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, @ 2003-12-20 22:09:00
When last we left those stalwart examples of English manhood, Bracy and Gedge, not to mention their charming Macedonian-descended friend, Rustem, they were staring in understandable surprise at a herd of large and peculiar creatures. And now, their adventures continue . . .
For what seemed to them like an eternity the young men sat still on their horses, watching the great creatures eating and moving about aimlessly. Gedge felt his heart race within his breast, and knew from looking upon his fellows that his face must be as bloodless and white as theirs.
'Rustem,' he croaked, 'Rustem, what are they?'
'I know not,' breathed the lad, never once taking his eyes from the sight before them.
The beasts wandered to and fro, emitting a series of low calls. Further down the lake Gedge could see an even larger animal standing in the water, only the top half of its body and its enormously long neck visible. The air was clean and quiet apart from the low noises of the beasts and the wild calls of the birds. Gedge suddenly knew that they would find no humans living in the valley.
'Sir,' he said to Bracy, 'sir, I don't think as there are any people here.'
'I think you must be right, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'These creatures show no signs of dread at our presence. They do not know what humans are.'
'Maybe they're jest not scared of us, being so big,' thought Gedge, but did not say anything aloud. Beside him Rustem began to laugh softly and Gedge looked at him in some alarm, fearing the sight of the beasts had proved too much for his young friend. He was pleased to see nothing other than good humoured wonder on Rustem's face.
'How comical they look,' said Rustem. 'They seem to look mild and bewildered.'
Gedge smiled; the creatures did indeed wear expressions of befuddlement, and seemed wholly intent on satisfying their hunger. He turned to Bracy, who still looked awestruck. 'Sir,' he said, 'what should we do?'
'Let us make our way around the lake,' said Bracy, 'we should see what other surprises are in store for us.' So saying he encouraged his horse forward, skirting the herd of gargantuan creatures at a wide distance. The horses looked at the beasts with deep misgiving but allowed themselves to be urged along. They rode in silent wonder, noting that the plants also were strange and wonderful, with trees like giant ferns. The astonishing placidity of the great creatures began to reassure them of their safety. Gedge began to feel quite warm in his heavy winter clothing and opened his coat. Rustem followed his lead with relief.
'Won't you open yer coat, sir?' asked Gedge, noting that the colour was high in Bracy's cheeks.
'It is autumn, for all that the air is mild,' said Bracy, opening his coat, 'why is it so warm here, I wonder?'
'It was much cooler at the spot where we entered the valley,' said Rustem. 'And see! Steam is rising from the lake!'
Bracy turned his mount aside to go down to the shore. A lone specimen of the great creatures regarded him steadily, but did nothing. He carefully dismounted, while Gedge readied his rifle. He was unsure that he could do more than startle the great beast should it decide to charge at Bracy, but he resolved that he should at least be ready. At the shore Bracy bent and put his hand in the water. 'It is quite warm,' he called. To Gedge's alarm he removed his coat, pulled off his boots and removed his trousers, wading out into the water wearing only his tunic. 'Even further from the shore the water is still as warm,' he said, shielding his eyes with one hand as he surveyed the scene. 'I suspect the molten rock within the earth must run close to the surface in this place.' He waded out again, much to Gedge's relief, and dressed quickly. 'The ground too seems warm,' he said. 'The heat of the molten rock and the sheltered nature of this valley seem to preserve late summer here.'
'Winter is coming,' said Rustem, pointing to a tree that was losing its leaves. 'It may be delayed some weeks here, but it is coming.'
'I think as we should move back, sir,' said Gedge as the lone creature took a few steps forward to see them more clearly. 'That thing's taking an interest in us.'
'Don't worry, my lad,' smiled Bracy fondly. 'They eat leaves as we have seen. It is no danger to us.'
'Unless it tries to stand on us,' thought Gedge, not voicing such a thought before the others for fear of being mocked. He was very glad to ride off again.
Before long Bracy was eagerly scanning the sky and looking at the vast cliff that had at first blocked their entrance. Gedge was not pleased to see the look in his eyes when one of the dragons flew overhead. 'Oh,' he thought, 'now he will drive us up the cliff side and won't care for the danger. Why did I let him come here where he'll only do hisself harm?'
