Gone Where The Goblins Go
* * * * *
It was a lovely sunny afternoon at the Mesa Parajito and we'd just had a birthday bull show for the kids in my private arena. New Mexico law prevented us from actually killing the heifers, but we tended to stick to the Basque style anyway, and the rodeo clowns were armed with little more than balls on sticks and sucker tipped arrows. We had at least one expert tumbler, who could roll along the back of a charging bullock, and a clown picador with a cardboard horse's body attacked to his waist.
Nas and Das - it was their seventh birthday - screamed and laughed and jumped up and down. Aþkðn and I looked at their ecstatic little faces as they turned to us for a reaction or to demonstrate what fun they were having, and smiled ourselves.
"You're not planning to do that stupid stunt with the bull again this year?" she said as she squeezed my hand, although she knew the answer - she asked it every year.
"It's my duty," I replied. "If the gods judge me unworthy I'll be gored."
"Aren't you getting a bit old?"
"I'm extremely well preserved, darling. I've had the best age retardants money could buy."
"Being stuck in a cage in the desert?"
I kissed her.
"Could you at least wear some clothes?" said Aþkðn.
"I will be wearing clothes."
"But ... the bare breasts. In front of the boys."
"They've seen their Mama Jackie's breasts before. Besides this is a religious thing to me."
Aþkðn shrugged, her duty as a concerned spouse fulfilled.
I'd had a skirt in the Cretan style made for me, with a diagonal hem.
"Bring out El Toro," I commanded, stepping out of my wrap.
"Hee hee hee," said Das and Nas. "Mama Jackie's gonna dance with the bull. Mama Ash - watch, watch!"
In fact, the only thing that faintly embarrassed me wasn't my naked breasts, which were in fine shape, but the openings in my back. I bared them each year anyway as a good medicine for the soul, and to remind me who I was.
I and El Toro were old friends. He was an honourable beast - I knew he'd give it his best shot to impale me. I waved two red silk ribbons to annoy him and did a stylised dance, turning my back on him. I could hear him snorting and pawing, and feel the ground rumbling as he charged.
I dropped the ribbons at precisely the correct moment - years of practice - and somersaulted backwards. My hands closed on the tip of his horns, and my feet slapped onto his broad warm back. He bucked like a pony and shook his head from side to side like an angry old man. I waited for him to realise that he couldn't dislodge me and to become confused. Then, for a moment, he'd stand still. The moment came and so I did the classic handstand, a horn tip grasped in each hand, and held the pose for a second or two.
"Praise be to you, Lords of the Sea and the Sun," I murmured.
I back flipped away from El Toro and then over and over across the sand, hands over feet and feet over hands, until my feet contacted a box that had been strategically placed for the purpose, and vaulted over the wooden wall of the area and into my chair.
"Ole!" I said and there was a round of applause. As I regally acknowledged the salutations I privately thanked the stars for my lightweight bird bones.
The kids were scampering round my knees, yelling and pulling, and Aþkðn - despite muttering "Stupid old woman" - was glowing with excitement and admiration.
"Happy Birthday my darlings," I said, gathering up Das and Nas, "and may we all have a blessed and healthy year."
"You give them their present now," said Aþkðn.
We'd bought two tiny ponies for them. I cannot describe the hysteria that ensued.
Life was very good.
Some people have a nickname for thee o'clock in the morning. The dark before the dawn. The witching hour.
I stood on the porch of the ranch house looking up at the stars. I could see the baleful spot of Mars near the horizon and the bright sparkle of the Pleiades. I wondered if there really had even been a girl called Maia of the Serene Countenance, or if somehow my mind had created a false memory. Maybe when I had woken up in the desert at Jornada del Muerto I had merely recovered consciousness after banging my head. Had I really been a Queen of Atlantis, or was I like one of those people who under hypnosis discovered that they had been Cleopatra in a previous life?
I had spent the previous hours in my study, brewing coffee on my wood stove, and poring over reports from around the globe
The site of the Golden Pyramid of Aea had turned out to be a strangely pyramid-shaped hill on the shore of the Black Sea. At first glance it merely seemed like a shoulder of the Caucasus Mountains where they came down to the shore at a peninsula called Mys Chaertia, but the results from cautious ultrasound scans and preliminary boreholes had revealed that the oddly shaped hill was not part of the mountain range. Remarkably, someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to shift many tons of earth and rocks so that the original gap between the mountain range and the pyramid had been filled in. The original tidal channel between the island and the coast had been disguised by a man-made construction on the colossal scale of the Roman siege ramp at Masada.
Natla Mining - having paid all the local "taxes" and taken on the relatives of local Georgian bigwigs as "emeritus management" and pulled the necessary strings with either Zviad Gamsakhurdia or Eduard Shevardnadze, whichever was in power - had began to sink mineshafts all around Mys Chaertia. Fortunately there were manganese and copper seams, so we had a ready made justification. However at the same time my mining engineers were quietly clearing away the artificial landfills.
I was nervous. Only the year before, over 230 miners had been killed in our mines at Zonguldak - "Turkey's worst mining disaster" - in a mysterious accident, and only thirteen days later an earthquake registering 6.9 on the Richter scale had killed over 690 in the east of the country. Something was stirring, and I wasn't convinced that it was nothing to do with us.
If the EM pulse of 1986 hadn't already convinced me we'd found the Golden Pyramid of Aea, then the discovery in the deepest shafts next to the hill of pools filled with rare, runny, copper-tainted mud lava did. I instructed that any lava shafts should be sealed and than digging anywhere near the main body of the buried pyramid was forbidden.
"Something intelligent is in there," I said to the planet Mars. "They must be disarmed before they declare a war born out of time against the wrong enemy." I wondered what form the intelligence would take. Had the pyramid itself been upgraded from semi-sentient to sentient, or was there a separate entity organising the defence?
