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,@ 2003-10-12 14:42:00
Current mood: tired, in a manly way
The next morning Gedge was aroused by Bracy gently shaking him. 'I'm up, sir,' he murmured without opening his eyes.
'So I see,' laughed Bracy. 'Come now, Gedge, we cannot stay in bed all day.'
'No, sir,' said Gedge, forcing his eyes open a little, and peering in some confusion around him. 'I wish as we could stay nice and snugged up,' he thought and rolled over, climbing from the warm blankets. 'Brrr!' he said. 'Nippy today, sir.'
Bracy jumped from the bed and dressed hurriedly. 'Yes,' he said brightly as there was a knock on the door and one of the menservants brought in hot water and went out again. 'We shall have to keep ourselves warm by running after the dragon.' He bent to whisper in English into Gedge's ear, saying, 'Make sure you do not kill the beast today, and I'll have a similar run of ill-luck. We must convince them that we'll have greater success in the same hunting party. We'll have food already, as we have been going out overnight. If we can have our horses already out of the stables somewhere –' he broke off as the servant, coming back with towels, hesitated at the door unsurely. Bracy stepped away from Gedge and smilingly waved the fellow in.
Down in the hall of the house they ate their porridge and bread. Gedge drank the warm milk, trying not to grimace. In all this time he still longed for good cow's milk, as he was used to. Rustem grinned brightly at his face.
'Further in the mountains the people have yaks,' he said. 'Perhaps I should fetch you some yak's milk, Gedge, as you dislike the milk of goats.'
'What's a yak?' asked Gedge suspiciously, feeling he was the subject of a joke.
'They are large and hairy,' said Rustem off-hand. 'They have pink milk,' he added, eyes gleaming with laughter. 'And are hunted by wild men covered in white hair.'
Gedge elbowed him, grinning. 'Yer think I'll believe anything, don't yer?' he laughed. 'You'll be telling me about hidden kingdoms run by old priests and stuffed with treasure, next.'
Rustem shrugged casually. 'You did not know we were here,' he said meaningfully, but spoiled his attempt at insouciance by being unable to contain his laughter. Gedge pelted him with a crust of bread, attracting the attention of the great dogs that lounged before the hearth and that now came over to beg like puppies. Seeing Bracy smiling at his antics, Gedge tried to restrain himself and act more as he felt his age and rank demanded, but he was not so far from boyhood that he could easily resist the playfulness of a boy like Rustem, and more crusts were thrown by both of them before he could bring himself back under control.
Having breakfasted, they looked to their rifles, and having seen that all was to their satisfaction, loaded them, ready for the day's work. Bracy looked meaningfully at Gedge, who gave a little nod. They organised their little groups and shouldered their food and blankets for the coming night. As they did so they heard a commotion from outside and looking out the open doors to the street could see a horse, steam rising from its flanks in the morning chill, surrounded by people. A man and a woman sat on its back, crying down at the crowd surrounding them, who lifted up their hands and cried out also. The woman slipped from the exhausted animal and pushed her way through into the hall, followed by the man, who tried to take her arm and was angrily flung off. Everyone put down their burdens to see what had happened.
'Justice!' she cried, 'Justice, strategos!'
'What's this?' said Gedge in surprise.
'Why, I have seen this woman before,' said Bracy, as she grabbed at Straton's hand and poured out her tale to him. 'It was her husband that they borrowed the cart from. That is him, there.'
'What's she saying?' asked Gedge, 'she's speaking too quick for me.'
Beside him, Bracy stiffened in horror, whispering, 'No!'
'Sir? What is it, sir?' asked Gedge, seeing how everyone in the hall had gone silent and pale.
'She – she says the dragon has taken her child, her little daughter. I saw that child, Gedge. I saw her,' Bracy said in horror.
In the centre of the hall the woman held out torn and bloodstained rags to Straton, and then rent her veil and sobbed, dragging her nails down her cheeks. Straton called out and women servants rushed out to surround her and take her away from the men. Fury and shock in his face, Straton spoke quietly to the farmer, standing grief-stricken and silent before him.
Bracy strode forward, calling to the women, 'Wait!' They stopped, supporting the sobbing bereaved woman amongst them. He looked at her with pity and purpose, saying, 'I will kill this beast, Madam, I swear.'
She seized his hand in both of hers, crying out fiercely, 'Yes! Kill it! May the gods of heaven and earth give you success! May the Wise Spirit guide your steps to this murdering beast! Bring me back my child, so that I may – may –' and she wept once again.
'I swear, Madam,' said Bracy, tears in his eyes.
He turned to Gedge, determination in every line of his body. 'Come, Gedge,' he said and strode through the hall, catching up his rifle and pack once more and marching from the house. 'We have a dragon to kill.'
Gedge marched by his side, casting a glance back at the people who seemed stunned by their sudden action. Bracy went into the stables, calling out to the grooms to saddle their horses.
'Sir?' whispered Gedge, 'I think they're going to let us go alone, sir. We could easily –'
'No,' said Bracy, 'not now, not like this. That child smiled at me, Gedge, and thought it a fine adventure to see the creature I shot. What if it were because of me that maybe she went out to look at a live dragon flying? I cannot leave her out there on the mountainside.' He closed his eyes and looked sick.
