|Award copyright © 1998 Peter F.|
Guenther; used with permission
I wait the dreamt, inevitable hour
Fulfilled of orbits ultimate, when God,
Whether through His mischance or mine own deed,
Or rise of other and extremer Strength,
Shall vanish, and the lightened universe
No more remember Him than Silence does
An ancient thunder.
-- Clark Ashton Smith
Rifles cracked and bullets whined; occasional puffs of dust and chipped rock erupted singingly into the still, hot air. The sun glared down like the baleful eye of a demon upon the baking, dusty valley of Jezreel, where a small party of men and women in gray khaki moved cautiously among the rocks and scattered trees. They carried weapons -- British Sten guns, bolt-action rifles, pistols, knives. In the distance, occasional shots rang out from the eastern ridge, where Jews and Arabs were enthusiastically following their age-old custom of killing one another.
Sandra Helgeson stumbled along with the rest, vaguely grateful for the heat, the exertion and the constant danger. The afternoon sun burned not half so fiercely as the vision that the morning had seared into her mind -- the sight of the body of young Carole Friedmann, whom she had come to love as a daughter, lying in its shallow grave which now mercifully concealed what the Arabs had done to her.
She gripped her Sten gun more tightly and hurried after the tall form of Isaac Benjamin, who was in the lead. Isaac was all she had now, now that Carole was dead -- yet he was a "dedicated" man, and somehow Sandra knew he always would be. Just like Nick, her husband, had been before his dedication had gotten him gunned down by Nazi fighter planes over Normandy.
Sandra tripped on a loose pebble and went to her knees; the Sten gun clattered sharply against a rock. She staggered up and looked around breathlessly. One of the other women was scowling at her sharply -- fiery, chestnut-haired Helena, Isaac's cousin, as shapely and as arrogant in her bearing as a goddess. Her scowl as much as said, "Don't be so clumsy -- you'll get us all killed."
Sandra looked away. She knew Helena despised her -- not only because she, Sandra, was an American and had not been in Europe during the war to experience its horrors firsthand, but also because she knew Helena regarded her upper-class background as a pampered one. The fact that Helena's admired cousin, Isaac, obviously held Sandra in high esteem, regarding her as a close friend and possibly much more, only served to lessen still further, under the circumstances, whatever natural sympathy the two women might otherwise have held for one another. "If only she could know how wrong she is," Sandra thought to herself. "I'll never mean as much to Isaac as his people and his cause and his new nation, and if Helena knew it she'd laugh at me instead of hating me."
"For God's sake, cover up that hair of yours!" snapped Helena. "An Arab could spot you a mile away!"
Sandra fumed. She had lost her khaki hat and her coppery red hair gleamed in the sun in spite of the dust. She hated Helena for pointing it out, knew that Helena would now feel justified in blaming her for anything that might happen to them from here on. The Jews held the valley from a position a mile north along the ridge, and it was a task of this party to take the sniping Arabs suddenly from the flank -- then the main Jewish force would charge down and rout the surprised enemy entirely. But if anything went wrong, this small party might find themselves at the mercy of the Arabs.
"Didn't you hear me?" Helena's face, ordinarily beautiful, was twisted with ugly fury. "I won't let you jeopardize this whole venture just because you think it's sexy to look artificial. Cover up that hair or I'll cut it off!"
Sandra stopped. Vaguely she understood what had been building up inside Helena for the last few weeks, and had even gone out of her way to avoid answering Helena's ever-more-frequent insults. But now the sun, the heat and the fatigue, combined with the outspoken arrogance, were too much.
"Just you try it," she said, fingering the Sten gun meaningfully, her voice even but tense.
"I've stood you long enough!" snarled Helena, whipping out a knife. "That hair comes off!"
Sandra froze. She was a brave but civilized woman. This fiery sabra, this daughter of the fierce new nation that was still in its birth throes, was a kind of person new to Sandra's experience. She realized she could not shoot Helena, knew that Helena realized it also, and felt the overwhelming unfairness of it all. She could only stand petrified, the Sten gun clutched uselessly in her rigid hands, while Helena advanced, contemptuous as a judging goddess, her blue eyes fierce as a feral beast's, her knife glinting barbarically.
"It's only an excuse," Sandra thought with hopeless clarity, overwhelmed by the injustice of it, "only an excuse to humiliate me!"
Shots blasted the hot stillness; bullets whined in the air. Helena crouched, startled, then hit the dirt; Sandra, jolted from her paralysis, whirled and ducked behind a boulder. A woman in front of her staggered as if a fist had rammed into her stomach, and the small of her back erupted in a spurt of tattered cloth and flesh. Sandra felt a fine, warm mist patter her cheek for an instant. She crouched lower and unslung the Sten gun. Helena came crawling up to join her.
"You've done it now!" she muttered, leveling her Enfield rifle across the boulder toward the unseen enemy. "You and your damned hair!"
A distant rifle cracked; an Israeli man in khaki flopped to the dirt, the right side of his face a mess of blood and splintered bone. An object bounced along the sand for a few feet, and Sandra realized with numb awareness that it was an eyeball, its loose nerve-end flopping, picking up sand as it rolled. Then Helena's .303 crashed; she snapped the bolt back, and the empty brass shell sailed past Sandra's face.
"Isaac!" Helena cried. "Get down!"
The sound of a machine-gun exploded nearby. Sandra shrieked as she saw Isaac's tall form crumple jerkily into the scrub-brush that had offered him more visual cover than actual protection. Sandra tried to rise, mingled fear and pity urging her to she knew not what, but Helena grabbed her savagely and pulled her back.
