whirling around until he raised the dust. Then he

stopped and chanted. “It is done. We can go in to the Jesus stone.”

Once again he seized Royan’s hand and led her to the rock wall. In front

of Nicholas’s eyes the two of them seemed to vanish, and he stood up in

mild alarm.

“Royan!” he called. “Where are you? What’s going on?”

“This way, Nicky. Come this way!’

He went to the wall and exclaimed with astonishment, “My oath! We would

never have found this in a year of searching.”

The cliff face was folded back upon itself, forming a concealed

entrance. He walked through the opening, gazing up the vertical sides,

and within thirty paces came out into an open amphitheatre that was at

least a hundred yards across and open to the sky. The walls were of

solid rock, and he could see at a glance that it was the same micaceous

schist as the block which Royan had found lying on the floor of the

valley.

It was apparent that the bowl had been quarried out of the living rock,

leaving tiers rising up to the top of the walls. The recesses from which

the blocks had been hacked were still plain to see and had left deep

steps with rightangled profiles. Some scrub and undergrowth had found a

precarious foothold in the cracks, but the open quarry was not choked

with this growth and Nicholas could see that a stockpile of finished

granite blocks remained scattered about the bottom of the excavation. He

was so awed by the discovery that he could find no words to express

himself. He stood just inside the entrance, his head slowly turning from

side to side as he tried to take it all in.

Tamre had led Royan to the centre of the quarry where one large slab lay

on its own. It was obvious that the ancients had been on the point -of

removing it and transporting it up the valley, for it was finished and

dressed into a perfect rectangle.

“The Jesus stone!” Tamre chanted, kneeling before the slab and pulling

Royan down beside him. “Jesus led me here. The first time I came here I

saw him standing on the stone. He had a long white beard and eyes that

were kind and sad.” He crossed himself and began to recite one of the

psalms, swaying and bobbing to the rhythm.

As Nicholas moved up quietly behind them he saw the evidence that Tamre

had visited this sacred place of his regularly. The Jesus stone was his

own private altar, and his pathetic little offerings were lying where he

had laid them. There were old tej flasks and baked clay pots, most of

them cracked and broken. In them stood bunches of wild flowers that had

long ago wilted and dried out. There were other treasures that he had

gathered and placed upon his altar – tortoise shells and porcupine

quills, a cross that had been hand-carved from wood and decorated with

scraps of coloured cloth, necklaces of lucky beans, and models of

animals and birds moulded from blue river clay.

Nicholas stood and watched the two of them kneeling and praying together

in front of the primitive altar. He felt deeply moved by this evidence

of the boy’s faith, and by his childlike trust in bringing them to this

place.

At last Royan stood up and came to join him. Together she and Nicholas

began to make a slow circuit of the quarry floor. They spoke little, and

then only in whispers as though they were in a cathedral or some holy

place. She touched his arm and pointed. A number of the square blocks

still lay in their original positions in the quarry walls. They had not

been completely freed from the mother rock, like a foetus attached by an

umbilical cord which had never been severed by the ancient masons.

It was a perfect illustration of the quarrying methods used by the

ancients. Work could be seen in progress in all the various stages, from

the marking out of the blocks by the master craftsman, the drilling of

the tap holes, the wedging of the cleavage lines, right up to the

finished product lifted out of the wall and ready for transport to the

dam site.

The sun had set and it was almost dark by the time they came round to

the entrance of the quarry again. They sat together on one of the

finished blocks, with Tamre sitting at their feet like a puppy, looking

up at Royan’s face.

“If he had a tail he would wag it,’Nicholas smiled.

“We can never betray his trust, and desecrate this place in any way. He

has made it his own temple. I don’t think he has ever brought another

living soul here. Will you promise me that we will always respect it, no

matter what?”

“That is the very least I can do,” he agreed. Then, turning to Tamre, he

said, “You have done a very good thing by bringing us here to your Jesus

stone. I am very pleased with you. The lady is very pleased with you.”

“We should start back to camp now,” Royan suggested, looking up at the

patch of sky above them. Already it was purple and indigo, shot through

with the last rays of the sunset.

“I don’t think that would be very wise,” he disagreed.

“Because it is a moonless night one of us could very easily break a leg

in the dark. That is something not to be recommended out here. It might

take a week to get back to any adequate medical attention.”

