When Nicholas woke her with a mug of hot sweet tea, she saw it was
already late afternoon. He sat beside her and sipped at his own mug,
noisily blowing away the steam between each mouthful.
“You will be pleased to know that Mek is now fully in the picture. He
has agreed to help us.”
“What have you told him?”
“Just enough to keep him interested.”Nicholas grinned.
“The theory of progressive disclosure. Never tell everything all at
once, feed it to them a little at a time. He knows what we are looking
for, and that we are going to dam a river.”
hat about men to work on the dam?”
monks at St. Frumentius will do whatever he tells them. He is a great
“What have you promised him in return?”
“We haven’t got round to that yet. I told him that we have no idea what
we are going to find, and he laughed and said he would trust me.”
“Silly boy, isn’t he?”
“Not exactly how I would describe Mek Nimmur,” he murmured. “I think
when the time is ripe he will let us know what the price of his
cooperation is.” He looked up at that moment. “We were just talking
about you, Mek.”
Mek strode up to them, and then squatted on his haunches beside
“What were you saying about me
“Royan says you are a hard bastard, pushing er on a forced march all
“Nicholas is spoiling you. I have been watching him fussing over you,’
he chuckled. “What I say is, treat them rough. Women love it.” Then he
grew serious. “I am sorry, Royan. The border is always a bad place. You
will find me less of a monster now we are on home ground.”
“We are very grateful for all you are doing.” He inclined his head
gravely, “Nicholas is an old friend, and I hope that you are a new
“I have been terribly distressed. Tessay told me last night that there
had been trouble at the monastery.”
Mek scowled and tugged at his short beard, pulling a tuft of hair from
his own chin with the force of his anger.
“Nogo and his killers. This is just a sample of what we are fighting
against. We have been rescued from the tyranny of Mengistu, only to be
plunged into fresh horror.”
“What happened, MA?”
Speaking tersely but vividly, he described the massacre and the plunder
of the monastery’s treasures. “There was no doubt it was Nogo. Every one
of the monks that escaped knows him well.”
His anger was too fierce for him to contain, and he stood up abruptly.
“The monastery means much to all the people of the Gojam. I was
christened there, by Jali Hora himself. The murder of the abbot and the
desecration of the church is a terrible outrage.” He jammed his cap
down, on his head. “And now we must get on. The road ahead is steep and
Now that they were clear of the border, it was safe to move in daylight.
The second day’s march carried them into the depths of the orge. There
were no foothills: it was like entering through the keep of a vast
castle. The walls of the great central massif rose up almost four
thousand feet on either hand, and the river snaked along in the depths,
its entire length churned by rapids and breaking white water. At noon
Mek broke the march to rest in a grove of trees beside the river.
There was a beach below them, sheltered by massive boulders which must
have rolled down from the cliffs that hung like a rampart above them.
The five of them sat a little apart from each other.
Sapper was still smarting from his altercation over the theodolite with
Mek, and keeping himself aloof. He placed the heavy instrument in a
conspicuous position and sat ostentatiously close to it. Mek and Tessay
seemed strangely quiet and withdrawn, until suddenly Tessay reached out
and grasped Mek’s hand..
I want to tell them, she blurted out impulsively.
Mek looked away at the river for a moment before he nodded. “Why not?”
he shrugged at last.
“I want them to know,” Tessay insisted. “They knew Boris. They will
“Do you.,want me to tell them?” Mek asked softly, and he was still
holding her hand.
“Yes,” she nodded, “it is best that it comes from you.” Mek was silent
for a while, gathering his words, and then he started in that low
rumbling voice, not looking at them, but watching Tessay’s face. “The
very first moment I looked upon this woman, I knew that she was the one
that God had sent my way.”
Tessay moved closer to him.
“Tessay and I said our vows together on the night of Timkat and asked
for God’s forgiveness, and then I took man.”
her away as my wo She laid her head upon his great muscular shoulder.
“The Russian followed us. He found us here, on this very spot. He tried
to kill us both.”
Tessay looked down at the beach upon which she and Mek had so nearly
died, and she shuddered at the memory.
“We fought,” he said simply, “and when he was dead, I sent his body
floating away down the river.”
“We knew he was dead,” Royan told them. “We heard from the people at the
embassy that the police found his body downstream, near the border. We
didn’t know how it had happened.”
They were all quiet for a while, and then Nicholas broke the silence, “I
wish I had been there to watch. It must have been one hell of a fight.
He shook his head in awe.
“The Russian was good. I am glad I don’t have to fight him again,” Mek
admitted, and stood up. “We can reach the monastery before dark, if we
ai Metemma, the newly elected abbot of St. Frumentius, met them on the
terrace of the monastery overlooking the river. He was only a little
younger than Jah Hora had been, tall and with a dignified silver head,
and today he was wearing the blue crown in honour of such a
distinguished guest as Mek
After the visitors had bathed and rested for an hour in the cells that
had been set aside for them, the monks came to lead them to the welcome
feast that had been prepared.
When the tej flasks had been refilled for the third time, and the mood
of the abbot and of his monks had mellowed, Mek began to whisper into
the old man’s ear.
“You recall the history of St. Frumentius – how God cast him up on our
shore from the storm-tossed sea, so that he might bring the true faith
The abbot’s eyes filled with tears. “His holy body was entombed here, in
our nwqdas. The barbarians came and stole the relic away from us. We are
children without a father. The reason for the building of this church
and monastery has been taken away,” he lamented. “No longer will the
pilgrims come from every corner of Ethiopia to i pray at his shrine. We
will be forgotten by the Church. We are undone. Our monastery will
perish and our monks will be blown away like dead leaves on the wind.”
“When St. Frumentius came to Ethiopia he was not alone. Another
Christian came with him from the High Church in Byzantium,” Mek reminded
him in a soft, soothing rumble.
“St. Antonia.” The abbot reached for his tei flask to allay the
intensity of his sorrow.
Mek agreed. “He died before St. Frumen “St. Antonia tius, but he was no
less holy than his brother.”
“St. Antonia was also a great and holy man, deserving of our love and
veneration.” The abbot took a long swallow from the flask.
“The ways of God are mysterious, are they not?” Mek shook his head at
the wonder of the workings of the universe.
“His ways are deep and not for us to question or understand., “And yet
he is compassionate, and he rewards the devout.”
“He is all’compassionate.” The abbot’s tears overflowed and ran down his
“You and your monastery have suffered a grievous loss.
The sacred relic of St. Frumentius has been taken from you alas, never
to be recovered. But what if God were to send you another? What if he
were to send you the sacred body of St. Antonia?”
The abbot looked up through his tears, his expression suddenly
calculating. That would be a miracle indeed.”
Mek Nimmur placed his arm around the old man’s shoulders and whispered
quietly in his ear, and Mai Metemma stopped weeping and listened
have obtained your workers for you,” Mek told Nicholas as they began the
march up the valley the next morning. “Mai Metemma has promised to give
us a hundred men within two days and another five hundred to follow them
within the next week. He is handing out indulgences to all those who
volunteer to work on the dam. They will be spared the fires of purgatory
if they take part in such a glorious project as the recovery of the holy
relic of St. Antonia.”
Both the women stopped in their tracks and stared at him.
“What did you promise the poor old man?” Tessay demanded.
“A body to replace the one that Nogo plundered from the church. If we do
discover the tomb, then the monastery’s share will be the mummy of
“That’s a mean thing to do,”
A Royan exploded. “You will cheat him into helping us.”
“It is not a cheat.” Mek’s dark eyes flashed at the accusation. “The
relic that they lost was not the veritable body of St. Frumentius, and
yet for hundreds of years it served the purpose of uniting the community
of monks and drawing Christians from all over this land. Now that it is
gone, the very existence of the monastery is threatened.
They have lost their reason for continuing.”
“So you are tempting them with a false promiseP Royan was still angry.
“The body of Mamose is every bit as authentic as the one they lost. What
does it matter if it is the body of an ancient Egyptian rather than that
of an ancient Christian, just as long as it serves as a focus for the
faith and if it is the means by which the monastery might survive for
another five hundred years?”
“I think Mek is making sense.” Nicholas gave his opinion.
“Since when have you been an expert in Christianity?
You are an atheist,” Royan flashed at him, and he held up his hands as
if to ward off a blow.
“You are right. What do I know about it anyway?
You argue it out with Mek. I am going to discuss the theory of
dam-building with Sapper Webb.” He sauntered up to the head of the file
of men and fell in beside his engineer.
From time to time he heard heated voices raised behind him, and he
grinned. He knew Mek, but he was also beginning to understand the lady.
It would be fascinating to see who would win this argument.
They reached the head of the chasm in the middle of the afternoon, and
while Mek 6.. searched out a campsite Nicholas took Sapper immediately
to the narrow neck of the river just above where it plunged over the
waterfall. While Sapper set up the theodolite, Nicholas took the
graduated levelling staff.
Sapper ordered him up and down the face of the cliff with peremptory
hand signals, all the while peering into the lens of the theodolite,
while Nicholas teetered on insecure footing and tried to keep the staff
upright for Sapper to take his sightings.
“Okay!” Sapper bellowed, after taking his twentieth shot. “Now I want
you on the other side of the river.”
Tine!” Nicholas bellowed back. “Do you want me to fly or swim?”
Nicholas hiked three miles upstream to the ford where the trail crossed
the Dandera river, and then fought his way back through the tangled
river in undergrowth to the point on the bank opposite which Sapper lay
in the shade smoking a soothing cigarette.
“Don’t rupture yourself, will you?” Nicholas yelled across the water at
It was almost dark before Sapper had made all the shots he wanted, and
Nicholas was still faced with the long return trip over the ford. He
covered the last mile in almost total darkness, guided only by the
flicker of the campfires.
Wearily he stumbled into the camp and flung down the levelling staff.
“You had beer tell me that it was worth it,” he tt growled at Sapper,
who did not look up from his slide rule.
He was working over his revised drawings by the glaring light of a small
Most Populiir VPIL
“You weren’t too far out in your estimates,” he congratulated Nicholas.
“The river is forty’one yards wide at the critical point above the
falls, where I want to site the structure.”
“All I want to know is if you will be able to throw a dam across it.”
Sapper grinned and laid his finger down the side of his nose, “You get
me my ruddy front-ender, and I’ll dam the bleeding Nile itself.”
had eaten their dinner – another of the packs – Royan glanced across
the fire at cholas. -When she caught his eye she inclined her head in
invitation. Then she stood up and casually drifted out of camp, looking
back once to make sure he was following her. Nicholas lighted the path
with his torch as they picked their way back to the dam site and found a
boulder overlooking the water on which to sit.
He switched off the torch and they were silent for a while as their eyes
adjusted to the starlight, and then Royan whispered, “There were times
that I thought we would never return here – that it was all a dream, and
that Taita’s pool never existed.”
“For us perhaps it never will, without the help of the monks from the
monastery.” There was a note of enquiry in his voice.
“You and Mek Nimmur win,” she chuckled softly. “Of course we have to
accept their help. Mek’s arguments were very convincing.”
“So you agree that their reward should be the mummy of Mamose?”
“I agree that they may take whatever mummy we discover, if we discover
one at all,” she qualified. “For all we know, the true mummy of Mamose
may be the one that Nogo stole.”
Quite naturally he slipped his arm around her shoulders, and after a
moment she relaxed against him. -oh, Nicky, I am afraid and excited.
Afraid that all our hopes are vain, and excited that we might have found
the key to Taita’s game.” She turned her face to his, and he felt her
breath on his lips.
He kissed her, tenderly. Then he drew back with the warmth of her
lingering on his lips and studied her face in the starlight. She made no
movement to pull away from stead she swayed towards him, and kissed him
back., him. In At first it was a staid sisterly kiss, with her mouth
tightly losed. He brought his right hand up behind her head and weaved
his fingers into her hair, holding her face to his.
He opened his mouth over hers, and she made a little sound of dissent
through her closed lips.
