O! call back yesterday, bid time return.
Richard II, Shakespeare
Leading us was the tall wiry frame of the professor, his panga slicing the foliage with deft measured strokes. He'd lost valuable time while the war raged here in East Africa, our troops chasing the elusive Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Now that the conflict was over, he was eager to get to the ruins. I was a member of Professor Doveton's expedition and brought up the rear of the group, alongside Monica Beck, an attractive brunette. "Tom," she whispered, "don't you think Professor Doveton's a little bit strange?"
I eyed the three ahead. Georgia Watt and Cecil Jordan were about my age, early twenties. Like the rest of us, they were dressed in bush jacket and shorts, with knee-length socks and tough leather boots. We'd dispensed with hats, as it was too humid; the chafing of our clothes was bad enough.
"Strange, in what way?"
"Doesn't talk much, does he? He seems driven."
"Well, Monica, he's been around and seen a lot. Perhaps he only speaks when he feels there's something important to say."
"Aloof if not downright rude, I call it!"
"He's lived a long time in remote places, remember. Nearly half a century ago he was with Carl Mauch when they found the Shona city of Great Zimbabwe and then sixteen years later he made his name with the gold he brought back from Kilwa. Not long before the war he was with Bingham when they uncovered Machu Picchu."
"Oh, I know all thatit's just, he must be in his late sixties now. Why does he still do it?"
I shrugged, unable to answer beyond offering her own explanationdriven.
For another four hours we took a leaf out of the professor's book and hardly spoke, though nearby Colobus monkeys kept up a constant chatter. We continued to cut our way through the dense undergrowth until we emerged into a clearing.
It was uncanny, this place. It should have been covered by jungle.
"Not much further," the professor said, arms akimbo. "Another half an hour and we can stop for the night."
"Thank God for that," said Cecil, running a hand through his sweat-damp black hair. "I'm whacked."
Once we entered the jungle on the other side of the clearing, the nature of the place was transformed. Before long we encountered stone walls jutting out from the bushes and the occasional ancient stone construction actually split in half by the patient power of a tree trunk. Lianas draped, aloes festooned fallen trees, and palms whispered in the breeze that seemed to emanate from somewhere ahead.
"This is Gedi," the professor called back.
"Gosh, it's amazing!" exclaimed Georgia, shaking her head of blonde curls.
The more I looked, the more I saw. At first sight, it seemed as though there were a couple of isolated walls but gradually I could make out many buildings partially concealed by foliage and encroaching jungle.
Professor Doveton lowered his backpack onto a nearby rough-hewn wall and studied the remains. "Yes, this will do very well," he said. "We'll camp here for the night."
Tents erected, we all strolled around the ruins. The sun dropped rapidly behind the jungle canopy as the professor pointed out the derelict arches festooned with colourful plants. "Many archaeologists believe this place was built by Egyptians, Arabs or even Indians."
Striding alongside him, I said, "But you don't, Professor?"
"No, Mr Thurston, I don't. I feel it's an insult to the native Africans, who surely did build it."
"Do you think we had better be getting back?" Monica asked. Dusk had suddenly transformed into night and we had moved a good half-mile from the camp. I wasn't too concerned since we had brought along electric torches. As it happened, the illumination from the full moon was adequate.
"Yes, perhaps we should," Professor Doveton said. Then as he was turning to retrace his steps, he paused. "What do you make of that, Mr Thurston?"
He pointed at something shining amidst the plethora of weeds and vines that cascaded over an ancient stone wall. A moonbeam, slanting through the upper foliage, highlighted it.
I walked over and brushed my hand against it, my heart beginning to hammer with excitement. "Seems like metal, Professorcould be the boss of a shield!"
"Really?" He hurried to my side and between us we cut away the encumbering greenery.
"What have you found, old son?" Cecil asked me.
I absently thumped the brass shape. "Don't rightly know ..."
Abruptly, I heard a deep-throated rumbling sound and for an instant feared it was an earthquake. Certainly, the ground tended to vibrate under me. Then it stopped.
"Look!" shouted Georgia, "it's a doorway!"
"How intriguing," said the professor, moving towards it.
"Professor," called Monica, "shouldn't we wait till the morning?"
He half turned to face us and flicked on his electric torch, presenting a ghoulish visage highlighted with contrasting pale and dark planes. "It is quite possible that there is a time limit on the contraption that opens this. Believe me, we must act nowor perhaps loose our chance of discovery."
"Gosh, this is so exciting!" Georgia said.
Not without some trepidation, we entered the doorway. There were old worn stone steps leading down into Stygian darkness. I was struck by the surprisingly fresh smells rising, as if from a countryside brook rather than stagnant pools of water and mouldy earth. The impression was that of entering a tomb, yet the sounds and smells belied this. Torchlight illuminated the wall of a tunnel that descended with us, its width capable of accommodating two men abreast.