I had to know, but there was an overwhelming problem.
"It is a dangerous place," Aþkðn had said. "If a monster should come out of the mountain, then what would you do?" And she had taken me by the hand and forbidden me to return. I'd have liked to pay no attention to her words. "After all," I said to myself, "girls like me aren't afraid of monsters." But nonetheless I let her take me home to Mesa Parajito and lock the gate behind us.
I expect you think it ridiculous that a Queen of Atlantis could be swayed by a mere lover, and not even one of Royal Blood at that, but not only was I anxious about what my meddling might unleash, but there was still an open wound in my heart concerning Chloe of the Golden Hair. Maybe, I thought, if I had stayed at home with Chloe and thought less of duty I'd have been a better parent? I prayed to the Lords of the Sea and of the Sky that I would never find myself executing one of my own offspring again.
I was sitting in my office browsing the latest news from Reuters when Aþkðn found me. She put her arms around me.
"You should sleep," she said.
"I couldn't, so I'm catching up with world affairs."
"Well ... let's see. There's been a new expedition to the deepest caves in the world."
Aþkðn sighed. "I'm thinking that this isn't Georgia, U.S.A?"
"No," I said humbly.
"And what else is happening in Georgia?"
"Um ... well there's a civil war."
"I remember. You are arming the Abkhazian terrorists in exchange for them keeping Guadauta Airbase open."
I frowned. "I am simply protecting the interests of Natla Mining by making contributions to the local economy."
Aþkðn gave me a sardonic kiss. "I'm not the press, Jackie," she said.
"It's is right next to the Pyramid," I protested. "Lord knows what will happen when they start driving tanks around it and letting off explosives. One or two well placed mortar strikes ..."
"But it isn't your problem."
"I know," said Aþkðn, placing a soothing hand on my shoulder. "I'll get you some cinnamon milk and then you're coming to bed."
* * * * *
Of course it was only a matter of time, and Aþkðn accidently gave me an opportunity. Aþkðn was a Commagene from a small town in Southern Turkey called Samsat, not far from Adıyaman and, ironically for me, Mount Nimrod. It was whilst she was abroad with me that her hometown had disappeared beneath the new lake formed by the Ataturk Dam, and the inhabitants had been moved to a "new" Samsat specially built nearby. Aþkðn had a whim to visit the area, and to show the lake to Das and Nas.
"Maybe we could get permission to dive," she said, "and we could locate the ruins of my old house."
"I'm not sure that I can afford the time off, my dear," I said.
"What have you got to do that is more important?"
"I'm running a multinational business!"
"Pah. You tell them what to do and they do it."
"Please, Mama Jackie," shouted the children, jumping on top of me.
"We want to go on holiday," said Nas.
"To the sea side," said Das.
"Mama Ash isn't suggesting the seaside."
"And have ice-creams."
"And go on boats."
"I guess that might be possible. Do they have ice-creams and boats on the Ataturk Reservoir, Mama Ash?"
"Stop exciting the children. It's nearly time for their bath," said Aþkðn.
* * * * *
My wife was cunning.
I found myself in the second half of September in one of the Presidential Suites of the Hotel Metropole in charge of Nas and Das.
We'd endured a transatlantic flight, in first class natch, but endured was the word.
Das slept well, his lucky toy duck pressed to his face, with nothing more than the odd quack or mutter. The duck was a bizarre leftover from when he was little; I'd have to wean him from it eventually, but for now it served as his security blanket. He reminded me of the man in Brideshead Revisited obsessed with a teddy bear.
In contrast Nas - my other little prince - was as hyperactive as a bee in a burning beehive.
Still, they'd sent a lovely old Zil limousine to pick us up at the airport, and the boys had pressed their noses excitedly again the window as the sights of Moscow in summertime presently themselves.
How come, I hear you ask?
I'd suggested, rather cunningly I thought, that I could join my family in Turkey after a business trip to Moscow to meet an old friend of mine in the government. If I had time for a quick detour to Georgia en route to take a peek at how things were going at the Golden Pyramid of Aea, I said to myself, so be it.
As I say, Aþkðn was cunning and saw right through me.
"Takes the boys to Moscow with you," she'd instructed. "It will be cultural. I want time alone in my hometown."
I could have argued but Aþkðn was looking a little gimlet-eyed and the boys were screaming about going on a trip with Mama Jackie ... and so here we were.
"Is this Turkey?" enquired Nas.
"No, my pet," I said. "This is Moscow, capital city of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, stretching from Finland to China."
"I want a Coke," said Das, squeezing his duck and holding its beak up to the window in a slightly affected fashion.
"Do they have Coke?" I said to the Russian valet.
"But of course, Mademoiselle."
"Do they have McDonalds?" said Nas, with a cheeky hands-on-hips stance.
"We have the biggest McDonalds in the world, young sir," said the valet.
"Really?" I said. "Where's that then?"
"Pushkinskaya ploshchad, Mademoiselle."
I picked up the phone and dialled reception for an outside line. "Get me Colonel Viacheslav Obolenski," I said. "He can come and have a Big Mac with us."
Although said McDonald's Restaurant had been open a couple of years - apparently it had taken over a decade of negotiation to get permission to open it - there were still queues. Everybody under thirty who was anybody thought it was the place to be.
Needless to say when our government Zil and Colonel Obolenski's government Zil drew up in front, all thoughts of Soviet egalitarianism went by the board. Communism was a good idea for the peasants - it made them feel more modern being Soviet serfs instead of medieval serfs - but it was hardly appropriate for the couriers of the new Tsar.
The Canadian manager came out to greet us.
"Ms. Jacqueline Natla," he gushed, taking my hand in a clammy handshake. "Gosh - what an honour."
The queue of Muscovites applauded as if I was a minor film starlet, and I and Colonel Obolenski and the kids swept regally into Roy Kroc's palace of Americana.
