Warning: Mature Adults only
PART I: ABUQUIR
As they approached the city gates, Harper heard a terrible wailing echoing over the land, like a hung-over banshee. He crossed himself.
"Saints preserve us, what is that?"
Lieutenant Bromley pointed to a tall, slender spire. In its topmost gallery, Harper could see a man who was obviously the source of the terrible sound. From other parts of the city, others could be heard joining in.
"That's the muezzin. It's his job to call the people to prayer."
"With a holler like that, it's a wonder he doesn't drive them away from it."
Seen from a distance, Cairo had a romantic aspect, with its skyline of over three hundred domes and minarets rising from the smoke of innumerable cooking fires; its palm trees and cultivated fields along the bank of the Nile. Up close, the romanticism quickly disintegrated. It housed some three hundred thousand people in an area covering some three square miles, a warren of narrow, unpaved streets and tall, ramshackle buildings whose roofs nearly met over the streets. It was impossible to distinguish the deserted wrecks from those hovels still inhabited, save for the ragged, half-blind men who squatted before some of them, smoking their pipes. Piles of rubbish served as lairs for packs of scavenging dogs, breeding grounds for hordes of flies, and playgrounds for dirty, naked children. One might meet a funeral or wedding procession in the street at any moment, or a donkey-mounted merchant, with beaters going before him to clear the streets with blows from their sticks. The open street bazaars were a place of heat, clamor, and smells. Gold and silver smiths worked side by side with silkspinners, potters with swordsmiths, perfumers with leatherworkers. On every side, beggars stretched out their bowls, beseeching for alms. The Nile was now in flood, and the Esbekiah square was flooded, as it did every year, so that small feluccas could make their way across it.
All this Harper saw in a flurry of sensory impact as they were marched through the El-Kahira Gate and down what appeared to be a main street. Their destination was just before them, a formidable fortress of brown sandstone.
"The Citadel." Bromley said. "Built by Saladin over seven hundred years ago."
He looked wryly at Harper.
"Don't tell me, I suppose he was an Irishman too?"
Harper looked grimly at the somber edifice they were approaching.
"No Irishman ever built a great awful prison like that. He must have been an Englishman."
A guard of dismounted dragoon marched them inside. One snapped something to a man who appeared to be the jailor, a big, dark, sinister looking fellow. Harper didn't understand the Frenchman, but he caught the name "Bartholomew." The jailor wore an incongruous mix of a hussar's dolman with Mamaluke baggy pantaloons, an immense white turban, a crimson sash, and a gold-embroidered Greek tunic. A big Mamaluk scimitar rested in a scabbard at his side. He nodded, rose from his desk, and took a large ring of keys from a hook on the wall. Unlocking a barred door, he led them and their escort up a flight of stairs, and then another and another, then down a long corridor with barred doors on either side, until they came to a large cell into which they were all crowded. The jailor locked the door and he and the guards left them. The ground was strewn with straw, and there was the usual water jug and slops bucket. A single torch burning outside the door gave some light, and there was a small barred window in the far wall. Harper alone was tall enough to look out, and could see the shimmering surface of the Esbekiah Square below. He slumped down beneath the window, much as he had done in that cell in Fort St. Julian a week ago. His companions made themselves as comfortable as possible.
Their march had begun in a cell and ended in a cell. But their time would still come.
After a while, a pair of guards came with the jailor, unlocked the door, and motioned for Lieutenant Bromley. He rose, exited the cell, and disappeared down the hall. An hour later, he was back in the cell. The marines crowded around him.
"As the only officer among the prisoners, General Bonaparte wanted to interrogate me. He demanded that I tell him what the British plans were."
"What did you say?" asked Harper.
"I told him our plans were to kick his arse back to France where it belongs. And that's all I told him."
Lieutenant Bromley's stock went up with the marines at that comment.
"And now what?" Finnigan asked.
"We stay here until we can be exchanged for French prisoners of equal rank. And since there are probably no other Englishmen in Egypt, that could be a long time."
