A wind came up over the ridges and canyons so the tops of the hills seemed haunted by tall ghosts. The dark moon and the light drifted in and out of sight behind the high hills. As he rode his camel, John transitioned a series of glass bottles from a bag on his left to a bag on his right, with a stop in the middle to be filled with gasoline and a plugged with a rag. When he saw me looking, he said: “A precaution.”
Semira led the way then, and she rode forward on her saddle, half standing, alert and silent.
We went on in this manner for just over an hour until we came to a dry riverbed that carved many winding and interlocked ravines through the hills to the north and south. There she reigned in sharply and leapt up to stand on her saddle.
There seemed something like an oasis. Tall poles that I thought like bamboo or leafless palms stood at odd angles, so it seemed someone had written in slashing letters across the valley words of an ancient alphabet. I found it uncomfortable and alluring, and wanted badly to see what lay between those reaching trees, because I knew with certainty we would find another ruin greater than before.
Up in his perch atop the camel, John drew and readied a Winchester repeater.
At the sound of the cocking gun, Marcus declared: “Danger sticks. I’ll teach you when you’re older.” His mother shushed him sharply but at the sound of his voice there rippled movement through the valley – like iron filings aligning on a magnet. No visible force or wind moved those strange shapes and the dust between them but they seemed to write his words in geometry. I saw no leaves to whisper, but the sound returned in murmurs strange and jagged to the ear.
Semira used her spear to signal for me to go back the way we had come. Her knuckles gripping the weapon were white with tension.
John, in a grim hiss, said: “We’re in it this time.”
Whatever “it” was I wasn’t at all sure. It had something to do with killing the snake. That much seemed obvious. But what and how were beyond my comprehension. I frantically scanned the shifting moon-shadow.
Poles saw his chance.
He kicked Semira’s mare, sending her to the ground with a pitious cry and tangle of thrashing legs and weight. Semira and her child vanished in the tumble, crushed, I thought, for certain. I had no time to look, because Poles pressed his assault with a tantrum meant to kill me. He’d always been a bastard but he’d never thrown such a fit even under fire. Though I was an able horsman, I could avail nothing. I clung for my life.
Then Semira’s mare was up with a thirst for vengeance. She kicked and bit at Poles and he replied. I flung myself free, landed in the dirt and got a kick for my troubles that knocked the wind out of me. The battle cries of the horses whispered back from the hills and shadows, and the blood from their bites streamed too red.
Ashburry leapt on the mare’s back and drove her to retreat; a remarkable feat of heroism and horsmanship that was almost for naught as Poles gave chase. My horse had gone mad. I’d never thought him a murderer, but he’d proven that impulse. Still, it was calm him or walk, so I gave it another go. Semira came to my aid and between us we got his reigns and held him. As soon as he felt himself trapped Poles went still. He stood steaming, wild eyed, and trembling. I had thought him vexatious and cruel, but it seemed then more like terror.
Markus waited atop a spire of stone as if he’d flown there like a crow. Semira leapt up to him with such ease I gathered that she’d survived Pole’s attack by floating free of her mount like a stork, with her child in one hand and her spear in the other. Though the miracle of this escape brought a whoop from me, her attention was all on the hills and I straight away remembered the threat about us, unspoken and unseen.
As she came to him, Marcus scaled his mother like a protective tree. He’d rebelled of his blindfold, and with one shaking finger he pointed to the ridge opposite the riverbed.
The hill was haloed red as from some hidden fire. Shadows came over it in legion. Their movements seemed to me not altogether natural. More like puppets than creatures, and not at all like men or the mounts of men. They were numberless, but it was none of this which set the fear of hell in my heart. Nor was it was the sounds; like cats or foxes, and a little like snakes, and a lot like language. None of that held me. Beyond the ridge rose a great many huge things, long legged, ivory white, and mountain tall, they shed sand like landslides and sent tremors in the dirt. They had wings, I think.