At the foot of the steps, the professor said, "Wait, there's something here, I think!" He shone his torch on the wall to his right. Here, individual bricks had been joined together with encrusted mud or primitive cement.
"By the heavens, it's writing of some sort!" Cecil said, pressing forward.
"It looks like aquiSpanish or maybe Portuguese," Monica observed.
Cecil pulled out a hunting knife and began cutting around the brick.
"Take care," urged the professor, glancing over his shoulder in the direction of the blackness where the tunnel led. Our voices echoed even though we tended to speak in whispers.
Eventually, the brick came free and Cecil held up something wrapped in dusty oilskin. Abruptly, he suffered a bout of sneezing, doubtless caused by the dust he'd created with his gouging. I gently relieved him of the package and carefully unwrapped it, the torches of the women providing adequate illumination.
My fingers fumbled and I felt sure my heart was pounding fit to burst as I revealed a leather-bound book.
"It's just a book," Georgia said.
I flicked the pages. "No, it's a journalmy God, it's in Englishwritten in 1888!"
"Most interesting," said the professor, "but I think we should get back, as Monica suggested earlier. It's getting late, don't you think?"
We all agreed though I for one doubted if I would sleep much this night.
As we ate round the campfire about an hour after our discovery, Georgina said, "Might as well read some of that journal, Tom. A bedtime story, if you like."
"Go on, then," said Professor Doveton. "Plainly, none of us will sleep until we know what is in there."
"All right." So I began to read:
... It was a great calamity that my earlier journal was destroyed. I am only too pleased that I have this second journal's pristine pages on which to continue. While I am ensconced in rather remarkable luxury, I shall jot down the immediate events that led us to this place.
My fellow adventurers are Andrew Rider and Henry Lang and we have travelled to many benighted lands in search of thrills, treasures and perhaps glory. The fear that has driven us is that before long there will be no undiscovered country left.
We found the secret doorway in the ruins of Gedi and the steps seemed to lead down into the bowels of the earth. Andrew was all for turning back but the sound of lapping water quickened his curiosity and stilled his concerns. Our pitch-torches illuminated a dugout canoe resting on a shoal of shale and rock. Inside were four paddles.
"William, do you think this could be a tributary of the Tana?" Henry said, ever the enquiring mind.
"I have no doubt, my friend. The Tana River is long and formidable."
"What now?" asked Andrew.
"We might as well avail ourselves of this convenient transport!"
So we clambered in and prudently wrapped our weapons and ammunition in oilskin in the unlikely event that we turned turtle in this unfamiliar craft. For perhaps two hours by my reckoning we moved along the watercourse then finally passed through the mouth of a cavern.
We entered a broad lagoon with high rift valley walls on three sides. At least we had emerged into daylight.
Our eyes, unaccustomed after the darkness of the underground river, blinked. Then I blinked again, unable to believe my senses.
"My God, William, do you see?"
"I do, Andrew. I do."
High up to left and right of us there appeared to be a vast city hewn out of the rift valley walls, joined by a tremendous arching marble bridge.
Despite the grandeur, I sensed many similarities to those Anasazi cliff dwellings of the so-called Four Corners region of the American Southwest. On either side of our canoe grew dense clusters of bullrushes, while ahead -
"Over there, we can get ashore!" Henry pointed to a sloping shingled area that led on through the rift valley, the ground rising high enough to avoid being flooded; the rift faded into the middle distance.
As we paddled I wondered if we would meet a reception committee of some kind. In my travels I had encountered several varieties, some quite hostile. My idle thoughts were punctured by the sudden sound of drums pounding above, echoing back to us through the valley.
As we beached the canoe, I glanced up and gasped.
"Oh, my heavens!" exclaimed Andrew.
Indeed, there was reason to exclaim.
Standing in the centre of the arching marble bridge was a dark-haired woman, her hands tied behind her back. She was wearing white flowing robes and a dangling gold necklace. Her ankles were shackled with gold chains. On either side of her were men dressed in red-ochre garments, wielding spears, urging her forward.
I heard a splash and, distracted, turned my gaze on the water below her. From the vantage point of steps that led from our beach to a viewing area halfway up the cliff, four red-garbed men were flinging chunks of raw meat into the water. It was not difficult to reason why. Already, I noticed no less than three gnarled green shapes gliding out of the bullrushes, only their saurian eyes and long snouts above the surface. Suddenly there was a great commotion as the crocodiles fought over their morsels of meat.
"Quickly, man, ready your weapons!" I bawled and ran to the shoreline, unwrapping my Winchester as I went.
I wrenched my eyes away from the crocodiles as I levered a shell into the breach. Bravely, the woman stepped out into thin air and I felt sure that my heart stopped in that instant. She plummeted feet-first towards the water and the ravenous waiting crocodiles. I took aim and killed two. As the crocs turned on their dead companions, roiling in great surges of white and pink foam, I saw the woman plunge into the water.
