Chapter One

 

   Harrington came to his senses in darkness. He found that he was spinning. He was also swinging back and forth. His arms dangled loosely past his head. It dawned on him slowly that he was hanging upside down by his right leg. His left leg was bent back uncomfortably at the knee and hip. He was aware that his spinning motion would slow to a halt for a moment or two before it started again in the opposite direction. For reasons which he could not fathom, he was still in his parachute harness.

 

   Gradually, he recalled tying one end of a rope to his right ankle and the other to his kitbag. In the dark, he could not see where he was, nor could he see what was below him. He feared it to be a long drop. He tugged gently on the webbing of the chute's harness and felt the weight of the collapsed canopy as it hung from him. He stretched out his arms and groped for something to grasp. There was nothing within his reach. 

 

The spinning slowed gradually and finally ceased. He still swung back and forth like a pendulum as a chilly, strong up-draught tugged sporadically at the collapsed parachute canopy. He remained motionless as he allowed his head to clear before planning his way out of his predicament.

 

   The faint sighing of the wind was all he could hear no matter how much he strained his ears. There was a growing ache in his right ankle, which carried his weight as well as the collapsed parachute. He felt as though he was being pulled slowly apart. A gnawing and growing pain bored into the small of his back.

 

   He reached for the harness snap-buckle on his chest with both hands, took a deep breath and released it slowly. Gingerly, he wriggled out of the harness and let it fall away into the dark. It was a relief as the burden of the canopy and its lines fell free. The pain in the small of his back also eased slightly. He held his breath and listened. Moments later he heard a rustling sound as the chute and its harness landed on something below. The ground, he realised, was indeed a long way down.

 

   Relieved of the burden of the chute, he craned his neck and looked up towards his right foot. He was able to discern the outline of his boot and the rope that stretched above it into the dark. He also saw the stars, but they were scattered over only half of the sky. It was now obvious to him that he was hanging upside-down over the side of a precipice.

 

   He began to swing himself in an arc that gradually widened as his momentum increased. He reached out with both hands while trying to face the cliff-face in his swing, hoping to find a hold.

 

   As he spun around, the back of his helmet struck something hard. The sound of the impact exploded painfully in his head. On instinct, he whipped around and grabbed out with both hands. He was just able to grasp at the rock face, but the momentum of his swing pulled him away, the rough surface of the rock tearing the skin of his fingertips. Again, on instinct, he propelled himself out and away from the rock wall and prepared himself for the return swing. This time, he managed to hold on.

 

   Desperately, he clung to the rock while he fought to catch his breath. Slowly, he started to claw his way up the crag, seeking even the flimsiest of hand and finger‑holds. His muscles ached under the strain and he thought his arms would tear out of their sockets.

He was finally able to pull himself into an upright position, desperately clinging to the rock-face. Then, by shuffling his feet along the rock face he found a foothold. He gasped for air as he clung to his frail hold. Despite the cold night air, he was perspiring profusely and sweat ran off his brows into his eyes. His eyes smarted, but he could not risk wiping the sweat away for fear that he would lose his tenuous hold.

He rested and debated the wisdom of undoing the rope around his ankle. It was his safety line and his only feeble insurance against a certain fall into the abyss. He rejected the idea. The pain at the base of his lower back was now agonising.

 

   He groped warily in the dark and moved up the cliff using a succession of perilous hand and footholds. From time to time, he took up the slack on the rope. After what felt like an eternity, he reached a wide ledge and crawled onto it. Exhausted, he lay there gasping. The burning sensation in his back simmered down to an annoying twinge as he managed to relax slightly.

 

   Once he could breathe more easily, he tried to roll over. An object caught him across the shoulders and obstructed his movement. Bloody rifle, he cursed silently. He released the clips and laid it aside on the ledge. Then he rolled over and sat up cautiously. Slowly, he leaned forward and untied the noose around his ankle while fighting his pain.

 

   For a while, he rested. Then he carefully looped the rope around his waist and tied it securely once more. From the length of the rope, he estimated he was now three metres below the level where the other end was secured to his kitbag. A firm tug on the rope satisfied him that it still held fast above.

 

   With some confidence, he slipped the AK-47 over his shoulder and resumed his slow ascent. Within minutes, which felt like separate eternities, he reached another ledge. He rested again to allow the backache to subside slightly. Once more, he took up the slack on the rope and checked its position. It surprised him that it stretched away from him at a slight downward angle and to his left. It struck him that he had climbed to a point higher than the bag. It was also obvious that the bag was some distance from the cliff face. Once more he tugged firmly on the rope. The far end did not budge.

 

   He cursed under his breath; his torch was in the bag. He crawled and groped his way down the gentle incline of the ledge and bumped into a slender tree trunk which barred his way. The roots of the tree, he found, were firmly anchored in the rock. He gauged the trunk to be some ten centimetres thick. He jerked sharply on the rope and it whipped along the length of the trunk with a solid 'thwack'.

He removed his rifle and laid it on the ground and then with care, he leaned out along the trunk as it bent out over the abyss. With his free hand, he followed the rope to find his bag wedged firmly in a fork of the tree, only a metre from the rock shelf. Careful not to lose his balance, he struggled to release the bag as the tree bent and creaked ominously under his weight. With equal caution, he dragged it back to the safety of the ledge. Relieved, he leaned back against the rock face and wiped the sweat from his brow.

 

   He tried to take stock of his situation once more. He knew that he was on a ledge somewhere up a cliff. There was no knowing how far he had to go to reach the top. If he climbed further, he would now have to do it without the reassurance and security the rope had afforded him. The idea of continuing the ascent for an unknown distance in the dark worried him. He realised that there was no other choice. He shuddered involuntarily. Then he remembered the torch in the kitbag. He would use it to see what lay ahead.

 

   First he held the torch pointing down and switched it on. Then with his free hand shielding the top and sides of its beam, he examined the rock face. The sight of yet a further ledge at chest height almost disheartened him. How many more ledges like this did he have to climb to reach the top? He heaved his bag and the AK onto the ledge and then pulled himself up. He flicked the torch on again and discovered to his relief that he had actually reached the top of the cliff. The ground rose steeply to disappear into the star-studded blackness of night. It was plain that he was on a hillside, but it was not possible to see the top of the ridge in the guarded beam of the light. The fear of advertising his position stopped him looking around further. If no-one had heard him climbing, he was not going to attract attention with a light show.

 

   He glanced at his watch for the first time. The glass was smashed and the hands were missing. There was no way of telling how long he had been on the cliff.

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