3-13: The Druze

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I

Miri appeared in the clearing at the break of day, saw them in the fork of the tree, leaning back against the branch and Sophie was stuck to him it seemed. Also, quite unfortunate but there were stains down the white bark.

From the far side of the clearing now came Nikki, she took in the scene and was dismayed, chagrined. She turned and rushed back to their hut.

Sophie concluded, ‘The moon is asleep and the sun now reigns again.’ She slowly unstuck herself and climbed off him, found the ladder with her foot, climbed down and waited.

He climbed down.

She led him by hand to the refreshment table, poured and handed him wine and a bite to eat, looking into his eyes, the remains were now set aside, they kissed and it descended to the very depths.

Then she came out of it and with teary eyes, called Miri over. She wanted them all to now push the bower over the edge so that no trace remained.

.o0o.

They’d only just slipped into the Pool when they heard the first missile hit the Chapel and as they ran, the second hit the lower beach area, the third took out Moran’s but by then all parties were well on their way to the pods, the route from the Pool having been the most difficult.

Further missiles rained down on the island and then there was silence.

It was the third Sunday in October.

.o0o.

There was a sudden contretemps at the pods but it was resolved quickly, though violently, they went underwater immediately, in duckling line, and Hugh was confused by the softness of the enemy – it seemed more in the line of a warning.

Why not just one fission bomb and that would have been that? This looked very much as if they either wished the islanders to see their home destroyed before their eyes or else the plan was to capture one or some of them.

Not only that but they’d attacked neither at high nor low tide, two vulnerable times but halfway between and so it had been a doddle to launch the pods. He didn’t like the easiness of it, he suspected a trap.

On the other hand, perhaps they’d only sent out their B-team but even a B-team should have known basic strategy. If he’d planned it, he’d have taken out the pods first. When he’d heard the first missile, he’d automatically assumed the pods had been hit and had half hoped that at least one would be boardable and usable.

But the enemy had not done that. They’d fired from off the eastern beach, possibly assuming the inhabitants would have been living in the lusher part. The taking out of Moran’s seemed to give the lie to that though.

Did the enemy think they’d all become so complacent and secure that they’d not have an escape route and routine? And if the enemy had had one or two subs off the western coast, then surely they’d now have run slap bang into them, which he’d been expecting as well.

It was certainly a puzzle.

Now, as they went as deep as they could, no depth charges, no torpedoes, nothing seemed to prevent them making for a shelf Hugh knew about from Laurence about 25 miles, 40 km offshore – a ledge, a shelf he’d found on the way to the island.

They slipped under the ledge, allowing the pods to rise against the underside and there they waited. There were only three pods.

.o0o.

The day wore on and still Hugh didn’t move.

What was he waiting for?

II

It was about mid morning next day when the world went dark and the most appalling buffeting hit them, violent waters rushing torrentially overhead.

The bastards had nuked the island.

The shelf was protecting them but the currents were fearsome. It seemed the world was coming to an end and certainly theirs was. The torrent only abated about midday.

.o0o.

Time passed.

Night fell again, according to their watches.

III

About 10:00 next morning, Hugh briefly switched on his light and that was the signal to follow. They went lower and came out from under the ledges, one after the other but suddenly the whole sky lit up, he turned his pod violently to get back to the shelf, they all did likewise and that’s when the current hit them, driving them wildly, madly, with no rhyme or reason, the stabilizers unable to bring them back to horizontal.

On and on and on, as if driven by fiends.

Until it began to ebb and finally they regained control.

It was hopeless.

Hugh looked at the two women and they at him – Nikki had sustained a gash to her right temple to which Sophie now attended. From the cockpit, there was no sign whatever of the other pods but they did have their rule that whichever landmark they’d last pinpointed as an assembly point, that was where they’d all head if one or more of them went astray.

In this situation, that still meant their island.

He didn’t feel the enemy would drop a second fission bomb so quickly afterwards – they wouldn’t have assumed the pods would come back to the island so soon, so perhaps it was the time to actually go back – straight away. The planes would not have hovered although spy satellites were a worry.

To find the others, they’d have to return. The ones who’d been initially lost were Adam, Mandy and Ray and good riddance thought Hugh. Of far greater concern was Laurence, Janine and Lisa and that’s who they were going back to find now.

.o0o.

Some hours later, they were hovering near where their island had been, the dosimeters were going off the scale but it seemed all right inside for now. Hugh’s, Nikki’s and Sophie’s pod did a circumnavigation with Sam and his lot.

The two remaining pods set course for their shelf again.

.o0o.

