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A Walk in the Karakorum
Fandom: Fix Bay'nets!
Rating: G
Pairing: Bracy/Gedge
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.

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Daegaer wrote, @ 2004-02-29 22:57:00
Current mood: quietly manly

Chapter Eighteen

As the light crept into the cave Rustem drew a great shuddering breath and lay silent and still. Gedge's eyes flew open, and with a desolate cry he flung himself forward. Bracy shook himself and looked in exhausted misery at the scene.

'I am sorry, Gedge!' he cried. 'I did not mean to sleep!' He leaned forward, trying to think of some comfort he could give the young sergeant who lay sobbing on Rustem's body. He put a hand on Gedge's shoulder, drawing him back gently. 'Gedge,' he said softly, 'I am truly sorry.' Gedge looked at him, scrubbing at his eyes and smiling shakily.

'Oh, sir!' he said, 'he ain't dead! The fever's broke! I thought he was dead, but he's asleep.'

Bracy looked at him in wonderment, and put a hand on Rustem's pulse, finding it slow and steady. He smiled joyfully at Gedge and pulled him into a swift embrace. 'I am so glad,' he said, 'so very glad!' Awkwardly he took Gedge's arms from about his neck, smiling at the lad's happy face. 'Now, Gedge,' he continued, 'you have hardly slept this night, and you must rest. Lie down, I will watch over our friend.'

'Let me clean him up first, sir,' said Gedge, 'like I said, I know how to be a nurse, and it's quick when you know how.' He quickly washed the lad and made him more comfortable, sitting at last by him and stroking his face kindly. 'You gave Mr Bracy and me quite a fright, pard'ner,' he said fondly. 'You get better now.' Turning to Bracy he said, 'I might lie down for a minute, sir, if you wouldn't mind.'

'Sleep!' said Bracy, 'you are like a ghost, Gedge, you are so pale. I will make you some food when you awaken.' He pushed Gedge down onto the blankets they had shared and covered him over with their coats. Gedge smiled, and opened his mouth as if to say something, falling suddenly fast asleep before he could utter a single sound.

Gedge awoke to a feeling that he was late for parade and would be in the most dreadful trouble. He opened his eyes to find Bracy leaning over him, and for a moment wondered how sinful he had been that an officer should have been needed to rouse him. As his mind cleared he sat up quickly, hiding a yawn behind one hand. 'Sorry, sir,' he said, 'I didn't mean to leave you by yerself so long.'

'You have only been asleep for a couple of hours, Gedge,' said Bracy, whom Gedge now saw looked tired in the extreme. 'But I am afraid I cannot stay awake much longer. Can you sit with the lad for a little? I have made you some breakfast.' He indicated the pot by the fire and Gedge smiled cheerfully at him.

'Thank you, sir,' he said. 'You have a rest now, it'll do you a world of good.' He emerged from the nest of coats and blankets, and urged Bracy to lie down. The officer did so thankfully, and closed his eyes. Gedge first went to Rustem's side, and saw that the boy was still sleeping peacefully. Then Gedge took up the pot and ate a little of the porridge Bracy had cooked. Looking over his shoulder to ascertain that his officer was indeed asleep, Gedge grimaced and quickly added a little of their dried fruit to it, eating the resulting mixture stoically and hungrily. Having washed the pot he made a little more so that he would have food ready against the moment Rustem awoke. Nor did he have long to wait, for within an hour of his having been roused by Bracy, Rustem's eyelids fluttered open and the boy looked at him in some confusion.

'Rustem!' said Gedge, 'it's all right, yer safe, yer safe.'

The boy looked at him solemnly, his normally bright green eyes now sunken and shadowed from his illness. He wet his lips and Gedge trickled a little water into his mouth.

'I knew you would find me,' whispered Rustem, 'I knew --'

'Shh,' said Gedge, 'don't tire yerself. 'Course I found you. Now, be a good lad and eat a bit for me, build yer strength up.' He lifted Rustem's head a little and spooned tiny amounts of the fresh porridge into the lad's mouth. 'Good, good,' said Gedge quietly. 'Jest a spot more -- no? We'll try again later. Go back to sleep now, you'll feel better for it.'

Rustem clung weakly to his hand, and tears formed in his eyes. 'Don't let it find me,' he whispered.

Gedge grasped his hand firmly, and stroked his cheek with his free hand. 'I won't,' he said. 'It won't come here, I promise.' He leaned over and pressed his lips to the boy's forehead. 'I'll keep watch,' he said. 'You can sleep safe.' Rustem sighed and closed his eyes once more, slipping quickly into a deep slumber. Gedge neatened the blankets around him and sat quietly, watching over both the sleepers.

