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, @ 2003-10-24 13:29:00
Current mood: manly
For the next two nights Bracy moaned and muttered in his sleep, quietening only when Gedge embraced him and held him tight, whispering that it was just a dream. By day the young officer walked as if he were asleep and still in the grip of nightmares. 'We oughtn't have gone to that poor child's funeral,' Gedge thought, shuddering inwardly as he remembered the funeral pyre. 'Doesn't seem right,' he thought, 'she ought have been buried.' He held Bracy in his arms and knew he was dreaming of it too.
Very late on the third night, or perhaps very early on the fourth morning, Bracy suddenly sat bolt upright from slumber. Gedge stirred sleepily beside him, opening his eyes slowly.
'I have to kill the dragon,' Bracy said wildly.
'Sir?' yawned Gedge. 'You already killed it, sir. Two of 'em.'
'There are more,' Bracy said with great conviction. 'I have to kill them all.'
Gedge sat up, feeling very cold. He did not like Bracy's wild aspect or the queer way in which he clutched at the blankets. 'He has a fever,' Gedge thought. 'He's been sickening over the last days and I didn't see it! Oh, how useless I am to him!' He carefully put a hand on Bracy's arm.
'Sir?' he said, 'I think we got all the dragons, they're gone.'
'No,' said Bracy stubbornly, 'she told me there were more. I have to kill them, Gedge, it's like destroying a rabid dog. I can't let them take more children.'
'She, sir?' asked Gedge, frowning. 'Who, sir?'
'The child,' Bracy said, off-hand as if he were naming any person whom he had met. 'She told me there were more and that they'd come here.'
'Sir,' said Gedge through dry lips, 'that was a dream. She can't tell you anything, sir. She's gone to a better place.'
'I saw her,' Bracy said, 'she was playing as children do and she drank from a little fountain. She looked whole and well, not as we – we –' he fell silent. Gedge, overcome by pity, put his arms about him and for a moment Bracy leaned into the embrace. Then he straightened once more and said 'I am not simple or ill, Gedge. I have reason to say there are more.'
'Oh,' thought Gedge, 'he blames himself still. If only he'd lie down by me again and get some rest.' Aloud he said, 'Reason, sir? Why don't you sleep on it and tell everyone in the morning?'
'Ah, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'you are quite transparent. It can barely be an hour before we would get up usually. I want to be up now. Come along, Gedge, you rise as well.' So saying he climbed from the bed and began to dress. Muttering under his breath, Gedge did likewise.
They left their room and went at Bracy's instigation down to the hall, where they waited, Gedge idly petting one of the dogs by the hearth. After some time they heard noises from the back of the house, and servants appeared, seeming surprised and a little alarmed at finding the British soldiers sitting patiently. The servants brought them bread and milk, but otherwise left them to their own devising.
As time went on more and more people began to drift into the hall, Straton's friends come to wish him a pleasant day, farmers in a dispute about a boundary marker, people who had simply never tired of seeing the great, bony skull of a dragon. Bracy waited quite quietly until Straton had appeared and spoken to those that had come to see him. Gedge watched Bracy carefully, but could not see any marks of fever on the young officer's face. 'Oh, but he's taken queer for all that!' thought Gedge, seeing the unnatural calm in Bracy's eyes. 'I should stop him from saying anything, in case they laugh at him.' He felt he could not bear to see Bracy laughed at by the townsmen, and wondered how he might take the officer upstairs once more.
So caught up in thought was he that Bracy stood before he could stop him. Gedge shot to his feet and tried to take Bracy's hand, but was kindly yet firmly stopped. 'No,' said Bracy, holding up a hand, 'you must not stop me, Gedge.' He stepped forward and called loudly in the tongue of the hill men. 'Straton! I want justice!'
All around the hall men turned to look at him. Straton frowned and came closer, speaking more quietly, and saying, 'Do not ask for anything I cannot give you. We have already spoken on this matter –'
'No,' said Bracy, rudely cutting him off. 'I ask for justice for the child taken by the dragon, for the farmers who lost sheep to the beasts, for all the children who might yet die.'
'The creatures are dead,' said Straton in a gentle voice, as he marked the signs of sleeplessness and grief on Bracy's face. 'You have avenged her, Bracy, let be.'
'There are yet more dragons!' cried Bracy, to loud gasps of horror from his listeners. 'And they will come here and devour your flocks and your little ones. They must be stopped.'
'What are you saying?' said Straton, 'how can you know this?'
'The child came to me in dreams,' said Bracy simply. 'She told me.'
Gedge groaned and caught at Bracy's hand once more, murmuring 'Sir! Please, come with me!' Bracy quite brusquely shook him off.
The men watched Bracy, some as if he had gone mad, some with sober fear in their eyes.