'We must discover their lair,' murmured Bracy. 'We shall wipe them out and the world will be free of their foulness.'
Rustem smiled brightly at him and began to sing a song of war and glory. Gedge also smiled, as best he could, and wished he could persuade them both away to safety. As they rode around the lake they found themselves skirting a thick forest composed of trees both familiar and strange. The trees known to them from other valleys were beginning to lose their leaves, but the strange fern-like plants still stood tall and green. From within the gloomy forest came unfamiliar cries that made their horses shy nervously. Bracy led them around the trees and towards the far wall of the valley, across a pleasant meadow. His heart appeared quite light and gay, and he pointed away to their right where more huge beasts could be seen, these ones resembling in Gedge's estimation the rhinoceros he had seen in the Zoological Gardens. 'Although that old rhino didn't have a big frill 'round its neck,' he thought, amused at the vision of the great lumbering beasts making themselves pretty for an outing in the park.
'This is all most wonderful,' cried Bracy gaily. 'These creatures are unknown to modern science, at least in their living forms. I suspect that learned men have seen only bones of such animals before. Have you seen the great bones in the British Museum, Gedge?'
'No, sir,' said Gedge, whose daylight hours had always been filled with paid employment when that great institution had been open. 'Did someone hunt them, sir?'
'No, lad,' smiled Bracy. 'The bones were dug up, the creatures were long since dead. Yet if these are the same class of beasts how have the survived so long when all their fellows have perished?' He frowned as they journeyed along and then brightened. 'Why it is obvious, now that I think on it,' he exclaimed. 'These mountains are so high, and the great wall about this valley serves as a natural barrier. The beasts' ancestors must have sheltered here in the time of the Flood and so lived when so many others drowned.' He was greatly cheered by this reasoning, Gedge saw happily.
'Look! Look!' cried Rustem. 'Up on that ledge there are dragons, and they have nests!'
A horrid light came into Bracy's face as he looked upward and Gedge sighed that the madness had seized his officer once again. He looked up and saw the dragons high above them.
'Sir,' he said loudly, 'we must find somewhere to safely leave the horses. They will be frightened of the dragons and might run off.'
'Yes, yes,' said Bracy, clearly not listening. 'How shall we get up there, Gedge?'
'We'll find a way, sir,' said Gedge, 'after we find somewhere to leave the horses.'
'Yes,' said Bracy, turning such a brilliant smile his way that Gedge felt his heart turn over. 'You are right, Gedge. I'm glad you are here to be sensible.'
Gedge smiled at him and looked around. 'Let's scout along the cliff wall, sir,' he said. 'P'raps we can find shelter. C'mon, Rustem, leave off looking at the dragons and let's find a good place for a camp.'
With surprisingly little effort he engaged them in searching with him along the base of the cliff, finding it riddled with hollows and little caves. Nothing appealed to him, however. Some hollows were too shallow, and the first cave he ventured into was filled with bats that flew out in a great shrieking cloud. Gedge thought he might shriek as well, it was so unexpected, but he clamped down on the urge, telling himself that he was no girl to be afraid of a few bats. He was quite sure the others were laughing at him, and kept up the search with fierce blushes. One cave seemed perfect, with a fine dry sandy floor and absolutely no sign of bats. There was even a wide shelf of rock on which they could sleep out of the draft. Gedge was about to proclaim it perfect when he saw that what he had taken for an uneven rock on the floor was instead something covered with sand. He casually brushed the sand away and froze at the sight of the revealed bones lying tumbled and broken.
'Sir! Rustem!' he cried. 'Look!'
They crowded up behind him and exclaimed in disgust.
'Hah!' ejaculated Rustem, 'the dragons have been here!'
'Filthy beasts!' cried Bracy.
'Let's find another cave,' said Gedge, leading them out again.
He began looking at openings higher up the cliff, and was attracted at last to a dark gap further along. A steep slope led up towards it, and there was a tree growing by the opening, blocking it off somewhat. He scrambled up the slope and rested at the tree, looking a little fearfully at the dark crack. 'Well, it's wide enough for a horse,' he thought. 'And we could get some dead wood and build up a barrier against the dragons. Don't be such a coward, Bill! Have a look inside!' Before he could change his mind he plunged into the opening. Inside it widened out almost immediately, and he could see that it was dry and empty. 'Big enough for all of us and the horses besides,' he thought approvingly. 'And no dragon'd get in here after we'd blocked it up after us. No bats neither.' He leaned out and waved down at the others. 'C'n yer get the horses up?' he cried.
