The legendary exploits of Lawrence of Arabia are the starting point for this captivating World War I suspense novel
As the future of Europe is being decided in the muddy trenches of the Western Front, Lieutenant Thomas Edward Lawrence is thousands of miles away, toiling in the map room of the British Army’s general headquarters in Cairo. But the young intelligence officer has big ideas—none bigger than his vision of a unified Arabia free of its Ottoman rulers.
Before T. E. Lawrence can become Lawrence of Arabia, however, he must first contend with the notorious German spy Wilhelm Wassmuss. Local tribes are capturing British soldiers at the German’s behest, and the War Office has sent an assassin to take care of the problem once and for all. It is Lawrence’s job to get Captain Quinn within range of his target, a task made all the more difficult by Wassmuss’s deep knowledge of the desert and its people. In matching wits with a sinister European nemesis, Lawrence starts down a path that will change the face of the Middle East forever.
Empire of Sand is the 1st book in the Great British Heroes and Antiheroes Trilogy, which also includes Death on the Ice and Signal Red.
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Empire of Sand
By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Robert Ryan
All rights reserved.
Pas de Calais, France, 1915
The ground was never still beneath their feet. It vibrated and heaved under the continuous barrage. Every pool of standing water shimmered in the early morning light, the surfaces rippling and dancing as the shells pounded the earth. The bombardment from the British and French artillery had started at two in the morning, ripping a mile-long gash in the night sky with its blurred muzzle flashes, filling the Allied soldiers' skulls with its constant rumble. It was now nearly five, and the sun was rising to witness a freshly ruined countryside surrounding the roofless village of Richebourg l'Avoué.
The line trenches that the 1st Gloucesters were moving through had been built by the French and then abandoned, before being called into action once more for the assault against the new German front. In the interim, the duckboards had rotted away, the parapet splintered and the sandbags had split and spilled their filling. The exposed sump at the bottom was a sludge of sewage, sand and mud, through which they had to march.
Second Lieutenant Frank Helier Lawrence, the second youngest of the five Lawrence brothers, stepped aside into one of the boltholes that dotted the length of the communication trench to allow his men to pass. His feet sunk into the mulched straw beneath his boots and he heard the splash of the rats he had disturbed. As the drawn and sometimes frightened faces flashed by, he began speaking to each in turn. 'Well done. Keep it moving. Watch your step. How's the leg, Corporal? That's the spirit.'
Platitudes, but he could think of no better strategy and the men seemed grateful that he made the effort. There were too many officers who stayed mute, taking counsel with their own tearfulness. Lawrence wasn't afraid, simply resigned to the likely outcome of his time in the trenches. But his throat was unnaturally dry, despite the thick, pre-sweetened tea he had consumed. Some of the mugs had been fortified with the nip of rum that his orderly had begun adding. He didn't drink alcohol, but the old farm worker insisted it was medicinal, tried and tested in the fields at home. 'Good for the chilblains.' Lawrence would certainly risk the wrath of his teetotal mother to quell the itching of his feet, which were quite immune to the MO's white powders. So he took his rum and swore he would pray for forgiveness later.
The sun had inched higher in the sky, but the smoke shells had created a haze. As the light became stronger, the faces passing became tinged with yellow, as if the company had all come down with jaundice. Coupled with their bleary and bloodshot eyes, it made them look like an army en route to hospital, rather than war. But then every eye in the British Expeditionary Force was inflamed, from lack of sleep, the constant scratching of dust and dirt and the clouds of smoke that enveloped them day and night.
'Well done, there. Lift your feet, it's easier than dragging them, Private. Helmet, man, helmet.'
He snapped out the praise and gentle chiding with a confidence he no longer felt. He had been in France for just three months, which made him an old hand. Of the ten officers on the square when he joined, four were dead, four wounded and one missing. He felt he was carrying the torch for that group, keeping their spirit alive.
