Time: Unknown; Place: Darkness

Panic had set in when daylight vanished; a primeval fear against which mankind would never find a defence; not even a king or a great warrior, both of which he had ceased to be the moment he had realised he was lost in the dark. He cursed the pride and stubbornness which had seen him take up this challenge, knowing he might be walking into a trap.

The light from the entrance to the temple had soon disappeared and there had been not a glimmer of it since. The soul of the labyrinth was blacker and more complex than the heart of a woman, and just as unforgiving. For the sake of his sanity he had to hope that she would tire of him and release him from her embrace, allowing him to return to the sound of the sea and the cool breeze, which had become distant memories.

Like all men, he had betrayed himself by his weakness. It would be easy to blame the one who stalked him now – he hesitated to call him a man – and whose malevolent presence filled these tunnels, but in truth his own arrogance, allied to a desire to possess a mythical prize, had led him to take up the priest’s challenge. So here he was – the gods only knew how many wrong turns and lost days further on – unable to see his hand in front of his face.

Would he ever walk free? Pride and prize were nothing now; he just wanted to see the sky again. Or would this sword he clutched, more as a symbol of the world he knew than as a weapon, be the only way that he would ever bring an end to this, one way or the other?

He wept – as he would again and again – then found once more the part of himself that was still a king and continued on his way; hunter and hunted.

THE CALM…

Winchester: October 24th 1997

“Okay, tell me all about it.”

So he had. Or rather, he had tried. But those six little words from Candice had made too great a demand of him. There was so much to tell, yet so little he could say. He described the box, not the contents. By the time he had finished recounting what he could, Edward Sutch was almost proud that he had maintained his record of having never lied to his wife, just kept things from her.

Now that Candice had gone to bed, seeming satisfied with what she had heard and respecting, as ever, her husband’s need for some time alone with his thoughts, he poured himself a large malt whisky and sat at the desk in his study, staring across its scratched surface. Devoid of all clutter now – everything was packed in readiness – it enabled him to order his thoughts and think back on the sequence of events which had led him to this night; more than a night – the eve of something; his greatest adventure; his biggest discovery; perhaps also, his worst misjudgement?

As he sipped the whisky, he noticed that his hand shook. Was it because of what lay ahead, or what he had been through to find a way. He rested his head on the fingertips of the other hand and allowed himself to remember for a while.

CHAPTER FOUR

Winchester:  September 21st 1997

As one of the world’s pre-eminent oceanographers, Sutch knew that discovery does not always lead the way into darkness, trailing a thread for death to follow; a man of science, he couldn’t have lived with that precept. Of course, Robert Oppenheimer’s dubious achievement with the A-bomb, and his response to it, had been examples of exploration taking man to places he should perhaps have left undisturbed; but the culmination of a lifetime’s search or obsession was not usually marked by an explosion that ends one world and breeds another, or by the stark recognition that ‘I am become death.’ More often, all that was left was the emptiness that follows the excitement and mayhem of the launch of a great ship.

Professor Sutch would have enjoyed that image more if he hadn’t been in a state of shock – he would have approved of the maritime analogy – but right now, the scientist in him was in denial; unable quite to comprehend that, after searching for forty years, he had at last found an answer in what he, and the other few academics who had bothered to read the journal, had always dismissed as the drunken ramblings of an old, egotistical sea-dog from the sixteenth century.

But when you have yearned for something to breathe, you accept whatever brings it to life. So the Professor knew there was just a chance he might not have heard the door to hell creak open on its hinges; missed, like so many before him, the tiptoeing entry of death as it hid behind him for the moment in the shadows of achievement.

It had been a long journey, but the last few days had been the most exhausting as he wandered through a strobe-lit world; moments of black disorientation followed by flashes of illumination, which had confused him more than they had enlightened. But it looked as if the way was lit at last. He had got over the road and hoped that he wasn’t like the proverbial chicken, having crossed just to get to the other side.

