"Yes." Hale wondered if the man wanted it; and he supposed he could have it, once a helicopter had safely arrived in the level field Theodora had described on the village's north slope.
"You will need it, not. From the roof we can see Agri Dag and the Russian border-the Turks have set up torches along the border, poles as tall as three men, wrapped in dry grass, each with a bottle of fuel in a box at the base. My men are out below the mountain and along the border now, on horseback, and when the Russians arrive at the mountain my men will light all the Turks' torches, the whole length of the border." He laughed merrily.
Hale recalled that Agri Dag was the Turkish name of Mount Ararat. "The radio will summon me-or the arrival of a helicopter, here, will!-to go to the mountain," said Hale, "before the Russians arrive." He took a sip of the coffee-it was very good, hot and strong and thick with grounds, and the smells of cardamom and onions from some farther room were reminding him that he hadn't eaten more than a sandwich today. "They won't be starting for a day or so yet."
"Russians don't know what they think themselves, so how can you know? I have spoons, and forks. You will dine with me?"
"I-yes, I would be honored."
"The honey is not such as to make you ill, of course," said the Khan, stepping back. The two men behind him now carried out into the center of the room a round copper tray barely big enough for the dozen earthenware platters on it. They crouched to set it down on the carpeted dirt floor, and then Hale followed the Khan's example and sat down cross-legged on the floor on the opposite side of the tray, on which he saw mutton kebabs and roasted quail and spinach and bowls of yogurt. And he did see a jar of honey.
"I'm sure the honey's wonderful," he said. A flat piece of peasant bread and a silver fork and tablespoon lay on the tray in front of him, and when he saw the Khan using his own spoon to ladle food onto a similar piece of bread, Hale began doing the same.
The Khan was squinting at Hale across the crowded, steaming tray. "In England people do not suffer from the honey fits," he observed. "Bad headaches, then fall down like a dead man, and wake again healthy as a horse when the night comes. Even up here in the mountains it is uncommon-once when I was a child the children all got ill of it, and some of the men went down to the hills to search out the plant the bees had made the honey from. Those men are still alive today, black-haired and fathering sons! Even we children who only ate the honey are all still alive. This is what year?"
Hale swallowed a mouthful of roasted lamb. "This is 1948," he said.
"I was already a young man of fighting age when your Light Brigade charged against the Russian guns at Balaklava. I was there, at Sevastopol."
Hale realized that his mouth was open, and he shut it. The Battle of Balaklava had happened…ninety-four years ago. He remembered Claude Cassagnac's question to Elena, in the Paris cellar in 1941: Thistles, flowers-plants; did Maly ever talk about such things with you, my dear? And he realized dizzily that he believed what this Kurd chieftan was telling him. "What-plant," he asked hoarsely, "did the bees make the honey from?"
"Ah!" said the Khan, raising his white eybrows. "You thought I was thanking you for the rifles!" He laughed. "And I do! But six years ago your Theodora caused the English in Iraq to put out King Nebuchadnezzar's fire in the mountains. The Magians, the fire-worshippers, they were dispersed from their monastery there, and so the angels on Agri Dag were left without their beacon and their human allies. And now the Russians have a man with them who they believe can get the angels to open the gates of their city." He set down a quail breast to clap his hands. "You will meet my wife."
Hale controlled his surprise. The Kurds, like the Bedu, were Sunni Moslems, and they nearly never introduced their wives or daughters to newly met Westerners.
A black-haired woman in baggy blue trousers stepped into the room from the inner doorway, and Hale didn't look squarely at her until his host had caught his eye and nodded toward her.
She was dark-eyed and stocky-her hairline was hidden by a row of gold coins that hung on fine chains from a braided cap, and the buttons on her short woolen jacket were mother-of-pearl. She returned Hale's gaze impassively.
"Sabry also was one of the children who ate the honey," said Siamand Khan. "Show Hale Beg the back of your jacket," he said to her.
The woman turned around, and Hale saw gold embroidery that traced a complicated figure, with loops at the sides and curled, drooping S-shapes at the top; and after a moment he recognized it as the stylized image of a flowering plant.
