JANE WOKE UP frightened. She did not know where she was or who she was with or whether the Russians had caught her. For a second she stared up at the exposed underside of a wattle roof, thinking Is this a prison? Then she sat up abruptly, her heart hammering, and saw Ellis in his sleeping bag, slumbering with his mouth open, and she remembered We're out of the Valley. We escaped. The Russians don't know where we are and they can't find us.
She lay down again and waited for her heartbeat to return to normal.
They were not following the route Ellis had originally planned. Instead of going north to Comar and then east along the Comar Valley into Nuristan, they had turned back south from Saniz and gone east along the Aryu Valley. Mohammed had suggested this because it got them out of the Five Lions Valley much more quickly, and Ellis had agreed.
They had left before dawn and walked uphill all day, Ellis and Jane taking turns to carry Chantal, Mohammed leading Maggie. At midday they had stopped in the mud-hut village of Aryu and bought bread from a suspicious old man with a snapping dog. Aryu village had been the limit of civilization: after that there had been nothing for miles but the boulder-strewn river and the great bare ivory-colored mountains on either side, until they had reached this place at the weary end of the afternoon.
Jane sat up again. Chantal lay beside her, breathing evenly and radiating heat like a hot-water bottle. Ellis was in his own sleeping bag: they could have zipped the two bags together to make one, but Jane had been afraid that Ellis might roll onto Chantal in the night, so they had slept separately and contented themselves with lying close together and reaching out to touch one another now and again. Mohammed was in the adjoining room.
Jane got up carefully, trying not to disturb Chantal. As she put on her shirt and stepped into her trousers, she felt twinges of pain in her back and her legs: she was hardened to walking, but not all day, climbing without respite, on such rough terrain.
She put on her boots without tying the laces and went outside. She blinked against the bright cold light of the mountains. She was in an upland meadow, a vast green field with a stream winding through it. To one side of the meadow the mountain rose steeply, and sheltered here at the foot of the slope was a handful of stone houses and some cattle pens. The houses were empty and the cattle had gone: this was a summer pasture, and the cowherds had left for their winter quarters. It was still summer in the Five Lions Valley, but at this altitude autumn came in September.
Jane walked over to the stream. It was sufficiently far from the stone houses for her to slip out of her clothes without fear of offending Mohammed. She ran into the stream and quickly immersed herself in the water. It was searingly cold. She got out again immediately, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. "To hell with this," she said aloud. She would stay dirty until she got back to civilization, she resolved.
She put her clothes back on - there was only one towel, and that was reserved for Chantal - and ran back to the house, picking up a few sticks on the way. She laid the sticks over the remains of last night's fire and blew on the embers until the wood caught. She held her frozen hands to the flames until they felt normal again.
She put a pan of water on the fire for washing Chantal. While she was waiting for it to warm up, the others woke,
one by one: first Mohammed, who went outside to wash; then Ellis, who complained that he ached all over; and finally Chantal, who demanded to be fed and was satisfied.
Jane felt oddly euphoric. She should have been anxious, she thought, about taking her two-month-old baby into one of the world's wild places; but somehow that anxiety was swamped by her happiness. Why am I happy? she asked herself, and the answer came out of the back of her mind: because I'm with Ellis.
Chantal also seemed happy, as if she were imbibing contentment with her mother's milk. They had been unable to buy food last night, because the cowherds had left and there was nobody else from whom to buy it. However, they had some rice and salt, which they had boiled - not without difficulty because it took forever to boil water at this altitude. Now for breakfast there was cold leftover rice. That brought Jane's spirits down a little.
She ate while Chantal fed, then washed and changed her. The spare diaper, washed in the stream yesterday, had dried by the fire overnight. Jane put it on Chantal and took the dirty diaper to the stream. She would attach it to the baggage and hope that the wind and the heat of the horse's body would dry it. What would Mummy say about her granddaughter wearing one diaper all day? She would be horrified. Never mind. . . .
Ellis and Mohammed loaded the horse and got her pointed in the right direction. Today would be harder than yesterday. They had to cross the mountain range that for centuries had kept Nuristan more or less isolated from the rest of the world. They would climb the Aryu Pass, fourteen thousand feet high. Much of the way they would have to struggle through snow and ice. They hoped to reach the Nuristan village of Linar: it was only ten miles away as the crow flies, but they would be doing well to get there by late afternoon.
