“Go, sir!” insisted Holden. “I’ll keep them back then follow you.”
“Don’t be a fool, Holden,” I barked, unable to keep the scoffing sound out of my voice. “There’s no holding them back. They’ll cut you down.”
“I’ve been in tighter spots than this one, sir,” grunted Holden, his sword arm working as he exchanged blows. But I could hear the false bravado in his voice.
“Then you won’t mind if I stay,” I said, at the same time fending off one of the eunuch’s sword strikes and parrying, not with my blade but with a punch to the face that sent him pinwheeling back.
“Go!” he shrieked.
“We die. We both die,” I replied.
But Holden had decided that the time for courtesy was over. “Listen, mate, either you two make it out of here or none of us do. What’s it going to be?”
At the same time, Jenny was pulling on my hand, the door to the bath chamber open, and more men arriving from our left. But still I hesitated. Until, at last, with a shake of his head, Holden whipped round, yelled, “You’ll have to excuse me sir,” and before I could react had shoved me backwards through the door and slammed it shut.
There was a moment of shocked silence in the bath chamber as I sprawled on the floor and tried to absorb what had happened. From the other side of the door I heard the sounds of battle—a strange, quiet, muted battle it was, too—and a thudding at the door. Next there was a shout—a shout that belonged to Holden, and I pulled myself to my feet, about to haul the door open and rush back out, when Jenny grasped hold of my arm.
“You can’t help him now, Haytham,” she said softly, just as there came another yell from the courtyard, Holden shouting, “You bastards, you bloody prickless bastards.”
I cast one last look back at the door then pulled the bar across to lock it as Jenny dragged me over to the hatch in the floor.
“Is that the best you can do, you bastards?” I heard from above us as we took the steps, Holden’s voice growing fainter now. “Come on, you dickless wonders, let’s see how you fare against one of His Majesty’s men . . .”
The last thing we heard as we ran back along the walkway was the sound of a scream.
21 SEPTEMBER 1757
I had hoped never to take pleasure in killing, but, for the Coptic priest who stood guard close to the Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter, I made an exception. I have to admit I enjoyed killing him.
He crumpled to the dirt at the base of a fence that surrounded a small enclosure, his chest heaving and his last breaths coming in jagged bursts as he died. Overhead, a buzzard cawed, and I glanced to where the arches and spires of the sandstone monastery loomed on the horizon. Saw the warm glow of life at the window.
The dying guard gurgled at my feet, and for a second it occurred to me to finish him quickly—but then again, why show him mercy? However slowly he died and however much pain he felt while it happened, it was nothing—nothing—compared to the agony inflicted on those poor souls who had suffered within the enclosure.
And one in particular, who was suffering in there now.
I had learnt in the market in Damascus that Holden had not been killed, as I had thought, but captured and transported to Egypt and to the Coptic monastery at Abou Gerbe, where they turned men into eunuchs. So that is where I came, praying I would not be too late but, in my heart of hearts, knowing I would be. And I was.
Looking at the fence, I could tell it would be sunk deep into the ground to prevent predatory night-time animals digging beneath it. Within the enclosure was the place where they buried the eunuchs up to their necks in sand and kept them there for ten days. They didn’t want hyenas gnawing away at the faces of the buried men during that time. Absolutely not. No, if those men died, they were to die of slow exposure to the sun or of the wounds inflicted upon them during the castration procedure.
With the guard dead behind me, I crept into the enclosure. It was dark, just the light of the moon to guide me, but I could see that the sand around was bloodstained. How many men, I wondered, had suffered here, mutilated then buried up to their necks? From not far away came a low groan, and I squinted, seeing an irregular shape on the ground at the centre of the enclosure, and I knew straight away that it belonged to Private James Holden.
“Holden,” I whispered, and a second later was crouching to where his head protruded from the sand, gasping at what I saw. The night was cool, but the days were hot, tortuously so, and the sun had burned him so badly it was as though the very flesh had been seared away from his face. His lips and eyelids were crusted and bleeding, his skin red and peeling. I had a leather flask of water at the ready, uncorked it and held it to his lips.
“Holden?” I repeated.
He stirred. His eyes flickered open and focused on me, milky and full of pain but with recognition, and very slowly the ghost of a smile appeared on his cracked and petrified lips.
Then, just as quickly, it was gone and he was convulsing. Whether he was trying to wrench himself out of the sand or struck by a fit I wasn’t sure, but his head thrashed from side to side, his mouth yawned open, and I leaned forward, taking his face in both of my hands to stop him hurting himself.
“Holden,” I said, keeping my voice down. “Holden, stop. Please . . .”
“Get me out of here, sir,” he rasped, and his eyes gleamed wet in the moonlight. “Get me out.”
“Holden . . .”
“Get me out of here,” he pleaded. “Get me out of here, sir, please, sir, now, sir . . .”
Again his head began jerking painfully left to right. Again I reached out to steady him, needing to stop him before he became hysterical. How long did I have before they posted a new guard? I offered the flask to his lips and let him sip more water then pulled a shovel I had brought from my back and began scooping blood-soaked sand from around his head, talking to him at the same time as I exposed his bare shoulders and chest.
“I’m so sorry, Holden, I’m so sorry. I should never have left you.”
“I told you to, sir,” he managed. “I gave you a push, remember . . .”
As I dug down, the sand was even more black with blood. “Oh God, what have they done to you?”
But I already knew and, anyway, I had my proof moments later, when I reached his waist to find it swathed in bandages—also thick and black and crusted with blood.
“Be careful down there, sir, please,” he said, very, very quietly, and I could see that he was wincing, biting back the pain. Which in the end was too much for him, and he lost consciousness, a blessing that allowed me to uncover him and take him from that accursed place and to our two horses, which were tethered to trees at the bottom of the hill.