“You plan to sleep here?” she asked, with surprise.

“Why not? I can whip up a fire in no time and I also have a pack of

survival rations for dinner – I have done this kind of thing before, you

know! And you have your chaperon with you, so your honour is safe. So

why not?”

“Why not, indeed?” she laughed. “We will be able to make a more detailed

inspection of the quarry tomorrow early.”

He stood up to start gathering firewood, but then stopped and looked up

at the sky. She heard it too, that now familiar fluttering whistle in

the air.

“The Pegasus helicopter once again,” he said unnecessarily. “I wonder

what the hell they are up to at this time of day?”

They both stared up into the gathering darkness and watched the

navigational lights of the aircraft pass a thousand feet overhead,

flashing red and green and white as it headed southwards in the

direction of the monastery.

Nicholas built a small fire in the corner of the quarry nearest the

entrance, and as they sat around it he divided the pack of dry survival

rations into three parts. They nibbled them, and washed down the sweet

and sticky concentrated tablets with water from his bottle.

The fire threw ghostly reflections up the side of the ed the moving

shadows. When a quarry wall, and enhanc.

nightjar uttered it warbling cry from a niche high up the wall, it was

so eerie and evocative that Royan shivered and moved a little closer to

Nicholas.

“I wonder if somewhere on the other side Taita is aware of our

progress,” she said. “I get the feeling that we have him a little

worried by now. We have untangled the first part of the conundrum that

he set for us, and I’ll bet he never expected anybody to do that well.”

“The next step will be to get to the bottom of his pool.

That will be really one up on the old devil. What do you hope we might

find down there?”

“I hesitate to put it into words,” she replied. “I might talk it away,

and put a jinx on us.”

“I am not superstitious. Well, not much anyway. Shall I say it for you?”

he offered, and she laughed and nodded.

He went on, “We hope to find the entrance to the tomb of Pharaoh Mamose.

No more hints and riddles and red herrings. The veritable tomb.”

She crossed her fingers. “From your lips to God’s ear!” Then she grew

serious. “What do you think of our chances?

I mean of finding the tomb intact?”

He shrugged. “I will answer that once we get to the bottom of the pool.”

“How are we going to do that? You have ruled out the use of an

aqualung.”

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “At this stage I just don’t know. Perhaps

we might be able to get in there with fullhelmeted diving suits.”

She was silent as she considered the seeming imposs’ ability of the task

ahead.

“Cheer up!” He put his arm around her shoulders, and she made no move to

pull away from him. “There is one consolation. If Taita has made it so

tough for us, he has also made it tough for anyone else to have got in

there ahead of us. I think that if the tomb is really down there, no

other grave robbers have beaten us to it.”

“If the entrance to the tomb is at the bottom of the pool, then his

descriptions in the scrolls are deliberately misleading. The information

that has come down to us has been garbled by Taita, then by Duraid, and

finally by Wilbur Smith. We are faced with the task of finding our way

through this labyrinth of deliberate misinformation.”

They were silent again for a while and then Royan smiled in the

firelight, her face lighting up with anticipation.

“Oh, icky! It is such an exciting challenge.” Then her voice descended

an octave. “But is there a way? Is it possible to get in there?”

“We will find out.”

“When?”

“In due course. I haven’t thought it out fully as yet. All I am certain

of is that it is going to take a prodigious amount of planning and hard

work.”

“You are still committed, then?” She wanted his assurance. She knew that

she could never do it alone. “You aren’t daunted by the project?”

Nicholas chuckled. “I will admit that I never expected Taita to lead us

on such a merry chase. I imagined simply breaking open a stone gateway

and finding it all waiting for us there, like Howard Carter walking into

the tomb of Tutankhamen. However, to answer your question, yes, I am

daunted by what it’s going to involve – but hell nothing could stop me

now! I have the smell of glory in my nostrils and the gleam of gold in

my eye.”

While they talked, Tamre curled up in the dust on the other side of the

fire, and pulled his shaninut over his head. His rest must have been

interrupted by dreams and fantasies, for he burbled and squeaked and

giggled in his sleep.

“I wonder what goes on in that poor demented head, and what visions he

sees,” Royan whispered. “He says he saw Jesus here in the quarry, and I

am sure that he really believes that he did.”