'I am not insane,' said Bracy, 'I tell you what I have clearly seen, many dragons that would come here. Do not think I have seen this only in dreams – the first dragons were seen after a strong wind from the north-east, were they not? And the later dragon, was there not again a north-easterly wind the night before it was seen? Do your tales not say these vile creatures come from the east, and that they come if the winter will be harsh? Already the nights are cold and snow may be smelled on the air! And no fewer than three dragons have come so far – how many will come when their mountain haunts turn cold indeed? Can you not see they will utterly destroy your animals and your families too, if they are let?'
The men talked urgently among themselves, agreeing, disagreeing and seemingly suddenly afraid.
'If you are right, then we will need more defences for the animals,' said Straton. 'Stronger walls, stronger roofs –'
'Will you wait for them, like children cowering from the dark?' said Bracy loudly. 'These beasts are borne on the wind, and ride it from their homes to your valley. They must be destroyed at the source. I will go, and I will kill these dragons,' he cried loudly.
Some of the men present cheered. Gedge felt his heart sink to his boots, and he tried once more to grasp Bracy. 'Sir!' he said, agitated.
'You will not go,' said Straton. 'It cannot be done.'
'Cannot?' cried Bracy, 'I thought Alexander's armies were made up of men. Would he say 'cannot'? I will go, and I will kill them, and when I return you will give me the reward I ask.'
Many more of the men cheered. Straton's face darkened with anger and he seized Bracy's arm, pulling him to the side of the hall. Gedge followed, deeply worried.
'Do not speak of this,' said Straton. 'This is madness – how will you find this place? Do you think you will easily kill a number of these beasts – if a number there are! To wander far into the mountains and think you can return here before winter – I cannot believe you think you will do this. I am not deceived, Bracy, you wish to shame me into freeing you, or you think to flee using this expedition as cover. I cannot put your freedom above the safety of my people. Live here with us and be honoured by us. Do not cheapen yourself with this stratagem.'
'This is no trick,' said Bracy, still calm. 'These creatures are a vile menace. Do you really think there were only three in the whole world? What will you do when the wind turns again and more come? I swear this is not an attempt to escape – I truly mean to do as I say. These beasts cannot be allowed to roam and kill.'
Straton's anger died from his face and he spoke more gently to Bracy, saying, 'This is more than one man can do, Bracy. Do not think grief has seized only you – have you not seen how my son still feels the horror of it? You are not to blame. Do not seek death alone in the mountains.'
'I should not be alone,' said Bracy. 'Will you come, Gedge?'
'Anywheres, sir!' said Gedge firmly. 'I jest ain't leavin' your side.'
'Will you follow even to your death as he wanders in the mountains?' asked Straton, 'rather prove your love by pressing him to give up this madness. And you,' he said to Bracy, 'will you use this boy's love against him like this?'
'Beggin' yer pardon, sir,' said Gedge, 'but I ain't a boy. I'm a sojer of Her Majesty, and I'll go where my orficer says.'
Straton regarded them with pity and a touch of annoyance. He looked at the men waiting in the hall, all of whom seemed to be holding their breath. 'It seems we have a second Sikander among us,' said Straton dryly. 'Do as you have said, Bracy, and I will reward you richly.'
The men cheered and rushed forward to clap Bracy on the shoulder and commend his bravery. He smiled, and seemed as if the cares that had worn him down had lifted. Gedge looked at him closely, seeking out the signs of fever he was sure must be there, but Bracy seemed well. 'But how will we find this place?' thought Gedge. 'And kill all these dragons as he tells of? Oh, how I wish I hadn't let him say nothing about this!'
* * *
The rest of the day was given over to preparation, Bracy wanting to get off as quickly as he could. Bags of dried fruit and dried meat were assembled in the kitchens, and loaves of bread were baked for them. Wine was liberally poured into flasks, and grain for porridge heaped up. Hard cheeses were wrapped tightly in oilcloth.
'We won't starve at least, sir,' said Gedge cheerfully.
Bracy nodded absently and went back to counting cartridges for their rifles. He had an immense pile of shot for the hill men's guns that he was sorting carefully as being suitable for their use, planning on using it where possible before they reached their goal and reserving the British cartridges for the actual efforts of dragon killing. Gedge left him to his task and went to make sure that the winter clothing and blankets assembled for them were what was needed. 'At least it looks like they don't want us to jest die out there,' he thought. He laughed to himself at the clothes put aside for his use, which had had to be cut down, he being shorter than the man whose they had been. Coming from this task he saw Straton and Rustem before him in the upper hallway, arguing fiercely.
'Let me go,' said Rustem. 'I, too, want to kill these awful things.'
'No,' said Straton shortly. 'Do not act like a child. Your place is here.'
'If I were a child, would I have taken that caravan?' cried Rustem, 'Or brought the Engelstani safe here?'
'A pity you did,' said Straton sourly. 'Having lost your mother, do you now ask me to lose my son following these foreigners?'
Gedge drew back, feeling ashamed to eavesdrop, and distressed to hear Straton say such a thing. His movement drew their attention and Rustem saw him.
'Gedge!' he cried. 'I will go with you, I will help you find and kill the dragons!'
