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, @ 2003-10-29 00:57:00
Current mood: tired, yet manly
As the beast charged towards him, Bracy fired his revolver twice into its face. Momentarily blinded, the bear swiped at him but missed, and he sprang to the side, slashing at it with all his strength. The thick fur at its neck deflected his blow and it turned toward him once again. Behind the desperate fight, Gedge struggled to his feet and ran for the panicking horses. As he reached them a cloaked and behatted figure, dripping with rain burst into the cave opening, and he realised that their young guide had overcome his fit of fear and returned to their aid. The gun the figure carried discharged with a resonating sound and the bear roared in fury. Possessed of a strength he had previously not known, Gedge forced one of the horses to turn and seized the rifle strapped to its side, finding he had somehow loaded it in the space of time it took to turn back. The bear, it seemed, was undecided which foe to dispatch first, and wavered between the officer and the young native. Bracy fired twice more and at the same time the young guide thrust at the bear with his bayonet-affixed rifle. As the creature swept his weapon away Gedge sighted between its eyes and squeezed the trigger. The noise of the shot reverberated about the cave. The bear paused, as if confused, then sat slowly down, and laid its mighty head upon its paws and died.
The three of them stood in silence for a moment, watching the great creature, but it did not stir. Then the young man threw back his cloak and took off his hat, shaking rain from his soaked chestnut hair.
'May you be happy,' said Rustem in the usual greeting of his people, 'a wet night, is it not?'
The British soldiers looked upon him in amazement. Gedge felt his legs turn to jelly as the determination needed for the fight left him. Then Bracy laughed and embraced the boy.
'We are very glad to see you,' he cried, 'are we not, Gedge?'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, feeling he should not start laughing for fear he would be unable to stop. Rustem disengaged himself from Bracy's embrace, a look of surprised pleasure on his face, and came over.
'Then will you embrace me also?' he asked.
'Gladly, pard'ner!' said Gedge, matching his actions to his words. Rustem clung to him tightly, with chilled hands. 'I s'y,' said Gedge, 'you're like ice!'
'Ah!' Rustem ejaculated, 'my poor horse!' And he whirled about, jamming his hat back on his head and darting out into the rain, to return scant moments later with a drenched and disgruntled appearing horse.
'Quick now,' said Bracy, who had repaired the ruined fire to some success, 'we should get out of these wet things, or we will surely end up with pneumonia.'
They undressed quickly, hanging their clothes from the rough walls as best they could in the hope of them drying somewhat, and put on what dry clothing they had had wrapped tight in oilcloth. With the three of them, and their horses in the cave it soon became quite warm.
'A pity we cannot save the bear skin,' said Rustem, 'it would be of great use to us in weather like this.'
'Indeed, we should have brought a tanner with us,' said Bracy, a gentle smile on his face, 'but now, young man, tell us how you come to be here when your father forbade it.'
Rustem had the grace to look a little shamefaced. 'I knew you would need me,' he said, 'so after some days, when it seemed I had accepted my father's will, I came after you. Although I had not been to the furthest of our borders, I knew the general way, and knew also you would most likely stop in one of the mountain villages to take more food and gain a new guide. I made all haste, and hid myself until I had seen you and your guide go past, and since then I have been close on your trail. I do not think much of his skill. Tonight I knew I should have to declare myself and take shelter with you, and then I saw him flee like a girl who has seen a mouse, and I rushed in – and you did truly need me, and here I am.'
'Well,' said Bracy, 'I cannot deny that your presence turned the fight in our favour, for surely Gedge cold not have got that shot off if the bear had had but one opponent. But your father will be very angry with me, Rustem. I should send you home – if you got this far by yourself, you can get back as well.' He smiled at Rustem's annoyed expression and continued, 'But perhaps you should come with us so that older and wiser heads can see you do not get into too much mischief. I am sure Gedge would appreciate extra hands on this work, just as I do.'
'Why, that's so, sir!' said Gedge, terribly glad not to have to disappoint the lad once again. 'But Rustem, yer'll have to do jest as the captain and me says, yer understand?'
'Oh,' said Rustem, 'I will happily obey you in every way, now that you have said you will not try to send me home.'