"Keep down, you beast!" she cried. "Keep down!" There were tears in her eyes. Sandra bit her lip, leveled the Sten gun toward where she glimpsed something billowy moving in the brush beyond Isaac's inert form, and squeezed the trigger. The gun bucked in an abrupt series of rapid explosions. A wild scream burst from the bushes, and something like a frenzied pile of laundry flopped and threshed for a moment amid the foliage. A few dried leaves drifted down. Then a bullet whined off the boulder, and the two women ducked back. The air was suddenly full of whining zings.
Keening battle-cries suddenly ripped the air -- and from the trees ahead leaped a wild, scrawny man wearing only a tattered goatskin and brandishing a great ten-foot staff of wood. Behind him dashed a dozen or more Arabs firing submachine guns, rifles and muskets. The Jews fired back. The wild-eyed man staggered but came on, his lips flecked with foam and blood, his shaggy hair billowing like a ragged mop.
Helena's Enfield roared, and an Arab threw up his arms and sprawled heavily on his face. The wild man dashed on toward the two women, his eyes hideously leering, bulging like bloodshot hemispheres from his contorted face.
"Allah Akhbar!" he shrieked. "Kill the Nizrany!"
Helena's rifle roared again, three feet from the maniac's belly. The wild man lurched, ;then raised his staff high and swung it down with a gurgling scream. Helena lifted her rifle in both hands to parry the blow, but the force of the impact buckled her arms; the great club glanced sharply from her skull and sent her sprawling -- even as in the same instant the maniac collapsed across the boulder, where he lay with wide-open eyes and three gory craters gaping in his naked back.
Sandra's Sten gun clattered deafeningly, and a lean Arab sank to the ground like a loose heap of blankets; he continued to grin at her as he died, his eyes lopsided and fanatical, skinny arms threshing. Sandra screamed and closed her eyes; the gun bucked wildly in her hands until it was empty.
The cry thundered down the hillside, wild and triumphant, from a score of throats. Arabs were swarming down the hill from the ridge. The Jews leaped from cover and began to run down the slope in rapid retreat. A machine-gun roared in staccato fury from close by. Sandra hugged the dirt, flat, not daring to move. She heard many feet go running heavily past her, screams of agony and triumph, the whine of bullets ...
A rough hand gripped Sandra's shoulder. She gasped and rolled away, twisting free of the grip. A monster of a man stood over her, holding a .30 calibre air-cooled machine-gun in his meaty left hand. He was naked to the waist and gigantically muscled. A pair of tiny, scowling eyes glinted at the girl from between a great black mustache and a red fez.
"By Allah, a prize indeed!" he rumbled in a Turkish dialect. Sandra could make out his words only with difficulty.
"A beauty fit to serve the favored in the green gardens of paradise," agreed an effeminate male voice in cultured Arabic. Sandra turned and saw a scrawny Arab, swathed in burnoose and robes, leering at her from under the Turk's massive right arm. He had a receding chin, prominent upper teeth, and wore steel-rimmed spectacles.
Sandra sat up and backed away from the pair. Helena groaned and rolled over, fighting to regain consciousness.
"This pair will bring us plenty on the market," grunted the Turk. "Come on -- let's get them away from here."
Sandra turned to see the mass of Arabs receding down the dusty slope, pursuing the ragged band of outnumbered and demoralized Israelis.
"On your feet," ordered the Turk. "Do as we say and you won't get hurt."
Sandra felt a sudden panicky terror as she remembered what had happened to Carole. She rose shakily. Helena was trying to sit up.
"This holy prophet has led us well," said the scrawny Arab, grinning down at the dead man in goatskin. "His soul shall bloom in Allah's garden. Not so fortunate are we, who must suffer yet awhile in the drab world of matter. Sleep well, O holy one -- your magic warned us rightly of the Jews' attack, but it could not save you from your own death. Praise to Allah, whose ways are not for us to question or understand ..."
"Shut up," grumbled the Turk, picking up Helena and slinging her under his brawny right arm. "If Abdullah el Nahabi and his men return and find these two, they'll want their cut. And it's not likely they'd leave them in merchantable condition anyway. Move!"
This command was uttered to both Sandra and the scrawny Arab. The group hastened off toward the scrubby trees, the Turk carrying Helena easily under one arm.
"Abdullah will slay us if he catches us," muttered the scrawny Arab uneasily.
"I'll slay you myself if you dare try going to him," threatened the Turk. "By Allah, these two will bring us more than we'd earn in ten years under Abdullah el Nahabi -- fool that he is, with his policy of rape-and-cut-throat! But the Mufti's pet Germans like their 'Aryan' women. Herr Mueller will pay us well."
"If he does not shoot us instead ..."
Suddenly Helena screamed, threshed wildly and for an instant broke free from the Turk's grip. Instantly he grabbed her by the arm. The girl struggled insanely.
"Dead!" she shrieked. "You killed him!"
Sandra reeled as she saw that they stood near the bloody corpse of Isaac Benjamin; it had been nearly cut in two at the waist by machine-gun bullets. The man's handsome face was horribly familiar, even with the eyes and mouth wide open in the lax, drooling idiocy of death. Sandra bit her lip and clung to a tree-branch, her eyes clenched shut, the world reeling about her.
Helena ceased to struggle and leaped at the Turk, screaming with rage; her nails raked long, deep gouges in his face and neck and broke in his bronzed flesh. The Turk growled and swatted the girl alongside the head with his open hand. Helena fell sprawling sideways and lay senseless.
"Move!" ordered the Turk again, lifting the inert girl.