Slowly, voluptuously, he worked her lips apart, and her protests died
away as he probed her mouth deely with his tongue. She was making a
contented little mewling sound now, like a kitten nursing on the teat,
and her arms went around him. She kneaded his back with strong supple
fingers, her mouth wide open to his kiss, her tongue sinuous and
slippery as it twined around his.
He slid his other hand up between their bodies and unhooked the buttons
of her shirt down as low as her belt.
She leaned back slightly in his embrace to make it easier for him. With
a delicious shock he discovered that her breasts were naked under the
thin cotton shirt. He cupped one of them in his hand: it was small and
firm, only just filling his hand. When he pinched the nipple gently , it
stiffened between his fingers like a tiny ripe strawberry.
He broke off the kiss and bowed his head to her bosom.
She moaned softly, and with one hand guided him down.
When he sucked her nipple into his mouth she gasped and hooked the nails
of her other hand into his back, like a cat responding to a caress. Her
whole body undulated in his embrace, and after a while she pulled his
mouth away. He thought for a moment that she was rejecting him, but then
she moved his head across and placed her other nipple in his mouth. Once
again she gasped as he sucked it in.
Her movements became mote abandoned, keeping pace with his own arousal.
He could restrain himself no longer and he reached up under her khaki
culottes and laid his hand on the plump mound of her sex. Then with one
swift lithe movement she broke away and sprang to her feet. She stood
back from him, smoothing down her culottes and buttoning her shirt with
fingers that trembled
“I am so sorry, Nicky. I want to, oh God, you will never know how much I
want to. But-‘ she shook her head and she was panting wildly, “not yet.
Please, Nicky, forgive me. I am caught between two worlds. One half of
me wants this so very much but the other half will not allow me He stood
up and kissed her chastely. “There is no hurry. Good things are worth
waiting for,” he told her with his mouth just touching hers. “Come! I
will take you home now.”
while it was still dark the next morning, the first levy of priests that
Mai Metemma had promised came filing up the valley. Their chanting awoke
the camp, and everyone came sleepily out of their thatched lean-to
shelters to welcome the Ion column of holy men.
“Sweet heavens,” Nicholas yawned, “it looks as though we have started
another crusade. They must have left the monastery in the middle of the
night to get here at this hour.” He went to find Tessay, and when he did
he told her, “You are hereby appointed official translator. Sapper
speaks not a word of either Arabic or Amharic. Stick close to him.”
As soon as it was fully light, Mek and Nicholas left camp to reconnoitr
the drop site. By noon they had agreed that there was only one
possibility: they would have to use the valley itself Compared to the
rocky ridges that surrounded them, the floor of the valley was level and
fairly free of obstructions. It was imperative that the drop should take
place as close to the dam site as possible, for every mile that the
stores must be manhandled would add immeasurably to the time and effort
needed for the work.
“Time is the major factor,” Nicholas told Mek as they stood in the
chosen drop zone the following morning.
“Every day counts from now until the rains break.”
Mek looked up at the sky. “Pray God for late rains.” They marked out
their drop site a mile down from the river, along the stretch where the
valley was widest and there was a clear approach through a gap in the
Jannie would need to fly straight and level for five miles under full
flap and with the loading ramp down.
“Cutting it fine,” Mek remarked, as they surveyed the rugged slopes and
frowning peaks that surrounded them.
“Can your fat friend fly?”
“Fly? He is half-bird,’Nicholas told him.
They moved down the valley to check the placement of the flares and the
markers, The markers consisted of crosses of quartz stones laid out down
the centre of the valley floor, and they would be highly visible from
Sapper was up at the head of the valley. They could see him there on the
skyline as he moved around, setting out his smoke flares to mark the
approach to the drop zone.
When Nicholas turned around and looked in the opposite direction, he
could see the two women sitting on a rock together at the far end of the
valley. Sapper had already helped them to set up their flares. These
would mark the far limit of the zone, and give Jannie a mark for his
climb out of the valley.
Nicholas then turned his attention back to Mek’s men as they finished
laying out the stark white quartz markers.
Once these were all in place, Mek ordered the area to be cleared. Then,
lugging the radio, they climbed up to join Sapper on the high ground at
the head of the valley. Mek helped Nicholas string out the aerial. Then
Nicholas switched on and adjusted the gain carefully before he thumbed
“Big Dolly. Come in, Big Dolly!’Nicholas invited, but the static hummed
“They must be running late.” Nicholas tried not to let his disquiet
show. Jannie will be coming straight in from Malta on this run. After
the first drop he will go back to your base at Roseires and pick up the
second load. With luck, both loads should all be dropped before noon
“If the fat man comes at all,” Mek remarked.
Jannie is a pro,” Nicholas grunted. “He will come.” He held the
microphone to his lips, “Big Dolly. Do you read?
Every ten minutes he called -out into the empty echoing silence. Each
time his call went unanswered he had visions of Sudanese MiG
interceptors racing in with their missiles cocked and locked, and the
old Hercules plunging earthwards in flames.
“Come in, Big Dolly!” he pleaded, and at last a thin, scratchy voice
floated into his headset. “Pharaoh. This is Big Dolly. ETA forty-five
minutes. Standing by.” Jannie’s transmission was terse. He was too much
of an old hand at the smuggling game to give a hostile listener time to
fix his position.
“Big Dolly. Understand four five. Pharaoh standing by.” Nicholas grinned
at Mek. “Looks like we are in business after all.”
Mek heard it first. His ear was battle-tuned. In this i land, if you
wanted to go on living it paid to pick up any aircraft long before it
arrived. Nicholas was out of training, so it was almost five minutes
later that he picked up the distinctive drone of the multi-props echoing
weirdly off the Cliffs of the gorge. It was impossible to be certain of
the direction, but they shaded their eyes and stared into the west.
“There she is.” Nicholas redeemed himself as he spotted the tiny dark
speck, so low as almost to blend into the background of the escarpment
wall. He nodded at Sapper.
Sapper ran out to his flares and fussed over them briefly. When he
backed away they bloomed into clouds of dense marigold-yellow smoke that
drifted out sluggishly on the light breeze. The smoke would give Jannie
the strength and direction of the wind, as well as his orientation for
the drop zone.
Nicholas lifted his binoculars and gazed towards the other end of the
narrow valley. He saw that Royan and Tessay were busy with their flares.
Suddenly crimson smoke billowed from them, and the women ran back to
their original position and stood staring up at the sky.
Nicholas called softly into the microphone. “Big Dolly.
Smoke is up. Do you have it visual?”
“Affirmative. You are visual. For what you are about to receive may you
be truly thankful.” Jannie’s South African accent was unmistakable as he
uttered the cheerful blasphemy.
They watched the aircraft grow in size until its wings seemed to fill
half the sky, and then its profile altered as the great wing flaps
dropped and the ramp below its belly drooped open. Big Dolly slowed her
flight so dramatically that she seemed to hang suspended on an invisible
thread from the high African sun. Slowly she came around, banking
steeply as Jannie tined her up on the smoke flares, dropping lower and
still lower, headed directly at where they stood.
With a savage roar that made all three of them duck, she passed so low
over their heads that it seemed she would wipe them off the crest.
Nicholas had a glimpse of Jannie upwarliov peering down at him from the
cockpit, a fat smile on his face and one hand raised in a laconic wave,
and then he was past.
Nicholas straightened up and watched Big Dolly sweep majestica Ily down
the centre of the valley. The first pallet dropped out of her and
plunged earthwards, until at the last moment its parachutes burst open
like a bride’s bouuet. The fall of the heavy container was arrested
It. dangled and swung, and seconds later struck the floor of the valley
in a cloud of yellow dust and with a crash they could hear up on the
ridge. Then two more loads dropped from her, and they too hung for a
moment on their chutes before they slammed in.
Big Dolly’s engines howled under full throttle and her nose lifted as
she bored for height while she passed over the crimson smoke clouds, and
then climbed out of the deadly trap of the valley. She came round in
another wide turn and lined up for the second run. Once again the
pallets dropped out of her as she roared over the quartz markers and
then climbed out over the end wall of the valley, skimming the rocky
spikes that would have clawed her down.
Six times Jannie repeated the dangerous manoeuvre, and each time he
dropped three of the heavy rectangular loads. They lay strewn down the
length of the valley, shrouded by the tumbled white silk of their own
As Jannie climbed away from the last pass, his voice echoed in
Nicholas’s earphones. “Don’t go away, Pharaoh!
I will be back.” Then Big Dolly lifted her belly ramp like an old lady
hoisting her knickers and headed away westwards.
Nicholas and Mek ran down into the valley, where the monks were already
jabbering and laughing. around the pallets. Quickly the two of them took
control, sorting the men into gangs and directing them as they broke
down the loads and carried them away.
Nicholas and Sapper had planned that the pallets should be dropped in
the order that their contents would be needed. The first pallet
contained canned and dried food, all their personal effects and camping
equipment, along with those other little creature comforts that Nicholas
had allowed, including mosquito nets and a case of malt whisky. He was
relieved to see that there was no leakage from the precious case: not
one of the bottles had been broken in the drop.
Sapper took charge of the building material and heavy equipment. With
Tessay relaying his orders, it was dragged and manhandled away to the
ancient quarry where it would be packed and stored until needed on site.
Darkness fell with More than half the pallets still not unpacked, lying
where they had fallen. Mek placed an armed guard over them, and they all
traipsed wearily back up the valley to the camp.
That night, with a dram of whisky and a decent meal warming his belly, a
mosquito net over his head and a thick foam mattress under him, Nicholas
drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face. They were off to a good
The chanting of the monks at their matins woke him, “We won’t need an
alarm clock here,” he groaned, and staggered down to the river to wash
As the sun gilded the battlements of the escarpment, he and Mek were
already at their post on the heights, searching the western sky. The
plan had been for Jannie to spend the night at Roseires, while Mek’s men
assisted him with the loading of the cargo they had stored-there on
their first flight out from Malta. This was one of the vulnerable stages
of the operation. Although Mek had assured them that there was little
military presence in the area at the moment, it needed only a stray
Sudanese government patrol to stumble on Big, Dolly while she was on the
ground to plunge them all into disaster. So it was with a leap of the
heart that they heard the familiar drone of the turbo-props
reverberating off the cliffs.
Big Dolly lined up again for her first pass down the valley, and as she
flew over the quartz crosses the huge yellow front’end loader tumbled
out of her hold. Instinctively Nicholas held his breath as he watched it
come the parachute hurtling down and then jerk up short on shrouds. it
swayed wildly all over the sky, yoyoing on the nylon ropes, and the
monks howled with amazement and excitement as they watched it drop in.
it struck in a cloud of dust.
Sapper was standing next to Nicholas, groaning and covering his eyes so
that he did not have to watch the “Shit!’ he said in a hollow cloud of
dust rising into the air.
“Is that a command, or merely a request?” Nicholas asked, but he wasn’t
As the last pallet dropped, and the aircraft climbed away under full
power, Nicholas called Jannie on the radio.
“Many thanks, Big Dolly. Safe flight home.”
“Inshallahl If God wills!’Jannie called back.
“I will call you when I need a lift back.”
“I’ll be waiting.” Big Dolly trundled away. “Break a leg!’
“Well now.” Nicholas slapped Sapper’s back. “Let’s go down and see if
you still have a front’ender.”
The battered yellow machine lay on its side with oil pouring out of her,
like blood from a heart-shot dinosaur.
“You can push off. just leave me a dozen of these black guys to help
me,” Sapper told them as sorrowfully as if he was standing at the
graveside of his beloved, Sapper did not return to camp for dinner, so
Tessay sent a bowl of wat and some injera bread down to him to
1i eat while he worked. Nicholas considered going down to offer his help
with repairing the damaged tractor, but thought better of it. From
bitter experience he knew that at certain times Sapper wanted to be left
alone, and that this was one of those times.
in the small dark hours of the morning the camp was lit up by the blaze
of headlights and the hills reverberated to the roar of a diesel engine.