Time loses relevance in prison. Life became defined only by the routines of their lives. They saw little of the French guards, who seemed content to leave the care of the prisoners to Bartholomew's Egyptians. Once daily, at dawn, their slops bucket was removed and emptied. Twice daily, at morning and sunset, their water jug was replenished, and they were brought some flat loaves of bread and the ever-present fool spiced bean paste. Once a week, the straw in their cell was changed. Once a week, they were allowed, four at a time, out onto the roof area of the Citadel to stretch their limbs for half an hour, under guard of course. Once a week, they were made to stand in the doorway of the cell, one at a time, while a bucket of cold water was dumped over them for a modicum of cleaning. Aside from these landmarks in the schedule, each day was like the day before and the day after that. Their clothes became ragged; their beards grew long and matted, though Harper, who was only fourteen, was still too young to produce more than stubble.
At night, Harper told them stories of Ireland, telling them the long sagas, since it looked like they would be keeping company for a time, telling them a chapter each night. At the end, they would always ask, "What happened then?" And he would always answer, "Ah, that's another night's telling."
"Now King Cullan kept a great, ferocious hound, which he loosed every night to guard his hall and under its protection, it was said that Cullan feared nothing less than the onset of an army. But as he and his guests sat amidst the music and laughter, they heard a terrible noise of fierce combat. They rushed to the gates, and in the glare of the torchlight, they saw the great hound laying dead, and over him, the young boy Setanta. The warriors bore him inside in rejoicing and wonder, but it soon ceased, for there stood their host, silent and sorrowful over the body of his faithful hound, who had died for the safety of his house and would never guard it more. And Setanta said 'Give me a whelp of the hound, O Cullan, and I will train him to be all to you that his sire was. And until then give me shield and spear and I will myself guard your house; never hound guarded it better than I will.' And from that day forth, he was known as Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster." . . .
The days became cooler, though never cold, and the nights longer. August turned into September, which in turn turned to October. One of the marines kept a record of passing days, scratching a line in the wall for each one. And Harper told his stories.
"When Cuchulain urged his love upon Emer, she told him of the might of her father Forgall and of the strength of the champions that guarded her lest she should wed against his will. And when he pressed her more she said 'I may not marry before my sister Fial, who is older than I.' 'It is not Fial I whom I love.' said Cuchulain. He beheld the breast of the maiden over the bosom of her smock, and said to her 'Fair is this plain, the plain of the noble yoke.' 'None comes to this plain,' said she, 'who has not slain his husbands, and thy deeds are still to do.' So Cuchulain left her and drove back to Emain Macha." . . .
To pass the time, Lieutenant Bromley taught them French for an hour each day, going over vocabulary words scratched on the wall with a piece of rock, and repeating simple sentences. Harper began to recognize phrases that the guards and jailor used between themselves.
And Harper told his stories.
"Then Foill son of Nechtan cam forth from the dun, and seeing Cuchulain, who he deemed but a lad, he was annoyed. But Cuchulain put in his sling a ball of tempered iron, and slung at him so that it struck his forehead and went clean through his brain and skull; and Cuchulain took his head and bound it to his chariot-rim. And other sons of Nechtan issued forth, and he fought with and slew them by sword and spear, and then he fired the dun and rode on exultantly. And on the way, he saw a flock of wild swans, and sixteen of them he brought down alive with his sling, and tied them to the chariot; and seeing a herd of wild deer which his horses could not overtake, he jumped down and chased them on foot till he caught two great stags, and with thongs and ropes he made them fast to his chariot." . . .
Finnigan produced a pair of dice that the French had somehow missed and soon had an ongoing game with all his fellow inmates, using variously sized pebbles to represent tens, hundreds, and thousands of pounds. If it had been real money, he would have become rich off of his winnings. And Harper told his stories.
"And the championship was between three, namely Cuchulain, Conall of the Victories, and Laery the Triumphant. To decide between them, a demon named the Terrible was summoned from the depths of the lake in which he dwelt. He challenged each of the heroes to cut off his head today, providing that they would lay down their own heads for his axe tomorrow. Conall and Laery shrank from the test, but Cuchulain accepted it and cut off the head of the demon, who immediately rose, and taking his bleeding head in one hand and the axe in the other, plunged into the lake. Next day, he reappeared whole and sound to claim the fulfillment of the bargain. Cuchulain, resolute, laid his head on the block. The demon swung his axe thrice over his victim, bringing down the butt with a crash on the block, and then bade Cuchulain rise unhurt, Champion of Ireland." . . .
