Recently discovered memoranda attached to the files found on Captain Braxton Fitzroy shed a strange new light on the matter of his disappearance. This author is forced to wonder exactly what happened in Samarkand to shake such an officer’s faith so profoundly, and what would cause Lord Elgin to so brusquely dismiss a man who had lived his life in service to Queen and Country.
From: The Office of Colonel Durand, Indian Intelligence HQ, Simla
To: Lord Elgin, The Office of the Viceroy
Subject: Death/Disappearance of Captain Braxton A. Fitzroy
It is regrettable to lose such a decorated and useful officer of the Empire in such an inglorious way, but the accounts of the survivors of the Daedalus Expedition whom could be reached (Pundit Chandra Singh formerly of Punjab Frontier Force, Havildar Agansing Rai/5th Gurkha Reg., Lt. Byron Baker has disappeared, cause/destination unknown) show that as usual, Fitzroy showed only the highest caliber of bravery and initiative in his work in the Himalayas.
We fear the Russian involvement may have been minimal, contrary to prior reports. Suggest that this information be disregarded and that operations along the border continue as usual to deter further encroachments.
Survivors report strange usage of some sort of mystical (Indian Intelligence of course disregards mysticism, but prior service records of those reporting and the exact nature of Fitzroy’s demise compel one to give such claims more credit than one would otherwise) powers by the Lama of this unnamed monastery. We suggest the reports be passed to our experts in London (i.e. the LoEG, the gentlemen in Cardiff or Messr. Dr.? At the Viceroy’s discretion of course.)
It is known to Indian Intelligence that Captain Fitzroy had shown a disconcerting tendency lately to question orders and the morality of his work since certain events in Samarkand, however, past work has made him invaluable to this office and the Empire at large, and he has a record of over a decade’s worth of exemplary service to his credit. Colonel Durand and Major Gibbons both recommend he be posthumously commended.
Lt. Markham Lloyd
Secretary to Colonel Durand
From: Lord Elgin, The Office of the Viceroy
To: The Office of Colonel Durand, Indian Intelligence HQ, Simla
Fitzroy’s filed are to be sealed and sent to India Office, London.
An officer who has lost his faith in the Empire is no longer of service to the Empire.
Claims of mysticism in the Himalayas are nearly constant and nearly constantly false.
Fitzroy put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, jostling him from his thoughts. They both looked down at the faded and tattered pile of red and black cashmere that had not ten minutes before clothed a living Lama. The body there now seemed a strangely shrunken thing. Where before there had been menace, mystery, murder, there was now only the banality of a corpse.
“It doesn’t make any sense…”
“We haven’t the luxury of time, Lieutenant. We can’t afford to think now. Just act. We have a long walk ahead of us.”
“…How are you going to tell the boys at Simla all this, old boy?”
“I’ll tell them the truth. I’ll tell them that we fulfilled our mandate, that we were ambushed, captured, tortured, and escaped execution, and that a violent, rogue sect of Buddhists were behind it all.”
“But…this just doesn’t happen, Braxton. This is something out of Kipling. Out of a novel. But we saw it. Damn it all, this was a sodding fool’s errand. And we were the fools…”
“Later, Byron. Later.”
Fitzroy turned away from his friend to look at those who remained.
Singh pulled at his beard, lost in thought and Benny Fish sat, staring off into the mountains. Kulbir Thapa’s body lay at his feet. Zukharov caught his eye once, defiantly, and then looked away.
None of them were in the best of condition to conduct a descent from a gentle hill, let alone a mountain, but there was only one way out, and they had no alternatives. The shattered remnants of the monastery still clung to the jag of stone above them, cloaked in a fast fading dread beneath the new snow. Fitzroy wished to be done with this place. The bridge yet waited to be crossed.
“Right, all of you up now. Just a short walk until we reach the village, and then…then we can go home.”
Fitzroy’s voice betrayed the dangerous weariness that had begun to settle over each of them, but he belted up his coat, straightened his helmet and stood tall. They could not stop now. They had to reach that village before night fell. They would not survive in this place with no fire to warm them or supplies to keep them; no one needed to say it.