He touched the envelope in the inside pocket of the silk-lined oiled Burberry he was wearing. Not To Be Opened Until My Death, it said on it. He was the last of the ten still standing, as far as he knew. You had to be prepared. So, in the letter, he told his parents and his brothers, Bob, Ned—as they called Thomas Edward—Will and Arnold, not to grieve, but to accept God's will.
He thought of Ned in Cairo, tried to imagine what it must be like to feel warm and dry, to be free of lice, to let the sun warm a clean face. At least T.E. was out of harm's way there, with his maps and diaries. His over-active older brother might protest at the crushing boredom in Egypt, but right now Frank would give a lot to be bored.
He hoped Ned remained there, away from the war. Of all of them, he'd had the most rotten childhood, and had received more than his fair share of beatings from Mother, because he would always accept responsibility for any of his brothers' misdemeanours. When Frank had asked why, T.E. claimed he knew for a fact that the cane hurt the others more than him. Perhaps there was some truth in it; he broke his leg once and nobody discovered it for days, such was his stoicism.
Although Frank wished Ned safe in Cairo, something told him his brother was unlikely to settle for a quiet war.
It was Captain Blunt, who was holding a piece of paper out to him. 'Slight change of plan,' he shouted over the grumbling of the guns. 'The major wants to move your men to this section here.' He jabbed the crude drawing. 'Designated Rapier. You wait—'
Both men started, as if they had received an electrical jolt. It was a second before they realised the cause of the shock. The barrage had stopped. All that was left was the residual ringing in the ears. A breathless hush fell over the column of men, who slowed, as if to catch the precious silence. The noise of the mud sucking at their feet was clearly audible with each step now.
'Good Lord.' Blunt checked his watch. 'Thought we had another thirty minutes.'
'Perhaps they've run out of shells,' said Lawrence. It wasn't an entirely facetious remark. It had happened before.
'Best get into place. Good luck.'
Lawrence pushed his way through the trudging men, slithering as he went, his hand often plunging into the sodden sides of the trench as he struggled for balance, until he reached his sergeant. He indicated the man should go to the head of the column. 'Tell them to wait at the holding point,' he said. 'Then we'll move right. Not lef—'
The earth shuddered and muck and stones rained down on them, sending up plumes of black water from the bottom of the trench.
There was a pause, perhaps two heartbeats long, in which they heard the distinctive growling cough of the German guns, before the air seemed to flutter and the concussion tossed them around like skittles. As they tried to regain their balance, a third wave of shells landed, these ones screaming and whistling as they came, so that the ground-shaking thud of the explosion signalling their detonation seemed like a welcome relief.
There was another pause and every man in the dugout counted, till thirty seconds had passed. Then, a full minute. It was a ranging exercise. The Germans would adjust the artillery's clinometers and start again, this time targeting the forward trenches. The very ones the 1st Gloucesters were heading to. Even the early morning light was gone now, the sun blotted out by a curtain of black particles that hung over the field, rising up to fifty or more feet.
A voice barked from the rear. 'F'God's sake. Get moving, come along. Ain't you lot ever been shelled before?'
There was a ripple of rueful laughter. The sergeant straightened and tried to wipe the dirt from his face, with no success. 'Sir, you were saying?' His officer was still bent double. He touched Lieutenant Lawrence's shoulder, but the man slumped into one of the timber supports and slid down, his face gathering splinters as he went, blood from the shrapnel wound in his head leaving a dark glistening trail on the filthy wood. The sergeant didn't need to check any further; he'd seen this more times than he could possibly calculate. Young Frank Lawrence was dead.CHAPTER 2
Captain Edward Noel, the British Army's Political Officer at Bushire, led his mount up a stony slope, the hooves skittering and sparking on the loose, pebbly surface. His small scouting party had left the date palms behind and, away from any flood plain, the land had grown scrubby, dotted with tamarisk and blackened camel-thorn, all the way, it seemed, to the distant mountains. The desert here was a drab, dusty grey and monotonous. It reminded Captain Noel of a vast, baked spoil heap.
