Warning: Mature Adults only
PART I: ABUQUIR
To Harper's surprise, the French boats did not return to Fort Abuquir, whose sandstone walls they could see in the flashes of light from the fighting, the route which would have taken them to Alexandria, some five miles away. They headed in the opposite direction, towards Rosetta, fifteen miles on the opposite side of the bay. Calvet had conferred with the commandant of the fort, and determined that it could not be held in the wake of the likely English victory. Nelson's next move would surely be to either assault or blockade Alexandria. In any case, it was not a very tenable position either. Rosetta, more out of the way, would escape English attention longer, and so Calvet made his way there, where he could get some instructions on what to do with his prisoners.
It took them the rest of the night and well into the morning to get across the bay, with the long, crescent shaped beach stretching to their left bordering the narrow, arid strip of land that separated the sea from a shallow brackish lake. They made landfall at a point some miles before the beach ends in a long, narrow spit jutting out into the sea. In the distance, they could see the minaret spires and walls of the town of Rosetta.
Their destination was the small ex-Turkish fort to the north of the town, on the banks of the Nile just as it empties out into the Mediterranean. The French had called the fort St. Julian, and it was as unimpressive a collection of mud buildings surrounded by parapets as Fort Abuquir had been.
During the two-mile march to the fort, they could see both Frenchmen and Bedouins standing on the gentle sand hills that ringed the beach, still watching the aftermath of the battle. The sentries opened the gates and they were herded through into the central square. From there, they were taken to the guardhouse and unceremoniously shoved inside. The walls were thick mud, with a single, small grated window. The door was wood but looked solid. There was a single large jug of water and a pail for a latrine. It was crowded, but cool compared to outdoors. Harper sat down against a wall and let out a sigh. After a moment, Finnigan joined him. They look they exchanged said everything. Escape was not a good risk now. Wait and see what happens. A better opportunity may present itself. For now, it was best to get some rest.
Harper relaxed and closed his eyes.
General Jacques Menou looked more like an innkeeper than a soldier, but his inn would not have been of the type that Calvet would have willingly patronized. He was stout, bald, with a straggling mustache and the harried expression of one with too much on his mind and not enough mind to cope with it. He was seated behind a desk piled high with papers, looking at Calvet with some exasperation.
"Prisoners? We face imminent attack by the English, probably in overwhelming force, and you want to unload some prisoners on me?"
Calvet stood at attention, for form's sake making a pretense of respect.
"It's the closest thing to a victory we achieved last night. They may have some worthwhile intelligence. What do you want me to do with them?"
"I don't want them at all. I've too many other things to worry about. Take them to Bonaparte in Cairo."
"Cairo! That's a hundred miles, more if we follow the course of the Nile."
"Then I recommend that you start in the morning, Captain. That is all."
"I'll need an escort."
Menou shook his head nervously.
"I can't spare you any men. Make do with your own company."
"That's only a hundred men! Besides the Bedouins, there might be Mamaluks-"
"Since we beat Murad Bey ten days ago, there's been no sign of Mamaluks north of the Cataracts. The Bedouins are a rabble that you could beat off with ten Frenchmen. Your company will be more than sufficient.
"That is all, Captain."
Calvet saluted and left. He reflected that, unfortunately, the Revolution might have purged France of aristocrats, but not of fools.
Harper was awakened at dawn by the sound of the door opening. He opened his eyes, grimacing at the soreness in his back, which had been leaning against the wall all night. From the light in the window, he guessed it was early morning. In the doorway, flanked by two sentries, was the English-speaking French lieutenant. He gestured for Lieutenant Bromley, who rose and walked over. The two had a short conversation in French. Then the door closed, and Bromley turned to the twenty-six marines.
"We're going on a bit of a march, lads. They're taking us to Cairo, to see General Bonaparte himself. We leave in a few minutes."
And in a few minutes, the guardhouse door opened and they were marched out into the compound square, and then through the gates, armed grenadiers in front, behind, and on either side. As they marched past the gates of Rosetta, some creatures that he took be women looked at them curiously as they drew water from the cistern and led their naked children by the hand. They were clad from head to foot in a long, flowing garment of dark blue, which left only their eyes uncovered. As they marched past, they made a strange ululating sound that reminded Harper of some bird songs he had heard. The uncanny noise followed them as they began to move south along the sluggishly flowing Nile, which was perhaps half a mile wide at this point.
After only a couple of miles marching, they stopped around some crumpled sandstone walls that were all that were left of a building from the days of Alexander, over two thousand years before. Calvet had requisitioned some supplies before they left, but he was afraid that if they tried to eat them in St. Julian, Menou would decide he needed them more and take them back. The French threw two waterskins to the marines. Bromley saw to the fair distribution. Other grenadiers began to build a fire pit of round stones. With the exception of those who had been chosen to keep watch on the prisoners, the rest flopped down, drank some water, and took out their pipes.