'Well, let's say no more of it,' said Bracy, laughing. 'Let's eat and get some rest, we will be going nowhere until the weather clears somewhat.' He quickly readied some food, and the three of them ate with the appetites of those recently delivered from death.
After they had eaten their fill they curled up by the fire and prepared to sleep.
'I'm glad you're here,' said Gedge quietly to Rustem, wanting to know that the boy had indeed forgiven him for leaving him behind.
'How would you live without me?' said Rustem, a mischievous smile on his lips, ' You are lucky that the bear was a male, for the females are far more fierce and wild, and would have killed you before I could have come to your aid.' He put his arms about Gedge and fell at once into sleep.
'A brave lad, to follow us alone,' murmured Bracy in English, 'but foolhardy. I hope we will be able to curtail his wildness, Gedge.'
'I'm sure he'll be no trouble to us, sir,' whispered Gedge. 'Are you quite warm enough?'
'Yes,' said Bracy, 'the blankets are large enough to cover all of us.'
The fire died down to a warm glow, leaving the barest of glimmers of light in the cave. Gedge felt very snug, between Bracy and Rustem, and thought he was more comfortable than he had been for some nights. Cosy and tired, he drifted into slumber.
* * *
It was mid morning before the rain had finally died away. They loaded all their possessions back onto the horses and led them carefully back down to the trail, heading east once more. Gedge was in high spirits, feeling he had reconciled his duty to Bracy as his superior officer and to Rustem as his friend. 'I'll be able to cheer him up proper,' he thought, whistling along to Rustem's gay song. He blushed as he saw the indulgent smile upon Bracy's face, but did not stop whistling. That night was cold and clear, and as they lay snuggled close together, wild night birds sang out with their strange cries.
They travelled on, always heading to the north and east. Gedge noted that once again Bracy seemed gay and carefree, despite the increasing chill and the late time of year. 'We've been gone upward of a month,' thought Gedge. 'How he thinks to get back to the valley, let alone back to the fort, before winter, I jest don't see.' He looked back at the trail behind them. 'Per'aps we'll be quicker gettin' back, seein' as we'll know the way,' he thought more hopefully. 'I must jest trust in Captain Bracy, he hasn't led me wrong yet.'
At five weeks after they had left the valley, they found the narrow trails formed by passages between boulders and carved out by generations of animals' feet were no more to be seen. They had reached a wall of rock that seemed to have no way around it, no matter how they scouted. It rose, grey and forbidding before them.
'It is like the end of the world,' said Rustem, gazing upward.
'The world goes on past this, lad,' said Bracy.
'I know,' said Rustem testily. 'And ends in the encircling Ocean. I meant only that it is imposing in size.'
Gedge hid a smile as Bracy turned to him and winked.
'Don't tease him, sir,' he whispered in English, gaining no response other than a broad smile.
Rustem rode out ahead of them, his keen eyes examining the great wall. He started and flung up a hand, crying 'See! See! A dragon!'
From the top of the wall a dragon launched itself, lazily riding upon the wind, turning in a great circle and alighting once more. As their eyes grew accustomed to looking up at the rock knifing into the bright sky, they made out the shapes of several of the beasts, perched on ledges, nibbling at their great wings with their horrid long snouts, or simply enjoying the sunlight upon their brown leathery bodies.
'Five, I make it,' said Gedge, shading his eyes with a hand.
'Yes, there are five,' said Rustem, his face pale and set. 'Can your rifle reach them, Gedge?'
'I dunno, pard'ner,' said Gedge doubtfully. 'They've got a lot of shelter up there.'
'This is it,' said Bracy feverishly, 'this is it. We must get closer, get up there somehow.'
Gedge nodded, not wanting to disagree, but feeling within his heart that it was a hopeless task. 'And per'aps better so,' he thought, 'fer then I could get him to turn back.'
'I will find the way for us,' said Rustem, and Gedge noted with horror that the same light that was in Bracy's eyes was also in those of his young friend. He rode off by himself. Gedge turned hesitantly to Bracy who was still looking upward, his face now showing fury and frustration.
'Sir,' said Gedge, 'What if we can't get up there? After a day or so of looking, I mean. I reckon we could make pretty good time gettin' back. With a bit of luck we'd have hardly any snow.'
