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, @ 2003-10-25 11:52:00 Current mood: still manly
For two weeks they made their way deeper into the mountains, their uncommunicative guide scowling at their boyish laughter, or scowling at Gedge's cooking, and sometimes for variety scowling at creatures they passed on their way. Gedge found his spirits light and his heart buoyant. 'He's so gay now that we're out together,' he thought happily, looking at Bracy's smiling face. 'Not one bad dream since we left, thank heavens.' He felt somewhat disloyal that he was pleased to get more rest at night now that Bracy no longer writhed so against him. His attention was diverted from such musing by noting suddenly how the guide raised his gun and fired. A wild goat tumbled down to the road ahead of them, and the guide's face split in an unaccustomed smile.
'It is well you have a man of experience with you, Engelstani,' said the guide, 'we shall have fresh meat tonight, and you may preserve your stores against a future day.'
'Thank you,' said Bracy with courtesy. 'That was a fine shot.'
The guide scowled, and rode forward to deal with the goat's carcass. That night Gedge made a point of following Bracy's lead and eating a dinner of the tough meat with every sign of enjoyment. The air was so fresh and heady he felt it would be no hardship to eat the whole goat by himself, followed perhaps by one or more of the horses. Finally he discovered that even his appetite could not manage another bite, and he lay close to Bracy, feeling himself drift off into a pleasant slumber.
By the time the goat had been all eaten, Gedge felt he should happily live his whole life through if he never as much as heard the word 'goat' again. 'I should like some decent roast beef,' he thought, 'or a good stew with dumplings, and a nice pudding to follow.' He grinned at Bracy, 'I s'y, sir!' he said, 'what I wouldn't give for some spotted dick!'
Bracy nodded cheerfully, saying, 'It's been too long since I had any. When we get back to the fort, Gedge, I'll make sure you get as much spotted dick as you can stomach.'
'Oh, please say that's a promise, sir!' cried Gedge. 'The thought of it'll keep me goin', that it will.'
Bracy just laughed and ate the porridge mixed with dried meat and fruit that the guide handed him.
* * *
As they went along they saw few people, although the guide assured them that there were villages that they were passing. Once or twice they saw figures that either stood and watched them in seeming astonishment, or fled shyly from before them.
'They don't seem so friendly,' said Gedge, as a boyish figure turned tail upon seeing them and clambered up the mountain side to hide behind a rock.
'They fear our guns,' said the guide. 'The young boys think they might be seized and taken away as servants.'
'Why should they fear that?' asked Bracy, 'What tribe here would treat them in such a way?'
The guide looked at him silently a time. 'I could not say,' he said finally and led them on.
After three weeks had passed, the guide pointed to an imposing rock a long way further up the trail.
'We have not gone past that spot,' he said. 'I will be of no more use to you after this day. You will need another guide.'
'How shall we find one?' asked Bracy. 'The people here are so shy, and we do not speak their tongue.'
'As to that,' said the guide, 'you will find that all here have some words of Greek, although most are of as barbarous an accent as you Engelstani. Speak slowly and loudly, and do not allow insolence, and you will find them tractable enough. As to where to find one, there is a village I know of, at no great distance from here. If you like, you might lie in a bed tonight.'
'Well,' said Bracy, 'that seems like it might be a good rest before we press on. Please, lead on.'
The guide grunted and turned his horse down a trail that seemed no more than the slightest suggestion of a way between boulders, necessitating single file. He led them in this way for little more than an hour and then halted them, his hand upraised.
'See,' he said quietly. 'The village is below. Follow my lead, and remember, these are barbarians.'
So saying he spurred his horse down the track towards the little village, his rifle held ready, and a wild war cry bursting from his lips. Bracy galloped after him, with Gedge in the rear, begging his horse not to throw him. To their astonishment and their alarm, the guide rushed straight down to the village, and when a young man ran forward in evident desire to protect his people from what seemed like an attack, the guide swung the stock of his weapon round and knocked the fellow out cold.
The people of the village assembled and stood around uncertainly as the guide harangued them in a tongue that neither Bracy nor Gedge could follow. Now and again they heard a word that was surely in Greek, but was not one that they understood. The villagers stood sullenly, their eyes downcast, and finally the guide dismounted and signalled to Bracy and Gedge that they should do likewise. They were shown into the largest of the houses and given food in great amounts.
'These people seem poor,' said Bracy, 'can they afford to give us so much to eat?'
'Why not?' the guide shrugged. 'They know they owe tribute to the king. They will give you more provisions for the road as well. Smile at that girl, Gedge.'
Gedge smiled at the girl, one of the headman's daughters, who was nervously holding out a basket of breads to him. She flushed a deep scarlet and crept away as the guide laughed.
'I didn't mean no harm,' said Gedge, not liking the guide's coarse laughter.
'Please tell these people we have no intention of molesting them,' said Bracy sternly. 'They need not be afraid.'
'Remember what I told you. Do not allow them to be insolent,' the guide said complacently. 'They know they are part of the king's dominions.'
'I feel I should remind you, sir,' said Bracy coldly, 'that Alexander has been dead for over two thousand years.'