"Who are those crew cut individuals in Hawaiian shirts dotted about the place?" I said as we perused the menu under the watchful gaze of a Ham Burglar mural.
"My private bodyguards," said the Colonel. He clicked his fingers and one of the gaily-attired thugs came over. "Meet Sergeant Conway."
"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am," said the man, with a broad Texan twang.
"You're from the States," I observed. "Ex Army?"
"Ex Corps, Ma'am," he said, expressionlessly.
I had to restrain Nas, who was showing every sign of wanting to run up and head-butt Sergeant Conway in the groin.
"Give her your card, Larson," said Colonel Obolensky.
I tried to read it as Das - who had found the English part of the menu - was tugging at my sleeve, asking me what a "cabbage pie" was and whether it was in the Happy Meal.
"Mauro Nero Security," said the card.
What an odd name, I remember thinking. "Mauro nero" - Greek, meaning "black water".
"You should not travel without security," said the Colonel. "Your children could be in danger. Kidnappers. Terrorists."
"Nobody would dare touch my kids," I said. "I'd have them skinned alive." But I tucked the card in my purse anyway.
As far as Nas and Das were concerned McDonalds was the highlight of Moscow, although we tried the circus, the puppet show, the fair and the swimming pool.
Still they were in a high good humour and slept when they were supposed to sleep, whilst their Mama Jackie rather enjoyed being a mummy (in between negotiating mining and new technology rights, buying weapons and getting the people back home to look into the possibility of hiring Mauro Nero Security to guard the site surrounding the Golden Pyramid).
This latter had been prompted because Colonel Obolensky had taken me aside and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to cease arming the Abkhazian separatists simply to defend my Black Sea mines. He pointed out that I was lucky to be being treated as an honoured guest and not dragged off to prison as a traitor. If anybody was going arm the Abkhazians against Georgia it was Moscow, not Natla Mining.
"Do not mess with the giant bear," he'd said, with a hint of humour.
And so, after a riotous couple of days, it was time to leave and join Aþkðn. There was a direct Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Adıyaman, and we all collapsed in a semi-comatose state, Nas sitting in his very own seat like a small king (he wouldn't share), and Das curled up under a blanket on my lap.
"I love you, Mama," said Das, half asleep, "because you look after us and we love Mama Ash and Mama Ash loves us and we have a nice house and nice ponies and we go on adventures and have sweets and have nice food and drink yummy Pepsi and have presents on our birthdays and you always look after us."
"I love you too, baby. And I'll always look after you."
* * * * *
I swear I had no hand in what happened next. Maybe some Russian deity overheard my bragging and decided to teach me a lesson for my hubris. As a series of events, I find it scarcely believable even as I sit here dictating it.
First we knew we had been told to strap ourselves into our seats and warned that we were approaching some stormy weather. Was it my imagination, I wondered, but did the plane sound different?
I bribed a stewardess with American dollars - we had engine trouble, but keep it to yourself, she said. She looked very young and pale and I believed her.
Then an announcement - we were being forced to make an unscheduled stop.
"We will be putting down at the nearest airport; Sukhumi in Georgia," said the pilot in an expressionless Russian monotone and at this, business class practically erupted into a flood of anxiety.
"What's happening?" said Nas, bright-eyed and unperturbed.
"We are going to take longer to get there," I said.
I left out the bit about us setting down in the middle of a civil war. Besides, I thought, we were Americans. It was nothing to do with us.
As it happened the landing was utterly without incident and the airport was swarming with Georgian military. We were led to the terminal building, which although slightly battered and deserted, was secure.
A tiny old lady tottered out to the Aeroflot passengers with a samovar on a trolley, and I introduced the twins to the concept of sweet black tea.
"This is what they drink instead of Coke in Mama Ash's home, " I explained.
Eventually our pilot came up and made an announcement.
"The Army have found us a Tupolev civilian airliner belonging to Transair Georgia," he said. "We will have you aboard and out of here as soon as possible."
There was cheering. It was 23rd September 1993; you can look it up for yourselves in the newspaper archives.
As we were straggling across the tarmac to our new plane - our luggage was being pulled alongside us on a farm cart by an ancient tractor - there was a whistling sound from above us.
I recognized it - I'd sold enough of the things. It was the sound of a mortar attack. I pulled the children to the ground as the Tupolev airliner in front of us took a direct hit and exploded into a cloud of flame and shrapnel. The Abkhazian rebels - my Abkhazian rebels - were attacking.
Immediately the airfield had become a battlefield. A Soviet tank rumbled into action and suddenly there was the sound of rifle and sub-machine gun fire from all around us.
"Come on children," I said, getting to my feet, and grabbing our cases from the trailer. "Put on your rucksacks. We're leaving." I carefully put the plastic tube containing my folded wings across my back, wondering if it resembled any sort of weapon and hoping sincerely that it did not.
"Where are we going?" said Nas, unruffled by the gunfire. Das was sucking his knuckles, his eyes wide so preoccupied by the noise and activity that Nas had to help him with his rucksack straps.
"To find a car," I said. "I'm sick of flying. We'll drive."
"Me too," said Nas. "I'm sicking of flying!"
"Mmm mmm," said Das, squeaking his toy in agreement. "Mm mmm mm mmm-mm!"
Camp as Christmas, I thought, smiling fondly at him despite myself.
I stood up cautiously. There were various vehicles parked on the tarmac but one in particular caught my eye.
"Good Lord," I said. "What on earth is that doing there? It's just what we need."
Sneaking away from the distracted passengers and soldiers at a crouching run, I led the children to a large white vehicle. It was a Land Rover Defender, painted with the livery and lettering of the United Nations.
The doors were unlocked and the keys in the ignition, as if someone had left it for us. I bundled the kids inside, bidding them to lie down in the back, and started the engine cautiously.
