Authors: Dominic Selwood
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Historical
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Copyright © Dominic Selwood 2013
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A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Typeset in Monotype Dante 11/14
by Corax and
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Dr Dominic Selwood is passionate about everything historical, especially medieval. He studied at university in Oxford, the Sorbonne, London, Poitiers, and Wales, and has taught and lectured on warfare, religion, heresy, and all the fun medieval stuff. He is the author of
Knights of the Cloister
, and editor of numerous medieval topics on Wikipedia. He has acted as a film consultant, and never stopped writing and researching. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a former criminal barrister, and a specialist on the laws of the Middle East.
Delia, Inigo, Arminel, Andreas
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My very real thanks and immense gratitude to:
Rachel Thorn, my peerless editor, for her consummate skill and surefooted guidance.
For expertise on a range of subjects: Tony Ayres, Dr Lindsay G H Hall, Charles Pierre MacDonald, Mrs Claire Powell, Mike Morton, Saif Sakhran, the Rev. Dr Simon Thorn, and Tom Ward.
For graphics, artwork, and design: Louisa Fitch, Michelle Lovi, Delia Selwood, and Andrew Smith.
The staff of so many wonderful libraries.
My parents, for everything.
My brother, Andreas, for his ceaseless insistence on receiving the next chapter, and for his indefatigable championing of the book.
Inigo and Arminel, for their constant encouragement.
And finally to Delia, who has supported the book at every turn, inspired me, advised and guided me with an unfailing sure touch, and contributed to it in so many millions of ways.
1st December 2013
'The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name'
(From a short passage widely believed to be the oldest in the Bible)
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Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
They came before dawn, from the East, out of the Danakil desert.
The two white air-conditioned Land Cruisers sped through old Aksum, ancient city of warrior emperors, now a forgotten curiosity—a relic.
Only a few hundred miles to the east lay the vast Afar Depression—the Horn of Africa’s arid and scorching cradle of humanity. But the town of Aksum itself was fertile and lush, rich with grass and spreading trees.
As first light began to bleed over the horizon, they raced past Queen Sheba’s grandiose bathing pool—its once petal-strewn waters now murky and stagnant, long neglected.
Then on to the eerie Field of Stones, with its monumental rows of obelisks stretching higher than the tallest in Egypt.
And finally to their destination, the sacred historical church complex of Our Lady Mary of Zion—the holiest place in all Ethiopia, coronation site of the
, the King of Kings.
He had given them good directions.
In the leather passenger seat of the lead Land Cruiser, Aristide Kimbaba pulled a black balaclava over his face and flicked the safety catch on his 7.62 millimetre AK-47 into the semi-automatic position. He fingered the cold steel weapon appreciatively. It was an authentic Russian model, not a cheap Far-Eastern copy. It even had a military-grade POSP telescopic sight mounted onto it.
He had given Kimbaba and his men good equipment.
The militiaman smiled to himself. He had come a long way for this, and knew it was a good plan from the moment he had been told of it.
Looking around, he was pleased to observe there was no one about in the hot sleepy town. The narrow dusty streets of the church complex were entirely deserted.
He glanced down at the plastic-sleeved map resting on his knee.
“Stop here,” he ordered the driver in a low growl, directing him to pull up outside an ornate building nestling in a glade of trees between a large modern church to the north and a small ancient one to the south.
Its alternating green and rose-tinted stone was barely visible in the morning glow.
If Kimbaba had cared about such things, he would have noted that the multicoloured building was numerologically perfect—a square, with one door and three windows per wall. One, three, four, and twelve—all sacred numbers. But these subtleties were lost on him. His untutored eye noticed only its discreet onion dome and slim metal cross hinting at a religious purpose.
The militiaman stepped briskly out of the vehicle.
At six foot three inches tall, he was an intimidating figure—his inherent physical menace heightened by an unbuttoned camouflaged jacket revealing a well-muscled torso, olive trousers tucked into black para boots, and a khaki canvas waistcoat bulging with spare magazine clips.
Striding swiftly up to the iron fence surrounding the chapel, he looked at it keenly, assessing the thickness of its bars and the depth of the concrete into which they had been set.
Roused by the noise of the Land Cruisers’ engines at this early hour, the chapel’s groggy guardian monk appeared at its age-worn oak doors.
His tired yellow robes and green pillbox hat were the only splashes of colour in the grey morning half-light.
Catching sight of the militiaman’s gun and balaclavad head, the guardian stopped dead at the top of the steps, paralyzed.
Kimbaba had heard the church doors open, and reacted instantly.
Raising his gun, he tucked its heavy stock into the padding over his right shoulder and looked directly down its sights at the frozen monk.
