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, @ 2003-10-11 23:44:00
Current mood: rising levels of manliness
The creature made a low pass above their heads, turning swiftly and rushing back towards them at a somewhat greater height. It cried out again, circling above its fallen comrade, its harsh screams echoing through the night. Bracy and the other two men looked to their weapons, reloading as quickly as they could. All three of them swung their rifles up to fire at the beast as it made another lower pass across their field of vision, turning its head this way and that to see what was beneath. Their shots cracked out almost as one, and the creature shrieked most horribly, but it did not fall. It turned instead, and with great flaps of its leathery wings bore itself off away from the sheepfold, its cries fading into the distance.
'Oh! My shot took it only in the wing!' cried Bracy in annoyance.
'Mine, too,' said one of the men.
'I cannot even say that I hit,' said the other, morosely.
'Still, what strength it has, to fly off with two wounds to its wing,' said Bracy admiringly. He wished he could tell his friends at Gittah of the creatures, but knew he could not possibly be believed. His face fell as he thought once more that he was a captive, and he should not let the admiring praise of the hill men make him forget that fact. He pulled his cloak more snugly around him and settled down to wait out the night. 'To waste my time shooting at these mountain creatures!' he mentally reproved himself, 'when I should be considering a way to gain freedom for poor Gedge and myself! Oh, but it is sweet to have a measure of freedom after all this time.'
After a little, he took a turn to doze lightly while the other men kept watch, waking when they shook him softly, and letting another man have a short sleep. Although they kept watch in this way until it was quite light they did not see the creature again, although once they heard its cries, a far distance off.
'See!' said one of the men, pointing back down the valley. 'Men come to take our place. You will be famed, Bracy.'
Bracy smiled politely, too tired and sick at heart to respond. The men came up and exclaimed in awe and horror at the beast's carcass. Bracy felt quite shamed by the eagerness with which his watch mates regaled their friends with the story of the creature's attack, expounding on his bravery. The newcomers crowded around him, and clapped him on the shoulders, laughing and cheering. Bracy suddenly found he could not help smiling and laughing with them as he was once again acclaimed as a dragon-killer. It struck him as so queerly appealing, as if he had become one of the heroes of legend.
'Let us go, and take him to his friend and his bed,' one of the men laughed, 'dragon-killing is tiring work!'
'Stay!' one of the newcomers cried. 'The beast must be brought back with its slayer! Let me run to one of the farms and fetch a cart.' So saying, he was gone before any could volunteer in his stead. Within a short time he was back, with the cart and the farmer, and the farmer's wife and children and farmhands, all of whom pointed at the carcass and at him and exclaimed loudly. The men hauled the beast into the cart and Bracy was urged to sit up with the driver. He bowed politely to the farmer's wife and her little daughter, saying 'Madam, Miss.' The woman drew her veil over her face modestly, while the girl smiled brilliantly at him. Bracy climbed up in the cart with the driver, and the men who had kept watch with him shared the bed of the cart with the beast.
To Bracy's embarrassment, the farmer's young sons ran all the way after the cart, yelling and laughing. As they passed more and more farms and drew closer to the little town more children were attracted to the noise, and more adults too. Bracy found himself at the head of a little procession, people shoving to see the creature, and children singing his praises. As they came into the town a great crowd of people came out, women looking down from the windows or gathering at the edges of the crowd, the men running forward to lift up the creature and spread its wings so that everybody could see it properly. Bracy was glad to see Gedge running toward him, working his way through the crowd.
'Sir! Sir!' cried Gedge as he came up, 'you got it, sir!' He looked at Bracy with great admiration and Bracy smiled and patted his shoulder.
'One of them, Gedge,' he said.
'He leaped out and took it with a fine shot,' one of the other men cried. 'He had no fear for himself, he was very brave!'
'Oh, I'd have liked to have seen that, sir,' said Gedge wistfully as the crowd cheered. 'I've been worrying all night what might happen out there.'
'Didn't you have Rustem to keep you company?' said Bracy.
'No, sir, I just wanted to be waiting for you. Oh, it is such a monster! I can't say how happy I am to see you've got it.'
'There is another,' Bracy said, sorry to see the look of worry come back into Gedge's face. 'No doubt it will come near enough to be shot as well,' he reassured the lad. Then he was pulled away from Gedge and every man, it seemed, wished to touch him or to grasp his hand and praise his bravery. Finally he found himself face-to-face with Straton who embraced him strongly, and cried out about his bravery, making the people cheer once again. Then Straton took him into the house, shutting the doors.
'You have done a great service, Bracy,' he said. 'How can I reward you?' He looked at the hope that sprang up in the young officer's face and said gently, 'Ask for something I feel I may give you, Bracy.'
Bracy sighed. For that moment freedom had seemed attainable, but he knew it was an illusion. 'I am glad to have been able to help, sir,' he said. 'I did not do it with the thought of reward.'