I could see tracer fire and the trail of RPG's all around us in the middle distance. My first choice - drive south along the coast to Turkey - was impracticable. Not only was a lot of terra incognito as far as I was concerned, but it involved crossing the "front line" between Abkhazia and Georgia.
I drove the Defender through a hole in the runway fence and along the link road to the main coast road. When we got there, a strange sight greeted us - tailgate traffic, made up of a collection of different Soviet cars mixed with horses and farm vehicles. A long line of what I could only suppose was refugees appeared to be fleeing southeast from Sukhumi.
"Children," I announced, "the traffic is terrible, so we're going in the opposite direction. We're going to try and get to Mummy's mines at Mys Chaertia."
"Hurrah!" said the twins.
As we headed northwest along the E97, the refugees presented a sorry sight.
"Are they going on holiday?" asked Nas.
"Why has that family got their fridge on their cart?"
"Maybe they're going on a picnic."
"But it wouldn't work without a plug."
"Silly them," I said, neutrally.
Das was amusing himself by waving at the various doleful little children that we drove past.
"Be careful, Das my darling," I said, looking at him in the rear view mirror. "Don't wave at too many strangers."
"But they're only kids."
"We don't know their parents. And we don't want to be stopped by the police."
"Have we done something wrong?" asked Nas, hopefully.
"I don't know, my little prince. This is abroad. Just keep down and stop sticking your head out of the window."
"But I like sticking my head out of the window."
"I know, darling, but it might get banged on something. Just be patient until we are out of this traffic."
"Are we nearly there yet?" said Das some time later, pecking my ear with the beak of his duck.
I brought the car to a halt.
Ahead of us lay the city of Sukhumi. Much of it was smouldering. Helicopters were buzzing around the tower blocks, and a Soviet gun boat was shelling the waterfront from the bay.
"Lords of the Sea and of the Sky," I murmured under my breath, somewhat aghast. "I beg you to intercede and protect us in our hour of need."
At that moment a Georgian man, his face streaked with tears and soot, banged on the driver's window.
"Go!" he croaked in English. "It is not safe. There is fighting in the streets."
I opened the window a crack.
"Where can we go?" I asked. "I have my children here."
"We all have our children here," he said. "If the damned Russians hadn't armed the terrorists we'd all be at the beach eating ice-cream."
No disrespect, I thought wryly, but your children are hardly potential Royal Princes of Atlantis. But I sympathised with him. One day no doubt, I said to myself, he'd be one of my subjects, and it would my Royal duty to care for and protect all of my subjects. However insignificant.
I wound down the window and offered him a drink from my water bottle.
At the sound of the "ice-cream" word the twins started bouncing up and down. I ordered them to be quiet. Nas smirked, but Das pouted and began to look tearful.
"I'm sorry," I said to the Georgian. "We're as swept up in this as you are."
"But you are U.N."
"Um ... yes. But I'm off duty."
The man snorted derisively.
"So ... do you have any suggestions?"
He shrugged. "You can't go through Sukhumi and you've already come from the south. The only other way is inland over the mountains."
* * * * *
If you are going to play hide and seek in the Caucasus then you can do worse than use a Land Rover Defender. I've looked at the map recently, trying to work out which route we went exactly, but nothing much rings a bell. All the signs were in Cyrillic, the villages were the same as each other and one river valley looks like another. I'm pretty sure we approached the holiday resort of Lake Ritsa at one point - the word "Рица" seems familiar to me - and I kind of have a feeling that we were in the gorge of the River Bzyb for a while. The mountain scenery was lovely and if it hadn't been for the fact that we were like the Family Von Trapp trying to escape from the Nazis, it would have been divine. Every vehicle or settlement or plume of smoke, or the slightest sound of rifle fire, made my stomach tie itself into knots.
Only once did I dare stop to buy a couple of loaves of bread and a bottle of wine from an old woman who patted the UN lettering on the side of the Defender and cackled happily.
"Is she a looney?" said Nas, who was fascinated.
"Don't be rude about the common people," I replied.
I also risked raiding an orchard of beautiful apples, expecting to receive a bullet to the head at any second. I relaxed when I found the body of what I assumed had been the owner. He had been attacked with some kind of farming implement. I offered a prayer of thanks to him and covered his face, and hurried back to the car before Nas and Das discovered him.
The dashboard of the Defender had attached to it a little floating compass held in a gimbal, a little compass that probably saved our lives. I figured that if we headed north, then west and finally south as best we could, we'd not only skirt the fighting around Sukhuki but we'd also probably find a minor road or track that would lead us back to the coast and to the environs of Gagra.
We must have been only a few miles or maybe less from safety when it began to get dark. I was using all of the off-road terrain ability of the Defender to negotiate what was little better than a deer track when we came across a mesh gateway.
"Gosh," I said quietly, as the headlights lit up a sign that read in faded non-Cyrillic letters "Morea Mine".
"What?" murmured Nas, who was sleepy from being fed apple sandwiches and diluted wine.
"Nothing, baby. Go back to sleep."
I'd recognised the name of a Georgian-Turkish firm - the Tamsaş Mining Company. I knew that they still had huge opencast coal mines far to the east of us at Tkvarcheli, but I had no idea they ever show any interest so close to the coast.
The gate was off its hinges, there were no lights and the sign was practically illegible from rust. I deduced that whenever Tamsaş had been here, they had left long ago.
"I think we have a place to stop for the night," I said.
There were no buildings as such, but rather a long, overgrown scar in the earth that led deeper and deeper until eventually it became a cave entrance, an excavated seam at the base of a chalk cliff face set in the side of a quarry. The road disappeared underground, and there were remains of trolley tracks and the ancient tread-prints of giant tyres.
I drove the Defender inside just far enough so that the entrance was small semicircle behind us. The ceiling was held up by a combination of stout wood and metal and concrete.
We had found our very own bunker.
