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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, @ 2004-03-28 02:39:00
Current mood: tired, in a manly way

Chapter Twenty

As they came down into the village the young men called out for help, desperate to rouse the villagers from their snugly closed up houses. One of the doors opened a little and a face peered out. Suddenly the door was flung wide and two of the men of the village emerged, swords in their hands. The larger of the two swung an overhand blow at Gedge who dropped his horse's reins and, seizing his rifle, blocked the man's blow with the barrel. Other villagers rushed out from the houses and the young men found themselves fighting a battle for which they were ill-prepared.

'We do not wish to fight!' cried Bracy in Greek, 'we seek help!'

Hearing the tongue of Rustem's people served only to arouse greater fury in their opponents' hearts, and it seemed that no hope could be held out. Then a loud shout came from the rear of the combat, and the villagers unwillingly drew back. Bracy and Gedge looked at each other unsurely, and Bracy took the opportunity afforded them to quickly pass his revolver to Rustem. No one moved for several heartbeats and then the crowd about them parted to let a man of middle years step through. Bracy looked into the face of the village headman, now stern and worried, and bowed politely to the man.

'Sir,' he said, 'we do not intend harm, we seek shelter from the cold and the snow. Help us, please.'

The man stared into their faces and spoke rapidly in a tongue they did not know. The crowd shifted eagerly, and the three young men drew closer together. There was an unwilling movement at one side and a young man was shoved forward to the headman's side. Bracy and Gedge recognised the face of their youthful guide who had fled from the bear. He would not meet their eyes, but stared fixedly at the ground in apparent shame. He spoke quickly and quietly to the headman in response to that gentleman's questions and was finally allowed to vanish once more among his fellows. The headman pointed at Bracy and then at Gedge, speaking slowly and loudly in what their dazed and cold minds suddenly told them was a mix of strongly accented Greek and his own tongue.

'I think he says that because you offered no insult to his daughters when you were here and you did not cause harm to your guide, they will take you in,' said Rustem. 'But he says he does not know me.'

Bracy frowned and put an arm about the boy's shoulders, saying, 'We all need your help, sir. Surely you can see there is no harm in this young lad?'

The headman spoke again and the crowd closed in on them, hurrying them along and thrusting them through a door into a house. The heat and the light seemed overwhelmingly strong to them after their journey and all three of them could do little more than blink in stupefaction as their coats, boots and mittens were pulled from them. Little by little they felt their fingers and toes regain feeling, and warmth crept through their exhausted frames. The headman sat upon the floor, gesturing that they should sit also. He called out and after a few moments a woman of his own years and one of his daughters came forth, carrying a tray of bread. The headman broke off pieces of the thin, flat breads and held them out to the young men, eating a small piece himself as they swallowed theirs down. He gave a word of command and the crowd withdrew, murmuring fitfully. The tray of breads was pushed over in front of Gedge and he held it out to Bracy and Rustem, shaking with the barely suppressed desire to eat it all himself. Having shared it out equally, the young men fell upon it, unable to restrain their terrible hunger that had fully awakened with the merest taste of the morsels they had just consumed. Within scant minutes all the bread was gone, and the headman had his daughters and his wife bring out more. When that too was gone, Gedge fell over, quite insensible.

'Gedge!' cried Bracy, and pulled the young sergeant into his arms, relieved to find that no more sinister thing than sleep had claimed the lad. Beside him, Rustem was also yawning and struggling to stay awake. The headman rose and gestured that they should follow him. Rustem struggled up, and Bracy roused Gedge enough to get him on his feet, although the lad seemed still more asleep than awake. With his arm about Gedge he managed to lead him after the headman and into the small room at the end of the house where they had slept before. It now seemed to be used for storage, but was warm and free from draughts. Another of the headman's daughters was spreading blankets on the floor. Bracy laid Gedge down, covering him warmly, and bowed once again to the headman.

'Thank you, thank you, sir,' he said with heartfelt gratitude.

The man nodded once and left them. Bracy looked down, swaying with exhaustion. Rustem and Gedge were already deeply asleep, and did not stir as he lay down, wearily covering himself with the thick blankets. 'Maybe we are prisoners,' thought Bracy. He could not find it in himself to care, and closed his eyes, letting sleep take him almost at once.

* * *

Gedge felt very muzzy-headed when he finally awoke. He could scarcely remember anything that had happened from the moment they had entered the headman's house, he realised, and was quite unsure of his whereabouts. He raised his head cautiously, and found he was tucked snugly between Bracy and Rustem. It seemed too much of an effort to try to so much as turn over, so he closed his eyes once again and drifted back into sleep.

When he woke again, he found his friends stirring, and sleepily turned his head to speak to Bracy.

'What time is it, sir?' he asked. 'Is it very late?'

'I don't know, Gedge,' said Bracy. 'There are no windows in this room.'