Ouvrez la grille!
” he growled, advancing quickly to the gate. His Congolese French was heavily accented. “
The elderly monk looked blank.
Kimbaba stopped at the gate. He tried the handle, but was met with decades of rust welding it tightly shut. He was not surprised. He knew only one guardian monk lived inside the compound, and the gate was only opened when he died and a successor replaced him.
Kimbaba was less than ten yards from the stunned guardian. He pointed the gun directly at him, switching to English. “Open it!” His voice was menacing.
The elderly monk continued to stare blankly at the armed man shouting at him.
Kimbaba turned to Simplice Masolo, his wiry deputy, who had moved in swiftly behind him, also training his gun on the elderly figure.
“Get the C-4,” Kimbaba grunted.
Masolo strode back to the Land Cruiser and took two lumps of off-white explosive from a steel box on the back seat. He had gutted a pair of Claymore anti-personnel mines for exactly this purpose, and quickly moulded two charges onto the fence—one just above ground level, the other at shoulder height. Attaching long wires, he ran them back to a small handheld metal detonator.
He motioned all the balaclavad men to take cover behind a nearby crumbling stone wall. When they were out of blast range, he pressed the detonator’s worn button.
The charges exploded with a deep staccato boom, sending twisted shards of metal hurtling through the air at a lethal speed.
As the smoke cleared, Kimbaba strode through the jagged gap in the fence where moments earlier the gate had hung. He walked straight up to the guardian monk, who was still standing on the steps, miraculously unhurt.
Without pausing, Kimbaba smashed the buff tape-covered butt of his rifle straight into the guardian’s surprised face, tearing the corner of his mouth, felling him instantly with the force of the blow.
Satisfied, he stood astride the prone monk and looked at the blood seeping from his mouth onto the dusty ground. Bending down, he rolled the guardian onto his front, grabbed his arms, and tied his wrists roughly behind his back with a quick-action plasticuff.
The whole manoeuvre was swift and violent. It had taken less than five seconds.
Without pausing, he dragged the guardian to his feet, jamming the cold muzzle of his gun into his prisoner’s left kidney, and pushed him up the smooth steps towards the open wooden doors of the chapel.
The stunned guardian made no attempt to resist. He stumbled forward, dazed.
Four of Kimbaba’s men followed quickly at his heels. The other two stayed by the twisted gap in the fence, rifles at face height, scanning the approach through their sights.
As the heavily armed men entered the darkened building, they fanned out to avoid presenting a solid target. But they need not have worried.
It was empty.
They were alone.
As Kimbaba’s eyes adapted to the gloom, he could see the windows were draped in thick dusky curtains to exclude all natural light. The chapel’s roughly plastered stone walls were covered in ancient embroidered hangings of saints and religious scenes. There was a crudely carved reddish-brown eucalyptus altar at the far end of the room, and a dirty mattress with a crumpled blanket in a corner where the monk slept.
Otherwise, the room was empty.
The thing they had come for was not there.
Kimbaba turned to the monk. “Is this a joke?” His voice was deep—the Congolese accent unmistakable.
The guardian stared blankly back at him, unfocused, blood still dripping from his mouth.
The militiaman took a step further towards him. “I’m not going to ask again.” His tone was ugly. “Where is it?”
The monk seemed not to be aware what was happening.
Without warning, Kimbaba struck him viciously across the face with the back of his hand, drawing a spurt of crimson blood from the jagged tear to the corner of his mouth.
The fresh flash of pain seemed to jerk the yellow-robed monk out of his reverie. His eyes settled on Kimbaba, soft and distant. When he spoke, his voice was calm. “What do you want here?”
“Where is it?” The militiaman glowered at him, sweat beginning to appear on his bull-like neck. “The
The guardian eyed him closely before answering slowly and gently. “The
is not for you.”
Without warning, Kimbaba slammed his fist into the guardian’s solar plexus. The monk doubled up, crumpling to the floor.
Kimbaba leaned over him, his expression unchanged. “Now.”
There was a pause while the monk looked up at the hulking man looming over him. Despite the pain contorting his face, there was no anger in his eyes.
His voice, when it came, was a resolute whisper. “No.”
Kimbaba unclicked his Patriot combat knife from its Kydex belt sheath. He held it out for a moment, the black blade glinting dully in front of the monk’s face, before jamming its sharpened steel point into the stubbly dark flesh under the old man’s chin. His eyes gleamed, leaving the monk in no doubt of his intentions.
The elderly guardian looked calmly at Kimbaba. “I have been ready all my life.” His voice was mild and measured. “You cannot kill my soul.”