Despite his dislike of such egotism, Edward Sutch could not suppress all feelings of self-congratulation. He gave the journal’s ancient page an almost loving stroke, and then looking across, reached out and placed his aged hand on the rough roundedness of the amphora, caressing it like the breast of a virgin bride.

“You knew it, Eddie old boy, you knew it,” he said. Yet he’d had to keep it to himself all these years. He hoped that would not preclude Candice being pleased for him when he revealed all. As a scientist he knew this was still a theory till he had the physical proof, and though he was bursting to tell someone, he would have to keep his own counsel a while longer. He would need to pick his team with care as well. Apart from anything else, there were too many cowboy adventurers out there, always ready to saddle up at the prospect of fame and glory. Such baubles were meaningless to him, and not just because of his age. Something far more fundamental had kept his inner flame flickering all these years.

All these years.

He paused for a moment’s reflection, but then shook his head and tried to dismiss some of the nonsense he had heard along the way. More important now was hard evidence. He wanted to put a huge QED sign at the bottom of this conundrum of four decades.

Now that did bring him up short. There was no escaping it. Forty years had been half his life, but just the blink of an eye for this amphora. Still; this moment, this tiny sliver of time on 21st September 1997, belonged to him alone and he was thrilled beyond words by the probability that he might be about to tread, literally and metaphorically, where no-one alive today had been – assuming, as he had to, that the giver of this gift was now dead.

Sorrow caught him off guard. He looked away from the amphora and out of his study window towards the clouds. Tariq had known everything, of course; had known for a very long time, if his story were to be believed. Again Sutch shook his head. Could he really allow himself to accept that part of it? After all, Tariq had lied about certain things, perhaps fearing ridicule, but possibly to whet the Professor’s appetite. Well, in the latter he had succeeded.

Now Sutch smiled and caressed the amphora once more. “Just like Tariq you are,” he said, “full of both secrets and revelations.”

****

He had fallen for her, his rounded virgin bride, the moment he saw her in that market stall in Mogadishu. It turned out she wasn’t for sale, and the merchant wouldn’t even part with her for the equivalent of the king’s ransom that he was offered.

Mogadishu 1957

“She’s beautiful though, isn’t she?”

“Yes.” Sutch had to agree, trying to hide his frustration. He had not seen the like of it before in his already extensive travels. “An unusual motif. It’s not Greek or Roman, Etruscan or Egyptian. I’m not familiar with it.”

“No, no-one is,” said the merchant. “Your Arabic is excellent. We can also speak English,” he continued, switching, as if trying to throw the Professor off balance. “But whatever language you choose cannot do justice to the unique qualities of this piece.”

“No, you’re right.” Sutch raised one eyebrow and continued to study the perfect proportions of the vessel’s neck.

“Like some ancient, exotic whore; not beautiful, a bit battered, but alluring and still in one piece.”

That allusion made him laugh. It hadn’t come to the Cambridge-educated Professor’s mind, and he had to admit it seemed apt, but for one detail. “Except she’s not for sale at any price and has doubtless become more valuable the older she’s grown.” He turned his attention to the merchant, who smiled at the riposte and said nothing. “But now it is my turn to commend your English.”

And it was the merchant’s turn to raise one eyebrow. “When you have been around as long as me, you get to see many places; learn many things.” A slight flush seemed to warm his swarthy skin. “But look at us, talking like two old men, both in our mid-thirties at most.”

“Ah, thank you, but I’m afraid I’ve nearly reached that age where they say life begins.” Sutch smiled. “Apart from her strange beauty, is there any other reason you won’t sell her?” The last words were spoken in the direction of the amphora, which he was still scrutinising.

“You may not think of her as a whore, but you do speak of her as a lady,” said the merchant with a wry smile. “And, as you have implied, that is appropriate. To return to your question; she is not for sale because she belongs to me.”

“Ah.” Sutch swallowed his disappointment and tried to concentrate on the piece – why did he want her so?  “What do the etchings represent?”

Instead of answering, the merchant pointed. “That café; I will meet you there in five minutes.”