"It is an old, old design among my people," said the Khan softly. "It is the amomon." He waved at his wife, and she bowed and withdrew into the farther room.
"Is it a…thistle," said Hale carefully.
"You have heard of it."
"I think so, just a little-a Hungarian Communist is supposed to have known about it. Uh, and the Russian secret service killed him."
"Some of the Russians want it, but are afraid of it; the secret police, the Cheka, are just afraid of it. When the angels die," the Khan said quietly, glancing toward the cloth-covered windows, "they go down to the house of darkness, whence none return, where their food is clay, and they are clothed like birds in garments of feathers."
Hale shivered, for he had heard of this ancient Hell only three months ago, from the half-petrified king of Wabar.
"But," the Khan went on, "their strength they cannot take with them to a place of such weakness, and so the strength disperses-but only their own kind can use it. Some of the angels, when they were thrown down from Heaven at the beginning of the world, became this plant, the amomon. These are very much asleep, ordinarily, bulbs that lie under the ground no livelier than rocks-but when the strength of killed angels washes over them, they sprout, and bloom." He bared his white teeth in a smile. "And the bees make the poisoned honey from their blooms, and we follow the bees, and we harvest them."
"That," said Hale, nodding with comprehension, "is our gift to you. If we succeed, we will be causing the amomon to bloom."
"If you succeed in killing the angels on Agri Dag, dispersing their strength," said Siamand Khan, "come back to my village in the spring. Our Yezidi priests will prepare a salad for you that will let you teach horsemanship to the grandchildren of your grandchildren, as I have done."
Hale remembered Theodora telling him last night about the SDECE team at Dogubayezit. If I succeed, he thought, I will come back-and I will bring Elena with me.
"And I have a gift for you, Hale Beg," said the Khan. "A fragment of a ghost-"
Someone shouted outside the window, and the Khan stood up all at once, simply by straightening his legs. He looked down at Hale. "The torches are lit. The Russians are moving."
"Not yet," said Hale, struggling to his feet. "And certainly not at night."
"Come to the roof. I think you and I will not, after all, be able to go hiking in the mountains tomorrow."
Hale followed the very old man out of the room, past hung garlands of onions and peppers and a smoky wood-burning iron stove in the narrow kitchen, to a brick alcove and an ascending flight of steps made of split cedar logs. The steps ended in a little hut on the mud-plastered beams of the roof, and by the time Hale stepped out onto the crackling surface, Siamand Khan was already dimly visible standing at the parapet, looking north, his coat flapping behind him in the wind.
Hale joined him. The cold wind was from the east now, blowing the horsehair turban fringe and the blond hair back from his forehead; and he was glad the wind was cold, and that there was no oily smell on it. The moon was full behind the top edges of clouds mounting in the east.
Miles away in the night a string of bright yellow dots stretched across the black northern horizon, and when he had oriented himself he decided that they did indeed trace the Turkish-Soviet border.
The torches were lit; and he was bleakly sure the Khan was right too about the Russians having begun to move on Ararat. The train moving south from Moscow must have been a decoy. I should have remembered, he told himself-they always leave before their official departure time.
He hoped the French SDECE team in Dogubayezit was not aware of this, and that Elena would stay down on the plain tonight.
"I've got to get the radio up here on the roof," he told Siamand Khan, wondering if a helicopter could land in this wind. "I need to know if the meteor stone is at the mountain yet, and find out if they can land a-"
But he could already hear the distant, throbbing drone of a helicopter in the mountain gorges.
The Khan waved to men who had gathered in the narrow dirt street below. "Light the torches around the clearing!" he shouted. And when they had shouted acknowledgment and sprinted away, the Khan turned to Hale, his face invisible in the black silhouette of his head. "And I need to give you a talisman for your effort tonight. It is piece of black stone no bigger than your fist, but it was broken from one of the mindless stone ghosts of the djinn, which walk in the deep southernmost desert. Living djinn will be repelled by it, I think." He gripped Hale's hand. "Succeed-kill them-and then come back here in the spring."
Mount Ararat, 1948
Gilgamesh said, "I dreamed that we were standing in a deep mountain gorge, and in it we two seemed to be like tiny insects; and an avalanche fell from the mountain's peak upon us."