'What?' said Bracy absently. 'Oh, no. No, we'll get up there. We have to, I promised her.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge meekly. 'I'll get Rustem to help me,' he thought. 'If I has to tie up the captain, I will. It's for his own good, he'd thank me afterward.'
He rode slowly with Bracy after Rustem. By the end of the day he found he was the only one of the three of them who could summon a smile or a pleasant word. The other two were sullen and scowling, their lack of success weighing heavily upon them.
'Let's set up camp here,' said Gedge, 'we'll all feel better after a spot of food and a nice sleep.'
They sat and scowled at him and the little fire he built, and the food he gave them. Gedge sat himself cheerily between them and chatted on about his cooking, saying, 'I'm not sayin', mind, that I'm one of them Frenchified chefs as you might find in a fancy resterawnt, but I ain't bad, neither. Go on, try it. Tell me how yer like it.'
The other two chewed sullenly and remained silent. Gedge chattered on, patting Rustem's arm, or smiling happily at Bracy until they both began to unwillingly respond to him. By the time Rustem was leaning casually against his side, and Bracy had squeezed his shoulder, Gedge felt as if he had talked for a month.
'I am sorry, Gedge,' said Rustem, 'I just want to get up there.' Gedge put an arm about him in a kind manner, thinking to help Rustem through his disappointment. Rustem sighed, and looked up at the wall once more. He stiffened all at once in Gedge's grasp, and gasped loudly. 'Oh!' he ejaculated, 'oh, Gedge! Do you see that?' He flung up an arm, pointing to the side.
Gedge looked, but at first could see nothing. Then the final slanting rays of the sun showed him what Rustem had seen. What he had taken for a rock jutting out from the wall was in fact an opening, and now that he looked hard he could see a crack running deeply up and back.
'Sir!' he cried, 'look what Rustem has found!'
'Ah!' ejaculated Bracy, 'we must investigate it – if it is, as it seems, a passage we must get through it!'
'Oh, but I wanted a nice rest,' thought Gedge. 'Well, I shan't get that with these two so eager to get up in that crack. I must jest put up with it.' Accordingly he jumped to his feet and pulled Rustem up with him. 'Well, pard'ner,' he said, 'd'yer fancy a quick go at it while the light's still with us?'
'With all my heart,' cried Rustem, catching up his weapon in his hand.
Gedge did likewise, and saw Bracy load his quickly. They did not bother the horses, which had already been unsaddled for the night, but rushed over with all the speed their limbs could muster. Bracy leaned back, looking up the height of the crack, then peering within it.
'It is a perfect optical illusion,' he cried, 'why it seems as if these rocks are pressed up against each other, when the evening light has shown they merely face each other. Let us go in, gentlemen!' So saying, he plunged into the crack.
Gedge ran after him, unwilling to lose his officer in the unknown passage. Rustem overtook him, leaping lightly on the uneven ground and laughing a gay, untroubled laugh. Beyond the opening of the crack was revealed an uneven rocky floor that led upwards through the wall. It seemed a if mighty hands had rent the cliff asunder, leaving this rough passage through. Once past the opening it was dim and dark, the fading light barely finding the vigour to penetrate past the entrance. Gedge felt wary and unsure, and wished Bracy would slow down to a more reasonable pace. Finally Gedge could bear it no more and sprinted as fast as he could, risking turning his ankle, and seized Bracy.
'Sir!' he cried, 'it is too dark to get all the way through! We've seen it goes back a good way, so let's leave it till morning, when we'll have more light – we can't jest leave the horses, sir, who knows what beast might come on them?'
Bracy looked at him distantly, as if he were a stranger, the queer light in his face slowly dying away, and being replaced by his pleasant expression. 'Gedge,' he murmured, 'yes, yes. You're right. We'll do this is full light.' He smiled quickly, and Gedge felt relieved. 'You look after me well, Gedge,' he said. 'I'm glad we are together here.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge, tugging at the young officer gently before he could change his mind. 'Let's go have a lie down. We'll get back here nice and early. Rustem – here, Rustem, don't go off like that. Come on, we're goin' back to camp for the night. We all need some sleep to get us nice and fresh for doin' this properly.'
He got them both out, and brought them back to camp, making them lie down before they could argue that they could do it by moonlight. It took more time than Gedge liked for them to fall asleep, and he felt both Rustem and Bracy toss and turn in an agitated manner for what seemed like half the night. Finally they seemed quite exhausted and fell silent and unmoving and Gedge allowed himself to drift off into a warm dream.