With, even his bald head covered with grease and dust, hollow-eyed but
triumphant, Sapper drove the yellow tractor into the camp and shouted at
them from the high driver’s seat.
okay, knaves and nymphs! Drop your cocks and grab your socks. Let’s go
build a dam.”
t took them another two full days to gather in all the pallets that lay
strewn down the valley and to carry the stores into the ancient quarry.
There they stacked them carefully in accordance with the manifest that
Nicholas and Sapper had drawn up in England. it was essential that they
knew where every item was stored, and that they had immediate access to
it when needed. In the meantime Sapper was at work on the dam site,
laying out his foundations, driving numbered wooden pegs into the banks
of the river, and taking his final measurements with the long steel
During this preliminary work Nicholas was watching the performance of
the monks, and getting to know them individually. He was able to pick
out the natural leaders and the most intelligent and willing men amongst
He was also able to identify those who spoke Arabic or a little English.
The most promising of these was a monk named Hansith Sherif, whom
Nicholas made his personal assistant and interpreter.
Once they were settled into the camp, and had worked out a relationship
with the monks, Mek Nimmur took of Nicholas aside out of earshot the two
“From now on, my work will be the security of the site.
MOS Maa’s :rllar WV.
We will have to be ready to prevent another raid like the one on your
camp, and the slaughter at St. Frumentius.
Nogo and his thugs are still out there. It won’t take long for him to
hear that you are back in the gorge. When he comes, I will be waiting
“You are better with an AK-47 than with a pickaxes’ Nicholas agreed.
“Just leave Tessay here with me.. I need her.”
“So do I’ Mek smiled and shook his head ruefully, “I am only just
learning how much. Look after her for me. I will be back every night to
check on her.”
Mek took his men into the bush and deployed them in defensive positions
along the trail and around the campWhen Nicholas looked up from his own
work he could often make out the figure of one of Mek’s sentries on the
high ground above the camp. It was reassuring to know that they were
However, as he had promised, Mek was back in camp most evenings, and
often in the night Nicholas heard, coming from the shelter he shared
with Tessay, his deep rumbling laughter blending with her sweet silvery
Then Nicholas lay awake and thought about Royan in the hut so close, but
yet so far away from where he lay.
On the fifth day the second draft of three hundred labourers that Mai
Metemma had conscripted for them arrived, and Nicholas was astonished,
Things seldom worked that way in Africa.
Nothing ever happened ahead of the promised time. He
wondered what exactly they decided
that he didn’t really want to know, for now main construction work could
These men were not monks, for St. Frumentius had already given its all
to the sacred labour, but villagers who lived up on the highlands of the
escarpment. Mai Metemma had coerced them with promises of religious
indulgences and threats of hellfire.
Nicholas and Sapper divided this work force into gangs of thirty men
each, and set one of the picked monks as foreman over each gang. They
were careful to grade the men by their physical appearance, so that the
big strapping specimens were all grouped together as the project
storm.troopers, while the smaller, more wiry men could be reserved for
the tasks in which brute strength was not a necessity.
Nicholas dreamed up a name for each gang – the Buffaloes, the Lions, the
Axes and so on. It taxed his powers of invention, but he wanted to
inspire in them a sense of pride and, to his own particular advantage,
to encourage the gangs to compete with one another. He paraded them in
the quarry, each group headed by its newly appointed ecclesiastical
foreman. Using one of the ancient stone blocks as a platform, and with
Tessay interpreting for him, he harangued them heartily and then told
them that they would be paid in silver Maria Theresa dollars. He set
their wages at three times the going rate.
Up to this stage the men had listened to him with a sullen air of
resignation, but now a remarkable transformation came over them. None of
them had expected to be paid for the work, and most of them were
wondering how soon they could desert and go home. Now Nicholas was
promising them not only money, but silver dollars. In Ethiopia for the
past two hundred years the Maria Theresa dollar had been regarded as the
only true coinage. For this reason they were still minted with the
original date of 1780 and the portrait of the old Empress, with her
double chin and her decolletage exposing half her great bust. One of
these coins was more prized than a sackful of the worthless paper birr
issued by the regime in Addis. To pay his labour bills, Nicholas had
included a chest of these silver coins in the first pallet load that
Jannie had dropped.
Celestial grins bloomed as they listened, and white teeth sparkled in
their ebony faces. Someone began to sing, and they all stamped and
danced and cheered Nicholas as they trooped off to queue for their
tools. With mattocks and shovels at the slope they filed off up the
valley to the dam site, still singing and prancing.
“St. Nicholas,” Tessay laughed. “Father Christmas. They will never
forget you now.”
“They may even enshrine you and build a monastery over you” Royan
“What they don’t know is that they are going to earn every single dollar
, the hard way.”
From then onwards the work began as soon as it was light enough to see,
and stopped only when it was too dark to continue. The men came back to-
their temporary compound each night by the light of grass torches, too
weary to sing. However, Nicholas had contracted with the headmen from
the highland villages to supply a slaughter beast every day. Each
morning the women came down the trail driving the animal before them,
and with huge pots of tej balanced on their heads.
Over the days that followed, there were no deserters from Nicholas’s
little army of workers.
ounted on the high seat of the front-ender, Sapper lifted the first
filled mesh gabion in the hydraulic arms. The mesh’bound parcel of
boulders weighed several tons, and all work on the site came to a halt
as the men crowded the banks of the Dandera river to watch. A hum of
astonishment went up as Sapper eased the yellow tractor down the steep
bank and, with the gabion held high, drove the vehicle in to the water.
The current, affronted by this invasion, swirled angrily around the high
rear wheels, but Sapper pushed in deeper.
The crowds lining the bank began to chant and clap encouragement as the
water reached as high as the belly of the machine, and louds of steam
hissed from the hot steel of the sump. Sapper locked the brakes, and
then lowered the heavy gabion into the flood before reversing back up
the bank. The men cheered him wildly, even though the first gabion was
instantly submerged and only a whirlpool on the river’s surface marked
its position. Another filled gabion lay ready. The Contender waddled up
to it, lowered its- steel arms and picked it up as tenderly as a mother
gathering up her infant.
Nicholas shouted at the foremen to get their gangs back to work. The
long lines of men came up the valley, naked except for their brief white
loincloths. Sweating heavily in the heat of the gorge, their skin
glistened like anthracite freshly cut from the coal face. Each of them
carried on his head a basket of stone aggregate, which he dumped into
the mouth of the waiting gabion. Then he returned with his empty basket
down the hill to the quary.
As each gabion was filled, another team fitted the mesh lid and laced it
closed with heavy eight-gauge wire.
“Twenty dollars bonus to the team with the most baskets filled
today!’Nicholas bellowed. They shouted with glee and redoubled their
efforts, but they were unable to keep up with Sapper on the Contender.
He laid his stone piers artfully, working out from the shallow water
alongside the bank so that each gabion lay against its neighbour, keying
into the wall to give mutual support.
At first there was little evident progress, but as a solid reef was
built up beneath the surface the river began to react savagely. The
voice of the water changed from a low rustle to a dull roar as it tore
at Sapper’s wall.
Soon the top of the wall of gabions thrust its head above the surface,
and the river was constricted to half its former width. Now its mood was
truculent. It poured through the gap in a solid green torrent, and crept
almost imperceptibly up the banks as it was forced to back up behind the
barriers The rive worried the foundations of the dam, clawing at it to
find its weak spots, and the progress of the work slowed down as the
waters rose higher.
Up in the river in forests along the banks the axemen were at work, and
Nicholas winced each time one of the great trees toppled, groaning and
shrieking like a living creature. He liked to think of himself as a
conservationist, and some of these trees had taken centuries to reach
“Do you want your bleeding dam, or your pretty trees?” Sapper demanded
ferociously, when Nicholas lamented in his hearing. Nicholas turned away
They were all becoming tired with the unremitting labour. Their nerves
were stretching towards snapping point, and tempers were mercurial.
Already there had been a number of murderous fights amongst the workmen,
and each time Nicholas had been forced to duck in under the swinging
steel mattocks to break it up and separate the combatants.
lowly they squeezed the’ river in its bed as the pier crept out from the
bank, and the time came when they had to transfer their efforts to the
far bank. It required the combined efforts of their entire labour force
to build a new road along the bank as far as the ford.
There they manhandled the front-ender into the water, and, with a
hundred men hauling on the tow ropes and her tall lugged rear wheels
spinning and churning the surface to a froth they. dragged her across.
Then they had to build another road back along the far bank to reach the
dam site. They cut out the treetrunks that obstructed them and levered
the boulders out of the way to get the tractor through, Once they had
her back at the dam site they could begin the same process of laying out
gabions from the far bank.
Gradually, a few metres each day, the two walls crept closer to each
other, and as the gap between them narrowed the water rose higher and
became more raucous, making the work more difficult.
In the meanwhile, two hundred metres upstream of the dam site, the
Falcons and the Scorpions were at work.
These two teams were building the raft of treetrunks that they had
hacked from the forest. The timbers were lashed together to form a
grating. Over this was laid heavy PVC sheeting to make it waterproof,
then a second grating of treetrunks went over this to form a gigantic
sandwich. It was all lashed together with heavy baling wire. Finally,
one end of the grating was ballasted with boulders.
Sapper arranged the ballast of boulders to make the raft one-side heavy,
so that it would float almost vertically in the water, with one end of
it scraping the bottom of the river and the other sticking up above the
surface. The dimensions of the completed raft were carefully related to
the gap between the two buttresses of the dam. And while the work on the
raft and the wall continued Sapper built up a stockpile of filled
gabions, which he stacked on both banks below the dam.
Three other full work teams, the Elephants, the Buffaloes and the
Rhinos,,comprising the biggest and strongest men in the force, laboured.
at the head of the valley. They were digging out a deep canal into which
the river could be diverted.
“Your hot-shot engineer, Taita, never thought of that little
refinement,” Sapper gloated to Royan as they stood on the lip of the
trench. “What it means is that we only have to raise the level of the
river another six feet before it will start flowing down the canal and
into the valley.
Without it we would have had to lift the water almost twenty feet to
“Perhaps the river levels were different four thousand years ago.” Royan
felt a strange loyalty to the long-dead Egyptian, and she defended him.
“Or perhaps he dug a canal but all traces of it have been obliterated.”
“Not bleeding likely,” Sapper grunted. “The little perisher just plain
didn’t think of it.” His expression was smug and self-satisfied, “One up
on Mr Taita, I think.”
Royan smiled to herself. It was strange how even the practical and
down-to-earth Sapper felt that this was a direct personal challenge from
down the ages. He too had been caught up in Taita’s game.
dint of neither threat nor heavenly reward could the monks be inveigled
into working on Sundays. Each Saturday evening they knocked off an hour
earlier and trooped away down the valley on the trail to the monastery,
so as to be in time for Holy Communion the next day. Although Nicholas
grumbled and scowled at their desertion, secretly he was as relieved as
any of them for the chance to rest. They were all exhausted, and for
once there would be no chanting of lock the next morning.
matins to wake them at four ‘ So on Saturday night they all swore to
each other that
they would sleep late the next morning, but from force of habit Nicholas
found himself awake and fully alert at that same iniquitous hour. He
could not stay in his camp bed, and when he came back from his ablutions
at the riverside he found that Royan was also awake and dressed.
“Coffee?” She lifted the pot off the fire and poured a mugful for him.
“I slept terribly badly last night,” she admitted. “I had the most
ridiculous dreams. I found myself in Mamose’s tomb lost in a labyrinth
of passages-. I was searching for the burial chamber, opening doors, but
there were always people in the rooms that I looked into. Duraid was
working in one room and he looked up and said, “Remember the protocol of
the four bulls. Start at the beginning.” He was so real and alive. I
wanted to go to him but the door closed in my face, and I knew I would
never see him again.” Tears filled her eyes and glistened in the light
of the campfire.
Nicholas sought to distract her from the painful memory. “Who were in
the other rooms?” he asked.