The Esbekiah Square dried up as the level of the Nile fell, and it became again a dry dirt plaza, an assembly area for merchant caravans bound east for Aleppo, Baghdad and Damascus, or pilgrim caravans bound for Mecca and Medina. Through the window, Harper could see hundreds of them, crowded around their groaning, spitting dromedaries, packing them with goods.
And Harper told his stories.
"Now as Cuchulain's wrath grew fiercer, he descended upon the Connacht host, and hundreds fell before him. The battle-frenzy of Cuchulain made every part of him quiver, like a bulrush in a running stream. His calves and heels and hams shifted to the front, and his feet and knees to the back, and the muscles of his neck stood out like the head of a young child. One eye was engulfed deep in his head, the other protruded, his mouth met his ears, and foam poured from his jaws like the fleece of a lamb, and the pounding of his heart sounded like the roars of a lion as he rushes on his prey. A light blazed above his head, and his hair became tangled about as if it had been the branches of a red thorn bush stuffed into the gap of a fence. From the crown of his head, a great jet of dark blood gushed, taller thicker, and more rigid than the mast of a great ship, and its fall draped over him like a dark mist. And when all the men of Connacht who opposed him were dead, his frenzy was unabated, and the men of Ulster feared lest he turn it on them. So a dozen of them seized Cuchulain and plunged him into a barrel of cold water. And so hot was his battle-madness that it boiled the water to steam and burst the barrel asunder, and seven more barrels of water did they plunge him into before his frenzy withdrew." . . .
Late in October, they heard some clamor outside of the Citadel in the streets of Cairo. Mobs seemed to be chanting in Arabic and rioting in the streets. Looking out the barred window, Harper saw a column of French grenadiers fire into a mob of rock-throwing citizens, who dispersed in panic. From various points on the city's skyline, he could see the smoke of fires. For the next two days, they heard the rattle of musketry and the non-stop boom of cannon. They overheard enough from their guards to determine that the city had risen in revolt against the French. The French had crushed it of course, in only two days, and everything was calm again. At least on the outside. And so October turned to November. And as they sat in their cell, the world went on around them, but they knew nothing of it. They had no way of knowing that a Second Coalition of England, Russia, Turkey, Austria and Naples had formed, emboldened by Nelson's victory at Abuquir. Or that the French Directory had written Bonaparte that it was impossible to send him any support. Or that two Turkish armies were forming for the invasion of Egypt. Or that the Tippoo Sultan had risen against British rule in India. Their cell was their own little world, into which little if any news came.
Soon after the revolt was crushed, they saw the first signs of plague. One of the marines, a young boy named Rolleston, came down with a high fever, and within a day had buboes under his arm pits, in his groin, and under his chin. The other prisoners had withdrawn to the opposite side of the cell with cries of "Plague! Plague!" They called the jailor, but he refused to remove the infected man. But Harper had gone to the boy and cradled his head in his lap, mopping his burning brow with a wet cloth, and telling him stories of Cuchulain.
"Ferdia and Cuchulain debated with what weapons they should fight, and Cuchulain's choice fell on the heavy, broad-bladed spears, and with them they fought until the sun went down, and drivers and horses were weary, and the body of each hero was covered with wounds. Then at last they gave over and threw away their weapons. And they kissed each other, and sent each other food and drink and healing herbs for their wounds, and slept peacefully till the morning.
The next day it was the turn of Ferdia to choose the weapons, and they betook themselves to their heavy, hard-smiting swords, and though they hewed from each others thighs and shoulders great chunks of flesh, neither could prevail over the other, and at last night ended the combat. This time, though, they parted from each other in heaviness and gloom, and there was no interchange of friendly acts, for they knew that the morrow's fighting must see one of them die." . . .
Some time during the telling, Rolleston died. Harper closed his eyelids and whispered a prayer for him. The next morning, the guards removed his body.
From what he could glean from the conversation of the guards, and the deserted look of the city as seen through the window, the plague was everywhere, and the people were held in the grip of its terror.
November turned to December. The next marine to fall sick was a lean, older man named Jacobs. He had never said much, and Harper had never gotten to know him well. But as before, Harper ignored his symptoms and despised the risk of catching the plague himself. He tended Jacobs as he had tended Rolleston. But this time, the rest of the marines, shamed by his example, crowded around, offering what comfort they could, making no effort to separate themselves from the victim. Harper continued his story.