****

The evening hung over the lively confusion of the bazaar in a haze of dust and sweat, which the café’s roof fan seemed only to stir into a sludge, rather like the coffee that the Professor was about to drink when he noticed the merchant coming over to join him. He wouldn’t have recognised him with his djellaba pulled close to keep out the dust, except much to Sutch’s surprise he was clutching the amphora. He entertained a moment’s hope that the merchant had reconsidered and was prepared to sell it, before chastising himself for the greed inherent in that thought. His guest joined him, threw back his cowl, sat down and planted the object of Sutch’s affection with solid yet delicate deliberateness between his feet. Sutch thought he heard the sound of liquid swilling inside it.

“You’re not worried about anything else being taken from your stall?” asked the Professor.

“We’re not thieves here.” The Arab must have seen the look of shame that crossed Sutch’s face and smiled. “At least not all of us. But this is all that matters.” He tapped the stopper of the vessel with a finger.

Their ensuing silence hung in the thick, noisy air while another coffee arrived, and the two men took sips of the scalding liquid.

At last Sutch had to ask – after all, it was why he had been invited here. “So, what’s the story?” He gestured with his head towards the amphora.

“One you won’t believe.”

“Then why are you about to tell me?”

The merchant turned his mouth down and shrugged his shoulders. “Because I get a feeling that perhaps you will listen. And because it needs to be told.”

“Two good reasons, I would say. Well, I’m all ears…” he paused, then extended his hand across the table, “…forgive my manners, I don’t know your name.”

“Tariq.” The proffered hand was taken.

“Professor Edward Sutch. Well, you’d certainly make a good raconteur, Tariq. You’ve built up the expectation nicely.”

“This…gift was given to me by a remarkable man; just a humble fisherman, but remarkable because he came from a place unknown to any man outside his own race, and because when I met him he was possibly the last surviving member of that race.”

The Professor leaned forward and smiled. “Well you’ve certainly got me now.”

“Still, I hear some scepticism.” Sutch moved to protest, while at the same time marvelling at his guest’s command of English. Tariq raised his hand to stop him. “I don’t blame you. I would not believe me. Certainly I did not believe him, until…but I get ahead of myself.” Tariq looked around, and then, once convinced nobody could overhear them in the hubbub of the café, he continued. “This man said that he lived in an island kingdom far from here, in the vast southern seas. I think you know a thing or two about uncharted waters.”

The Professor narrowed his eyes, feeling uncomfortable all of a sudden. His project was funded by a major shipping company and supposed to be shrouded in secrecy. “How do you know?”

“I’ve seen your boats in the harbour, your team, your equipment. You are mapping the waters of the western Indian Ocean, it seems to me.”

“You see a lot, Tariq.”

“So if waters with such heavy traffic still need mapping, you would believe that there are parts of the great oceans where a civilisation could have existed about which we know nothing?”

The Professor took another sip of his coffee and thought for a moment. “There, in this day and age, I would be more sceptical.”

“I agree.”

“You agree?”

Sutch thought Tariq looked ill at ease for a moment. The merchant hesitated, and he did not give a direct answer. “I tell you only the fisherman’s tale. One day, returning home from a long fishing trip, he saw, to his horror, his homeland being destroyed. Everywhere rivers of fire were consuming the land, and it looked as if a huge wave had swept across the kingdom, carrying away people and their possessions. He wept as he told me of his country disappearing into the sea; and of the family that he would never see again.”

“This sounds like a volcano, or perhaps an underwater earthquake. I don’t know if we’re talking Krakatoa here.”

“No, not Krakatoa.”

“I meant in magnitude obviously. After all, that was in 1883.”

“Of course.” Tariq took a sip of his coffee and remained enigmatic.

“Nowadays there would be detailed records of something of that scale.”

“You are right.” The merchant’s words had a peculiar inflection. “Unable to return to his home, the fisherman sailed the seas for many moons before he landed, bereft of hope, in this very port. I befriended him; took him into my home.”