They reached it just before nightfall, slipping underneath, ready to put in another night.

IV

The whole of the next day was spent in place. ‘Patience,’ was the only word Hugh sent to the other pod via a sign in marker pen on the porthole.

.o0o.

Night fell again – almost routine by now.

V

About 11:00 the next day, Hugh flashed the light and they extracted themselves from under the shelf, once again making their way towards the island, such as it was.

.o0o.

It was late afternoon when they finally surfaced, the survey-meter and dosimeter were applied, they made the seven-ten calculation and it all indicated acceptable radiation for the moment, as long as they donned their suits, which they all now did.

They opened the hatches and took in the scene visually.

Parts of the island remained in place.

The whole of the south had been blown away and the ocean had poured in to fill the blasted hollow but what was left was now a triangular atoll, the whole of the compound obliterated, with no vegetation and with scorched pumice covering almost all.

Clearly, it could no longer support life.

Sailing around south into the new atoll, they were agreeably surprised that it was now like a safe harbour and they took the decision to moor not all that far from where the food had been stored in those wells.

Hugh and Sam climbed out, threw down the ladders from the bows and dropped into waste-deep water.

.o0o.

About seventy metres in from the shore, where the wells should have been, they were filled with pumice, except for one and they knew there was tinned meat in that. If anything had survived, it could only be a bonus. The cables they’d used to suspend the stores deep in the well seemed to be intact – at least two of them were and the two men began to haul one of them up.

It snapped.

Refusing to be discouraged, they were far more careful with the other, which didn’t seem to have been forced into the rock and they felt the container coming up.

Slowly, slowly, they raised it, it did come to the top and Sam put the meter to it, registering a minimal amount of radiation. They started pulling out the tins, rather than risking hauling the container over the edge and once the sixty four 5 litre tins were sitting on the rock, the trek down to the pods began, four tins each at a time.

The women, suited up, took them, Miri indicating she’d accompany them now and so the shuttle, ten tins at a time, proceeded.

All the while on the horizon they could see, through their visors, giant mushroom clouds spurting into the heavens, one here, one there, little islands being blown out of existence on the orders of seriously demented people.

.o0o.

They finished up, the women had put the tins behind safe hatches built into the buffer walls in their pods and they were ready to go. Hugh indicated for Sam to follow, they secured the hatches and away they went. They hadn’t actually spoken because of the suits.

.o0o.

40 km away they surfaced over their shelf, there was a swell but with the subs idling and with lines, they were able to tie the pods, open the hatches, take off the helmets, Sam, Nick, Susannah and Miri stepped over to Hugh, Nikki and Sophie and everyone hugged everyone.

Tears flowed for what they assumed were their lost colleagues, a short prayer was said. The ones they missed of course were Laurence, Janine and Lisa. They had no time just now to discuss the kerfuffle before they’d boarded – they could talk about that at their leisure.

All now looked at each other and Sam said, ‘Speak, Cap’n.’

‘The island’s finished for us. I think they’ll come back to complete it – we might have hours or even until tomorrow morning but methinks we’d best get down under this shelf again now. In a nutshell,’ concluded Hugh, ‘we’re alive and relatively well, only Nikki seems injured, we’re not diseased and I doubt the radiation is going to affect us that much in the suits, we’ve enough fuel, recycled material and food for at least two years.

We have light and as an added bonus, to supplement the hydroponic soy, there are 32 tins of meat each. Each tin will do three people five meals and in the fridge/freezer, we’d get four weeks from one tin, provided we cooked it up and eat the meat once a week. So we’re talking, conservatively, two years. We have vegetable matter.

The down side is that we’ll go crazy cooped up in these cocoons and if we have babies along the way, we have to hope the women have nothing against suckling. So, provided we can hide from the enemy, we can survive.’

‘But?’ asked Nikki.

‘We have to look at the world scenario – seriously we do. If the world’s going down – if these really are the end times – then we’ll die no matter what. We’ll be just existing in these pods, eking out a way to live and no more. That’s all we’ll ever have, until the end. We’ll have each other of course and the babies will maybe give us two years before we strangle each other.

Seems to me that we have three choices. First, Nikki’s idea – stay under the shelf and hope for the best, have the babies, then decide. Second – a long, slow trek, at no more than 5kph, keeping to ridges and shelves, travelling at night and so on, in a quest to find another island or even a remote stretch of coastline. We’ll still live in the pods but will come out at night, like nocturnal animals, providing there’s a forest where we know there’s wildlife. We’ll need to watch for marauding bands.

