Note: This episode continues from part 3 of the series. -ed.
As pleasant as the Mediterranean Sea is, prolonged immersion can be tiresome. And so, it was with some relief that I hauled myself onto the rocky beach that was my destination. When swimming to a beach, there is always some confusion about when best to put one's feet down. Too early and the wade to dry land is more difficult than it has to be; too late and an undignified sprawl is to be expected. Nevertheless, I found myself at last on the stones of the cove and sat down to dry out beneath the Greek sun. I had set off from the submarine early and alone. It never does to hurry things like this and I felt that, capable as Emily was, there was little to be gained by risking another person.
Ascending the stony slope I found myself atop a ridge of dry scrub and dust. In a distant haze shimmered the all too familiar outlines of combat walkers. I could see three of them, but at that distance it was impossible to see what other troops might be with them. The plan had been to find the Germans, then to find out what they were up to. I seemed to have dealt with the first part with admirable alacrity. As for the second, extemporisation was the order of the day.
I took out my field glasses, which were incongruous with my 'generic Greek peasant' disguise, but useful enough to warrant bringing them along. The costume consisted of smock, sunhat, worn trousers and sandals. If questioned, I planned to pose as a goatherd. Since I didn't have any goats with me, I was hoping I wouldn't be questioned.
Through the binoculars, I could see that the walkers were Lokis, accompanied by infantry riding in two half-tracks. A staff car brought up the rear of the column. They were proceeding slowly, as if they were looking for something. Which, of course, they were.
I crouched low and scrambled towards them, trying to stay hidden behind the meagre plant life that was around, pelting from myrtle to sage. Fortunately, they seemed to not be looking in my direction anyway. As I closed to within forty yards, the procession came to a halt. I crouched at the foot of an old gnarled olive tree and watched. The harsh Hellenic sun continued to beat down, and a bead of sweat ran down my nose. It was getting on for noon - mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. A score of German soldiers in khaki descended from the half-tracks and gathered in front of the Loki walkers. Armed with spades, shovels and mattocks, they began to dig. Considering the rocky terrain, I was surprised they expected to make any progress. Perhaps the ground was softer over there. By now I was confident that any idea they might have of guarding their little expedition was cursory, probably because we were on an uninhabited island. I contented myself to wait out the excavation.
It was a good two hours before they stopped digging. Then, three officers dismounted from the staff car and walked over to the men. They walked behind the soldiers, out of sight and disappeared. Then the soldiers began to disappear too. Evidently, they were going into the hole they had just made. One by one they went into the opening until only two infantrymen remained behind to guard the site, in addition to the three Loki walkers. They seemed to have all the angles covered and I was at a loss. At that moment I felt very vulnerable out there on the island, and began to wish I'd brought Emily with me after all.
I considered my situation for a minute or two, before hitting upon a plan best described as unlikely. Taking my trusty penknife, I uprooted a small sage bush, large enough to conceal my body from view if I was crouching. Then, holding the bush in front of me, I moved in bursts of speed towards the German dig site, like a latter-day one-man Birnam Wood. It was only a matter of time before the moving vegetation was spotted. However, by the time the walkers turned to face the shrubbery and the guards began to walk over to investigate, I had already concealed myself some way off to the left. I waited until they were all looking the other way, then made a mad dash for the hole. In my haste I leapt straight for the hole, hoping there was a rope ladder or some similar contrivance that I could grab hold of. There was a rope ladder, but unfortunately I tripped at the edge of the chasm and found myself plummeting. The earthen walls of the pit flashed by in front of my eyes. After perhaps a fraction of a second I regained control of myself and flailed a hand out to try to grab a rung of the ladder. My fingertips grazed the wood of one rung, but I could not grasp it and my fall continued. Suddenly a shock of cold made me gasp and I was plunged into water, dark as night. My hand grazed against a submerged rock. I pushed off it and quickly rose to the surface, gasping for air. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I saw that I was in some kind of subterranean river - the ladder ended above, a little way from a rocky outcropping. The Germans would have to leap from the ladder to the land, but a foot or so across and I would have broken some bones. I swam over to the rocks and clambered out of the water. I was in a large arching cavern, some fifteen yards across. The water took up most of that width, with a narrow ledge skirting the wall on the left. A little light shone down the shaft the Germans had dug, while the rest of the illumination came from lamps left along the path. My plunge into the water had been fortuitous but noisy. It was possible someone had heard, so I decided I had best get a move on. Dripping wet and having lost my sunhat in the water, I cautiously followed the route marked out by the Nazis' lamps.