“Tariq, as an oceanographer for the past fifteen years, much of that time holding the seat of the Oceanography Department at Southampton University, I would know of an event like this, even from the furthest reaches of the oceans. I don’t mean this to sound condescending in any way, but did you speak the fisherman’s language? Can you be sure you understood exactly what he said?”

“The language was indeed a peculiar hybrid. What do you know of the Mayan culture?”

“About as much as the next man. I take an interest. Are you saying there were similarities to Mayan in the language?” Tariq gave the briefest of nods. “So you think it’s possible these people originated from there?”

“Perhaps. It was not unknown for primitive man to have undertaken long voyages by sea to escape from all manner of things, or simply to explore; to find a new home. But I see from your face you are doubtful.”

The Professor looked long at him. “Actually Tariq, I was wondering how a merchant with a stall in a market in Mogadishu speaks so many languages.”

“A merchant must travel to acquire the things he sells.”

“And why does he settle in arid Somalia?”

“Who says I have settled?” That stopped Sutch in his tracks for a moment’s reflection, and Tariq was swift in moving on. “I made of his words what I could and he supported his story with drawings. He told me they were a trading nation.”

“So how did they trade? You’ve said already that no foreigner ever visited their shores.” Sutch frowned. There were too many discrepancies in this story and he was beginning to doubt the merchant’s grasp of facts. Perhaps he was just someone who liked to spin a yarn over a coffee. “This sounds like the polar opposite of the so-called prophecies of Nostradamus. It’s as easy to say that something has happened, when it cannot be proved, as it is to say it will happen.”

Tariq seemed to absorb the cynicism, but continued: “It was a wealthy kingdom, but not self-sufficient. The fisherman told me of forests and rocks, of soil from which one could barely scrape a harvest. The seas were bountiful, but man cannot live by fish alone.” He smiled. “So they would sail to other lands, make long, hazardous sea voyages, to trade.”

“Trade what? Timber?”

“They had another more valuable harvest. The mines on the island proved to be veritable chests of treasures; enough to buy these people whatever they wanted on whatever scale.” The Professor didn’t ask what these treasures might be. He had already figured that Tariq would tell the tale to its conclusion in his own way and time. But it was all sounding a bit too much like King Solomon’s mines for his taste. He knew that his eyes reflected his disbelief, and that Tariq could see this, though it appeared not to faze him. “From other mines came stones, white like your famous Portland Stone, to build a citadel of much beauty; a walled city with parapets.”

“I don’t understand,” said the Professor. “What or who did they fear when their kingdom remained a secret?”

Tariq hesitated. “A good question. These people were expert seafarers and if they suspected they were being followed from foreign trading ports they set courses of great cunning to throw off any pursuit. Perhaps the walls were built for that inevitable day when someone of equal determination refused to be shaken off.”

“But Tariq,” Sutch leaned forward, “that they remained undiscovered into the twentieth century seems to me…”

Tariq stopped him in his tracks. “Let me tell all.”

Sutch pursed his lips and leaned back again. “Okay. I have to admit it’s an unusual story,” he smiled, “and well told.”

“There was something else; you asked also what they feared. A shadow hung over these people, something the fisherman could not – perhaps would not – describe, at least not in words that I could understand. He seemed unable even to draw it.” Tariq leaned forward for emphasis. “He said that he would long ago have fled from the nameless threat of that place with his family, but for a gift bestowed by the island that held the people in its thrall, despite their fears.”  Edward Sutch fought off the indulgent smile that was tugging at his mouth. To appear patronising would have been anathema to him. But still, this tale of a forbidden, magical kingdom of fabulous wealth had taken on the air of some fantastical bedtime story; like an amalgam of every adventure he had read as a child.

His attempt to hide his feelings ended in miserable failure, because Tariq laughed. The mixture of humour and benevolence, which Sutch was relieved to hear, had the strangest effect, humbling him with its unexpectedness; making him feel he was the fool for being a disbeliever. “I understand your feelings, Professor. It would be my reaction too. You are a scientist; you need to see things for yourself. I am not, but I have seen the things you should.” The peculiar intensity and belief in Tariq’s eyes killed the beginnings of any smile on the Professor’s face. “I am prepared to believe you are a man I can trust; the only man of whom I have believed this in a long time.”