The guide scowled and swallowed his mouthful of food. 'Sikander is among the gods and is undying as they are,' he said. 'All in these mountains know his fame. You Engelstani will find that your opinions do not count in this matter.'
Bracy frowned, but did not say anything more. He tried, by gentle words of thanks, to show that the villagers need not fear him, but none would meet his eye. At last the village headman showed them, with many nervous bows, to the area in which they would sleep. At first Bracy stayed awake, thinking that if he were one of the villagers he would perhaps seek to rid himself of unwanted guests while they slept. As time went on, his eyes drooped closed and he fell into a deep slumber beside Gedge.
When morning came, all three of them awoke to the savoury smell of spiced food being prepared. The girl who had blushed so the previous night brought in a great tray heaped with the steaming dish and a basket of the flat bread they had become so familiar with. Bracy nodded with approval as Gedge fell upon it.
'We shall have to pay these people somehow,' he said in English. 'I do not like to gain provisions through extortion.'
'What can we give them, sir?' asked Gedge, doing his best to eat all the food set before him.
'Wine, perhaps,' said Bracy. 'If they will drink it. We do not need it – there are plenty of good streams that we can drink from.' He turned to the guide and spoke firmly. 'Do these people drink wine? I want to make them some gift.'
The guide scowled darkly. 'I have told you,' he said, 'they owe tribute. If you wish to gift them that is your business, but there is no need to worry about payment. They are vassals.'
'Please tell them I want to give them a gift,' said Bracy, and the man unwillingly spoke to the people serving them. 'Oh,' thought Bracy in some anger, 'how unfair it is that this tribe should find itself in bondage to a foreign people! They should be free, to live as they wish.'
They finished their breakfast, and Bracy presented the largest of their skins of wine to the head man of the village, who looked at him in surprise. Their guide strode up and down, seizing young men and making them stand in line, haranguing them all the while. He turned to Bracy at last.
'Do you like the look of any of them?' he said. 'You can see they have some Persian ancestry and are fair enough to look upon. All of these lads say they can guide you, and they will cook for you also.'
'Have any of them seen dragons?' asked Bracy.
The guide spoke to them and one nodded, speaking quickly and drawing his hand in a wide gesture, arcing across the sky.
'Well, I suppose he is as good as any,' said Bracy. 'He'll do.'
No sooner had Bracy spoken than the guide was ordering the poor young man about, marching him off down the rough street to his house and shoving him up on the back of a rough coated pony. He then spoke demandingly to the headman, who had his daughters bring out fresh-baked bread, and a bag of grain and a tight wrapped bundle that the guide explained contained the remnants of the spicy meat they had eaten at breakfast.
'Eat it by noon,' he said, 'if any remains by nightfall, give it to the boy, but do not eat it yourselves.'
He chivvied all of them back onto the horses and led the way out of the village, the young man casting a longing look behind him. After a hour, perhaps a little more, they reached the trail they had left the day before. The guide led them on down the trail until they had reached, after not even another hour, the huge rock he had indicated upon the previous day as the extent of his knowledge of the area. Bracy saw, to his great interest, that figured upon the rock in larger than life carvings were many stern-faced and beautiful people, both men and women, dressed in the draperies and cloaks of the finest Greek style, such as he had seen in the collection of the British Museum. He cast his eyes over the carvings, naming the old gods of Greece to himself quietly. At the end of the procession of the gods stood a young man holding forth a spear, gazing into the distance ahead of them, an expression of manly strength and yearning upon his face.
'That is Sikander,' said the guide, an expression of sadness upon his face, 'looking towards the land where he did not go. We should have ranged further, and extended the king's domains. Ah, how we have fallen!'
He jumped from his horse, and pulled the young man from his, dragging him over to the rock, at one side of which, Bracy saw, was cut an altar. The guide made the young man put his hands upon the altar and berated him until he had stammered forth a frightened statement. Then he was given wine which he was made pour on the altar and suffered more berating from the guide, who turned at last, satisfied, to the English soldiers once more.
'He has sworn to obey you,' said the guide, 'and to lead you aright through the mountains. May the gods curse him if he does not! I take my leave of you here, at the edge of the civilised world, beyond which the armies of the king have not gone. May the gods keep you on your path and preserve you unto the fulfilment of your oath, and may they bring you back safe to us again. Farewell.'
Without another word he turned his horse's head back down the trail and left their company.
* * *
They found their new guide to be shy and quiet. Although they smiled at him kindly, and promised that he should come to no harm, he would not look them in the face, and could not be induced to tell them his name. He started horribly if either of them touched his arm to call his attention to something, and cowered at the far side of the fire at night. At first when he made food he gave the most if it to them, keeping for himself only a few scant mouthfuls, until both Bracy and Gedge re-divided the dinner, making sure he was not cheated of food.