They began to leave, each passing beneath the low arch of stone that lead through the great broken peak to the bridge and freedom beyond. Their feet shuffled in the snow as they held close empty weapons and bruised limbs.
It was dark and eerily quiet in the brief passage to the bridge. A lone torch flickered within, throwing gaunt shadows onto their faces. The wind blew hard beyond, whistling through the supports of the covered wooden bridge there.
It was a frail thing, made of wood dragged up from lower climates to stretch and grasp at these glacier left stones. The beams creaked with a sound that did little to inspire confidence in it’s integrity. Benny Fish moved ahead of the others, pushing against the floorboards with one booted foot. He was not reassured.
“I do not trust this wood, Sahib. The air is too dry for it. It shrinks from the walls.”
“We must cross.”
“Then I will go first, Sahib.”
The Gurkha Havildar, last of his men, put one foot in front of the other, and step by slow step, crossed the bridge.
His hands grasped the splintered wooden railing on either side of him and the Himalayan wind buffeted him through the gaps, strong enough to make him stagger and bend himself against it, head down towards the other side.
The whistling sound was piercing between the two halves of the enormous stone as the air rushed through a too constrained space. At times it sounded nearly as if curious words were being pushed through that frigid air, borne too swiftly by to be heard properly.
Lieutenant Baker wondered how anyone could have managed to span such a gap in such conditions, but that was just one more question he thought he would have to leave unanswered in these mountains.
Benny Fish inched his way across, the steps painfully slow to those watching, as they wished and hoped and willed him along, praying silently that the bridge would hold long enough to let them all pass safely.
It took the Gurkha a full five minutes to cross. They couldn’t see his face across the gap, but he waved them on and Braxton decided who would go next.
“Singh, we’ll need your special talents as a pundit once we’re across here. You next.”
The Sikh cartographer stepped onto the bridge boldly, moving more quickly than Benny Fish now that they knew the floor wasn’t going to give way the moment he walked it. He reached nearly halfway across when the wind blew through the stone cleft with a force that knocked him sideways against the rails. They gave alarmingly. Singh snatched at the beams that stretched from roof to floor, holding on until the blast subsided. He then picked his way on further, more quickly now, before another gust could do greater harm.
He too reached the opposite side.
“Lieutenant, go on.”
And so Lieutenant Byron Baker of the Guides Infantry sheathed his sword, adjusted his tunic, secured his jacket, smoothed his hair, and with great effort, put on that devil-may-care smile that had brought so much unwanted attention from the over-protective relations of certain women in Simla, and began to cross.
If even after all this, he thought he was going to do it as befit an officer of the Empire, straight backed and chin held high, he was soon disabused of the notion by the implacable will of nature that buffeted him. He stumbled for a handhold, and after a near too confident start, finished by slow and steady forward movement.
He shouted back over the abyss to Byron and Zukharov.
“That bridge is not cricket, old man! Best be careful!”
Zukharov rolled his eyes. His response of course was low enough to be snatched by the wind before it reached the other side.
“Well of course we’ll have to be careful. Such good advice, he gives, this Lieutenant Baker. It’s a wonder he has made it so far in your military.”
“In case you haven’t noticed by now Zukharov, militaries don’t tend to value intelligence.”
“Is this a confession, Braxton?”
“Let’s move, Zukharov.”
“Should we not be going one at a time? Surely I should be testing this bridge for you, oh great Captain Fitzroy.”
Zukharov’s lips twisted into a sneer as he gave Braxton his new title.
“I wonder if your sense of humor will sustain you when you rot in a Bengali jail.”
“If I should only be so fortunate as to achieve such luxurious accommodations.”
“Shut up and come on.”
The wind tore at them with a banshee’s shriek as they stepped onto the bridge. Braxton had Zukharov’s arm in a vice grip with one gloved hand, and walked the Russian in front of him as they stepped onto the eerily creaking wood.
“Again, are you sure it so wise to go at the same time?”
“I told you that you would see the inside of an Indian jail.”
“And now you intend to make good on this. Like you’ve made good on your threats to kill me. Like you made good on your promises to your Gurkhas.”
Braxton bristled at the goad. He remembered all too well how Zukharov had managed to crack his cool back in his cell. Exhaustion prevented a repeat of the incident.