The sunlight was bright when they set off, but the air was cold. Jane was wearing heavy socks and mittens and an oiled sweater under her fur-lined coat. She carried
Chantai in the sling between her sweater and her coat, with the top buttons of the coat undone to let air in.
They left the meadow, following the Aryu River upstream, and immediately the landscape became harsh and hostile again. The cold cliffs were bare of vegetation. Once Jane saw, far in the distance, a huddle of nomads' tents on a bleak slope: she did not know whether to be glad there were other humans around or frightened of them. The only other living thing she saw was a bearded vulture floating in the bitter wind.
There was no visible pathway. Jane was immeasurably glad that Mohammed as with them. At first he followed the river, but when it narrowed and petered out, he carried on with undiminished confidence. Jane asked him how he knew the way, and he told her that the route was marked by piles of stones at intervals. She had not noticed them until he pointed them out.
Soon there was a thin layer of snow on the ground, and Jane's feet got cold despite her heavy socks and her boots.
Amazingly, Chantai slept much of the time. Every couple of hours they stopped for a few minutes' rest, and Jane took the opportunity to feed her, wincing as she exposed her tender breasts to the freezing air. She told Ellis that she thought Chantai was being remarkably good, and he said: ' 'Unbelievably. Unbelievably.''
At midday they stopped within sight of the Aryu Pass for a welcome half-hour rest. Jane was already tired, and her back hurt. She was also starvingly hungry - she wolfed the mulberry-and-walnut cake they had for lunch.
The approach to the pass was terribly daunting. Looking at that steep climb, Jane lost heart. I think I'll sit here a little longer, she thought; but it was cold, and she began to shiver, and Ellis noticed and stood up. "Let's go, before we're frozen to the spot," he said brightly, and Jane thought: I wish you wouldn't be so bloody cheerful.
She stood up with an effort of will.
Ellis said: "Let me carry Chantai."
Jane handed the baby over gratefully. Mohammed led
the way, heaving on Maggie's reins. Wearily. Jane forced herself to follow. Ellis brought up the rear.
The slope was steep and the ground slippery with snow. After a few minutes Jane was more tired than she had been before they stopped to rest. As she stumbled along, panting and aching, she recalled saying to Ellis I suppose I have a better chance of escaping from here with you than of escaping from Siberia alone. Perhaps I can't manage either, she thought now. I didn't know it was going to be like this. Then she caught herself. Of course you knew, she said to herself; and you know it's going to get worse before it gets better. Snap out of it, you pathetic creature. At that moment she slipped on an icy rock and fell sideways. Ellis, just behind her, caught her arm and held her upright. She realized that he was watching her carefully, and she felt a surge of love for him. Ellis cherished her in a way Jean-Pierre never had. Jean-Pierre would have walked on ahead, assuming that if she needed help she would ask for it; and if she had complained about that attitude, he would have asked whether she wanted to be treated as an equal or not.
They were almost at the summit. Jane leaned forward to take the incline, thinking: Just a little more, just a little more. She felt dizzy. In front of her, Maggie skidded on the loose rocks and then scampered up the last few feet, forcing Mohammed to run alongside. Jane plodded after her, counting the steps. At last she reached the level ground. She stopped. Her head was spinning. Ellis's arm went around her, and she closed her eyes and leaned on him.
"From now on it's downhill all day," he said.
She opened her eyes. She could never have imagined such a cruel landscape: nothing but snow, wind, mountains and loneliness forever and ever. "What a godforsaken place this is," she said.
They looked at the view for a minute, then Ellis said: "We must keep going."
They walked on. The way down was steeper. Mohammed, who had been heaving on Maggie's reins all the way
up, now hung on to her tail to act as a brake and prevent the horse slithering out of control down the slippery slope. The cairns were hard to distinguish among the litter of loose snow-covered rocks, but Mohammed showed no hesitation about which way to go. Jane thought she should offer to take Chantal, to give Ellis a reprieve, but she knew she could not carry her.