As the band of men, horses and camels crested the rise, they could see clearly the interruption in the overland lines of the Anglo-Persian Telegraphic Company that ran from the British Residency at the port of Bushire, north to Baghdad and Tehran. The wires had been pulled down but, confirming that this was no idle vandalism or vicious act of nature, a stretch of the telegraph poles had been yanked from their seatings and carted off. To a people who lived in a land without great forests, with many thousands of square miles devoid of even the smallest trees, the use of stout timber to hold flimsy spools of copper seemed wasteful and arrogant. Whoever had attacked the property of the Anglo-Persian Telegraphic Company had taken its wood as booty.
Not in its entirety, however. One column of timber was left standing, proud of a thin stand of acacia, although its function had altered, for it was a telegraph pole no longer. Where it had once cradled delicate filaments of metal, it now supported two bodies, hanging from its short, stubby arms. It has become a makeshift gibbet.
Apart from this gallows, the only other visible structure was a blockhouse, constructed of rough cement, unpainted to merge into the landscape. Even from a distance, Noel could see the scorch marks that had discoloured it. It had been put to the torch. He turned and looked over his shoulder, but Lieutenant Johnson and the three sepoys under his command had already drawn their weapons and he had no need to warn them of the need for vigilance. Behind them, the camel master, a turbaned Indian drabi, held back. If the raiders were still around, he had no desire to be caught in the service of the English, even if he was carrying nothing more threatening than baled hay and water.
There was a flapping around one of the hanged men's heads and oil-dark wings were briefly silhouetted against the sky. Noel felt a shudder of revulsion.
He walked his horse around the suspended men, trying to ascertain how long they had been there. The pair were still in khaki shorts, the upper torsos were naked, and, even under the reddening of the skin inflicted by the sun, he could see the dark red criss-crosses of a flogging. The eyes had already been gobbled out and the tongues that lolled out of the mouths were pockmarked and torn by the carrion's pecking.
The shot from behind made his horse buck. Noel instinctively ducked, although the round went well above his head. The magpies and hooded crows that had come to feed on the rotting bodies took to the air with petulant cries. The sound of the discharge screeched across the desert.
He turned to see Johnson, his revolver raised, a curl of smoke clinging to the barrel.
'You fool,' Noel said.
'Sir? I just wanted to shift those bloody birds.'
The lad looked queasy, as well he might. He hoped the boy didn't have too much imagination. These men, one English soldier, one Scots telegraph engineer, had not had an easy death. But making such a racket was a foolhardy response, even if it was to save the men the indignity of any more defacement by the birds.
He suppressed the urge to bawl the lad out. 'Go softly, soldier. Put the gun away. Cut them down, bury them.'
Johnson hesitated before he replied. 'Sir.'
'Feed the animals while you are doing so. Quick as you like'.
Noel took off his toupee and wiped his brow. Using field glasses he examined the stony waves of the desert, the ridge behind him, the gently rising foothills to the right. The sun hadn't reached its zenith yet; there were still shadows to give depth and perspective to the view. At midday, the land would become a flat and featureless glare. He concentrated on the soot-coloured foothills, blurred by the ripples of a heat haze, which gave way to mountains with fiery sandstone cliffs, hard, unyielding granite peaks and a series of treacherous passes, which led, eventually, to Shiraz, a deceptively beautiful city of sparkling, water-filled gardens, rich with the scent of roses. It was charming and graceful on the surface, but cruel at heart.
Nothing moved within his range of vision except the constantly shifting air. Yet he knew the sound of a gunshot could be heard many, many miles away and this wilderness was never as empty as it seemed.
Noel nudged his Arab mount over to the blockhouse to investigate further, for he was still one body short of a full tally. There had been three men sent out to examine the lines, one engineer and a pair of armed escorts with horse and mule. He had no doubt where the animals had gone, but had they also abducted the third man? If so, there would be a ransom demand.