If there is one essential for a Frenchman on the march, it is bread. They poured wheat kernels from a bag onto a flat stone, then pounded it with another until they had a large quantity of yellowish-brown powder. They mixed it with water in a clay pot that one of them had found among the ruins. They then placed the resulting blobs in the fire. After a few minutes, the unmistakable mouth-watering odor of baking bread filled the air. The small loaves were charred, but still far superior to biscuit. Several were distributed among the marines.
Harper sat down near a crumbled section of sandstone blocks, poking idly at them as he munched his bread. It was burnt and gritty with sand, but he'd had worse. Then he noticed something odd sticking out of the stones. It was darker colored, and partially buried.
"Hey, what's this?"
He reached over and dug it out with his fingers. It was a large, irregular flat block of black stone, and one surface of it was covered in writing, line after line of tiny letters inscribed into the stone's surface. It was apparently a fragment that had been broken off from a larger piece, and was divided into thirds; the top and bottom script looked like nothing he had ever seen, but the middle section had some letters that looked like English ones, although they were alongside others he didn't recognize.
"Ah, that will be perfect!"
Calvet snatched the stone away from Harper and strode over to the fire pit, speaking as he went.
"We couldn't get a griddle, but a nice flat rock does fine in a pinch."
He promptly laid the flat stone across the stones of the fire pit, in which a blaze was now going. After a few minutes, he took out his most precious supply, a slab of fatty bacon. Hacking off some thick slices for himself and his officers, he laid them on the stone. The grease hissed and bubbled over the lines of writing as the delicious smell of cooking bacon filled the morning air.
Jean Calvet loved his bacon.
After breakfast, Calvet rose to his feet and motioned his lieutenant over. He walked over to where the marines sat, and the lieutenant translated as he spoke.
"You lot are going to have a rare privilege. For the duration of this march, you will join the Army of the Republic of France. We are going into some really dangerous country between here and Cairo, and we'll need every man if we're to make it. They wouldn't give me the men I need, so I'm left with you."
"You will all be issued muskets and ammunition, but no water; so don't even think about trying to escape into the desert. If thirst doesn't get you, the Bedouins will. It seems they have a thing for nice, tight, Europeans, and when our army came through here two weeks ago, the stragglers were captured and promptly buggered. The Bedouins still have them, but they may be ready for something a little fresher. And it's my guess that French or English arseholes, it's all the same to them. There's no place to escape to, just sand and buggering Bedouins, so be smart and work with us. Alone, or even all of you together, you won't stand a chance. Together with us, you just might make it. We'll be keeping watch on you, so don't try anything. We still outnumber you four to one, and if any one of you makes a move against us, you'll all die. "
Harper considered his options, prisoner of the French or whore of the Bedouins, and determined that the former had more to recommend it. He imagined his mates would feel the same way. The grenadiers, some of who had two muskets slung across their backs, now gave their extras to Bromley, who in turn, passed them to the marines, along with ammunition pouches and scabbarded bayonets. The French 1777 Charville was much like the Brown Bess, though the bore was a little smaller. They would have no trouble using them.
As they broke camp, Calvet's lieutenant prodded the strange, inscribed rock with his boot. He motioned to Calvet.
"What should we do with this? It looks like it might be important."
Calvet snorted. "Pah! Who would write on a rock, anyway? These people are so backwards, they don't even know about paper."
He picked it up and slung it back into the ruins.
They marched off down the bank of the Nile, grenadiers and marines.
For a while as he marched, Harper enjoyed the birds. There were so many he had never seen before, Egyptian swallows with red patches on their heads and trailing black edges on their wings, Nile Valley sunbirds of a glorious yellow, black-crowned finch larks (complete with black crown), and high overhead, a black falcon he had not seen before. In the shallow brackish lakes, he saw Goliath heron and pink-backed pelicans and yellow-billed storks, and overhead Egyptian coucals and Egyptian thick-knees and Egyptian nightjars and Namaga doves. But as they proceeded further south, away from the green, fertile delta, the only birds that showed themselves were the Egyptian vultures, an ugly gray color, with naked gray heads and necks. And as much as Harper liked birds, he found that vultures were an exception. But they didn't mind, and continued circling above, patiently waiting.
Did they know something he didn't?
The sun felt like a blazing oven suspended just over their heads. The ground grew more barren with each step they took, they only vegetation tufts of tough grass fit only for camel-forage. Occasionally, a burning wind blew sand into their faces, getting into their mouths, their eyes, and their nostrils. But as bad as it was, it would have been worse away from the river, where they could see that the ground was broken by gullies, crevices, and arroyos. Once they came to an abandoned town, consisting of a few mud and straw huts and a cistern that the Bedouins had filled with rocks, dirt, and the decaying carcass of a camel. The Nile's water was muddy, and like to cause dysentery before too long. They inhaled burning dust with each breath, and the hot sands burned their feet through their shoes.