As they descended, the snow thinned and then cleared, and the track was visible. Jane kept hearing an odd whistling sound, and eventually found the energy to ask Mohammed what it was. In reply he used a Dari word she did not know. He did not know the French equivalent. In the end he pointed, and Jane saw a small squirrel-like animal scuttling out of the way: a marmot. Afterward she saw several more, and wondered what they found to eat up here.
Soon they were walking alongside another brook, heading downstream now, and the endless gray-and-white rock was relieved by a little coarse grass and a few low bushes on the banks of the stream; but still the wind hurtled up the gorge and penetrated Jane's clothing like needles of ice.
Just as the climb had become relentlessly worse, so the descent got easier and easier: the path growing smoother, the air warmer, and the landscape friendlier. Jane was still exhausted but she no longer felt oppressed and downcast. After a couple of miles they reached the first village in Nuristan. The men there wore thick sleeveless sweaters with a striking black-and-white pattern, and spoke a language of their own which Mohammed could barely understand. However, he managed to buy bread with some of Ellis's Afghan money.
Jane was tempted to plead with Ellis that they stop here for the night, for she felt desperately weary; but there were still several hours of daylight left, and they had agreed they would try to reach Linar today, so she bit her tongue and forced her aching legs to walk on.
To her immense relief the remaining four or five miles were easier, and they arrived well before nightfall. Jane sank to the ground underneath an enormous mulberry tree
and simply sat still for a while. Mohammed lit a fire and began to make tea.
Mohammed somehow let it be known that Jane was a Western nurse, and later, while she was feeding and changing Chantal, a little group of patients gathered, waiting at a respectful distance. Jane summoned her energy and saw them. There were the usual infected wounds, intestinal parasites and bronchial complaints, but there were fewer malnourished children here than in the Five Lions Valley, presumably because the war had not much affected this remote wilderness.
As a result of the impromptu clinic, Mohammed got a chicken, which he boiled in their saucepan. Jane would have preferred to go to sleep, but she made herself wait for the food and ate ravenously when it came. It was stringy and tasteless, but she was hungrier than she had ever been in her life.
Ellis and Jane were given a room in one of the village houses. There was a mattress for them and a crude wooden crib for Chantal. They joined their sleeping bags together and made love with weary tenderness. Jane enjoyed the warmth and the lying down almost as much as the sex. Afterwards, Ellis fell asleep instantly. Jane lay awake for a few minutes. Her muscles seemed to hurt more now that she was relaxing. She thought about lying on a real bed in an ordinary bedroom, with street lights shining through the curtains and car doors slamming outside, and a bathroom with a flush toilet and a hot-water tap, and a shop on the corner where you could buy cotton balls and Pampers and Johnson's No More Tears baby shampoo. We escaped from the Russians, she thought, as she drifted off to sleep; maybe we really will make it home. Maybe we really will.
Jane woke when Ellis did, sensing his sudden tension. He lay rigid beside her for a moment, not breathing, listening to the sound of two dogs barking. Then he slipped out of bed fast.
The room was pitch-dark. She heard a match scrape; then a candle flickered in the corner. She looked at Chantal:
the baby was sleeping peacefully. "What is it?" she said to Ellis.
"I don't know," he whispered. He pulled on his jeans, stepped into his boots, and put on his coat, then he went out.
Jane threw on some clothes and followed him. In the next room, moonlight coming through the open door revealed four children in a row in a bed, all staring wide-eyed over the edge of their shared blanket. Their parents were asleep in another room. Ellis was in the doorway, looking out.
Jane stood beside him. Up on the hill she could see, by the moonlight, a lone figure, running toward them.
"The dogs heard him," Ellis whispered.
"But who is he?" said Jane.
Suddenly there was another figure beside them. Jane gave a start, then recognized Mohammed. The blade of a knife glinted in his hand.
The figure came closer. His gait seemed familiar to Jane. Suddenly Mohammed gave a grunt and lowered the knife. "Ali Ghanim," he said.
Jane now recognized the distinctive stride of Ali, who ran that way because his back was slightly twisted. "But why?" she whispered.
Mohammed stepped forward and waved. Ali saw him, waved back and ran to the hut where the three of them stood. He and Mohammed embraced.
Jane waited impatiently for Ali to catch his breath. At last he said: "The Russians are on your trail."
