Hale felt Philby's knees buckle, and so Hale was kneeling too, helplessly, his kneecaps thudding against the pebbled ice. The golden angel was tall, leaning down over them because it would crack the sky if it stood up to its full height-
If he had not withstood the stressful attention of djinn many times before, Hale's identity would simply have imploded under the psychic weight, dimly grateful for the escape into oblivion; as it was, he was able to hold on to his diminished self, but the urge to surrender to this nearly divine being, this higher order, was overwhelming. To oppose his will to this force would simply be to shatter his will, shatter his very reason. I will give in to it was his concussed thought; live in the kingdoms in the clouds, learn their secrets, share their power over men-
But his mouth was suddenly sour with the taste of the imaginary bread he had eaten with the king of Wabar in 1948, and with the taste of the dish he had refused then but had helplessly shared with the djinn in the Ahora Gorge three months later-
– blood and khaki, the SAS men he had led up to their deaths-
Hale's identity recoiled from the memory, and for one teetering moment his self was his own. He hastily made the sign of the cross, clanking the derringer barrel against his snow-goggles as he shouted, "In the name of the Father!" out into air that was incapable now of carrying any merely human voice-and then he pointed the blunt little steel barrel up at the angel-
And he pulled the trigger.
Even as he did it, his mind screamed in protesting grief and loss. What you might have had-!
In slow motion his fist moved up with the recoil, and a churning smear of fire hung in the air. He thought he heard a groaning wail from far behind him-it might have been Mammalian's voice, Dopplered down to a bass register.
Slow as a flight of arrows the shot pattern was spreading out as it rushed up into the sky, its pattern rotating to the right as it expanded. The light of the towering figure became the enormous flare of an explosion, but Hale levered back the hammer of the little gun and fired the second shell. Again the shot sped visibly through the billowing air, like an expanding wheel turning.
Then with a shearing scream the hot shock-wave punched him over backward, and he was sliding north, skating on the barrel of his slung Kalashnikov, toward the edge of the abyss. He was lying on his back, and he spasmodically arched his body to press his weight down onto the crampons laced to his boots. The grating of the points in the ice vibrated in his shinbones, and in seconds he had bumped to a halt against someone's legs.
The air was agonizingly shrill with the prolonged whistling scream. Hale's ribs and legs were being hammered with stony missiles, and his exposed face stung with abrading sand; the lenses of his goggles had been cracked into star-patterns by the blast, and he clawed them off before these ferocious gusts could punch the glass wedges into his eyes.
He rolled over to protect his face from the flying debris-perhaps an avalanche had crashed down into the grotto, though he couldn't see why it should keep on bursting this way-and his hand closed on the upright head of an ice-axe imbedded in the ice. Philby had arrested his own slide, and Hale's too, by unslinging the axe and driving its point into the surface of the frozen lake.
Balls were rolling and clicking around on the ice by Hale's hand, and he picked up a golf-ball-sized one and squinted at it in the dimmed daylight-the thing was made of ice, and egg-shaped. It was the shape of djinn death.
Hale hunched around under the battering rain of ice, and saw that Philby's face was bloody-one of the flying hailstones had apparently struck him. Hale grabbed the carabiner at Philby's belt and began tugging him back toward the tumbled stones at the east edge of the lake. But Philby was clinging to the shaft of the ice-axe, and Hale had to get up onto his knees in the shotgun wind and throw his weight onto the shaft to rock it loose from the ice; and when Philby's anchor had tumbled flat to the ice, unmoored now, Philby turned his goggles toward Hale and then appeared to comprehend Hale's gestures.
The two of them began crawling back across the ice. Hale was grateful for the flat surface, because his balance was gone-from moment to moment he felt that the frozen lake was tilting out over the void, or folding in the middle to spill him down into the black abyss where Death still waited for him, but he forced himself to judge his position only by what he could see between his hands below his face, and he could see that he was not sliding across the ice surface. The razory whistling seemed to be the shrieks of predatory birds.
Tears were freezing on his face, and he had to keep rocking around to look over his shoulder, to be sure Philby was still crawling along behind him through the rain of ice and gravel.