'If they came down the scree they can get up there,' laughed Rustem, leaping from his horse. 'I will be with you in a moment.' So saying he began to lead his horse up towards the tree, followed by Bracy. The horses complained a little but were soon scrambling up the last few steps and heaving themselves into the mouth of the cave.
'What d'yer think, pard'ner?' asked Gedge. 'They'll be safe here, won't they?'
'A good spot, Gedge,' said Rustem happily. 'Now we can go after the dragons.'
'Yes, indeed,' said Bracy. 'Well done, Gedge.'
He squeezed Gedge's shoulder briefly and sprang out of the cave once more, his rifle in his hand. Gedge sighed and saw to the horses, unsaddling them and leaving them with a final pat on their rumps. He found the others waiting impatiently for him at the bottom of the slope.
'We should block the cave entrance first,' he said, seeing their displeasure but ignoring it as best he was able.
'Very well,' said Bracy. 'You are right, of course. But let us work quickly.'
The three of them bent quickly to their task, collecting branches and grasses for the horses to eat while they were gone. They then first blocked the entrance and then made it seem as if it were not there by hanging plants across the barrier. Finally Bracy and Rustem could be constrained no longer and they rushed off looking for a way to climb up to the dragons' nests. Slinging his gun across his back Rustem began to climb the cliff in an agile manner. When he had reached a narrow ledge he stopped and let down a rope for the others who climbed up to join him. In this fashion they climbed higher and higher until they could clearly hear the clicking noises of the dragons who regarded them with curiosity.
Even when they gained the very ledge on which the dragons sat, the beasts did not move but simply looked at the young men as if they were a puzzling and yet not worrisome sight. Bracy looked at them with hatred and revulsion, and loaded his rifle with shaking hands.
'Now, gentlemen,' he said, 'let us begin. These creatures will no doubt take fright, but we can easily take at least two each before they understand what we are about.'
All three of them sighted at a target, and on Bracy's command, fired as one. Three dragons fell dead where they sat. Reloading as fast as they could, Bracy and Gedge killed another two before the remaining beasts leaped into the air in alarm, and Rustem killed his second before it had gone more than six feet from the ledge. By the time the dragons were quite out of range eight of them lay dead or dying. A savage smile crossed Bracy's handsome features at the sight, and he picked his way along the ledge, kicking the carcasses off into space. Rustem began to destroy the nests, laughing his carefree laugh as he did so. Finding two young dragons in a nest, he braved their snapping jaws to pick them up one at a time by the neck and dash them against the wall. Gedge shuddered at the ferocity Rustem and Bracy displayed, and felt he was betraying them somehow by not feeling the same wild hatred for the creatures. He was very glad when they began to climb carefully back down the cliff and finally reached the ground once more.
'It took a long time to get up there,' he said once they were all safely down, 'and longer to come down. Don't you think, sir, we should leave it for today? We'd never climb up and down that far again before dark.'
'Very well, Gedge,' laughed Bracy. 'How you worry! But I am sure we will have more luck tomorrow when we are fully rested.'
They made their way back to the cave, and unblocked the entrance. Rustem teased Gedge as they did so, but he thought that he did not care as long as he got them inside and away from dragon hunting for even a little while. He built the entrance up again behind them, then set about preparing their food. Soon the three young men were sleepily looking into their fire, their heads nodding. Gedge stirred himself to check that the horses were all right and finally gratefully lay down to sleep.
'Do not think you are unappreciated, Gedge,' Bracy whispered. 'I know you are full of cares for the lad and for me. But you know we have to do this, don't you?'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge. 'And I'll help you in any way I can.'
'Good lad,' murmured Bracy, and put an arm across Gedge and was immediately asleep.
* * *
The next morning they were up before dawn, eating the porridge Gedge had prepared as soon as it was cool enough to eat. Then, after collecting more grasses at Gedge's insistence and taking the horses out to water at the lake and finally shutting them up in the cave again, they went back to the spot where the dragons had been. The climb up to the ledge seemed much shorter this time, but their hunt was not as successful. They had but gained the ledge when most of the dragons fled, and they only killed another four before all of the beasts had scattered.
