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, @ 2004-01-13 18:14:00
Current mood: so manly it hurts
The next morning dawned to find the young men exhausted and feeling a nervousness they all did their best to conceal from each other. They had snatched only the briefest of slumbers, and had started awake at every noise. The prospect of venturing out once more into the valley now that they knew it held a foe more dreadful than the dragons was daunting indeed, although not one of them would admit such misgivings to his fellows. Gedge went about the tasks he had set himself as slowly as he could, seeing to the horses, and preparing food for himself and the others to break their fast. This method of starting the day seemed to appeal also to Bracy and Rustem, who ate slowly and showed no great hurry to leave the shelter of their cave. Gedge finally took down a little of the barrier they had constructed across the mouth of their cave and peered out. A fine white mist drifted across his field of vision, but he could easily see that the sun would burn it off before the morning was very much further progressed. The valley seemed quiet, the wild shriek of the birds serving only to accentuate the silence, as it seemed. Of the creatures that inhabited the valley he could see no sign.
'If we jest started out now, we could be back at that crack in the cliff by mid-morning,' he thought, and immediately his cheerful nature reasserted itself as he imagined the three of them leaving at last and journeying back to Rustem's people. He thought about the provisions that they carried with them, and felt sure that they would find enough game to easily supplement their stores as they travelled back. He turned to share this thought with the others.
'Sir, mebbe we should get going,' he said eagerly, 'we can get a full day's travel in, make a good start on our journey home.'
Bracy looked up from the last mouthfuls of his breakfast in surprise. 'Leave, Gedge?' he said, 'but we still have work to do here. We cannot go until the dragons are all dead.'
'But, sir! That -- that thing!' cried poor Gedge, alarmed at the look in Bracy's eye. 'It ain't safe here, yer can see that, can't yer, sir?'
'It is indeed a hazard of which we were unaware,' said Bracy, 'but we have a good camp here, and as long as we take sensible precautions I see no reason to stop before we have accomplished what we set out to do.' As he spoke the last traces of the nervousness with which they had all suffered during the night seemed to melt away from him.
'Sir!' wailed Gedge, 'yer can't be serious! Rustem! Rustem, tell 'im we have to go!'
'Bracy is right,' said Rustem quickly, seeming to push away any fear he himself may have felt, 'we shall be able to tell the approach of the monster from the actions of the other creatures and the noises of the birds. And we hardly present a good meal for it when it has the other creatures as its prey.'
'No!' cried Gedge, 'we have ter go!'
'Gedge,' said Bracy sternly in English, 'I am surprised at such an outburst from you. You are setting a very poor example for this lad. Take control of yourself, sir.'
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, sir,' said Gedge in a weary voice. 'I jest keep rememberin' it.'
'Don't worry,' said Bracy, coming over and laying a hand upon the young sergeant's shoulder. 'We'll finish off the dragons and then we'll go. Everything will be quite all right, you'll see.' He patted Gedge's arm and seemed amused. 'You worry so much, Gedge,' he said quietly and fondly.
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, 'I can't seem to help it since we came out here.'
'You must leave the worrying to me, I shall not let you come to harm,' smiled Bracy. 'We really must get your hair cut,' he murmured, smoothing a wisp of it away from Gedge's forehead.
'Do we spend all the day here?' said Rustem loudly. 'Let us go and hunt the dragons.' He looked at them in a queerly angry manner, and Gedge reproved himself for excluding his friend by speaking English. He went over and picked up his rifle, deciding that if he could not dissuade the others from their plan he could at least keep watch while they shot. He clapped Rustem on the shoulder and drew a reluctant smile from his young friend.
'All right, pard'ner,' he said, 'let's go and hunt some dragons.'
* * *
There was no sign of danger as they rode out to the far side of the valley once more. The great creatures they had seen at first by the lakeside were not in their usual place, but the birds still sang, and small animals rustled in the grass quite unconcerned. The thick woods were quiet and unthreatening. Out in the lake they saw the enormous long-necked creature bend its head into the waters and emerge with a vast mouthful of weeds that it chewed slowly and with apparent great thought. Their horses also seemed calm and peaceful and bore them with no complaints, not any great nervousness. After a time, therefore, Gedge no longer looked around at every tiniest sound, and began to feel that Bracy was right, and that a beast accustomed to sustaining itself upon the huge beasts they had first seen would consider people to be beneath its interest.