Sandra followed the scrawny Arab, while the giant picked up Helena once more and brought up the rear. Her mind was a blank numbness, drained alike for the moment of hope and horror. She felt no will of her own, no purpose, no wish to live or die ...
Sandra lay on her face on the dusty ground. There were thoughts that came and went through her mind. Isaac -- Carole ... both in one day ... But it was too painful, and she wanted so much to die ... Yet at the same time she was so very much afraid of what was going to happen to her. It was heart-stifling. She found it difficult to breathe, as if a weight lay on her back and cotton filled her lungs. The back of her hand was sweaty beneath her cheek, salty and dirty. She felt the granular soil under her fingertips. "It's real," she thought -- and knew the horrible hopelessness.
She thought of the Israeli, and she thought of America, and she thought of God, but all of these thoughts were painful because there was no reality to them. They could not help her. Only the dirt, and the sweat on the back of her hand, and the stifling cotton in her lungs, were real. She feared to move, because that would sharpen their reality. She wondered why she didn't cry -- she felt like she wanted to, but that feeling seemed a long way off ... So she simply continued lying on the dirt with her face in her hands, breathing softly, hoping, feeling the pain of hope, wishing the world would go away. "What a coward I am!" she thought. "I want to die, and yet I'm afraid to ..."
And suddenly it seemed to her that she was someone else, contemplating her own suffering with cold interest from outside. For an instant the sensation was overwhelming. She was simultaneously a creature in the agonies of suffering and an interested, untouched observer of that suffering -- an insect impaled on a thorn, and the sadistic child that had put it there to observe its writhings with casual curiosity.
A hand shook her roughly by the shoulder. Sandra rolled over and looked up into the face of the scrawny Arab.
"Wake up," hissed the man, his eyes gleaming behind his round spectacles. "It is sundown. We must go now."
Sandra sat up. Twilight shrouded the hills, and a few stars shone in the deep blue vastness of the sky. The giant Turk stood nearby, his machine-gun held lightly in one hand, scowling down at her. Helena sat at the base of a nearby tree struggling silently and futilely against the cords that bound her arms behind her back.
"Come," said the Turk.
Sandra rose and walked over to Helena. She helped the girl to her feet and began to fumble at the cords that lashed her wrists together. The Turk shook his head and motioned her away; the scars on his face and neck seemed black in the dusk. Helena's face showed no expression, but she stood unbending, almost defiant.
"Move!" The Turk shoved Helena forward.
They walked silently down a slope sparsely covered with grass and occasional tall weeds. The trees loomed slender and spectral in the dusk, softened in outline by the shadows. It seemed almost like a park back home, Sandra thought. But the ground was rough and tricky in the dark, and the party moved slowly. Presently they came out into an open stretch, rounded the shoulder of the ridge, and continued on down the slope. Sandra noticed a good many points of light spotting the ground in the valley below, and realized that they were campfires.
"Abdullah el Nahabi must have given the Jews a good licking," muttered the Turk, "else he'd not camp so openly."
The slope became more gentle. Sandra saw that they were approaching a campfire near the base of the hill, a little apart from the rest.
"Please remain silent, now," cautioned the effeminate Arab in a low, suave tone. His upper teeth gleamed white in the dark -- as did the curved blade of the knife he clutched.
"Put the knife away, Fahad," said the Turk. "If they try to yell I'll clout their heads and stuff their mouths with rags."
They moved silently through the sparse woods toward the campfire. Presently they came upon a narrow path -- and, as they stepped out upon it, the sound of gunfire broke suddenly from the direction of the main encampment.
"The Jews!" muttered Fahad. "They attack Abdullah and his men by night."
"Hurry, fools!" The Turk hustled the three others ahead of him down the path -- in the direction of the conflict. Fahad protested briefly, but was silenced by a warning growl from his giant comrade.
Suddenly the thunder of hooves sounded ahead. Sandra barely had time to leap aside and dive into the brush as a riderless horse came galloping out of the darkness from the direction of the camp. Someone stepped on her left hand; she cried out, and at the same time heard Fahad mutter a curse.
"Idiot woman -- be silent!"
The horse vanished down the path, and the Turk herded his captives back onto the trail again. The shooting had now stopped, but there was a feeling of tension in the night.
Now the campfire gleamed close, and Sandra saw that they approached a fire-lit clearing. The Turk made them all slow their pace and advance cautiously. Sandra heard horses neighing, glimpsed shadowy forms moving beyond the trees against the glare ...
Then, as they neared the end of the trail where it entered the clearing, she saw the bodies of perhaps a dozen Arabs scattered about in the firelight. Half a dozen men in Israeli combat garb -- gray khaki shorts and blouses -- were trying to quiet the horses.
"Ambushed!" growled the Turk, raising his .30 calibre machine-gun. "But the infidels didn't reckon on our coming ..."
"Look out, Sol!" yelled Helena.
The Turk's machine-gun roared; he fired the heavy weapon as an ordinary man would fire a Sten gun, holding it unsupported in his brawny arms. Sand spurted up in the clearing. The Israeli fighters whirled to face the gunfire -- and Sandra now saw that one of them was young Sol Bozivich, a young fanatic who had been infatuated with Carole Friedmann.
"Look out!" Sandra's belated scream echoed Helena's.
Three of the fighters scattered -- and went down before the Turk's roaring gun, writhing on the sand. The others ducked behind the horses.
"Cowards!" The Turk's eyes gleamed with fury, and Sandra realized that battle-lust had overridden all mercenary desires in his barbaric soul. "Suck your horse-mothers' tits, you scum -- they can't protect you."