Or there’s a third alternative. We can fulfil our Sophie-Fleury destiny, which we weren’t doing on the island and as you saw, we went morally soft – we can do this by sailing right into the jaws of the enemy in, say, Israel and be present, helping out as best we can in the final days for the world. We’d go out with dignity but that might not appeal to the ladies with babies.’

The ladies did not respond … yet.

Then Nikki spoke. ‘Why can’t we do both? Why can’t we have the babies with the pods under the shelf, wait until they’re a certain age and then decide about heroics?’

‘For now, let’s return to the shelf and observe for two more days,’ suggested Hugh. ‘I still fear an enemy mop-up and besides, the others might eventually drift back to our ledge. If we’re still alive, we take a vote, all right?’

They agreed and it was back to the pods.

VI

Two mornings later, a third apocalyptic explosion rent the atmosphere, the familiar torrential tide again swept over them but they were used to it by now.

‘This is insane,’ muttered Sophie, ‘insane.’

‘These are the people you were with, Sophe. They obviously fear we might still be in some sort of caves.’

.o0o.

There was no island, none. There were the outcrops sticking up out of the water but as this was not even high tide, the die was cast. They surfaced and Sam and crew came over, de-suited and they took the vote.

Nikki had changed her mind, observing the general mood and it was unanimously decided, though with trepidation, for the Promised Land, underwater most of the way.

VII

December, 2012

It was a slow, laborious journey along the sea floor, they’d been trained to keep it to below 3 mph and sometimes not to move at all, which put a huge premium on them being able to entertain themselves and intersperse that with chores. They were also using no satellite or electronics, just a magnetic compass.

Hugh asked Sam as soon as they were underway, through signs held to the porthole, if certain signs/symptoms/whatever meant that both Nikki and Sophie were now pregnant – sore breasts, fatigue, urinating, some nausea.

Sam wrote and showed, ‘Sounds a big yes. Congrats if so.’

The ladies now saw what Sam was holding up and Sophie wanted it clear who the father of her child was. The other two were surprised – this wasn’t generally the thing the female brought up but she had her reasons.

She’d been paired with Sam before Miri and for her to only be feeling these signs now seemed to place conception within Hugh-time. Obviously Nikki’s pregnancy was not related to that but it was significant that it was around the same time, slightly later.

Nikki’s angle, which she kept to herself, was that she wanted Sophie’s conception to have been in the field, not on that hilltop, not in that tree. They were all aware what she must have been thinking.

She now descended into floods of tears – how chagrined she was about Sophie’s tree stunt – that it had been over the line, over the limit, that the semen down the tree bark had been obscene – Sophie was mortified and ran to the far end of the pod, curling up into a ball on the floor.

‘I have to say this, Nikki,’ said Hugh, ‘and if it hurts, I’m horrified, but I really must put this straight. Miri told me you came into the clearing and saw the semen stains on the bark – it looked very bad, it did, Miri told me this and she doesn’t shock easily. For that, I know that Sophie, who’s now curled up at the end of our pod, plus I, are more deeply sorry than can be put into words.

But Nikki, consider for one moment why Sophie did that. If you’ll let me explain – she had me climb up there so that I could neither kiss her nor cuddle her in that position, it could not be turned into tragic romance – it was coition for the sole purpose of making a baby, it was Sophie’s last chance at that. It was her gift to you in a way.’

Nikki considered that, churned it over, then went to Sophie and put her arms around her.

.o0o.

In the other pod, in a discussion about the amazing events in the last couple of minutes on their island – not everyone understood, even now.

‘Explain, Sam,’ said Susannah. ‘It was bloody insane.’

‘OK. As far as I know, from what Hugh’s said since then, there were two traitors on the island.’

‘I was traitor,’ said Miri.

‘Yes and no. You were an agent, you were sent in to cause as much disruption as you could, you were a more open enemy.’

‘That’s why you were naked?’ asked Nick, grinning.

‘Of corr, but not juss zat.’

‘Miri brought that microfiche for someone she didn’t know, it was hush hush, even with them. The two traitors were Adam and Mandy, which explains all that faux anger the whole time, anything to disrupt. Close to the end – and they knew it was near the end – they sucked up to Hugh in the hope of getting their way with the pods.’

‘That’s the part I still don’t get,’ said Susannah, ‘and where does Ray come into it?’

‘Ray I’m not sure about. They may have turned him, maybe not – it might be that he was just being patriotic in his own way – they’d poisoned his mind perhaps against Hugh, Nikki and Laurence. I don’t know, we’ll have to all sit down with a drink and talk it out. But it was not a good plan to pull a gun, with Sophie nearby to rip the gun off him, pistol whip him and knock him into that pod -’

‘The dud pod,’ said Nick.

