Authors: David Harris
To Sam and Ali,
who keep walking off the maps
The author and publisher hereby assert their moral right to dismay at barbarous, plundering, blundering archaeological destruction and theft by people in this series.
We further assert our indignation at the nineteenth century archaeological method of Dig, Grab and Run. The battering ram, explosives and teams of sweaty workers wielding crowbars have thankfully given way to the enlightened archaeology of harmless noncontact electromagnetic devices, computer graphics, lots of string, forensic scalpels and those cute little make-up brushes.
No archaeological site will be hurt in the making of this series … we hope.
These stories are a portal into an alternative reality, an amazing world where fiction tells the truth. People and events are shape-shifters, with a rage for a life of their own. Time and space collapse and expand. Memories distort, explode and fade away. Stories hurtle through white-water rapids and we hang on for our lives.
Our crew is a mad bunch of desperados. Every twist and turn of our imaginary journey is inspired by their true-to-life adventures. Well, as true to life as this lot allowed their writing to be.
The author has the dirt on things these archaeologists revised, made up, or left out of their official versions. Historical ‘truth’ may lie. Historical fiction reveals all kinds of truths.
Those who wish to compare these cliffhanger tales with other versions of What Really Happened can find recommended websites at the author’s website (davidharris.com.au).
TO THE BRITISH EMBASSY, CONSTANTINOPLE
Layard alive. Found crawling among beggars near gates of Baghdad. More dead than alive. Walked barefoot out of desert. Raving about Nineveh, night battle, hostages. Has vital information from Persian wars. Sending him to you.
Colonel Taylor, Baghdad.
Zagros Mountains, Persia.
Austen sensed a movement behind him. He glanced down at his musket, which was out of reach beside his left boot.
Don’t turn around, he told himself.
On the other side of the river, a stone clinked and the back of his neck prickled. Slowly, he primed both the pistols tucked in his belt and hoped his cloak hid the movements.
About ten paces away on the sandy edge of the river, his horse whinnied nervously.
In one smooth action, Austen knelt, lifted his musket and swung it around. From boulders across the river, a puff of white smoke twisted up like a curl of hair. The shot cracked and a musket ball buzzed
past his cheek, so close he felt the vibration. He fired at the shadow beneath the smoke and then ran for his horse. No more guns fired. There was only one man, but how long would he take to pour gunpowder, slide in a lead ball and take aim?
He leapt into the saddle and fired both pistols at a glint of light between the boulders. The figure screamed, slumped against one of them and slid from sight. When the echoes faded from the cliffs, there was a moment’s silence, but then a dull thunder rolled along the valley. Austen’s skin went cold. His guns were empty and there was no time to reload them. Anyway, what use were
guns against so many?
A mob of horsemen burst into sight around a bend of the river and galloped towards him. He saw the striped turbans and cloaks of Persians, heavily armed with spears and swords. He swung his horse around, its hooves plunging in sand, but more horsemen appeared further up the river. Trapped, Austen reined in his horse and rested his hands in his lap.
One horseman, his cloak flapping in the wind, charged ahead of the others. He shouted his war cry and held his spear like a lance aimed directly at Austen’s heart. A red flag fluttered near the point of the spear and Austen imagined the flag sliding back along the shaft, slippery with blood, as the spear struck through
his chest. There was no time to prepare for death, so he straightened his back and gazed defiantly into the eyes of his executioner. The horseman raced in for the kill, the spear point steadied and Austen took one last breath.
The spear jerked, skimmed past his throat and the horseman galloped away, laughing.
Austen swayed with dizziness and struggled against falling from the saddle. More horsemen rode close around him, tightening the circle while they yelled war cries into his face. Were they going to test his courage again, or torture and then kill him?
‘Brown-beard! Spy.’ Guns fired above his head, spears jabbed harder and harder against his chest and swords slashed past his face. If he showed the slightest fear, they would run him through again and again.
A sudden storm of rage rushed through him. He knocked spear shafts aside, jumped down from his horse and flung off his cloak. Then, wrapping the
cloak around his left hand and arm as a shield, he unsheathed his curved dagger. He backed against his horse and called out, ‘In the name of Allah, the protector, I’ll take one, or all of you!’
There was a moment of shocked silence. This brown-beard called upon the true god in their language and dared to draw his dagger against them? The horsemen closest to him recovered their wits, leapt to the ground and carved the air with their weapons. Crowded together, they advanced on Austen, eager for the kill.
A gun fired and they turned towards the sound.
‘Nobody kills until I say so.’ A man trotted his horse through the mob and it moved aside for him. His face had been horribly mangled, perhaps by a steel mace that had smashed his nose and shattered his left cheek bone. ‘Lower your weapons.’
His men hesitated, but then obeyed, muttering resentfully.
