“You’ll take Ashburry,” replied the colonel, with a devil-may-care glance at the captain. He paused to wave at flies. “Then you’ll make a full report. You know we just lost a camel patrol because their man wanted to visit his mother on the wrong side of the line? These local guides don’t seem to know what’s at stake. You’re just the man for this job, Earnest. John is from Cardiff, and I know his aunt. They say he’s a scoundrel and as good a guide as the locals. If it’s true, then I’ve got ideas, but not if he’s a scoundrel. The wife is a problem, you understand? I know all these modern ideas of women as spies or as nurses or some such but mine is a proper regiment and I’ll not be putting a woman in harm’s way. You understand? It isn’t proper. As for her husband, he might be useful. Take Ashburry and make a full report.”
I said: “Who’s Ashburry?”
Ashburry was an Australian sergeant who looked like he had not been born in the ordinary fashion, but had rather come about through some mythological interaction between yeast and salted meat under the catalyst of a desert sun. He rode a desolate australian stock horse with mournful eyes who might have been the source of the salt. Ashburry greeted me with a slanted look at my gear, a carrot for Poles, and nary a word. His salute lacked conviction.
At the cantina, the fliers and the flies took passes at each other while airplanes thundered about at the volume of angry gods. The horses didn’t care. I watched the red shadow of the horizon creep up the canteen wall. They appeared exactly when the sun hit the top of the door. John rode a camel, Semira a dappled mare with Marcus perched before her. Semira grinned and called: “Englishman! Your horse is a bastard, isn’t he? I can just tell.”
I agreed that he was, and Poles gave us both the evil eye.
I was obliged to present Ashburry, and this introduced something of a wrinkle. Semira and John held a private conference of glances by which I gleaned the extra company wasn’t welcome. Ashburry smoked and appeared demure. I wondered if he could speak, and by what power he had impressed the colonel, or perhaps angered him, to earn this assignment. In the end, the scouts set out, and I fell in beside Semira. Ashburry took up the rear. They paid him no further mind.
“The boy is coming?” I asked.
“He has seen worse,” Semira replied.
Poles tried to bite her. It did not go how he expected. Poles had developed a knack for surprise attacks. His target of choice was the soft part of the thigh, the belly, or the breast when he could get it. Like any good bully he could lull an authority into a moment of repose, and only then strike for his pound of flesh. He knew how to wait. He was always watching.
Semira caught him by the tongue. He tried to pull away to no avail. He tried to bite her again, and his teeth closed on himself. His dancing and bucking to get away almost unseated me, but I kept a knee in. Then she yanked him close, looked him right in the eye, and the fight went out of him. After that he walked meekly beside her with his nose straight ahead and his ears on the swivel.
Marcus watched this all with great interest. Ashburry cackled.
For a time, we rode without speaking. The sun set and the last flier buzzed back to base. The red of the sun faded. Soon the desert would be ours. I was elated to be on patrol, and in so small and excellent company (though I wasn’t sure about Ashburry or Poles), but I felt a little deflated that whatever business they’d invited me about was safe enough to bring the child.
I kept track of our progress with my watch and compass. I’d memorized the map. Semira sang to Marcus, who spent the last hours of light counting the bones in her bandoleers. Just as the twilight turned purple, a cannon thundered across the sands from far away, and it seemed the desert answered in echoes like the crash of surf.
At last John said: “You’re not very smart, are you?”
“I beg your pardon?” replied I.
“You haven’t asked what we were planning or why.”
“Sir, I am a soldier. The enemy is that way. We are going toward them, but as we have only got provision for a single night, and you have brought a child, we cannot possibly reach anything of importance. I conclude that you have brought me to test my character against a pleasant evening ride. Very well. The stars are bright.”
John and Semira laughed. Ashburry was silent.
Marcus said: “Petrol riding,” and he tapped his heel against a metal drum hanging from his mother’s saddle. “Shooting or shadows. Be careful.”
A wind came over us which seemed to whisper. A thin moon chased cloud shadows across the dunes.
Semira leaned toward me. Her teeth flashed. “Are you a skeptic, Englishman?”
“I am an Englishman, and that is answer in full. My name is Tellerhorn, by the way. Lieutenant Earnest Tellerhorn.” I took particular pride in the word ‘lieutenant,’ despite that my father had essentially purchased it in pounds sterling.
“Earnest you may be,” she replied, “But you will have more than a pleasant ride. What is the most magic you have seen?”
I considered my reply. Ashburry spat. Sand and wind slithered past us. I said: “On a hill above my grandfather’s house in Medmenham, there was an old stone. I was often told the fairies would gather there on windy nights. Of course I tried to catch them at it. I thought I might have, once or twice. But you understand that I, being a Christian, know perfectly well none of that is real.”
“Perfectly well,” repeated Marcus in a solemn whisper. “Christian is not real.”
“Your faith does you credit, Christian.” Semira caught my arm in a hard grip. “You have asked to come with us tonight of all nights and I welcome your company. Hear me well, Earnest: You must believe what your eyes see tonight. You must trust what your heart tells you. If you fear the shadows, then they are right to be feared. Should a terror come upon you or on Poles, then drive him north to the road, and do not leave it again. Tell me you understand.”
I did not understand, but she asked again and so I agreed. “North to the road, and don’t leave it.” It struck me that if she should ask me to go north into the sea and walk on water, I might do it. I pulled back from her and rode alone for a time, silently urging my heart to settle down. John and his camel were a swaying ghost ahead of us. My pistols and saber hung heavy.