‘The one we’d been having engine trouble with, yep. And then the sight of Hugh and Nikki marching Adam and Mandy, guns to their temples, into that pod was a sight to behold. Can’t help thinking there was more than a little stick there, aside from the duty. But I’m sure they knew about these two Jensens from the past – Hugh’s a killer, he has form and would have pulled that trigger, but Nikki is the surprise package – she killed three men in a car in Prague.’

‘No!’ Susannah was shocked.

‘Nikki doesn’t talk about it … and it’s not her only brush with weapons. She’d have pulled that trigger, sure as I’m sitting here. This is where I come in. Hugh asked me the day before to jam the missile chute on that one pod. And did you notice their pod following us last?’ He thought about that one. ‘Look, we’re not going to know until we all talk.’

‘So who ended up in each pod?’ asked Susannah.

‘It’s in my pocket, hang on. Here ’tis:

1 Hugh Jensen [55]
2 Nicolette Jensen-Vasseur [40]
3 Sophie Magdalena [29]

4 Sergeant Sam Hoddle [35]
5 Miri Ravea [indeterminate age]
6 Sergeant Nicholas Davidson [30]
7 WNCO Susannah Hennessy [26]

8 Captain Laurence Sanders [42]
9 Janine Falworth [39]
10 WNCO Lisa Benson [30]

11 Raymond Booth [32]
12 Mandy Davis [27]
13 Adam Brothers [33]’

.o0o.

In their pod, Nikki looked into Sophie’s eyes and asked if there was a chance she and Hugh could speak privately. It was asked gently, the last matter had been dealt with, so it wasn’t that.

Sophie went to the pilot’s seat at the front, laid it back and put her feet up, putting on the headphones to give a semblance of not listening.

‘Of course she’s listening,’ Nikki smiled at him and Sophie smiled too, facing forward.

The arrangement in the pod was that one double bed was made using a double seat with the backrests laid back. Whoever was on duty used where Sophie was now or elsewhere, whichever two weren’t on duty usually lay on the bed, making for a far less cluttered interior. This was one of the great advantages of the three way intimacy.

And so it was Nikki and Hugh now on that bed. ‘How much do you remember, Bebe, about Sophie’s rescue?’

‘Not a lot but people have said things, assuming I’d know and that fills in some of the blanks. We lifted her from Germany, I remember being under the backseat of some cars, Genie helped get her mind back – you too I think.’

‘We were a bit later but generally – yes. Do you love her?’

‘Of course I do. If she went away, thinking she was giving us peace, I’d be devastated, distraught, éperdu, égaré -’

‘Yes, I do speak some French, Bebe,’ she smiled. ‘And if she was lost to another man – a kind, strong man who would look after her?’

‘Ah, delighted of course. The only time I wouldn’t mind my lover going with another.’ Sophie, up front, noted that.

‘And what is Sophie to you? Wife, lover … daughter?’

‘She’s my cognitive disssonance – I’m not sure what that is in French -’

‘Dissonance cognitive,’ Nikki smiled. ‘Go on.’

‘You and I, together, we see her as our half-daughter in a way, she’s 26 years younger than me and I’ve been having her -’

‘It’s been very much two-way but yes, as you said on the island – who makes love to his own daughter? Or hers?’ she hastily added. ‘Don’t forget I make love with her too. So you know, Bebe, I wonder about her own dissonance cognitive.’

‘Well, she had enough of that in Germany – ours must seem more mild.’

‘I’m not so sure. Strong feelings are involved. You’d never send her away, would you?’

‘I can’t, Nikki, I just can’t, I couldn’t live with myself.’

‘Nor me.’ Sophie rejoiced inside.

‘You’re the key here though, Nikki – you’re the one having to share your man and I can say now, I would not sit up front there if another man was in bed with you.’

‘I know that. Bear in mind, Bebe, that I designed for you and Sophie, plus you’re sharing me with her too, though of course you don’t see it that way. No, as I said, I wouldn’t send her away either, never, and there are two good things with Sophie this way – when she and I are in bed and our heads are close, we speak in very fast French and I need that, I need to be able to break out in my own language sometimes, drop into our jargon, you know.

The other thing with her is how she stays within the rules. I see no crisis at this time inside this pod, not while we’re in this situation.’ Sophie visibly relaxed but was soon tense again. ‘The problem will be once we land. We’ll be back in civilization again – as you and Emma found out to your cost.’

