A Walk in the Karakorum
Fandom: Fix Bay'nets!
Disclaimer: Fix Bay'nets! OR, The Regiment in the Hills was written by G. Manville Fenn, and was published in 1899. It is out of copyright. The characters' opinions reflect the worldview of the novel.
A Walk in the Karakorum
Daegaer wrote, @ 2003-09-24 21:54:00
Current mood: manly, by gum!
It was some days later that Gedge noted a sad change in Bracy once more. The officer had been in high spirits when they had parted that morning, his attire neat and his person well turned out. When it had come time for the evening meal there had been no sight of him, and Gedge had felt his appetite lessen. Afterwards, Bracy was still nowhere to be seen and Gedge felt the beginnings of worry stir in his breast. 'Where can he have gone?' thought the lad, wishing with all his heart he could see Bracy's tall form and his open, manly smile. 'What has come to him?' He could not keep his mind on the board game Rustem was teaching him, causing the boy to speak sharply in annoyance whenever he looked around the hall in hope of seeing his officer.
When it had become quite late, Gedge trudged off to their room alone and despondent. He waited and waited, and finally prepared himself for the night's rest, leaving however, the candle burning merrily. He had all but fallen asleep when the door opened and Bracy entered silently.
'Sir!' cried Gedge, rising up to greet the officer.
'Don't get up, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'I am coming to bed.'
He undressed and climbed into bed, having first blown out the candle. He turned away from Gedge, and seemed as if he would immediately fall into sleep.
'Sir,' said Gedge quietly, 'where were you? I was that worried! I didn't know where you'd got to!'
'I'll tell you tomorrow, Gedge,' said Bracy in a thin, tired voice. 'If we are ever to be left alone again, that is.'
Gedge felt his heart shrink at the sadness in Bracy's tone, and timidly put a hand upon the officer's back. 'Sir?' he said, 'Please, sir, what has happened?' Bracy rolled over towards him, and Gedge could barely see in the dim light that his face was drawn and sorrowful.
'Ah, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'you must think me a very poor commander. When have I ever done you good?'
'You saved my life, sir!' cried Gedge passionately. 'I couldn't be under no one else but you!'
'You have been of far more service to me than I to you,' said Bracy. 'I have done you a grave disservice now, I fear.' He fell silent, and Gedge edged closer to him.
'Sir? What do you mean?'
'I thought it was a good thing I could speak with them,' Bracy said. 'I thought I could convince them to let us go. I spoke of the great benefits they could achieve with British help – our medicines, our schools, our sciences. Straton listened with courtesy, as he does every time, and asked questions I did my best to answer. I let him know that we are a presence in India, that we will not easily go away as the Dwats think. I asked if his people had not been lost long enough, should they not now re-enter the course of history?' Bracy paused, and sighed. 'He answered me politely,' he continued, 'and said that simply because the British did not know of his people it did not mean they were lost. "We are a curiosity to you," he said, "and we would be that to your schools and your wise men. You say your people love the ideas of Greece - would your wise men not shake their heads over how far we have fallen from the past?" Then he had your rifle brought in, Gedge, and looked at it with great care. "You say you have a great army," he said, " and that you control Hind, a country where even Alexander turned back. Would not your schools and wise men come at the cost of your soldiers in scarlet with these fine weapons? And if we did not want your learning, or your ideas, or forbore to give up our gods at whom you think we cannot tell you laugh, what then? Our sons taken by force to your schools, our daughters forced to give up their modesty? I cannot allow this. Swear to me you will not try to escape, for I do not wish to consider you an enemy, not when my son saved you on the road." I knew then he wished to keep us, and cried out that he wished Rustem had left us to die, that it would have been easier for him. He looked very solemn, and said "We will not speak of that. He saved you. Be content."'
'What'll we do, sir?' asked Gedge, whose mind had fixed on what he thought an important point, 'and did you see where he's got our weapons?'
Bracy wet his lips, as if he had a hard thing to touch on, and lowered his voice. 'I didn't,' he said, 'but listen, Gedge. They know they have only to keep a sharp eye on us till the weather turns and the passes close. Then they have months and months to accustom us to a life with them. Already we look little like the soldiers who set out from Gittah.' He smiled and touched Gedge's hair, which no longer lay close cut to the scalp.