Their voices became softer and drowsier as the fire burned down and

Royan murmured, just before she fell asleep on Nicholas’s shoulder, “If

the tomb of Pharaoh Mamose is below the level of the river, then surely

the contents will be water-damaged?”

“I can’t believe that Taita would have built his dam and spent fifteen

years working on the tomb, as he says that he did in the scrolls, only

to flood it deliberately and despoil the mummy of his king and ruin his

treasure,” Nicholas murmured, with her hair tickling his cheek. “No, t

would have precluded Pharaoh’s resu he that rrection in other world, and

brought all his work to nothing. I think Taita has taken all that into

his calculations.”

She snuggled closer, and sighed with satisfaction.

A little while later he said softly, “Goodnight, Royan,” but she did

not’ reply and her breathing was deep and even. He smiled to himself,

and gently kissed the top of her head.

Nicholas was not certain what had woken him.

He took a few moments to place himself, and then he realized that he was

still in the quarry. There was no moon but the stars hung down close to

the earth, as big and fat as bunches of ripe grapes. By their light he

saw that Royan had slipped down and was lying flat on the ground beside

him.

He stood up carefully, so as not to disturb her, and moved well away

from the dead fire to empty his bladder.

The night was deathly quiet. No night bird called, nor was there the

sound of any of the other nocturnal creatures.

The rocks around him still radiated the heat of the previous day’s

sunlight.

Suddenly the sound that had woken him was repeated.

It was a faint and distant susurration that echoed along the cliffs, so

that he could form no judgement as to the direction from which it came.

But he was in no doubt what the sound was. He had heard it so often

before. It was the sound of faraway automatic gunfire, almost certainly

an AK-47 assault rifle firing, not long ragged bursts, but short taps of

three rounds, an art that took expertise and practice.

He was sure that the person doing the shooting was a trained

professional.

He tilted his wrist so that the luminescent dial of his watch caught the

starlight, and he saw that it was a few minutes after three ‘clock in

the morning.

He stood listening for a long time, but the firing was not repeated. At

last he returned to where Royan lay and settled down beside her again.

However, he slept only shallowly and intermittently, and kept starting

awake listening for more gunfire in the night.

Royan began to stir at the first lemon and orange flush of dawn in the

eastern sky, and while they ate the remains of the survival rations for

their breakfast he told her about the noise that had woken him during

the night.

“Do you think it could have been Boris?” she asked.

“He May have caught up with Mek and Tessay.”

“I doubt that very much. Boris has already been gone several days. He

should be well out of earshot by now, even beyond the sound range of the

heaviest weapons.”

“Who do you suppose it was, then?”

“I have no idea. But I don’t like it. We should start back to camp as

soon as we have had another look around the quarry. After that there is

nothing further that we can do at this stage. We should make tracks for

home and mother.”

As soon as the light was strong enough, Nicholas shot a spool of film to

make a record of the quarry. For ison of scale, Royan posed beside

compar the wall in which the embryonic blocks still lay. As she warmed

to her role as a model she started to clown for him. She climbed on to

the biggest of the slabs and hammed it up for the camera, pouting with

one hand behind her head in the style of Marilyn Monroe.

When, finally, they went off down the valley towards the monastery they

were both exultant and garrulous after their success. Their discussion

was animated as they bounced ideas back and forth, and laid their plans

for the further exploitation of these wonderful discoveries.

By the time they reached the pink cliffs at the lower end of the chasm

it was late morning. There they met a small party of monks from the

monastery coming up the trail.

Even from a distance it was obvious that something dreadful had happened

during their absence: the sorrowful ululations of the monks sent chills

down Royan’s spine.

It was the universal African sound of mourning, the harbinger of death

and disaster. As they approached they saw that the monks were picking up

handfuls of dust from the track and pouring it over their heads as they

wailed and lamented.

“What is it, Tamre?” Royan asked the boy. “Go and find out for usP Tamre

ran ahead to meet his brother monks.

They stopped in the middle of the path and fell into a high-pitched

discussion, weeping and gesticulating. Then Tamre ran back to them.

“Your people at the camp. Something terrible has happened. Bad men came

in the might. Many of the servants are dead,” he screamed.

Nicholas grabbed Royan’s hand. “Come on!” he snapped, “let’s find out

what is going on here.”