I locked the door, dowsed the lights and curled up with the boys in the back of the car.
* * * * *
The tap of metal on window glass, especially at night, is a terrifying sound. Try it in your own car. Even when you yourself are doing it, the sound has an un-nerving, sharp, ear-piercing timbre. Maybe we are programmed to expect glass to shatter. It seems indecent to tap anything as hard as metal against it.
I sat bolt upright, with Das still in my arms.
I torch shone in upon us and again was that insistent tapping, made, I could see, by the end of a rifle.
"Nas - look after Das," I said, "and keep down, whatever you hear. Mummy will talk to these men and I want you two to be a quiet as lambkins."
I clambered into the front seat, placing my feet on the pedals and checking that the ignition keys were still in place.
"Hello?" I said to the unseen man behind the torch beam.
A hand tried to open the passenger door but it was locked from the inside.
A voice said something in Russian and there was that tapping on the glass again. The owner of the torch turned it somewhat so that I could see his face and those of his companions. They were dressed like soldiers but they looked like rapists.
"Do you speak English?"
A hand tried to reach in the window but I slapped at it imperiously. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed me that the tunnel entrance was blocked by other vehicles.
"Do you own this mine?" I started to say, but in mid-sentence started the engine.
There was a yell, and a rifle butt hammered on the door, but I pressed the accelerator.
We obviously caught them by surprise; they could hardly have expecting that I would try to choose to drive deeper into the mine.
"Hang on, my princelings," I said over my shoulder. "There's no need to cry. Just hang on and stay down. We're going for a ride."
I heard the crack of rifles and the thud of bullets into the metal bodywork, but it was ineffectual. All they had to aim at was our retreating silhouette as outlined by our headlights.
I squinted at the mine road sloping ahead of us; it continued sedately downwards at a slight angle, more or less straight. Once it had conducted trolleys full of coal to the surface, possibly pulled by pit ponies. Now it was just what we needed.
I dared not slow down; even assuming that they didn't drive after us, they may have been jogging after us on foot, and I had no idea how far we'd have to go before we'd have to abandon the Defender and start running ourselves.
Then, as the road continued, the left wall dropped away, and a gully, or cutting - filled with fast flowing water - begin to run alongside us, a foot or two lower than the road surface. I could smell the water and feel the drop in temperature, and a thin spray or cloud of water vapour made it necessary for me to turn the windscreen wipers on.
"It's a river," said Nas, pressing his nose and his brother to the window.
"Ooh," said Das.
I kept glancing in the rear view mirror - I couldn't see any sign of pursuit - and it was while I was doing that that I drove the Defender straight into some decayed wooden buffers. The car bounced sideways, skidded on the edge of the road suddenly I found myself driving through water, with sprays arching to each side and splashing off the walls like a ride at a funfair.
"Tee hee hee," said Das, and quacked his duck.
I applied the brakes, but either the cutting bed was too slippery or the current was too powerful, for we carried on a roughly the same speed. The road we had been on disappeared, and we were left speeding down a water-filled tunnel. Instead of an inflatable tire or a boat sculpted like a swan, we had a very heavy Land Rover.
"Whee!" said Nas.
"This is ridiculous," I said, taking my hands off the steering wheel in exasperation. "Children - this is the last time we fly Aeroflot."
Then, as a grand finale, we sped over an underground waterfall and fell through a giant hole in the floor.
* * * * *
I think I must have bumped my head, because the next I thing knew Nas was shaking me and Das was pressing his nose against mine.
"What happened?" I said, pressing a hand to my forehead.
"We-ell," said Nas, "we went over a waterfall, and then we were underwater, so we drove along the bottom and then the car came out of the water and up onto this beach and then we stopped."
"We drove underwater?"
Das nodded solemnly.
"Well ... I suppose that's possible." Maybe my foot had been jammed on the accelerator. Maybe the Land Rover had one of those exhaust pipes that stuck up above the roof. "Are you both OK?"
"We're not even wet," said Nas. A watertight Land Rover seemed a bit unlikely but he was right - we weren't wet and there was no water inside the car.
Das touched my forehead anxiously.
"I'm fine, little prince."
"We'll kiss it better," he said, and accidentally poked me in the eye with his toy.
As my vision cleared I got my first chance to look out of the windscreen, and at the sight, the bottom of my stomach dropped out. Despite the kids, I could not but help put my hand to my mouth and I felt that coldness on my skin that told me that my body was flooding with epinephrine.
The Land Rover was park on a crumbly beach in a bay off the main stream of the underground river. Around us was a large underground cavern, obvious carved out of the soft karst rock over the millennium. However all that was good - a bit awkward to escape from - but all good.
What wasn't good was what had also been exposed at the far end of the cave, glistening with a familiar infrared luminescence.
I took a deep breathe. "O.K. children," I think this is a good place for a pit stop."
"Can we play by the pond?"
"If you put your gumboots and promise not to go into the river or to wander away from the car."
"What are you going to do Mummy?"
I reached into the back.
"Mama Jackie's going to put her wings on ..."
Das and Nas started jumping up and down and screaming with excitement but I shushed them sternly.
"... I'm going to put my wings on and have a look around for a telephone or an elevator."
The irony was that perhaps within a hundred yards, there was the equivalent of a telephone or an elevator, only made in Atlantis. The thing that I'd seen that had caused my heart to falter, was a giant arch, and beyond that a corridor. The arch was a mixture of cusped and ogee elements topped by a trapezium and decorated around the rim with abstracts designs in gold of stylised scarabs and palm trees and other Atlantean symbols. The corridor had a transparent floor, patterned with veins and splotches of red. We were at the edge of the underground complex whose centre was beneath the Golden Pyramid of Aea.