Gedge put a hand on his arm gently. 'It's not to your account, sir,' he said. 'We'll get this monster, but you shouldn't blame yourself, sir.'
There was a sound behind them and Gedge turned to see Straton looking at them sadly.
'Captain Bracy's all right,' said Gedge stoutly, 'We're going to go and kill that thing now, the murdering brute!'
'I will go with you,' Straton said, gesturing at the grooms who hurried to bring him his horse.
'We ain't runnin' off,' said Gedge, forgetting he had proposed that very thing, 'We're doing like Captain Bracy said.'
'Do you think you are the only ones who may mourn the death of a little girl?' said Straton sternly. 'These are my people.'
'I'm sorry, sir,' said Gedge, ashamed.
'I will go, too,' said Rustem, coming up to his father and signalling to the increasingly harried grooms.
Bracy swung up into the saddle. 'Let's be off,' he said.
* * *
They rode out to the farm, and with the aid of some of the farm hands came to the spot where the girl's mother had discovered her child's bloodied head scarf. The ground was marked with the scars of the beast's claws.
'Perhaps it will return,' said Bracy, 'if it has taken this area for its territory as the other one did.'
'Perhaps it did this in revenge for the death of its kin,' said Rustem, 'and may return if it knows you are here.'
'They are just animals, Rustem,' said Bracy sternly. 'And like any creature that endangers man it must be destroyed. Any cunning it has is purely that of a brute.'
Rustem flushed to be spoken to in such a way, and his father spoke to him indulgently.
'Bracy is right, Rustem,' he said, 'do not imagine this is a creature from the stories. You have seen Gedge kill one yourself. We must work together to kill this creature – Gedge, does your keen sight tell you where it may be found?'
'No, sir,' said Gedge, scanning the sky and hill sides, 'I don't see it.'
Rustem suddenly ran off to one side, and held up a scrap of cloth. 'See!' he said, 'is this not the same as the girl's scarf? It has carried her this way, there are more claw marks.'
'Good lad!' cried Bracy, running over. 'Yes, it has been this way.' He looked over the area, murmuring 'we should have brought dogs.'
'I fear they would be little use to track a quarry that flies,' said Straton, coming over. He signalled to the farm hands, saying, 'the horses should be taken back to shelter. You see how they are uneasy at the mere smell of the beast, and I think we shall have to climb up the hillside, where they would be of no use.'
'Yes,' said Bracy, 'we shall have to hunt this creature down to its lair.'
They scoured the fields, looking for other signs, and hunted all through a copse, thinking the dragon might have taken the child there, but found nothing. By mid-morning they knew they would indeed have to climb up to the heights.
'It isn't enough to kill it,' fretted Bracy, 'we must find the child too. I promised.'
'We'll find it,' said Gedge loyally, refusing to think too long on what there might be to find. After the first time he had had to shoot a man he had struggled with evil dreams, and he had only seen the man fall down out of sight, he had not even seen the body. His mind quailed at the thought of the child's fate, but he steadfastly refused to add to Bracy's burden.
They climbed up on the hill, seeking out patches of shadow that might reveal themselves to be the dragon at rest. Higher and higher they climbed, aiming for outcrops of rock that hung dizzyingly far out above the valley floor, and were ideal places from which a flying beast might wish to launch itself. In the afternoon Straton made them stop and eat.
'You must not wear yourself out before you find it, Bracy,' he said. 'You must be able to finish it once we have found it.'
Bracy nodded, accepting a piece of bread from Gedge with a shaking hand. 'Yes, sir,' Gedge said quietly, 'you've got to keep yer strength up.' He shyly laid a hand on Bracy's shoulder and was pleased to have Bracy place his own over it.
'I'll be able to shoot it, never fear,' said Bracy. 'Perhaps it will come out at dusk.'
'Should we lay bait?' Rustem said. 'If we staked out a sheep or a goat, perhaps it would come.'
'Like hunting a man-eating tiger,' mused Bracy. 'It might indeed come.'
'Have you hunted tigers, sir?' asked Gedge, excited.
Bracy shook his head. "Rob – Captain Roberts did once. It was before I came out. He said it was a lot of fun for an excursion run by – native people.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge politely, knowing full well Captain Roberts' views on any people who weren't English. 'I wonder what he sees in that Lt. Drummond,' he thought, 'and if he makes those Scotch jokes in his hearing. Still, he's a sooperior orficer, and Captain Bracy's friend. And a brave man,' he reproved himself.
The beast did not come that evening, although they went back down and tethered a sheep in full view, hiding themselves and waiting sleeplessly all night long. The next morning the four of them, tired and hungry slept in relays, still hoping it might make an appearance, attracted by the sheep's calls. Gedge awoke from a dreamless sleep, finding Rustem's head pillowed on his breast, and Straton and Bracy speaking softly so as not to disturb them.
'Let them sleep a while longer,' said Straton, 'we need their sharp boys' eyesight.'