They ran the last mile to the camp, and arrived to find another circle

of monks gathered around something in front of the kitchen hut.

Nicholas pushed them aside and elbowed his way to the front. There he

stopped and stared with a sinking feeling in his gut, and the sweat on

his face turned cold with horror. Under a buzzing blue pall of flies lay

the bloodsplattered corpse of the cook and three other camp servants.

Their hands had been bound behind their backs, and then they had been

forced to kneel before being shot in the back of the head at close

range.

“Don’t lookV Nicholas warned Royan as she came up.

“It’s not very pretty.”

But she ignored his advice and came to stand beside him. “Oh, sweet

heavens. They have been slaughtered like cattle in an abattoir,” She

gagged.

“This explains the sound of gunfire that I heard last night,” he

answered grimly. He went forward to identify the dead men. “Aly and Kif

are not here. Where are they?” He raised his voice and called in Arabic,

turning to face the crowd. “Aly, where are you?”

The tracker pushed his way forward. “I am here, effendi.” His voice was

shaky and his face was haggard. “Mere was blood on the front of his

shirt.

“How did this happen?” Nicholas seized his arm and steadied him.

“Men came in the night with the guns. Shufta. They shot into the huts

where we were sleeping. They gave us no warning. They just started

shooting.

“How many of them? Who were they?” Nicholas demanded.

“I do not know how many of them there were. It was dark. I was asleep. I

ran away when the shooting began.

They were shufta, bandits, killers. They were hyenas and jackals – there

was no reason for what they have done.

These men were my brothers, my friends.” He began to sob, and the tears

streamed down his face.

Royan turned away, sickened and horrified. She went to her hut and

stopped in the doorway. It had been ransacked. Her bags had been turned

out on to the floor.

Her bedding had been stripped, and the mattress thrown into the corner.

As though she were a sleepwalker in a nightmare, she crossed the floor

and picked up the canvas folder in which she kept her papers. She turned

it upside down and shook it. It was empty. The satellite photo graphs

and the maps, all her rubbings of the stele, the Polaroids that Nicholas

had taken in Tanus’s tomb – everything was gone.

Royan picked up the bed and set it the right way up.

She sat down on it, and tried to gather her thoughts. She felt confused

and shaken. The image of those bloody, bullet-ripped corpses laid out in

front of the kitchen haunted her, and she found it difficult to

concentrate and to think clearly.

Nicholas burst into her hut and looked around quickly.

“They did the same thing to me. Ransacked the place. My rifle has gone,

and all my papers. But at least I had the passports and travellers’

cheques in my day-pack-‘ He broke off as he saw the empty canvas folder

lying at her feet. “Have they taken the-‘

“Yes!” she forestalled his question. “They have cleaned out all our

research material, even the Polaroids. Thank God you had the undeveloped

rolls of film with you. It’s the same as happened to Duraid and me all

over again. We aren’t safe from them, even here,’even out in the

remotest part of the bush.” There was the edge of hysteria in her voice.

She jumped up from the bed and ran to him.

“Oh, Nicky, what would have happened if we had been in camp last night?”

She threw her arms around him, and clung to him. “We would be lying out

there in the sun now, all bloody and covered with flies.”

“Steady on, my dear. Let’s not jump to any conclusions.

This could just be a chance raid by bandits.”

“Then why did they steal our papers? What value would ordinary shtifta

place on rubbings and Polaroids?

Where was the Pegasus helicopter heading just before the raid? They were

after us, Nicky. I feel it so strongly. They wanted to kill us just as

they did Duraid. They could return at any time, and now we are unarmed

and helpless.”

“All right, I agree with you that we are pretty vulnerable here. It

would be wise to get out as soon as possible.

There isn’t any point in staying on here anyway. There’s nothing more we

can do at this stage.” He hugged her and shook her gently. “Brace up! We

will salvage what we can from this mess, and then get moving back to the

vehicles right away.”

“What about the dead men?” She stood back, and with an effort forced

back her, tears and brought herself under control. “How many of our

people survived?”

“Aly, Salin and Kif escaped. They dived out of their huts and ran off

into the darkness as soon as the shooting started. I have told them to

get ready to leave right away. I have spoken to one of the senior

priests. They will take care of the burial of the dead, and will report

to the authorities as soon as they are able. But they agree that the

attack was aimed at us, and that we are still in danger, and that we

should get away as soon as possible.”