"And Ferdia smote Cuchulain with the edge of the sword, and it sank deep into his flesh, and all the river ran red with his blood. And he pressed Cuchulain sorely after that, hewing and thrusting, so that Cuchulain could endure it no longer, and he shouted to Laeg to throw him the Gae Bolg. And Ferdia raised his shield to guard himself, but Cuchulain seized the Gae Bolg in his toes and drove it upward against Ferdia, and it pierced through his shield and through his iron breastplate and burst asunder the millstone that guarded his bowels, and deep into his body it passed, so that every crevice and cranny of him was filled with its barbs. 'Tis enough,' cried Ferdia. 'I have my death of that. It is an ill deed that I fall by thy hand, O Cuchulain.' And Cuchulain seized his friend as he fell, and carried him northward across the Ford, that he might die on the further side of it, and not on the side of the men of Connacht. And Cuchulain fell into a swoon like death. And for many days, he mourned the passing of Ferdia, his boyhood friend." . . .
Jacobs died in the night. Again, Harper closed his eyes and prayed over him, and the guards took him away. Lieutenant Bromley was the next one to come down with the plague. And they all took turns holding his head in his lap and mopping his brow with cool water. And Harper told him stories.
"And the spear struck Cuchulain, and his bowels fell out into the chariot. And Cuchulain, knowing that the end was come, said 'I would fain go as far as to that loch-side to drink.' And his foes suffered him to go when he had promised to return to them again. So he gathered up his bowels into his breast and went to the loch-side, and drank and bathed himself, and came forth again to die. Now there was close by a tall pillar-stone that stood westwards of the loch, and he went up to it and slung his girdle over it and round his breast, that he might die standing and not laying down, and his blood ran down in a little stream into the loch. And his foes gathered round, but feared to approach him while the life was still in him, and the hero-light shone above his brow. Then came a crow and settled on his shoulder.
Lewy, when he saw this, knew Cuchulain was dead, and drew near and with his sword smote off his head; and the sword fell from Cuchulain's hand and smote off the hand of Lewy as it fell. Then they took the hand of Cuchulain in revenge for this, and bore the head and hand south to Tara, and there buried them, and over them they raised a mound."
But five days before Christmas, Lieutenant Bromley's fever broke, and he began to recover.
They celebrated Christmas with a feast of flat bread and fool, and sang what parts of old Christmas carols they could remember. Bromley was well enough to speak a few words about how the Savior born on Christmas Day had never forgotten them, even in the depths of prison.
January came, and it was the year 1799. Lieutenant Bromley, fully recovered if somewhat weakened, supplemented his French lessons with instruction in classical history along with a smattering of Latin, telling them of the exploits of Leonidas and Alcibiades and Alexander, of Scipio and Marius and Caesar. Finnigan continued to play dice with the marines, amassing a greater and greater fortune of pebbles, which he promptly gave back so they could start another game. And Harper was beginning the saga of Finn mac Cumhal.
February brought a flurry of activity in Esbekiah Square below. Grenadiers, light fusiliers, dragoons and hussars were drilling, and Bonaparte seemed to be training a new dromedary corps. Harper and his mates had many a good laugh as they watched the Frenchmen trying to mount the irritable beasts, falling off, chasing them around the square and then being chased by them in turn.
But it was plain that a major military campaign was about to set out. Harper gathered from what the guards let slip that the French were going to Syria to meet and defeat an army of Turks before they could invade Egypt.
On February 9th, Harper watched as a force he estimated at about twelve thousand gathered in the square, infantry and cavalry. He could see Murat at the head of the horse. He looked for Calvet, but if he was there, Harper couldn't see him. Before the French ranks cavorted a small figure on a white Arabian, clad in the blue embroidered jacket and plumed bicorn of a French general; Bonaparte, without a doubt. He noticed, with some interest, that the French infantry had adopted a new hat in place of their bicorns for fighting in the desert heat. It was of black leather, fitting tightly to the skull like a jockey's helmet, with the tricolor cockade on the left side and a pouffe in that demi-brigade's color. It had a visor in front and flaps that could fold down at both sides and in the rear. The army marched out and was soon lost to Harper's sight beyond the edge of the window. He reflected that it had been but one year ago that he had said goodbye to his Da and walked into Derry to enlist. So much had happened since then.