As the days went on he seemed less nervous, and might on occasion be made to smile briefly and shyly. He never seemed as wild and gay as the boys from the Greek town, however, and Gedge found himself missing Rustem's cheerful company. 'I hope as he hasn't taken against me,' he thought, 'but his father was right, he had to stay home. I have my hands full enough with the captain.' For as they journeyed along he had begun to note an impatience in Bracy, whose hatred of the dragons increased day by day, and spoke with detail of how such brutes had to be exterminated from upon the face of the earth. 'I hope we've enough shot,' thought Gedge. 'Oh, why couldn't he have swung round for home and brought all the 404th here, if he wanted to kill all these things?' Then he imagined what would take place if the army did indeed come into the mountains, and saw in his mind his young friends fall as they tried to defend their homes, thought of how Straton had said they would be a curiosity to be examined and laughed at. 'Why,' he thought suddenly, 'English gentlemen would treat them very rudely, more rudely than the Greek gentlemen treated us. If Rustem was an English gentleman's son he wouldn't be my friend.' Thinking of this he blushed with shame that a soldier of the British Army should entertain such unbecoming ideas. 'Don't you go gettin' ideas above yer station, Bill,' he told himself sternly. 'Anyways, Captain Bracy's a gentleman and he's never treated yer in any way but well.' And having chastised himself in this manner he bent all his thoughts to his duty once more and how he might best serve his officer.
The next day their young guide cried out, pointing upward. High above them, floating like a huge ungainly leaf upon the breeze they saw the shape of a dragon, coming from the north east.
'Too far,' muttered Bracy, estimating its distance with care. 'Come lower, you brute, come lower.'
Gedge watched him with concern, seeing how his face had paled, and a fevered light had come into his eyes. He shivered as a cold breeze swept its way across them.
'You see,' said Bracy, 'the wind has turned and it brings the beasts with it. I was right.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge. 'You were. I hope as we get there soon.' He shook his head, thinking, 'Wherever 'there' might be.'
All that day a north-easterly wind blew and the temperature dropped. Clouds gathered, and the clear and bright aspect which they had enjoyed up till this point was replaced with damp fog and glowering grey skies. The young guide looked fearfully up at the clouds, pointing at them and speaking urgently.
'Rain?' asked Bracy in Greek, 'snow?'
The guide became more agitated, and seemed to have lost the few Greek words he had at first possessed. He began to closely examine the trail, and to reject places that seemed as if they might provide campsites. Bracy turned to Gedge, pointing at rocks.
'See!' he cried, 'They are so smooth, Gedge – I fear that water must rush down here if there is a storm. We must find shelter, that is what the lad is about.'
They travelled onward, their guide becoming more and more worried, and then the heavens opened. The wind gusted against them mightily and freezing rain whipped into their faces, chilling any skin exposed to it. The guide's fine black hair lay plastered flat to his skull, and his face was pale and miserable. Gedge felt the rain work its way into every crevice and he thought he should never be warm again. Bracy alone kept up a cheerful demeanour, though his hair and moustache too were soaking and his clothes as wet as the others. 'He'll catch his death,' thought Gedge as he looked at the young officer sitting proud and upright on his horse. 'The minute we find somewhere I'm going to get him out of those clothes.'
At last, as the daylight had almost completely died, the guide pointed ahead and yelled out in relief. They could see, barely, an opening a little way up the mountain. The way up was steep, but they could see that if they dismounted, they would be able to lead the agile mountain-bred horses up to it. Accordingly they swung down from the saddle and gingerly clambered up to the dark opening, which proved itself to be a cave. The guide urged them within and the horses crowded close, shivering and shaking droplets of rain water everywhere. Gedge rubbed a hand through his hair, shivering himself as cold water ran down the back of his neck. He eyed Bracy, calculating how he would persuade the officer to divest himself of his clothing. The guide bent to the task of making a little fire with the kindling and wood he carried on his pony. Soon the cave seemed quite cosy. The horses shifted nervously at the entrance, peeping out at the rain, and then suspiciously looking over their shoulders at their riders.
Suddenly a clot of darkness at the back of the cave moved and unfolded itself, shambling forward into the flickering firelight. Growling most horribly, a bear came towards them, and reared up upon its hind legs, spreading its forelimbs wide and displaying as it did so curved wicked claws. It roared its displeasure and aimed a sweeping blow at the guide who shrieked and flung himself down, rolling right through the fire to escape it. As it brought its great paw clumsily back it clipped Gedge on the head with the back of its paw, knocking him down to the ground. As he struggled to regain his feet he was dimly aware of the guide, still shrieking, flinging himself flat across his pony and spurring it out into the storm. Bracy cried out for Gedge to move away, and sought to reach his rifle, where it was strapped to his horse. The horses screamed in terror and would not let anyone near them, pushing him away and kicking out. Gedge looked up in fear as the bear fixed its weak little eyes upon him and shambled forwards, its mouth wide.
'Leave him, you brute!' he heard Bracy cry, and then the report of Bracy's revolver, a sound and a sting most unimpressive, it seemed, to the bear.
It turned its eyes on Bracy and stood again, roaring its rage. To his horror Gedge heard the unmistakable sound of Bracy drawing his sword and cast a look back at his officer who stood, pale and wet, revolver in one hand and sword in the other.
'No, sir!' he cried.
But it was too late. The bear charged.