He found the corpse at the far side of the cement structure and acknowledged that there would be no note arriving at Bushire, offering an exchange for a trunk of sovereigns. This third body was completely naked. Four wooden tent pegs, each a foot long, had been driven into the earth at an angle, and twine had been used to bind his limbs at wrist and ankle and he had been stretched out in a star-shape.
The captain tried to keep his mind detached while he examined the remains. Where the man's genitals should have been, there was nothing but a gaping red and black hole, the surface shimmering with the gorged, luminous bodies of thousands of flies as they shifted and jostled to find their feasting spot on the great wound. The man's face was savagely blistered and it looked as if he had puffed his cheeks out in exasperation. The lips had been stitched together with some kind of rough thread. Noel had no doubt what he would find inside the mouth if he snipped the sutures. Nothing had yet attacked the eyes of this one, apart from a smaller battalion of flies, but there appeared to be no pupils. They had rolled up inside themselves, no doubt an extreme reaction by the body to having the eyelids removed.
The captain slowly took some water from his canteen, making sure his actions were cool and measured. Inside the white heat of anger burned bright. Unlike the majority of his compatriots, Noel liked this country, admired its people, but sometimes even he found himself cursing it and them.
Noel swilled the water around his mouth and dragged his gaze away from the poor mutilated soul before him. He swallowed, then cleared his throat to make sure his voice, when it came, was strong and resilient.
'Johnson!' he yelled. 'We have a third—'
The spasm around his head told him he was under fire. The distinctive crack that followed suggested it was a Mauser, a German rifle, rather than a Martini or the homemade jezeel muskets more commonly used in these parts. A whorl of dust was thrown up from the blackened cement wall.
There came more pops and snaps, and he whirled his Arab, looking for the gunmen's position. There was no indication of where they were, just the same featureless scrub marching off into the distance. Smokeless powder, another signifier that they were wielding unusually modern weapons for southwest Persia. Then a flash of cloth, a figure sprinting between positions, a desert wraith that disappeared within seconds.
His Indian drabi had already turned and fled, racing for the rise over which they had come, whipping his camel with an urgency that suggested he wouldn't stop until Bushire. He had dropped the tethers of the other beasts, although two of them were padding after him, honking in dromedarian alarm as they went.
Noel saw Johnson abandon his shovel and try to mount his horse. He had one foot in the stirrup, when the bullet caught him. A lick of blood splashed up the animal's flanks and it began to prance, as if it were dancing on fiery coals.
Noel rode over there as quickly as he could manage, and scooped Johnson over the saddle, grabbed the reins and followed the drabi's example by seeking cover. Johnson, one arm limp, managed to struggle upright.
His three sepoys were already back on their horses and firing, but blindly. 'Just ride, you idiots!' he cried at them.
Sprays of gravel kicked up around them as rounds hit the desert floor. This suggested to him they were at the edge of range for a Mauser, which was around five hundred yards. Unless the guns were fitted with a telescopic sight, and who in the desert would have those?
Johnson had just taken the reins for himself when the second round punched out a large section of his right shoulder. He screamed and slumped forward, but stayed in the saddle. They were ascending the rise now, only feet from safety. Noel heard a high whistle close to his ear, followed by a louder crack, a sure sign of a near miss. Telescopic sights.
The routed Englishmen crested the ridge and Noel could not believe the scene that greeted him.
Excerpted from Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2008 Robert Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
By Elena E. Smith A high-concept what-if featuring Lawrence of Arabia in an adventure that never happened. This is a long, fast-paced tale but it never drags. Just when you think you know what's happening, the author bends it in a new direction to keep you turning those pages, and surprises you with his creativity. It is imaginative, and based on stories I've read from that historical time period, the author uses the same nuances and plot style so it actually seems believable.