Coals of Fire: The Golem (VII)

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They had no blankets, aside from the used parachutes. The night was long and cold, and morning found them hungry and thirsty. Mohammed rose early to pray again, kneeling at the mouth of the cave and prostrating himself in the long golden sunlight. His muttered words echoed softly around the cave, guttural and foreign to Colin’s ears.

Colin made an attempt at starting the fire, raking over last night’s remains in search of an ember, but the most he achieved was a faceful of ash and blackened hands. When Mohammed returned he took over, and within a few minutes a pale flame was dancing amongst the wood.

They sat close and warmed themselves, rubbing numb hands together until they tingled. Colin found that his sight had improved; he did not need the silk blindfold, and the mouth of the cave was no longer painful to look at.

He glanced sideways at Mohammed, seeing him properly for the first time: he was dark skinned, almost black, and his eyes were dark to match. A thin film of stubble coated his head and face, except where a long scar ran from his crown down to his left eyebrow. He gazed at the fire with a powerful intensity, and Colin saw how he crouched on his heels, like a predator ready to spring up at any moment.

“We must find water,” Mohammed announced, still looking at the fire. He waved a long hand towards the blackening wood that fuelled it. “These are from some trees I found growing nearby. We will start in that place, now, before the day is old and the sun is hot. How is your sight?”

“Better.”

“Good. We will need two pairs of eyes.” Mohammed rose and stretched himself. “I have asked Allah to preserve us, if it is His will. Let us hope He is merciful today.”

Colin struggled to his feet. His shoulder and side still throbbed, but not as badly as the day before. “I forgot to thank you,” he said. “You must have saved my life.”

Mohammed bowed his head graciously. “It is Allah’s command that we preserve life, and I am the servant of Allah. You owe me no thanks.”

“What about the person who attacked me? I remember fighting back. I’m not sure if I killed them. Did you see?”

“Come.” Mohammed beckoned him. “Let us begin our search. We will talk as we work.”

 

They took the canteens with them, and at Mohammed’s instruction wound rolls of parachute around their heads to ward off the sun. The canteens sloshed half-full of tepid water; Colin resisted the urge to down the whole thing in one go.

The cave was midway up the canyon wall, about thirty or forty feet above the ground. The lip of the cave protruded outwards in a ledge just wide enough to walk on; on the left-hand side the ledge rose in a path of sorts towards the top of the canyon. Mohammed was agile and sure-footed, and he bounded ahead, leaving Colin to struggle over the brick-red rock with his hands and feet. In places the ledge was broken away completely, leaving gaps that had to be jumped; at the first break Colin hesitated for long minutes before plucking up the courage to make the leap, and Mohammed watched him from further up with a wicked smile on his face.

They reached the top of the cliff after twenty minutes of hard climbing. The sun was rising steadily, and Colin’s mouth was as dry as dust. He paused to take a sip of water, using every ounce of his willpower not to take a huge gulp. Mohammed nodded approvingly, as if he had passed some kind of test.

The area around them was flat, and littered with brown-red rocks varying in size from somewhere near a grapefruit up to the size of a small car. The canyon split the plateau in a jagged line a hundred feet wide, meandering towards a low range of hulking hills in one direction, and off into the heat-haze in the other. At the bottom of the canyon was what could have been a dried riverbed, now filled with more of the red dust.

“This place is depressing,” Colin said, squinting against the glare of the sun.

“It’s better than the dunes,” Mohammed replied. “Come. I will show you my trees.”

They set off along the edge of the canyon, walking towards the hills. After a few minutes they passed a cairn of stones piled long and high at the lip of the canyon.

“This is the grave,” Mohammed said, pointing as they passed it, “of a woman who tried to kill me. She attacked me here, amongst these stones, while I was searching for water and firewood. She had fashioned a slingshot from her parachute — the first I knew of her presence was when one of her stones hit me, here.” He held up his left hand, and for the first time Colin saw that his little finger was bent and curled inwards uselessly. The flesh around it was swollen. If his skin had not been so dark, it would have been mottled purple and red.

“That’s broken,” he said. “Shouldn’t you do something about it?”

“What is there to do, in this place?” Mohammed swept his arm in a curve, taking in the desolation around them. “Where is my doctor? Where is the pharmacy? I took painkillers from the pack they dropped with me, and now I will wait for the bone to set, out of place, to leave me a cripple.” He shrugged. “It is God’s will.”

Colin glanced back over his shoulder at the grave. “What about—” he began, then stopped. “The person who attacked me. Did you …?”

“I saw him. And yes, you killed him. That was how I found you: by the birds circling the body. I had hoped to take one of them, but they scattered when I approached. There was not much left of him by that time, so I did not bury him. You were almost dead, but not yet, so I took you.”

Colin looked around. “What is this place?” he said, more to himself than anything else. “Why would they drop us here and make us fight like this?”

“No-one is making us fight, my friend. No-one but ourselves. You and I are not fighting each other, are we?”

“Yes, but you saved my life.”

“Then,” said Mohammed, starting off along the plateau, “think how much good would come about in the world if men concerned themselves more with the saving of life than the taking of it.”

Colin did not have a reply.

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