When they reached the area above which the dragons of this part of the valley nested they once again drove stakes into the ground and tethered their horses securely before making the arduous ascent. The dragons watched them with suspicion, and moved back and forth, nervously making their strange clicking noises. It was not until the three young men had gained the levels upon which the creatures sat, huge and ungainly, that they began to shuffle to the precipitous edges of their lairs and throw themselves out into the air, to drift and flap their way away from the danger they now perceived. Several more of the beasts were brought down by rifle fire while Rustem, whose old-fashioned gun did not have the range of the Englishmen's modern weapons, contented himself by hunting amongst their nests, and flinging down any of their young – even more horrid in appearance than the adults – to their deaths below.
Resting finally, the three of them sat upon a ledge, their legs dangling over the valley floor. Pulling some of their store of dried meat and fruit from his belt pouch, Gedge chewed peacefully and let his eyes wander out over the verdant scene. 'I'd like a closer look at them frilly-necked rhinos,' he thought and let himself sink into a dream of seeing all the strange creatures of the valley in the Zoological Gardens, with children laughing and pointing at the wonders before them.
'What are you thinking, Gedge?' asked Rustem, smiling at him.
'How we could get one of the creatures – the peaceful ones, mind – back with us,' grinned Gedge.
'We could ride it, all three of us, and everyone would stare at us in astonishment,' laughed Rustem.
'We should need a rather large ship to take it back to England,' mused Bracy, 'and then you would be famous, Gedge. We would exhibit it to all the learned men, and teach them a thing or two – and we should have to have the species named after you.'
Gedge coloured at his teasing tone, and beamed cheerfully at him, feeling suddenly that any amount of hardship and danger was worthwhile, as long as his officer would smile in such a manner. 'Oh, if I could keep you as gay all the time,' he thought, and lacking any other immediate gift to make, offered Bracy the largest and sweetest piece of his dried fruit that he had been saving for the end of his meal.
Once they had finished their food, meagre though their meal had been for the needs of vital young men, they looked about them for more of the dragons and spied some at last even further up the cliff. Rustem took the lead, as the most experienced climber and was soon scaling the rocks with the agility of one long accustomed to such exercise. Once he had gained a secure position he let down his rope once more, and Bracy and Gedge climbed up, substituting for speed and grace in the climb their eagerness to reach the new level.
Having gained their new and higher vantage point the three young men caught their breath while looking out over the whole expanse of the valley. Bracy sighed deeply and said with great feeling, 'This is surely how Eden looked, before the Fall.' Then, turning to the task in hand he loaded his rifle and made his careful way along to rid the world of more of the dragons. The beasts at this point seemed more confident that no harm could reach them, or perhaps had paid no heed to their fellows' fate, and so it was with great success behind them that Bracy, Gedge and Rustem finally considered their descent back to the valley floor. Once more Rustem led the way, showing the others most carefully where they should put their hands. As they clambered down the cliff face in the beginnings of twilight Gedge thought of how very hungry he was and how pleasant it would be to regain their cave and sit by a fire while eating their dinner. The lunch he had eaten was far distant in his memory and he reflected that wiping out the dragons was work that gave a man a good, healthy appetite. He looked at Bracy quizzically, for the young officer had become more silent and seemingly morose as the afternoon progressed.
'Where will we hunt the beast tomorrow?' asked Rustem as they made their weary way back toward the horses. 'There are more of them to be killed.'
'I have been thinking on that,' said Bracy seriously. 'It seems to me that we cannot be sure that we have wiped them out utterly; some now flee our approach, while we cannot forget that we saw some perched even upon the outside of the valley walls. I do not know if we shall be able to finish them completely, lad. It may be that we shall have to be content with having dealt them a blow from which they shall but slowly recover. We have killed so many that surely there will be more than enough food here for those that remain. I think it will be many years before they leave to terrorise people again.' He looked sadly upon Gedge, saying, 'You are right, Gedge, we should leave. I thought this morning that it would be a simple task to finish the brutes, but I see that it is not. It is my responsibility to see that you and Rustem return safely, and so we will go. I cannot allow you to risk being caught in the mountains alone and in winter.'
'We must destroy them!' cried Rustem. 'We swore!' All at once tears were running down his young face as he cried out, 'I want them all dead! They are evil, murdering beasts!'
'Lad, lad,' said Bracy, reaching out a hand, but Rustem shook him off angrily and turned away.