In heavy gusts Hale had to pause and brush aside the tumbling eggs to see the surface of the ice under him; after one burst that nearly knocked him over onto his side, Hale saw that some of the skittering balls were marbled red-and-yellow, and broke in red smears across the ice when he brushed them aside, and he knew that the body of at least one of the Rabkrin party had shared in the expression of djinn death.
At last Hale climbed up over the tumbled ice chunks at the eastern end of the lake, and when he had pulled Philby through the narrow gap onto the slanted ledge, they were protected from most of the grapeshot barrage of ice. Hale banged the barrel of his Kalashnikov against the rock and shook snow and ice out of the muzzle.
The air was still shaking with a shrill infinity of whistling and crashing, and Hale had to lean down and shout into Philby's face: "Back to the ropes!"
Philby's eyes were invisible behind the snow-goggles and his face was a mask of frozen blood, but he nodded.
A flash of white glare threw Hale's shadow across the slanted ice ahead of them, and an instant later the mountain shook under his knees and a whiplash of stone fragments abraded the exposed surfaces. Hale's eyes were stung, and he fell back against the bulk of Philby, and in his mind he was again curled up in a London gutter in 1944 when a V-1 rocket had struck nearby.
The helicopter must have come back for a second sweep, and fired the rockets this time.
Calling on the last reserves of his strength now, Hale straightened up and tugged Philby up onto his hands and knees and then dragged the man along the ledge toward where the static ropes hung. Hale's eyes were watering and burning, and he peered forward with his eyelids nearly shut.
The ledge narrowed and the wind from behind was a fluttering airflow pressure between Hale and the rock wall he was trying to hug, and he had to let go of Philby's collar and hope the man would crawl along behind him. At last Hale scuffed around the last outcrop on his right and saw one of the swaying ropes ahead.
Two of the Spetsnaz commandos were crouched against the wind on the ledge by the rope, holding their Kalashnikovs across their knees, and at the sight of Hale one of them straightened up and began firing from the hip.
The shock-wave of the shots thudded in Hale's ears and he saw stone fragments bursting from the rock wall to his right-and in the old Bedu reflex he yanked up the barrel of his own gun and squeezed the trigger.
His burst blew the front of the man's parka into a haze of flying kapok shreds, and Hale immediately edged the vibrating barrel over to cover the second man, who spun away in another cloud of white lint. Both bodies tumbled out away from the rock wall and disappeared below, toward God-knew-what glacier or moraine. The gun had stopped jumping in his hands, the magazine emptied, and he uncramped his finger from the trigger. Ejected brass shell-casings rolled on the ledge.
Apparently some recognition signal had been required, and Hale had not given it.
Hale looked back. Philby had managed to unsling his own white Kalashnikov, and he had it pointed at Hale's back; but as Hale watched, he lowered it and then pulled the sling over his head, with the white rifle barrel poking up over his left shoulder. He spread his hands.
Hale nodded and then sidled over to the ledge below the rope. Both ropes were still there, but one of them had been blown up by the wind and was now looped over a stone spur twenty feet overhead and to the left; the end of the other one swayed at the level of Hale's eyes. He gripped the end with both hands and tugged, but he knew he didn't have the strength to pull himself up hand over hand.
He squinted at the bumpy stone wall, trying to look for hand and footholds and to ignore the lines of red drops, which had already frozen over; and at last, not roped to anything, he fitted his left foot into a crack in the rock face and then kicked himself up to grip an outcrop with his left hand. He scuffed his right foot against the stone, trying to find a purchase for the front point of his crampons, and then he felt Philby take hold of his calf and lift his foot to a solid projection. Hale straightened his right leg, and now he was high enough to reach out with his right hand and catch the rope.
His Prusik knot-or somebody's-still hung on the rope, down at the level of his thigh; he hiked his hand down the length of the rope until he was able to grab the knotted cord, and he was careful to slide it back up the rope gently, so that it would not tighten. The icy wind battered against his face and his unprotected eyes. When he had worked the knotted cord up to a point level with the carabiner at the front of his harness, he pulled the rope in and with numbed fingers held it against the snap-link while he thumbed open the spring-loaded gate.