“In the next room was Nahoot Guddabi. He laughed spitefully and said,
The jackal chases the sun,” and his head changed into the head of
Anubis, the jackal god of the cemetery, and he yelped and barked. I was
so frightened that I ran.”
She sipped her coffee. “It was all meaningless and silly, but von
Schiller was in the next room, and he rose in the air and flapped his
wings and said, “The vulture rises, and the stone falls.” I hated him so
much I wanted to strike him, but then he was gone.”
“And then you woke up?”Nicholas suggested.
“No. There was one other room.”
Who was in it?”
She dropped her eyes, and her voice was small, “You were,” she said.
“Me? What did I say?” He smiled.
“You didn’t say anything,” she whispered, and blushed so suddenly and
fiercely that he was instantly intrigued.
“What did I do then?” He was still smiling.
“Nothing. I mean, I can’t tell you.” The dream returned to her, vivid
and real as life, every detail of his naked body, even the smell and the
feel of him. She forced herself to stop thinking about it. She felt
vulnerable as she had been in the dream.
“Tell me about it he insisted.
“No! She stood up quickly, confused and still blushing, trying to thrust
the images from her.
Last night had been the first time in her life that she first time she
had ever dreamed of a man in that way, the had ever experienced a full
orgasm in her sleep. This morning, when she awoke, she found that she
had soaked right through her pyjamas bottoms.
“We have a full day ahead of us with no work to do,” she blurted – the
first thought that came into her mind.
have On the contrary.” He stood up with her. “We still to make the
arrangements for getting out of here. When the time comes, we will
probably be in something of a hurry.”
“Mind if I tag along?” she asked.
wo teams, the Buffaloes and the Elephants, with only their foremen
missingi were waiting, for them at the quarry. They comprised sixty of
the strongest men in the Tabour force. Nicholas unrill from one of the
packed the inflatable Avon rafts neat pack, with Each raft was deflated
and folded into a ese craft had been the paddles strapped along the
sides. It is specifically designed for river’running in turbulent water,
and each was capable of carrying sixteen crew and a ton of cargo.
strap the heavy packs on to Nicholas directed them to they had cut for
that purpose. Five the carrying poles that men on each end of the long
poles, with the bundle of the boat stung in the centre, made light of
the load They se off at a cracking pace down the trail, and as soon as
one was ready to take over. They made the team tired the nex exchange
without even stopping, the new porters slipping their shoulders under
the pole on the run while the exhausted team dropped out.
proof and water Nicholas carried the radio in its shock uch a precious
reglass case. He would not trust proof fib He and Royan trotted
instrument to one of the porters.
behind the caravan, joining in the chorus of the along work chant that
the porters sang as they carried their loads down to the monastery.
Mai Metemma was waiting on the terrace outside the church of St.
Frumentius to welcome them. He led them down the staircase hewn out of
the rock of the cliff, two hundred feet to the very water’s edge. There
was a narrow rocky ledge against which the Nile waters dashed, and the
spray from the high waterfalls drifted over them like a perpetual
drizzle of rain. After the heat and the bright sunlight above, it was
cold and gloomy and dank down here in the depths of the gorge. The black
cliffs ran with water, and the ledge on which they stood was wet and
Royan shivered as she watched the river racing by, forming a great
spinning vortex as it swirled around the deep rock bowl and then raced
out through the narrow throat of the gorge on its long hectic journey
towards Egypt and the north.
“If only I had known that this was the road you were planning on taking
home-‘ she eyed the river dubiously.
“If you would prefer to walk, it’s okay by me,’Nicholas told her. “With
luck we will be carrying some extra baggage.
The river is the logical escape route.”
“I suppose it makes sense, but still it’s not terribly inviting.” She
broke off a piece of driftwood from a stranded tangle that lay trapped
upon the ledge and tossed it into the river. It was whipped away, and
raced over the standing wave where some submerged obstacle forced the
surface to bulge up.
What speed is that current? she asked in a subdued voice as the splinter
of driftwood was sucked below the surface.
“Oh, not much more than eight or nine knots,” he told her off handedly,
‘but that’s nothing. The river is still very low. just wait until it
starts raining up in the Mountains, then you will really see some water
passing through here.
it will be great fun. Lots of people would pay good money for the chance
to run a river like this. You are going to love it.”
Thanks,” she said drily. “I can’t wait.”
Fifty feet above the ledge, out of reach of the Nile’s highest water
level, was a small cavern – the Epiphany shrine. Long ago the monks had
cut this passage deeply into the rock face, and it ended in a spacious,
candle-lit chamber that housed a life’sized statue of the Virgin,
dressed in faded velvet robes, with the infant in her arms.
Mai Metemma gave them his sanction to store the rafts in the shrine, and
they stacked them against a side wall.
When the porters had left, Nicholas showed Royan how to operate the
quick-release handles on the packs, and the CO, cylinders which would
inflate the rafts within minutes.
He wrapped the radio case and his small emergency pack in a sheet of
plastic and stowed them in one of the boat packs, where he could lay his
hands on them again in a hurry.
“You do intend coming along on this joy ride?” she asked anxiously. “You
aren’t planning on sending me down on my ownsome?”
“It is best that you know how it all works,” he told her.
if things start to get a little hairy when the time comes to leave here,
I may need your help in launching the rafts.” When they climbed back up
the staircase into the warmth and the sunlight, Royan’s uncertain mood
had changed. “It’s not yet noon, and we have the rest of the day to
ourselves. Let’s go back to Taita pool again,” she suggested, and he
the Elephants accompanied them as The Buffaloes and far as the branch in
the trail. Here the teams headed back towards the dam, and shouted and
hallooed their farewells after Nicholas and Royan.
their last visit, the path Even in the short time since through the
undergrowth had become overgrown. Nicholas was forced to use his machete
to hack a way through, and they ducked uqder the trailing thorn
branches. It was midafternoon when they eventually crossed the high
ridge and stood once again on the cliff directly above Taita’s pool.
“It looks as though we were the last ones here., Nicholas’s tone was
relieved. “No signs of any other visitors since us.”
“Were you expecting any?”
“You never know. Von Schiller is a formidable character, and he has some
charming lads working for him. Helm is one that worries me, and I had a
nasty feeling that he might have been snooping around here. I am going
to take a closer look.”
He worked quickly around the entire area, casting widely for any sign of
intruders. Then came back to where she sat on the lip of the abyss and
dropped down beside her.
“Nothing,” he admitted. “We have still got the running to ourselves.”
“Once Sapper stops the river upstream, this is going to be our main area
of operations, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes, but even before Sapper closes the dam I want to open a fly camp
here, and move all the gear and equipment we will need from the quarry
to have it handy when we start the exploration of the pool.”
“How are we going to get down into the pool? Down the river bed, once it
“I suppose we could use the dry river bed as a road, and come down it
from below the dam or up from the monastery end, through the pink
“But that is not the way you are planning to get in, is it?” she
“Even with no water in it, the river bed will be a long way round. It’s
a three- or four-mile haul from either end of the abyss, added to which
it will be a pretty rough road to travel.” He grinned ruefully. “You are
speaking to an expert on the subject. I went down it the hard way, and I
wouldn’t want to do it again. There are at least five chutes and rock
jams that I can remember being thrown over.”
“What is your better idea, then?” she asked.
“It’s not my idea,” he contradicted her. “It’s Taita’s idea really.”
She peered over the edge. “You mean to build a scaffold down the cliff,
just the way he did it?
“What’s good enough for Taita is good enough for me,” he acknowledged.
“The old boy probably had a good look at the alternative of using the
river bed as an access road, and abandoned the idea.”
“When will you start work on the scaffold, then?”
“One of our teams is already cutting bamboo poles higher up the gorge.
Tomorrow we will begin carrying them up here, and stacking them. We
can’t waste a day.
Once the darn is closed we have to get into the dry pool as soon as
As if to add weight to his words there came a far-off mutter of thunder,
and they both craned their heads to peer up with trepidation at the
escarpment. Probably a hundred miles to the north, faintly washed as a
sepia print superimposed upon the razor-edged blue silhouette of the
loescarpment wall rose high tumbled towers of cumu nimbus clouds.
Neither of them spoke about it, but both “were aware of how ominously
the torm clouds were settling on the distant mountains.
Nicholas glanced at his wrist-watch and stood up.
“Time to start back if we are to get into camp before dark.”
He gave her his hand and lifted her to her feet. She dusted off her
clothes and then stepped right to the very lip of the canyon.
ks,” she called I “Wake up, Taita. We are hot on your trac down into the
“Don’t challenge him.” Nicholas took her arm and drew VI, her back. “The
old ruffian has given us enough trouble already.”
The axemen had left the stumps of several great trees standing on the
banks of the Dandera upstream from the dam- Sapper used these as anchor
points for the heavy cables that he strung across the river. Through the
cables he had rigged a cunning series of pulley blocks. The main cable
was run back and connected to the tow hitch on the front-ender.
Two other cables were laid out, one to each bank, where the Buffaloes
and the Elephants stood ready to handle them- One team was under the
direction of Nicholas, and the other under Mek Nimmur. For this crucial
part of the construction, Mek had come down from the hills to lend a
The grating of massive treetrunks lay on the river verge, already half
in the water. Heavily weighted with boulders, it was an unwieldy
structure that would require all their combined efforts to manoeuvre
Sapper slitted his eyes as he studied the layout, and then looked
downstream to the partially completed dam. The two walls of gabions
stretched out from either bank, but the gap in the middle of the river
was twenty feet across and the whole volume of the river roared through
“The one thing we don’t want is to let the bleeding plug run away from
us and slam into the ruddy wall,” he warned Nicholas and Mek. “Otherwise
we are going to lose a big chunk of what we have done so far. I want to
cuddle her in there, nice and softly, and let her sit snug in the gap.
Any questions? This is your last chance to ask. You all know the
Sapper took one last drag on his cigarette, and flicked the stub into
the river. Then, looking lugubrious, he said, “Okay, gents. The last one
in the water is a sissy,’
Compared to their men, Nicholas and Mek were overdressed in their khaki
shorts. The others were all stark naked. When the order was given they
trooped waist-deep into the river and took up their stations along the
Before he followed them into the river, Nicholas took one last look
round. At breakfast that morning Royan had innocently asked to borrow
his binoculars. Now he knew why. She and Tessay were perched up on top
of the slope high above the gorge. Even as Nicholas watched, he saw
Royan pass the binoculars to Tessay. They were not missing a moment of
this fateful operation.
Nicholas looked back from the ridge to the rows of big naked men, pulled
a face and muttered, “My oath, there are some prize specimens around
here. I just hope that Royan isn’t making comparisons.”
Sapper climbed up on to the yellow tractor, and with a roar and a cloud
of diesel smoke the engine burst into life. He raised one hand above his
head with the fist ji clenched, and Nicholas relayed the order to his
team, “Take the strain.”
The foremen repeated it in Amharic, and the men leaned back against the
cables. Sapper threw the tractor into extra low, and eased her forward.
The belly straightened in the lines, the sheave wheels squealed, and the
timber grating slid ponderously down the bank into the river. The
weighted end of the grating sank immediately and bumped along the
bottom, while the lighter end floated ut into midstream, until it was
high. Slowly they hauled it hanging vertically in the water.
The current seized it and began to bear it away, straight at the wall of
gabions. It picked up speed alarmingly. The tractor bellowed and- blew
out clouds of black smoke as Sapper threw her into reverse and backed up
on the cables.
The teams of naked black men heaved and chanted – some of them had
already been dragged in neck-deep as they hauled on the lines.
The grating steadied across the current, and they let it fall away at a
more sedate pace, down towards the open gap in the wall. As it began to
slew towards one bank, Sapper lifted his right arm and windmilled it.