The new revolt broke out two weeks later, and the guards whispered that it came with a return of the plague. They lay in their cell, listening to the sounds of shouts and firing, of fighting and killing.
It was in the dead of night that the jailor Bartholomew came to their cell door, opened it, and motioned to them.
"You are free. Make your escape if you can, no man is here to offer any resistance."
Bromley was incredulous.
"Where are the guards?"
"They are spread all over the city trying to stem the revolt. The rebels have seized the Citadel, but they will not hold it long. There is enough confusion to allow you to escape."
"How do you speak English?"
"I speak many languages, Arabic, Turkish, French, and English. It helps in my business. By birth, I am a Greek."
"Why are you doing this?"
"We have a saying in Greece: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' The French have done little to inspire loyalty. I have no reason to love them, and they will not be here forever."
"Won't you be punished for releasing us?"
"I take my chances. The French have all but forgotten you are here. No one will remember when things return to normal. If worse comes to worse, I can claim the rebels forced me to release you. Now, enough talk! Come!"
Still not fully believing what was happening, the fourteen marines made their way down the corridor and the staircase to the outer reception area. Occasionally they passed Egyptian guards, who did not spare them a glance. Bartholomew led them to a side room, where he gave them six muskets and ammunition pouches.
"We looted the armory. I was able to snatch these. Be careful in the streets. The mob won't care if you're English or French; you are all infidels to them. I would suggest you use the Nile to get out of the city."
After distributing the muskets among Harper and the men, Lieutenant Bromley held out his hand to thank Bartholomew. He ignored the hand, and turned his back to them.
"I want to be able to say that I did not see you escape. Now go!"
They made their way out of the Citadel's heavy doors and into the darkened streets.
The city was a graveyard. Unburied bodies lay everywhere, some apparently for days, and all showed the signs of the plague. The stench was almost overwhelming, and they had to hold their sleeves against their mouths and noses. Aside from the dead and a few mangy, snarling dogs, they saw no one, apparently, the plague victims were so numerous that the people were afraid to come out, let alone try to cart the bodies away. They picked their way through the lightless, narrow streets, over piles of rubble that smelled almost as bad as the bodies. In the distance, Harper could hear the noise of musketry and see the glow of burning buildings. He stopped once, at an abandoned bakers stall. It had been smashed, and several flat loaves of bread lay, mostly in fragments, around on the ground. He collected all the bread that looked marginally wholesome. It was stale and hard, but it would sustain them.
Bromley had a rough idea of the direction of the river, only a short distance from the Citadel, and they made it in a few minutes. The Nile lay, silent and faintly shining under the sickle moon. There were a few ragged figures, beggars most likely, near the bank, but they fled as the escapees approached. They looked up and down its length. They could detect some movement far down the bank, but they could not tell what it was. Bodies were lying around, and the sound of fighting was nearer. Then Finnigan pointed silently. Harper nodded.
Floating sluggishly with the current, perhaps fifty feet out, was an abandoned felucca, perhaps twenty-five feet long, its lateen sail hanging limply, unfurled. Harper looked to Bromley, who nodded, motioned to him and two other marines, and pointed to the boat. They slipped into the calm, cool water and silently swam to the boat, hauling themselves on board. Aside from three dead men, it was deserted. Harper found some long punting poles, handed one to a companion and took the other himself. They quietly guided the boat into the shore, and the others piled on board, Bromley looking around to see if they had been spotted. As far as he could tell, they had not. He turned to Harper.
"Good work, Private. Now all we have to do is get out of the city and down the Nile a hundred miles to Alexandria and make contact with the fleet, all without being caught by Bedouins, Mamalukes, or the French. Easy work, don't you think?"
Harper thought for a moment.
"I have an idea, Lieutenant. It might keep the buggering Bedouins off of us until we get to the sea."
He outlined his plan to Bromley, whose mouth wrinkled in disgust.
"That's sickening! We can't do that!"
"Sir, it's either that, or they catch us. There's not a chance in hell we can make it down the river without them seeing us, and we're not enough to fight them off. I for one don't plan to be a nomad's whore, Sir."
Bromley hesitated, his sense of obligation to see his men to safety warring with his finer sensibilities. After a few moments, the former won. He nodded.
"You're right. God help us, we'll do it."
