The wind that had buffeted their backs for twelve days died to stillness during the night. Hale awoke when it stopped, and he lay there in his blankets on the sand for several seconds, staring up at the crescent of the new moon, wondering what sound had awakened him, before he concluded that the change had been the total cessation of the wind.
Only when he next awoke, shortly before dawn, did he notice that the 'Al-Murra guides had stolen away with four of the camels during the night.
Choking back a curse, he threw off his warm blankets and got to his feet to assess the supplies they had left; and they seemed to have divided the food and water evenly.
At least they had not taken the sand sled.
Salim bin Jalawi was at his dawn prayers, kneeling at a half-circle he had scored in the sand, bowing toward the west and Mecca. Hale looked around and did not see another line in the sand; the 'Al-Murrah must have left before prayer time, and were probably kneeling at a traced half-circle in the Tara'iz sands right now. Certainly they would not neglect it.
At last bin Jalawi stood up from the line in the sand and stared impassively at Hale. The sky in the east was pale blue and pink, though the sun had not yet appeared over the rim of the basin, and the still air was cold enough to make steam of both men's breath.
"If we ride hard," said bin Jalawi, "we could catch up with them."
"No," said Hale in a hoarse, tired voice. He scratched his bristly beard and yawned. "No, we will go on and get the egg-I mean, the big piece of iron. I hope four camels will be enough to haul it on the sled."
"The devil take your sled," said bin Jalawi mildly. He looked around at the sand basin they had camped in, clearly replaying in his mind the previous evening's search for fuel; and he must have concluded that it had been thorough, for he shrugged and said, "Allah gives and Allah is pleased to take away. Coffee must wait until we find wood at Wabar." He cocked his head then, listening, and he said, "They…return…?"
Soon Hale could hear it too, the almost liquid sound of camel hooves in sand. He crouched by his saddle and pulled the Mannlicher carbine out of the oiled-wool scabbard, then scrambled on all fours up the northwest sand slope; he slid the rifle barrel up to the crest of the slope, and then with his hand on the stock near the trigger guard he slowly raised his head to peer over the basin edge.
The four returning camels in head-on view were the only figures out in the lunar dawn landscape-and though saddlebags flopped at their sides as they plodded this way, there was no rider on any of the saddles.
"Fida' at al Allah!" whispered bin Jalawi, who was now prone beside him. The phrase was one of farewell, meaning In the custody of God.
Clutching the carbine, Hale got to his feet and stepped slowly out across the still, icy sand to meet the camels. The beasts were walking normally, bobbing their big heads, and the saddlebags and water-skins didn't appear to have been touched.
The guides might have been shot by bandits or a hostile tribe-but he and bin Jalawi would have heard shots in this stilled air, and the assailants would have taken the camels; and Hale couldn't think of any other explanation…besides djinn. He was bleakly sure that he should have distributed the ankhs to the men last night.
The cold sky was a weight on his shoulders as he clucked his tongue at the camels and caught the reins of the leader. The beast lowered its head, and Hale slung the leather rifle strap over his shoulder and put his wool-booted foot on the camel's neck and let it lift him up off the sand toward the saddle. The sun was a red point on the eastern horizon, and Hale imagined that it was peeking at him as he had peeked over the basin rim.
There was no blood on the flat board of the saddle; only, caught in the folds of the blanket and on the saddlebag flap buckles, a scatter of jewelry. Hale stepped across from the camel's neck onto the small Oman saddle, and he knelt swayingly up there as he scraped and picked up a handful of the jewelry.
It was tiny sticks, some curved and some straight, made of glass and bone and bright gold; and not until he found a knobby round piece of gold as big as a marble and held it up to the light, and saw that it was a tiny scale model of a human skull, did he realize that the sticks were probably miniature sculptures of human bones.
He had heard Salim bin Jalawi's footsteps approaching, and now bin Jalawi was up on the saddle of another of the returned camels, and Hale glanced over to see that he too was gathering up scattered jewelry.
"La-ila-il-l' Allah!" bin Jalawi exclaimed abruptly, flinging the handful of gold and glass and bone slivers away from him in the dawn sunlight. "Drop them, bin Sikkah!"