The three of them staggered to their feet and looked about them at the little room with the sacks stored neatly along the walls. A moment's examination proved the sacks to be full of grain. Bracy ran his hands through his hair, trying to make it lie down neatly.

'We're all a mess, sir,' said Gedge, 'and all our stuff's on the horses, even my comb.'

'Well, we will have to do for the moment,' said Bracy. 'Come along.' He turned to the door and lifted the latch, half expecting it to be bolted from the outside. However, the door opened, and the three of them emerged into the main room of the house. The headman and his wife were sitting by the fire. As the young men came out of the store room, the woman drew her veil across her face and rose, walking unhurriedly to a door at the opposite end of the house. The headman politely gestured for them to join him, and they all sat down, revelling in the heat of the fire. He spoke to them, and Rustem hesitantly replied, holding up first one finger and then two. The man nodded, and Rustem turned to the others.

'He says we have been asleep for two days,' he said, surprised. 'We woke once and ate, he says, but I do not remember.'

'Me neither, pard'ner,' said Gedge, frowning. 'Are you sure he's not joking?'

'We were very tired,' said Bracy. 'Why, you were asleep on your feet, Gedge, I had to all but carry you to bed!' Gedge coloured a little at hearing of such slothful behaviour, and Bracy squeezed his hand companionably, turning to the headman. 'We must journey back to this lad's people,' said Bracy, 'may we buy provisions, and hire a guide? We will pay you when we have reached our destination, you have my word.'

Rustem spoke to the headman who shook his head, and spoke quickly. Rustem's face fell and his voice rose in agitation.

'What is it, Rustem?' asked Bracy.

'He says we cannot go!' cried Rustem. 'It is too late in the year, and he would not want any of his people to have to winter with my people!' The boy looked deeply offended, and horribly disappointed.

'Take it easy, Rustem,' said Gedge, gently putting a hand on his young friend's arm. 'Don't upset yerself.'

The headman rose and opened the door. Icy winds blew in, and outside the snow was falling thick and fast. He shut the door again, and came back to the fire, holding his hands out to the heat and speaking in a reasonable tone. Rustem sighed and repeated his words in Greek.

'The journey would be too dangerous,' he said dully, 'and anyone who went would not be able to return till spring, for the roads would most definitely be closed. We must stay the whole winter through, he says. How I wish I could see my father!' He looked into the flames sadly, and Gedge patted his shoulder.

'You'll see him in the spring,' he said. 'We all will, and he'll be a lot angrier with me than with you, after me sayin' I wouldn't let you come!'

'You are not the one he will whip, Gedge,' said Rustem, putting on a brave smile.

'Ask about our packs,' said Bracy, 'and our horses.'

Rustem and the headman spoke for a while, and then the man waved at a far corner of the house. Rustem went over, and cheerfully called out that all their belonging were there, covered over with their oilskins, which were now quite dry. 'Our horses are stabled with his own, he says,' said Rustem, coming back to the fire.

'We are very grateful for your hospitality,' said Bracy respectfully to the headman. 'We will of course do any work you need while we are here.'

The man nodded and spoke, smiling, as his daughters brought in food that they laid before their father and the young men.

'He says we should rest and eat and grow strong,' said Rustem. 'He says we look like ghosts.'

'I feel like my last meal's jest a ghost,' said Gedge, happily eating what was put in front of him, scooping up the sauce expertly with some of the bread.

'I don't think I like any sight better than you eating happily,' smiled Bracy. 'It's good to see you pleased, Gedge.'

Gedge swallowed a mouthful and grinned. 'Now, if they had some nice spuds and a big mug of tea I'd be really pleased, sir,' he said cheerfully, and went on eating. Bracy chuckled at his evident good humour, and ate heartily himself. When they could eat no more, and found themselves growing sleepy again, they took their leave of the headman and his family, and retired back to the little storeroom, falling asleep the minute they had wrapped themselves in the blankets.

The next morning, Bracy took their packs into the room with them, and unpacked some of his belongings. He braved the freezing winds outside to bring in a pot of fresh snow which he melted and heated over the fire in the main room before bringing it back into the storeroom with him and using it to shave with. Gedge begged a loan of his razor, and shaved too, smiling cheerfully at Rustem when he was done.

'You don't need it, pard'ner,' he said. 'Yer face is still smooth.'

'No more did you need it,' said Rustem dryly.

'Oh here, now,' said Gedge. 'A man has to shave to look neat and proper, ain't that so, sir?'

Bracy looked as if he were trying to maintain the decorum proper to his position as the eldest of them. 'Indeed so, Gedge,' he said. 'Although I feel that Rustem may not be entirely misstating his case.'