* * * * *
I made a thorough inventory. The Defender had a toolbox, and at a pinch I could dismantle the roof rack and the small ladders attached to it to make ... something. A weapon? A cradle? I wasn't sure. There were certainly enough tyres on the vehicle to manufacture a raft - if that seemed like a good idea. At the front of the Land Rover was a large winch, with a length of cable culminating in a clip-hook. I unreeled the cable using the built-in motor; to my surprise there was about 100 foot of metallic cable which, according to a manual in the dashboard, was capable of bearing a load of about 9000 pounds. I found a small hand axe in the back, as well as stand for a theodolite or a camera which had three extendible spikes legs; I dismantled the latter. After examining the bar grids over the front head lights for a while, I unscrewed them and strapped cut-off seatbelts across their inside curve. Then I called the boys over.
"Now then," I said. "It's time to play soldiers. I don't know if those gross men are still following us or whether there are any naughty dogs in these caves, but we are going to be prepared."
I handed them a headlight grid each and showed them how to hold them. "These are your shields," I said. "If anybody throws anything at you, you can hold them up to stop it."
They accepted the shields and practiced waving them about.
"Nas, you're the axeman of the unit," I said handing him the small wood chopper. "Be careful not to hit the wrong things, especially your brother."
"Das, you're the spear chucker. These are your three spears, so you get three goes each time." I gave him the pointed legs of the theodolite stand, fully extended. "If anything you don't like comes along, give it a good poking."
They looked excited as they fingered their new weapons - if a tad nervous - and I gave them my warmest of smiles. I'd been a commander long before the modern world had been born.
"Here's a torch each so you can signal each other, or dazzle your enemies, or see in dark places. If you can't fight, run and hide. Hide in the car or on the car. Hide behind rocks. If you're desperate, look over there. You can see some stone stairs which go up over the archway. You can run up there, but only when you've run out of other ideas."
"Can we throw rocks?"
"Yes, but not at each other."
"Can we swim in the water?"
"It's a bit cold."
"Can we run down that tunnel?" asked Nas, pointing at the Atlantean archway.
"Stay away from there if you can," I said, keeping my voice level and my expression bright. "Try not to step on anything, or touch anything, that isn't the cave floor or the cave walls. Stick to the rocks."
They nodded vigorously.
"And now I bestow upon you as your Queen new titles to go with your new jobs as soldiers in my army. You are Captain Nas and you are Captain Das. Now I, your commanding officer, will don my wings and we shall see what we shall see."
* * * * *
I was practically doubled up with anxiety as I started to explore. I recalled the warning of the Golden Statue on Cyprus. I recalled the mayhem when I had attempted to probe the Golden Pyramid with ULF sound waves. I was entering the lair of a wolf unarmed and unprepared.
Try and see it from my point of view.
My sons and I were the last of the Royal Bloodline of Atlantis, and if we died, the line was extinct. The remains of Atlantis would have exterminated the last of Atlantis, and I didn't appreciate the dark humour of it. I couldn't shake the feeling that once again my hubris had brought us all to the brink of destruction.
"We have to survive this," I said fiercely to myself, "for the good of the world. Bind up your breast and put on your war face, girl."
I flapped about the roof of the cavern, searching with a torch, but as I feared there were only two ways out. We'd either have to dive underwater into the dark river, or we'd have to go through the Atlantean corridor.
The stairs that led up and around the Atlantean archway appeared to of little actual use; either they were decorative, or whatever they had led to had disappeared when the underground river formed the cavern. However they did present a defensible refuge, and furthermore they gave me a small idea, a small backup plan. I gingerly parked the Defender a little closer and unreeled the metal cable, fashioning a lasso using the hook. Then I flew up and attached the lasso to a rock outcrop at the top of the stone stairs, above the entrance to the Atlantean corridor. Maybe we could climb up it, or climb down it, or use it to capture something. Maybe I could pull the roof down using the Land Rover. Who knew? Time would tell.
I stocked the little refuge with water bottle and blankets and matches and the last of the food. I took up the roof rack so that we could try and block off the stairs. I took up the Land Rover's little fire extinguisher, just in case.
"Right, Captains of Atlantis," I said to the boys. "You stay here guarding the car. I'll scout out the land ahead."
"Yes, sir, Mummy," they said, saluting.
I took off and steadied myself. I had a hunch about the Atlantean corridor and I was determined not to activate the Pyramid defences. Slowly, flapping whenever necessary, I hovered through the arch. I was determined not to touch the walls.
Below me I could see through the red veined floor to something hot and smouldering. I realised that we were so far below ground we were at the level of the lava-heated mud. It was a miracle that river and lava were separated by a rock dam, or else we'd have been steamed alive.
I was almost at the next arch - I could see three or four arches ahead of me and then an open space - when a scorching updraft through me off-course. I crashed into the wall and slip to the floor.
My breath stuck in my throat and I looked down at my hand splayed on the transparent surface. There was movement - tiny red veins were spreading away from where my skin had touched. With a shuddering underfoot, like a sclerotic heartbeat, the entire red pattern in the corridor shifted and pulsed. There was a thud from ahead of me and then the pattern pulsed again, with a flash of crimson.
Then there was the blast of a warning trumpet from deep in the complex and a bang, followed by the hurling down the corridor of fragments of what looked like green egg shell, skittering and spinning on the floor. My nostrils twitched at a sudden fetid breeze and I heard the sound of wet flesh and wet organs hitting the ground, like some monstrous birth. There was a grunting and a coughing and a spluttering, and then a distant roar. I could see a gargantuan shadow moving in the open space beyond the end of the corridor.
The floor trembled and the dust fell from the ceiling. There was first one heavy foot fall, followed by another, and then another, getting nearer.
I turned and ran for my life.
The giant thing that squeezed itself down the corridor after me didn't really fit there very well. I'm sue that if it had a clear run it would have bounded straight at us all and gobbled us straight up - snap, snap, snap.
