Declare

9,198
07.03.2019

The moonlight was bright enough for Hale to see the paler spot on the front of the man's beret, in the shield shape of the SAS cap-badge. Hale recalled that the SAS insignia had been a winged dagger over the motto WHO DARES WINS-and he recalled hearing that the shape of the wings had been modeled on ancient Egyptian drawings of scarab beetles. Maybe, Hale thought forlornly, these men won't be too skeptical about the ankhs.

The SAS had done deadly effective covert demolition work in North Africa during the war, as well as in Germany and Italy. Their only failures had reportedly been operations that had been planned by other agencies-and Hale hoped that this Ararat expedition, planned by the SOE, would not be another.

"Have you got the blood?" asked Hale-gruffly, for he was embarrassed to be speaking of the filthy uses of magic with these hard-bitten professional soldiers. "Medical supply bags?"

Shannon 's voice was stoic as he said, "We have, sir-it's in the water bottle pouch of a set of '37 webbing, which you'll wear." He coughed and spat. "We can drive," he went on more easily, "and be up there pretty quick and noisy, or ride bicycles. A bit of hiking involved either way, where it eventually gets too steep for wheels. Nothing taxing."

Drive, Hale thought fretfully, or ride bicycles? "I hope you didn't score through all the bubble holes on the stone," he said, almost absently, as he pondered the choice. He wished he had time to brief these men properly, as Theodora had said he would have.

"The incised lines are zigzag, sir. We were told not to saw into any of the bubbles."

Hale was aware of the weight of the cut-down.45 revolver in the shoulder holster under his vest, but its two-inch barrel would be of little use for accurate shooting over any distance. "I believe you were instructed to bring a spare gun, for me," he said.

One of the men by the nearest jeep reached into the bed of it and hiked up another Sten gun, its skeletal stock making it look to Hale for a moment like some kind of modern orthopedic crutch.

"Right." Hale took a deep breath and let it out. "I think the sound of a jeep's motor would-"

He paused, for over the wind he could now hear the buzz of a distant motor, and from the sound and the cadence of gear-shifts he believed that in fact it was a jeep, somewhere out on the marshy plain to the south.

Exactly, he thought; you can hear the bloody thing for miles.

And then he heard a rumbling from the mountain-and even in the moonlight he could see the valley floor to the west rippling, in waves of shadow that were rushing across the grasslands toward him.

"Earthquake!" he said, crouching, even as the ground under his feet began to heave up and down like the bed of a speeding truck; and in spite of his stance, Hale sat down heavily on the jumping ground. The helicopter creaked on its wheels and the springs on the jeeps were squeaking as the vehicles rocked. The helicopter's six-foot rotors had stopped spinning, but were bobbing up and down now.

When the ground had steadied and the rumble had rolled away to the cloudy east, Hale rocked forward onto his hands and knees and looked back up at the mountain. The sharp outlines of the gorge were blurred by clouds like smoke, and he knew they were dust or snow, shaken up from the crags.

And he remembered the earthquake that had jolted the rubbled lot in Berlin, in the instant when the weather balloon over the Arabian boat had been engulfed by the living whirlwind.

"They've started," he said breathlessly, getting to his feet and stepping toward the nearest jeep, which had a spare set of suspension springs roped across the grille like an incongruously smiling mouth. "The djinn are awake now, they've opened their gates." He took a deep breath. "They're-goddammit, they're genies, right?-up there. Monsters, like earth elementals-no joke. Use the anchors, the iron crosses, as a shield, to force them back-the way they do with crucifixes to Dracula in the movies. Your lives depend on this." He was panting and sweating; the faces he could see were skeptical and noncommittal. "We've got to drive-and fast. To hell with the noise, there's already a jeep banging around out here tonight."

"McNally," snapped Shannon, "you drive Captain Hale, behind the rest of us."

Shannon and three of his men sprinted to the other jeep as Hale vaulted over the rear fender of the nearer one and crouched in the gritty ridged-steel bed, snatching up the Sten gun. "Did you understand me," Hale nearly wailed, "about the anchors?"

Over the brief screeches of the jeep engines starting up, he could hear the men in the other jeep reply in the affirmative.