Later that day, Harper found himself marching next to Calvet's English-speaking Lieutenant Terrage, whose expression invited conversation.
"So Lieutenant, what are your people doing in Egypt, anyway? A long way from home, isn't it?"
Terrage's chest expanded in pride.
"It is the duty of the Republic to spread the principles of the Enlightenment and the Revolution wherever it goes, to the most backwards of countries. Egypt was once the center of the world, now it is a garbage dump of faded splendor, filled with brigands who oppress the ignorant masses who squat in the filth, unaware of their past glory. We shall return Egypt to the heights it once knew."
"Already, General Bonaparte is implementing sweeping changes. He has set up two food depots that bread might be distributed to the starving, started a hospital with four hundred beds, a pharmacy, and a school of medicine. He has sanitized the burial practices to prevent epidemics. He has begun to clear canals silted over for years to improve irrigation and increase the water supply, laid a pontoon bridge over the Nile, and repaired the hydraulic system that supplies the Citadel in Cairo with water. Already, cafes and pastry shops as charming as any you can find in Paris are appearing on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Schools are being started that will teach the children the French language and the principles of the Republic. Piles of rubbish set up to divide one street from another have been torn down, the streets widened, and lamps are required to be lit throughout the night at each place of business. A distillery for wine and brandy has been started, and other stores will soon stock French goods, coffee, sugar, liqueurs, perfume . . . "
"Why, did you know that these people didn't even know what a wheelbarrow was until we showed them one? They used to carry every thing on their backs. Now they can carry five times as much in a day. We have rid the land of Mamaluk corruption in the law courts and rural governments, implemented a far more efficient method of tax collection-"
"In other words," Harper said, "you're going to turn Egypt into another France."
"And what is wrong with that?" Terrage retorted. "France is the glory of the civilized world. You and I will live to see the day when Egypt thanks us."
Harper shrugged. "It's just that the English have been trying the same thing in Ireland for years, and I've always found that people like their own bad government better than someone else's good one. England's finding that out, and it's been a painful lesson. It won't surprise me if France has one coming too."
Terrage sniffed in disdain and increased his pace, indicating the conversation was at an end.
At night, the heat of the day became a distant memory. The air grew bitingly cold. They slept on the riverbank, so they would be safe from attack on that side. The marines took their turn with the grenadiers at picket duty, but their only attackers were innumerable swarms of mosquitoes and big black biting flies.
The country along the river was fertile; with trees and orchards, lines of poplars, and tall pigeon houses of mud brick. Green fields of wheat and barley were interspersed with plots of melons and cucumbers, maize and tobacco. Everywhere, there were ingenious pumps, driven by a circling ox or ass, which forced the green Nile water into the irrigation canals. Early on the morning of the second day, they came upon another village called El Ramaniyah, just as miserable as the first, but inhabited. The natives were warm-hearted and friendly. The near-naked state of the dark skinned men was a contrast to the carefully covered women. Harper was struck by the squalor in which these people lived. The poorest peasant in Ireland was a king by comparison. Their huts of mud and straw were windowless, with only a cloth stretched across the doorway for privacy. Garbage was strewn everywhere. Their only possessions seemed to be a few tools and clay pots. But day after day, as they had for centuries, these people went to work in their lentil fields, worked in the rice paddies irrigated by the canals, or picked cotton. And every year, they paid the Mamaluks their crushing taxes. They did so with a stoic indifference, they could not even conceive of a better life. This was how their fathers had lived, and their fathers before them for a hundred generations. A good year was when the Nile flooded on time and the crops grew, so that there was a surplus after taxes. A bad year was when this did not happen. There was nothing more. It was the will of Allah.
The people sold them some flat loaves of unleavened bread, fresh vegetables, and a quantity of dried beans that they called 'fool.' Harper thought it an unpromising name for something a man would eat. The natives were not interested in the francs the soldiers offered, but showed great interest in the pewter buttons of their coats. For a few of these, they were well provisioned.
It was at noon of the second day's march that they saw the first Bedouins. Three of them, on horses, their white scarves blowing in the wind, spearpoints gleaming in the sun. They were on a rise a few hundred yards away, and one rode off into the distance, while the other two kept pace with the column. Those in the rear remembered what Calvet had said and made sure not to lag behind.
After that, the Bedouins were their continual shadows. They were never out of sight, always on the horizon, safely out of musket range, watching, waiting.
The first attack came at dawn of the third day, just as they were crawling out of their blankets to squint at the breaking sun. They came in quickly, on horses, firing the long flintlocks they called jezeels or stabbing with their lances, their ululating cries tearing through the morning air. As quick as they are, the grenadiers and marines were quicker. They had been sleeping next to the loaded muskets. Calvet's shout rousted the last fragments of sleep from their eyes.