A burst of rapid fire answered him. Sandra hit the dirt and Helena backed hastily behind a tree. Fahad stood near the two women with a revolver held ready, his eyes watchful and glittering.
The Turk's machine-gun clattered again. The horses reared in fright, and one of them rolled screaming and kicking in the dust. An Israeli cried out as a hoof crunched into his chest, crushing his ribs; another reeled and fell with a bullet in his spine. Then Sandra saw Sol Bozivich, alone now, charging toward where she and her captors were hidden by the fringe of the dark woods, his submachine-gun blazing, his teeth gritted in a horrid grin of fear and fury. Bark splintered from the trees; Fahad hit the dirt frantically, and Sandra felt wood-splinters sting her cheek. The Turk grunted and staggered slightly -- then squeezed off a burst in return. Sol folded as half a dozen .30 calibre slugs ripped through his guts, and rolled violently into a thicket, screaming and threshing spasmodically. In a moment he was still.
"Come on!" ordered the Turk. "Be quick."
He advanced into the clearing, and Fahad ushered the two women after him at gun point. The brawny giant proceeded to quiet the horses, partly by brute force and partly through an obvious skill at handling equines. Then he gathered up the bridles of four of them, letting them smell his hands as he stroked their noses.
Fahad strode over to a prostrate Israeli, who was still writhing wounded on the ground. Drawing his curved knife, he jerked the man's head back by the hair and carefully slit his throat. Then he walked back toward the women, his bearing proud, a toothy grin flashing arrogantly from his dark face.
"My passage to Allah's green gardens is assured," he said, a certain naive enthusiasm showing through his air of casual pride. "I have fueled Allah's furnace with the soul of an infidel!"
"You'll fuel that furnace yourself sooner than you wish unless you help me with these horses," growled the Turk. "Boost that long-legged wench up on one of them."
As Fahad helped lift the bound Helena into a saddle, Sandra noticed that the Turk was bleeding from two bullet holes in his left thigh; the jacketed 9 mm bullets from Sol's gun had punched through straight and clean. At the Turk's command Sandra mounted another horse without help; Fahad already sat astride a third, covering the women with his large British .454 revolver. In a moment the Turk had the four horses linked together with ropes like a pack train. Then, pausing only a few seconds more to bind a makeshift tourniquet about the top of his thigh, he leaped into the saddle of the largest horse and led the train into the darkness of the brush.
The night was now alive with cries and the sound of galloping hooves. Arabs were converging from a dozen other campsites. But the Turk led his train slowly, secure now in the darkness. The Arabs would find only bodies; there would be no pursuit, for it would appear as if the combatants had killed each other off to the last man.
Sandra felt sick to her stomach. She guessed Sol had probably led his small ambush party on his own, against orders perhaps, full of the seething desire to avenge Carole. But now Sol was dead -- and possibly better off than he had ever been. She, Sandra, was still painfully alive, with everything meaningful in her life lost to her forever -- even her freedom. "Why can't I just die?" she wondered desperately. "What keeps me alive?" The wondering was a hopeless hope, and it brought pain ... and suddenly she felt again that bleak detachment, as if she were some heartless entity contemplating her own suffering from afar.
The sun, as always, was hot, but it was declining behind the ridges in the far west. Long, purple shadows extended out ahead of the four-horse train. Ahead lay green hills, but the dust of the Jordan silt-flats rose about the party still, permeating their nostrils, filling their pores.
Sandra sway weakly in the saddle, clinging doggedly to her mount's dusty mane. A rope from the bridle linked her horse to Helena's, which was just ahead of her in the line. Helena was ill, Sandra realized; she lay forward along the horse's back, gripping its flanks weakly with her knees, her wrists bound awkwardly together behind her back, her long dark hair mingling its straggling strands with the horse's mane. Sandra felt an aching desire to help her but knew she dared not try.
At the front of the line rode the Turk, his leg wrapped in bandages made from the torn cloth of his trousers. Only ragged trunks now adorned his loins beneath the broad sash that girded his waist. Behind Sandra rode Fahad, his mouth open in a silly, toothy grin, his glittering eyes resting on her in a way she did not like. She looked away, brushing back her coppery hair where it clung to the sweat on her cheek.
Suddenly the Turk raised his right hand, and the train came to a halt. He and Fahad dismounted, faced to the south and, as the sun touched the horizon, knelt and bowed low till their foreheads touched the dry earth.
"Praise be to Allah," they intoned, "the beneficent, the merciful ..."
Helena leaned on her horse, reeled -- and fell limply from its back and landed heavily on the sand. She lay still on her side. Sandra climbed off her mount and stumbled to the unconscious girl, kneeling beside her and feeling her over anxiously. There were no broken bones -- a miracle she attributed to the girl's limpness when she had fallen -- but her face was flushed and her breathing labored. Sandra knew they must have rest soon, or she too would fall prey to a similar exhaustion.
The two Moslems, paying the two women little heed, leisurely finished their prayer to Allah. When at last they rose the Turk picked up the unconscious Helena, slung her across the horse's back and lashed her to the beast with leather thongs. Then they all remounted, and the train plodded on.
They had ridden all day. It had been six hours since their last brief stop to eat. They had had little food or water. The blistering sun had sapped Sandra's energy to the dregs. The waters of the Jordan, which had stopped their flowing for Joshua's army more than thirty centuries ago, had forced the small party to swim and flounder for a space; but the sun, unbidden, had seemed to stand still nonetheless.