“That won’t work again.”
“I didn’t expect it to.”
They made little steps, holding to the handrails of shriveled timber. The boards beneath their feet shook in the Himalayan air. Across the other end of the chasm, Baker, Benny Fish and Singh looked on with open anxiety.
“They are mad to cross at once. The timber will not hold,” Singh said to no one in particular.
“They will make it. He will make it, Singh. The burra Captain Braxton Fitzroy always does,” said Benny Fish.
“You damn well better be right,” said Byron. His thoughts echoed his words.
‘God help us, you had better be right.’
They were nearly to the halfway point now, sliding along slowly and methodically as they could, moving so slowly that they could scarcely be said to be moving at all. Even the Russian arms dealer was silent as they picked their way across the bare structure.
Something strange reached their ears then, between the gusts of wind.
A word seemed to weave it’s way through the wind, a whisper, something familiar…
Zukharov peered over his shoulder with a worried look at Braxton. Fitzroy nudged him forward.
Something shifted wrongly beneath Braxton’s boot. The wind picked up once again, and both he and Zukharov clutched at the rails.
It picked up even further.
“Impossible!” cried Zukharov.
The bridge itself shifted.
“Not good, Fitzroy!”
The bridge shifted again, and both knew that something terrible was about to occur, and even as this realization dawned, time seemed to slow.
Braxton felt the wind pull at him, he heard it whistle through his ears, but all he saw was how the far exit suddenly seemed a poor fit for the size of the covered bridge. How curious, that stone should move like that, that it should shift off to one side or another. How curious that the bridge seemed to be sliding. How curious there should even be such a bridge in these mountains. How curious that all of this should be happening at all.
He saw Baker scream something, the words pulled from his lips by a wind that could not possibly be so strong. He saw Benny Fish and Chandra Singh make useless gestures and form useless words. He saw Zukharov’s monocle fly from his face as up became down and down became up and they tumbled within the covered bridge over and over and over down, down, down the side of a mountain that had no end.
He thought of the Countess in her room in Istanbul, the dead Princess on the Steppes, the dancer he had known in Cairo, he thought of them all. He thought of his father and he thought of their vagabond lives in service of Queen and Country. He thought of the 2nd Afghan War, of Baker and every comrade alive and dead. He thought of every secret he had kept, every lie he had upheld, and every man he had killed. He wondered if it had all meant anything after all.
Just then an old scrap of schoolroom doggerel came to mind, the same one that he had been hearing in his thoughts since this entire affair had begun.
‘E is for Empire, for which we would die.’
March 30th, 1897
Somewhere north of Sikkim, in the Himalayas
One Sikh pundit, one Gurkha havildar and one English lieutenant stumbled through the snow and the whipping wind down precipitous peaks and neglected switchback trails, down, down, down the mountains they had climbed up what seemed like ages ago.
They were bitter cold, wet, wounded, and silent.
The air numbed their bodies, but it could not numb their thoughts. It could not erase the faces of the men whom they had left behind. It could not erase what they had just seen.
As they had moved down the mountains towards the distant village, their words had been angry, desperate. Braxton knew the bridge was unsafe, why cross it two at a time? Why? What had they all heard before the bridge and their comrades tumbled down into the abyss? Hadn’t they heard it before? No, surely, that could never be. Such things did not happen. It was impossible, no it was not impossible, and surely they could not discount anything after all they had seen. He had been dead. They had seen his corpse. How could he pronounce doom from beyond the grave? Stories from high places, stories of old magic, stories of fakirs from the plains, stories full of impossibilities, and this was simply one more. But this one was different. This one involved them.
After a time their talk had ceased. The cold had taken it from them. They didn’t move as men anymore. They had become pure animal will. They moved because to stop was to die, and they had seen too much death.
In the distance, the rude dwellings of the poor wretches who called these mountains their home beckoned with pinpricks of firelight. Their thin trails of smoke disappeared into the rapidly changing sky.
The last members of the Daedalus Expedition moved towards the little village, feeling very small as they walked upon the roof of the world.