In seconds, they formed a three-sided square with its back to the river, and met the nomads with a good-morning volley. A tribesman thrust his lance at the grenadier to the left of Finnigan, the point coming in over his musket and taking him in the throat. Blood gushing from the wound, he keeled over in the sand. As he rode away, Finnigan shot him in the back and toppled him out of his saddle. He reflected that it was strange how a common enemy had turned Calvet's men into allies. Calvet ducked beneath a lance's thrust, seized the shaft, and slashed the rider across the chest with his sword, the force of the blow knocking him off his horse. Harper shot one Bedouin in the face at point blank range, then, releasing his musket with one hand, seized the arm of another and pulled him to the ground. His comrades did not check their charge and rode over him, the hooves shattering bone. There was a last brief flurry of hooves and sabers along the square's perimeter, and then they retreated as fast as they had come, leaving five dead behind. One defender had been killed, and two others had minor wounds. Calvet strode along the square.
"They were testing our awareness, seeing if they could take us by surprise. Now they know they can't. But they're not finished."
He was right. The second attack came at the height of the sun, when they were stumbling along in suffocating heat. Then suddenly, they were there on a height overlooking the river, more Bedouins this time, perhaps two hundred, their spearpoints a forest. Again, Calvet's command snapped them to full awareness.
Again, they formed square on the river, bayonets fixed. The Bedouins came off the hill, screeching their battle-cries, in a seething mass of flashing weapons and a cloud of sand, and Harper could feel the ground vibrating beneath hundreds of hooves. It was astonishing how rapidly they closed. One second, they were five hundred yards away, the next, they were fifty. Calvet's voice rang out.
The rattle and flash of massed musketry met the Bedouins as they charged in. A dozen horses went down with the first volley, hooves flailing, though some of the riders got up again. Some tried to veer away from the wall of bayonets, but their momentum carried them forward. Steeds and men screamed their agony. Some horses reared, throwing their riders beneath their pounding hooves, while others pulled up, throwing their riders over their heads onto the vicious steel points. Harper bit his cartridge and reloaded with the mechanical efficiency he had been taught, the taste of gunpowder in his mouth as he rammed the charge home. The sand now was stained red in several places. Now the second volley crashed out, bringing more riders down. Dying horses rolled over dying men trying feebly to crawl away. But contrary to what Calvet expected, they did not disperse. They rode around and around the square in what seemed desperate courage, firing their jezeels and long-barreled pistols at pointblank range, and then reaching out to hack at the row of bayonets with their razor-sharp scimitars. Some even flung themselves on the points in an effort to break the line.
Without time to reload again, Harper swung his musket like a club, knocking a Bedouin from his horse. As the man struggled to his feet, Harper thrust forward, skewering his chest with six inches of steel, pulling it loose in time to parry the savage swipe of a scimitar from the unhorsed tribesman just behind, then taking him in the throat with his bayonet. The marine to his right turned to track his musket on a horseman riding past him, and thus did not see the next one who drove his lance through his lower back and out his belly. The man dropped to his knees and clutched the bloody shaft, so the Bedouin could not withdraw it. Finnigan stabbed him in the side, then hauled him from his horse and stabbed him in the face for good measure. Calvet stood firm to meet another tribesman's charge, ducked under the swipe of his blade and with a savage upward blow, sliced off the man's hand with his own sword. Still gripping the sword, the hand flew through the air, and the Bedouin rode past shrieking until someone shot him and he fell to the bloody sand. To Harper's left, Lieutenant Terrage was reloading his musket when a bullet from a jezeel tore through his leg. He went to one knee with a curse. Harper knelt beside him to examine it; it seemed to be a flesh wound. Thus, he didn't see the Bedouin bearing down on him, his sword raised for the strike. By the time Harper looked up, he knew instantly that it was too late; he wouldn't be able to block the killing blow. But then Calvet was there, swinging not at the rider, but at the horse. His blade sheared into the animal's throat, and in it's dying convulsion, it reared up and fell over, crushing its rider beneath its bulk. Harper's eyes met Calvet's, the big Frenchman seemed amused. Harper nodded his thanks.
The last blow of the fight was almost comical. A grenadier, in his haste to reload, forgot to remove his ramrod. It shot out like a spear, impaling a Bedouin's chest and toppling him from his horse. It was a good ten minutes before they finally broke off, and this time, though they left over twenty dead behind, five of the defenders had been killed as well, four grenadiers and one marine. Calvet shook his head in bewilderment. This was not normal behavior for the Bedouins. What had goaded them into such a frenzy?
They doubled the sentries, and everyone slept lightly that night, one hand on his musket. But the morning brought no new attack. Perhaps they had given up?
Somehow, Harper doubted they would be that lucky. They marched all that day on the alert, muskets loaded and ready, but saw nothing. When they stopped and rested, they scanned the horizon, but no figures showed themselves. That didn't mean they weren't watched, though.