'We should go to another spot and find some of the beasts who are not acquainted with us,' said Bracy. 'This cannot be the only spot where they nest.'
'Let us go down, and get the horses,' said Rustem. 'We should ride to the other side of the valley and find new ones.'
They climbed down once again and made their way back to their cave. The horses seemed most happy to see them, and eagerly slid down to the fresh green meadow. Having mounted the horses the little party made its way along the cliff wall, looking upward to see if the dragons had nests at any spot. Twice they stopped and drove pegs into the ground to hitch the horses securely, and then climbed up and shot beasts who had not the sense to flee their presence. The third time the dragons were more wary and hopped away, flying a short distance and landing on another ledge a little further down. The creatures seemed most disagreeably astonished that the young men proved a grave danger to them even without being on the same ledge.
'It's a good job those dragons aren't too bright,' said Gedge as they slithered down to the level ground once again. 'I don't think as we'll have it so easy from now on.'
'Most likely,' said Bracy. 'We shall have to prove more cunning than they. Well, we have made a very good start. We have killed upward of twenty of the damnable things.'
'And six of their young,' said Rustem. 'Let them know that we will avenge the blood of our children with that of theirs.'
'Sir,' said Gedge after what he felt to be an awkward pause. 'S'pose they get used to hiding from us? We can't stay here forever.'
Bracy frowned at him as if he were gravely disappointed. 'We must do as we said, Gedge,' he said as if to a child.
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge at once. He felt deeply ashamed to have Bracy look so sternly at him, and wished he had said nothing. Rustem stroked his arm consolingly, but he felt no better.
'Let us get back to our camp,' said Bracy. 'It is getting late – see how long the shadows have become.'
They went slowly along, their horses dawdling. Rustem suddenly frowned and stopped his horse, holding up his hand.
'Hush,' he said quietly. 'Do you hear how quiet it is? The birds have fallen silent.'
'But ain't they used to the dragons here?' asked Gedge.
At that very moment they saw a flicker of movement off to their left, and the horses snickered in alarm. As they watched they made out a shape moving stealthily through the trees, towards the lake and the herd of great creatures which were slaking their thirst eagerly. All at once the flicker of movement resolved itself into a great and terrible creature, standing on two legs, with small and useless forelimbs held before it. It rushed out at great speed, and one of the herd that had been standing by itself surveying the valley rose up on its hind legs and trumpeted a loud alarum. With a speed that belied their bulk the whole herd wheeled about and fled, the hideous monster in close pursuit. It leaped upon the unfortunate beast that was hindermost and opened its ferocious maw to reveal dagger like fangs. It ripped a great mouthful of flesh from its living victim, pinning that unfortunate creature down with one of its heavy, clawed hind feet. The piteous cries soon stopped and all that could be heard was the snarls of the monster as it devoured its prey.
'Ah!' ejaculated Bracy, 'the brute!'
'We have to go, sir!' cried Gedge in as loud a whisper as he dared, terrified lest Bracy should declare a crusade against this dreadful beast as well as the dragons.
'Slowly, slowly,' said Rustem in horror. 'Do not make it look up at us.'
They moved off as slowly as they could persuade the horses, looking over their shoulders all the while. At last they judged it far enough to be safe, and urged their horses to speed. Once they had reached the cave they rushed inside and built up the entrance as fast as they could. Once they had used all the wood they had collected for that purpose the three of them searched the cave for any stones they could find and built up the beginnings of another line of defence.
'I don't think it could get through the entrance even without the barrier,' said Bracy. He shook his head. 'But I am glad we have the barrier as well!' he continued.
'What was it?' whispered Rustem.
'I don't know, lad,' said Bracy. He laughed shakily. 'The only thing I can say is we know it does not eat leaves!'
They were suddenly all overcome with wild hilarity and laughed until they could laugh no more. The horses stared at them as if they had gone mad and did not look away until their laughter had run down to nothing. Finally they made a small fire, being afraid that anything larger might attract unwelcome attention, and ate what little their stomachs could tolerate. It was a very long time indeed before they could close their eyes in sleep.