"Understood, sir," loudly echoed the man in the driver's seat of Hale's jeep, whose name apparently was McNally.

The headlamps were not switched on, but abrupt acceleration threw Hale back against the tailgate. "And you do understand," he added in a yell, "that this operation will involve the-the supernatural?"

"We have been told that, sir," shouted McNally over the roar of the engine. "And we'll believe it when we see it."

The other jeep was in the lead as they sped up the steep dirt track in the moonlight, and Hale hung on and tried to watch the looming mountain through the dust. He could not yet see any whirlwinds, or patches of refracted starlight in the sky, but he was bleakly sure that the driver would be seeing some sort of "it" very soon.

Hale reached under his shirt to pull free the canvas bag that contained his own ankh; the bag hung on a twine loop around his neck, and he let it bounce on the front of his vest like a heavy scapular, easy to reach. Then he remembered to pull back the cocking handle on the machine gun in his lap and let it snap forward, and to check the change lever to be sure the gun was set for full-automatic fire. He held the weapon ready, but kept his finger away from the oversized trigger.

Within a minute the two Willys jeeps had begun the ascent up into the gorge, both audibly shifting down into low gear. The road was muddy now, and the windscreen of Hale's jeep was soon spattered and smeared; the two drivers still hadn't switched on the headlamps, and Hale couldn't imagine how McNally could see to steer. Hale noticed that even the brake lights of the vehicle ahead didn't flash, when it occasionally slowed.

A cluster of mud huts sat squarely on the delta slope of the gorge, one of them half-collapsed now under its spilled thatched roof, and beyond them the dirt road divided, one track slanting away south to trace the foot of the southern cliffs and the other proceeding more directly to the north wall of the valley. The surface of the northern path was freshly imprinted with the tire tracks of a heavy lorry, but the driver of the lead jeep steered his vehicle up onto the south road, at no less than fifty kilometers per hour, and the one Hale rode in rocked and bounced along right behind it.

They know where they put the Shihab stone, Hale told himself as he clung to the jerrycan rack on the side panel, hoping the vehicle wasn't about to capsize. And they know how to blow it up. My job is to…use the blood to summon all the djinn down from the heights on the other side of the gorge to the area around the stone; and duck for some sort of cover when the explosion is due, with no bomb shelter, thank you, Jimmie; and then get myself and these men back down to the plain alive.

The Ahora Gorge was a long notch that slanted southwest up into the heart of the mountain, between walls sheared nearly vertical by old earthquakes, and all Hale could see in the deep moon-shadow darkness was dimly glowing patches of snow beside the black path. Soon the jeeps were grinding up a steeper track that was clearly not meant for motor vehicles, still moving straight uphill along the south flank of the gorge, and the wheels were spinning and hitching in slushy, pebbly mud; looking across the narrowed valley toward the northern wall, Hale could not see any sign of the Russian expedition on the faintly lighter patches that were probably snowy clearings and slopes, but he was cowed by the towering black cliffs that overhung the gorge on both sides, and by the parapets and crenellations of snow visible in the moonlight at the tops, right under the starry sky. The plain where the helicopter had landed was more than five thousand feet above sea level-the jeeps couldn't be far short now of the eight-thousand-foot level, above which the Armenian shepherds had found that their sheep died for no reason; and he wished he dared to shout to the commandos in the jeep ahead of him, and tell them that the oppressive fear needling this chilly air was a projection from the djinn, and not a naturally arising human response.

At least the Russians are over there on the northern side of the valley, he thought.

He was braced in the bed of the jeep, trying to lean out to see around the left side of the windscreen, when something began tugging at his vest. He repressed a shout, but he did scramble back against the tailgate, beating at his clothing; something in his pocket was moving, and his first thought was that it was a rat.

But his knuckles felt rocky hardness through the quilted cloth, and he relaxed a little when he realized that it was the stone the Khan had given him. Gingerly he reached into his pocket, took hold of it, and tugged it out into the air; and he was dizzily startled at how heavy it had become-and it was heavy sideways-it was tugging horizontally northeast, away from the mountain peak.