Obediently, Mek’s team on the far bank paid out rope and Nicholas’s team
on the near bank picked it up. Once again the grating was lined up on
“Rock and roll. Close the hole,” bellowed Sapper, and now the full
current was too powerful to resist. It dragged both teams into the river
until some of them were in over their heads, losing their hold on the
lines and floundering and swimming. However, those men who still had
their footing managed to slow the rush of the grating just enough to
prevent it smashing out of control into the dam. It settled firmly
across the gap, like a mammoth plug in the outlet of a giant’s bathtub,
and instantly the current was cut off.
While the men in the water struggled ashore, their bodies wet and
gleaming in the sunlight, Sapper threw off the cables from his tow hitch
and roared along the bank with the front-ender in its highest gear. As
it passed him, Nicholas grabbed a handhold and swung himself up on to
the footplate behind Sapper’s seat.
“Got to shore up now, before the grating bursts,” Sapper yelled.
From his vantage point, clinging to the rear of the tall machine,
Nicholas had a moment to assess the Position.
The dam was holding, but only just. Numerous jets of water spurted
through every gap between the grating and the gabions. The pressure of
water against the sheets of PVc in the grating was enormous. It was
taking the full thrust of the river, flexing and bowing before it like a
castle Portcullis attacked with a battering ram.
Sapper picked up one of the gabions that were standing ready on the bank
and drove down into the river bed below the dam. The flow of the water
had shrivelled to a mere knee-deep trickle. jets of water squirted
through every chink in the wall, and the gabions were not impermeable;
ay through the tightly packed stones.
water was finding its was the front-ender churned and lurched over the
rough bed at the back of the wall, Nicholas and Sapper were drenched by
the jets spurting over them. It was like working rove in close behind
the under a cold shower. Sapper straining grating and placed the heavy
gabion against it.
He threw the tractor into reverse and climbed up the bank to pick up
another gabion, Slowly he built up a retaining the gabions in sloping
wall behind the grating, placin s, until this revetment was as strong as
the side piers.
rank Nicholas jumped down from the tractor and left Sapper to it while
he ran back upstream to the canal that the teams had dug at the head of
the valley. Most of the banks of this cutting workers had gathered along
the Nicholas saw both Royan and Tessay in the already, an front row of
the excited crowd.
is way -through to Royan’s side, and Nicholas pushed she grabbed his
hand. it’s working, Nicky. The dam wall is holding.”
Even as they watched they could see the level of the trapped waters
rising up the wall of grating and gabions.
While the men chattered and laughed and urged it on, the river lapped at
the entrance of the canal.
the Fifty men seized their tools and jumped down int bottom of the
canal. Dust flew in clouds as they shovelled the broken earth aside to
lead the first trickle of water into the mouth of the canal. The men on
the banks above them and a thin snake whooped and chanted to encourage
them, of river water found its way into the mouth of the canalTan ahead
of it, The men with the mattocks and shovels it on down the cutting.
Every time it met any enticing obstruction and faltered, they fell upon
the blockage and tore it away.
the gradient fall At last the thin trickle of water felt away as the
valley opened before it. The trickle increased to a freshet, and then to
a torrent. With its new strength it gouged out the canal and burst
through with the full flow of the river behind it.
The men in the bottom of the cutting yelled with fright at the
suddenness and ferocity of it, and scrambled up the sides of the canal.
But some of them were not quick enough and were swept away, struggling
and screaming for help. The men on the banks ran alongside them,
throwing ropes and dragging them sodden and muddy from the flood.
Now the river roared through the canal and tore on down the valley,
rediscovering the ancient course that it had not followed for thousands
of years. For almost an hour they stood upon the bank watching it, for
it exercised over them the particular spell that turbulent waters always
have over men. They were forced to retreat step by step as the river cut
the banks out from under their feet.
At last Nicholas roused himself, and went back to where Sapper was still
shoring up the dam wall. By now he had erected a sloping revetment on
the downstream side of the dam wall, with four rows of gabions on the
bottom course gradually narrowing as it reached the top of the retaining
wall. For the time being the dam was secure, the vulnerable grating had
been shored up with the heavy, stone-filled mesh baskets, and the
overflow through the canal into the valley had relieved much of the
pressure upon it.
“Do you think it will hold?” Royan eyed the structure with suspicion.
“Until the rains come, we hope.” Nicholas drew her away. “We don’t want
to waste any more time here. Time to go on downstream to begin work at
hey followed the banks of the new river that they had created, down
the length of the long 6- valley. At places they were forced to detour
higher up the slope because the overflow from the dam had cut away and
submerged the old trail. Eventually they reached the confluence of the
stream that had as its source the butterfly fountain that they had
explored with Tamre.
They paused on the bank, and Nicholas and Royan looked at each other
wordlessly. The stream had dried up.
Turning aside, they followed the empty stream bed up the hills and at
last scrambled out on to the ledge from which the butterfly fountain had
poured. The cave was still surrounded by lush green ferris, but it was
like the eye socket in a skull, dark and empty.
“The spring has dried up!” Royan . “The dam -Iispere has shrivelled it.
That’s the proof that the fountain was fed from Taita’s pool, Now we
have diverted the river we have killed the fountain.” Her eyes were
bright and sparkling with excitement. “Come on. Let’s waste no more time
Let’s get on up to Taita’s pool.”
‘Nicholas was the first one down into Taita’s pool. This time, he had a
bosun’s chair to sit in and a properly rigged block and tackle to lower
him over the cliff. As he swung down around the overhang of the cliff,
the chair swung awkwardly against the rock and the thumb of his right
hand was trapped between the wooden seat of the chair and the wall. He
exclaimed with the pain and, when he wrenched it free, he found that the
skin had been torn from the knuckle and that blood was oozing up and
dripping down his legs. It was painful -but not serious, and he sucked
the wound clean. It was still weeping drops of blood but he had, no time
to attend to the injury now.
He was around the overhang, and the abyss opened under him, sombre and
repellent. His eye was drawn irresistibly to the engraving on the wall,
etched between the vertical rows of niches. Now that he knew what to
look for, he could make out the outline of the maimed hawk. It cheered
and encouraged him. Since their flight from the gorge over a month
previously he had often been haunted by the feeling that they had
imagined it all, that the cartouche of Taita was a hallucination, and
that when they returned they would find the cliff wall smooth and
unblemished. But there it was, the signpost and the promise.
He peered down past his own feet to the bottom of the gorge, and saw at
once that the waterfall above the pool had been reduced to a trickle.
The water still coming down the smooth black chute of polished rock was
that which was filtering through the gaps and chinks in the dam wall
upstream and the last drainage from the sandbanks and the pools higher
up the gorge.
The level of the great Pool under him had fallen drastically. He could.
make out the highwater level by the wet markings on the rock cliff.
Fifty feet of the wall that had previously been submerged was now
exposed. Another eight pairs of chiselled niches were visible in the
face Where once he had been forced to swim down to them, they were now
high and dry.
However, the pool was not completely drained. It was dished below the
level of the downstream outlet, so that it was unable to empty itself by
gravitational flow. There was still a puddle of black water trapped in
the centre, with a narrow ledge surrounding it. Nicholas landed on this
ledge and stepped out of the bosun’s chair. It was strange to stand on
firm rock down here where last he had struggled for his life and very
nearly been sucked under and drowned.
He looked up to where beams of sunlight penetrated the upper levels of
the chasm. It was like being in the bottom of a mineshaft, and he
shuddered at the feel of the clammy air on his bare arms and the eerie
sensation in the pit of his stomach. He tugged on the line to send the
rope chair back to the surface, and then edged his way along the
slippery rock ledge towards the cliff face where the rows of dark niches
stood out clearly against the lighter stone.
Now he could make out the shape of the opening in the wall that had so
nearly sucked him down into its dark and slimy throat. It was almost
completely submerged in a deeper corner where the pool flowed back
against the cliff.
All that was visible above the surface was the top arch of an irregular
entrance at the foot of the descending rows of niches. The rest of it
was still submerged.
The ledge narrowed as he worked his way along the foot of the cliff
until he had his back to the rock and was moving sideways with his toes
in the water. Eventually he could go no further without actually
stepping down into the water. He had no way of judging the depth of the
waters, which were turbid and uninviting.
Still trying to keep his feet dry, he squatted down on the narrow ledge
and leaned out so far that his balance as threatened. He steadied
himself with one hand against the wall, and with the other reached out
towards the partially submerged opening.
The lip of the hole was smooth, as he had remembered it, and once again
it seemed to him that it was too square and straight to be anything
other than man-made. As he rolled up his sleeve he noticed that his
injured thumb was still bleeding, but he ignored it and thrust his arm
down below the surface of the pool. He groped downwards, trying to trace
the sill of the opening, He felt what seemed to be blocks of roughly
dressed masonry, and reached down further until the water reached
halfway up his biceps.
Suddenly some living creature, swift and weighty, swirled in the dark
waters right in front of his face, and as an immediate reflex he jerked
his arm out of the water.
The thing followed his arm up to the surface, slashing at his bare flesh
with long, needle’sharp fangs, and he had a glimpse of a head as evil
and villainous as that of a barracuda’ He realized instinctively that it
must have been attracted by the smell of the blood from his injured
He leaped to his feet and teetered on the narrow ledge, clutching his
arm. Only one of the creature’s frontal fangs had touched him, but it
had opened the skin like a razor cut, a long shallow wound across the
back of his right hand from which fresh blood dribbled and splattered
into the pool at his feet.
Instantly the black waters seemed to come alive, roiling and seething
with frenzied writhing aquatic shapes.
Nicholas, his back flattened against the rock wall, stared down at them
with loathing and horror. He could vaguely make out the shape of them,
sinuous and ribbonlike, some of them as thick as his calf, black and
One of them thrust its head out on to the ledge and snapped its jaws.
Its eyes were huge and glistening and its snout was elongated, the long
jaws lined with fangs that overlapped its thin lips. The body behind the
head was six feet long, and lashed like a whip as it drove itself high
up on to the ledge, reaching out for Nicholas’s bare legs. He shouted
with revulsion and leaped back, stumbling and splashing on to safer
footing. Clutching his bleeding hand, stare aC Ae evi . aead had
disappeared, but the surface of the pool was still agitated by the lithe
“Eels!the realized. “Giant tropical eels.”
Of course the blood had excited them. The fall in the water-level had
trapped them in the pool, congregated them in such numbers that they had
probably already devoured the fish that they depended upon for food. Now
they were ravenous. Probably all the pools of water that remained in the
abyss were infested with these fearsome creatures. He was thankful that
during his last swim in this pool he had not bled into the water.
He unwound the cotton kerchief from his neck and wrapped it round his
wounded hand. The eels were a deadly threat to any attempt to explore
the opening in the cliff.
A, il ” the pool of 1V But already he was considering ways of ridding
them and of gaining access to the underwater opening.
Slowly the frenzy in the pool quietened and its surface grew still
again, Nicholas looked up to see the bosun’s chair descending, with
Royan’s slim, shapely legs dangling below the wooden seat.
“What have you found?” she called down to him excitedly. “Is there a
tunnel-‘ then she broke off suddenly as she saw the blood on his
clothing, and the bandage wathing his hand.
“Oh dear God,” she exclaimed. “What have you done?
You are hurt. How badly?” Her feet touched the ledge beside him and she
slid from the chair and took his injured hand gently. “What have you
done to yourself?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks, he assured her. “Lots of blood but not
“How did you do it?” she insisted.
For an answer he tore a corner off the bloodstained kerchief. “Watch!”
he instructed her, wadding it into a ball and tossing it out into the
Royan screamed with horror as the waters boiled with the long fleeting
shapes. One of them wriggled half its monstrous length out on to the
ledge, before flopping back.
It left a shining trail of silver slime across the black stones.
“Taita has left his guard dogs to see us A’ Nicholas remarked. “We are
going to have to take care of those beauties before we can explore the
entrance below the surface.”