'Here now, pard'ner,' said Gedge quietly, 'Mr Bracy's right. We've done enough.' So saying, he put his arms about Rustem and let the boy gain control of himself in great gasping sobs. Although he felt sorry for the lad's disappointment his heart leaped within him to think that his officer was coming to his senses at last. He looked over at Bracy and was surprised to see tears in his eyes. 'Sir?' he asked.
'Ah, I know well how the poor boy feels,' said Bracy in English. 'I feel that I am breaking my word, Gedge. But I have a previous oath to consider - I must see you safe.'
'Now, sir,' said Gedge, 'don't you go giving me any special treatment.'
Bracy came up to him and laid a gentle hand on Rustem's back, an action which only made the boy weep once again and cling tighter to Gedge. 'Gedge,' said Bracy, 'I have only you under me, so any treatment I give you cannot be special. Come now, do not deny me my duty of care for a man in my command. Rustem,' he continued, 'Rustem, lad. Come on, let us get back to our camp. You will feel better once you have eaten.'
Rustem sighed, but let himself be dislodged from Gedge's embrace and led back toward the horses. As they neared the beasts the horses suddenly threw up their heads, whickering in alarm. Gedge noted how silent the valley seemed to have fallen, the evening cries of the birds stilled. With crawling skin he looked around him and drew his breath in sharply.
The hideous creature they had seen upon the previous evening stalked behind them, its round yellow eyes fixed firmly upon them and its little useless forelimbs grasping at the air before it. It opened its huge maw, its fangs glinting wetly, and Gedge felt his knees weaken and his strength leave him. Beside him he heard Bracy gasp and Rustem murmur a prayer.
'Quiet now,' Bracy said, standing still. 'Quiet. We are only a mouthful to it. It will prefer the horses and then we may make our escape.'
As he spoke, one of their horses screamed in fear and the monster's head whipped round to fix upon the new source of sound.
'Without them horses we'll die!' hissed Gedge, and he shakily brought his rifle round. 'We've got to get rid of it, sir.' To his fright he found he could not stop his hands shaking long enough to load his weapon.
'It's useless,' muttered Bracy. 'We'd need an elephant gun, or a cannon. Keep quiet, it's our only hope.'
'Gedge is right,' whispered Rustem, 'without the horses we would all die.' He looked full into Gedge's face and touched his cheek softly. 'Think kindly of me,' he said, and whirled about and rushed straight for the panicking horses. His knife flashed silver in the dimming light as he slashed the reins that had been pegged securely into the ground, and he flung himself across his horse's back, then forced it across the monster's line of vision, screaming his war cry as he did so. The vile creature stood as if amazed for a moment, then spun around with a deadly speed and charged in Rustem's wake, its vast clawed feet gouging the earth.
'No! Rustem!' yelled Gedge, taking some useless steps after him.
Rustem lay flat across the horse's neck, urging it to its greatest speed, and heading directly for one of the dense woods. In such an environment, Gedge saw, a beast of the pursuing monster's size might have difficulty penetrating. He stood frozen, watching as the beast gained upon Rustem, step by inexorable step. Then Rustem and his steed vanished from view into the darkness of the trees, the monster not more than a few yards behind. There was a terrible scream, and then silence.
Gedge found himself running forward, screaming imprecations and sobbing wildly. He had not gone more than ten feet before he felt himself seized and dragged away, hearing Bracy's voice in his ear. Overcome by horror and grief he fought with great ferocity to free himself and found himself at the last being bodily lifted and flung onto his horse's back. Then Bracy was also mounted and had taken the reins of both horses, and galloped them off, away from the scene of horror.
* * *
Bracy did not stop until they had reached the security of their cave, urging the horses up the steep slope at almost their full speed. Only when they were safely inside did he feel that he could breathe once more, and pulled the weeping Gedge down from his horse. At once he had to seize Gedge's arm to stop him from running back outside.
'Stop it!' he cried, 'it is not safe!'
'We have to go back!' shouted Gedge, 'we have to save him!'
'There's nothing we can do, man, nothing!' cried Bracy, full of sick horror at the thought of Rustem's fate. He struggled with Gedge, who seemed determined to throw his life away. Then Gedge's shoulders sagged and all the fight went out of him, and he began simply to cry loudly.
'He didn't oughter have done that,' gasped Gedge through his tears, 'Oh sir, why'd he go and do that?'
'To save us,' said Bracy sadly, and clasped the young sergeant to his bosom. 'Poor lad, poor brave lad.'