They passed another uneasy night of watchfulness, and rose tired the next morning. As they continued south along the riverbank, they saw what appeared to be another mirage in the distance. They had seen the water-like shimmering on the horizon like a pool of water, but Calvet had already told them not to be fooled, the French who had come this way two weeks before had found out to their dismay that it was only heat reflecting back from the ground. But this new mirage was different; it seemed to be a series of mountain peaks on the horizon, gleaming white in the sun.
But as they progressed, the mirage did not recede or alter, it grew in clarity, resolving itself into three distinct peaks. But they were not mountains; they were too regular, too precise in their design. They were man-made. In spite of himself, Harper was awed.
"What are those?"
Lieutenant Bromley, marching at his side, again revealed his passion for classical knowledge.
"The Great Pyramids of Giza. The ancient Pharaohs built them as tombs so that the world might remember their greatness."
He paused for a moment, and then looked sidelong at Harper.
"Don't tell me, I suppose the Pharaoh was an Irishmen?"
"Oh no, sir." Harper said.
Bromley sighed in relief.
"But I have it on good authority that his architect was from County Cork."
Bromley sighed in exasperation.
As they drew nearer the Pyramids, they saw something else, much nearer. Something only a few yards from the riverbank, barring their path. It was another tiny village, a dozen or so mud and straw huts, surrounded by a low wall. But this one was held by armed Bedouins, shouting out and waving their weapons defiantly. Calvet, striding at the head of the column, was about to order them to echelon to the left and go around, there was nothing to be gained by storming the place.
Then he stopped cold. Suddenly, lining the hills to the west, were more Bedouins than he had ever seen in one place, at least a thousand of them. And with them were some other mounted figures, some two hundred in number, of unmistakable splendor.
This explained the desperation of the Bedouins' attack. The Mamaluks would have seized the tribesmen's camps and families, or more likely, their horses, until they destroyed the infidel column. And now they had come to complete the job.
At once, he grasped their strategy. They had more cunning than he had given them credit for. They wanted to separate his column from the river and its precious, life-sustaining water. If he diverted to bypass the village, they would interpose their cavalry between them and the Nile. Eve if they formed square to repel attack, it would just be a question of waiting them out and letting the desert sun do its work.
Calvet had one chance. He saw it and took it. He turned and shouted to the column.
"We have one chance, lads! We've got to take that village before those horseman can get to us, and hold it!"
He trotted to Lieutenant Bromley.
"Your marines will storm the village, my lads will hold the horsemen off your backs."
There was no time to argue, and in any case, he was right. The grenadiers had the harder job anyway. He turned and shouted.
"Marines to the front!"
The marines trotted to the front of the column, muskets at the ready. Bromley pointed at the village, perhaps two hundred yards away.
"We have to get in there and clear it out before those horseman can force us away from the river."
He placed himself at the head of the column and drew his sword.
"At the quick march!"
The marines advanced with the silent intensity of men who knew that the next few minutes will determine whether they lived or died. Shots rang out from the walls of the village, a man in the front rank stumbled and fell, another one groaned and dropped his musket, staggering. The Bedouins let out a great shriek, either in fear or in an attempt to frighten their attackers.
Behind him, Harper could hear the great mass of horsemen charging down upon them, heard Calvet's command to form square in their rear. Then the marines were at the chest-high wall, thrusting over it with their bayonets. Harper raised his musket and fired at one of the defenders, saw him topple down to the sand. The marine next to him was hit on the head by a hurled stone and staggered, dropping his musket, his hand to his bloodied brow. Another rock clipped the edge of Harper's shoulder. The air seemed full of stones now, as more marines fired up at the defenders and the air began to fill with smoke. The morning air seemed to turn furnace-hot with all the firing. A bullet whistled past Harper's ear from one of the few guns the defenders had. Already, some of the marines had given their mates boosts over the wall, and there was now fighting going on inside the village. More and more marines swarmed over to lend a hand to the desperate struggle.
Harper slung his musket over his shoulder, gripped the top of the wall, and, planting his heels on its dried mud surface, hauled himself up. He had just gotten one leg over when a Bedouin came at him with an axe. Harper caught his downward swinging arm in his hand and pitched him hard over the side, hearing his grunt as he struck. The he was on his feet and unslinging his musket. What he wouldn't have given for the volley gun, just then! A sword-swinging Bedouin charged him along the parapet, he smashed his gun butt into the man's face, but his opponent jumped down into the village before he could follow it up. He lunged with his bayonet at the next charging nomad, took him in the stomach and then levered him off the wall.