He explained the plan to the men, who reacted with as much revulsion as he did. Some wanted to take their chances with the Bedouins, or else hide out in the city. It took all of Harper's persuasion, backed by Bromley's direct order, for them to give at least silent consent.
Five men, Harper included, gathered fifteen of the freshest bodies of the plague victims they could find, making three trips to carry them over their shoulders to the boat. They positioned them, lying around the deck. Then the marines lay down among them. One marine with some experience on a fishing boat unfurled the sail and caught the gentle breeze. Another took the tiller, while another lay with his head over the prow, watching for shallows or other obstacles. The Nile's level was low, so running aground was a real danger. And so, in the pale light of the setting moon, they made their way down the Nile and out of the city.
Once they passed a splendid mosque, one of the finest in Cairo. Egyptian rebels had apparently made it a stronghold. Now it was burning from head to foot, and Egyptians were jumping from its windows. In the streets, a line of French troops shot them down. The felucca drifted past all this, no one moved onboard, and no one noticed on shore. As the sun cracked over the horizon, they exited the city limits and passed between the low islands of Bulaq and Rhoda.
They had just passed the Great Pyramids when the first Bedouins spotted them; two riders galloping along the west bank, shouting and pointing. The marines kept their prone positions, the only motion one man's gentle hand on the tiller in response to the man at the prow. As the day progressed, so did the number of Bedouins.
Shortly after noon, three feluccas filled with Bedouins set out from the riverbank on an interception course with their boat. No one moved as the tribesmen drew closer and closer, but those with muskets clenched them in their hiding places. This had to work, or else their only alternative was to try to fight their way out of the trap. Harper held his breath as a brown hand gripped the gunwale, and a scarfed face peered into the boat.
And the man's eyes widened in terror, and he screamed! He turned to his companions and said something in a frantic voice, and the boat pulled away much more rapidly than it had come, followed by its two companions. As far as the Bedouins could see, this felucca making its way gently down the Nile was crewed only by the dead.
And although they saw many Bedouins along the bank in the three days that followed, none dared approach, their superstition keeping them away. Harper's gamble had paid off. And the story quickly spread through the desert that the dead sailed upon the Nile, and not a tribesman saw the sinister, silent boat making its way down the river but that he prayed to Allah to make it go away.
But the marines paid for Harper's ingenuity. The stench was appalling to start with, and grew steadily worse as the blazing sun beat down on the corpses. Flies by the thousands swarmed on the living and the dead alike, they did not fear the "Boat of the dead." All the marines could do was lie still, covering their heads with their coats or shirts to ward off some of the smell and the worst of the flies. Harper had told them that there was no danger from the plague, for it left once the victim was dead. He hoped he was right. He was, for the fleas that carried the plague did not stay on corpses as the blood coagulated, and had gone in search of living prey.
When the sun went down, they munched some fragments of bread and a few swallows of river water. They had to make their way down the river both by day and by night, for fear their ruse might be discovered if they stopped. Fortunately, the moon was waxing, and they had light to steer by. Periodically, the men working the sail, the tiller, or watching for sandbars were relieved by others.
To pass the time, Harper told them stories, fairy stories as his mother had once told him.
"The King and all with him wondered much to hear a voice when they saw no one. For save Connla along, none saw the Fairy Maiden."
"I love thee, Connla, and I call thee away to the Plain of Pleasure, Moy Mell, where Boadag is king for aye, nor has there been complaint or sorrow in that land since he has held the kingship. O Come with me, Connla of the Fiery Hair, ruddy as the dawn with thy tawny skin. A fairy crown awaits thee to grace they comely face and royal form. Come, and never shall they comeliness fade, nor they youth, till the last Day of Judgment."
Once they ran aground, on a sandbar the lookout did not see until it was too late. Thank the saints it was late at night, and the moon had set. They all disembarked and pushed and shoved, and got the boat free again just as the eastern horizon was a little lighter. Then they again took their places among the dead, and continued down the river.
And Harper told them stories.
"The Leprechaun says 'Dig under that boliaun tree, and you'll get the great crock of gold.' But Tom, in his hurry, had never thought of bringing a spade with him, and he made up his mind to run home and fetch one, and to know the place he took off one of his red garters and tied it round the boliaun. Then he said to the Leprechaun, 'Swear ye'll not take that garter away from that boliaun'. And the Leprechaun swore right away not to touch it."