The man's response had startled Hale so badly that he not only scattered the miniature bones but jumped right off of the saddle too. He landed unbalanced on his feet and sat down hard in the cold sand, the slung carbine barrel cracking him painfully over the ear. "What the hell?" he said irritably in English, getting quickly to his feet to dispel any impression of panic.
Bin Jalawi had climbed down with more dignity, but he was breathing fast as he led the camel forward toward the camp in the basin. "Djinn," he panted, "duplicate things. If they ponder a thing, sometimes a copy of that thing appears, made of whatever is at hand. In the desert the copies are generally made of glass, which is melted sand, or gold, which is in the sand. Somewhere up near the Um al-Hadid wells I know there is right now a stretch of sand that is not cold. And hot bare bones too, though they will have shaved some to make their models of others."
Hale was leading the camel he had jumped off of, and the two others were following placidly. "In miniature," he said.
"In all sizes, bin Sikkah! Djinn cannot comprehend differences in size, only shapes. These small copies stayed on the saddles, caught in folds-but by the Um al-Hadid wells there are now certainly bones as big as cannon barrels, made of glass-aye, and skulls as big as chairs, made of gold. We are lucky these camels weren't crushed."
Hale's forehead was damp with the sweat of nausea, and in order to appear unruffled he quoted an often-repeated speech from the Thousand Nights and One Night: "'Thy story is a marvelous one! If it were graven with needles on the corners of the eye, it would serve as a warning to those that can profit by example.'"
Bin Jalawi snorted. "Your skull in gold will be more valuable than others, being solid all through. Tawaqal-na al Allah! We put our trust now in Allah. Let us quickly be finished with this business of dying, to save the trouble of making dinner."
Hale had slung the canvas bag containing the iron ankhs around his neck, and now he reached into it and pulled out one of the linen-wrapped crosses. "Carry this," he said, tossing it to bin Jalawi, "and perhaps you won't die. Don't unwrap it yet-it will hold the attention, distract the attention, of any djinn that might focus on you."
Bin Jalawi caught it and hefted it, then after a hesitation nodded and tucked it into a pocket in his robe.
Back at the camp they redistributed the bales and saddlebags among the eight camels and then they mounted and rode southwest.
After a few miles they found themselves riding over glittering black sticks that protruded from the sand and threw thin blue shadows, and for one chest-hollowing moment when he first noticed them Hale thought they were skeleton fingers; but the things shattered under the camels' hooves, and he realized that they were fragile fulgurites, rough glass tubes formed by lightning strikes, exposed now by the scouring wind of the previous days.
Ahead of them now stood a range of what the Bedu called quaid, solitary dunes two or three hundred feet high, which the winds had somehow not arranged into the usual long, regular lines; the northern faces were as steep as the sand grains would permit, and even in the stillness Hale could see patches of paler rose-colored sand appear as here and there the darker surface layer slid silently away.
A spot of still darker red bounded rapidly across the high crest of the nearest dune, right under the empty blue sky-it was a fox, running with apparent purpose-and the dark sand was falling behind the animal like a curtain sequentially dropped, exposing the rose underlayer-
– and suddenly the air throbbed with a loud roar like the harmonizing engines of a low-flying bomber. Hale flinched on his saddle at the sheer physical assault of the noise, and it was several seconds before he recognized the old rhythms-and then several seconds more before he realized that the drumming cycles were forming vast, slow words in a very archaic form of Arabic.
It was all Hale could do not to throw himself off of the high saddle and lie face-down in the sand-for the cyst of his own frail identity felt nearly negated by this "mountain, or one of the survivors of the tribe of A'ad" that was shaking the foundations of the world with its speech.
His stunned consciousness recognized the words for Why come the sons of Solomon son-of-David to the Kingdom of A'ad?-and he knew that no creatures who might in some sense survive here would know the term Nazrani. Their city had been destroyed by the wrath of Yahweh, the God of Solomon, long before Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Neither Hale nor bin Jalawi ventured an answer; and the eight imperturbable camels simply kept plodding forward toward a low gap in the sand between the dunes.