Jane's heart sank. She had thought they had escaped. What had gone wrong?
Ali breathed hard for a few seconds longer, then went on: "Masud has sent me to warn you. The day you left, they searched the whole Five Lions Valley for you, with hundreds of helicopters and thousands of men. Today, having failed to find you, they sent search parties to follow each valley leading to Nuristan."
"What's he saying?" Ellis interrupted.
Jane held up a hand to stop Ali while she translated for Ellis, who could not follow All's rapid, breathless speech.
Ellis said: "How did they know we had gone to Nuristan? We might have decided to hide out anywhere in the damn country."
Jane asked Ali. He did not know.
"Is there a search party in this valley?" Jane asked Ali.
"Yes. I overtook them just before the Aryu Pass. They may have reached the last village by nightfall."
"Oh, no," said Jane despairingly. She translated for Ellis. "How can they move so much faster than us?" she said. Ellis shrugged, and she answered the question herself: "Because they're not slowed down by a woman with a baby. Oh, shit."
Ellis said: "If they start early in the morning they'll catch us tomorrow."
"What can we do?"
Jane felt the weariness in her bones, and she was filled with an irrational resentment against Ellis. "Can't we hide somewhere?" she said irritably.
"Where?" said Ellis. "There's only one road here. The Russians have enough men to search all the houses - there aren't many. Besides, the local people aren't necessarily on our side. They might easily tell the Russians where we're hiding. No, our only hope is to stay ahead of the searchers.''
Jane looked at her watch. It was two A.M. She felt ready to give up.
"I'll load the horse," Ellis said. "You feed Chantal." He switched to Dan and said to Mohammed: "Will you make some tea? And give Ali something to eat."
Jane went back into the house, finished dressing, then fed Chantal. While she was doing that, Ellis brought her sweet green tea in a pottery bowl. She drank it gratefully.
As Chantal sucked, Jane wondered how much Jean-Pierre had to do with this relentless pursuit of her and Ellis. She knew he had helped with the raid on Banda, for she had seen him. When they searched the Five Lions Valley, his local knowledge would be invaluable. He must
know they were hunting down his wife and baby like dogs chasing rats. How could he bring himself to help them? His love must have been changed to hatred by his seething resentment and jealousy.
Chantal had had enough. How pleasant it must be, Jane thought, to know nothing of passion or jealousy or betrayal, to have no feelings but warm or cold and full or empty. "Enjoy it while you may, little girl," she said.
Hurriedly, she buttoned her shirt and pulled her heavy oiled sweater down over her head. She put the sling around her neck, made Chantal comfortable inside it, then shrugged into her coat and went outside.
Ellis and Mohammed were studying the map by the light of a lantern. Ellis showed Jane their route. "We follow the Linar down to where it empties into the Nuristan River, then we turn uphill again, following the Nuristan north. Then we take one of these side valleys - Mohammed won't be sure which one until he gets there - and head for the Kantiwar Pass. I'd like to get out of the Nuristan Valley today - that will make it more difficult for the Russians to follow us, for they won't be sure which side valley we've taken."
"How far is it?" said Jane.
"It's only fifteen miles - but whether that's easy or tough depends on the terrain, of course."
Jane nodded. "Let's get going," she said. She was proud of herself for sounding more cheerful than she felt.
They set off in the moonlight. Mohammed set a fast pace, and whipped the horse mercilessly with a leather strap when she hung back. Jane had a slight headache and an empty, nauseous feeling in her stomach. However, she was not sleepy, but rather nervously tense and bone-weary.
She found the track scary by night. Sometimes they walked in the sparse grass beside the river, which was all right; but then the trail would hairpin up the mountainside to continue on the cliff edge hundreds of feet above, where the ground was covered with snow, and Jane was terrified of slipping and falling to her death with her baby in her arms.
Sometimes there was a choice: the path forked, one way going up and the other down. Since none of them knew which route to take, they let Mohammed guess. The first time, he stayed low and turned out to be right: the track led them across a little beach where they had to wade through a foot of water, but it saved them a long diversion. However, the second time they had to choose they again took the river bank, but this time they regretted it: after a mile or so the path led straight into a sheer rock face, and the only way around it would have been to swim. Wearily they retraced their steps to the fork and then climbed the cliff path.