'Is there nothing you want that I can give you?' Straton asked. 'If not for yourself, for Gedge?'
Bracy thought and then looked soberly at the man. 'After this week is up, sir,' he said, 'do not keep us separate from each other. That is what I want.'
'Very well,' said Straton. 'Now, tell me about the other beast and where it went.'
Bracy spoke in detail, the retelling of the night's events cheering him a little, and Straton's kind manner and attentiveness assuring him that while he might not have his freedom he at least was a respected prisoner. Straton looked at him considering.
'Another week, Bracy,' he said. 'Swear not to escape, and keep the liberty you have had for another week. Perhaps you will kill this dragon, too.'
Bracy sighed, and spoke plainly. 'And should I then swear for another week and another until the passes close with snow? I am an officer of Her Majesty and I must return to my duty.'
'I know you are a man of honour,' said Straton, 'and I do not want to have to confine you, not after this. Come, Bracy, I do not ask you to swear outright, knowing you would be forsworn. The passes will not be closed in one week.'
'It is already autumn,' said Bracy. He thought of the chance he might have to prepare for escape if he were not watched closely. 'I will swear,' he said. 'You will not separate me from Gedge?'
'Have I not said?' smiled Straton. 'I do not think anyone could separate you.' He summoned servants and ordered them to bring food. 'Eat and then sleep,' Straton said. 'I will send Gedge to you. All night he has been pacing up and down, your name on his lips. You are fortunate. Not every man is so loved.'
'He is a good man,' said Bracy, finding himself suddenly ravenous as a dish of porridge with ripe autumn fruits through it was placed before him. Straton smiled as he ate it hungrily, and left him alone. He was half-way through his second bowl when Gedge came up to him.
'Let me finish this, my lad,' Bracy said, 'then I must go to bed.'
'You must be tired, sir,' said Gedge. 'I'll see you settled and leave you in peace.'
'I hear you were up all night, too,' laughed Bracy. 'We should both rest.' He quickly finished his breakfast and levered himself up, suddenly very tired. 'But first,' he continued, a boyish smile on his face, 'let me tell you properly how I came to be a dragon-killer.' Still smiling, he laid an arm on Gedge's shoulder and led him to their room.
* * *
The week passed quickly. The days were filled with work, Bracy and Gedge working willingly along witht eh men of the valley, strengthening the walls of the sheep fold, building more shelters for the sheep to hide from wolves or dragons – as even Bracy now called the creatures, although with a wry smile as he did so. At other times they helped to bring in the final harvest produce, while around them children worked, scouring the hedges and bushes for any remaining fruit.
Although both Brach and Gedge took their turn guarding the sheep at night, the dragon did not come close. It called from far off, and could be seen gliding across the night sky, but never came within rifle shot. One night it succeeded in its hunt, finding a sheep that had taken itself from the fold. The horribly rent carcass of the unfortunate sheep was found the next day, and the dragon, emboldened by success, was noted flying by daylight, spying out the valley with its horrid little eyes.
'Oh, that wicked creature!' said Gedge, who had been sent to help with the harvest in Straton's fields. 'How I'd like to have it within shot.'
'Are all the men of Engelstan dragon-killers?' asked Rustem, shaking the hair back from his eyes and lifting another sheaf of wheat onto the cart. He had hardly spoken to Gedge since the morning the creature's carcass had been brought back in triumph, and when Bracy had been praised loudly by Gedge, had seemed as if he would weep.
'Most of them, pard'ner,' laughed Gedge. He wiped at his brow. 'Phew, it's warm work!' he said. 'I need to have my hair cut short, it's making me warmer.'
'It was too short,' said Rustem. 'It made your ears look too big.' He threw up another sheaf and climbed up to stack them more neatly. 'Bracy was very brave,' he said, hesitantly. 'You love his bravery, do you not?'
'Well, of course,' said Gedge cheerfully. 'And he saved my life, and I saved his. You get a feeling for a man after that.'
'I saved your life,' Rustem said, unsmiling, 'though perhaps you think less of me for not killing dragons.'
'Don't be silly, lad,' said Gedge, 'Why, you weren't scared of it at all, when you took me out to see it, and I was. Why would I think poorly of you?'
Rustem smiled very cheerfully at him and Gedge felt quite the lad's superior in age and experience, and was glad to have talked him out of his queer humour. He patted the lad's back, saying, 'We can't all act like orficers, after all.' The smile died from Rustem's face, and the boy bent savagely to his work once more.
That night there was a strong wind from the north-east, bringing with it the sharp smell of frost and snow. Gedge shivered in the bed until Bracy sleepily pulled him close. 'We must go soon,' Bracy whispered, 'although they work us so hard it will be difficult to find the energy.' He smiled, saying, 'they will never believe us, back in the fort.'
