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Khartoum, 29 October 1905
Eleanor tightened her cotton keffiyeh round her face and squinted through the shimmering haze of the afternoon. Before her, the mud-baked flats of the North Sudan spread out as far as the eye could see. They shimmered in the heat, shades of cinnamon, flint and ochre.
Her camel grunted and stepped sideways, instantly disrupting the caravan of beasts as it wound its way along the dusty track.
"Whoa," Elle said. She leaned forward and, using her long riding cane, patted his sand-colored neck to reassure him. In response, he turned his head and tried to bite her foot, leaving a trail of foul greenish snot over the leather of her polished boots.
"Oh you are a beast!" Elle said as she shook her foot and crossed her ankles in the place behind the camel's neck. Even though they had set her stirrups to suit a Western lady, she preferred to ride Bedouin-style as her guides did.
Behind her, one of the guides laughed behind his keffiyeh. "That one, we call him Hamsa. It means "Lion of the Desert."
"Well he's going to be camel stew of the desert if he doesn't behave," Elle retorted.
In reply, Hamsa grunted and farted loudly although he did step into line with the other camels.
The Bedouin guide dropped the fabric from his leathery face and smiled, revealing two rows of white teeth.
"He likes you because you have the fire that burns inside. Not many women can ride the ships of the desert."
Elle smiled back. "Yes, I am quite proficient at piloting shipsonly not so much the ones that bite. But say, how much farther do you think we need to travel?" The silence and the vastness of this place made her uneasy. Out here there was nowhere to hide.
"Not too much more. We will be at the place soon. From there you can see for days," her guide replied as he turned his attention back to the invisible path they were following.
They were about half an hour's ride from the fort, which was near Wad Rawah, to the south of the city of Khartoum. And it was here, off the beaten track in the depths of Sudan, that her ship the Water Lily was moored, ready to fly a shipment of Nubian artifacts to the British Museum.
When the archaeological expedition that had chartered the Water Lily had not returned on schedule, Lieutenant Crosby had ordered a search party of guides to be sent out. It was not unusual for people to run into trouble or lose their way in these parts.
The opportunity to explore this mysterious place had been too strong to resist. So Elle had volunteered to join them. The lieutenant had objected. Elle had argued with him. Vigorously. To this day she had rarely lost an argumentand anyone who had ever tried to disagree with Lady Greychester once she had made up her mind soon learned that resistance was futile. Eventually Crosby had relented, but with much reluctance.
That was before Elle had discovered the quirks of traveling by camel.
"They should have been here by now." Elle peered out into the distance. Before her the landscape was barren. The sight of it made a lump well up in her throat. Being out here in the vastness of the Sudan was far from a distraction from her inner woe. The emptiness of her surroundings perfectly matched the emptiness she felt in her heartshe felt desolate and alone.
Sensing her inattention, Hamsa lurched forward to bite a lonely tuft of grass, which was poking out from beside a rock. Elle had to grab hold of the saddle to stop herself from being flung over the camel's head and on to the ground.
Elle tried to bring her mount back under control but in her struggle with the camel, her sleeves had ridden up to reveal a series of delicate pink scars that snaked over her hands and up her forearms. She adjusted the fabric of her shirt quickly. Even though the burns had healed up well and were barely noticeable, she did not like to look at the marks. They were a painful reminder of things she preferred not to think about.
Eighteen months had passed since that freezing night in February. The night she had lost her husband and her heart. Despite the desert heat, she shivered at the thought. Had it been that long already?
The Bedouin shaded his eyes and pulled out a brass spyglass and slipped it open. He studied the horizon for a few long moments. Then he let out a shrill whistle. The other guides started chattering and gesturing animatedly.
"What's the matter?" Elle said as she followed the line her guide was pointing out.
In the distance, two fine plumes of dust appeared. Someone was coming.
The Bedouin turned to Elle. "You are lucky he is a racing camel," he said cryptically.
Elle squinted at him. "And why is that?"