At the next opportunity they descended to the riverbank again. This time the path led them to a ledge which ran along the face of the cliff about a hundred feet above the river. The horse became nervous, probably because the path was so narrow. Jane was frightened, too. The starlight was not enough to illuminate the river below, so the gorge seemed like a bottomless black pit beside her. Maggie kept stopping, and Mohammed would have to pull on the reins to make her go again.
When the path turned blindly around an abutment in the cliff, Maggie refused to go around the comer and became skittish. Jane backed away, wary of the horse's shuffling rear feet. Chantal began to cry, either because she sensed the moment of tension or because she had not gone back to sleep after her two A.M. feed. Ellis gave Chantal to Jane and went forward to help Mohammed with the horse.
Ellis offered to take the reins, but Mohammed refused ungraciously: the tension was getting to him. Ellis contented himself with pushing the beast from behind and yelling hup and git at it. Jane was just thinking that it was almost funny when Maggie reared, Mohammed dropped the reins and stumbled, and the mare backed into Ellis and knocked him off his feet and kept coming.
Fortunately Ellis fell to the left, against the cliff wall. When the horse backed into Jane she was on the wrong side of it, with her feet at the edge of the path as it pushed past her. She grabbed hold of a bag that was lashed to its
harness, holding on like grim death in case it should nudge her sideways over the precipice. "You stupid beast!" she screamed. Chantal, squashed between Jane and the horse, screamed, too. Jane was carried along for several feet, afraid to loose her hold. Then, taking her life in her hands, she let go of the bag, reached out with her right hand and grabbed the bridle, got a firm footing, pushed past the horse's forequarter to stand beside her head, tugged hard on the bridle and said "Stop!" in a loud voice.
Somewhat to her surprise, Maggie stopped.
Jane turned around. Ellis and Mohammed were getting to their feet. "Are you all right?" she asked them in French.
"Just about," said Ellis.
"I lost the lantern," said Mohammed.
Ellis said in English: "I just hope the fucking Russians have the same problems."
Jane realized that they had not seen how the horse had almost pushed her over the edge. She decided not to tell them. She found the leading rein and gave it to Ellis. "Let's keep going," she said. "We can lick our wounds later," She walked past Ellis and said to Mohammed: "Lead the way."
Mohammed cheered up after a few minutes without Maggie. Jane wondered whether they really needed a horse, but she decided they did: there was too much baggage for them to carry, and all of it was essential - indeed they probably should have brought more food.
They hurried through a silent, sleeping hamlet, just a handful of houses and a waterfall. In one of the cottages a dog barked hysterically until someone silenced it with a curse. Then they were in the wilderness again.
The sky was turning from black to gray, and the stars had gone: it was getting light. Jane wondered what the Russians were doing. Perhaps the officers would now be rousing the men, shouting to wake them and kicking those who were slow to climb out of their sleeping bags. A cook would be making coffee while the commanding officer studied his map. Or perhaps they had got up early, an hour
ago, while it was still dark, and had set out within minutes, marching in single file alongside the river Linar; perhaps they had already passed through the village of Linar; perhaps they had taken all the right forks and were even now just a mile or so behind their quarry.
Jane walked a little faster.
The ledge meandered along the cliff and then dropped down to the riverbank. There were no signs of agriculture, but the mountain slopes on either side were thickly wooded, and as the light brightened, Jane identified the trees as holly oak. She pointed them out to Ellis, saying: "Why can't we hide in the woods?"
"As a last resort, we could," he said. "But the Russians would soon realize we had stopped, because they would question villagers and be told we had not passed through; so they would turn back and start searching intensively."
Jane nodded resignedly. She was just looking for excuses to stop.
Just before sunrise they rounded a bend and stopped short: a landslide had filled the gorge with earth and loose rock, blocking it completely.
Jane felt like bursting into tears. They had walked two or three miles along the bank and that narrow ledge: to turn back meant an extra five miles, including the section that had frightened Maggie so.
The three of them stood for a moment looking at the blockage. "Could we climb it?" said Jane.
"The horse can't," said Ellis.