Within the hour they were ready to start. Nicholas had decided to leave

all the camping equipment and Boris’s personal gear in the charge of

Jali Hora. The mules were lightly loaded, and he planned to make a

forced march out of the gorge.

The abbot had given them an escort of monks to accompany them to the top

of the escarpment. “Only a truly Godless man would attack you while you

are under the protection of the crosss’ he explained.

Nicholas found the dried hide and head of the striped dik-dik still in

the skinning shed. He rolled it into a bundle and strapped it on to the

load atop one of the mules, and then gave the order for the attenuated

caravan to move out.

Tamre had insinuated himself into the group of monks who were escorting

the party. He kept close behind Royan as they set off up the trail, with

the lamentations and farewells of the monastic community following them

for the first mile.

It was hot in this brutal midday. There was no movement of air to bring

relief, and the stone walls of the valley sucked up the heat of that

awful sun and spewed it back over them as they toiled up the steep

gradients. It dried their sweat even as it oozed through their pores,

leaving patterns of white salt crystals on their skins and clothing. The

muleteers, spurred on by fear, set a killing pace, trotting behind their

beasts and prodding their testicles with a sharpened stick to keep them

moving at their best pace.

By midafternoon they had retraced the morning’s travel and once more

reached the putative site of Taita’s dam wall. Nicholas and Royan took a

few.minutes’breather to dip their heads in the river and sluice the salt

and sweat from their faces and necks. Then they stood together above the

falls and took a brief farewell of the chasm in which lay all their

hopes and dreams.

“How long until we return?”she asked.

“We cannot afford to leave it too long,” he told her.

“Big rains are due soon, and the hyenas have got the scent and are

crowding in. From now on every day will be precious, and every hour we

lose may be crucial.”

She stared down into the chasm and said softly, “You haven’t won yet,

Taita. The game is still afoot.”

They turned away together and followed the mules up the trail towards

the escarpment wall. That evening they did not stop at the traditional

campsite beside the river, but pressed on several miles further until

darkness forced a halt. There was no attempt to build a comfortable

camp.

They dined on cakes of injera bread dipped in the wat pot that the monks

had carried with them. Then Nicholas and Royan spread their bedrolls

side by side on the stony earth and, using the mule packs as pillows,

fell into exhausted, dreamless sleep.

The next morning, while the mules were being loaded in the pre-dawn

darkness, they drank a bowl of strong bitter black Ethiopian coffee.

Then they started out along the trail again.

As the rising sun lit the sheer walls of the escarpment ahead of them

they seemed close enough to touch, and Nicholas remarked to Royan, as

she swung along longlegged beside him, “At this pace we should reach the

foot of the escarpment this afternoon, and there is a good chance that

we might sleep tonight in the cavern behind the waterfall.”

“That means we could cut a couple of days off the journey and reach the

trucks some time tomorrow.”

“Possibly,” he said. “I’ll be glad to get out of here.”

“It feels like a trap,” Royan agreed, looking at the rocky, broken

ground that rose on either hand, hemming them into the narrow bottom of

the Dandera river. “I have been doing a bit of thinking, Nicky.”

“Let’s hear your conclusions.”

“No conclusions, only some disturbing thoughts. Suppose somebody at

Pegasus who can understand them is now in possession of our rubbings and

Polaroids. What will their reaction be if they know how much progress we

have made in the search?”

“Not -very happy thoughts,” he agreed. “But on the other hand there is

not much we can do about any of that until we get back to civilization,

except keep our eyes wide.

open and our wits about us. Hell, I haven’t even got the little Rigby

rifle. We are a flock of sitting ducks.”

Aly, the muleteers and the monks seemed to be of the same opinion, for

they never slackened the pace. It was midday before they called the

first brief halt to brew coffee and to water the mules. While the men

lit fires, Nicholas took his binoculars from the mule pack and began to

climb the rock slope. He had not covered much ground before he glanced

back and saw Royan climbing after him. He waited for her to catch up.

“You should have taken the chance to rest,” he told her severely. “Heat

exhaustion is a real danger.”

I don’t trust you going off on your own. I want to know what you are up

to.”