/4P- -I he bamboo scaffolding that Sapper and Nicholas had built down
the cliff was L*, – anchored in the niches that had been cut into the
rock nearly four thousand years before. Taita had probably lashed his
framework together with bark rope, but Sapper had used heavy-gauge
galvanized wire, and the structure was strong enough to bear the weight
of many men. The Buffaloes formed a living chain and passed all the
material and equipment down the scaffolding from hand to hand.
The very first piece of equipment to reach the floor Of the cavern was
the portable Honda EM500 generator.
Sapper connected it up to the lights that he had rigged along the foot
of the cliff. The small petrol engine ran smoothly and quietly, but the
amount of power it put out was impressive. The floodlights chased the
shadows from the furthest corners of the cavern, and lit the deep rock
bowl like a stage.
Immediately the mood changed. Everybody became more cheerful and
confident. There was laughter and excited chatter from the chain of men
on the scaffolding as Royan climbed down to join Sapper and Nicholas at
the side of the pool.
“Now that we know that they are working, switch off those lights,’
“It’s so dark and gloomy without them,” Royan protested.
“Saving fuel,” Nicholas explained. “No filling station on the corner. We
only have two hundred litres in reserve, and although the little Honda
is pretty economical we have to be careful We don’t know how long we are
going to need it in the tunnel.”
Royan shrugged with resignation, and when Sapper cut the generator the
cavern was plunged once more into gloom and shadow. She looked at the
dark pool and pulled a face.
“What are you going to do about those horrid pets of yours?” she
demanded, glancing at Nicholas’s bandaged right hand.
“Sapper and I have worked out a plan. We thought of trying to empty the
pool completely, using a bucket chain.
But the amount of water still coming down the river bed makes that a
“We would be lucky to hold our own against that flow, even working
around the clock with buckets,” Sapper grunted. “If only the major had
thought to bring along a high-speed water pump-‘
“Even I can’t think of everything, Sapper. What we are going to do is to
build a small coffer dam around the riderwater opening, and bale that
out with buckets.”
Royan stood back and watched the preparations. Half a dozen of the empty
mesh gabions were carried down the scaffolding and placed at the edge of
the pool. Here they were partially filled with boulders that the men
gathered up from the river bed. However the gabions were not filled so
full that they became too heavy to handle. There was no front-ender down
here to move them around, and they would be forced to rely on
old-fashioned manpower. There was just sufficient of the yellow PVC
sheeting left over to wrap around each gabion and render it waterproof.
“What about your eels?” Royan was fascinated by these loathsome
creatures, and she hung well back from the edge of the pool. “You can’t
send any of your men in there!
“Watch and learn.” Nicholas grinned at her. “I have a little treat in
store for your favourite fish.”
Once all the preparations for the construction of the coffer were
complete, Nicholas cleared the cavern, sending Royan and Sapper and all
of the men up the scaffolding.
He alone remained at the edge of the pool, with the bag of fragmentation
grenades that he had begged from Mek Nimmur slung over his shoulder.
With a grenade in each hand, he hesitated. “Seven second delay,” he
reminded himself “Quenton-Harper dry flies. More effective than the
He pulled the pins from each of the grenades and then lobbed them out
into the middle of the pool. Quickly he turned away and hurried to the
furthest corner of the cavern. He knelt with his face to the rock wall
and covered his ears with both hands.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he braced himself. The rock floor jumped under
him and the double shock waves from the explosions swept over him in
quick succession, with a savage power that drove in his chest and
stopped his breath. In the confines of the chasm the detonations were
thunderous, but his ears were protected and the deep water of the pool
absorbed much of the blast. A twin fountain of water shot high into the
air and splashed against the cliff above his head. It poured down in a
sheet over him, soaking his clothing.
As the echoes died away, he stood up, His hearing had not been adversely
affected, and he had suffered no injury other than the shower of cold
water. Back at the edge of the pool the water shimmered with movement.
Scores of the great eels flopped and writhed on the surface, flashing
their white bellies as they twisted. Many of them were dead, their
bellies burst open, floating inert, while others were merely stunned by
the blast. Knowing how tenaciously they clung to life he suspected that
they would soon recover, but for the time being they were no longer a
He bellowed up toward the top of the cliff. “All clear, Sapper. Send
The men came swarming down the scaffolding, amazed by the carnage that
the grenades had wreaked in the pool.
They lined the bank and began to fish out the bodies of the dead eels.
“You eat them?” Nicholas demanded of one of the monks.
“Very good!” The monk rubbed his belly in anticipation.
“Enough of that, you greedy perishers.” SappeT drove them back to work.
“Let’s get those gabions in place before they wake up and start eating
With a bamboo pole Nicholas sounded the depth of the water that covered
the entrance to the shaft, and found that it was well over the height of
a man’s head. They were forced to roll the gabions down into it, and
complete the filling once they were in position. It was difficult and
taxing work, and took almost two days to complete, but at last they had
built a half-moon-shaped weir around the under, water entrance, walling
it off from the main body of water in the pool.
Using leather buckets and clay tej pots the Buffaloes began to bale out
the coffer and scoop the water over the wall into the main pool.
Nicholas and Royan watched with silent trepidation as the level in the
coffer fell and the opening in the cliff was gradually revealed.
Very soon they were able to see that it was almost rectangular, about
three metres wide by two metres high, The sides and the roof had been
eroded by the rush of water through the opening, but as the level fell
lower they could see the remains of shaped stone blocks that had
probably once sealed the opening. Four courses of them I still stood
where the ancient masons had placed them across the threshold of the
opening, but the others had been torn out by thousands of years of flood
seasons and thrown into the tunnel behind, partially blocking it.
Ea erly Nicholas climbed down into the coffer. It was not yet empty but
he could not control his impatience.
The water was knee-deep as he crawled forward into the opening, and with
his bare hands tried to shift some of the rock debris that choked it.
“It’s definitely some sort of shaft,” he shouted back, and Royan could
not restrain herself either. She came slithering and sloshing down into
the offer, and pushed into the opening beside him.
“There’s an obstruction,” she cried in disappointment.
“Did Taita do that deliberately?”
might have,” Nicholas gave his opinion. “Hard to tell.
A lot of this rubble and flotsam has been sucked in from the main flow
of the river, but he might have filled the tunnel behind him as he
“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work just to clear it enough
to find out where this passage leads to.” Royan’s voice had lost its
ring of excitement.
“I am afraid it is,” Nicholas agreed. “We are going to have to clear
every bit of this rubbish by hand, and there won It be time for the
niceties of formal archaeological excavation. We are just going to rip
it out.” He clambered back out of the coffer, and reached back to hand
her up the bank. “Well, at least we have the-floodlights he added, “We
can keep the men working in shifts, night and day, until we get
hey have dammed the Dandera river,” said Nahoot Ouddabi, and Gotthold
von Schiller stared at him in astonishment.
“Dammed the river? Are you certain?”he demanded.
“Yes, Herr von Schiller. We have a report from our spy in Harper’s camp.
He has over three hundred men working in the gorge. That is not all. He
has air-dropped huge amounts of equipment and supplies. It is like
a.military operation. Our spy tells us that he even has an earth, moving
machine, some sort of tractor, which he has brought in.”
Von Schiller looked across the table at Jake Helm for confirmation, and
Helm nodded. “Yes, Herr von Schiller.
That is true. Harper must have spent a large amount of money. The air
charter alone could have cost him fifty grand.”
Von Schiller felt the first stirrings of real passion since the “Urgent
satellite message had summoned him from Frankfurt. He had flown directly
to Addis Ababa, where the jet Ranger had been waiting to carry him to
the Pegasus base camp on the escarpment above the Abbay gorge.
If this was true, and he did not doubt Helm’s word, then Harper was on
to something of enormous importance.
He looked out of the window of the Quonset hut to where flowed down the
valley below the base camp.
the Dandera It was a large river. To dam that volume of water would be
an expensive and difficult project in this remote and primitive
situation – not a project to be taken on lightly without the prospect of
He felt a reluctant admiration for the Englishman’s achievement. “Show
me where he has placed his dam!” he ordered, and Helm came around the
table to stand beside him. Von Schiller was standing on his block, and
their eyes were on the same level.
Helm bent over the satellite photograph and carefully marked in the site
of the dam. They both studied it for a minute, and then von Schiller
asked, “What do you make of it, Helm?”
Helm shook his head, hunching it down on his bulllike shoulders. “I can
“Guess then,” said von Schiller, but still Helm all, hesitated.
“Either he wants to move the water to another area downstream, to use it
for washing out a deposit, gold nuggets or artefacts made of precious
metals, perhaps even site of the to use it for hosing the overburden off
“Highly unlikely!” von Schiller interjected. “That would be an
inefficient and expensive manner of excavation.”
“I agree that it is far-fetched.” Nahoot obsequiously followed von
Schiller’s lead, but no one even looked at him.
“What is your other supposition?” Von Schiller glared at Helm.
“The only other reason for damming the river, that I can think of, would
be to reach something that has been covered by the water. Something
lying in the bed of the river.”
“That is more logical,” von Schiller mused, and turned his attention
back to the photograph. “What is there below this dam site?”
“The river enters a deep and narrow ravine here.” Helm pointed at the
spot. “Just below his dam. The ravine stretches about eight miles, down
to this point, just above the monastery. I have flown over it in the
helicopter, and it seems to be impassable, and yet-‘ he broke off, “Yes,
go on! And yet – what?”
“On one flight over the area, we found Harper and the woman on the high
ground above the ravine. They were at this spot here.” He touched the
photograph, and von Schiller leaned forward to peer at it.
“What were they doing there?” he demanded, without looking up.
“Nothing. They were merely sitting on the top of the cliff above the
“But they were aware of your presence?”
“Of course. We were in the helicopter. They heard our approach. They
were watching us, and Harper even waved.”
And so they would have ceased whatever activity they were engaged in
when they became aware of your approach?”
Von Schiller was silent for so long that they began to fidget
uncomfortably and exchange glances. When he spoke it was so unexpected
that Nahoot started.
“Harper obviously has reason to believe that the tomb lies in the gorge
below the dam. When and how do you make contact with your spy that you
have in Harper’s camp?”
“Harper is receiving some of his supplies from the villages here on the
escarpment. The women are driving down slaughter cattle to feed his men,
and carrying down pots of tej. Out man sends back his reports with the
women when they return.”
“Very well. Very well!” Von Schiller waved him to silence. “I don’t need
to know his life history. All I want to know is if Harper is working in
the ravine below his dam.
How soon can you find this out?”
“By the day after tomorrow at the latest,” Helm promised him.
Von Schiller turned to Colonel Nogo at the far end Of the conference
table. So far he had not spoken, but had watched and listened quietly to
“How many men have you deployed in this area?” von Schiller asked.
“Three full companies, over three hundred men. All well trained. Many
are battle-hardened veterans.”
“Where are they? Show me on the map.”
The colonel came to stand beside him. “One company here, another
billeted at the village of Debra Maryam, and the third company at the
foot of the escarpment, ready to move forward and attack Harper’s camp.”
“I think you should attack them now. Wipe them out, before they can
uncover the tomb-‘ Nahoot came in again.
“Shut your mouth,” von Schiller snapped’ without looking up at Nahoot.
“I will ask for your opinion when I need it.”
He considered the map for a while longer, then asked Nogo, “How many men
has this guerrilla commander, what is his name, the one who has allied
himself to Harper?”
“Mek Nimmur is no a guerrilla. He is a bandit, and notorious shufta
terrorist,” Nogo corrected him hotly.
“One man’s freedom fighter is the next man’s terrorist,” von Schiller
remarked drily. “How many men has he under his command?”
“Not many. Fewer than a hundred, perhaps no more than fifty. He has them
all guarding Harper’s camp, and the dam.”
Von Schiller nodded to himself, plucking at the lobe of his ear. “How
did Harper and his gang return to Ethiopia?” he mused. “I know he flew
from Malta, but it is not possible that the aircraft could have landed
down there in the gorge.”
He hopped down off his block and strutted to the window of the hut
through which he had a panoramic view spread below him. He stared down
into the depths of the gorge, a vista of cliffs and broken hilltops and
wild tablelands, smoked blue with distance.