"So Tom ran for dear life till he came home and got a spade, and then away with him, back to the field of boliauns, as hard as he could go. But when he got there, behold! Not a boliaun in that field, above forty acres it was, but had a red garter, the very twin of his own. So Tom went home with his spade on his shoulder, and many's the hearty curse he's given to the Leprechaun every time's he's thought of the neat turn he served him."
And the stench grew more horrendous, and the flies worse, and Harper continued to tell his stories, because it was all the comfort he had to offer.
"And the soothsayer said, 'Well, I saw in my second sight that it is on account of a daughter of yours that the greatest amount of blood shall be shed that has ever been shed in Erin since time and race began. And the three most famous heroes that ever were found will lose their heads on her account.'"
"After a time, a daughter was born to Malcom, and he named her Deirdre, and he bade the nurse bring up the child herself, in hiding far away, where no man would see a sight of her nor hear a word of her. And the woman took Deirdre away to a green knoll distant and far from reach, and Deirdre grew up without knowledge or suspicion of any man, and she was the creature of fairest form, of loveliest aspect, and of gentlest nature that ever existed between heaven and earth in all Ireland."
"And after sixteen years, a hunter, lost in the hills, came upon the green knoll-"
"Harper," Finnigan gasped at noon on the second day. "this is beyond human endurance. The men are well-nigh choking on the stench, and eaten up by the flies."
"Patience," Harper said. "Wait another day. There will come an end."
And Harper continued his stories.
"There was a poor old fisherman, who could not catch much fish. And there rose a sea-maiden at the side of his boat, who asked him 'What reward would you give me for sending plenty of fish to you?' And the man said 'I have not much to spare.' Said she 'Will you give me the first son you have?' 'I would give you that were I to have a son,' said he. 'Then go home, and remember me when your son is twenty years of age, and you yourself will get plenty of fish after this.' Everything happened as the sea-maiden said, and he got plenty of fish; but when the end of the twenty years was nearing, the old man grew more and more sorrowful and heavy-hearted, for he well loved his son."
That day, Harper saw what had to be the ugliest bird he had ever beheld. It was a Maribou Stork, with a black-gray feathered body and a long-billed head of wrinkled red skin, topped by a fuzzy bald pate. And it looked strangely familiar. Where had he seen one before?
And then he remembered his attestation on joining the Marines, how they had brought him before the magistrate of Derry, who refused to wear a wig on his red, wrinkled head, above his black robes. And Harper laughed out loud.
"Why, Justice Abijah Hoadley," he addressed the stork. "Whatever are you doing so far from Derry County?"
The stork looked at him in a very magisterial way, and let out a magisterial croak. Bedouins in the area shuddered in fear, for laughter was echoing from the Boat of the Dead.
And Harper told his stories.
"And Jack traveled and traveled, till he came in sight of the walls of hell; and before he entered, he rubbed himself all over with the magic ointment, that he might not be burned. And when he knocked, the gates were thrown open and the devil asked him his business.
'My business isn't much. I only came for the loan of your flail, that I may give a thrashing to the Danes who are a ravaging in Dublin.' And the devil game him that flail, and wondered that his hands received no burn. And Jack said 'Thankee, now would you open the gate for a body, and I'll give you no more trouble.' And the devil said 'Oh, it is easier getting inside them gates than out again.' And the devil and all the imps rushed at Tom, but he gave them such a thrashing as they didn't forget for a long while. And the devil said 'Let the fool out; and woe to whoever lets him in again, great or small.'"
At sundown on the third day, they passed a town he recognized, El Ramaniyah. And Harper crawled to where the marine lay who was working the tiller.
"Start bearing to the left. I don't want to go by way of Rosetta, the Frogs still hold it. We have to make our way through the waterways towards that bay where the battle was fought, Abuquir."
When it was dark, they cast the bodies overboard with groans of relief. The time for subterfuge was over, now they needed clear steering with every man on the lookout. As they got further into the Nile delta, they began to make their way to the left, through increasingly narrow and shallow waterways. Reeds were thicker, and Harper saw to his delight that there were many types of birds all around, though he had no time for them. The mosquitoes were a bother, but they endured. In their hearts, a thrill was building, they were so close! Periodically, they ran into sandbars, but with the boat lightened, it didn't take much effort to get them off again. Always, they made north, and the sound of the surf beating on the shore began to sound in the distance.