Bracy woke first, in the early afternoon, and Gedge smilingly told him how Rustem had woken and knew who was with him. 'Thank Heavens,' said Bracy, a relieved smile on his lips. 'Do you think he is badly hurt?'

'I can't really say, sir,' said Gedge. 'There's the bruise up under his hair, and the nasty scratches on his arms and legs. He must have thrown hisself from the horse or been thrown by it, but he's not feverish now, and I think he'll be all right with rest and quiet.'

Bracy sighed and nodded. 'Poor lad,' he said, and turned away. 'I will take the horses out, Gedge, if you do not need me for a little.'

'No, sir. You go on,' said Gedge. 'I'll get you something to eat.' He busied himself while Bracy took down the little barrier they had built over the entrance to the cave and led the horses out to grass. 'Now, Bill,' he told himself cheerfully, 'all's going well. You get Mr Bracy something nice and warm to put inside him and he'll be his old self in no time. Rustem's young, he'll mend quick with a bit of rest. And that sour faced old doctor of his father's can help with whatever rest can't cure.' With such pleasant thoughts in his mind he boiled up some of their dwindling store of dried meat, thinking the broth would be a most suitable nourishment for an invalid, and the meat would cheer Bracy. 'Oh, what I wouldn't give for some nice fresh bread and butter,' he thought idly as he watched the flames dance in their little hearth.

'Gedge!' came a soft call from the entrance of the cave.

He turned and saw Bracy beckoning to him, and rose quickly, rushing over.

'What is it, sir?' asked Gedge, in sudden fear that the monster had come upon them.

Bracy took his arm and drew him out, pointing at the sky. 'Look, Gedge,' he said, 'that is an ominous cloud. I fear the weather is turning.'

'D'you think it'll hold off for a day or two?' asked Gedge, looking nervously back at the cave and thinking of the sleeper within.

'I don't know, Gedge,' said Bracy, his eyes fixed on the lowering sky. 'I fear not, but let us keep our hope up.' He looked grimly at the horses. 'I wonder if there will be food enough for them on the journey back.'

'There has to be,' said Gedge. 'I won't think that there's not.'

'You are always so cheering when I need it, Gedge,' said Bracy, raising a hand as if to touch Gedge's hair. He paused and put his hands behind his back, turning to look out over the valley. 'I think I should begin to cut grass for the horses,' he said. 'We need to take at least some provision for our beasts as well as for ourselves.' He gave Gedge a smile that seemed forced in its gaiety. 'And I at least will be for once usefully occupied instead of watching you do what is needed.'

'Now, sir,' said Gedge. 'Don't say such a thing.' He put a hand on Bracy's arm and pulled him toward the cave. 'You cut some grass, sir, that's a good idea, but you'll have a spot of food first, won't you? I've got some made, come on, it's nice and warm, it'll do you good. The horses will be all right, nothin's come to this spot all the time we've been here.' With only a little resistance he persuaded Bracy to come in to the heat and eat a little of the meat he had prepared. He smiled to see some of the worry leave the young officer's face as he ate. 'You ain't been looking after him right,' he told himself. 'The poor man made you yer breakfast and hasn't fed hisself all day. He won't be so down now.' Bracy thanked him politely and went back outside to busy himself cutting grass, while Gedge turned to the task of feeding Rustem a little of the cooled broth, seeing that the lad had begun to shift uneasily and drift towards waking once more. It was only after some considerable time that he went to the entrance of the cave and saw that Bracy had indeed been hard at work, cutting a huge pile of long grass and laying it at the bottom of the little slope. Gedge threw a glance over his shoulder at Rustem, who had closed his eyes and, if not asleep, was at least resting, and went down to join Bracy. 'Let me help you, sir,' he said and bent willingly to the work. By the time they had to stop, perspiration streaming down their faces, they had so much cut that Gedge began to laugh. 'How'll we get this on the horses, sir?' he asked, his eyes creased up with amusement. 'There won't be any room for us!'

Bracy began to smile, and tried to hide the beginnings of laughter. 'Perhaps I was too industrious, Gedge,' he said, and then jumped forward, 'Hi! You greedy thing! Eat what we haven't spent our energy cutting!' For one of the horses, attracted by the pile of grass had stealthily come up and was contentedly munching on the fruit of their labour. Bracy waved his arms at it, and it walked off with great dignity, as if it did not see why a fuss should be made, but would humour the strange moods of the humans out of courtesy. Bracy turned to Gedge, laughing freely, and Gedge felt his heart swell to see the good humour on his officer's open face. He laughed with him, happily, feeling that all was well. 'Let's tie this into bundles,' said Bracy, moving to do just that. Soon they had the grass tied as neatly as they could, and moved it out of the horses' reach, into the back of the cave where it should remain dry.

'We can sleep on it too,' said Gedge. 'It'll be nice and comfy for Rustem till he's a bit better.'