After a full minute of fumbling and cursing into the wind and trying to blink past the ice that was frozen onto his eyelashes, while the fingers of his numbed left hand cramped and stung as they gripped the rock outcrop behind him, he got the loop of the Prusik knot into the carabiner link, and then he let his weight sag against the rope, bracing himself on the rock wall with his crampons and letting his aching arms hang.
"D-damn you!" shouted Philby from below him. "What about m-m-me?"
"I'll free the other rope," called Hale. "Don't shoot me." Hale flapped his arms and flexed his constricted fingers, then began climbing up toward the point from which he would be able to reach the snagged rope; he quickly caught the trick of leaning forward to give the Prusik knot slack when he wanted to pull himself up and then leaning away from the rock when he wanted it to belay him.
When he had grabbed the other rope, he pulled the whole length of it across to him, coiling it loosely over his lap, and he saw that several of the Prusik-knotted cords were hung along the last yard of it; but before he let it all drop down to where Philby waited, he unsnapped the front of his parka to reach into an inner pocket. Very carefully he pulled out a box of.410 shot shells, and he gripped the brass of two of them between his teeth and pulled them out as he closed the box and tucked it away; then he reached into the outer pocket and drew the derringer. He pushed the button behind the exposed trigger and swiveled the locking lever around in a half-circle and swung the hinged barrels up away from the frame. He pushed up the extractor and lifted the spent shells out of the barrels, then took the fresh shells from between his teeth and fitted them into the barrels. At last he closed the gun and locked it and replaced it in his pocket, along with the two spent shells.
"Here!" he yelled, letting the rope spill off his legs to hang slack down the rock face a yard to his left. He peered down past his legs at Philby's upturned face.
"Is it long enough?" shouted Hale.
"Yes!" came Philby's call from below.
Thank God. Hale had not wanted to try cutting and splicing it. "Fit the bight of a knot into your snap-link!"
"Aye aye," shouted Philby.
Within ten minutes they were both sitting cross-legged, panting, on the wind-swept crest of the Parrot glacier. They had pulled up one of the ropes and freed it from its piton, and now it lay coiled beside Hale. It was an unwieldy pile. He had unslung his Kalashnikov and fitted a fresh magazine into the receiver in case the helicopter might reappear, but the racing wind had not abated since he had shot the djinn by the Black Ark, and he didn't think the aircraft would dare approach the mountain now.
Philby swung his frosted, blood-blackened face toward Hale, and his eyes were invisible behind the sky glare on the goggle lenses. "Shoot the other rope," he said, loudly to be heard over the wind.
Hale thought of Hakob Mammalian, conceivably still alive down there on the northern face, making his wounded way to the ledge and finding both the static lines gone. "No," he called back to Philby, wearily standing up and slinging his gun. He bent down to pick up the coil of rope, then straightened with it and began plodding up the crest, toward the windward side of the glacier. "Come on, the sun's past noon."
From behind him he heard Philby say, "D-damn you! Then I'll d-do it."
Hale spun clumsily around, his crampons grating on the ice as he dropped the coiled rope, and Philby was standing, and had already unslung his own Kalashnikov and was lifting it to his shoulder.
The derringer felt extraordinarily heavy in Hale's right hand as he drew it and raised it to point it at Philby's back, and cocking the hammer against its tight spring seemed to take all of his remaining strength.
Am I my brother's keeper?
Philby was aiming, and had not fired yet.
Hale touched the derringer's trigger with his forefinger, and the little gun flared and hammered back hard into his palm.
Then his knees hit the snow, and Hale was simply too exhausted to try to re-cock the derringer or raise the barrel of his machine gun.
Through watering eyes he peered past the retinal glare at the silhouette of Philby.
The man had fallen to one knee, and his head was down, and he was making a noise, a flat monotone wail. The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground, thought Hale, fearful that he might have been standing too close to him. How wide would the shot pattern have spread in twelve feet?
"Are you dying?" Hale croaked. He blinked around at the infinity of snow. He could melt some between his palms. "I can baptize you."