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, @ 2003-09-28 14:47:00
Current mood: extraordinarily manly
When Gedge awoke, light was filtering down the passageway and he could see that morning had come at last. Rustem grumbled at him when he shook the boy, and merely clung on tighter, intent on his sleep. For a few minutes more Gedge lay quiet, thinking back over the events of the night before. Nothing he had seen since he left England seemed quite so queer to him as the dark and menacing shape seen against the clear night sky. He was seized by the wish to know that it was gone, and to see that the world was as it had been. He shook Rustem firmly, saying 'Wake up, pard'ner! We can't lie here all day!' Rustem sighed and opened his eyes, pushing his dishevelled hair back and springing to his feet.
'Come, come, Gedge,' he said, gaily strolling up the passage. With some timidity, perhaps excusable by the memory of the fearsome sight of the creature, Gedge followed.
'What a relief to come out of that hole!' he cried, taking a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. He stretched and yawned in a rude manner. Rustem gave him a bright and open smile, and waved a hand toward the view their position afforded them of the valley.
'Is it not beautiful, Gedge?' he asked. 'Is this not a good country?'
'Yes,' said Gedge, 'it's a fine place.' In his heart he suddenly felt a great yearning for London, and a deep wish to see his old haunts and his boyhood friends. The clear, clean air seemed less to him than the familiar winter fogs. 'Ah,' he thought, 'what I wouldn't give to be back there and never to have left!' The next moment he berated himself for this unworthy thought. 'But what work would I have done there that's half so well payin'?' he thought, 'And I'd never have met Captain Bracy. No, Bill my lad, you should bless the day you 'listed.' He turned to Rustem, saying 'Will we go down?'
Rustem laughed and led the way, climbing with sure-footed grace to the bottom of the outcrop of rock and casting an arm about Gedge when he finally reached the ground. The lads ambled at an easy pace through the early morning, retracing their steps back down the slope and finally coming to where the horse stood patiently. It blew warm breath at them disapprovingly as if to tell them they were thoughtless young men who had left it without company all night long. Rustem fussed over it, patting its neck and scratching at the root of its mane until it forgave him and nuzzled his shoulder.
'I didn't think we'd find yer horse still here,' said Gedge, taking a turn at telling it what a fine, brave horse it was.
Rustem shrugged. 'It was well under the cover of the trees,' he said. 'We could have brought it no nearer, for I have heard that the sight of the creature would have maddened it, more even than horses are maddened at their first sight of elephants. I knew it would be here.'
'Oh, Rustem!' cried Gedge, 'what was that monster? I never thought of such a thing!'
'Was it not a wondrous sight?' cried Rustem, 'I had never seen one. When the men came to tell my father I rode out a little to make sure of the way, then I knew you had to see it.'
'But what is it?' asked Gedge again.
'A dragon, did I not say? Are there dragons in Engelstan, Gedge?'
'Not as I ever saw,' muttered Gedge, thinking once more with longing of London.
'My country is very beautiful and has dragons – will you not give your word to my father, Gedge, that you will stay?' said Rustem, a look of boyish hope upon his face.
'Ah!' ejaculated Gedge, 'so that's yer game! Well, Rustem my lad, that's not my decision to make. Captain Bracy wants to get back to Gittah, and I want to go with him.'
Rustem looked sullen. 'Why do you hate me so?' he asked petulantly.
'Hate you!' cried Gedge, 'come now, I like that! We're pals, ain't we? I don't hate you, Rustem, yer a fine lad. But the captain and me, we're sojers, we can't jest decide to ignore our duty.'
Rustem said nothing, just leaped upon the horse and held a hand out to Gedge, his face solemn. Gedge seized it, and was pulled up onto the horse's back. They rode off at an easy pace, and Gedge found his mind quite taken up with the thought of breakfast. 'Why,' he thought, 'I could eat poor Rustem here, I'm that hungry!' His stomach rumbled noisily at the thought, and Rustem laughed, his ill humour lifting from him suddenly and quickly, and he urged the horse to a trot.
When they came to the town, they found the streets full of men and boys, all talking loudly and gesticulating wildly. Gedge saw Bracy standing with Straton, and his heart swelled as he thought of the tale he had for his officer. He slid off the horse, landing more neatly than he had before they had ever come to the valley and ran over to Bracy's side.
'Sir! Sir!' he called.
Bracy turned to him, relief evident on his face. 'Gedge!' he said, grasping Gedge's arm and drawing him off to the side. 'Where have you been? Straton has been asking me where you and his son had gone. I thought perhaps you had taken my words to heart and persuaded the lad to lead you away, when I woke to find you gone.' He could not hide the pleasure in his face as he continued, 'But I am glad to see you're still here.'