She would sink, drown or be eaten unless I acted. I plunged into the water, drawing my hunting knife. I prayed both Andrew and Henry would account for any curious crocs.
I dived where her air bubbles mingled with the agitated waves. While not very clear, the water here was similar to that of the Caribbean and through slit eyes I could perceive her form sinking to the bottom.
Her eyes were wide, her mouth tight-closed, her cheeks bulging as she fought to keep her breath. Something, some kind of psychic message, seemed to transfer between us. Instinctively, she knew I was attempting to save her. I nodded and swam round her and thanked the Lord that her wrists were tethered by gold braid, not shackles. Swiftly slicing through the fibres, I grabbed an arm and kicked for the surface. She helped, using her free arm so that our combined energy was sufficient to counteract the weight of the gold ankle shackles.
We burst into fresh air, gasping. My head was spinning; I noted that the rebounding echoes of several rifle shots were dying. All around us were the upturned carcasses of crocs. Slowly, the pair of us swam to the shingle.
We crawled and spluttered on dry land. I noticed that while Henry helped us to our feet, Andrew kept his weapon aimed at the men on the marble arch bridge. The men who had fed the crocs earlier had gone.
Gasping for breath, I straightened up and eyed the woman I had rescued.
She was remarkably beautiful, a mixture of Negro and Caucasian, tall with a regal demeanour. Her eyes were big and dark, flashing with intelligence. The wet white garment clung to her shapely frame and revealed that she was naked beneath. With surprising steadiness, she returned my gaze then spoke.
It took me a few moments to determine what she was saying, then I comprehended that she was speaking in a strange mixture of Swahili and Portuguese.
I held up my hand and said in Swahili, "Please speak slowly until we understand your language."
She smiled, her teeth big and perfectly white, and her eyes danced. She pressed a hand against her ample bosom. "My name is La."
I wasn't too sure but opted for a variant that sounded close to me: "Hello, Ella." I then introduced myself, Andrew and Henry.
"I owe you three my life," Ella said. "You will be well rewarded."
"We do not seek reward," I said, bowing, amused to note out of the corner of my eye that Henry's face reflected dismay at my altruistic statement.
Glancing at her feet, she said, "Can you free me?"
"Aye, lass," said Andrew and used his hunting knife to pick the quite primitive locks of the shackles; after all, they were more ceremonial than practical, gold metal not being the most effective restraint.
"Thank you," she said, resting a hand on Andrew's shoulder. Then she turned to me and Henry. "Thank you all. Now please follow me."
Without further ado, she walked barefoot across the shingle towards the stone steps.
I did as I was bid and followed. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Henry grab the discarded gold shackles and hang them from his belt. All three of us kept our rifles fully loaded, at the ready. Sombrely, we ascended the steps behind this strange beautiful nubile woman.
We came out at the top of the cliff and were confronted by groups of people in all manner of clothingArabs, Negroes, Caucasians, Asiansmurmuring and watching as we strode behind Ella. When she approached them, they stepped back and to one side, as if she was parting the crowd through sheer willpower alone. It was uncanny. Even the murmuring stopped. The silence was quite unnerving. To the right I noted that a great many stalls were heavily laden with fresh produce and colourful fabrics, yet all of them were unattended while we proceeded along a smooth paved roadway towards the city gates.
Judging by the staring eyes of the onlookers, I had no doubt that they were very chary of our weapons. In fact I distinctly overheard one word whispered several times: thundersticks. As good a description as any for the rifles we carried.
Unhindered, we followed, climbing broad marble steps. We passed through a wide doorway, its double doors held back by slaves. Inside, it was dimly lit, the sunlight barely percolating through the high glassless windows. The ceiling appeared to be panelled in gold and silver, the tiled floor in a mosaic pattern representing crocodiles intertwined, eating each other's tails.
At the other end of the enormous room I descried a raised dais on which stood two thrones inlaid with gold. On either side of the dais was a group of red-garbed men with spears and painted hide shields. They moved forward and joined ranks and at their head emerged a tall muscular man of similar colouring to Ella. He too wore white garments.
Suddenly, he raised a spear aloft and yelled: "Death to the pretender! Death to the witch!"
Almost as one, they charged.
Ella pivoted round and snapped, "Give me your knife, Andrew Rider!"
Obediently, he handed it over.
"Brace yourselves!" I warned, getting into the kneeling position on Ella's left. Both Andrew and Henry took up their stance on her right. "Fire at will," I barked, "and make every shot count!"
Standing like a rock against a tidal wave, Ella didn't falter or show any sign of fear. "Leave the leader to me," she ordered. "My brother shall die at my hand, no one else's."