‘Emma. Yes.’

‘Let’s get Sophe and take her to bed. She’s already heard what we said but it still had to be said, we had to reassure her without embarrassing her.’

Sophie smiled and put down the headphones even before she’d been called. Nikki stayed where she was, Hugh got out, Sophie got in, Hugh got in after her. Nikki started kissing her lips and he her shoulder and neck but she suddenly pulled out of the kiss and made a pushing away gesture to him.

‘I can’t do two at once, that’s what they did to me.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Nikki. ‘Can you do one of us at a time?’ She nodded. ‘Then who will you choose for now?’

Sophie’s smiled again. ‘If I choose you, then you will not be offended – and you are more dangerous than Hugh to another woman – and anyway, Hugh always lives in hope he can be with me some time later. So I choose you for now.’

He climbed out, put on the robe and went to do some work at the console up forward. Those two fell into a deep kiss.

.o0o.

Some time later, just as he’d about dozed off, he was aware of each of them beside him, one either side of the chair. Nikki reached through his robe for what had just sprung to attention.

‘Call this a present, Bebe,’ she said, dropping to her knees and replacing fingers with lips, Sophie looked away.

The result was predictable, Nikki abandoned him and went back to bed, Sophie now knelt down and did the same thing. ‘All your birthdays, Hugh,’ her messed up lips said when it was done.

They watched him go past, back to the wash area. He then brought the cloth back and cleaned the pilot’s seat and armrest, plus a bit off the floor. Then he went and took care of himself.

Then Nikki allowed him some time with Sophie, but not for that. This was a major step and the significance was not lost on either woman.

VIII

February, 2012

The ship’s analogue clock gave the time as 16:52 on the last Sunday in February, as Sam’s pod grounded on a sandbar, then Hugh’s and they made visual contact through the portholes.

Three weeks at sea, running gauntlets, hiding at times, lurking, slipping through – all of it had now brought them to a halt.

Peering through the forward visual ports, they could just make out a coastline and what appeared to be a bay sweeping kilometres out to sea to the south, there was a mountain of sorts just inshore and some sort of civilization over there.

They couldn’t make out anything to the north.

Of course, it was all blurry in three metres of sea water. They checked the dosimeters and survey meters but all appeared to be normal – no radiation of note.

.o0o.

Two kilometres away, deep in the hillside command post, Lt. General Helmut Mueller studied the screen impatiently. ‘We could take ’em both out now and save ourselves the bother.’

Colonel Paul Rabin, seconded by the Israeli authority to the International Peacekeeping Force stationed in Haifa, shook his head. ‘No, it would be as well to observe for the nonce. We want all the fish in the net before we move.’

Mueller looked across at the other man, puzzled. Didn’t the fool know that that those pods contained three of the most wanted insurgents in Europe? Didn’t he understand how much time, effort and expenditure had been wasted in plucking these three out, root and branch?

He sighed and returned to the screen.

.o0o.

Bringing the pods close to the surface and opening the hatches, Sam climbed out and Hugh popped his head out of his, was satisfied and now climbed on top of the hull. Sophie now popped her head out.

‘Does it look to you the same as it looks to me?’ Sam called across.

‘Ha Qerayot, הקריות,’ Hugh called back.

‘How do you know?’

‘The urban conglomeration to the south by the mountain.’

‘Could be anything.’

‘Could also be Haifa and I think it might be Qiryat Yam in front of us.’

‘You really think so?’

‘I think it’s a very real possibility. You want to know about it?’

‘Give me the abridged version.’

‘Urban area, conglomeration of five towns – Qiryat Motzkin, Qiryat Bialik, Qiryat Atta, Qiryat Haim are the others.’

‘I’ve heard of Qiryat Bialik. Large migrant population, no?’

‘Yep but I still think this one might be Quiryat Yam.’

They got down to the cleaning, the first blast of relatively fresh air reviving everyone’s spirits, then went up top.

‘So what else do you know about the place?’ asked Sophie.

‘We’re off the coast of the Haifa mehozot, I think. That’s Har Karmel over there.’

‘Har Karmel?’

‘Mount Carmel. We’d best be careful about stepping into this water because it’s fed by the Kishon River, the most chemically polluted in Israel. Put a match to it and it would leap into flame.’

At this moment, through the forward port, Miri saw a boat motoring towards them. Hugh asked her to go below and switch on the scan, may as well use the electronics now, which brought up a zero – didn’t appear to be armed. A young man was wildly gesticulating, the boat came closer and closer and they all felt that this was it. A sick feeling in the stomach touched all bar Miri.