From the corner of his eye Hale saw another fox scampering across the ridge of the towering quaid dune that blocked the blue sky a hundred yards to their right. And as the ringing tones of the first dune shuddered away to silence this one took up the throbbing, rhythmic roar, repeating the same question.
Don't answer, Hale told himself, mostly to maintain his own distinct identity, as he rocked numbly on the saddle. Don't reason with them.
With a jarring thump that was almost drowned out by the syllables of the dunes, a geyser of sand shot hundreds of feet into the air from a point two hundred yards to the left; and as the upflung sand column began to dissolve into falling veils, another exploded up from the right. Abrupt collapses and avalanches in the slopes of two of the quaid dunes ahead made Hale think that similar detonations were happening under their weighty mass, and when he stared through the foggy rain of sand at the spot where the second geyser had erupted, he saw an age-weathered ring of stone exposed in the sand. It was a well. The wells of Wabar were violently expelling the sand that must have choked them for more than two thousand years.
A quarter of a mile away to the left, another dune began pronouncing the resonant question, and more tan jets burst up from the desert floor on all sides, out across the plain to a distance of half a mile or more. Hale's nostrils twitched at a smell like cinnamon and old dry blood.
He was gritting his teeth, and tears were running from his slitted eyes into his beard. They might not know the term Nazrani, he thought, but I am baptized. Is that what this dead kingdom is responding to, that spiritual polarization? Old St. John Philby came here-but only after he had renounced his own baptism and converted to Islam.
He pushed the jangled thought away, unwilling to consider the notion that his baptism-"on the Palestine shore, at Allenby Bridge near Jericho "-might have made an important and recognizable change in him; and in any case he had more immediate urgencies.
Bumpy black objects as big as wrecked cars were rising out of the wells now, hovering in ripples of mirage over the masonry rings and glinting in the sun; Hale saw that they were made of stone, and when one of them, and then another, ponderously leaned to the side, the rim of its well was instantly crushed to an explosion of dust, and the black stones moved slowly forward, leaving behind them paths of deeply indented sand. A harsh, two-tone ringing had started up, as if in harmony with the repeated slow basso profundo syllables of the dunes.
Half a dozen of the black basalt rocks still floated heavily over their wells, but eight of the massive things-no, ten-more-were surging across the plain toward Hale and bin Jalawi from both sides and from behind. Their size made them seem to move slowly, but when Hale watched the steady extensions of their impacted-sand tracks, he saw that they were moving at least as fast as his train of camels. Two of the knobby boulders were closing in from the left and right like black spinnaker sails and were at the moment only a few hundred feet away; and at last he noticed in their bumpy contours the shelves of eroded shoulders, the outcrop of hip and breast. They were giant, broken, headless stone torsos, facing him and advancing, and the dizzying ringing noise was vibrating out of their black glass cores, as if in reiterated inquiry, or warning, or rage. The earth's harsh music seemed to be tolling the crystal vault of the air and shaking the remote clouds into dissipating mist.
Hale was panting in hoarse whimpers through his open mouth, and his memory and identity were indistinct vibrating blurs. He had forgotten how to turn a camel around, and his legs tingled with the unreasoned spinal intention of jumping down from the saddle and simply running away north, perhaps on all fours. Even in ruins this power was too much for a frail, short-lived mammal to bear.
But that indistinct admission stirred a spark of defiant anger in his mind. Angels, he thought, and holding a thought was like clinging to a filled glass while in free fall, so be it; but I am a man. He took a deep breath and raised his head; and from his all-but-abandoned memory he summoned a phrase from his Jesuit school boyhood: Sin by sensuality, and you sin as a beast; sin by dishonesty, and you sin as a man; sin by pride, and you sin as the angels.
"I," he declared out loud, though his voice was lost in the inorganic cantata of the dunes and the moving boulders, "can sin as well as any of you fallen angels." And even though he was forlornly sure that it wasn't true, that he was in fact simply sinning as a man, the deliberate intention served as an anchor for his otherwise-fragmenting identity.
Hale's hand darted into the canvas bag that hung on his chest, and as he fumbled out one of the linen-wrapped iron ankhs, he numbly saw that the advancing stones did not actually touch the sand, but impossibly floated over it, supported by some force that crushed the sand flat underneath.