“Sahib! Down!” Braxton flung himself into the snow as Benny Fish cocked his rifle and began to fire at the red and black robed man that stood unmoving at the entrance to the bridge. His hands moved automatically, firing and reloading more swiftly that the eye could follow. But each shot went strange, twisting impossibly or stopping short.
Lieutenant Baker ran to Fitzroy watching dumbstruck at what could not be.
“Faith. Faith is more powerful than any bullet, English.”
The Lama moved forward, but his feet did not touch the earth. His robes fluttered in a wind that did not reach the others.
Chandra Singh moved after Baker, he kept his rifle trained on the Lama, whose movements blasphemed against natural laws.
Zukharov adjusted his monocle, blinking hugely. The air seemed very thin to him suddenly, and he groped in his coat for something he had kept unused through all the fighting. His insurance.
Baker rushed to the Lama, swinging his sword with a savagery that would have cut any other man clean in two. He was carelessly tossed aside with a wave of the Lama’s hand, landing feet away in the snow.
Singh began to fire now, moving closer and closer to the floating Lama, his mouth set in a hard scowl as the crack of gunfire died too quickly in the silence that enveloped them. The bullets all went wide. Benny Fish joined in the fusillade with his own dwindling ammunition. The Lama’s face twisted in a grimace. It was clear that whatever puissance he had called to his aid was not easy to maintain. He was exerting himself.
Baker picked himself up again, rushing to the Lama with a defiant cry. He was swatted away again, less far this time. The mad monk buckled slowly, sinking closer to the ground. He spoke, nearly pleading, and a twisted beneficence passed over his face.
“Can you not see that I only wish to save this world? Can you not see that I am salvation? I am here to break the endless cycle of violence. I am here as peace. I am here as love. Death brings new life, and I will bring death in order to bring life. To love all so deeply and not act, that is the crime!”
His words went without understanding to the ears of all save Zukharov, Fitzroy and Singh, and none of them were ready to accept such things.
Singh kept firing and reloading, and not a shot touched the man. This could not be.
Baker shook his head as blood trickled from his nose, and he rose unsteadily once more to his feet. He staggered to the Lama and swung again as Singh fired ineffectively. The Lama barked words that twisted and snaked through the air, flinging the pundit backwards against an exposed gnarl of stone, and as he did so, he stretched out a hand, catching Baker’s sword mid-swing and wrenched it from his grasp. With a yell, a blast of impossible air knocked the Lieutenant backwards, flat on his back.
Benny Fish fired one last shot before he tossed the spent rifle to the ground, drew his kukri and rushed this man who had killed his men, who had denied them a warrior’s death. He did not get far before he joined Chandra Singh, knocked out cold by the stone he had landed against. The world went dark for the Havildar.
Braxton Fitzroy stood cold in the silence that followed. Not a shot sounded, not a blade cut true, and the wind even had ceased to blow. He looked about. Baker lay collapsed in the snow, and Benny Fish and Chandra Singh had been knocked unconscious. It would be up to him. There was no fear in his mind. Only a rage moved through him as the Lama’s robes touched the snow. The monk spat blood. His magic had taken a toll. His small eyes caught Fitzroy’s own, and now the Englishman could see the weird glow that smoldered deep within them. He said something, a whisper. Fitzroy didn’t care. He was going to kill the man with his bare hands.
He took only a few steps when he realized that his feet would move no more. His boots had been stuck fast, ice clutched at him, rooting him to the mountain.
The Lama labored for breath.
“Your time will come, English. But first…first…I must deal with those who would betray me…”
Zukharov had stayed at the rear of the fray throughout, his hand in his coat. He began to step backwards as the Lama moved to him, closing the distance with a shuffle that could not have carried him as quickly or as far as it did. He snatched the Russian’s collar, breathing heavily, his words slow with pain.
“I saved you, cur, and you have the…audacity…to dishonor me so… When I found you in Cairo you were a shell of a man… You were nothing… Riddled with vermin…wounded…impure with whore-gotten diseases…hiding with rats infested houses to avoid the men who wanted you dead… I bought your freedom. I had seen you in my visions, traitor… I knew you would be the one to bring guns to my monks, but I had not foreseen this…and for this, you will die.”
