Declare, p.48
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       Declare, p.48

           Tim Powers
 
Page 48

 

  He was able to glance to his right at bin Jalawi, who knelt resolutely on the saddle of the next camel; the scowling Bedu seemed defensive but secure, and Hale marveled at his Moslem endurance.

  "Look!" he shouted at the stoic Bedu; and when bin Jalawi's slitted eyes turned toward him, Hale flipped the cloth off of the looped cross and pushed it up over his head, as he had done two and a half years ago in Berlin. In English he whispered, "S-submit, you b-b-loody d-devils. "

  The ringing sound became painfully shriller as the tall black stones rocked to a halt in the morning sunlight.

  As in Berlin, he had had to push the cross up through the air to raise it, as if he were trying to move a spinning gyroscope, and now he had to brace himself on the saddle and flex the muscles in his left arm to drag the ankh through the resisting air to the left-but when he had done it, the stone torso on that side rocked back, cracking.

  "Wave yours back," Hale yelled to bin Jalawi.

  The Arab had retrieved the ankh Hale had given him and freed it from the linen cloth, and now he held it up and then slowly forced it over to his right; and with a hard clang the stone on his side broke into two pieces that toppled apart and thudded heavily into the sand, flinging up a cloud of dust.

  Salim bin Jalawi looked back at Hale, his eyes bright. "In whose name do we. . . kill the ghosts of angels?"

  "In the name of. . . George the Sixth of England!" Hale stood up on his knees to turn around and face the stones that had been advancing from behind them. The limbless, headless stone torsos had all halted out there on the northern sand plain, but Hale effortfully swung the ankh across his view of them and they fell back, several of them breaking apart and tumbling in pieces to the sand.

  The camels had now reached the crest of the low gap between the dunes, and Hale shifted around and looked forward, down into a broad basin that stretched for a good third of a mile from side to side. Out in the center of it stood the black rings of two craters, each of them at least a hundred yards across and filled with rippled expanses of sand.

  And as his camel began to step down the inner slope, the sky-filling noise from behind rang to a halt, and Hale's thoughts fell back into order.

  He was panting as he dug his compass out of a saddlebag, and he tried to hold it steady as he bent his head to watch the rocking needle under the glass. It was swinging from side to side pointing behind him, toward the true north, but he was confident that it would point toward any big piece of meteoric iron if he could get close to it.

  The basin appeared to slope away to flatness a couple of miles to the south, and he thought it would be easiest to drag the meteorite that way, and hope for gravel plains level and long enough to serve as a landing field for an RAF Dakota DC-3.

  He stared at the jagged black crater walls as his camel train descended the slope toward them. In his book, old St. John Philby recounted having told his Bedu guides, This is the work of God, not man. The skeptical old Arabist had assumed that since this was clearly a meteor strike, it could not also be the site of the fabled city. Hale, though, had had the advantage of seeing the ghost guardians of the city and knew that he would put it differently: This is the work of angels, not man.

  "You wait with the camels," he told bin Jalawi when they had reached level sand. "I'll trot around with the compass and try to get a reading on the iron stone. "

  The Bedu was still clutching the ankh in one hand. "Are we through with devils?" he demanded angrily.

  "Apparently. For now. Keep that looped cross where you can get at it again in a hurry, though. "

  Salim bin Jalawi nodded and tapped his camel's neck to get it to kneel. Hale took one last fearful look back up at the gap through which they had entered the basin, then turned away and goaded his camel out across the drifted sand toward the craters.

  The ragged black walls stood up from the desert floor like eroded masonry, and Hale morbidly wondered what sentries might patrol the topmost rims on moonless nights, and he was glad that he and bin Jalawi had arrived while the sun was still in the morning half of the sky.

  Widely separated boulders of igneous rock studded the sand, hinting at broader craters; perhaps the whole basin was a cluster of meteor strikes. Wabar might have been a city of respectable size.

  When he had ridden south of the western crater, Hale's compass became erratic-and two hundred yards farther on, when both the craters were behind him, the compass needle began pointing consistently in a direction that was ahead of him: south.