Sutch considered, and then nodded. “Trust is a wonderful blessing to bestow on someone. Forgive me, and please continue.”

Tariq’s nod was almost imperceptible. “According to the fisherman there was a spring in a cave on the island, the waters of which possessed and imparted energies we cannot understand; the fisherman certainly couldn’t. He himself was a young man in body, a fine specimen, but his eyes gave him away. He was old; ancient. I read between the lines of his tale. I believe the priests – the shamans – built their temple near the spring and controlled it, becoming more powerful even than the king. I believe they claimed the power of the water was a blessing of their own making.

“With a supply of that water on board ship, a man could sail the seven seas, never tiring, never ageing – though still he would needs must eat, or else living would be nothing more than a walking death. So you see, my dear Professor, the water was the reason they returned always to their homeland; why these people of youth and health and strength never spread and built themselves a far-flung empire. And why they guarded the location of their home so jealously – theirs was a gift they did not wish to share.” Tariq sat back. “Eternal life must be a mixed blessing. Your mind cannot stay young; it can only become tired and more cynical by the day. The time will come when you have seen everything. And if death does come, the end must be terrible, as indeed it was to behold.”

“What?” Sutch sat up; an involuntary action.

“Yes, I watched the fisherman die, and while I sensed it was almost a relief for him, especially having lost his family, it must have been torture beyond words to age countless centuries in one day. I wonder if all the pain you should have endured during your life comes to wrack your body at the end. It seemed so to me, as I watched his death throes. Then at last I saw the sheet that covered his poor frame sink and settle between his bones like snow melting around the roots of a tree.” Tariq squeezed his eyes shut and Sutch saw a single tear fall from the corner of one of them, tracing down a cheek as hot and dust-dry as the country in which they sat.

Sutch was moved, as well as caught by the desire that holds all men fast at some time or another. “You mean…” he hesitated, “…you said countless centuries?”

Tariq opened his eyes. “Yes, Professor, the reason none of your instruments have measured the cataclysmic destruction of the island is that it happened two hundred and fifty years ago, and the victims killed that day had settled there about twelve hundred years before that.”

“You’re joking!”

“I have never been more serious. See it in my eyes. They do not forget the sight of a man ageing many centuries in a few hours. And if you are still doubtful there is always the amphora.” He tapped it once again. “By your own words, you have never seen its like. I do not know if any others exist. The fisherman gave it to me as a thank you for my friendship; I think just for having listened; perhaps for giving him somewhere comfortable to lay his head after centuries of sailing the oceans. And with it he gave more than you can imagine.” Tariq smiled. “Unfortunately I cannot extend you that courtesy.” The smile became enigmatic. “At least not yet.”

****

“At least not yet.” Those words had taunted the Professor for forty years; irritating flies that had buzzed around him while he tried, without success, to ignore them and get on with his life during those four decades.

That he had the perfect excuse, as a widely-respected oceanographer, to head off to sea in search of the mythical kingdom only added to his frustrations. He would have risked the ridicule of his peers; like announcing you were off to find Brigadoon or Atlantis. If Tariq was to be believed – that was a big ‘if’ – the island had lain somewhere in the vast waters that comprised the southern Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Southern Ocean itself. That was a hell of a lot of water! The floor of the Pacific Ocean was immense; deep and alive with evidence of volcanic activity, past and present, above and below the waves. It would not have been like searching for a needle in a haystack, so much as for a particular piece of hay.