'I'm awake,' said Gedge sleepily, sitting up and trying not to wake Rustem. 'No sight yet?'
'None,' said Bracy shortly.
Gedge patted Rustem's cheek till he awoke. 'C'mon, pard'ner,' he said, 'we can't shirk our turn on watch!' The boy yawned and was instantly awake, with the energy of youth.
'Let us go up on the hill again,' he said, 'we gain nothing here.'
'He is right,' said Straton in frustration. 'The creature will not come. If it does, we may be able to shoot it from the higher ground.'
Bracy nodded and stretched, saying, 'Yes, let us climb again, and pray that we come across it.'
They climbed high again, searching out the places that seemed as if they might be the beast's haunt, till they were heart sick and feeling the weight of failure. Bracy leaned against a rock, his face full of thunder.
'Can I do nothing well?' he muttered in English. 'Everything I turn my hand to these last months –'
Gedge looked at him sorrowfully, but did not speak, feeling that it was not his place. 'If I could make him feel better!' he thought. 'Oh, if I had the words to tell him what a fine orficer he is! He takes too much on hisself, he always has!' He contented himself with passing Bracy a flask of water, murmuring, 'You need to take a drink, sir.'
They rested a while, Bracy standing by the rock, Gedge hunkered by his feet, leaning on his rifle, Straton and Rustem sitting a few feet off, talking very quietly. Once or twice Gedge noted Rustem look at him queerly, as if he were about to burst out with a great cry, but Straton put his hand on his son's arm and Rustem just looked aside, going back to spying out the area.
After they were fully rested Bracy lifted his gaze further up the hillside. 'We should go higher,' he said, slinging his rifle across his back. Gedge hurried to follow, but stopped at the odd look on Rustem's face.
'Hsst!' Rustem hissed. 'Listen!'
'What is it? I hear nothing,' said Bracy. Gedge looked at Rustem, a question on his face.
'The birds have gone silent,' said Rustem, and brought his old-fashioned rifle up and ready.
'Yes,' whispered Straton. 'Keep still.'
No sooner had he spoken than the dragon wheeled into their sight, having launched itself onto the air from high above them, riding the air like a huge, evil bird and cocking its little eyes at the floor beneath where the sheep dotted the fields. It seemed more wicked than ever to Gedge, as he looked at the calm, set face of his officer who followed its path with his rifle.
'Bring your guns to bear, gentlemen,' said Bracy, his voice quiet and cold.
'Your shot, Bracy,' said Straton, 'you swore that you would be the one to kill it.'
'All that matters is that it dies,' said Bracy, 'quickly now, before it gets out of your range.'
They all raised their weapons. 'On my mark,' said Bracy. 'Ready – fire!'
The four shots cracked out as one, and Bracy and Gedge were already reloading before Straton and Rustem had lowered their guns. The dragon's flight faltered and it flapped its wings heavily, seeking to gain height and find refuge amongst the rocks once more. Bracy and Gedge swept their Enfields up smoothly and fired again. The creature screamed most horribly, but Gedge did not let himself be distracted from his task, and had the rifle reloaded and back to his shoulder as fast as if he were in training with only the instructors to worry about.
'No need, no need, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'We have got it, the vile thing.' He pointed to the side, where the dragon lay on the hillside, gasping its last, its long bony snout opening and closing soundlessly, the sharp teeth harmless now. He sprang lightly down the hill and stopped by the creature, unhooking his bayonet from his belt and fixing it. With a grimace he put the beast out of its misery, and stood by it, as if he had been suddenly bereft of purpose.
'Sir!' called Gedge, and Bracy slowly came back up to them.
'There is still the child,' Straton said unwillingly, casting his gaze up to where the creature had been.
'We do not know if that was its lair,' said Bracy heavily. 'She might lie anywhere.'
'I will go,' said Rustem. 'I am the best at climbing. I will see what there is to see.'
'I'll go with you, pard'ner,' said Gedge quickly.
Rustem shook his head. 'I will be quicker alone,' he said, strapping a blanket to his back and smiling at Gedge. 'I will come back to you, do not fear.' So saying, he was gone, clambering quickly up the slope and scaling the stretches of rock above them. His father watched him in concern, breathing more easily when the boy waved to show he had reached the right level. From high above them, they heard Rustem cry out in distress and horror. Then they saw him swing himself out over the drop and descend once more. The blanket had been fashioned into a sling that hung from his back. He jumped the last few feet down and laid his burden down gently, wrapping the blanket tight. It was very small, even for a child. Gedge stepped forward, seeing the boy's pale, ill face. Rustem stepped before the pathetic bundle and held up his hands, crying 'Do not look, Gedge, do not look!' Overcome, he burst out weeping, and Straton took him into a fierce embrace.
Bracy knelt and picked up the blanket. 'I will carry her,' he said sadly. 'Come. Let us return her to her mother.'
'You killed the monster, sir, like you promised,' whispered Gedge, trying to comfort the young officer. 'You kept your word.'
Bracy looked at him with shadowed eyes. 'I would rather be forsworn a hundred times and have this child alive,' he said, tears in his voice.
Silently, and with heavy hearts, the little group made their sad journey home.