The defenders who weren't dead were fleeing over the far walls by now, and the marines were hauling the main gate open. All this time, Harper had been aware on a dim level of the crackle of musketry as the grenadiers fired in square at the mass of Bedouin and Mamaluk horsemen, who had milled around them as they had previously. Now, Lieutenant Bromley waved his hat and they made for the gate, still in square, still trading fire and blows with the enemy. Within seconds, they were at the walls, and rank by rank, the French made their way inside, still facing their foes, muskets at the ready. Calvet was the last one in, and slammed the gate behind him. Without being told, the French had already manned the walls and were firing at the horsemen, who were pulling back on either flank. The smoke began to disperse, and it grew less chaotic.
They had survived, but their situation was desperate.
They had conducted a through search of the village, and there was not a drop of water to be found. The bank of the Nile was some fifty yards form the eastern wall, but it might as well have been fifty miles. Whatever the Bedouins' qualities as fighters, they had some good sharpshooters, and their jezeels outranged the defenders' muskets. A grenadier had tried to make it to the river with some waterskins and had been shot down before he got five feet. So now, the hundred-odd survivors of the column lined the village walls and watched. And waited. And slowly drank their supply of precious water.
Almost as bad, they were almost out of bullets; most had no more than ten left. Good enough for one more fight, hopefully.
For the time being, Harper forgot all of this as he gazed on the Mamaluks. He had to admit, they were magnificent. They were tall, many strikingly handsome, to Harper's surprise, many had light skin and hair. Their costumes were like something out of the stories he was so fond of. They wore a gilded steel helmet under a large yellow turban, a coat of chain-mail beneath a long muslin robe bound at the waist by an embroidered shawl, over which went a brilliant silken vest crisscrossed by jeweled belts, voluminous red pantaloons, brown leather gauntlets and boots. Each man carried at least two pistols (some had as many as six), a sheaf of javelins in a quiver, a cavalryman's carbine, a mace, an axe, and a long curved scimitar. All their gear was inlaid with gold and ivory, and studded with gems. They sat on great saddles of wood and iron, their saddlecloths were inlaid with gold and jewels, and their gilded stirrups were razor-edged and served as weapons.
They rode magnificent Arabian stallions as if they had been born in the saddle, galloping towards the village at breakneck speed, then back and forth before the walls as they juggled their razor-sharp swords. They seemed to be parading for their enemies. It seemed almost a shame to kill opponents so splendidly dressed.
But kill them was exactly what they had to do. And they better had not miss; there soon would be no reloads. The grenadiers and marines watched he display with bewilderment, no one firing without orders. Finnigan, next to Harper, nudged him in the ribs.
"Will you look at that gear? I swear, I could buy all of County Kerry with what any one of them has on! And I hear tell that they carry money belts too, with a fortune in coins."
"You're forgetting, we're prisoners. If there's any looting, the French will be doing it."
Finnigan's ardor was appreciably dampened by Harper's observation. Lieutenant Terrage joined the conversation.
"Until we came they were the masters of Egypt, bred for nothing but war from birth. The finest horsemen I have ever seen, but utterly without discipline."
"What're they doing now?" Harper asked.
"Probing our walls, looking for a weak spot. Plus, they seem to like to show off to the people they're about to kill."
"Well, if I have to die, I'd just as soon be done in by a pretty foe."
Even as Harper said this, the horde of Mamaluks let off a chorus of high-pitched shrieks and screams. Swords waving, they hurled themselves forward in a full gallop, a charge with no order, no formation, like a rainbow colored tidal wave. Behind them came their Bedouin auxiliaries, their own shrieks adding to the cacophony. Dust from the churning hooves sent a thick cloud into the air, and the thundering approach grew louder. They were a hundred yards away. Frenchmen, English and Irish manned the walls, each picking a target. Calvet walked up and down behind them.
"Hold your fire! Make your shots count!"
But then even Calvet's voice was drowned beneath the rumbling charge, and the ground was shaking beneath the churning hooves. The defenders remained steady, awaiting the order to fire.
Now some of the Mamaluks had opened fire, casting their spent guns behind them to be picked up later. No one was hit.
The sun glittering off their brandished weapons was like a sky full of stars.
The Mamaluks rushed into a wall of shot. Men and horses went down, their magnificent costumes stained with blood. A noxious cloud of smoke enveloped the wall. Through it the Mamaluks rode, shouting their defiance as they milled around the village, seeking some way in. Those whose mounts had been killed charged the walls on foot, but the defenders had reloaded now, and a second volley threw them down. Around and around the village they road, seeking that one weak spot, but they could not find one, and they were shot down. The sun blazed down, augmented by the heat of firing, and Harper's mouth, already dry, was further parched by the taste of gunpowder and smoke. Then, as quickly as they had come, the Mamaluks galloped away, leaving some fifty of their numbers behind. As the defenders stood down, Finnigan noticed with some satisfaction that the French made no attempt to loot the bodies for fear of the Bedouin sharpshooters.
Harper eased down on the parapet and relaxed. Finnigan passed him a water skin, and he took the two swallows he was permitted and passed it on. He squinted up at the sun, already blazing though it had not yet reached its zenith.