Jane was angry at him for stating the obvious. "One of us could go back with the horse," she said impatiently. "The other two could rest while waiting for the horse to catch up."
"I don't think it's wise to get separated."
Jane resented his my-decision-is-final tone of voice. "Don't assume we'll all do what you happen to think is wise," she snapped.
He looked startled. "All right. But I also think that mound of earth and stones might shift if someone tried to
climb it. In fact I might as well say that I'm not going to try it, regardless of what you two might decide."
"So you won't even discuss it. I see." Furious, Jane turned around and started back along the track, leaving the two men to follow her. Why was it, she wondered, that men slipped into that bossy, know-it-all mode whenever there was a physical or mechanical problem?
Ellis was not without his faults, she reflected. He could be wooly-minded: for all his talk about being an antiterrorist expert, still he worked for the CIA, which was probably the largest group of terrorists in the world. There was undeniably a side of him that liked danger, violence and deceit. Don't pick a macho romantic, she thought, if you want a man to respect you.
One thing that could be said for Jean-Pierre was that he never patronized women. He might neglect you, deceive you or ignore you, but he would never condescend to you. Perhaps it was because he was younger.
She passed the place where Maggie had reared. She did not wait for the men: they could cope with the damn horse themselves this time.
Chantal was complaining, but Jane made her wait. She strode on until she reached a point where there seemed to be a pathway up to the clifftop. There she sat down and unilaterally declared a rest. Ellis and Mohammed caught up with her a minute or two later. Mohammed got some mulberry-and-walnut cake out of the baggage and handed it around. Ellis did not speak to Jane.
After the break they climbed the hillside. When they reached the top they emerged into sunshine, and Jane began to feel a little less angry. After a while Ellis put his arm around her and said: "I apologize for assuming command."
"Thank you," Jane said stiffly.
"Do you think that maybe you might have overreacted a little bit?"
"No doubt I did. Sorry."
"You bet. Let me take Chantal."
Jane handed the baby over. As the weight was lifted,
she realized that her back was aching. Chantal had never seemed heavy, but the burden told over a long distance. It was like carrying a bag of shopping for ten miles.
The air became milder as the sun climbed the morning sky. Jane opened her coat and Ellis took his off. Mohammed retained his Russian uniform greatcoat, with characteristic Afghan indifference to all but the most severe changes in the weather.
Toward noon they emerged from the narrow gorge of the Linar into the broad Nuristan Valley. Here the way was once again quite clearly marked, the path being almost as good as the cart track which ran up the Five Lions Valley. They turned north, going upstream and uphill.
Jane felt terribly tired and discouraged. After getting up at two A.M. she had walked for ten hours - but they had only covered four or five miles. Ellis wanted to do another ten miles today. It was Jane's third consecutive day on the march, and she knew she could not continue until nightfall. Even Ellis was wearing the bad-tempered expression which, Jane knew, was a sign he was weary. Only Mohammed seemed tireless.
In the Linar Valley they had seen no one outside the villages, but here there were a few travelers, most of them wearing white robes and white turbans. The Nuristanis looked with curiosity at the two pale, exhausted Westerners, but greeted Mohammed with wary respect, no doubt because of the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.
As they trudged uphill beside the Nuristan River, they were overtaken by a black-bearded, bright-eyed young man carrying ten fresh fish speared on a pole. He spoke to Mohammed in a mixture of languages - Jane recognized some Dan and the occasional Pashto word - and they understood one another well enough for Mohammed to buy three of the fish.
Ellis counted out the money, and said to Jane: "Five hundred afghanis per fish - how much is that?''
"Five hundred afghanis is fifty French francs - five pounds."
"Ten bucks," said Ellis. "Expensive fish."
Jane wished he would stop jabbering: it was as much as she could do to put one foot in front of the other, and he was talking about the price of fish.
The young man, whose name was Halam, said he had caught the fish in Lake Mundol, farther down the valley, although he had probably bought them, for he did not look like a fisherman. He slowed his pace to walk with them, talking volubly, apparently not much concerned about whether they understood him or not.
Like the Five Lions Valley, the Nuristan was a rocky canyon which broadened, every few miles, into small cultivated plains with terraced fields. The most noticeable difference was the forest of holly oak which covered the mountainsides like the wool on a sheep's back, and which Jane thought of as her hiding place should all else fail.