To describe it - it had the shortened face of a panda, the neck of a horse, the arms and shoulders of a massive ape, the front claws of an anteater and short rear legs to support its massive bulk. I'm not sure what it started out as - it reminded of some sort of prehistoric megafauna such as a chalicothere or an indricothere - maybe a deformed Indricotherium transsouralicum. It certainly wasn't one of my designs, and either it had been hatched early, or else it had decayed after being in the womb for too long. At any rate it began to shed bits of itself almost immediately, scraping skin and muscle away against the wall of the corridor and stinking like genocide. At the loss of each gobbet of flesh it howled and bayed like a dog. I'll give it the name that Nas subsequently gave it - the Wolf.
I shot out of the end of the corridor, rolling like a bowling bowl.
"Boys! Hide!" I gasped, as one of those giant anteater claws slammed down beside me. Nas and Das ran behind the Land Rover and I flapped up to above the archway.
I saw first one claw and then the other hook itself over the lip of the door, and then the head appeared. The Wolf, maybe by design or maybe by decay, pivoted its head through one hundred and eighty degrees and looked up at me. It roared at me and a fine mist of pus sprayed onto me face and hands, leaving me staggering backwards.
"Raaaar!" came a voice from below. It was Nas, holding his makeshift shield and his little axe. "Hey, Wolf! Hey! Raaar!"
"Nas. Get back!" I spluttered.
The Wolf turned its head around to gaze blankly at the mini threat. It leaned downwards so that it was eye to eye with my son, and snuffled in what sounded like disbelief.
Nas took the best advantage of this unexpected opportunity and buried his axe in the face of the beast. He managed to split its decaying lower jaw, a jaw lined with massive rotten molars like that of an ancient cow, each bigger than Nas himself. The Wolf gasped, smashing the axe away and removing most of its face in the process.
With one swipe it knocked Nas through the air. He fell with a splash into the river.
I dove from the door lintel as if from an Olympic high board and swooping over the water, grabbed him under the arms just as he was about to be swallowed by the whirlpool. Flapping with all my might and deliberately not looking at the Wolf, I deposited us both above the archway.
As I shrank back against the wall, I realised that I had to stop it emerging from the tunnel or we'd all be doomed. With more desperation than skill I flung the towrope lasso over its head, and began to heave it over the rock output until it began to tighten.
Then the cable was jerked from my fingers and I heard an unexpected sound. I swear - even to this day - that I heard a thunderous chuckle from below us.
We peeked over the edge.
The Wolf had turned its head and was looking straight up at us. The removal of the lower part of its face had given it an almost comical look. It still had a tuft of greasy blonde hair shaped like a carrot top, and its snout-less skull was now almost round. When healthy no doubt this species possessed massive muscles going from the base of the skull to the shoulders, but most of these had fallen off, and it was pivoting its head clockwise and then anticlockwise like an obscene giant owl, gazing at use with its yellow pus-filled eyes and grunting like a man penetrating a pig.
Even through the pus I could see the look of triumph as it daintily unhooked the cable from around its neck and threw it away with massive contempt.
"He's clever," whispered Nas.
The Wolf pulled itself out of the corridor with a squelch and a pop and stood to its full height before sitting back on its haunches. It could easily reach us, it could smash the Land Rover to matchwood and it could beat us with one hand tied behind its back. There was a moment's silence broken only by the sound of me hyperventilating and the Wolf thoughtfully scraping its knuckles against the rock floor.
Suddenly I heard a flaring sound next to me and before I knew what was happening, Nas had lit the entire box of matches and flung it at the Wolf. The flaming ball landed on the Wolf's wet chest before being extinguished, and the Wolf leapt backwards in alarm.
Then at that moment - with a rather strangled battle squeak - Das ran from cover and flung his makeshift spear at the Wolf. The "spear" stuck in its rump, and Nas cheered.
Das ran up and stabbed his second spear into the Wolf's elbow, but before he could deploy the third an inconceivable thing happened.
The Wolf reared up and roared, whilst Das gazed upwards, aghast. Then, unhinging what was left if its jaw like a boa constrictor, the Wolf lunged downwards and with one gulp swallowed whole Das, his spear, his shield and his toy duck.
"No!!!" I screamed, suddenly in a fury.
I launched myself at the Wolf and landing one kick after another on its throat.
"Spit him out," I shouted. "I command you to spit him out! It is forbidden to eat the Royal Princes of Atlantis!"
The Wolf picked me up by one leg and dangled me upside down in front of its hideous face, a quizzical and amused expression behind its rotten eyeballs. Then it raised me high and was, no doubt, about to dash my brains out on the floor like a captured pigeon, when a well aimed stone hit it on the back of the head. It must have been a particularly effective shot - a David versus Goliath shot - for I heard the crack of bones.
The Wolf dropped me and clapped its claws to its skull. It appeared bemused
"Fly, Mummy!" I heard Nas calling. "Fly up here!"
I leapt and flew and landed beside him, but I collapsed in a flood of tears, wailing and covering my face with my wings like a red hood.
"My darling Das!"
"Mummy - shh!"
"Don't you shh me, you impertinent ... squit! Your brother has been gobbled up!"
"Das is fine," said Nas, cheerfully. "If you'd just shh and listen."
I looked at him in disbelief for a moment
He made me lean over the archway lintel, ears straining. In the distance, from the direction of the bemused Wolf, who was looking at its stomach like a mother being kicked by an unborn baby, I heard a very faint but distinct "quack!"
"He always does that when you switch the light off at night," said Nas, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world.
"Oh Lords of the Sea and the Sky," I whispered. "Please let him be alive. But how is this possible?"
"Das is brave," explained Nas, "And now we can help him. And I have a plan."
At that, the Wolf suddenly shrieked, and covered its stomach with its claws. I saw a faint glinting and then, to my astonishment, the tip of Das' third "spear" briefly appeared and then disappeared from the side of the monster. Das was alive inside the belly of the Wolf.