Morning came quickly, and Gedge felt himself being rudely awakened as Rustem poked him hard, calling out his name.
'Let a fellow sleep!' said Gedge irritably, which provoked more laughter from Rustem.
'Come now, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'must I empty water over you to get you up?'
'No, sir,' said Gedge, alarmed that his officer had heard him say something so shamefully lazy, 'you don't have to do that, sir, see, I'm awake.' He sprang from the blankets and stood ready for orders.
After a quick breakfast they set off for the crack again. In full light they could see it was not as narrow as they had at first thought. The sheer size of the cliff made it seem as if it narrowed in places to single-file, but they found that even the narrowest easily allowed for two of them to stand abreast.
'Why, we could lead the horses up here,' said Rustem. 'We could not ride, for fear of them slipping, but we could bring them up by easy stages.'
'And if it does not lead out – although I think I see light ahead, or if it ends in a precipice, can we take them out again?' asked Bracy.
'Oh,' said Rustem carelessly, 'I do not see why we could not. These are horses used to mountain trails – maybe horses in Engelstan are not so brave or clever as ours?'
'Let's get them,' said Bracy and led the way back down.
Shortly thereafter they led the horses carefully up the crack, soothing them when they started at shapes in the light, which though it was bright outside the passage, was but faded within. After they had picked their way for over an hour they finally emerged into the bright light once again, finding themselves on a broad platform of rock that jutted out into what seemed like thin air. Rustem cast about for a way down while Gedge and Bracy stared out over the vista that had been revealed to their sight. Before them stretched a thickly forested view, sloping down to green meadows that shone verdant in the sharp morning light. A river flowed towards the cliff, vanishing from their sight in the lush vegetation. Flocks of birds twittered and sang in the trees, and in the distance, animals were grazing by what seemed to be a pleasant small lake.
'We can get down over there,' said Rustem, pointing back at where he had been going up and down. 'It is scree, but the horses will manage it if we are careful. And it is not too far before we reach solid ground and there is a good path.'
'Well, let's be off,' said Bracy, looking upward. 'I don't see any of those vile creatures. We must find where they nest, but for now, let's get down from here.'
With extreme care, following Rustem's lead, they encouraged the horses down the slope, reaching with some relief the solid ground once more. After leading the horses some further distance they mounted and rode in comfort. The unfortunate creatures pricked up their gait and pricked their ears forward at the sight of the grasslands, longing, as it seemed, to reach such an abundance of food.
'This seems a good and rich land,' said Bracy when they had reached the valley floor. 'No doubt we shall come across the people who live here sooner or later. I am sure they will not begrudge our poor horses their grazing, especially when we rid them of the dragons.'
Gedge smiled, preparing to answer, and then their horses breasted the slight rise they had been climbing, and he fell silent in blank astonishment. Swallowing hard he said, 'Beggin yer pardon, but I don't think as it's jest the dragons we should be thinkin' about, sir.'
Bracy and Rustem gasped beside him, looking out at the grassy expanse. The lake, which had seemed small to them from the top of the cliff was shown to be far larger than they had thought. The reason for their confusion was before them. What they had taken to be sheep or deer grazing by a small lake were not. The herd of creatures moved slowly and in a stately fashion, leisurely eating the grass, or tearing the leaves from the tops of young trees. They were thirty feet and more long, with immense hind quarters and strange thick tails, while their massive heads seemed to bear a cross between a beak and lips. Their skin was a mottled grey-green, with broad stripes of white and black across their huge flanks. As the three young men watched, one rose up on its hind legs and shoved and shoved at a tree until it crashed down, allowing the animal easy access to the entirety of its leaves. Further back, other huge shapes of different form could be seen moving slowly. All the time the birds sang, as if this were a normal sight.
The three of them suddenly felt very small and aware of their insignificance as they gazed around and saw that every creature bar them was built on a gigantic scale. Rustem was muttering the names of his gods and heroes under his breath. Gedge felt he had lost the power of speech entirely. Bracy looked around wildly, seemingly unable to comprehend what was before his sight.
'In the name of God,' he breathed, 'what are these things and what is this place? Where has our path led us?'