The steepness and irregularity of the track were too much for the mule. Back it had to go, and the General – to his despair and ours – had to continue on foot, up a slippery and collapsing staircase of loose boulders and shale and scree. We took it in turns to help, and he did his best; the pace grew slower, and the halts more frequent; and soon we were far above the ilex belt. The last stunted mountain cedar vanished, leaving us in a stricken world where nothing grew, and a freezing wind threatened to blow us off our feet. Then deep snow turned every step into torment. As we crossed the deep watershed between the plateaux of Nidha and Zomithos and the ultimate summit of Holy Cross, over 8,000 feet high, mist surrounded us and rain began to fall.
We stumbled on, bent almost double against the blast; no breath or energy was left, even for objurgation: still less for anyone to say that not far off, was the Ideon cave that had sheltered the childhood of Zeus. In the approaching dusk, all was rain and wind and obliterating cloud. We couldn’t even take advantage of the last of the daylight without the first of Antoni’s go-ahead beacons on the first ridge to the south. We huddled, with chattering teeth, in the ruined shards of a hut.
The rain stopped and the sky grew clearer. We spotted the first fire, a faint star of light down the mountainside. As we made our way down the hill through the darkness, it was soon masked by an intervening spur. At least the snow furnished a pale glimmer underfoot. When it stopped, all was dark. Masking our torches, we were crawling and sliding down avalanches of stone. When this came to an end, we were swallowed up in the tree belt that surrounded the bald summit like a tonsure: ragged cedars at first topiaried by the wind nearly flush with the rocks, then a thick tangle of ilex and mountain holly and thorns.
The mountain steepened to the tilt of a ladder. It was channelled and slippery with rain, and each footfall unloosed a landslide of shifting stones. We were descending, hand over hand, through what seemed, in the dark and the wind, to be a jungle of hindering branches, spiked leaves, and vindictive twigs. It was appalling going for everyone; for the General, in spite of our help, it must have been an excruciation. There was not a glimmer of Antoni’s guiding fires in the dark void below. One of Petrakoyeorgi’s men said he knew of a sheepfold on a hidden ledge. We divined its whereabouts in the small hours by the sudden tinkle of a flock, awakened by our crashing. After wolfing down some of the shepherd’s bread and cheese, we fell asleep by his fire; then, before daybreak, we staggered on like sleepwalkers to a cave mouth, and crawled through the bushes into a subterranean grotto, to hide there until the next nightfall.
Several of us had, at one time or another, lived in scores of caves on Mount Ida, shifting from one to another as rumour pinpointed our whereabouts or enemy searches made it wiser to change lodgings: strange winter sojourns cowering away from the monsoon-like downpours outside, or falls of snow whose only advantage was the ease of tracking and catching hares: caverns, sometimes, whose windings magnified the thunder of autumn storms to such volume that the mountain seemed to be splitting all around us. There were nights of talk and song, or of listening, while some hoary shepherd, incapable of signing his name, intoned by heart as many of the epic ten thousand lines of the Erotocritos as he could fit in between sunset and dawn.
For the Cretans, veneration and gratitude halo the mountain. It is the island’s crown and the impartial sanctuary of everyone in flight from justice or injustice, and its mythological aura is deepened by the Himalayan remoteness and by the awe that hovers over Mount Sinai on Cretan icons. All my sojourns had been strange; none, though, as strange as these, huddling with the General and a volume of Baudelaire or Xenophon between us in the mountain’s heart, while below us in a ring his army prowled like the troops of Midian.
Antoni’s hastily scribbled note when it arrived, and his runner, confirmed the gloomy rumours we had heard on the way up. Troops were assembled in force in all the villages, and preparing next day to link up in what sounded like a human daisy chain, to intercept all descent from the mountain, and then advance uphill in a general comb out. ‘In God’s name come tonight,’ Antoni urged in his letter. It sounded as if the operation were due tomorrow morning. A mule for the General would be waiting at a certain meeting place.
Antoni’s failure to arrive was an enigma full of anxiety. In his letter, which Manoli and I had read in the cavern, his injunctions had been so urgent and so precise. With our heads hooded in a jacket we read it through again, out loud, by shaded torchlight: ‘In God’s name come tonight!’ Wait! There was something else after the word ‘name’ – the fold in the paper came here; friction, rain or sweat, soaking through the runner’s turban, had all but obliterated two letters: hu!; that is, ‘Don’t.’ I translated it to Billy. All of us, except the General, gazed at each other in amazement and conjecture in which, despite the water which was beginning to rise above our ankles, a very faint hope began to glimmer.
Next morning, George went to the village to find out what was happening. Two hours later we could see him strolling unconcernedly back with Antoni, who was carrying a big basket. When they reached us they jumped into the ditch, and Antoni said with a wide grin: ‘What are you doing here, boys? You ought all to be dead!’ He had been unable to believe George at first when he had told him that we had arrived. ‘How did you get through? The whole place was full of them. Hundreds, especially where you came down. You must have walked clear through the middle.’ He made the sign of the cross several times. ‘God exists! You ought all to build churches. What, churches? Cathedrals!’
The real rendevous had been for that night. Where were the Germans now? ‘All gone up Mount Ida, after you and the General.’ A shepherd who had made a bolt for it downhill a couple of hours before had said that a party of fifty of them had crashed past his hiding place, shouting – here Antoni dropped his voice, to be out of our prisoner’s earshot – ‘Ge-ne-ral Krei-pe, Ge-ne-ral Krei-pe,’ at the top of their voices! ‘But you would have been quite all right in that cave. As it is, you are lucky to be here, my children.’
Gregori said, ‘What have you got in that basket?’ Antoni unpacked bread, cheese, onions, a dish of fried potatoes, some lamb, and a napkin full of kalitsounia! – crescent-shaped fritters full of soft white cheese and chopped mint. Then a big bottle of mulberry raki came out and a handful of little tumblers. ‘This’ll warm you up,’ he said, filling them: ‘White flannel vests all round.’ He splashed politely over to our guest with the first one, saying: ‘Stratege mou [My General],’ then to the rest of us. They went down our throats like wonderful liquid flame.
‘And here,’ he said, pulling out a gallon of dark amber wine, ‘red overcoats for all.’