“Just a little recce. We should have scouts out ahead, not just go

charging blindly along the trail like this. If I remember correctly from

the inward march, some of the ound lies just ahead of us. Lord knows

what we worst gr may run into.”

They went on upwards, but it was not possible to reach the crest for a

sheet of unscalable vertical cliff barred their way. Nicholas chose the

best vantage point below this barrier, and glassed both slopes of the

valley ahead of them.

The terrain was as he had remembered it. They were approaching the foot

of the escarpment wall and the ground was becoming more rugged and

severe, like the swell of the open ocean sensing the land and rising up

in alarm before breaking in confusion upon the shore. The trail followed

the river closely. The cliffs hung over the narrow aisle of ound that

made up the bank, sculpted by wind and gr weather into strange, menacing

shapes, like the battlements of a wicked witch’s castle in an old Disney

cartoon.

At one point a buttress of red sandstone overhung the trail, forcing the

river to detour around it, and the trail was reduced so much that it

would be difficult for a laden mule to negotiate without being pushed

off the bank into the river.

Nicholas studied the bottom of the valley carefully through the lens. He

could pick out nothing that seemed suspicious or untoward, so he raised

his head and swept the Cliffs and their tops.

At that moment Aly’s voice came up from the valley below, echoing along

the slope as he shouted, “Hurry, effendi! The mules are ready to go on!’

Nicholas waved down to him, but then lifted the binoculars for one more

sweep of the ground ahead. A wink of bright light caught his eye – a

brief ephemeral stab of brilliance like the signal of a heliograph. He

switched his whole attention to the spot on the cliff from which it had

emanated.

“What is it? What have you seen?” Royan demanded.

am not sure. Probably nothing,” he replied, without lowering the

binoculars. It may have been a reflection from a polished metal surface,

or from the lens of another pair of binoculars, or from the barrel of a

sniper’s rifle, he thought. On the other hand, a chip of mica or a

pebble of rock crystal could reflect sunlight the same way, and even

some of the aloes and other succulent plants have shiny leaves. He

watched the spot carefully for a few more minutes, and then Aly’s voice

floated up to them again.

“Hurry, effendi. The mule-drivers will not wait!

He stood up. “All right. Nothing. Let’s go.” He took Royan’s arm to help

her over the rough footing, and they started down. At that moment he

heard the rattle of stones from further up the slope, and he stopped her

and held her arm to keep her quiet. They waited, watching the skyline.

Abruptly a pair of long curling horns appeared over the crest, and under

them the head of an old kudu bull, his trumpet-shaped ears pricked

forward and the fringe of his dewlap blowing in the hot, light breeze.

He stopped on the edge of the cliff just above where they crouched, but

he had not seen them. The kudu turned his head and stared back in the

direction from which he had come. The sunlight glinted in his nearest

eye, and the set of his head and the alert, tense stance made it clear

that something had disturbed him.

For a long moment he stood poised like that, and then, still without

being aware of the presence of Nicholas and Royan, he snorted and

abruptly leaped away in full flight.

He vanished from their sight behind the ridge and the sound of his run

dwindled into silence.

“Something scared the living daylights out of him.”

“What?” enquired Royan.

“Could have been anything – a leopard, perhaps,” he replied, and he

hesitated as he looked down the slope. The caravan of mules and monks

had set off already and was following the trail Up along the river bank.

“What should we do?” Royan asked.

“We should reconnoitre the ground ahead – that is if we had the time,

which we haven’t.” The caravan was pulling away swiftly. Unless they

went down immediately they would be left behind alone, unarmed. He had

nothing concrete to act upon, and yet he had to make an immediate

decision.

“Come on!” He took her hand again, and they slid and scrambled down the

slope. Once they reached the trail they had to break into a run to catch

up with the tail of the caravan.

Now that they were again part of the column, Nicholas could turn his

attention to searching the skyline above them more thoroughly. The

cliffs loomed over them, blocking out half the sky. The river on their

left hand washed out any other sounds with its noisy, burbling current.

Nicholas was not really alarmed. He prided himself on being able to

sense trouble in advance, a sixth sense that had saved his life more

than once before. He thought of it as his early-warning system, but now

it was sending no messages. There were any number of possible

explanations for the reflection he had picked up from the crest of the

cliff, and for the behaviour of the bull kudu.