It was going to be a long day.
The Mamaluks did not attack again that day; they were content to let the sun do its work. Which it did. All the defenders could do was conserve their movements. Except for some sentries, they abandoned the walls to find what shade they could in the village.
And all there was in the village was the silent waiting. And the sun. And the thirst. Always, the thirst.
Sundown brought some relief from the heat, but it brought no water. During the night, some more grenadiers tried to sneak out to the river, but were shot down, for the moon was bright. Harper spared Finnigan a smile, but no more, talking dried the mouth too much. They slept fitfully their muskets by their sides.
Dawn came, and with it the heat. And still the Mamaluks did not attack. They waited on the horizon. Some made a show of drinking from their own waterskins, and watering their horses. It was a torment to watch.
It was midday, with the sun blazing overhead, when they drank the last of the water. After that, all they could do was wait. Harper found a pebble and sucked on it, it helped to keep some modicum of moisture in his mouth. Some of the others followed his example.
It was some hours later, while the sun was still blazing, that the Mamaluks assembled for their charge.
The defenders now had on the average, five rounds per man.
The Mamaluks' speed was incredible, their charge, if anything, more frenzied than before. It seemed that it might overwhelm the village through sheer momentum. Over a thousand horsemen, Mamaluks and Bedouins, swept across the desert in a glittering tide. Towards them, and their waiting muskets. From his place on the wall, Harper pulled his weapon tighter into his shoulder. Calvet didn't shout any orders; he no longer had the spit for it. And in any case, they knew to preserve their last shots. After that, their bayonets would be their only weapons.
If Calvet gave the order to fire, Harper didn't hear it over the thunder of the charge. Their opening volley sent dozens of Mamaluks and Bedouins crashing to the ground. Those who were only wounded died beneath the hooves of their comrades' horses. After that, it was fire at will, with each man picking his target. The Mamaluks' swords clashed against their bayonets as they jutted over the wall. Around and around they rode, seeking the weak spot, while the defenders' fire piled corpses in the sand. Harper loaded and fired, loaded and fired, each time bringing down a rider. Wounded men crawled towards the village, as if to get in one good swipe before they died. An unhorsed Mamaluk seized his musket to tear it out of his hands. Harper shot him in the face with his last bullet, and he fell back. A horse galloped by, leaping and cavorting in panic through the smoke, his rider was dragged struggling along behind him, his foot stuck in the stirrup.
And then, with a terrible finality, the firing slackened, petered out, and stopped. They were out of ammunition.
With a roar of triumph in every throat, their attackers massed along the walls, leaping from their horses to grip the edges and haul themselves up, while the defenders bayoneted them in a frenzy of desperation.
A Mamaluk backed his horse against the wall and made it kick out, the hooves striking the dried mud. Again and again, as other Mamaluks joined in next to him. The defenders hurled rocks at them, but they would not be stopped. Flakes of mud were falling, then cascading from the other side of the wall. Another kick, another, and the wall caved in with a cloud of dust, leaving a ten-foot gap. While some horsemen still kicked their horses to widen the gap, the rest surged through in a flood of steel. Now the infidels would die!
Their only hope was to keep them off the ramparts, use its high ground to advantage. A dozen riders rode beneath Harper, their heads a mere foot beneath where he stood. He dodged back as their scimitars swept at his ankles, swinging his clubbed musket. More and more horsemen poured through the gap, while others surged outside the wall, to ensure that no infidel escaped. A tall Mamaluk on a magnificent black charger swiped at a grenadier's legs, severing the right one below the knee. The man screamed and dropped from the wall, and a second slash severed his head in a bright flash of blood. Harper's musket slammed into a Mamaluk's skull, knocking him from his horse. He did not get up. Finnigan bayoneted a horse in the throat, so that it collapsed under its rider. In the confused, narrow space, the Mamaluks got in each other's way, such was their eagerness to close with the foe. A bullet from a Mamaluk pistol crashed into the mud wall near Harper's head, but most of the foe preferred cold steel. A Mamaluk leaped from his horse, found purchase on the rampart, and pulled himself up. He charged Harper, who drove his bayonet forward and skewered him in the chest. Harper raised his foot and kicked him off the blade, then blinked the sweat from his eyes and took an instant to look around.
He could see Calvet dueling with another Mamaluk who had gained the rampart, parrying his scimitar and then slashing at his stomach, disemboweling him. Next to him, he saw Finnigan slam his musket-butt into the face of a grinning Mamaluk who was pulling himself up the rampart, shattering his teeth in a spray of blood; the man fell back to the ground.
Harper had only been distracted for a moment, but that was almost enough for the new Mamaluk who had gained the rampart on his other side and slashed with his scimitar, a glancing blow that laid open Harper's right forearm. Harper yelled in pain, dropped his musket and grabbed the man in a bear-hug, pinning his arms to his sides. He slammed his forehead into the man's nose, felt it break, and then Finnigan was there, running his bayonet through the man's ribs again and again.