So the hunt for the island kingdom had been relegated to a sort of hobby for him – though such things have a habit of becoming obsessions. There were half-clues – old, handed-down tales of strong waves rocking boats in Hobart, The Kerguelen Islands and the Mozambique Channel; pieces of driftwood in the middle of the ocean; South Sea superstitions – but presenting these as hard evidence would have been like claiming to have proof of ghosts, or a piece of the True Cross. The one thread to which the Professor clung in hope during those years was a recurring theme in some of the stories he heard – passed down by word-of-mouth through the generations in some of the bigger ports such as Aden, Karachi, Muscat, neighbouring Matrah, Port Elizabeth – anywhere Sutch got the chance to chat with the locals. In these tales, merchants would arrive in great black ships, trading jewels for corn and cloth. One thread stuck with him, not because of any dramatic event, but because legend had it that everyone in the harbour was spooked by the appearance of the merchants. If Sutch had made a correct translation of the colloquial dialect, their bodies were young and strong, but their eyes told a very different story, one of weariness and discontent, as if they had sailed the seas for too many years. As usual no-one knew the ship’s heading when it left, and as the port in question was East London, right down in the Cape Province near the southern tip of Africa, it left the Professor with nowhere – or rather too many places  – to go.

As the years passed, Professor Sutch, who was the diametric opposite of the people he sought, being old in body but still young in mind, was forced to devote less and less time to his hobby.

Until a month before, when the ghosts had rattled their chains.

****

London: August 20th 1997

“A parcel for me? What is it?”

“If I had the power of second sight,” said the Rottweiler, “I wouldn’t be sitting here in Reception.”

Fair, if unnecessary and sharp, he decided, but then again that just about summed her up.

A taped-up box, addressed to him c/o The Royal Geographical Society, sat at the front desk, placed just out of his reach behind it, as if to demonstrate the Rottweiler’s power over life and death. He had not ordered anything and if he had, would not have requested that it be delivered here, unless it was a surprise present for his wife.

When it was handed to him at last, and he had taken it from between the long, manicured fingers, he decided he did not want to open it yet, and not just to frustrate the receptionist. So it sat on the passenger seat alongside him all the way down to Southampton University where he still held an office as Emeritus Professor of Oceanography.

During the journey he ran his hand over the box. From certain peculiarities of the calligraphy, he guessed the address had been written by a foreign hand, but there was no postmark. By the time he reached University Road he was desperate to get to his office and open the parcel.

His jaw would not have fallen further open if the box had revealed the Holy Grail. He reached inside and removed the amphora with tender, delicate movements. “Tariq,” he said in an awestruck whisper. Then placing the object with reverential care on his desk, petrified that it would slip from his sweating palms, he got up and locked the office door. This was a moment to be shared with no-one.

He walked around the desk, examining the piece as if it were a museum exhibit, eyes widening with wonder then narrowing as they scrutinised. He wanted to pick it up again, but worried that it might not be robust enough to handle. “Stupid old man,” he muttered at last under his breath, “this might have survived at least two centuries, longer I suspect, much of that time on board ship.”

The amphora had been packed with evident care and Sutch rooted around in the polystyrene-chip filling to see if there was any letter or note, but there was nothing. That was disturbing, because it meant the bestowing of this gift – for what else could it be? – might remain an enigmatic gesture.

He turned the piece over with exaggerated care to see whether there were any markings on the base, and both felt and heard movement inside. When he righted it again there was no doubt. Putting a finger gently down the neck of the vessel, he was thrilled when the tip brushed against what felt like a rolled-up piece of paper. Turning the amphora over once more, he used gravity to help him remove the document.

It was more than age that caused the Professor’s hands to shake as he untied the parchment and started to read. The waft of spices and dust from the paper brought back a thousand memories, till he could almost see Tariq.

“My dear Professor, I trust this piece has reached you safely and I trust you to use it well. I know you will treasure it and I would have given it to no-one else from the day I met you. It helped me to find what I thought I was looking for and now, with a little help from me, I hope it will do the same for you.

Why have I not left it to my sons or family, I hear you ask; why to this passing stranger? Well, I have a feeling about you and even had I not outlived my sons and their sons and their sons I would have bequeathed this to you because, when a man has lived as long as me, his feelings, his instincts, are normally true. No-one else had ever commented on the amphora’s strange allure and beauty – not even my family – and that, for me, was the acid test, so I knew you were someone unique; that it had found a place in your heart and you a place in its story.