'No, sir,' Gedge agreed softly, but Bracy was already asleep. 'What can I say to Rustem,' he thought, 'to get him to take us out of here?' Although his mind shied from the possibility, he made himself consider the possibility that he would have to go without Bracy, if he could find the right persuasion to use on Rustem. 'I wouldn't leave you here, though,' he thought, hesitantly stroking the officer's arm, unwilling to risk waking him. 'I'd come back for you.'
The next day brought unwelcome news. As Bracy shook his head over the white frost on the grass, messengers were brought up to Straton. They exclaimed in horror and anger, lifting their hands up to heaven.
'What is it, sir? What are they saying?' asked Gedge, struggling to follow their quick speech.
'Hush, lad,' said Bracy, listening with great concentration. 'Hah!' he ejaculated, 'our friends say the dragon has last night once more seized a sheep. The sad problem lies,' he said, 'in that these men have come from differing parts of the valley. Either one of them is mistaken in the cause of their animal's misfortune, or the creature has been joined by another of its kind.'
'How many dragons can there be, sir?' asked Gedge.
'Before we came here, I would have said none,' answered Bracy. 'They seem more numerous than my training for India allowed.'
That day more reports came in, with sightings of the dragon in different parts of the valley, and it was clear to all that another had indeed come to haunt them. The old man who remembered dragons from his youth was consulted once more as to their habits, his discouraging stories doing nothing to cheer the men of the valley.
'They have remembered the way here,' he said, 'and come with the frost. Our flocks are a great prize for them. Perhaps the sheep in their own land have fled or have all perished. The dragons will come and the wolves will come down after them, and we will find the winter harsh indeed.'
'We can kill them!' a young man cried. 'They are but animals, if the Engelstani can kill one, so can we!'
'Pah!' the old man ejaculated. 'Where is Engelstan, and who are its gods? If Sikander did not drive these beasts of Ahriman utterly away, do you think you can, just because the Engelstani had the fortune to kill one? Even a barbarian,' he said coolly, 'may be lucky.'
'Sir,' said Bracy politely, 'I assure you these are but animals, and can be killed by a good marksman. Why, I am not as accomplished as my sergeant, here. I have no doubt he would have killed the beast more easily than I.'
Gedge coloured as some of the men looked at him in surprise. 'Chin up, Sergeant Gedge,' Bracy murmured in English, 'they have thought you a boy long enough.'
'Is this true, Gedge?' asked Straton, 'do you say you can so easily bring down one of these creatures?'
'I wouldn't say as I'm as good as Captain Bracy –,' stammered Gedge, blushing.
'Come, lad. No false modesty,' said Bracy.
Gedge swallowed and spoke huskily, feeling very aware of Bracy's proud smile. 'I'm an excellent marksman, sir,' he said to Straton. 'I've got sharp eyesight, I don't hardly ever miss.'
'Then you must be kept for that work alone,' Straton said, 'and give us the chance to praise you too as a dragon-killer.'
From that moment, Gedge found himself assigned to dragon-hunting, leading a small party of men and boys. Bracy was assigned to the same task, and their groups scoured the sides of the valley day and night. Gedge found himself longing for the time before he had said anything, for now his days had lengthened, and he and Bracy ever seemed to sleep at the same times, or to even sleep in the same square mile. Rustem did not leave his side, and seemed cheered at the thought that they might kill a dragon together.
'They will sing about us for ever,' Rustem said gaily, as they clambered high among the rocks, seeking a good vantage point. The dragon had been sighted time and again in this area.
'We have to find it first, pard'ner,' said Gedge, happy the boy had forgiven him for whatever slight he had offered. It was cold at night and he was very glad to have Rustem snuggled close for warmth. Rustem laughed and took his hand as he settled himself against a pale rock and looked around. The rest of their little party made themselves at ease and kept an eye out. Far beneath, sheep grazed, white and brown against the ground. Rustem twined his fingers amongst Gedge's, then stiffened.
'Ah!' he ejaculated, squeezing Gedge's hand tighter. 'Look!'
Gedge followed the line of his sight and saw what had seemed to be a patch of shadow among the rocks move. 'Good lad,' he said, 'let's get closer.'
Rustem hissed at the others, and they edged their way nearer. As they approached they could see the dragon had its wings held in an ungainly manner, and was shuffling around, balancing on its short legs and its wing joints.
'Why do we wait? Let us kill this thing!' cried out one of the other boys, excitedly.
'Shh!' said Gedge.
The dragon shifted around, cocking its head from side to side, looking for the source of the noise. Seeing nothing, it shuffled around once more, making a clicking sort of sound. Gedge gasped as his foot slipped and a rock dislodged itself, bouncing down and clattering loudly. 'Oh, and no one to blame but myself!' he thought in annoyance. The dragon looked round once more and shuffled to the edge of the rocks, then threw itself lazily into the air.