'I'll cut it tomorrow, sir!' cried Gedge, blushing in the darkness to think how unmilitary he must look.
'It's more than our appearance, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'Why, you are getting much better at their tongue - you speak it with Rustem more than you try to teach him English. What will you do when your friend introduces you to a nice young lady? That would take your mind off home, no doubt.'
Gedge regarded him with horror. 'No, sir,' he cried. 'I wouldn't give that for any of their girls, you needn't fear!' And he snapped his fingers.
'Gedge,' said Bracy, 'I am your superior officer, and I have a duty to you. I feel I must order you -'
'Oh, no, sir!' cried Gedge. 'I know you're my sooperior, but don't order me to go, I know you will, but I'm beggin' you not to, please, sir! I couldn't bear it.'
'They will watch me more closely, perhaps,' said Bracy. 'You have more freedom to roam - if I were to create a diversion, you could -'
'No, sir!' whispered Gedge, not trusting his voice not to shake. 'I jest won't leave you.'
Bracy looked at him steadily. 'I know full well that you would contrive to misunderstand any orders I give you, Gedge. So let us say I will not order you, even though you must surely not want your comrades and your family to think you dead on the mountainside.'
Gedge looked both relieved and guilty. Bracy went on in a quiet, kind voice. 'But if I were to ask it of you, Gedge, as a friend?'
Gedge felt his heart plummet, and the strength of his emotions quite unman him. Feeling as it were the agony of separation already upon him, he flung himself on Bracy, winding his arms about him and sobbing loudly. Bracy held him tight, murmuring his name, stroking his unkempt hair and patting his back. When the guard outside the door knocked and called for quiet, Bracy tried to calm the lad, but in vain. Gedge clung on, weeping that he would never go, he could not be parted from Bracy, no not ever. Within himself, he felt he had already lost, that Bracy had found a way to effect obedience that even the threat of death had not. He could not be consoled, and finally, having cried himself out, fell into a fitful sleep in the officer's arms.
* * *
Gedge frowned in his sleep fancying he heard the trumpet calling him from rest.
There was warm breath in his ear, the sound of his name barely a whisper of sound. As he struggled to open his eyes fingers pressed across his lips firmly.
Gedge opened his eyes to find Rustem bending close over him, lips almost touching his ear as the boy attempted to rouse him from slumber. Rustem whispered again softly, 'Come, Gedge,' and stepped back silently. Gedge blinked sleepily, then eased himself carefully from under Bracy's arm. He made to shake the young officer's shoulder, but Rustem quickly laid a hand on his arm, shaking his head firmly. He took Gedge's hand in his and pulled him from the room, pausing only to seize Gedge's clothing and boots.
Outside the room he let Gedge dress, then towed him down the passage and down the stairs. Gedge's head still felt heavy with sleep and he shook himself firmly when they stepped into the cool night air.
'Where are we going?' he murmured as he was led to the street in front of the house. A thought occurred to him, 'Here, are you gettin' me out of here? I've got to get Captain Bracy!'
Rustem pulled his arm sharply, saying, 'No!'
'I know you don't like him,' Gedge said, 'but I don't know why. I ain't going nowhere without him.'
Rustem patted his arm more gently, holding his hand in a friendly way. 'We will come back,' he said. 'Now, come, Gedge.'
Gedge let himself be led to where Rustem's horse was saddled and waiting, seeing that the animal had already been ridden that night. Rustem jumped up, pulling Gedge after him. He barely waited for Gedge to put his arms about his waist before galloping down the street and away. Poor Gedge had his work cut out for him to hold on, and he clung desperately to the boy. 'I do wish he wouldn't go so fast so quick,' he thought, 'when he knows I'd rather start off slower.'
They rode fast for the edge of the valley, rising up at last on the wooded slopes. After a time Rustem stopped the horse, which was blowing hard, and pulled Gedge from its back. He captured the young sergeant's hand in a firm grasp and ran quietly along, leading him ever upwards.
'Where're we goin', pard'ner?' gasped Gedge.