They were making better time now. There were no infuriating diversions up the mountain, for which Jane was deeply thankful. In one place the road was blocked by a landfall, but this time Ellis and Jane were able to climb over it, and Mohammed and the horse forded the river and came back across a few yards upstream. A little later, when an abutment jutted into the stream, the road continued around the cliff face on a shaky wooden trestle which the horse refused to tread on, and once again Mohammed solved the problem by crossing in the water.
By this time Jane was near to collapse. When Mohammed came back across the river, she said: "I need to stop and rest."
Mohammed said: "We are almost at Gadwal."
"How far is it?"
Mohammed conferred with Halam in Dari and French, then said: "One half hour."
It seemed like forever to Jane. Of course I can walk for another half hour, she told herself, and tried to think of something other than the ache in her back and the need to lie down.
But then, when they turned the next bend, they saw the village.
It was a startling sight as well as a welcome one: the
wooden houses scrambled up the steep mountainside like children clambering on one another's backs, giving the impression that if one house at the bottom were to collapse, the whole village would come tumbling down the hill and fall into the water.
As soon as they drew alongside the first house, Jane simply stopped and sat down on the river bank. Every muscle in her body ached, and she hardly had the strength to take Chantal from Ellis, who sat beside her with a readiness that suggested he, too, was wiped out. A curious face looked out from the house, and Halam immediately began to talk to the woman, presumably telling her what he knew about Jane and Ellis. Mohammed tethered Maggie where she could graze the coarse grass on the river bank, then squatted beside Ellis.
"We must buy bread and tea," Mohammed said.
Jane thought they all needed something more substantial. "What about the fish?" she said.
Ellis said: "It would take too long to clean and cook it. We'll have that for tonight. I don't want to spend more than half an hour here."
"All right," said Jane, although she was not sure she would be able to carry on after only half an hour. Perhaps some food would revive her, she thought.
Halam called to them. Jane looked up and saw him beckoning. The woman did the same: she was inviting them into her house. Ellis and Mohammed got to their feet. Jane put Chantal down on the ground, stood up, then bent down to pick up the baby. Suddenly her vision blurred at the edges and she seemed to lose her balance. For a moment she fought it, seeing only Chantal's tiny face surrounded by a haze; then her knees became weak and she sank to the ground, and everything went dark.
When she opened her eyes she saw a circle of anxious faces above her: Ellis, Mohammed, Halam and the woman. Ellis said: "How do you feel?"
"Foolish," she said. "What happened?"
She sat upright. "I'll be all right."
"No. you won't," said Ellis. "You can't go any farther today."
Jane's head was clearing. She knew he was right. Her body would not take any more, and no effort of will would change that. She started to speak French so that Mohammed could understand. "But the Russians are sure to reach here today."
"We'll have to hide." said Ellis.
Mohammed said: "Look at these people. Do you think they could keep a secret?"
Jane looked at Halam and the woman. They were watching, riveted by the conversation even though they could not understand a word of it. The arrival of the foreigners was probably the most exciting event of the year. In a few minutes the whole of the village would be here. She studied Halam. Telling him not to gossip would be like telling a dog not to bark. The location of their hideout would be known all over Nuristan by nightfall. Was it possible to get away from these people, and sneak off up a side valley unobserved? Perhaps. But they could not live indefinitely without help from the local people - at some point their food would run out, and that would be about the time the Russians realized they had stopped and began searching the woods and canyons. Ellis had been right, earlier in the day, when he said their only hope was to stay ahead of their pursuers.
Mohammed drew heavily on his cigarette, looking thoughtful. He spoke to Ellis. "You and I will have to go on, and leave Jane behind."
"No," said Ellis.
Mohammed said: "The piece of paper you have, which bears the signatures of Masud, Kami! and Azizi, is more important than the life of any one of us. It represents the future of Afghanistan - the freedom for which my son died.''