From the cavern, an opening descended into a narrow tube-like tunnel, which looked as if it had been formed by lava flows. The walls looked smooth, but were rough to the touch. The downward slope was steep, and tough going. It levelled out after a short while and I heard echoing voices up ahead. Orders were barked and affirmations replied, by the sounds of it. Attempting to proceed as stealthily as I could, I soon came to a junction of sorts. The lava-flow tunnel continued on the level, veering slightly to the left. On the right, a splintered crack in the rock led to a fissure that seemed to slope upwards. Both had lanterns in them. My instinct told me to continue with the tunnel, off to the left. Knowing the trouble my gut reaction usually gets me into, I went right.
I passed the lantern and walked on up the gentle slope of the fissure. There did not seem to be any lanterns ahead, but as the light got dimmer, the voices of the Germans seemed to be getting louder. I began to perceive a soft glow coming from up ahead. Suddenly, I felt something thin and solid beneath my foot. I looked down. Something pale lay across the path. Hoping no one would notice its absence, I went down and picked up the lantern, then retraced my steps. The pale object I had stepped on was a human tibia. Sitting across the fissure, with its back propped against the right-hand wall, was a skeleton. It seemed to be largely intact and wearing the armour of an Athenian hoplite. Whoever he was, he had died a long way from home. I put the lantern down and continued along the fissure.
Before long, I found the source of the glow I had seen earlier. The fissure ended at a natural gallery, overlooking a large chamber. The glow had come from the many lights the German soldiers had set up around the place. This chamber, easily twenty yards in diameter, had clearly been constructed, carved from the rock. Decorative pillars arched up to the roof. A dais led to a low altar at the far end. The soldiers milled around while the three officers I had seen earlier stood on the dais in conference. I could not see their faces clearly, but I had a strong suspicion they were the same men we had seen at the chateau in France. One of them stood apart from the others and addressed the men.
"The tablet is somewhere in this temple! Split into pairs and find it!"
I reasoned that, on the whole, it would be best if I got out of the place as soon as possible. I would report back to the submarine, and we could then assault the Germans in force. Assuming they hadn't got away by then, of course. It wasn't a brilliant plan, but I think I was heady from the improbable success of the Dunsinane scheme. I turned and walked softly down the fissure. The lantern was by the hoplite's skeleton, reflecting from the wall. As I passed by, I noticed something strange in the shadows it cast. I stopped and picked up the lantern, turning it so that I could get a good shufti at the wall behind the spearman's remains. What I had not seen before was a narrow opening, barely wide enough for a grown man to enter, leading off into the darkness. I stepped over the hoplite and turned sideways, putting the lantern on the floor once more. Trying to make my self as narrow as possible, I strained and struggled to scrape through the opening, which thankfully widened out after only a foot. I put my arm through the opening and retrieved the lantern. When I shed some light on the matter, I found I was in a small square chamber, clearly man-made. On a rotten wooden platform was a slab of stone, a foot long and two-thirds that across, with Greek writing carved on it. That, I surmised, would be the tablet. I tried to pick it up with one hand, since the other was holding the lantern. The tablet was too heavy and slipped from my fingers. The wooden holder caved in and fell apart. The tablet fell through it to land with a solid thump on the floor. I hoped no one had heard that.