'A good idea, Gedge,' said Bracy lightly. 'I should have thought of it previously.' He paused, then said, 'If I had not been so selfishly caught up in my own pursuits.' He turned to the cave entrance once more, saying heavily, 'I'll bring in the horses.' No sooner had he gone out, however, than he rushed back, hissing, 'Gedge! Quick!'

His heart in his mouth, Gedge caught up his rifle and ran over, saying 'Where is it?'

'No, no, don't alarm yourself,' said Bracy. 'That is not the foe we must concern ourselves with any longer.' He seized Gedge's arm and pointed upward and then out over the valley. 'It is beginning to snow, Gedge.' For indeed large white flakes were drifting, in no great numbers, slowly downward. 'I should never have led you here, never,' said Bracy bitterly. 'If we are trapped here, we will die, we cannot hope to live out the winter, without adequate supplies and with no means of bringing down one of those giants for its meat.'

Gedge took his hand firmly and pulled Bracy round to face him. 'Sir!' he said loudly, breaking in upon Bracy self-remonstrations, 'it's only a few flakes, sir. And it ain't going to stick. All as it means is that we'll have to leave a bit quicker than I'd like, for Rustem's sake. What's a bit of snow to us, sir? We know about snow, we'll manage, long as we're together.' He put his arms shyly about Bracy and said more quietly, 'We'll manage, you and me. We'll get Rustem home safe. We jest have to look after each other.' For a brief moment he felt Bracy quake in his embrace, and then the officer straightened and looked resolved.

'Yes, Gedge,' he said. 'You are correct. We will leave tomorrow morning, as early as we can, and ride with all speed for Rustem's valley. We may yet get there before the winter storms take hold of the mountains. We will ensure that all is packed tonight, and then we will head out the moment it is light. Let us pray the lad is strong enough to make the journey.'

'Yes, sir,' said Gedge. 'Long as the fever don't come back and we keep him warm, there's hope.'

'Good,' said Bracy. 'Carry on. I will stay here on watch for a while.'

Going into the cave again, Gedge made sure that everything bar the barest minimum of equipment needed for that evening was securely packed away, then sat with Rustem, holding his hand, glad that the boy was in his senses, although still weak. 'We're going to leave tomorrow, pard'ner,' he said. 'I'll wrap you up nice and warm and you'll ride with me. Will you be able to manage that?'

Rustem nodded silently, and then whispered in a croaking voice, 'Don't tell Bracy I cried, before.'

Gedge smiled at him. 'Don't you worry about that,' he said, 'you were jest feelin' a bit sick, that's all. No one would think any the less of you, and I won't say nothing about it.' He tipped a little water into the boy's mouth and laid his head back down.

'I dreamed,' Rustem said, still holding onto Gedge's hand, 'I dreamed you were with me.' He looked confused and worried, saying, 'And my mother also. She said I must get well. Do you think me very childish, Gedge?'

'No,' said Gedge kindly. 'Now, I want you to eat a bit more, and get more sleep. We'll get off early in the morning, and I want you as strong as possible.' He fed the boy the last of the broth and tucked the blankets tight around him again. When Bracy came in once more Gedge had prepared enough food both for the evening and the morning, saying, 'We won't have to spend any time cooking breakfast tomorrow, sir.'

'Good lad,' said Bracy, gladly accepting the food he was given. 'It has stopped snowing, and you were quite correct, it is not sticking. We must be confident that we shall have good weather.' He looked over at Gedge, and placed a hand briefly upon his shoulder. 'I could not manage without you,' he said quickly, and went back to his dinner.

* * *

The next morning Gedge dressed Rustem, who seemed recovered enough to grumble at being treated like a baby. Gedge grinned cheerfully at him and pulled on his boots, then wrapped him in the heavy coat and jammed his hat upon his head. 'There now,' said Gedge. 'How do you feel?'

Rustem climbed to his feet and would have fallen but for Gedge's quick embrace. 'I am all right,' said Rustem. 'Where is my gun?'

Gedge's face fell. 'I dunno, pard'ner,' he said. 'We didn't find it. Here, now, don't look so sad. It's more important that we found you.'

Rustem nodded and rubbed a hand across his eyes angrily. 'I am not crying,' he said.

'Never said you were. You jest sit there while we finish up.'

'Is he going to be able for this?' murmured Bracy in English, tightening the saddle girth on his horse.

'He has to be, sir,' said Gedge. 'If him and his friends could ride with the two of us when we were sick, then we can manage him, can't we?' He leaned in close, whispering, 'I don't think he can see proper, sir, his eyes wander a bit when he gets anyway tired.'