I fired without thinking or aiming. I could not have hit anything. When the Webley was empty, I saw that the distance was much greater than I had first thought, a trick of the moonlight, and the host of advancing forms was faster, further, and larger than I had imagined or could believe. Black and terrible shame came upon me. Shame for my undisciplined fire, my panic, my disorderly steed, and most of all for being a villain enough to draw their attention. I holstered the Webley and drew the Colt.
John threw a bottle of petrol that spread a red fire near us, and in that light what I had taken for palm trees or bamboo were revealed to be bones – curved ribs greater than elephants. Greater than whales. The bones of giants, all mangled. A whole hand rose from the desert clutching a strange, behemoth weapon — rifle or totem I could not say, but it seemed to me a technology magnificent and formidable.
Semira drew a circle about herself with the tip of her spear. Her shout cut through my panic: “Go, Englishman! Go to the road and do not leave it! This is no fight for you! We will see they do not follow!”
“Like hell,” I replied and endeavored to take a defensive position in front of her. Poles wouldn’t do it; as if in obedience to her command he carried me off up the riverbed at a speed like an evil wind. Ashburry gave chase, god bless him. Poles knew his business, and it was to flee. I got a glance back in time to see John shoot his camel and then step into the circle. Semira had her hands up again in prayer, and her voice scraped the sky. At her knees, the boy Marcus writhed and contorted. I swear his clothes bulged and shifted as if what they covered were a knot of snakes.
Then there were riders between us – riders on strange beasts much larger and longer than horses, which seemed to churn the dirt with many more than four legs.
Poles knew his business, and it was escape. Never in his racing career had he run like he did up that riverbed, or else he’d have never been sold to me. At last I got him in hand enough to circle once and shoot back at our pursuers, enough to let Ashburry catch up. He rode Semira’s mare and she hadn’t the same legs, but she ran fit to kill herself.
I dared imagine the many legged mounts would outpace us on rough terrain, so I coaxed Poles toward a packed slope and up the dunes beyond. I followed my compass and my memory of maps, though it seemed to me that both should not be trusted. North, she said, and so we followed the red hand of the needle.
After about two miles, we slowed to a trot and clutched our guns. I’d scarcely got the Webley loaded when the sounds came behind us again, and so we went on. The mare fatigued. Ashburry dumped all of his kit that he could reach except his rifle and bayonet. Even his hat. We heard them to the left of us, beyond a steep and thorny dune. Then to the right of us, past a ravine, I glimpsed riders.
A trick of angles and moonlight laid out a long and pitch dark shadow in the lee of the hill, and we ran where the light did not follow. If their strange calls gave any indication they had seen us, I could not tell.
Again the mare lagged. Poles would have left her, but I wouldn’t let him. He chomped at the bit and tried to bite me. Maybe he was right.
Two rifle shots sounded from behind and a high scream like a bat, but loud and lingering. As it trailed off and failed, Ashburry and the mare came upon us again at a full gallop. The mare frothed at the mouth, and Ashburry looked a ghost. As he passed me, he threw his rifle away.
Poles wasted no time in catching up.
We came across the road quite of a sudden and passed over it onto the narrow beach. With salt foam about his knees, Poles came up and nearly bucked me. The placid waters were like glass, but even before us, a wave rose up.
There were hands in the foam, clawed hands that reached for us. I fired twice, but what good is a gun against the sea? Again it was Poles who saved me. A bastard he was, but a bastard with a glorious sense of self-preservation. He wheeled from the water and raced ashore so fast he might have flown. Ashburry and the mare, still slower and more steady, had already gone on down the road and showed no signs of pausing for our sake.
Rivulets of ocean foam much like tentacles chased us to the road, but did not follow us upon it. My bullets did not discomfit them in the least.
Ashburry did not or could not slow the mare, but I feared my mount’s death or exhausted collapse might leave me afoot, so when the night seemed calm, I forced Poles to a walk. Cairns by the roadside marked our progress, and I more than once thought them sentries. The water whispered against the shore like voices. Though I was alone except for Poles, the dread of the chasing shadows kept on me, and I feared at every step something would soon appear.