'You will not!' roared Straton in fury. 'I forbid it – you will promise me now that you will not go.' He turned to Gedge, who shrank back somewhat. 'And you, boy, tell my son now that you do not want him, that you will never want him, and that you do not desire his company on your insane quest.'
'Father!' cried Rustem, flushing a deep scarlet. 'Gedge,' he appealed, 'would I not be of great use to you? Can you speak the tongues of other peoples in these mountains? Are not three guns better than two?' He stepped forward and spoke more quietly, almost, it seemed to Gedge, shyly. 'Do you not want me, Gedge? Would you not like me to be with you?'
Gedge put a hand on his shoulder, filled with deep emotion. He knew that he had neglected Rustem to comfort Bracy, and that the lad was still shaken by their experiences in hunting the third dragon. He could see that Rustem thought to wipe his sorrow and misery out in dragon's blood, and felt that in his place, he himself would feel the same. 'All the same,' he thought, 'I'm older than yer, and should be the one with sense.' He squeezed Rustem's shoulder and smiled. 'Listen, pard'ner,' he said, 'it's like yer father says, you should obey him. This is dangerous stuff, and Captain Bracy and me, we're trained for tight spots. You stay home, and we'll come back, jest you see.'
'You are not trained for dragons!' said Rustem.
Gedge looked at Straton's face and knew he would have to be as firm with Rustem as he could. Although he found it so hard, he would have to disappoint the boy. Accordingly he looked sternly at the lad and said, 'I don't want yer comin' along, Rustem. This is no mission for a boy.'
'But –' cried Rustem.
'No, you ain't comin' with us,' said Gedge quickly, 'and that's an end of it. I won't have yer, d'you hear me?'
Rustem looked at him in deepest sadness, turned and ran for the stairs. Straton nodded at Gedge, and breathed deeply.
'Thank you,' he said. 'My son will forgive you in time. He is too wild, but perhaps will take this to heart. Take care of yourself and Bracy, and may the gods indeed bring you back safely.' So saying he strode after Rustem.
* * *
The next morning, before it was light, Bracy swung up on to the fine horse Straton had given him and grasped the man's hand firmly.
'I will do as I've said,' he said, 'you will see.'
'Do not do this,' Straton said, a final time. 'Stay.'
Bracy simply smiled and looked over to where Gedge was speaking quietly with Rustem. The younger boy looked as if he had not slept, and had wept all the night through.
'Gedge!' cried Bracy, 'don't dawdle, sir! We must get off!'
Gedge started, then embraced Rustem quickly and climbed up on his own horse. Bracy nodded approvingly, admiring Gedge's seat. He had become much better with all the riding he had done since coming to the valley. He turned towards the dour man of middle years who was to be their guide for as far as he knew the road east. 'Well,' he said, 'lead on.'
Their little group made its way out of the town, their horses laden with supplies of every sort, their breath gusting in great clouds of white in the morning chill. By the time the sun was up they were breasting the hills and leaving the valley behind. Bracy felt invigorated and purposeful, quite the officer once more. 'Oh,' he thought, 'how I wish Rob could be here! How he would laugh to see me in this queer dress! He would find this all to be great fun! Still, I shall be able to top him and any of his tales of tiger hunting when I return.' He laughed softly to himself, and turned to look at Gedge. A cheerful smile spread over the lad's plain and honest features at the sight of Bracy's good humour.
'It's a fine mornin', sir,' he said.
''Yes, indeed, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'And one that will go down in these people's legends, is that not right, my friend?'
Their guide merely grunted, and kept his horse's head pointed firmly away from them. After a little, Gedge began to sing one of the music hall songs he was especially fond of, and Bracy let the lad's untutored yet tuneful voice wash over him. It was perhaps not in the best interests of discipline, he thought, but both Gedge and he had been through many vicissitudes together and he felt he could be lenient with the young sergeant.
They rode east and north for many days, exulting in the freedom of their journey and the illusion that the freedom would never end. All day they rode, in companionable good humour, and at night slept under the same blankets for warmth and comfort, their guide scorning such ease and wrapping himself tight and lying on the other side of their little fire. The weather was clear and bright, the mountains appearing to float in the sky about them, golden and pink in the early mornings, stark white in the full light and dimming gradually to deepest plum as the sun sank daily downward.
'I think,' said Bracy quietly, watching as the sun climbed higher, in air so clear that it seemed as glass, 'that this must be what Heaven is like.'
'I'm surprised to hear you say so, sir,' said Gedge, 'I'd have thought as you'd have had enough of mountains after that havalanche.'
'But I knew you would find me,' said Bracy simply, reaching over to squeeze Gedge's hand. 'I knew I was not alone.' He smiled at the tears that welled up in the lad's eyes, and clapped him on the shoulder. 'Come on. Race me to that spur up ahead.' So saying he put his heel to the horse's side and shot forward, followed by the laughing Gedge, while the guide shook his head over the impetuousness of the young.