Pockmarked rock interrupted the rippled sand. We crested a dune and came upon mountains. I had continued to check my watch and compass, and by that observed that we could be no more than ten miles into the desert, which would be much less than a quarter of the distance from Kantara to the nearest mountain. Yet there they were. I asked Poles to stop and to my surprise he agreed. His ears turned about and his eyes rolled. “Hello,” I said. “Where are we and how did we get here?”
Semira answered: “At the heart of all ruin lay the oldest of bones. Look to the sky, Englishman, and let your faith be shaken.”
Two moons hung over the hills – one black, one white, and both of them full. Beside me, Ashburry took off his hat. We stared long until John called from far ahead: “Keep up!”
At his words, the desert whispered. Poles huffed. Ashburry’s stallion sighed. The shadows of the hills drifted like weeds beneath the sea. Above them, the stars seemed strange.
When we rejoined our guides, Marcus met us with a smile.
Ashburry no longer held up the rear, but stayed close. We entered a folded land of ravines where trickling water seemed always just out of sight and a wind moaned, though I could feel none.
At last I could take it no more. “Alright then, I regret my pride. Where are we going, and what are we about?”
Semira answered in a cool voice: “There is a magician among the Ottomans who whispers storms. We have not seen his face. Tonight he may come down from the Ziggurat of Ur to make a pilgrimage, so we go where he might: to the Tower of Tongues to lay oblation at the feet of all ruin, where the bones of the oldest god rise like dragon’s teeth from the sea of salt.” She laughed. “Do not worry, Englishman! We have made the trip many times. Do you believe me?”
“I believe we’re approaching a structure. What’s that ahead?”
A break in folded hills leveled to sand and a forlorn bush without leaves, like a blood vein in the air. A ruined foundation lay like geometric moss beside the bush, half buried in sand made blue and red by the strange moonlight.
John gave his camel a sturdy clout to stop. It took the opposite signal and went off at a run. It was a young bull and stubborn enough to take the chase seriously. We had a merry time of it around the valley in a circle until I lost a shoe. If it attempted any of the many cracked passages that would take it into winding and unknown ways, it would quickly be gone or stuck. By the third loop, I had recovered my shoe and managed to head it off. Then Ashburry caught the flapping reigns and that was the end of the camel’s bid for freedom. John got in a bit of vengeance with a riding crop and cursing – conduct I found distasteful, but it wasn’t my place to say.
By the time we’d brought in the absconder and got him settled Semira had dug out some horse-water from beneath the desolate bush. We sat on the stones and shared her tobacco and cold coffee while the animals drank their fill.
The leaf had a funny sweetness to it, like the smell of ice. I’d been short of my own for weeks, so I took special pleasure in the grey smoke against the black sky. The stones, it seemed, made the foundation of some long vanished structure, but they were not like any foundation I had seen in the Sinai; chiseled square and fitted tightly without mortar, as opposed to the rough stone and mortar construction common to the area. I mused aloud that I’d not seen stonework of its kind anywhere, but read of it being done in South America.
My surprise captured John’s interest. He kicked a stone free and rolled it over. Volcanic shale, we agreed, though huge, flat, and cut. The hills around seemed sandstone on granite and the odd igneous intrusion, with no shale in evidence. While we speculated about the stonework’s origin, I paced out the contours of the foundation and spotted more of it going up the side of the hill and above on the rocks. I unearthed a part of something I thought a buttress of considerable girth. No mere waystation this! It seemed to me to have been built on a grand scale, extending up the side of the hill to encircle a portion of cliff face in a fortification once containing many rooms and large antechambers. Or else it was the work of someone mad.
We sat back down and speculated on the shape of the thing. An inn on the pilgrimage road? A hidden fortress defending the brackish water? Or something more esoteric – a madman’s redoubt perhaps, or a brigand’s hideaway? John found carvings on the stone in alphabets unknown, by which he judged the work to be very ancient, but I thought they might have been a modern graffito.
I turned to Semira to find her engaged in a kind of juggling act with Marcus, passing stones between their hands.
“What do you think this building was?” I asked.
She replied with confidence: “It is a border fort of the Vallai Kingdom.”
At this, John seemed momentarily startled. He said nothing and quickly hid his chagrin.
Marcus added like an echo: “Snake place.”
“Is?” I asked. “Perhaps it was.”
The child pointed up the hill past his mother’s shoulder. “Snakes in the rocks, watching! A snake with wings!” He cackled. “Snakes with rings. Catch’em!” He made a dash for the hills, but Semira caught him up at a couple of paces.
At that a shot rang out, and we all ducked. For an instant, I feared we’d come under attack. I fumbled at my Webley’s dust cover. Ashburry, with his rifle smoking, set off in a hurry after something up on the rocks near where the boy had pointed. We all went after him. A panicked search and a lot of questions got us nothing until the blighter came up with a six-foot serpent he’d drilled from its perch atop a stone. It looked to be a cobra.
John laid in to old Ashburry with the sharp end of his tongue, calling it a negligent discharge, a mutiny, reckless and stupid. Ashburry took his abuse at attention. He mustered the grace to look ashamed at first, but when Semira took the snake and prayed over it, his remorse turned to annoyance. He then abandoned John mid-remark and remounted his horse, leaving the guide to fume in his own airs.
Semira did not merely pray over the snake. She crooned over it, built it a cairn, and sang in a quavering voice to the empty hills with both hands palm up in the air as if asking forgiveness. I could not have identified the language, though it at times seemed almost familiar. While she turned one way to the next, John set Marcus on the mare and bound a blindfold around his eyes.
After Semira finished her entreaty, John led us away at incautious speed. The air between them had charged. I loaded the Colt and folded open the dust covers of both pistols.