Now I hear you ask why I have waited so long before passing this gift to you. Well, you will find out that this is a gift not lightly given away; one that can only belong to someone with an undying need to know its secrets. And forty years is a long time to hold on to a dream as you have done, even if it marks but a blink of history’s eye. So you see, I need your forgiveness on two counts. Firstly, for not being able to let go of my prize before now; a mixed blessing is still a blessing and having seen, in the final terrible throes of the fisherman, what awaited me, I was too much of a coward to rush towards death. I put it off for as long as possible.

The second count is that I lied to you.”

The Professor’s frown was deepening by the sentence, in part through the riddles in which Tariq wrote, but also because this letter seemed to be a harbinger of the merchant’s death. There were other things too; more disturbing to him as a scientist. He read on.

“You see the reason you must believe the fisherman’s tale is because I fled our homeland with him two and a half centuries ago.”

Suddenly, Sutch needed to sit. His legs and hands appeared to have contracted an ague and trembled. He read on.

“It is true that he gave me the amphora, once he decided that a long life without his loved ones was not worth the living, but that was when we first made land after the destruction of our kingdom. And the water it contained helped me continue a life that would have run out along with my own supply of water at least a century ago. A tiny sip each day has given me one hundred years more. It does not turn back the hands of the clock; I was thirty-five years old in body when I fled with him; as I was when my people first settled our country; as I was when our paths crossed, you and I. But finally the well of life has run dry. I am dying, Professor, but I have checked each year and know that you still live. So I hope this amphora can now give one more gift. I hope it can help you achieve your dream – it is never too late for dreams, eh? Do you seek it still? I have heard tales of the learned Englishman who listens keenly, at every port, to stories of the southern seas, pursuing myths and legends. You see I, too, have travelled much. A man who never ages cannot stay in one place, especially those that are rife with superstition. He must move on, perhaps returning when he has passed beyond the memory of a generation or so; even that of his own sons. It was me who sailed the oceans for too long, not the fisherman. The weariness I described to you was mine, not his.

Forgive my writing for becoming shaky, but even today, as I parcel this treasure for you I feel myself growing weaker, though it will be a few days still before the effects of the water of life wear off. Do not worry; I welcome the approach of death, if not its manner. It is time to stop moving.

Let me help you on your way. What you see as etchings and designs on the amphora are actually words and numbers. As you know, my people guarded the ways to our homeland jealously, so much so that we kept no maps on board ship for others to find. The information was hidden as decoration on our water containers. In keeping with the spirit of my people I will not give more information freely, but feel sure your inquisitive mind will appreciate the challenge. To each man his desserts.

Professor – Edward, if I may call you that – I am dying and glad to do so. My parting words for you are of friendly warning; wondering is often better than knowing. Drinking too deeply of life leaves that vessel empty. Bon voyage.”

 

They sat together in silence for a long time, the Professor and the amphora, one trying to come to terms with what he had just read, the other perhaps having forgotten a thousand things more wondrous. “If only you could speak,” said Sutch to this keeper of secrets. Should he believe Tariq? For some reason he did, almost without question, which bothered him as it went against all the principles of science. Why would the old merchant have gone to the lengths, forty years later, of embellishing his already fantastical tale? And perhaps the Professor had known all along, from the moment he set eyes on the amphora, that it was not of the world he knew and upon which he relied. He felt an onrush of giddiness and excitement. He might not have opened the door to the chamber of knowledge, but at least he had located the lock.

He needed help and would have to choose with both care and detachment. To be entrusted with this secret was an honour, but perhaps also something that he had earned, and he was not about to beat a path for the hunters to follow, the adventurers and gold-diggers. He had an idea already of the people to whom he would turn. It was pointless asking the Royal Geographical Society to fund a major expedition yet, but they might stretch to supporting a preliminary field operation. He would have to take a sabbatical, which was ironic considering he was already well past retirement age, though that would raise few eyebrows.

But he was putting the cart before the horse. First he needed an expert lock picker and he had one very close to home, or rather, she would be in a few days.

Leave a Comment