Gedge wept on and on, clinging to Bracy with all his strength, seeing again Rustem's face and the wild desperate ride the boy had made. It seemed to him that he was to blame entirely, that he had not been stern enough in his discouragement of Rustem from coming with them, that he had not immediately insisted that the boy return home once he had joined them upon their journey. Rustem would not have followed, and would not now be dead, if it had not been for the friendship he had felt, Gedge was sure. At that moment he felt as if he were a murderer who had sent the boy to his doom.
'Come now,' said Bracy very gently through tears of his own. 'I know you loved him well. And he has preserved both our lives because of his love for you, but Gedge,' he continued sadly, stroking Gedge's hair, 'we must bear this like men.'
'I can't, sir, oh I jest can't,' cried Gedge, looking up at Bracy, his face wet with tears and his eyes red with weeping. 'It hurts too much.'
Looking at him, Bracy found himself greatly moved, and the horrible sensation of fear he had felt on seeing the monster swept over him as he closed his eyes, seeing with his mind's eye Gedge make that fatal dash instead of Rustem. The most exquisite agony of terror came into his heart that Gedge might, in the extremity of his grief, seek to join his young friend in death. All at once he found himself gasping for breath, tears streaming openly down his face, and he clasped Gedge tighter to him.
'Oh, Gedge,' he wept, 'I am so very sorry he is gone. But I am so very glad you are here; I could not go on without you, my dearest friend. You are in all ways dear to me, don't ever leave me.' So saying he lowered his lips to Gedge's mouth and kissed him softly.
Gedge drew back, as much as he could, and looked at him, a slight frown upon his brow as if he had been taken by surprise. Bracy bit his lip in confusion, unsure of himself. Then Gedge grasped him with a wiry, firm strength and pulled him close for another kiss. They wrapped their arms about each other as hard as they could, the overpowering sweetness of their continued existence taking them in its grip. As they fell upon their blankets Bracy marvelled how bright Gedge's eyes were in the last of the dying sunlight that crept into the cave.
Neither inside the cave nor out did the embers of the day cast much illumination. As the sun went down fully, its light extinguished suddenly as if it had been swallowed down completely, the soft darkness was pierced by the bright sharp light of the stars, showing forth at last the full glories of the heavens. The peaceful creatures of the valley made their way into their unknowable animal dreams, their sleep untroubled even by the last few wild cries as it were of a bird starting up troubled from its place of rest. The valley, it seemed, had seen enough of death for the day and now had place only for life and deep, peaceful sleep.
* * *
Bracy made himself open his eyes against the insistent urge to drift into sleep, holding Gedge with the utmost care. The lad lay limply against him, spent by the exertions of the day and sighing deeply. 'Ah,' thought Bracy, 'I am a disgrace. At every turn I have let poor Gedge down. He is a fine soldier and a loyal man, and I have turned all that is good in him to my own advantage.' He felt very low, as he had when he had been by himself after being awarded the Victoria Cross. Once the intense excitement of the moment had passed, then too had he felt as if he had been gifted with something of which he was by no means worthy. 'I am but a fraud,' he thought, finding himself unable to restrain himself from stroking Gedge's hair, 'I am not a good officer.' With an effort he took his arms from around the young sergeant.
'Gedge,' he murmured, trying to find the words to properly express his regret at his actions, 'I am very sorry, Gedge.'
'Yes,' came the faint reply, 'd'you think he suffered much?'
'I meant I am sorry about this, Gedge,' said Bracy. The lad turned about, propping himself up and looking into Bracy's face as best he could in the dimness of the cave, his eyes full of concern. He touched a hand softly to Bracy's cheek.
'Sir?' whispered Gedge, 'what is it?'
Bracy felt it only right that he should feel such shame at his conduct. He was Gedge's officer, and had put the lad in the most difficult of positions.
'I should not have acted so,' he said, his voice steady only because of his wish that Gedge understand him clearly. 'I have taken the most awful advantage –'
His voice was stilled as Gedge sat up a little, took his face in his hands and kissed him long and soundly. Gedge then lifted his head and regarded Bracy seriously, saying, 'You haven't done nothing I haven't welcomed. Only when you keep trying to get me to go away from you, sir, and you ain't going to do that now, are you?' He settled down by Bracy's side again, resting his head on Bracy's breast. 'Don't never send me away, sir,' he murmured.
Bracy pulled the blankets close around them. 'We will get cold,' he said, his voice shaking with emotion. He put his arms tight round Gedge and felt the lad relax into his embrace. 'I won't ever send you away,' he whispered, and shut his eyes against the darkness.