“How did they get in without being discovered by the authorities? Did he
parachute in, the same way as he dropped his supplies?”
“No, said Nogo. “My informer tells us that he marched in with Mek
Nimmut, some days before the supplies were dropped to him.”
“So from where did he march?” von Schiller pondered.
“Where is the nearest airfield where a heavy aircraft could land?”
“If he came in with Mek Nimmur, then they almost certainly came in from
the Sudan. That is where Nimmur operates from. There are many old
abandoned airfields near the border. The war,” Nogo shrugged
expressively, “the armies are always on the move, that war has been
going on for twenty years.”
“From the Sudan?” Von Schiller picked out the border on the map. “So
they must have trekked in along the river.”
“Almost certainly,’Nogo agreed.
“Then just as certainly Harper plans to escape the same way. I want you
to move the company of men that you have at Debra Maryam and deploy them
here and here. On both banks of the river, below the monastery. They
must be in a position to prevent Harper reaching the Sudanese border,
if he should try to make a run for it.”
“Yes. Good! I understand. That is good tactics,” Nogo nodded gloatingly,
his eyes bright behind the tenses of his spectacles.
“Then I want your remaining men moved down to the foot of the
escarpment. Tell them to avoid contact with Mek Nimmur’s men, but to be
in a position to move forward very quickly and seize the dam area, and
to block off the ravine below the dam as soon as I give you the word.”
When will that be?”Nogo asked.
“We will continue to watch him carefully. If he makes a discovery, he
will start moving the artefacts out. Many of them will be too large to
conceal. Your informer will know about it. That is when we will move in
“You should move in now, Herr von Schiller,” Nahoot advised him, “before
he gets a chance to open the tomb.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” von Schiller snarled at him. “If we strike too
soon, we might never discover what he obviously has learned about the
whereabouts of the tomb.”
“We could force him-‘
“If I have learned anything in my life, it is that you. cannot force a
man like Harper. There is a certain type of Englishman – I remember
during the last war with them’ He broke off and frowned. “No. They are
very’ difficult people. We must not rush it now. When Harper makes a
discovery in the ravine, that will be the time to pounce.”
The frown faded and he smiled a small, cold smile. “The waiting game. In
the meantime, we play the waiting game.”
The debris that filled the shaft was not so tightly packed that it
completely blocked the flow of water through it. If it had done so,
Nicholas would never have been sucked in by the current, as he had been
on his first dive into the pool. There were still gaps in the blockage
where the larger boulders had lodged or where a treetrunk en sucked in.
and jammed sideways across the width of the tunnel. Through these
sections the water had found the weak spots and kept them open.
Nevertheless, the debris had taken centuries to wedge itself in, and it
required back-breaking effort to prise it apart. The clearing operation
was further hampered by the lack of working space in the shaft. Only
three or four of the big men from the Buffaloes were able to work in the
shaft at -any one time. The rest of the team were employed in passing
back the rubble as it was levered out.
Nicholas changed the shifts every hour. They had more labour than they
needed, and changing them often meant that the men at the face were
always rested and strong, and eager to earn the bonus of silver dollars
that Nicholas promised them for their progress along the shaft.
At each change of shift, Nicholas disappeared into the mouth of the
tunnel with Sapper’s steel tape and measured the advance.
“One hundred and twenty feet! Well done, the Buffaloes,” he told Hansith
Sherif, the foreman monk, and then watched the water tric ing past is
feet. The floor of the tunnel was still sloping downwards at a constant
angle. He looked back along it towards the pool, and now in the
floodlights the rectangular shape of the walls was very clear to see. It
was obvious that the tunnel had been designed and surveyed by an
He transferred his attention back to the floor of the tunnel and watched
the run of water, trying to judge how deep they were below the original
“Eighty or ninety feet,” he estimated. “No wonder the pressure in the
mouth of the tunnel almost crushed me-‘ he broke off as an unusually
shaped fragment in the muck at his feet caught his eye. He stooped and
picked it up.
Then took it to one of the floodlamps and by its light examined it
closely. As he rubbed it clean between finger and thumb, he began to
Sloshing back along the tunnel, he yelled, “Royan!” Triumphantly
brandishing the fragment, he demanded, “What do you make of that, then?”
She was sitting on the wall.of the coffer, and reached down and snatched
the object out of his grasp.
I “Oh, sweet Mary! Where did you find this, Nicky?”
“Lying in the mud. Right there in the adit, where it’s been for the last
four thousand years. Where one of Taita’s workmen dropped and broke it,
probably while he was sneaking a sup of wine behind the slave driver’s
Eagerly Royan held the broken shard of pottery up to the lamplight. “You
are right, Nicky,” she exclaimed. “It’s part of a wine vessel. Look at
the flared neck and belled lip. But if there was any doubt, which there
isn’t, the black firing around the rim dates it perfectly in our period.
No older than 2000 BC.”
Still clutching the fragment of broken pottery, she jumped down into the
mud and slush of the coffer and flung both arms around his neck.
“Further proof, Nicky. We are on Taita’s tracks. Can’t you get them to
clear any faster? We are breathing down the back of the old rogue’s
Halfway through the next shift an excited yelling echoed out of the
mouth of the tunnel, and Nicholas hurried back down to the face.
“What is it, Hansith?” he demanded in Arabic of the foreman monk. “What
are you shouting about?
“We have broken through, effendi.” Hansith Sherif grinned at him, his
teeth gleaming in his black and mudsmeared face. Nicholas eagerly pushed
his way through the workmen. They had levered a huge round boulder out
of the pack, and beyond it lay an opening. He shone his electric torch
through this window in the wall, but could make out very little
except-empty black space.
Stepping back, he slapped the monk on the back.
“Well done, Hansith. A dollar bonus for every man in the team. But keep
them working! Clear away all this rubbish.” But it was not as easily
done as he had ordered. The shifts changed twice more before the shaft
was cleared completely of the last of the extraneous rubble and broken
rock. Only then could Nicholas and Royan stand in the threshold of the
cavern beyond the tunnel.
“What has happened here? What has caused this?” Royan’s voice was
puzzled as Nicholas played his torch out into the void.
“I think this is a cave-in area. There was probably a fault in the rock
strata running through here and here.” He picked out the cracks in the
roof of the cavern.
“You think the flow of the water through the shaft has scoured it out?”
“I would say so, yes.”Nicholas turned the beam of light downwards. “The
floor has fallen out of the shaft also.”
The rock had subsided in front of them, leaving a deep hole. Ten feet
below where they stood the hole was filled with water, forming a large
circular pool with vertical rock sides. Overhead the roof had fallen in
and was now a high dome of irregular rock, and the far side of the pool
was shrouded in shadows a hundred feet or more in front of them.
There was no apparent way around this obstacle without entering the
water. Nicholas shouted to Hansith to bring one of the long bamboo poles
that they had used for the scaffolding. The pole was thirty feet long
and they had to manoeuvre its length down the tunnel. Nicholas sounded
the pool with the bamboo, probing it down into the turbid water as
deeply as he could reach.
“No bottom.” He shook his head. “Do you know what I think?” He retrieved
the pole and passed it back to Hansith.
“Tell me,” Royan invited.
“I think that this is the natural fault that leads the water away to the
other side of the hills, and comes to the surface again at the butterfly
fountain. The river has carved its own path., “Why hasn’t it drained,
then?” Royan looked down dubiously in the pool below them.
“A -bend in the shaft, probably. Water still trapped in the top of the
shaft like the bowl of a lavatory.”
He probed the waters of the pool with the beam of his torch, and Royan
exclaimed with horror and disgust as on of the giant eels came racing to
the surface, attracted by the light.
“The filthy creatures!” She stepped back involuntarily.
“The whole river must be infested with them.”
The long dark shape circled the pool swiftly and then disappeared back
into the depths as suddenly as it had appeared.
“If you are right, and a section of Taita’s adit has collapsed, then the
continuation of his tunnel should be on the far side of this.” She
pointed across the pool, and Nicholas lifted the beam of the torch and
shone it in the direction she indicated.
“Look, icky!” she cried. “There it is.”
The dark rectangular opening yawned at them from across the pool.
“How do we get across there?” Royan asked, disconsolate.
“The answer to that is, not very easily. Dammit to hell!” Nicholas swore
heartily. “This is going to cost us another couple of days that we, can
ill afford. We are going to have to build some sort of bridge across
“What kind of bridge?”
“Get Sapper down here. This is his department.”
Sapper stood at the brink of the sink-hole and glared across at the far
Pontoons,” he grunted. “How many of those inflatable rafts have you got
“Forget it, Sapper!” Nicholas shook his head. “You are not getting those
dirty great paws of yours on my rafts.”
“Suit yourself’ Sapper spread his hands in resignation.
“It would be the easiest and quickest way of doing it.
Anchor a raft in the middle and build a catwalk over the top of it. I
need something that floats high-‘
“Baobab.” Nicholas snapped his fingers. “That should do the trick very
nicely. When it’s dried out, baobab wood is as light as balsa. Floats
just as well as one of my inflatable rafts.”
“Plenty of baobabs growing along the hills,” Sapper agreed. “Every
second tree in this valley seems to be a ruddy baobab.”
hree hundred yards from the top of the cliff grew a massive specimen of
Its smooth bark resembled the skin of one of the great reptiles from the
age of the dinosaurs. Its girth was tremendous – twenty men with
outstretched arms could not have encircled it. The upper branches were
bare and twisted, and it looked as though it had been dead for a hundred
years. Only the heavy velvet-covered pods proved that it still lived;
they hung thickly from the high branches, bursting open to spill the
black seeds which were coated thickly with white cream of tartar.
“The Zulus say that the Nkulu Kulu, the Great Spirit, planted the baobab
upside down with its roots in the air to punish it,” Nicholas told Royan
as they looked up at the enormous spread of its branches.
“Why would he want to do that?” she wanted to know.
“What did the poor old baobab do that was so bad?”
“It boasted that it was the.tallest and thickest tree of the forest, and
so the Nkulu Kulu decided to teach it a little lesson in humility.”
One of the gigantic branches had snapped off under its own weight, and
lay on the rocky ground beneath the trunk. The wood was white and
fibrous, light as cork.
Under Nicholas’s direction the axemen cut it into manageable lengths.
Once they had been carried down the adit shaft to the sink-hole, Sapper
stapled the logs together and floated them across the pool to form a
causeway. He anchored this to the rock face at either end, and then over
it he laid a catwalk of bamboo poles. The bridge of baobab logs floated
high, and although it bobbed and swayed, it could easily support the
weight of a dozen men at a time.
Nicholas was the first one across the sink-hole. He placed a roughly
made ladder against the high vertical bank, and scrambled up into the
mouth of the adit on the far side of the pool. Royan was close behind
The two of them stood in the entrance to this continuation of the shaft,
and as soon as Nicholas shone his torch into it they realized that the
nature of the construction had changed. This section had not been so
heavily scoured out and eroded by the rush of river water through it.
The main flow must have drained away through the sink-hole. The
dimensions were the same, three metres wide by two high, but the
rectangular shape was more precise and although the walls and roof were
rough, like IL
those of a mine, the marks of the tools that had shaped it were now
clearly visible. The footing of the tunnel was roughly paved with slabs
of crudely dressed stone, This whole length of the tunnel had also been
submerged, for it lay below the natural level of the river before it had
been dammed. The paving under their feet was wet and covered with a
slime that had not yet had time to dry out since it had been exposed by
the receding waters. The roof and walls of the tunnel ran with moisture,
and the air was dank and cold and smelled of mud and rot.
They waited for Sapper to string the cables for the lights across the
causeway. He set up the lamps and switched them on. At once they were
aware that ahead of them the shaft had begun to rise at an angle of
about twenty degrees.
“You can see what the old devil Taita. was up to here.