The leader examined Austen, his eyes lingering on the pistols, sword, and the bag tied near the sword. He pointed to the bag. ‘Show me.’
What choice did he have? To hand over that sketchbook would be to hand over his life. Austen slid the dagger back into its sheath, then passed the book, and his fate, to the battle-scarred leader.
Page after innocent page revealed sketches of ruins, rock sculptures, wall inscriptions.
Austen stumbled as men shoved him aside and tore open his saddlebags. They snatched his sextant, compass and medicine box. Others unbuckled his saddle and had a tug of war with the saddle blanket. A dead man needed no possessions.
The leader paused and held one page, then another, closer to his face. Austen guessed that he’d found the maps showing the heights of mountain passes, coordinates of bridges and rivers. Only a spy planning an invasion would make maps like these. Who’d believe he was charting sites more than two thousand years old?
‘Look at this.’ A young tribesman held up a medicine bottle of yellow powder and pointed to the label,
written in English. ‘A sorcerer’s writing. Kill him before he casts a spell on us!’
‘Not yet.’ The leader closed the sketchbook and smoothed his hands over the leather covers. ‘You’re a long way from Nineveh, Austen Layard.’
They exchanged a look of understanding and Austen nodded. ‘I’m a long way from Nineveh, yes. But the rock-carvings in this valley show that Nineveh’s rule stretched into these mountains of your ancestors.’
The leader grunted. ‘Perhaps
ancestors were from the palaces of Nineveh.’ He stood up in the stirrups and spoke to his horsemen. ‘You have heard of this man. He is called the Lion.’
? Is it really him?’ This was the man who had walked with lions on Mount Saira, who’d held a knife to the throat of the tyrant Makush and taken him prisoner. The Lion had stood alone, spear in hand, and faced the great bear of Kerkhan.
‘My name is Au Kerim.’ He gave the sketchbook back to Austen, then turned away and shouted orders. ‘Put the Lion’s possessions back. You two, go across the river and find Salim.’
‘Au Kerim. I’ve heard of your exploits.’ Austen stowed the sketchbook deep in its bag. ‘I’m sorry for shooting one of your men.’
‘He was a fool. My ambush was set for the eunuch’s soldiers, not an Englishman.’
Austen’s stomach lurched at the mention of the eunuch. He had met the vile governor of Teheran, who’d proudly shown him his new garden wall made of living prisoners layered together by mortar, their faces pleading and arms moving. Three prisoners, whose heads were tied inside bags of chaff, suffocated slowly while the eunuch ate breakfast in the garden and considered the possibility of their innocence.
‘I have a favour to ask you.’ Au Kerim narrowed his eyes. ‘If you succeed, you will be rewarded.’
‘And if I fail?’
Au Kerim reloaded his pistol.
When Austen rode through the gates of Castle Tul, he couldn’t help looking up at the turrets. Crows squawked and fluttered as they tore flesh from the heads impaled there on spikes.
‘The eunuch’s men.’ Au Kerim’s face was grim. ‘Except for those two on the end – the doctors.’
Inside the courtyard, Austen barely had time to notice the men hurrying past with armfuls of muskets and small kegs of gunpowder. ‘This way, quickly.’ Au Kerim dismounted and strode through an arched doorway into a corridor. Austen lifted the small box from his saddlebag and hurried inside the castle. Smooth hollows had been worn into the stone floor by centuries of treading feet. The sound of sobbing came from an open door. Au Kerim had told
him what to expect while they were riding to the castle, but he hadn’t expected such heartbroken weeping. Was it already too late?
‘Leave your weapons here.’ Au Kerim went in and Austen could just see his back bend when he bowed. ‘The Lion is here and he has medicines for the prince.’
A woman’s voice burst into the shrill song of the tongue, ‘Lululu,’ a
to welcome good fortune.
Austen stacked his weapons near the door and shuddered at the thought of the doctors’ heads hanging on spikes.
‘Now,’ Au Kerim commanded.
Austen took a deep breath, picked up his wooden box and went in. A boy about ten years old, with a face as pale as death, lay there on soft pillows. His fingers shook while they twisted the front of his white tunic into a soggy knot.
The prince’s mother and a young woman knelt beside him. Austen didn’t dare look directly at them, but from the corner of his eye he saw that the women had purple scarves over long curls of black hair.
‘Prince Hussein, in the name of Allah, the source and bringer of life.’ Austen bowed.
The mother shuffled aside to give Austen room and as he sat down he glimpsed the women’s wide
sleeves and Persian trousers of red silk. ‘What can you tell me about the illness?’
‘See how he sweats and then he has sudden attacks of shivering.’ Stroking her son’s thin ankles and feet, she stifled her tears. ‘He has pains in his stomach and his knees and shoulders ache.’