When they entered the grassy eastward hills it was dark. The stars were out, and a soft breeze moved down the rocky gullies. But the party did not halt, and the horses continued to pick their way up tricky inclines and stony trails in the darkness.
The command came out of the night ahead of them; it was in Arabic, clipped and hard. The pack train stopped. Sandra heard men moving about on foot in the dark, but she could not see them. The glare from several flashlights blinded her eyes. Guns clicked as if cocked for readiness; booted feet scuffled.
"Peace!" rumbled the Turk. "It is I -- Suleiman."
"Praise to Allah!" a voice cried out. Another exclaimed, Suleiman!" And a third voice, in a tone of command, said, "Come with us."
The horses jogged on, and now Sandra heard booted feet marching along on either side of her. In a few moments a light came into view as the party emerged from some brush onto a road. Directly across the road, set far back in a wide lawn, stood a large mansion of white stone whose vast porch was columned in a Grecian style. Jeeps stood parked and camels tethered in front of it, and the sound of soft music drifted from within.
The Turk dismounted, unfastened Helena and swung her limp form across his wide shoulder. Sandra slid stiffly to the ground and stood leaning against her mount, feeling weak and dizzy. She saw that they were surrounded by a dozen or so uniformed men who wore white Arab head-cloths and carried semiautomatic rifles. Then she was ushered across the wide lawn, up the marble steps amid the Grecian columns of the tiled porch and into the brightly-lit interior of the mansion.
The room Sandra entered was wide and sumptuous, like the banquet hall of an imperial Roman dignitary. Marble walls and columns gleamed in the glow of electric lamps fashioned and shaded like ancient braziers and torches. A fountain bubbled and sparkled in the center, colored lights scintillating from its clear cascades. A half-dozen female dancers, bronzed and exquisitely formed, spun seductively to music played softly on stringed instruments by a group of Arab musicians. Several men in military uniforms turned to watch the group that had entered the room.
"Whiskey!" rumbled the Turk. "This day has been cursed dry."
The music stopped and the dancers paused in their gyrations. A solid-looking man in a white suit approached. He wore an iron cross over his heart, and a monocle over his right eye. He grinned up at the Turk while shaking the giant's brawny hand.
"Suleiman!" And what have you brought us this time?" His accent was strongly Germanic. "It has been many months. Who's this slim redhead? And the shapely creature slung over your shoulder, eh?"
"Whiskey," muttered Suleiman again, dumping Helena down on a carpeted portion of the floor. A soldier brought over a bottle, and the Turk twisted off the cap and noisily guzzled down a third of the contents.
"That's good!" he said, exhaling throatily. "Praise to Allah that His Prophet knew not of whiskey when he banned wine!"
The German was scrutinizing Sandra through his monocle. She felt uneasy. There was something about the square, hard cast of the man's face that she did not like, despite his show of good humor. There was an arrogant Roman aquilinity about his nose; his ears were thick, his brows heavy, his cheeks a trifle jowly. His voice was cultured and polite as he said:
"You are tired. Come -- sit here on the carpet and I'll see that food is brought. You may bathe and retire later, if you wish."
Sandra looked toward Helena lying unconscious on the carpet, then back to the German. "Please -- she's sick, she needs help badly. She's been struck several times about the head -- they wouldn't let me untie her or look after her ..." Sandra suddenly found her eyes full of tears, her voice choking.
The German scowled at Suleiman. "Unbind her," he ordered.
The Turk glowered back. "She'll scratch your eyes out when she comes to," he warned.
Suleiman took another pull on the bottle. Fahad scurried forward, cut Helena's bonds with his curved dagger, and stood grinning at the German. Helena moaned and moved slightly.
"A beauty, is she not, Herr Lammerding?" said Fahad. "A form fit to grace Allah's green Paradise! She comes to you undefiled, young, fresh, worthy of your great generosity ..."
"She's sick!" protested Sandra.
Herr Lammerding cocked his monocle. "She does look a little the worse for wear. Two hundred dollars should be enough."
"Two hundred!" shrieked Fahad, flinging wide his arms. "Only two hundred ... by the Prophet's beard! This flower of Jordan? Look at those legs -- those hips! A tourag would pay more for her, I swear ..."
The German shrugged. "I do not haggle," he said. "Two hundred."
A man in a German officer's uniform had joined them. He was of average height, compact build and rather handsome in a hard-featured sort of way; his dark hair was close-cropped and his eyes were piercing and intelligent. He seemed to be a well-preserved forty years of age, but certain lines about his mouth hinted that he might be older. He glanced down casually at the girl on the carpet.
"She is a Jewess, Heinz," he remarked, "as you can see by what's left of her combat fatigues. These sabras do not domesticate well; you'll get a few days' worth of sport from her, no more. Pay the Arab fifty dollars."
"Fifty!" screamed Fahad.
"Fifty dollars," repeated the officer. "A Jewess is worth no more."
Fahad turned in desperation to Suleiman, but the Turk was engrossed in polishing off the last of the whiskey and seemed oblivious to the transaction. Fahad's mouth opened and closed. He seemed to have lost his voice.
"You are an American, are you not?" said Herr Lammerding to Sandra.
"Yes," said Fahad hastily. "Yes, an American -- and an Aryan, too, of pure blood. See -- her hair is like fine red gold. Her skin is as white and smooth as an alabaster vase. A true daughter of Aryas!"
Lammerding was eyeing Sandra's slender form critically. "Hmmm ... yes, yes. She's not as voluptuous as the Jewess -- but definitely of higher quality, as you say. Will two thousand dollars be sufficient?"
Fahad's mouth fell open.