'Perhaps he was stunned if he hit his head,' said Bracy. 'He needs rest in a proper sick-room. We can only hope that he recovers somewhat on the road. Let's get off, Gedge.' He turned to Rustem, smiling. 'Are you ready?' he said, 'come on, let's get you up on Gedge's horse.' He helped the boy up and lifted him up onto the saddle. 'Are you all right, there? Good lad. Now, Gedge, time to go.'

They led the horses, laden down with supplies and bearing huge loads of bundled grass, out of the cave and down the little slope. Mounting, Bracy turned his horse's head back toward the lake, and led the way for the far wall of the valley, his rifle loaded and held ready in his hand. Gedge followed, keeping a sharp eye out about them, and holding Rustem steady before him. The boy at first sat straight and proud, but was soon leaning back against Gedge, seemingly without knowing that he did so. The sky was clear once more, and the sun rose upon the young men, the heat from the ground contributing to the appearance of a summer's day. No creature so much as raised its head as they made their way across the grassy meadows. In the lake Gedge saw the long-necked creature placidly eating its breakfast of watery weeds, and far out in the water, caught the glint of sunlight on scales as something huge and hidden rolled over lazily in the deeper water. The herd of grey-green animals moved as quietly as beasts of their bulk might, opening their mild and pleasant eyes to the day and nibbling on the leaves and fronds of the trees. Far away in the distance he saw the creatures like rhinos walking sedately, and over it all the birds sang their incessant chorus of greeting to the day. For a long and peaceful moment it seemed to Gedge a great pity that they should leave the valley with so many of its sights unseen, its beauties unknown. Then Rustem tried to hide a cough, his whole body shaking in Gedge's arms, and Gedge turned his thoughts away from the wonders of the valley and remembered its darknesses and how it had almost lost him his young friend, and he tightened his arms about Rustem, and rode after Bracy with no wish but to leave forever.

At length they reached the edge of the thick forest through which they had descended to the valley floor, and carefully made their way upward, heading for the scree that lead to the out-jutting platform of rock. Neither Bracy nor Gedge spoke, yet both knew that in the other's mind was the terrible denizen of the woods on the valley floor, and they looked in fear from side to side, starting at every slight noise. But for the songs of the birds, however, the forest was silent, and at last the horses came out above the trees and Bracy dismounted, signalling to Gedge that he should do likewise.

'We'll have to lead them from here,' he said, looking upward at the scree that lay between them and their goal. 'If we take them on a long path that gradually rises they should manage it.'

'I will walk,' said Rustem, breathlessly, and trying to slide from the horse.

'No yer won't,' said Gedge, pushing him back and settling him in the saddle. 'You sit there, it's all right. We'll get you up.' He was pleased that the boy didn't argue, just sat there, quiet and still. He turned as Bracy began to pick his way carefully along, leading his horse, and followed in the officer's path. The sun was very hot now, but as they climbed higher and higher, Gedge felt the day was cooler than those they had spent down in the valley. Once his horse's foot slipped and he feared that it would fall, taking Rustem with it, but the lad put forth some reserve of strength and urged it upward securely. A little later Bracy slipped, and slid down several yards, sending Gedge's heart into his mouth. Grimly the officer clambered back up and led the way once again. At long last they came up to the broad platform of rock from which they had first looked out over the valley. Bracy climbed up onto it, and pulled on his horse's reins.

'Come on, then,' he said encouragingly, 'come on.' The horse looked at him from its lustrous eyes and trustingly put its front hooves up on the rock, then, with a massive heave of its hindquarters that sent a shower of stones and dust down the slope, it awkwardly gained the safety of the flat rock. Seeing its companion above it and standing still at last, Gedge's horse made haste to do likewise, gaining the platform in like manner despite carrying the extra burden of Rustem's weight.

Horses and men stood, high above the valley, regaining their breath. Bracy looked out over the scene, a queer sad look in his eyes, then he turned quickly and seized his reins once more, leading his horse away towards the crack in the cliff. Gedge stayed a moment longer, fixing the sight in his memory, and then he too turned and entered the dark crack, and so left the valley behind forever.

After an hour's careful journey in the dark gloom of the crack, the young men emerged once more on the other side of the valley wall. A light dusting of snow lay on the ground, and although the sun was shining, it seemed to give forth very little heat. Gedge shivered, and drew his heavy coat round him, fastening it securely. A shadow suddenly ran over the ground and he and Bracy looked up, seeing a dragon flying high above them, floating soundlessly like a huge and distant leaf in the pale and bright sky. It soared over the valley wall and was gone, leaving only the bright silence in its wake. Gedge looked at Bracy, and saw that the expression on his officer's face was no longer that of hate and madness at the dragons, but was one of quiet wonder. Bracy turned from staring into the sky and looked full in Gedge's face, as if seeing him for the first time. He reached out and grasped Gedge's arm in a strong hand.

'My friend. Let us go home,' he said.

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