'I wouldn't go without you, sir,' said Gedge loyally, 'you know that. Oh but sir! I saw a dragon, sir!'
'Hah!' Bracy ejaculated, laughing, 'did you, lad? And was it breathing fire and threatening a princess?'
'No, sir,' said Gedge, feeling as if perhaps he were being teased, 'But it was a dragon all the same, with wings and claws and huge wicked teeth. Rustem and me, sir, we saw it, and had to hide from it, too.' He shuddered at the memory of the hideous shape and its terrible cry, and the awful moment when it had seemed to him as if it must force an entrance into the passage where he and Rustem had sheltered. 'It was a dragon, sir. Up at the edge of the valley, over there.' And he pointed the way that Rustem had taken him.
The men of the town were also pointing in that direction, and arguing amongst themselves. Straton came over to Bracy and Gedge, pulling Rustem by the arm.
'You saw it, Gedge?' he asked.
'Yes, sir,' answered Gedge, smiling at Rustem, who looked like a boy that had just been sternly reproved by his father.
'You should not have taken him,' said Straton to Rustem, 'it was not safe.'
'I wanted him to see,' muttered Rustem.
'We took precautions, sir,' said Gedge, not wanting the boy to be in trouble, 'we weren't careless.'
'There really was such a thing?' cried Bracy.
'Yes,' said Straton sourly, 'a great curiosity to you, no doubt. We will have much work ahead of us, safe-guarding the flocks if these creatures are coming once again. The men will be needed to mind the animals and to risk themselves in hunting this beast. We cannot spare anyone to sit around – you will work with us. Swear now that you will not try to flee, Bracy.'
Bracy looked at him calmly. 'I cannot,' he said.
Straton nodded and turned to Gedge, 'And you, Gedge,' he said, 'will you swear?'
'I can't,' said Gedge, 'I've got to follow my orficer.'
'Then you must be confined as we cannot spare men to watch you work under guard,' said Straton, and he called to some men. 'Take him to the doctor's house,' he said indicating Bracy, 'he has a room with a stout door and no window.' He turned to Gedge again, saying 'you may stay in my house, although you will lack for company.'
'Don't keep us apart,' cried Gedge, 'lock us in together!'
Straton turned away, shaking his head. Gedge grasped Rustem hard.
'Don't let him do this, pard'ner!' he cried. 'We can't swear, don't yer see! We'd be lyin' – yer wouldn't think much of me if yer knew I was makin' false oaths, would yer?'
Rustem looked at him, a queer expression on his face. Then he took quick steps after Straton, calling, 'Father! Father!' The pair talked, Straton calm and deliberate, Rustem passionate and eager. Straton turned back and called for the men leading Bracy away.
'My son says he will stand surety for you,' Straton said. 'Swear to work alongside us without guard for a week, and you will have liberty within the town. You may come and go as you please and no one will stand outside the door as you sleep.'
Bracy looked at Gedge's face and nodded. 'A week, sir. You have my word. Gedge?'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, delighted at the thought of being permitted to see Bracy during the day, 'Thank you, sir,' he said to Straton, 'Thank you, Rustem.'
'Do not shame me,' Rustem said, and walked away, never once looking at Bracy.
'I fear I have offended your son,' said Bracy, 'although I have not meant to.'
'He feels things keenly, being young,' said Straton, smiling at Bracy and Gedge. 'He will recover.'
* * *
The next week brought exhausting work to Bracy and Gedge, as they worked alongside the men and boys of the town, building sturdy sheepfolds and roofed enclosures where the animals could be safely confined at night. After his enforced idleness Bracy found the work taxing at first, and could do no more at night than fall into bed and immediately sleep until a knock at the door roused him horribly early. Gedge fared better, having been free to run around with the boys of the town, but he too was tired and wanted nothing but their bed at the end of the day. They found their willing participation in the work endeared them to the townsmen, who looked at them more openly, and no longer commented behind their backs. They found great comfort also, in toiling beside one another, and knowing that the other was well.
Bracy still did not completely believe in the dragon, although he was not so discourteous as to say so in anyone's hearing, not even Gedge's, as the lad still went pale when he thought back to the night he said he had seen the beast. Instead, Bracy listened politely to the other men, and was glad he understood more of their speech with every day. One man would say a dragon was worse than a whole pack of wolves for carrying off livestock. Another would say he had heard that they had but a single place on their bodies where a weapon might pierce. A third would say he had heard they were very common in the easternmost parts of the world and nested by the shores of the outermost Ocean. Only one man, a very old gentleman indeed, claimed to have seen such a creature before, and spent a great deal of time annoying those he still thought of as boys with tales of the far distant past before he could be induced to tell what he knew of dragons.