Ellis would have to go on alone, Jane realized. At least he could be saved. She was ashamed of herself for the terrible despair she felt at the thought of losing him. She should be trying to figure out how to help him, not wondering how she could keep him with her. Suddenly she had
an idea. "I could divert the Russians," she said. "I could let myself be captured, then, after a show of reluctance, 1 could give Jean-Pierre all sorts of false information about which way you were headed and how you were traveling. ... If I sent them off completely the wrong way, you might gain several days' lead - enough to get you safely out of the country!" She became enthusiastic about the idea even while in her heart she was thinking Don't leave me, please don't leave me.
Mohammed looked at Ellis. "It's the only way, Ellis," he said.
"Forget it," said Ellis. "It isn't going to happen."
"But, Ellis - "
"It isn't going to happen," Ellis repeated. "Forget it."
Mohammed shut up.
Jane said: "But what are we going to do?"
"The Russians won't catch up with us today," Ellis said. "We still have a lead - we got up so early this morning. We'll stay here tonight and start early again tomorrow. Remember, it isn't over until it's over. Anything could happen. Somebody back in Moscow could decide that Anatoly is out of his mind and order the search called off."
"Bullshit," said Jane in English, but secretly she was glad, against all reason, that he had refused to go on alone.
"I have an alternative suggestion," said Mohammed. "I will go back and divert the Russians."
Jane's heart leaped. Was it possible?
Ellis said: "How?"
"I will offer to be their guide and interpreter, and I will lead them south down the Nuristan Valley, away from you, to Lake Mundol."
Jane thought of a snag, and her heart sank again. "But they must have a guide already," she said.
"He may be a good man from the Five Lions Valley who has been forced to help the Russians against his will. In that case I will speak with him and arrange things."
"What if he won't help?"
Mohammed considered. "Then he is not a good man
who has been forced to help them, but a traitor who willingly collaborates with the enemy for personal gain; in which case I will kill him."
"I don't want anyone killed for my sake," she said quickly.
"It's not for you," Ellis said harshly. "It's for me - I refused to go on alone."
Jane shut up.
Ellis was thinking about practicalities, He said to Mohammed: "You're not dressed like a Nuristani."
"I will change clothes with Halam."
"You don't speak the local language well."
"There are many languages in Nuristan. I will pretend to come from a district where they use a different tongue. The Russians speak none of these languages anyway, so they will never know "
"What will you do with your gun?"
Mohammed thought for a moment. "Will you give me your bag?"
"It's too small."
"My Kalashnikov is the type that has a folding butt."
"Sure," said Ellis. "You can have the bag."
Jane wondered whether it would attract suspicion, but decided not: Afghans' bags were as strange and varied as their clothes. All the same, Mohammed would surely arouse suspicion sooner or later. She said: "What will happen when they finally realize they are on the wrong trail?"
"Before that happens I will run away in the night, leaving them in the middle of nowhere."
"It's terribly dangerous," said Jane.
Mohammed tried to look heroically unconcerned. Like most of the guerrillas, he was genuinely brave but also ludicrously vain.
Ellis said: "If you time this wrong, and they suspect you before you've decided to leave them, they will torture you to find out which way we went."
"They will never take me alive," said Mohammed.
Jane believed him.
Ellis said: "But we will have no guide."
"I shall find you another one." Mohammed turned to Halam and began a rapid multilingual conversation. Jane gathered that Mohammed was proposing to hire Halam as a guide. She did not like Halam much - he was too good a salesman to be entirely trustworthy - but he was obviously a traveling man, so he was a natural choice. Most of the local people had probably never ventured outside their own valley.
"He says he knows the way," said Mohammed, reverting to French. Jane suffered a twinge of anxiety about the words He says. Mohammed went on: "He will take you to Kantiwar, and there he will find another guide to take you across the next pass, and in this way you will proceed to Pakistan. He will charge five thousand afghanis."
Ellis said: "It sounds like a fair price, but how many more guides will we have to hire at that rate before we reach Chitral?"
"Maybe five or six," said Mohammed.
Ellis shook his head. "We don't have thirty thousand afghanis. And we have to buy food."
"You will have to get food by holding clinics," Mohammed said. "And the way becomes easier once you are in Pakistan. Perhaps you will not need guides at the end."
Ellis looked dubious. "What do you think?" he asked Jane.
"There's an alternative," she said. "You could go on without me."
"No," he said. "That's not an alternative. We'll go on together."