I should certainly hang on to it, he thought-if it's so magnetically repelled by the proximity of djinn, probably they will be repelled by it, as the Khan said.

But I don't want to repel the djinn, he told himself, trying to concentrate in the gusty, rocking jeep bed. And even if I should want to, soon, that will be-would be-a mistake. I need to make contact with the creatures that live on this mountain-to destroy them, but first to see them! Even if I could keep this stone hidden and somehow damped, the fact of having it in my pocket might be an overpowering temptation to use it, if this operation becomes too robust.

The stone was tugging away more strongly now-he had to use both hands to hold on to it, bracing himself with his feet-and he told himself that it would soon be repelled with such force that even if he wedged it against the floor it would drag the jeep to a wheel-spinning halt.

I have to let it go, he thought with cautious satisfaction-nobody can blame me. I do thank you for the kind intention, Siamand Barakat Khan! but-

He moved his head well to the side and then let go of the stone, and it went silently cannonballing away into the night behind them.

Hale brushed his palms on his vest and hiked himself forward again. He was committed to this now, like Ulysses tied to the mast, like Cortes after burning the ships on the Mexican shore.

And he realized that these five men were committed too. He glanced back, but of course the stone was lost in the darkness-perhaps it would tumble all the long way back to Wabar.

Suddenly McNally yelled something that sounded like, "Bloody horses?"

The jeep in front had slewed to a stop in front of a jagged white mound of snow that blocked the way, and when Hale heard McNally stamp on the brake pedal he grabbed the back of the passenger seat to keep from falling forward as his jeep halted.

And Hale's chest went cold in sudden fright when a man's voice rang out of the darkness ahead, speaking loudly in Turkish over the rumble of the idling engines-Hale didn't understand the words, but he thought he recognized the skewed vowels of a French accent; and at the same moment he saw the horses McNally had referred to: two four-legged silhouettes standing off to the right, dimly visible against the gray of the snow.

McNally had leaned sideways below the dashboard to unsling his rifle, and Hale knew that the four other SAS men must have done the same, and must be aiming their weapons toward the voice.

"Qui etes vous?" shouted Hale desperately. Who are you?

He could just make out the muzzle of his Sten gun in front of him, wobbling as the jeep engine chugged on in neutral.

The voice from the darkness was strained as it spoke again, in fluent French now: "Drop your weapons. Do you have shovels? Our companions are buried under this avalanche."

"Don't shoot," called Hale in English to the SAS men; then he took a deep breath and yelled, in French, "Is Elena with you?"-for clearly this must be the SDECE team from Dogubayezit, and he needed to know right away that Elena was not one of the people who were under the snow and certainly dead.

And sweat of relief sprang out on his forehead when he heard Elena's well-remembered voice cry, "Don't shoot them! Andrew Hale, is it you?"

"They're SDECE," Hale shouted in English, "French-allies. Elena! Yes!"

"Bloody hell," growled one of the men in the other jeep.

McNally had straightened up, and now he switched off the engine and began climbing out of the vehicle with his rifle still in his hands. "We hike now," he told Hale quietly, "a bit farther than we planned. Even those horses would be no use from here on up. Now you've got a webbing to put on, with your-medical supplies in it."

The other engine had been turned off too now, and in the sudden echoing silence Hale could hear the rippling clatter of a waterfall somewhere in the darkness far ahead. The air was cold and thin in his nostrils, but seemed resonant as if with some subsonic tone, and he was humiliated to find that he had to force himself to let go of the familiar seat-back and climb down out of the jeep to the slushy alien ground, slinging his rifle. He could feel his knees shaking, and his hands were numb with cold.

"Andrew!" shouted Elena's voice. "Have you got entrenching tools? Help us dig!"

McNally was a blur in the darkness. "The stone is about a hundred yards up the slope, sir," he said, "up by the waterfall you hear."

Hale nodded tightly, though the gesture couldn't be seen. I can't, Elena, he thought. I can't even order any of these men to. Why in hell did you have to come up here tonight? "Where is the blood?" he asked McNally-

–  and in Hale's head the question seemed to go on ringing, as-

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