They all went below and held each other close, looking into each other’s eyes. They felt the bow wave rock the pods and Hugh went up top.

The man spoke rapidly and was not understood, he then switched to Hebrew, then to a faltering Russian and that’s when Hugh began to follow his train of thought. His face became grimmer and finally he nodded, turned to Sam’s pod and indicated for him to come out.

Precariously positioned on the slippery curved top of the pod, Hugh filled Sam in. ‘His name is Imad Azzam – second cousin of a prominent Ahl al-Tawhīd. He’s a Druze. They’re basically Arabic but they go for Taqiyya or التقية – they subordinate themselves to the local culture and even embrace it, in order to keep their own belief alive. There are two divisions – the inner, called the Uqqal, and the outer.

What I don’t like about the inner is that it seems a little like the occult orders on the other side. It might not be so but it may be so. They’re a secretive people. For now he’s a friend.’

‘How convenient,’ murmured Sam.

‘What else can we do, Sam? We’ve made this decision and I’d say it’s a fair surmise that they’ve been tracking us for days.’

‘Why would the Druze track us?’

‘Not the Druze. Them. Them. The Interim World Council, Near-Eastern Region, 1st Dan District. Imad’s just told me about it. Israel’s accepted their offer of protection against the Northern, Arabic and Eastern threats and against the cursed insurgency, of which we are one small, vermin-like part.’

‘Why would Israel concede its sovereignty?’

‘They haven’t. Elements in the Knesset saw Richard Japhet as the precursor to the long lost deliverer. He’s promised to rebuild the Temple for them and the cornerstone’s soon to be laid.’

‘Oh my goodness.’

The others now came up on deck and listened to what was being said.

‘The stumbling block, Sam, is the red heifer. The rabbis keep pronouncing against each new one as it presents itself and the other side can’t see their way round this. It’s the key to the whole business.’

‘Red heifer? What are you talking about?’ Sophie was non-plussed.

‘They have to find a perfect red heifer before the cornerstone can be laid. It’s written.’

Sophie was shaking her head. ‘Hugh, you’re truly mad. Too much learning has unhinged your brain.’

‘Now we’re here Sophie, you can ask any Orthodox Jew about it. It’s what they believe, according to Imad. Look, ladies, we’re in an ancient area of the world and there are things going down. The world did not destroy itself, despite our worst fears, based on what the maniacs were doing to random islands in the ocean, and yet it’s in the process of destroying itself. We need help.’

‘Come, come,’ the young man on the cruiser was now frantically begging, in faltering Russian.

‘Why should he care?’ asked Nikki.

‘I suggest we go and find out.’

‘Hugh, are you crazy? Here we have weapons, defences, each other. If we go ashore, who knows what might happen? We’ll be separated, tortured, murdered. They could lead us straight into the hands of the authorities.’

‘I think they’ll do the opposite. Let it be upon me if it’s not so.’

‘Actually, I get that feeling too,’ said Sophie.

‘All right then, ladies and gentleman, Imad has three friends to help us with the loading – Samih Jumbalat, Fawzi Fares and Salah Arslan. Sara, wife of Fawzi, is at the other end. She and her sister Farida will take the pods to a location 72km north, in a neutral zone, or at least to a zone of some dispute between the authorities. We’re apparently close to that yellow line now.’

They asked Imad outright and the reply was frank. ‘Officially, we’re taking you to the local administrator’s office, where you’ll be documented and held for airlift. Actually, we’re taking you to our village.’

‘Why?’

‘You have returned. We must.’

This was more worrying than anything up to this point. People who are willing to sacrifice themselves for you obviously have some agenda of their own and if you deviate even one iota from that agenda, it could spell a swift end.

‘We’re remaining there?’

‘You’ll meet Shaykh Mowafak Tarif briefly and he’ll recommend the next step.’

‘But that makes him an accessory after the fact.’

‘He must. Then you both will journey, next day, through Yesrael.’

Seemed as good a programme as any, as far as they could see. There belongings would be taken care of.

IX

Shaykh Tarif seemed to have approved of the travellers, for early next morning the documents appeared – passes and so on – and off Nikki and Hugh went, dressed head to foot in Middle-Eastern attire, the rest remaining in the village.

It was the first real chance to see the village in the light and they saw a little of how the Druze lived. They were clearly farmers – olive groves and fruit orchards were carefully maintained on the hillside and Hugh thought he spotted cherry and apple trees, as well but probably not.