However, he was still a little on edge, and he was giving the high

ground above them all his attention. He saw a speck flick over the top

of the cliff, twisting and falling – a dead leaf -on the warm, wayward

breeze. It was too small and insignificant to be of any danger, but

nevertheless he followed the movement with his eye, his interest idle.

The brown leaf spiralled and looped, and finally touched lightly against

his cheek. He lifted his hand as a reflex, and caught it. He rubbed the

brown scrap between his fingers, expecting it to crackle and crumble.

Instead it was soft and supple, with a fine, almost greasy texture.

He opened his hand and studied it more closely. It was no leaf, he saw

at once, but a torn scrap of greased paper, brown and translucent,

Suddenly all his early’warning bells jangled. It was not just the

incongruity of manufactured paper suddenly materializing in this remote

setting. He recognized the quality and texture of that particular type

of paper. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed it. The sharp, nitrous

odour prickled the back of his throat.

“Gelly!” he exclaimed aloud. He knew the smell instantly.

Blasting gelignite was seldom employed for military purposes in this age

of Semtex and plastic explosives, bu was still widely used in the mining

industry and in mineral exploration. Usually the sticks of nitrogelatine

in a wood Pulp and sodium nitrate base was wrapped in that distinct tive

brown greased paper. Before the detonator was placed in the head of the

stick, it was common practice to tear off the corner of the paper

wrapper to expose the treacle brown explosive beneath. He had used it

often enough in the old days never to forget the odour of it.

His mind was racing now. If somebody was expecting them and had mined

the cliff with gelignite, then the reflection he had picked up could

have been from the coils of copper wiring strung between the explosive

in the rock, or it could have been from some other item of equipment.

If that was so, then the operator might even at this moment be lying

concealed up there, ready to press the plunger on the circuit box. The

kudu bull might have been fleeing from the concealed human presence.

“Aly!” he bellowed down to the head of the caravan, “Stop them! Turn

them back!’

He started to run forward towards the head of the caravan, but in his

heart he knew it was already too late. If there was somebody up there on

the cliff, he was watching every move that Nicholas made. Nicholas could

never hope to reach the head of the column and turn the mules around on

the narrow trail, and get them back to safety before … He came up

short and looked back at Royan.

Her safety was his main concern. He turned and ran back to grab her arm.

“Come on! We have to get off the track.”

“What is it, Nicky? What are you doing?” She was resisting him, pulling

back against his grip on her arm.

“I’ll explain later,” he snapped at her brusquely. “Just trust me now.”

He dragged her a couple of paces before she gave in and began to run

with him, back in the direction from which they had come.

They had notcovered fifty yards before the cliff face blew. A vast

disruption of air swept over them with a force that made them stagger.

It clapped painfully in their skulls and threatened to implode the

delicate membranes of their eardrums. Then the main force of the blast

swept over them, not a single blast but a long, rolling detonation like

thunder breaking directly overhead. It stunned and battered them so that

they reeled into each other and lost the direction of their flight.

Nicholas seized her in a steadying embrace, and looked back. He saw a

series of explosions leap from the crest of the cliff. Tall, dancing

fountains of dirt and dust and rubble, pirouetting one after the other

in strict choreography, like a chorus-line of hellish ballerinas.

Even in the terror of the moment he could appreciate the expertise with

which the gelignite had been laid. This was a master bomber at work. The

leaping columns of rubble subsided upon themselves, leaving the fine,

tawny mist of dust drifting and spiralling against the clear blue of the

sky, and for a moment longer it seemed that the destruction was

complete. Then the silhouette of the cliff began to alter.

Slowly at first the wall of rock started to lean outwards.

He saw great cracks appear in the face, opening like leering mouths.

Sheets of rock collapsed and in slow motion slithered down upon

themselves like the silken skirts of a curtseying giantess. The rock

groaned and crackled and rumbled as the entire cliff began to fall into

the river far below.

Nicholas was mesmerized by the awful sight, and his brain seemed to have

been numbed by the explosion. It took a huge effort to force himself to

think and to act. He saw that the centre of the explosion had occurred

further down the trail, near the head of the mule caravan. Tamre was up

there, beside Aly. He and Royan were at the tail of the caravan. The

bomber up on the cliff had obviously been waiting for them to come

directly into the epicentre of his explosive trap, but had been forced

to trigger it when he saw them running back down the trail and realized

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