He has taken us down well below water level to flood the tunnel to a
length and depth that nobody would be able to swim along. Now he is
angling up again,” Nicholas pointed out to Royan. They started forward,
moving slowly up the ascending shaft, and Nicholas counted aloud each
pace he took.
“One hundred and eight, one hundred and nine, one hundred and ten-‘
suddenly they came to the recent low river level. It was clearly marked
as a dry line on the walls of the tunnel. The paving under their feet
was also dry and free of the slippery coating of slime. Fifty paces
further on they passed the high flood level of the river, which was just
as clearly etched on the rock floor and the walls. Beyond that the
tunnel had never been immersed, and the walls were in the same condition
as the Egyptian slave workmen had left them four thousand years earlier.
The marks of the bronze chisels were as pristine as if they had been
inflicted just days before.
Only ten feet beyond the highest point that the river waters had ever
reached, they came out upon a stone landing. Here the floor levelled
out, and then the tunnel turned sharply back upon itself.
“Let’s spare a minute just to think about this as a feat of
engineering.” Nicholas took Royan’s arm and pointed back down the
tunnel. “Taita has placed this landing on which we are standing
precisely above the high-water mark of the river. How did he work it out
so exactly? He had no dumpy level, and only the crudest measuring
is. It’s a he And yet he calculated it as accurately as a piece of
“Well, he tells us repeatedly in the scrolls that he is a genius. I
suppose we will have to believe him now.” She pulled against his grip.
“Let’s go on. I must see what lies around this corner,” she urged.
Side by side they turned through the one hundred and eighty degree
corner and Nicholas held the hand lamp high, with the electrical cable
trailing back down the shaft behind him. As he lit the way ahead, Royan
exclaimed aloud and seized Nicholas’s free hand. Both of them froze with
Taita had designed the turning of the ascending ramp for dramatic
effect. The lower section of the shaft through which they had passed was
“crudely constructed, the walls irregular and undressed, the roof lumpy
and cracked. Taita had calculated his levels so finely that he had known
that the lower levels of the shaft would be submerged and damaged by the
water. He had wasted no effort on beautifying them.
Now before them rose a wide stairway. The angle of its ascent was such
that, from where they stood on the landing, the top of it was hidden
from their view. Each step stretched the full width of the tunnel, and
rose, a hand’s breadth. The treads were cut from slabs of mottled
gneiss, polished and fitted to each other so precisely that the joints
between them were barely visible. The roof of the tunnel was three times
as high as it had been in the lower reaches of the tunnel, perfectly
domed and proportioned. The walls and the curved roof were of
beautifully dressed blue granite blocks, keyed into each other with
marvelous precision and symmetry. The whole was a masterpiece of the
mason’s art, majestic and portentous. There was both a promise and a
menace in this vestibule to the unknown. Its simplicity and lack of
ornamentation made it even more impressive.
Royan tugged softly at Nicholas’s hand and together they stepped on to
the first tread of the stairway. It was carpeted with a fine layer of
dust, soft and white as talcum powder. The dust rose in soft eddies and
wisps around their knees and then subsided as they passed on upwards. It
muted the harsh glare of the electric lamp that Nicholas carried high in
his right hand.
Gradually, as they went on upwards, the top of the staircase came into
view ahead of them. Royan dug her fingernails into the palm of
Nicholas’s hand as she saw what lay ahead. The staircase ended on
another level landing, across which a rectangular doorway faced them.
They stepped up on to the landing and stood before the doorway. Neither
of them had words to express this supreme moment: they stood in silence
for what seemed like an eternity, holding each other’s hand with a
fierce and possessive grip.
Finally Nicholas tore his eyes off the gateway, and looked down at
Royan. He saw his own feelings mirrored in her face, her eyes shone as
though lit from within by an incandescent passion. There was no other
person alive with whom he would wish to share this moment. He wanted it
to last for ever.
She turned her head and looked at him. They stared deeply and solemnly
into each other’s eyes. Both of them were aware that this was a high
tide in their lives, one that could never be repeated. She tightened her
grip on his hand, and looked back to the doorway facing them. It had
been plastered over with white river clay, a surface that had mellowed
to the shade of ivory. There was no crack or blemish in its smooth
expanse, like the flawless skin of a beautiful virgin.
Their eyes fastened avidly on the two embossed seals in the centre of
the expanse of white clay. The upper one was in the shape of the royal
cartouche, the rectangular knot surmounted by the scarab, the homed
beetle that signified the great circle of eternity.
Royan’s lips formed the words as she read them from the hieroglyphics,
but she uttered no sound. “‘The Almighty. The Divine. Ruler of the Upper
and Lower Kingdoms Egypt. Familiar of the god, Horus. Beloved of Osiris
and of Of Isis. Mamose, may he five for ever!”‘
Below this magnificent royal seal was a smaller, simpler design in the
shape of a hawk, with one broken wing drooping across its barred breast,
and the legend: 7, Taita the slave, have obeyed your command, divine
Pharaoh.” Underneath the maimed hawk was a single column of
hieroglyphics that spelled out the stem warning: “Stranger!
The gods are watching. Disturb the king’s eternal rest at your peril!’
reaking the seals on the doorway was a momentous act, and despite the
fact that the time before the onset of the rains was fast running out,
neither of them was prepared to undertake it lightly.
They had to make every effort to keep permanent re ds cor of everything
they discovered, and to inflict as little damage as possible while
They spent one of their precious remaining days preparing for the
break-in to the tomb. Naturally, Nicholas’s first concern was the
security of the tomb area. He asked Mek Nimmur to place an armed guard
on the causeway over the sink-hole in the approach tunnel, and access
beyond this point was restricted. Only Nicholas, Royan, Sapper, Mek,
Tessay and four of the monks whom Nicholas had selected were allowed
across the bridge.
Hansith Sherif had proved himself repeatedly during the clearing of the
lower tunnel. Physically strong, willing and intelligent, he had become
Nicholas’s principal assistant. It was Hansith who carried the tripod
and spare camera equipment while Nicholas photographed the approach
tunnel and the sealed doorway. He shot three rolls of high-speed film to
make certain that they had a complete record of the unbroken seals and
the doorway surrounds. Only when the filming was completed would
Nicholas allow Hansith and the other three monks to bring up the tools
needed for the break-in.
Sapper moved the Honda generator up as far as the sink-hole, to reduce
the voltage drop over the distance that the current had to travel down
the cable. Then he set up, the floodlights on the upper landing of the
staircase and focused them on the white expanse of the plastered
VAen they assembled at the threshold they were all in a sober mood.
Despite the fact that the tomb was thousands of years old, it was still
an act of desecration that they were about to perpetrate. Royan had
translated the hieroglyphic warning on the sealed doorway to Sapper, Mek
and Tessay, and none of them was prepared to take it lightly.
Nicholas marked out the square opening he intended cutting through the
plaster covering, This was large enough to afford access, but it also
enclosed the royal cartouche and Tatia’s maimed hawk seal. He intended
lifting these out in one piece, and preserving them intact. In his
imagination, he could already see them displayed in a prominent position
in the museum at Quenton Park.
Nicholas began on the right’hand upper corner of the opening. First he
used a long, needle-sharp awl as a probe.
He pressed and twisted the needle point through the dried clay in an
attempt to determine exactly what lay beneath the surface. Very soon he
found out that the plaster had been laid over laths of finely interwoven
“That makes it a lot-easier,” he told Royan. “The reed mat will help to
hold the plaster together and prevent it cracking and breaking up.”
He kept working the point of the awl deeper, until suddenly the
resistance gave way and the blade ran in Its full length.
“Six inches,” he said, measuring the thickness of the door off the
blade. “Taita never skimps, does he? It’s a heavy bit of work.”
Still using the awl, Nicholas drilled all four corners of the square
opening he intended cutting. Then he stepped back and gestured for
Hansith to bring up the heavy four-inch gimlet to enlarge them. This was
the type of drill that fishermen use for cutting through lake ice in
As soon as the gimlet broke through, Nicholas impatiently pulled Hansith
aside and peered into the hole.
Beyond the opening all was completely dark, but he caught a whiff of the
faint breath of ancient air that washed through the opening. The odour
was dry and dead and austere, the smell of the ages long past.
“What do you see?” Royan demanded at his elbow.
“The light! Give me the light!” he ordered, and when Sapper handed it to
him, he held it to the opening.
“Tell me!” Royan was dancing beside him with impatience. “What do you
“Colours!” he whispered. “The most marvelous, indescribable colours.” He
stepped back and, lifting her around the waist, held her so that she
could look into the aperture.
“Beautiful!” she cried. “It’s so beautiful.”
The men rigged up the heavy-duty electric blower fan which would
circulate the air in the shaft, while Nicholas prepared the chain-saw.
When he was ready, Nicholas handed Royan a pair of goggles and a dust
mask and helped her to adjust them. Then he made her fit a pair of wax
Before he started the chain-saw, he sent the rest of them back down the
tunnel as far as the causeway over the sinkholes In the confined space
the exhaust fumes from the chain-saw and the dust, together with the
noise of the petrol engine, would be overpowering, but apart from that
he wanted only Royan with him at the moment of the break’in.
When they were alone, Nicholas switched the blower fan to its highest
speed, then donned his own mask and goggles and plugged his ears. He
pulled the starter cord of the chain-saw motor and it burst into life in
a cloud of blue exhaust smoke.
Nicholas braced himself and pressed the spinning chain blade into the
gimlet hole in the plastered doorway.
It cut through the thick white plaster and the laths beneath it like a
knife through the icing on a wedding cake.
Carefully he ran the cutting edge down the line he had marked out.
A cloud of flying white plaster dust filled the air.
Within seconds they could see only a few feet in front of their eyes.
Doggedly Nicholas kept the cut going, down the right -hand side, across
the bottom, then up the left side. Finally he made the last cut across
the top, and when the square trapdoor began to sag forward under its own
weight he killed the engine of the chain’saw and set it aside.
Royan jumped forwards to help him, and together in the eddies of dust
and smoke they steadied the square of plaster and prevented it from
crashing to the paving and shattering into a thousand pieces. Gently
they lifted it out from the opening and, with the seals still intact,
laid it against the side wall of the landing.
The open hatchway they had cut through the plaster was a dark square.
Nicholas adjusted the floodlight to shine through it, but the dust was
still too dense for them to be able to see much of the interior.
Nicholas climbed through the hatch into the space beyond. All was
obscured by a dense fog of dust that not even the lamps could penetrate.
He did not attempt to explore further, but immediately turned back to
help Royan through the opening after him.
He recognized her right to share every moment of this discovery. Beyond
the wall they stood quietly together, waiting for the blower fan to
clear the air. Slowly the dust fog began to dissipate, and the first
thing they became aware of was the floor beneath their feet.
No longer made of stone slabs, it was covered with tiles of yellow agate
that had been polished to a gloss and fitted together so cunningly that
no joints were visible. It was like a single sheet of lovely opaque
glass, dulled only by the film of fine talcum dust that had settled upon
Where their feet had disturbed the layer of dust the agate sparkled
through it, catching the light of the floodlamp.
Then the fog of dust that surrounded them thinned, and gradually a
miraculous blaze of colours and shapes began to appear through the murk.
Royan lifted the dust mask from her face and let it drop to the agate
Nicholas followed her example, and took a breath of the stagnant air. No
draught had disturbed it for thousands of years and it had the odour of
great antiquity, the musty smell of the linen bandages of an embalmed
Now the miasma of dust faded away and before them opened a long straight
passageway, the end of which was hidden in shadow and darkness. Nicholas
turned back to the opening in the sealed door behind them, and reached
through it to bring in the fioodlight on its stand. Quickly he arranged
it to illuminate the full length of the passageway ahead of them.
As they started forward, the images of the old gods hovered around them.
They glowered at the intruders from the walls and hung over them,
watching them with huge and hostile eyes from the ceiling high overhead.
Nicholas and Royan passed on slowly. Their footfalls on the agate tiles
were muted by the thin carpet of dust, and the dust that still hung in