The Bedouin shook his head. "Because now we must run."
Elle scanned the dust plume. The familiar glint of sun reflecting off gunmetal caught her eye.
"Bandits!" she breathed.
As if in answer, the distinctive crack of gunfire rose up in the distance.
Hamsa bellowed and soon all the other camels joined in. They could smell trouble and by the looks of it, it was heading directly for them.
"There are too many. We cannot face them with so few guns. We must go back to the fort for reinforcements!" her Bedouin guide said as he gave the signal to retreat.
"Hold up a moment. Shouldn't we stay and lend them assistance?" Elle said.
Her guide shook his head emphatically. "You do not know these bandits. They are of the most bloodthirsty and cruel kind. We have orders to make sure we turn back if there is any sign of trouble. Lieutenant's orders," he added for good measure.
With surprising speed, the small caravan wheeled about and took off in the opposite direction, leaving Elle and Hamsa behind in the settling dust.
Elle did not really need much more persuasion. She had heard terrible stories of violence and cruelty that befell those hapless travelers who chanced upon desert bandits. Her guide's decision to run was not entirely without merit.
"Hold up, wait for me!" she called out, but her companions had no intention of hanging about. That much was clear from the way they were all urging their camels ahead.
Rather clumsily, she led Hamsa round and started following the guides, who were already in the distance. Fortunately her camel needed little persuasion and soon they were kicking up a fair old dust plume of their own. Elle coughed and pulled her goggles over her eyes.
"Hup hup, Hamsa." Elle nudged the camel with her cane and the beast accelerated, his long legs making short work of the distance between her and the rest of the search party. Soon she was bringing up the rear guard of their caravan.
Slowly the minutes ticked by with only the sound of camels moving and the jingles of riding tack as they bounced along, breaking the grim silence. Every time she looked behind her, the dust plume was bigger.
"They are gaining on us," she called out to her guide. He said nothing, but nudged his camel to go faster.
Elle almost let out a sob of relief when the fort came into view. It was one of the few safe outposts within a two-hundred-mile radius of the city of Khartoum.
The fort was a shabby mud-brick building that melded into the landscape so seamlessly that the only way one could spot it was by the scraggly palm trees growing around it.
They rounded a rocky outcrop and entered a wide but shallow wadi that ran downhill from the fort. "Almost there," Elle said.
More shots rang out in the distance. Elle glanced over her shoulder to see what was happening. The dust plumes were much bigger nowa smaller one in front with a bigger one gaining from behind. They were not the only ones under attack, it seemed.
At the sight of the smaller plume, Elle was suddenly seized with an attack of guilt and obligation in equal doses. Instead of providing assistance to people in need as she had volunteered to do, here they were running for their lives. The thought of abandoning someone to the mercy of cruel desert brigands seemed rather poor form, so Elle reined her camel in. Hamsa skidded to a halt with a snort and a puff, his sides heaving from the effort.
Elle lifted her goggles and rested them on top of her head, which helped to keep the loose tendrils of her hair out of her face. She drew out her spyglass. Carefully she turned the little dials until the dust plumes came into focus.
"Dr. Bell," Elle breathed. From her vantage point, she was almost absolutely sure it was the archaeologist she had been chartered to collect. She could just make out the curve of a white pith helmet bobbing up and down in the smaller group.
"Good boy," Elle said as Hamsa stepped about, somewhat unsure as to whether he should stay or run. Camelsunlike horses, Elle had come to realizetended to do as they pleased. Hamsa snorted and gave her a knowing look, as if he had just read her thoughts. He grunted and extended his lips, revealing a startling clump of gnarled, brown teeth. It was almost as if he was imploring her to turn back to the safety of the fort.
"Yes, you and me both, my smelly friend," she said to the beast. "But we cannot leave the poor doctor out there. It simply will not do."
She stowed her looking glass and unclipped the leather strap that held her Colt 1878 Frontier revolver. The holster was cleverly attached to the side of the leather corset she wore over her shirt ready for a quick draw, if needed.