There was a flat area they walked past and he surmised it was a wheat field then, at the foot of the hill, a battered old Jeep awaited them, they piled in and were taken to a junction on the main road a few kilometres away where they connected with an Egged company airconditioned bus, en route for Nazareth.

It was unreal gazing over the infamous Esdraelon Plain, the Valley of Jezreel, listening to a couple of students from Jerusalem speaking in English about their coming stay in Kfar Masaryk kibbutz.

Hugh began to suspect where they were actually headed and in answer to Nikki, whispered, ‘Har Megiddon.’ She mistook this for another Hugh-ism and shook her head. He couldn’t see how they would get through the myriad checkpoints on the dodgy Israeli passports they were on and yet, here they were, hurtling through the valley of so much bloodshed over the millennia, as if it were an everyday occasion.

‘No, seriously, Hugh – where are we going?’

‘I told you, darling – Armageddon. It’s our עלייה, our Aliyah, Hebrew for the ascending, for the homecoming.’

She decided not to pursue this and lapsed into silence. He took her hand and she asked, ‘What’s it all about?’

He grinned and said, ‘I have absolutely no idea. Take it as it comes.’

In the broad Esdraelon Valley, before them now, appeared a sort of sawn-off mountain rising from the surrounding land and it appeared to have some sort of construction near its plateau. Hugh knew this to be Solomon’s gate and also knew the hill to be guarded.

.o0o.

The van stopped two kilometres short of the hill and they transferred to a Daewoo.

The road was now relatively full of vehicles and the tourist buses from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were the worst. The Daewoo didn’t attempt to join the multitude but swung off onto a side road which appeared to lead to a small gate in the hill.

.o0o.

Soon they were inside and greeted, by Shaykh Tarif himself. ‘Albus, Lailah,’ he greeted them, Hugh coughed and Nikki spluttered. They looked at one another, not believing their ears and were now most uneasy. What was a Lailah anyway when it was at home?

The Shayk picked up on this and assured them the Druze were friends. Following him down a stone-walled tunnel, along a wooden walkway, they eventually came out into a small ante-room, where they were bidden to wait.

A Personage now appeared from the far end, similar in height to the Shaykh and yet very different. It was a woman, and as she approached, they could see something ethereal and serene in the face. She was wearing al-mandīl, the transparent loose white veil, over her hair and around her mouth. Her shirt was black and her long skirt fell to her ankles.

‘Good afternoon, Albus, Lailah. Welcome.’ With a sinking feeling they sat down as asked. They knew of course of the Albus bit but again – who was this Lailah? The Personage arranged herself on her long chair and smiled. ‘You are fearful, I see. Know that among our rocks is sanctuary.’

Hugh found himself asking, ‘For how long have you known we were coming here?’

Unsurprised by the question, she replied, ‘Since Lailah conceived to Albus. They require our goodwill for just a time longer and so they must let you be for now.’

Nikki asked, ‘I’m to have this child? You know that?’

‘Yes, we knew. You’re here to bear your son, are you not and time will then enter its next phase.’

Well, that was nice to know – they were going to have a son. ‘And next?’

‘You’ll return to Har Karmel for a time and live in our community until your son is due and Magdalena’s daughter, then you will come here for a time, then you must flee.’

‘I see.’

The Personage smiled and rose, they rose, she took her leave. Two male ˤuqqāl with long moustaches and shaved heads, in dark robes with white turbans, waited to escort them back to the main gate.

X

Word had reached Britain and at the regular Monday meeting, the news was seventeenth on the agenda.

Reginald Carrick turned to his cabinet and drily observed, ‘Well that saves us the job of looking for them – we can concentrate on the other insurgents now. We always knew they’d surface one day.’

XI

This evening had been set down for the official welcoming of the newcomers, at Fawzy’s and Sara’s. A simple supper, they’d been told.

They’d heard of Druze ‘simple suppers’ before and when they arrived, it was beyond anything they could have expected. Bringing a few little nondescript gifts which their hosts received with pleasure out of all proportion to their value, they knew not to overly praise anything in the rooms because this would create an obligation on the part of the hosts to give it to them.

Hugh knew that the Druze only kill and immediately eat meat on special occasions and so the lamb which occupied pride of place on the table was an enormous compliment to them. On the table also were olives, pita bread, eggplant, cauliflower, cheese, and chickpeas flavored with onions, rice, burghul cracked wheat plus potatoes, a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley and, yogurt, baklava, and bowls of fruit.

As they ate, Susannah commented to Nikki about the garlic, sesame oil, various herbs, lemon and olive oil and it was clear that Sara and the other women had pulled out all stops.