"No?" said Lammerding. "Very well, then, four thousand. What do you say to that?"
"Your munificence is like unto that of Allah Himself!" stammered Fahad.
"She is worth much more," said Lammerding, smiling heavily at Sandra. "But her true worth is far beyond my means, I'm sure."
"I'm honored," said Sandra a trifle coldly.
"I'm hungry!" growled Suleiman. "Bring us food."
Lammerding gestured at the orchestra, and the Arab musicians resumed playing. The bronze-skinned dancers spun into a new rhythm. Servants in white blouses and trousers and golden sashes and slippers brought forth platters of rich foods. At Sandra's request an Arab doctor was called for, and two of the servants carried Helena's limp form out of the banquet-hall.
"I am Heinz Lammerding," said the German to Sandra. "I am pleased to have you here. Sit down now, and refresh yourself."
"Thank you for all you've done," said Sandra. "Please -- let me go help attend to Helena. I've had some training as a nurse ..."
Lammerding scowled. "You are tired. Our physicians are of the best. Sit down -- here. We have wines and foods of the highest quality." As he spoke he drew Sandra aside and ushered her to a low table. They sat down before it on the floor amid great, soft cushions. Sandra leaned back weakly against the base of a marble column and sipped from the goblet the German handed her. Some instinct warned her she had better do whatever the man wanted.
The wine was dry but smooth and it left a warm, gentle glow in her stomach. She suddenly realized how very hungry she was, and fell to attacking the variety of fruits and meats set before her.
"You have been ill-treated, I think," said the German. "But you are safe now."
"I'm grateful," said Sandra. "I'll gladly see you're paid back whatever it will cost to pay off those Arabs, plus whatever it will cost to get Helena and me to any port in Europe."
The German scowled briefly -- then smiled. "We will talk of this later. You must rest now. Please have some more wine."
"You're not going to help us get back," said Sandra coldly. "Is that what you mean?"
"It would be extremely awkward now, I'm afraid ..."
"You are a woman who comes to the point, Miss ... ?"
"Well, then, Miss Helgeson -- it's the Jews. You see, there are many of us here in the Arab countries who happened to be on the losing side in the last war -- not the wrong side, you understand, but the losing side -- and we would fare ill if through some stray gossip the barbaric Jews were to learn of our whereabouts." Lammerding chuckled and gulped down the wine he had offered Sandra. "The Jews have proven of late that they can be very atrocious indeed."
"I see," said Sandra.
"Atrocious!" Lammerding went on. The wine was evidently beginning to stir some latent rage. "But the situation is not without hope. Did I say the losing side? Well, that is only temporary! Despite the atrocities that followed the farcical trials at Nuremberg, there are still many of us around -- thanks to the general hospitality of our Arab friends. The Mufti treats us with honor, and the Arab storm-troopers we are training grow in strength. Yes, by God!, the damned Jews still fear us, and suffer from our efforts. We will triumph yet!"
"You're dreaming," said Sandra in spite of the fear she felt toward the man. "Hitler is dead. The Nazi dream of empire is crushed -- and Germany herself is divided among her conquerors. The world you dream of can never rise again."
"By God, bitch, you are wrong!" Lammerding's face was suddenly livid with fury. "There are things you do not know. The entire world shall soon be ours. ..."
He ceased speaking with surprising abruptness. Sandra saw that the hard-faced German officer was standing near them, scowling down at Lammerding.
"Win is a good thing for conversation," the man remarked. "But both should be enjoyed in moderation.
Lammerding shrugged, his composure regained instantly. "This is our host, Miss Helgeson -- Herr Mueller, a soldier and a gentleman."
"Your name -- your full name," demanded Herr Mueller, staring at Sandra icily.
The German bowed slightly, a tight smile briefly stretching his lips. "I am Heinrich Mueller, at your service. If you need anything, please let me know."
"I must remind you, Herr Mueller," said Lammerding, "that I have offered four thousand ..."
"Wait a minute!" Sandra cried. "I don't belong to anybody."
She froze as, for an instant, both of the men scowled at her with hard menace. Then Mueller grinned coldly.
"If you need my assistance in any way, let me know," he said. Then, with a brief, formal bow, he turned and strode out of the room.
"Pay no attention to him," said Lammerding, placing a heavy hand on Sandra's shoulder.
"Please, leave me alone ..."
"Ah, Herr Mueller has upset you. Here -- this wine will calm your nervousness. No? Well, then --" He tossed down another goblet. "He has upset many people before -- many people. Including me, sometimes. But especially he has upset the Jews. They would like to get their hands on him -- ha! ha! He was chief of the Gestapo, you know."
Sandra started. She had heard that some of the top Nazis under Hitler had escaped the fall of Germany, but she had not known which ones. Heinrich Mueller ... yes, the name was familiar -- the cold-blooded, Jew-hating killer who had patterned his secret police force after that of the Bolsheviks, making it one of the most brutal instruments of terror in all history -- one of the most smooth and ruthless men under Hitler.
"I see you are impressed," said Lammerding, a trace of annoyance in his voice. "But I -- I, too -- have given the Jews good cause to hate me. The whole despicable dog-pack of them would have rejoiced to see me dragged to their farce of a court at Nuremberg -- but they did not. I, Heinz Lammerding! Have you never heard of me?"
Sandra remained silent, not looking at the man. She was no longer hungry.