'Quick! Shoot it!' yelled the boy who had spoken before, matching action to his words and bringing up his long barrelled old-fashioned gun. He shot wildly, and missed. The dragon veered off in alarm, heading away from the sudden noises.
The hunters cried out in annoyance.
'It is gone from here! Well done, Cleanthes!' said Rustem. 'It is too far for a shot now.'
'Not for a modern rifle,' muttered Gedge, following its path with his Enfield. 'In the eye,' he thought, 'that's where the captain took his.' He waited a second more, letting the beast turn in the wind and present a side view to him, and squeezed the trigger. The report of his rifle cracked out, echoing around the hills. There was a moment of stillness, as the men and boys around him held their breath. Then the dragon dropped without even giving its dreadful cry. Its body tumbled down out of the air, striking the rocks and rolling over and over till it came up on a ledge where it hung limply, one wing hanging over the edge, one crushed beneath its body.
Gedge found himself seized by the others, all laughing and shouting and fighting to embrace him. Rustem took his face in his hands and kissed him soundly, making Gedge laugh in embarrassment. 'Here now,' he said. 'Don't go getting so excited, I was just doing what I've been trained to do.' Rustem grinned and kissed him again.
'You Engelstani are indeed all dragon-killers,' he breathed in Gedge's ear as Gedge found himself succumbing to more embraces, 'you must think of some thing I may do to reward you.'
Still laughing, they climbed down to where the creature lay, and hauled it slowly and carefully down to the valley floor. Singing in triumph, they carried it back to the town. Poor Gedge was overcome by the attention he received, which was quite equal to that that Bracy had undergone before. At first Gedge was pleased, but soon he found in him reserves of modesty he had not previously known he possessed. The notable men of the town came up to praise him, and he could not shake off the feeling that it wasn't quite right that gentlemen, even gentlemen who weren't English, should pay him so much attention. 'I'm jest a sojer,' he thought, 'I jest did what I was trained to do. Oh, how I wish I could take myself off with some ordinary folks.' He turned from yet another of the men praising him, and found himself facing Bracy.
'Well done, Gedge,' said Bracy, taking his hand and shaking it firmly. 'Very well done.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge, feeling better all at once, for Bracy was the only gentleman whose praise he felt he wanted.
'Come,' Bracy said, drawing him from the crowd. 'We are to clean and neaten ourselves – Straton has told me he wants to honour us and give us gifts.'
'Will he let us go?' whispered Gedge.
'No,' said Bracy quietly. 'I hope he might give us horses, he seemed to say as much earlier. When we leave, I would be glad to take a horse that was mine. These people have treated us well enough – I do not want to steal from them if I can avoid it.' He spoke louder as servants passed them by. 'Come along, Gedge, we have been promised the services of a barber.'
That evening, Gedge felt more his old self, freshly shaven and with his hair trimmed at least, although the barber had refused to cut it as closely as he wanted. He looked admiringly at Bracy, who was also shaven on his cheeks and chin, his moustache neatly trimmed and his hair far neater than it had been. 'What a shame they haven't given us back our own clothes,' thought Gedge, 'Captain Bracy does look so fine in his uniform.' He ate heartily, scarcely remembering that he had scorned the rich dish of meat and fruit when he had first come to the valley. He was very glad he was no longer afraid of spilling food upon himself, and could pick it up with the flat bread as easily as any other man present.
Straton praised them both, and a Bracy had said, gave them horses. Bracy rose and made a speech in thanks, bowing to Straton and speaking highly of his generosity. Gedge bowed more awkwardly, feeling shy with gentlemen and his officer watching him, and stammered out his thanks as well. After, they went out to the stables to look at the horses and give thanks again. As their party went back indoors Gedge felt his hand seized, and Rustem drew him aside into one of the stalls.
'I have something for you also,' he said when they were alone. He reached into the neck of his tunic and drew off a thin gold chain strung with deep blue beads. He hung it about Gedge's neck, saying, 'It will protect you from evil spirits. I had it from my mother, who died two winters ago.'
'Rustem! Yer can't give it to me!' cried Gedge, taking it and meaning to remove it from about his neck.
Rustem closed his hands on it softly. 'I know you will have a care of it,' he said, and embraced Gedge firmly. He drew back, looking at him sadly. 'You Engelstani,' he said, 'you are very strange. Let us go back inside.'
'Yes, we should get a good night's sleep while we can,' said Gedge. 'We have the other dragon to hunt tomorrow.'
'Yes,' said Rustem. 'I hope I kill it. I want you to see that I can do these things also, Gedge.' So saying, he led Gedge back into the house and took his leave of him. Gedge shook his head, sorry to see that his friend seemed to have fallen into his queer mood once more, and resolving to do what he could to make him come out of it the next morning.