  He goaded his camel into a faster walk; and when he saw a rounded stone that was brown, rather than igneous black, with the ridges of its surface islanded by the yellow sand that filled its grooves and holes and nearly covered it, he was sure that he had found the meteorite-the death of djinn.

  It was roughly the size and shape of a big truck tire. It must weigh a ton, at least, he thought as he reined in his camel.

  He glanced around from the height of the saddle, but the basin was still empty except for the distant figures of bin Jalawi and the kneeling camels to the north; and so Hale tapped his own beast's neck and then swung his legs off the saddle as the camel folded its forelegs and lowered its hindquarters to the sand. He hopped to the sand, gripping the stock of his rifle.

  He trudged over to the half-exposed stone and then crouched beside it, brushing away the hot sand to see the texture of its uneven surface. It was pitted with spherical depressions, some as small as buckshot and some as big as tennis balls; he rubbed his palm over it, and it was clearly a metallic rock rather than a glassy one.

  The sand around him was scattered with shiny dark pellets, and he picked one up. It was a smooth black glass oval, apparently formed from sand at very high heat; and he remembered that St. John Philby's Bedu guides had found things like these and had imagined that they were the scorched pearls of the ladies of Wabar. Hale scooped up a handful of the glass beads, shook the sand off them, and tucked them into the canvas bag at his chest.

  He had just straightened up, intending to fire a shot into the air and summon bin Jalawi, when he heard the unmistakable cry of a parrot, not two hundred yards away-and it was followed by the crowing of a rooster.

  The sounds had seemed to come from the larger of the two craters, northeast of him; he looked in that direction-and froze, his fingertips tingling.

  The southwest face of the crater wall an eighth of a mile away had apparently been cut to vertical and then carved into gleaming black pillars and arches-how had he not noticed it until now?-and Hale was reminded of the city of Petra above Aqaba in Jordan, though the pillars and halls of Petra had been carved into solid red limestone.

  Against the shadowy blackness of the central obsidian arch, he saw a figure that might have been a sitting man; then an arm was raised, and Hale knew that he and bin Jalawi were not alone in the waste of Wabar.

  He unslung the slim Mannlicher and rocked the bolt back to be sure there was a cartridge in the chamber; and after he had closed the bolt he patted the canvas bag at his waist, and was reassured to feel the weight of the loaded clips. He began striding across the sand toward the strange black palace.

  From this distance he could vaguely make out ornately carved lattices and minarets, but as he got closer, the details became blurred and irregular; and by the time he had approached closely enough to see the black beard and embroidered red robe of the man who was sitting cross-legged in the arch, the arch was nothing but a natural cavern mouth, and the meteor crater wall was just irregular bumpy black stone, ragged at the top edge.

  What from farther back had appeared to be steps leading up to the arch were just tumbled black boulders, and Hale gripped his rifle carefully as he climbed up to the broad ledge on which the man sat.

  The air was cool in the shadow of the tall cave mouth, and a breeze sighed out of the black depths as if a tunnel beyond led to underground caverns. A cluster of doves and chickens hopped around on the
cave floor behind the sitting man, and a big green parrot stood by the man's robe-covered knee.

  Hale was standing a dozen feet to the man's right, holding the rifle pointed in his direction-but he let the barrel swing down when he saw that both the man's hands were open and empty on his knees and that there was no sign of anyone else in the cave behind him.

  The parrot cocked one glistening eye at Hale and squawked in Arabic, "What brings you to me, seeing you are not of my kind and cannot be assured of safety from violence or ill usage?"

  Hale stared at it in alarm, and in his disorientation had even taken a breath to answer it, when the sitting man opened his mouth and spoke.

  His voice was rich and deep as he spoke in archaic Arabic: "You are hungry. You have come a long way. Wash your hands so that we may eat. "

  The man leaned forward and began dipping his hands in the air and then rubbing one hand over the other, as if at an invisible bowl of water.

  After a moment he looked up at Hale, his black eyebrows raised. "You stand while I sit? You do not join me at my table?"

  Helplessly, Hale slung his rifle Bedu-style and elbowed the stock behind himself to sit down cross-legged on the rough stone a yard away from his host, facing him; and after a moment of plain embarrassment, Hale too began doing a pantomime of hand washing. What is this, he wondered dizzily, some ritual? Is this man insane? Could he simply be making fun of me?