"Those were great days!" declared Lammerding, pouring himself more wine. "We were masters of the earth then. And when we marched at Nuremberg to the grand music, and heard the voice of our Leader ringing from the loudspeakers -- ah, how the crowds roared! Never before -- no, not in all of history -- have there been such sounds, such sights, such doings to stir the blood. The Jews trembled before us then -- yes, and the great nations, also. Europe was at our feet, and no one dared stand against us. Not by open battle were we brought to defeat, but by subversion. Only the cunning, cowardly Jewish tactics of inner rot and corruption brought us down -- the sword could not stay us. Our troops were everywhere victorious, but the Jew was in our midst even as we conquered. The Jew! He corrupted all he touched -- towns, cities, entire nations he corrupted, and turned them against us! We fought the rot, but it spread. I, myself, commanding a whole division of SS troops, fought them -- an entire village of the swine I destroyed, with fire and machine-gun bullets -- seven hundred at a blow -- ha! ha! Ah, we fought valiantly -- but the rot crept on, and even as we swung the sword our knees buckled to the rot. But we fell grandly, fighting to the end, and never before had so many Jews been destroyed in so few years. Because of our efforts the world may yet rise from the stranglehold of international Jewish exploitation -- and our place in history shall then be an honored one!"
"I'm tired, Herr Lammerding," said Sandra. "May I retire?"
Lammerding scowled. For an instant his face flushed darkly. But then he smiled and nodded. He clapped his hands twice, sharply, and two dark-skinned women hurried to his side. They wore short, gauzy kirtles designed to resemble those of Roman antiquity.
"Show Miss Helgeson to her room and bath."
Sandra slept badly in her sumptuous apartment, in spite of her weariness. As she lay in her soft, silk-sheeted bed she could hear the slow tread of a booted guard passing occasionally down the hall outside. The scents of exotic perfumes filled the air, but to her it seemed to the sickly smell of slavery.
She felt feverish, and the few times she dozed off she dreamed horrible dreams she could not remember on waking. The slightest noise brought her awake in a sweat. She expected any moment to see Heinz Lammerding come stumbling in, drunk and abusive. But at last the room began to lighten at the approach of dawn, and Sandra's fears subsided. She slept.
It was evening when she woke, stiff and weak. She rose shakily and donned a white kirtle and a loose, blue oriental robe the attendant girls had given her the night before. The robe's wide sleeves and hem were trimmed with gold, and there was a golden sash to confine its loose folds close about her waist. There were also soft yellow slippers to match. Her filthy khaki garments had been taken away while she had bathed.
Sandra felt hungry. She walked into the hall, pushing back the red tapestries across the door as she did so. No one was in sight. He hall was dim, but light gleamed from a door near the far end. Sandra advanced, peering cautiously into the room, and found that it was empty. Large windows on its far side opened onto a balcony, and a cool breeze came softly through.
Entering the room, Sandra stole toward the balcony and walked out upon it. Dusk was settling over far-off hills and the sun was dim and huge and half-hidden in the west. All was purple and gray, with tiny lights dotting the countryside here and there, and occasional other lights moving along an unseen road to the east. From somewhere in the distance came the chant of a muezzin, musical and clear.
Then she heard voices in the room behind her. Two men had entered. It was Heinrich Mueller and another man who wore black clothing and dark-rimmed spectacles. Sandra ducked back from the light and watched furtively from the balcony.
"The key factor seems to lie in Petra," the spectacled man was saying. His brown hair was cropped short like Mueller's, but he wore a mustache that merged with a short, spadelike goatee.
"Ah! And this is the translation?" said Mueller, bending over a table littered with books and several papers. "Yes, I see -- 'by the Greeks called Petra' -- 'the lost wealth of Balkis' ... this was not in the Latin text. And what is this about a 'stone of Yog' -- is that what Lammerding was curious about?"
The stranger shrugged but said nothing.
"Well, let him believe it if he wants to," continued Mueller. "He and his astrology -- and now this! He's become as superstitious as Goebbels did at the last, with Roosevelt died. Clutching at straws -- omens and all the rest! Well, straws and omens won't buy the Arabs. It's the 'wealth' we must have. It had better be there."
"It may not be," said the stranger. "A lot can happen in three thousand years."
"It must be there -- it will be!" Mueller's voice rose a notch -- almost in fury, or so it seemed to Sandra. Then, more calmly, "Look here -- it says 'wealth ... rubies and great emeralds, and much gold ... beneath the altar of the black crystal which is called the Stone of Yog ... and there it has lain these many centuries.' There! The mad Arab wrote this less than a thousand years ago, yet Petra was abandoned around 400 A.D. and wasn't discovered again till Burkhardt came along in 1812. And there have been no reports of anything as spectacular as this being found there, by Burkhardt or anyone else! We must give it a try. We'll start tomorrow."
The stranger nodded slightly but said nothing. The two men turned and left the room.
Sandra waited a moment, then slipped through the French windows and crossed the floor quietly. As she passed the table the papers lying on its black marble surface caught her eye, and she could not help pausing to glance at them. Amid the clutter a large and obviously ancient tome lay open, its pages deeply yellowed, brown and cracked at the edges as if from being held too close to a fire; neat Arabic characters marched across them. Sandra leaned over the papers and saw that some were covered with Arabic writing, others with English; studying them, she found that they seemed to say the same thing as the pages of the open book, but she couldn't be sure as the book was written in an ancient, flowery form of Arabic that was extremely difficult to read. Sandra scanned the English version hurriedly.