The village below was solid with mounted Mamaluks, and more swarmed outside, waiting their turn. It was only a matter of time. As he watched, Harper could see more and more of the defenders falling, their numbers already appreciably reduced. The air reeked with the stench of black powder and blood and rang with the clang of scimitar on bayonet and the pounding of hooves. He could see Mamaluks triumphantly holding up the severed heads of their victims in one hand and their bloody swords in the other. Harper thrust his bayonet in the face of another man trying to mount the rampart, while Finnigan kicked still another in the stomach, knocking him loose. They did it because they didn't know what else to do, because it was in their nature to go down fighting.
Dead horses were piled around the ramparts now, and the Mamaluks were using them as stepladders. One did so and charged at Harper, his scimitar swinging. He was big, as big as Harper, and his eyes held a wild, murderous gleam. Harper ducked beneath the first cut, met the next with his musket barrel, felt the jarring impact up and down his back. If it had been the stock, the blade would have cut right through it. Harper disengaged and thrust at his foe, who sidestepped, avoiding the bayonet and cut at Harper's face, the blade laying open his cheek. Harper responded with a backhanded parry with his musket, the Mamaluk lost his balance as he counter-parried, and Harper lost his from the force of the blow. Both men toppled off the wall onto the ground eight feet below. Harper fell on his opponent and lashed out with his fist, splitting the man's lip. The Mamaluk got a foot in Harper's chest and kicked him away, then rose to his feet and raised his scimitar above his head for a double-handed death stroke. From his prone position, Harper thrust up with his bayonet beneath the man's mail-shirt, deep into his groin and on up. The man shrieked, dropped his sword, and grabbed the bayonet, blood starting from his mouth. Harper wrenched his bayonet free and the man toppled to the ground. Harper scrambled to his feet, ready for the next attacker . . .
And suddenly, the Mamaluks were fleeing in surprise and panic, both from the village and the surrounding countryside! Harper scrambled to the rampart and looked out as a new force of three hundred horsemen crashed into their attackers in a compact, disciplined mass, hurling them to the ground. The Mamaluks, so close to annihilating their foe, were not prepared for a new one. They were fleeing before they had even taken stock of the situation.
The new attackers wore brass helmets covered in leopard skin, green tunics, fired cavalry carbines and swung long straight swords. Harper had heard them described, these were French dragoons. And at their head was a man whose gear rivaled that of the Mamaluks for splendor. He was a big man, with black, curly hair and a proud face. He wore a magnificent hussar general's uniform, with a white dolman, a scarlet pelisse trimmed with white fur slung over his shoulder, both covered in gold braid, scarlet Hungarian breeches with gold lace, short boots trimmed in gold, and on his head was a great black bearskin kolpack with a white plume and gold tassels. He rode a superb white Arabian stallion as if he was a part of the beast, and his shabracque was a flawless leopard skin. He laid about him with a gold-hilted Mamaluk scimitar that must have been made for a king, and its jeweled scabbard flapped at his side.
Within minutes, their attackers were gone. They had survived. Harper was too tired to feel jubilant. He just stood and stared as the dragoons rode into the village, their leader at their head. Calvet had dismounted the rampart and stood before him.
"General Murat! Your coming was timely."
Joachim Murat grinned down from his horse and rode forward to clasp Calvet's hand.
"Well, I couldn't leave a fellow Gascon to be buggered by Bedouins!"
He looked around him, taking in the piles of corpses, there were only some sixty grenadiers and sixteen marines left alive.
"You look like you had the devil's time here. And who are these armed redcoats?"
"British prisoners. I was forced to arm them to help in the defense."
"Well, there's no further need for that. Have them lay down their weapons. We'll provide you with an escort to Cairo."
Calvet nodded and turned to Lieutenant Bromley, who nodded in turn and motioned for his marines to put their muskets down. Harper looked at the weapon in his hand. For the past few days, he had been a fought alongside these men, now he was to be treated once again as their prisoner.
He was too slow in laying down his musket for one of the dragoons, who kicked him in the back and knocked him sprawling. The man snarled at him in French.
"The general said to lay down your arms!"
Harper couldn't understand, but got the gist. He looked at the dragoon, a big ugly brute with a scar running across his face. He rose, empty-handed. The man sat on his horse and grinned, daring him to try something. Harper recorded the man's face in his mind, there might come a chance some day.
They were promptly marched out of the village and south again along the riverbank, grenadiers behind, dragoons in front and on both sides. All around, the French looted the dead Mamaluks, crowing in triumph at the riches they uncovered. They trudged through the desert, leaving the slaughter behind them.
Before them, on the horizon, loomed the minarets and spires of their destination.