In a practiced motion, she also reached for the Lee Enfield rifle that was resting in the saddle holster. The rifle was a beautiful thing, brand new and burnished. Lieutenant Crosby had insisted she be issued a weapon before leaving the fort. Which was fine with her as she rarely ventured out without being suitably armed these days; a girl in her position could not be too careful. The company she kept in the course of her business was not always gentle.
She opened the rifle to make sure it was loaded and slid the bolt into place. It made the satisfying sound of well-machined metal upon metal. Satisfied, Elle rested it in her lap. She was ready.
The Bedouin whistled behind her from a slightly safer distance, urging her to follow him.
"Take cover!" she shouted.
There would be no help from her guides in this fight. She was going to have to take this stand on her own until help arrived. Courage be damned.
She lifted the rifle, wrapping the strap around her elbow so the butt sat firmly in the hollow where her upper arm met with her shoulder. She was a passably good shot, but the Enfield was new and she had not had time to set it properly before she left the fort. She would save her pistol for close range, if it came to that.
"Steady on, Hamsa. Good boy," she said in a low voice as she lifted the rifle. The dust cloud was now about five hundred yards away by her estimation, but bullets traveled far in the vastness of the Sudanese plains. However, at this range it was unlikely that she would be able to hit anything with any measure of accuracy. All she could hope for was that her cover fire would be enough to win some time for the doctor. Carefully she exhaled and squeezed the trigger, aiming for the middle of the bigger dust cloud.
The first shot startled her camel for a moment, but he seemed to have been trained to deal with the sound of gunfire. She was rather amazed to see that her aim was true; she could see a camel stumble and a man roll out of the dust on to the ground, where he now lay motionless.
The Bedouin cheered, but Elle pressed her lips together. That was an extraordinarily lucky shot, but there was no pleasure to be found in the shooting of a beast or a man.
Gritting her teeth, she took aim again and fired. Her shot missed, but it did send a few bandits off course.
At that point, the bandits seemed to realize that if Elle could hit them, then they could hit her too. They opened fire with much enthusiasm. Shots started pinging off the ground and rocks around them, much to the dismay of Hamsa who was stepping about in panic.
Elle ducked as a bullet whizzed past her head and she turned to meet her attackers head on. It wasn't much but at this angle she and Hamsa would be a smaller target to aim for. She could see the individual shapes of the bandits clearly now. They would be upon her soon.
"Go. Tell them to open the gates! Get some reinforcements or we'll all be dead in a moment!" she shouted at the cheering Bedouin.
They stopped cheering and swung their camels round.
Elle took aim again. Eight bullets left. Better make them count.
The third and fourth bullets hit a camel. The beast squealed and stumbled. Elle flinched and ducked in order to avoid the volley of shots that was fired in return. One of the shots hit the ground next to Hamsa's foot and he bellowed in surprise.
Elle fired her fifth and sixth rounds, which took the front rider out.
Hamsa let out a low growl and showed the whites of his eyes.
"Easy now. We'll be home in a minute."
Rounds seven, eight and nine she fired in quick succession. This took out one of the bandits on horseback.
The last shot missed, the bullet lost in the rapidly growing spray of dust and hooves.
With shaking hands, Elle stowed the rifle and drew out her Colt. All she could do now was try to send the bandits off course. She fired a rapid volley at them, emptying all the chambers except the last.
The bandits were almost upon her. To her dismay, Elle realized that there was no time to run, because if she did, she would be shot in the back for sure. She stowed her pistol with a grim determination. She would keep the last bullet in the chamber, just in casefor in this world there were some fates that were worse than death.
With the fort firmly in their sights, the bandits seemed to renew their efforts to cut off the archaeologist's route to safety. Elle watched helplessly as the bandits split into two groups in an attempt to outflank the wagon. If they came within firing range of the fort it would be too late for them to catch Dr. Bell.