Gedge bridled, but was in too good a humour to frown for long. 'Let me trim yer moustache, sir,' he said. 'I'll make it nice and straight.' With some trepidation Bracy handed over the little pair of scissors and Gedge quickly set about the task, finally holding up the mirror for Bracy to see. 'How's that, sir?' he asked, pleased to receive a grateful smile.

'Thank you,' said Bracy, 'that feels much better. You've done as neat a job as I could have, Gedge. However, we'll have to melt a lot more snow if we want to wash, I'm afraid.'

Rustem sighed exaggeratedly and rose. 'I will start bringing some in,' he said. 'you Engelstani stink.'

The others laughed at him and helped him carry in pots of snow to rest on the fire. Those villagers that had call to be out in the cold looked at them curiously, but said nothing to them. That night the headman seemed approving of their improved appearance, and spoke to them in friendly tones. Several other men of the village came to visit and to look at them, but were as polite and friendly as the headman. With Rustem's aid, they gave the story of their journey to and from the dragons' valley, and their adventures within its massive walls. The men seemed disbelieving, which none of the three young men could find it within themselves to blame them for.

Within days it seemed they had been accepted, and the stream of visitors coming to look at them died away, leaving them with the headman's family once again. It was a relief to no longer have to tell their story over and over again, but the house seemed very quiet. On the second night there were no visitors at all, after the headman and his family had retired, Gedge sat silently by the fire looking into the flames with Rustem sitting at his side, idly throwing slivers of wood in and watching them burn.

'Let's turn in,' said Gedge. 'Mr Bracy must be wondering what we're doing out here so late.'

'I think I'll sit by the fire a little longer,' said Rustem, not shifting his eyes from the flames. 'You go on, Gedge, you must be tired of me being in your company at all times.'

'Don't be silly,' said Gedge, covering a yawn. 'You need to rest, same as us.'

'Go on,' said Rustem. 'You must want some time together without me being always present. I want to sit by the fire, so go on. I will knock before I come in.'

Gedge looked at him gratefully, and wished he did not look so sad. He stood up, and tousled Rustem's hair in a friendly manner, saying, 'Don't sit up all night, pard'ner.' He went to the door and looked back meaning to speak, but Rustem was still looking into the flames. Inside, Bracy had neatened the blankets and was pulling off his boots.

'There you are at last,' he said, 'where is Rustem?'

'He said as he wanted to sit up a while yet, and give us a chance to be by ourselves for a change,' said Gedge, closing the door. 'He said as he'd make sure to knock before he came in. He don't want to intrude.' He came a little closer, saying hesitantly, 'I could jest tell him to come on in, sir, if you want.'

'What do you want?' asked Bracy, looking worried.

'It's nice to not have other folk around, jest for a bit, ain't it?' said Gedge. 'Don't you think that, sir?' He gave Bracy a hopeful smile and put a hand on his arm.

'I think I'd almost prefer to be single-handedly charging the enemy,' muttered Bracy in tones of deep alarm. Gedge looked at him askance, feeling rather hurt, and he smiled apologetically. 'I am sorry,' he said quietly. 'I didn't mean to sound so rude. You know I am glad you're here, I hope.'

'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, looking down. 'Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to be forward. G'night.' He pulled off his boots quickly and did not meet Bracy's eyes.

'Gedge, I didn't mean -- you do know I'm fond of you?' said Bracy.

'You said,' said Gedge, still looking down, 'I was yer dearest friend. You said you didn't want me taken away from you.' He looked up again, saying, 'The only one that can make me leave you is you, sir.'

'Don't leave me,' said Bracy, 'not ever. Oh, Gedge, whatever I say seems determined to come out wrong -- here,' he continued, taking Gedge's hand and placing it upon his breast. 'Feel how my heart is racing. It's making me say stupid things.'

'You ain't stupid,' murmured Gedge, looking at his hand's resting place. 'Yer heart is beatin' fast, sir.'

'Yes,' said Bracy with a better smile than before, and Gedge saw he did not know what else to say.

'Mine too,' said Gedge smiling joyfully, and he closed the distance between them.

* * *

Gedge sleepily wondered if he should get up and call Rustem in, but decided he could not move from the comfort of the blankets, telling himself the boy would come in when he wanted. Bracy was slowly stroking his hair, as near to sleep as Gedge himself was. He woke a little, struck by the hope that Bracy was not now unhappy, and raised his head to look into the young officer's eyes. A shy smile crossed Bracy's face and he held Gedge closer, pulling his head down to rest on his shoulder once more. 'You are very dear to me,' he whispered in Gedge's ear.

'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge happily.

'Don't call me sir, not now. Call me Edmund, William,' said Bracy.

'Edmund,' Gedge repeated. 'It's a nice name. But only me mum calls me William, si -- Edmund. Call me Bill.'

'You're very dear to me, Bill,' said Bracy quietly. 'Let's get some sleep.' He pulled the blankets up around them and Gedge burrowed closer, letting himself drift off peacefully and happily.

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