'Hush,' said Rustem, not the slightest out of breath. He paused for a moment to let Gedge ease a stitch in his side, then pulled him along once more, running as easily under the trees as if it were broad daylight. Finally Gedge could see where they were headed, a rocky outcrop that jutted up from the trees, giving a commanding view of the whole valley. Rustem dropped Gedge's hand when they reached this place, needing both hands for climbing. Fearlessly he led the way upward, pausing finally to haul Gedge onto a flat area near the top. Gedge could see a dark hole behind them at the rear of this area, and hoped they were not to delve its depths without a light. Rustem did not so much cast a glance back at the hole, however, drawing Gedge to him and pointing along the rim of the valley.
'See,' he hissed, 'see, Gedge.'
Gedge looked, but could see nothing. He shook his head in bewilderment, and Rustem caught his chin firmly in his hand and turned Gedge's face in the right direction. Slipping behind him, Rustem raised an arm so that Gedge could sight along it. 'There,' he said, 'there.'
For a moment Gedge still saw nothing, then he stiffened as he saw an ungainly shape raise itself up from the lip of the crags surrounding the valley. His disbelieving eyes took in the wide and solid span of its wings, both of them crowned with what seemed to be claws, its thin neck and the narrow, wicked triangular shape of the head. It flung itself up and sailed across the clear night sky, a creature of nightmare come to life. 'What – what is it?' stammered Gedge, his mind unable to comprehend what his sight told him was before him.
Rustem leaned closer and breathed in his ear a word Gedge could only hear as 'dragon.' He felt himself begin to shake, and Rustem put his arms round him to hold him up. 'There – there ain't no such thing,' said Gedge, trying to put conviction in his voice. 'There jest ain't. Yer playin' some sort of trick on me, Rustem. Yer think yer can fool me, but yer wrong.'
Rustem let go of him and stepped out in front of him, tugging off his tunic as he did so. He waved the tunic wildly above his head, and cried out in a high, wild voice. The creature turned at once, attracted by the noise and the sight of the pale cloth, and increasing its speed, came straight at the outcropping of rock. As it came it opened its mouth and shrieked horribly, making a noise that sounded in their ears with a fearful skree-aw, and Gedge could see the rows of needle like teeth. 'Ah!' he cried, casting about for a place to hide. Rustem seized his arm and pulled him into the dark hole. That passage, which had at first seemed so daunting to Gedge was now his one desire, and he willingly went into it, following Rustem's lead. After no more than ten paces the passage kinked, and Rustem pulled Gedge around the bend and pressed him up against the wall.
'Shh,' he breathed, his lips against Gedge's ear, 'shh.' Gedge tried to lean out to see up the passage, and Rustem held him firmly, putting a hand over his eyes. 'Shh,' he said again.
Gedge shook in Rustem's grasp as he heard a heavy weight alight outside and then a horrid scraping noise as if the creature had thrust its long bony snout into the passage's entrance. 'Oh,' he thought, 'to think no one will know what's become of us! Crunched up by that monster!' The creature crept back and forth across the entrance to the passage, its claws scraping and clicking on the rock. From within its throat came a grumbling, growling clicking sort of noise, as menacing in Gedge's ear as if it were uttering the shrieks it had cried when it first saw them. The passing seconds seemed endless to him as he clung desperately to Rustem. Finally the noises from outside ceased and they heard the heavy beat of wings lift the creature up into the night. It screamed once, the echoes reverberating down the passage to where the lads held each other, and Gedge, overcome by fright, hid his face in Rustem's shoulder. The next call, when it came, was far off and fading.
'It is gone,' Rustem whispered, still holding Gedge tight.
'S'pose it comes back?' said Gedge in alarm, 's'pose it gets in here!'
Rustem laughed, his breath warm on Gedge's cheek. 'No. It is too tight here for it. We are safe, and it will be far off by morning.'
'Good,' grumbled Gedge, 'because I ain't gettin' out of here till morning. I'm stayin' in this hole. What was that thing?'
'A dragon,' said Rustem, as if it were the most natural fact in the world. 'The horse is well out of sight, it will be there for us in the morning. Here, Gedge, sleep.' So saying he pulled Gedge down and spread his tunic beneath them both. It seemed to Gedge as if he could never sleep, as if every noise he heard, even the beating of his own heart was the sound of the creature returned to devour them. Finally he gave in to the demands of his body for rest as the tension he had felt relaxed and his limbs felt limp with exhaustion. He curled up against Rustem's warmth and fell into the deep slumber of youth.