Kimbaba kicked him hard in the ribs, sending him sprawling. “You will not meet your God today,
-man, however much you will soon beg for it.”
The monk’s face twisted in pain as he eyed his tormentor, but his voice remained slow and deliberate. “Your threats are worthless—my life is a holy living sacrifice.”
Kimbaba returned his prisoner’s gaze for a moment, rocking his large head from side to side, sucking his teeth. Turning to Masolo, he flicked his eyes towards the entrance. “Get it.”
Masolo nodded to the balaclavad man nearest him, and together they disappeared through the ancient oak doors.
Returning a few minutes later, they placed a black anodized roof-rack, a jerrycan, and a coil of slim rope onto the floor beside him.
Kimbaba rolled the prisoner over with his boot, then bent down and sliced through the plasticuffs binding his slender wrists.
Grasping the monk by the shoulders, he forced his frail body face-up onto the cold metal bars of the rack, spreadeagling him. “As a religious man, you’ll appreciate this. It was invented by the Spanish Inquisition.” He grunted, cutting short lengths of the grimy rope and tying the monk’s bony wrists and ankles to the rack’s rigid frame.
The guardian eyed Kimbaba closely. “I fear Hell and damnation. Not you, or pain.”
Kimbaba nodded. “There will be no pain.” His eyes glinted with anticipation. “Just terror.”
He held the knife’s razor-sharp point to the flesh under the monk’s chin again, pushing harder this time. “Last chance.”
The monk shook his head fractionally as the knife broke the skin, drawing fresh blood. “I chose my path long ago,” he murmured quietly, unflinching.
The militiaman pulled the knife down hard, tearing open the guardian’s flimsy old yellow robes. He hacked off a large section of the material, then ripped it in two. Folding the smaller piece into a strip, he bound it tightly around the monk’s shaved head, blindfolding him.
The monk began chanting softly, finding the quiet place inside himself that allowed him to separate his mind from his body. “
Abune zebesemayat, yitkedes simike, timsa mengistike weyikun
Kimbaba did not understand the language. If he had, he would have recognized it as Ge’ez, the ritual language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—a Semitic tongue closely linked to the Aramaic spoken by the monk’s God in Galilee two thousand years ago.
Kimbaba motioned Masolo to help drag the monk over to the altar. As they hooked the rack’s bottom end over the wooden lip of the altar top, the veins on the guardian’s lined forehead began to bulge from the blood rushing rapidly to his brain.
The militiaman looked down at the helpless body. “Your soul may be ready to die, priest—but there’s a part of your mind that is not.”
The monk seemed not to hear him, but continued his litany. “...
fekadeke, bekeme besemay kemahu bemedir
“You will tell me what I need to know,” Kimbaba’s voice was low and certain.
The monk was not listening. “...
keme nihneni nihidig leze'abese lene
Surprised at the resolve in the guardian’s voice, Kimbaba grabbed the ten-inch-high silver cross from the altar, and tore it free of its wooden base, revealing a sharpened end where the metal had been driven into the wood. He placed the cross in the monk’s hand, folding the thin wizened fingers around it.
“Drop it when you are ready to talk,” he instructed, piling the remainder of the torn yellow robes over the monk’s face.
Satisfied, he nodded to Masolo, who opened the cap of the green metal jerrycan and handed it to him.
With no further warning, Kimbaba held the jerrycan over the monk’s rag-covered face, and sloshed a cupful of water onto his smothered mouth and nose. After a brief pause, he repeated the process, pouring in short one-second bursts.
The warm rusty liquid soaked through the rags instantly, drenching them and running freely over the monk’s face.
The guardian clamped his mouth shut, but could not stop his nostrils from quickly filling. As the water collected at the back of his throat, he opened his mouth to spit, but it only served to fill it with the flowing liquid. Struggling for air and beginning to panic, he could no longer stifle the reflex to breathe. As he opened his throat to suck down the air he craved, his lungs took in the water.
Kimbaba knew the old man would not last long. Nobody did. That is why the CIA preferred it to all other ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.
The fact it left no visible bruises was an added bonus.
Kimbaba also knew that one session was usually enough. He had seen the desperate panic in victims’ eyes as their brains’ most ancient and primitive instinct centres took over, fighting for animal survival.
But if the monk proved to be strong, Kimbaba was ready to do it again and again for as long as it took. There would be lung damage, but the process could be repeated almost indefinitely. He had heard that some inmates at Guantanamo Bay had been waterboarded nearly two hundred times.
With water pouring off his face, the monk began to writhe violently, trying to tear his slender body free of the rack.