I placed the lantern on the floor and reached through the crumbled remnants of the platform to grasp the tablet warmly with both hands. After some experimentation, I found I could cradle the tablet under my left arm, leaving my right arm free. I put both the lantern and tablet next to the chamber entrance, reaching through to pick them up after I had gone through the rigmarole of squeezing out into the fissure. No sooner had I settled the tablet in my left arm, taken up the lantern in my right hand and started down towards the main tunnel, than I heard voices in front of me. Evidently, one of the searching pairs was looking in the fissure. They were perturbed by the missing lantern and were blundering up the fissure in the dark. A shout from one showed they had spotted my light - I heard them running towards me, and they were on top of me almost before I knew it. Luckily, there was only room for one abreast in the fissure. I threw the lantern at the first as he came charging up, then smacked him sharply on the head with the tablet. Splinters of stone flew off the soldier's helmet as he fell down. I made a mental note not to use the tablet as a weapon again. The second soldier shouted at me to freeze. The fallen lamp illuminated him well, as I grabbed his unconscious comrade's rifle and fired off a shot. The report echoed all around the caves and the second soldier fell in a heap.
Naturally, the gunshot had attracted everybody's attention. I could hear a stampede of running feet and raised voices. I ran down towards the tunnel, cradling the tablet in both arms. In the tunnel I turned left swiftly and took off. A bullet pinged and ricocheted off the wall close by my head. Too close by half. I hurtled pell-mell along the illuminated tunnel, scrambling with one hand to help me up the steep incline. A hand grabbed at my feet as I neared the top. I looked down into the face of another infantryman. Trying not to make it seem personal, I stamped on his nose. He tumbled back down the slope, taking two or three others with him.
As I ran into the first cavern I had encountered, I realised that my chances of going out the way I came in were not good. Aside from the difficulty of climbing the rope ladder without dropping the tablet, escape across the island from the three Loki walkers stationed above would be impossible. A desperate thought entered my mind and like a drowning man I latched on to it. Holding the tablet out in front of me like a child's float, I dived into the river. The weight of the tablet sent me straight down to the bottom. Kicking to stay off the riverbed, I tried to get my bearings, then to swim downriver away from the shaft entrance. Pushing upwards, I got my head above water and took a deep breath. My emergence was greeted with gunfire, echoing painfully loudly in the cave all around me. I ducked below the surface and followed the current along into a submerged tunnel. All was pitch black. I clasped the tablet tightly against my ribcage, feeling along the walls and pushing with my other hand, all the while kicking with my feet as my knees scraped against the jagged rock. I had no idea how much or how little progress I was making. I was quite alone there in the darkness, just the tablet and me. The water pressed in on me from all sides. It seemed as though it was only my held breath that kept the water from crushing me. My eyes were open but there was nothing there. The thought crossed my mind that this tunnel could be a mile long, and I would never again see the light of day. I concentrated hard to keep on the task at hand, to stay my course. If I turned over in the water or lost my way, I would be disoriented and most likely would drown right there.
I fumbled my way through the darkness for what felt like hours. My breath began to run out and my chest started to suck in, straining for air. My throat was burning and my head pounded. My fingertips lost contact with the rock. I continued to kick. I saw the colour in front of my eyes change from black to blue. I moved my head and saw the hint of light coming from up above. I thrashed towards the light. I had no air left in me. My energy was flagging. My ascent was rapid and I gasped in the welcome relief of air as I broke the surface. I was outside, in the sun. Everything was bright. I doggy-paddled one-handed over to the sandy bank of the river, let go of the tablet and collapsed face-down.
It was then that I heard metallic clanking sounds nearby. I looked up as a shadow fell over me. Craning my neck I saw a Loki pointing its machine guns at me, its tall metal frame blocking out the sun. The hatch on top opened and the pilot emerged, grinning from ear to ear. He said something in German but I didn't catch it. I was too exhausted to care.
To be continued...
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