Her brother? I had no time to ponder further. I fired and the others let loose too. Three men fell and a couple stumbled over their bodies but the rest kept on coming while the echoes of our shots filled the throne room. We fired time and again, steadily, murderously, pulling fresh ammunition from our bandoliers to reload as we were engulfed in acrid smoke and deafened by the wails of the dying and wounded.
It could have only been seconds, perhaps less than a minute but in that time the bodies piled up. Finally, only their leader was standing amidst the carnage. His white clothing was spattered with red and he held his spear rather shakily.
Solemnly, Ella strode up to him. His eyes were wide, fearful. He thrust the spear at her but she brushed it aside with disdain and took the final fatal step forward. Andrew's blade sank deep into her brother's chest, spurting over her still wet garment.
Turning, she beckoned to the aghast onlookers on either side of the room. "Take him away, feed him to the crocodiles! Take them all!"
That night at the victory feast, we learned that Ella was a princess and rightful heir to the throne. But her brother had found her practising magic in her rooms and condemned her so he could take the throne. The law provided that if she survived the trial of the crocodiles, she would be deemed innocent of all witchcraft charges. "It is clear that my magic was strong," she observed. "It brought you three to me."
Her logic seemed incontrovertible. During the revelry, she took me to one side, her dark eyes probing mine, gleaming and enticing. "I shall reward you, William. What do you desire?"
Bewitched, I responded, "Only to serve you, your highness."
"You shallas my consort after the coronation tomorrow." She glanced over her shoulder then relaxed. "Beware of my head priest, he was my brother's friend and may conspire against us."
"In that case, why do you let him live?"
"Religion holds my people together. Without it, they would break into factions and civil war would tear us apart."
"Then find a head priest who is more amenable to you," I suggested.
"I will, in time," she replied.
But she did not have time. After the coronation, I wed Ella and those early days were bliss. Then one night I woke to find she was not sharing our bed but bent naked over a flickering boiling cauldron, whispering strange incantations. She started on seeing me. "You don't seem surprised, sweet William."
"I know your brother accused you of witchcraft. You must have your reasons, I imagine."
Ella nodded solemnly and smiled. "You too have your magic. I have seen it."
"What, the guns?"
She shook her head. "No, they are powerful, but not magic. I speak of the thing you make marks in at night."
"Yes, you call it that. It is your written wordit traps the past so you can live it again and again."
I smiled. "I'd never thought of it like that. But yes, I suppose it does."
"You must teach me how to handle your writing implement so I can make marks like those."
Hugging the queen to me, I whispered, "I will try."
She was adept and learned quickly.
One evening I was returning from the palace battlements after smoking my pipeElla did not care for its aromawhen I decided to drop in on Andrew and Henry. A couple of days had passed since we spoke last. I feared we were becoming idle, allowing ennui to overcome us.
I found Andrew dead and Henry was dying. Gasping for his last breaths on this mortal coil, he whispered, "The head priest has a new pretender. He will kill you and Ella. Run, my friend, run!" Then he died.
My shock was great and impelled me to run back to the palace at great speed but with the utmost caution.
Yet Ella would not hear of fleeing. "My place is here, the rightful ruler. My magic will protect me!" She pushed me towards the steps down to the shingle. Even though it was evening, I glimpsed our canoe was still there. "Here, take these gold trinkets, I note you value them."
"I cannot leave you, my beloved!" I said. "Let us die together!"
"No!" she snapped. "Promise you will return for me, that is all I ask!"
I nodded. "I will find a way," I promised.
The journey back was vague, my mind racked by loss and fear. At the foot of the stone steps somebody moved from the shadows. I gasped: it was Ella! I embraced her but she shimmered, an apparition. A figment of my fevered brain?
"Leave your journal hereuntil you return," she whispered.
Blindly, in a daze, I obeyed, gouging away a stone.
"Go, William Doveton," she said and vanished.
Now I close the journal, put it in oilskin and consign it to the hiding place ...
I looked up. Professor William Doveton stared at me, his eyes awash. He held out a hand. "May I?" I returned his journal. He didn't open it but simply ran his hands over the cover. "When I got out, I pretended the gold I carried was from Kilwa to preserve the secret of Ella's city. All these years I have travelled the world, seeking answers ..."
"And now you've found them?" I ventured, fearing for a moment that perhaps he had made some dreadful sacrificial pact and we were the means of his achieving its success.
"Yes." Moving to the doorway, he opened the book at the back. I had noted earlier that there were strange markings on those rear pages. Doveton added to these with his pen and translated for our benefit: "Bid time return me to your bosom." Then he intoned the markings in an archaic tongue.
I stared along with the others as a wraith appeared in the shadowy entrance. She whispered, "As I prophesised, dearest, your written words have brought us together."
Doveton stepped forward and they embraced; by some arcane means he too was no longer flesh and blood.
Darkness took them.
Copyright © 2013 by Nik Morton