By dawn, they were in sight of Lake Idku, the shallow, brackish lake just south of the bay. They pulled out into open water, and the boat slipped into the lake and began to slide across the calm surface.
They were halfway across when they saw the Bedouins. There were at least thirty of them, mounted on horses and carrying jezeels. They were perhaps half a mile to the east on the lake's far shore, the narrow strip of land that bordered Abuquir Bay. As soon as they saw them, they were seen. The tribesmen pointed, gesturing wildly, then spurred their horses forward to cut them off. Harper turned to Embleton, the marine manning the sail.
"Get us to shore, now!"
Embleton needed no urging. He reefed the lateen to get the last ounce of wind, and they skated towards the shore. It would be close . . .
By the time they got to shore, the Bedouins were a quarter of a mile away and drawing closer every second. They had to be
held off. Lieutenant Bromley gestured to the six marines with muskets. "Form a rear-guard! The rest of you, get to the shore!"
The seven unarmed marines ran for the sandy crest that concealed the sea, close now, by the sound. Bromley deployed the remaining six, Harper and Finnigan included, in a firing line.
"Steady. Wait for them to come. Pick your target."
The Bedouins were now some three hundred yards away, straining to get the last ounce of speed from their horses, lest these deceiving infidels escape.
Two hundred yards. Harper brought the butt of the Charville to his shoulder.
One hundred yards. He could hear their cries of "Allah akhbar! Some of them were firing their rifles, but from the backs of galloping horses, they hit nothing.
"Prepare to fire."
Harper eased his doghead back and marked his target, a rider third from the left. He could hear the pounding of the hooves, even in the soft sand.
The muskets cracked out, and the leading horsemen were thrown from their horses, the horses stumbling and rearing, so that those following had to swerve or crash into them. Lieutenant Bromley gave them no time.
"Withdraw one hundred yards!"
Following their companion's tracks in the sand, they ran a hundred yards towards the sandy crest, stopping about halfway there. Bromley's instructions were terse.
"You three, withdraw another hundred yards and set up on the crest. You three, reload here, and prepare to fire!"
Three of the marines took off for the crest, stopping on top of it and beginning to reload. Bromley stayed with the remaining three, Harper, Finnigan, and Embleton. Harper rammed the charge home and brought his musket up. The Bedouins had regrouped and were coming on again, leaving some bodies behind. At fifty yards, Bromley snapped out.
They fired, and Harper saw the Bedouin he had targeted go down. He heard Embleton grunt and fall at his side.
"Make for the crest!"
Harper put an arm under Embleton's arm and dragged him along, up the sandy crest. The second firing line let off their volley; he didn't turn around to see what they accomplished. They stopped at the crest and he set Embleton down, noticed in passing that he was dead. To die this close, when they had almost made it . . .
Bromley had taken up Embleton's musket and joined Harper and Finnigan in the firing line. The Bedouins had not stopped; they were almost on top of them. They fired without his order, and brought down three horsemen at almost point blank range. Harper clubbed his musket and knocked another out of the saddle.
Then they turned and ran the last few feet to the crest. Harper tried not to think of a Bedouin taking a bead on his back, of dying with the sea so close-
And then he saw before him the most beautiful sight he had seen outside of his mother's face.
Sitting in the bay were two fine big English ships of the line. As he barreled down the coast with his two companions, they opened fire with their eighteen-pound culverins. They were well-trained Jack Tar gunners, and their shots blasted along the crest where Harper had been but a few seconds before. He turned and saw the Bedouins give back in panic, their horses rearing. Then they turned and rode like the wind down the other side, back towards safety. All but one, who sat on his shying horse and deliberately took aim at Harper. At this range, he could not miss. His eyes met Harper's, and Harper saw him smile.
And then a second shot from an eighteen pounder tore him from its saddle in an explosion of blood and shattered bone. His steed gladly followed the others back over the crest, leaving the broken body of its master behind.
Harper turned back to the ships. He caught Finnigan's eye and smiled.
He had made it. Through an odyssey that had started here and led down the Nile, fighting alongside the French, to a Cairo prison, then back up the Nile on a boat of corpses and back here where it had all begun.