"Take this," said Nas, tossing me the fire extinguisher, " and fly about the head of the Wolf, distracting it. While you do that, I will run down and grab the end of the rope. Only take care that he doesn't catch you."
A great wave of pride swept over me and I blushed with hot emotion, tears of maternal love flooding into my eyes. These two boys - I thought - these last two Princes. They had the blood of warriors and of gods flowing in their veins.
I stood to attention, and saluted my son.
"Yes, Captain Nasatya of Atlantis." I said, gravely and formally. "I will obey your orders, and together we will fight even unto death to rescue your Royal Brother Dasra of the Territories of the West."
"Good," said Nas, with a wink and a clapping of his hands. "Off you go, Mama Jackie, and annoy the Wolf for me."
* * * * *
I flapped and bobbed and sprayed the extinguisher at the Wolf, almost touching its head with my wings but however much it snapped angrily at me, this side and that, I was too clever and it could do nothing about it.
In the background, I could see that Nas had run with the cable back up the stairs, and having refashioned the lasso from hook, and carefully letting it down and down and down from his high perch. The Wolf was so distracted by my antics and by the stabbing pains it was getting from inside, that Nas was able to manoeuvre the lasso so that it rested on the floor in a rough oblong, with the tail of the cable still looped over the sturdy rock outcrop above.
"Mummy, when I say, use the car to pull ...," he started to shout.
The Wolf howled at him, furious and frightened, and flung one of its ape arms against the door lintel. There was a crash as its claws smashed at the rock and the floor fell from beneath Nas' feet. He fell into the mouth of the corridor in a shower of karst rubble.
I hammered the fire extinguisher at the base of the Wolf's skull - its head was beginning to look a bit semi-detached - and sprayed that last of the foam into its eyes.
Nas, entirely unaffected by his fall, brushed himself off and started to yell and wave his arms.
The Wolf lunged for him and in doing so stumbled into the noose. I pulled at the cable with all of my might so that it began to tight around the Wolf's back legs. The I glided back to the electric winch on the front of the Land Rover and it began to reel in, with all of its 9000 pounds of pull.
I got behind the wheel of the Defender and turned the ignition.
The Wolf, head deep inside the corridor - where no doubt it was trying to grab my son - gave a grunt of surprise as the cable tightened about its knees. It hooked its anteater claws under the wire, perhaps intending to snap the cable or to lift the lasso over its head, but only managed to wriggle the noose as far as its hips, like a large man attempting to squeeze into small jeans.
Furious, it turned its hideous owl face towards me, and began to drag itself along by its arms, grunting loudly.
It was the moment I'd been waiting for. I stamped on the accelerator and skidding the Land Rover in a tight U-turn just as a giant fist crashed down nearby, reversed at top speed down the Atlantean corridor.
The Wolf was torn across the rough cavern floor and was at last left hanging onto the doorframe, screaming with agony - almost pleading - until the cable finally ripped its rotten body into two halves.
I saw a small figure drop from its innards, and then one twin rush in to scoop the other to safety.
I pushed the remains of Wolf's legs and pelvis out of the corridor and was all ready to finish the Wolf off with a fatal collision when the boys got there first.
As the Wolf feebly covered its face and wailed, Nas and Das - using the small axe to sever and the spear to lever - decapitated it.
* * * * *
"You're not even wet," I said, gathering Das up in my arms.
"It was dry," said Das, matter-of -factly.
I reflected that maybe - like zombies - mummies may have functional teeth but they don't necessary have a functional stomach. The Wolf had been as empty as Pinnocchio's whale.
"Look," whispered Das, suddenly.
To my alarm, three figures were approaching us along the corridor. Two were Atlantean warrior beasts, whilst the third - as far as I could see in the shadows - was human.
I passed a very weary hand over my eyes and sighed. No more, please, I thought.
"Don't shoot!," called out Nas. "Mummy and Das and I have already caught the Wolf."
I shushed him and ... positioning a twin at each side of me - rose to my fullest height and adopted my iciest and most regal expression, one hand clenched at my breast as if holding a sceptre and the other pointing to the sky, my scarlet wings held at an arrogantly imperial angle.
"Greetings," I declaimed in ancient Atlantean, raising my arms and making the ritual hand gestures. "My name is Natla of Atlantis, grand-daughter of the Lord of the Sea, original builder of the Golden Pyramid of Aea, Sister to the Royal Tihocan, to the Royal Qualopec and to the Royal Astarte, former ruler of the Territory of the West, mother to Chloe of the Achaeans, and mother to the two Royal Princes - the Royal Heirs to Atlantis that you see before you - the Princes Nasatya and Dasra. I order you to obey and make obeisance for I am returned, ready to return Atlantis to its rightful order in the order of things."
There was a moment's silence and then the three figures bowed down, getting down on their knees and pressing their foreheads to the floor.
I silently thanked the Lords of the Sea and of the Sky, for we were in no position to fight another battle.
The human got rather shakily back to its feet and approached us. It was very, very old, almost mummified, and so at first I did not recognise it.
"Welcome back, Your Magnificence," said a wry and croaky voice. "I kept myself hidden and preserved for all these centuries in the event you might return. What joy that my feelings of somnolent futility are replaced by those of terrified utility."
I could feel a mixture of awe, amusement and love struggling for control of my face.
"Mama Jackie," said Nas. "Who is the silly man?"
The human looked downwards at my little prince and chuckled with a sound like popcorn in a tub.
"Greetings your Royal Highness," it said in English. "I am so glad that being forced to endure hours of modern televisual entertainment has allowed me to master your tongue sufficiently to hear you call me silly. My name is Magnesian, your Royal Mother's ancient and no doubt foolish servant."
I stepped forward and gingerly embraced him.
And so ends this particular chapter of my life.
Those Lips Conspire In Treachery