Now when Queen Balkis returned from her visit to Solomon in Jerusalem (it read), she was obliged to pass through the city of Rekhem, which the Greeks called Petra. And it had been the custom there aforetime to pay homage to the god Koth with a small token of gold and jewels; and all travelers and traders of sufficient wealth paid this token, that their journeys might be safe and their slumbers peaceful. But Balkis, having been instructed by Solomon that there existed no gods of power save Yahweh, who dwelt aforetime in the mountain of fire and cloud, was haughty to the priests of Koth and would not pay them the token. Thereupon the priests were angered and cried out their vexation; but the soldiers of Balkis would not let them near. And Balkis and her train passed unmolested out of the city toward the south.
Now the priests were sore wroth, and hurried them into the temple of red stone and down the hundred steps of sandstone, and the thousand steps of black lava, even unto the chamber of Koth where lies hidden that dark crystal which Azar the sorcerer brought up in olden times from the caverns of inner earth, which crystal is called the Stone of Yog. And the priests took up the Stone and climbed the thousand steps of black lava, and the hundred of red sandstone, and set forth in pursuit of the caravan of Balkis, which was now to the south of the city of Rekhem. No sword did they bear with them, neither did they carry bow or spear; for Solomon in his rule had forbidden them the use of weapons. And in the evening the priests of Rekhem, riding on swift camels, drew abreast of the caravan and passed it, and waited then atop a low hill to the west. And when the caravan of Balkis passed by, the priests called unto the power that lies in the heart of the Stone of Yog. And spark was made with that horrible red jewel called the Fire of Assurbanipal, which lay hidden at that time in evil caverns beneath the eastern desert, the same even whence Azar had stolen the Stone of Yog. And a lance of power burst from the Stone and slew the slaves and soldiers and camels of Balkis' train. Great was the slaughter, and those who died not fled in haste southward to Saba, and left behind them the rubies and emeralds and gold that Solomon had given unto Queen Balkis. And the queen returned to Saba without the treasure Solomon had given her.
Now the priests of Kuos, or Koth, gathered up this wealth. And they took all the rubies and great emeralds, and much of the gold which Solomon had given to Queen Balkis, and carried it back with them to the city of Rekhem. And they bore all that spoil into the temple of the god Kuos, and down the hundred steps of sandstone and the thousand of lava, even unto the lightless chamber of Koth. There they hid the rubies and emeralds and gold so that Solomon would not learn of its whereabouts. With stone and mortar they sealed up this treasure, and with many a curse. And there it has lain for many centuries, even to this very day.
Now the temple of Kuos, which hideth the passageway down to the chamber of Koth, is approached in this fashion ...
Sandra spun around as a soft footfall sounded close behind her. The stranger who had left the room in the company of Mueller was standing next to her. He was alone.
"You're Sandra Helgeson, aren't you?" he said in English. Sandra realized at once by his accent that he was an American.
"Why, yes ... I was just ..."
"Heinz Lammerding is looking for you. He thinks you've escaped."
"Let him look, then! I'm not his slave."
The stranger's eyebrows lifted slightly.
"I'm not!" Sandra protested. "I don't care how much he paid those Arabs. I don't belong to anybody. I don't!"
The stranger made no reply. Sandra could read no emotion in his face. His silent detachment dampened her feeling of incipient hysteria. She realized there would be no opposition -- or help -- from him.
Frowning, she turned to go -- but suddenly the man motioned her to stop.
"Wait," he said. "You were just out there on the balcony, weren't you?"
"Yes, you must have been out there. I didn't see you in the hall coming or going. You must have heard us talking. And you were reading this just now." He held up the English translation of the Arabic pages.
"Have I done something wrong?"
"Not really. But I suppose you noticed that there are some discrepancies between the English and modern Arabic translations."
"No, I hadn't noticed."
"Well, in any case you did read the English version. Our German hosts can't read English well, and I'd just as soon you'd not talk to them about what you've read."
"That's very involved. Perhaps I'll have a chance to explain later. I imagine Lammerding will bring you along with us."
"To Petra. We're going there tomorrow. Remember, forget you read this translation."
"Why should I?"
"This isn't a threat, just a caution. Neither of us will benefit if these Germans learn too much ..."
He ceased speaking as footsteps sounded from the hall. An instant later the curtains parted and Heinz Lammerding strode into the room.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Helgeson," he said; there was a disturbing hardness behind the apparent cordiality of his tone. "Come -- dinner is being served. You too, Herr Taggart -- there is to be some wonderful entertainment after the meal."
"Later, perhaps," said the American. "I have a bit of work to do."
Sandra was suddenly aware of being in the presence of clashing opposites. Certainly the physical contrast between the two men was striking enough -- Lammerding official and correct in his white uniform, the man called Taggart clad all in black. But that was not it. Rather, it was like a subsurface clash of wills had filled the air with a sudden, barely discernible vibration. Lammerding seemed like the personification of thwarted arrogance, bulky and powerful and threatening; Taggart, lean and almost Mephistophelian by contrast, silent but unyielding ... And suddenly, like an overwhelming flash of insight, it seemed to Sandra that these two figures towered at the opposite poles of existence and that the fate of all worlds hung between them. Only for a fraction of a second did this impression last -- then it was gone, and Sandra stood again in an ordinary room with two mortal men, feeling bewildered and somewhat shake."
The German bowed with stiff politeness to Taggart, then ushered Sandra out of the room.
"That one -- he is a ... how do you say? ... a sourpuss!" remarked Lammerding. "Always reading the old books. Ah, but what secrets he comes up with! I could amaze you, my dear, with the things he has told me. Books are keys to strange things, it would seem. Well, enough -- here we are at the banquet-hall, and Herr Mueller scoffs at such talk. Let us eat before we discuss any more.
Created: September 18, 1997; Current Update: August 9, 2004