  Then the man flicked his hands and began moving his extended fingers from a point above his left knee to his mouth and back, his jaws working as if he were chewing.

  "Do not be abashed," the man said. "Try some of this bread-note how white it is!"

  Hale nodded awkwardly and pretended to eat a piece of bread, darting a nervous glance at the parrot.

  "Have you ever tasted anything like this?" the man asked.

  "Never," said Hale. He was sweating.

  The man nodded with satisfaction. "You are a god?" he asked then.

  "No," said Hale cautiously. "A man. "

  The smooth brown forehead above the topaz eyes creased in a mild frown. "But the ghosts of my people rose for you-and you drove them back. " He waved a hand dismissively. "You are not of our covenant. Perhaps you are an agent of the one god. Why do you examine the killing stone?"

  Hale understood that the man was referring to the stone he had found out on the sand, and he was guardedly pleased to hear his estimation of it confirmed. "I am going to take it away with me. "

  "That will not revive my people. My people are dead, irretrievably killed by it. " He looked at Hale's hands. "I wonder to see you eating so sparingly. Do not stint yourself. "

  Hale again mimed eating a piece of bread. "It is not my purpose," he said as he pretended to chew, "to revive your people. "

  The bearded man smiled. "My people and I are secure from judgment. We have made a covenant with the Destroyer of Delights, the Sunderer of Companies, he who lays waste the palaces and peoples the tombs. We stay here. We do not go on, we do not face-"

  The man had paused, so Hale ventured to complete the thought. "Consequences," Hale suggested softly. "Retribution. "

  "Leveling. We remain distinct. "

  At the sound of hooves in sand behind him, Hale spun up into a crouch, the rifle's stock fitting quickly to his shoulder and his eye looking over the gold bead-sight at the end of the barrel; but Hale recognized the camel that was still a hundred yards off on the sunlit sand to the northwest, and a moment later he recognized bin Jalawi riding it.

  Instantly he scuffled back around to bring the muzzle to bear on the man sitting across from him on the cave floor, but the man had not moved; and Hale shakily crossed his legs again, lowering the barrel and tucking the stock behind him. He was profoundly glad that the Bedu was coming up.

  "I think you are only a man," the sitting man said. "I am A'ad bin Kin'ad, king of Wabar. "

  Hale automatically lifted another piece of the imaginary bread. "Are you a man?" he asked, then opened his mouth and pretended to chew.

  "I am half a man. I am the son of an angel by a human woman. "

  Hale recalled the giant Nephelim in the Book of Genesis, who were supposed to have had children by the daughters of men. He had read speculations that the Nephelim might have been fallen angels.

  "Human enough to have survived the doom of your kingdom," Hale observed. He didn't change his expression, but he had to run his tongue around the inside of his mouth to be sure he had not actually eaten something, and he wished he had brought his water bottle with him when he had walked away from his camel-for his mouth was fouled with the woody taste of dry, long-stale bread.

  The red lips smiled in the black beard, exposing white teeth, though there was no change of expression in the watchful eyes. "Human enough for half of me to have survived. "

  Hale breathed in and out through his open mouth, trying to lose the taste. "How did the. . . the killing stone. . . kill your people?"

  A'ad stared at Hale as if at an idiot. "Know, O man, that it fell upon them. It, and others like it. " He shook his head, then dipped his fingers over his right knee, by the blinking parrot's head. "Do try this meat. You have never tasted anything as exquisite as the seasoning of this dish. "

  "Akh al-Jahala!" cawed the parrot. The phrase meant brother of ignorance.

  Oddly, this scene felt familiar in an agent-running context; and Hale realized that it was like debriefing an Arab agent who has lost respect for the handler and is about to stop cooperating. Get what you can, fast, he thought.

  "Do you know about another kingdom of your father's tribe," Hale asked as he obediently pretended to pick a bit of meat out of an imaginary dish over the parrot's head, "on Mount Ararat-in what you would know as the land of Urartu, a peak called Agri Dag, the Painful Mountain? I believe the tribe survived the great flood because their kingdom was at the top of the mountain. "
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