They felt quite humble, almost confused.

They could also see the affection and esteem in which Sara and the other women were held in the household and Miri was the first to note that the woman was actually happy with her family – a feminist’s worst nightmare, Sam felt. Sara gave the impression that marriage to one partner was not only fulfilling – it could be fun.

They finished the strong coffee, bade elaborate farewells and went back to their respective homes and their new lives.

.o0o.

If Hugh and Sam were suspicious of all the bonhomie, the women were more than happy for calm and order to prevail. They wanted routines, medical services, schooling, a normal life for the children-to-be and the fact that they were planning to do this right on top of the political and religious powder keg of the holy land was neither here nor there.

XII

It was a warm Thursday when Hugh went out, a little later than usual, to get the water and having filled the two wooden pails, he rested for some minutes on a wooden bench behind the well, in the shade of a clump of bushes.

He saw Sara approaching from a cobblestone path from the other direction, watched that distinctive shuffle and realized how much he admired her.

She saw him and checked herself, then made the irrevocable decision to continue to the well. As she went to fill the pail, he offered his help.

‘No thank you – it’s very kind.’

‘Let me carry your pail.’

‘You have two of your own.’

He left it at that, picked up his pails and politely took his leave.

.o0o.

Dusk fell and Sophie prepared for the night.

Because of the hillside, they were basically on the ground floor and above them was another house, accessed from the road higher up the hill but it seemed deserted – at least, they couldn’t hear any activity above.

Their part was low ceilinged, in mud brick, containing two corridors at an angle of about sixty degrees – it was a weird, ramshackle building, seemingly built by afterthought but spacious all the same.

As you walked in, you were faced by a two metre wide wall some three metres in and that had a brocade chair, sidetable and flowers. Then you could go right or left down either corridor.

If you went left, at the end was Sam and Miri’s room, to the left. If you came back this way, there was a kitchen and eating area. If you went down the right corridor, at the far end was Nick’s and Susannah’s room on the right. Closer this way was an unused room.

In the centre front, like a sawn off triangle, was Sophie’s room, accessible only from the right corridor and further towards the back in that central section, Hugh’s and Nikki’s spacious room, also accessible only from the right corridor.

.o0o.

The sun duly rose the next morning.

All the way to the well, Hugh hoped against hope that Sara wouldn’t come, he wished her to stay away. He reached the place with its inviting bench under the canopy of trees, filled the two pails, sat and waited.

Twenty metres away, she appeared again, stopped, turned and started to walk home. Hugh silently determined never to come to this well again, not at this time anyway.

But she stopped, standing upright, looking up at the sky, turned and was slowly dragged back to the well.

She reached him, he took her pail from her hand with the slightest of resistance, filled it, placed it on the bench and sat down again. She stood, glancing up and down the pathway, came over and placed her bottom on the bench beside him, facing slightly away.

‘Why do you come to this well when I am here?’

‘I shan’t come here again, not at this time of day. I’m sorry.’ He got up and collected his pails.

‘No!’ Her voice was sharp. He stopped. ‘No,’ she said more softly. ‘I – I want to talk.’

‘Yes.’

‘Every neighbour will report to my husband that we spoke today.’ He went to pick up his pails again. ‘Stop. Please stop. I want to talk to you. Maybe you could invite us to your home or we could invite you again.’

He opened his mouth, it closed, he tried again, he gave it away. She looked hard at him. ‘Don’t come for five day … Hugh.’

‘Sara, I’m not sure we ever can again. You are a fine woman, much admired by all.’

She got up, took her pails and hurried away. He stayed there for some time, on that bench, and knew there was going to be trouble, maybe terminal trouble over this. He might just have endangered the safety of all members of the party.

Picking up his pails, he made his way back to the house.

.o0o.

Preparing for bed, Nikki suddenly asked, ‘When will you see her again?’

‘Officially not for five days but I told her probably never again.’ He never asked how she’d found out.

‘It’s too early, I suppose, to ask if you intend to take her from her husband and leave me, now with child to you.’

‘I just told you, Nikki, I’d decided that before I even went today.’

‘And yet you timed those two visits to the well.’

‘Yes … yes I did. And because of that, I can never see her again nor is it safe to speak with any woman alone in this village.’

‘You understand that then,’ said Nikki. ‘This woman got past your guard, didn’t she? Not without good reason, I concede – you always choose the good ones.’

‘Yes, she got under my guard, Nikki.’

‘Stick to Sophie. And me. We are both with child to you.’

Chapter 3-12 hereChapter 3-14 here

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