– Gilgamesh, II
The helicopter had been one of the new Bristol 171 Sycamores, painted in brown-and-black mountain camouflage, and after its downdraft had blown out half the torches that outlined the clearing, and the craft had come to a rocking, momentary rest on its three wheels, Hale had run crouching in under the whirling wooden rotors and climbed in, and then the Alvis Leonides piston engine had roared like a machine gun as the helicopter lifted off again. The engine was too loud for Hale to have tried to talk to the pilot, even if the man had not been wearing radio earphones, and so he just sat in the rocking passenger seat, clutching the black stone the Khan had given him, and watched the black point on the gray horizon that was Mount Ararat swing ever closer as the helicopter covered the twenty-six intervening miles at the speed of a hundred miles per hour. Below his left elbow he could see the bright-dotted line of the torches flickering past like slow tracer bullets.
The pilot was wearing khakis, and a beret that seemed in the darkness to be the same color. The wartime Special Air Service commandos had worn a beige beret, but the SAS had been disbanded right after the war; the War Office had subsequently created an SAS regiment within the old Territorial Army regiment known as the Artists' Rifles, but Hale understood that they wore a maroon beret. Had the old SAS survived, covertly? Was this Ararat operation to be a joint effort between the fugitive SOE and the fugitive SAS?
The black shoulder of the mountain had eclipsed the purple western sky when the helicopter began descending, and though the pilot was showing no lights and Hale couldn't distinguish any features on the ground, the aircraft settled smoothly to a flexing halt on a level field of grass beside a dirt track. In the waxing moonlight Hale could see that this plain below the mountain was studded with angular boulders, and though he knew that they were just the rubble that had tumbled down the mountain out of the Ahora Gorge in one of the nineteenth-century earthquakes, he remembered the stone ghosts that had risen out of the dead wells of Wabar, and he gripped the Khan's black rock firmly.
The pilot had immediately killed the engine, and now he pulled off the headphones as the unpowered rotor blades began to clatter around more slowly.
"We're still three miles short of the gorge," the pilot said in a thick Yorkshire accent, "but I can't promise you the Russians didn't hear the motor."
"The Russians are up there? Is the stone even up in the gorge yet?" asked Hale as he levered open the door and stepped down to the solid, grassy dirt. The wind from the east was colder now, and he wished his felt Kurd vest had sleeves.
"Talk to him," the pilot said, nodding over Hale's shoulder.
Hale turned around quickly-and jumped, for a man in a gray windbreaker was standing only two yards away from him. And now Hale could see by the cloud-filtered moonlight that there were four men standing behind this one, and that what had appeared to be a low hillock was now revealed to be two camouflage-painted Willys jeeps and a stack of bicycles, with a tarpaulin settling to the ground behind them. All five of the men carried slung Sten guns, the characteristic horizontal magazines standing out from behind them like longsword hilts.
"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Shannon, Captain Hale," said the nearest man, without irony. "The Russian party came across the border about half an hour ago, dressed as Kurdish shepherds; we almost missed them-the pogranichniki staged a big crisis four miles south, with spotlights and gunfire, while this lot just walked across in the dark, through a hole in the wire, right under a watchtower that had its lights out; clear Soviet complicity. And the Turk soldiers at that point had conveniently been ordered to drive south to where the commotion was, as reinforcements. The Russians were met on this side by a party with a lorry; they all drove away up the gorge with their headlamps out."
Hale made a mental note to find out later who had ordered the Turk guards to leave their post. "And the Shihab stone, the iron meteorite?"
"We placed your stone high up in the Ahora Gorge late this afternoon, sir-it's been scored, incised, so as to fragment widely, and it's got two Lewes bombs tucked under it, delayed-action charges ready to be set. We were going to bring up the war-surplus Anderson bomb shelter, but there's clearly no time for that now-we'll leave it here." He nodded beyond the jeeps, and Hale noticed out in the dark field the curved corrugated-steel roof, like an American-frontier covered wagon, that had been such a familiar sight in the bombed lots of London four years ago.