'They only come this far if the winter will be harsh,' he said, 'and will seize on sheep and goats, and even children, yes indeed, if they can. They are vile beasts sent by Ahriman, and their hunger knows no bounds. Sikander once slew one, with his spear of lightning. But that was many years ago, and he was the son of Zeus and we are the sons of men, and dragons are not for our slaying in these days.'
The men muttered and readied their weapons, nonetheless. On the fourth night Bracy found himself standing guard on one of the furthermost sheepfolds along with two of the townsmen. The night was chill, and all three of them were glad of the thick coats and cloaks that they wrapped around them. Bracy accepted a drink from the flask one of them had, but no more than that, the rough spirit not being to his liking, and feeling that it behoved him to stay alert. He did his best to join in the men's joking, although he could not follow all of their casual speech, nor did he think it proper that he should make jokes at Gedge's expense, as they seemed to on one occasion. He contented himself with polishing his rifle, pleased to have his weapon once more within his grasp, although he knew it should be removed once more when the period of his parole had passed. He had been given back his sword also, although he had not thought it necessary to bring it out to the sheepfold, and had left it safely in Gedge's keeping.
Bracy had fallen into a kind of waking dream, standing against the wall of the sheepfold and looking up into the night sky. He thought that if he turned he would find that he was lying in bed, with Gedge curled beside him. He shook himself hard at the thought, briskly telling himself that he must be fully awake, and not bring disgrace on himself as a soldier of the Queen. As he cleared his mind from the fog of sleep that had threatened to overwhelm it, he saw a patch of stars wink out and then re-appear a second later. 'What on earth?' he thought, and then saw a second patch do likewise. Something was circling above his position, something large.
'Hsst!' he hissed, shaking the shoulder of the man nearest him, 'look! Up there!'
'Ah!' the man ejaculated, 'it is the dragon!'
The three of them readied themselves, Bracy lifting his already loaded rifle to his shoulder, the others hurriedly ramming powder and shot into theirs. The patch of darkness grew larger and came lower, and Bracy could suddenly see it clearly. 'Good Heavens,' he thought, 'I owe Gedge an apology.' Too excited to contain himself, the man beside Bracy cracked a shot off prematurely, calling out a war cry as he did so.
The dark shape veered off to the side, affording them a glimpse of the shape of its head, and its ungainly body and its oddly short and spindly legs held stiffly behind it. The moonlight glittered off its small, wicked eye as it surveyed them. Then it screamed, and Bracy thought he had never heard such a sound. Wildly excited, he cried out to the creature, 'Come on, you ugly brute! Come here and let me get a good shot at you, and I'll send your ugly hide to the British Museum!'
As if it understood him, the creature wheeled round and came for them once more. Bracy saw the object of its intent, one of the fierce minded half wild mountain sheep that had rashly come from the shelter to see what was disturbing its rest. It stared up, transfixed, who knew what rough thoughts racing through its animal mind as the creature – Bracy still forbore to call it a 'dragon' – rushed at it. The second man fired - crack - and it screamed horribly once more. Bracy ran into its path, heedless of the danger, and waited till the very last second before pulling his trigger. Crack! His bullet pierced the beast's horrid little eye, and it lifted up its head, screaming this time in agony. All at once its wings crumpled and it fell like a stone to the ground, leaving Bracy barely a second to spring lightly aside.
The creature writhed most horribly on the ground, crying out with its awful shrieks, and finally lying still. Having seen the matter resolved to its satisfaction, the sheep wandered into the shelter once more. One of the men fearfully approached, and jabbed the creature with the end of his rifle barrel, but it did not move. It was quite dead. He looked over to where Bracy stood, dusting some earth from his leg. 'Ah!' he ejaculated, 'a beautiful shot, Bracy! You are a dragon-killer!'
'Thank you,' said Bracy with becoming modesty, although he could not deny it was good to be praised. 'I have received excellent training in Her Majesty's fusiliers.'
He stepped over to examine the carcass, noting the huge leathery wings topped with their finger-like claws that bore between them the incongruously small body. 'Faugh, what a stench!' he cried as one of the men turned the beast's head. He tapped the bony snout with the blade of his bayonet, bending close to see the ruin his shot had made of its eye. 'Ah,' he thought, 'you are indeed a fine specimen, with no damage to your hide. I wish I could send you to the Museum as I said. Oh, and how I wish Gedge could have seen this!' He smiled at the thought of the lad's face when this was told him.
As he bent over the creature, a feeling of foreboding prickled at the back of his neck, and he saw a shadow race swiftly across the moon-lit ground. Looking up he saw another of the beasts as it opened its mouth and shattered the night with as foul a cry as that of the first. The creatures, it seemed, hunted in pairs.