Zukharov twisted his hand inside his coat, and a shot rent the air.
The Lama looked incredulously downwards to the hole in the Russian’s jacket, and the hole in his own robes.
“Insurance,” said Zukharov with a smirk, pulling out the smoking Mauser he had kept hidden there.
“Folly,” smiled the Lama.
Zukharov’s face fell. The Lama delivered a backhanded slap that send the arms dealer reeling, as he pulled from within his robes a dagger, and advanced with murderous intent. The Russian’s monocle popped from his eye as he tripped backwards into the snow, a desperate panic seizing him. His eyes flickered to all those who might have intervened. Only one still stood, pulling impotently at legs that would not move. Zukharov did not think about what he did next. Instinct guided him. The arms dealer gripped the Mauser by it’s searing barrel and threw it with all the strength and accuracy he could muster.
The gun arced in near slow motion through the air, spinning in lazy circles as Braxton and the Lama both looked up. The Englishman over extended himself as he reached out his hand, his momentum causing him to fall forward and crack the ice that held him fast. He landed face first on the stones and snow. The Lama looked behind him with a snarl and turned once again to advance on the prone and helpless Zukharov.
“Your aim is as poor as your judgment, cur.”
Zukharov swallowed. Perhaps that had been a poor idea after all.
Down the way, Braxton smiled.
He had caught his gun during the fall. The ice around his legs had snapped. He could move once again.
The Lama knelt on his betrayer’s chest, his old knees jutting hard from his robes, pushing the breath from the Russian’s lungs. Zukharov’s insurance had obviously had an effect though. The Lama’s movements and words were thick with fatigue and blood flecked his mouth.
“You destroyed my house… You betrayed my monks… You have thrown away salvation to lie with dogs… Perhaps I was the fool to think you could have been saved in the first place. But now it matters not. Goodbye, cur.” He raised his dagger for a killing stroke, when an unexpected crack rang out.
The Lama arched his back in pain, his free hand flying to the new wound. He forgot his pain, rising from the Russian’s chest and began to move through the snow to his attacker.
Captain Braxton Fitzroy walked slowly towards him as he kept firing, his arm held straight, his aim true.
The Lama staggered after each shot, but still he moved, still he advanced, and his eyes still burned with an unnatural light. Braxton did not stop. The two closed to yards, then feet, closer and closer and closer until only a few steps separated them.
Fitzroy aimed at the Lama’s heart.
The Lama faltered, but kept moving.
Fitzroy sighted down the barrel of his gun.
The Lama drew back his dagger to end this.
The Lama looked curiously at Braxton. The Captain looked back. He had made himself a stone once more. The monk staggered, he moved his mouth to speak, but only managed two words.
The monk collapsed forward against Braxton’s boots, slumping into the snow.
The wind began to blow again.
Fitzroy looked down at the dead mess of robes and wrinkled skin and fading sigils that lay pooled at his feet, stepped over them, and walked to Zukharov, who had begun to stand.
“I knew you would get him, ol-…”
Braxton kicked Zukharov square in the gut, grabbed a handful of his coat as he doubled over, and brought the butt of his Mauser down onto the back of his head. The Russian curled up in the snow, coughing and sucking in air. He looked pleadingly at Fitzroy.
Fitzroy knelt and grabbed a fistful of his hair.
He placed the barrel of the Mauser to Zukharov’s head.
“Braxton, please old friend, please…”
Zukharov smiled with a sickening desperation. All Fitzroy could see were his dead Gurkhas. The stone in his chest hardened.
He pulled the trigger.
The Mauser was empty.
“I am not your friend.”
Fitzroy let go of the arms dealer’s hair, and stood.
The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - Descent
"Another large door loomed before them, with gilt knockers carved into hideous faces…
Braxton Fitzroy rose unsteadily to his feet, the stone yard they had landed on had not been forgiving. The late March snow fell heavy and thick around five remaining members of a failed expedition and one Russian arms dealer, and the wind cut them to the bone surer than any monk’s sword. Their thick coats, tattered, bloodstained and sweat soaked now, offered only a little protection against the cold.
They found themselves in the deserted courtyard of the monastery, and they quickly picked themselves up and began to move swiftly away from the main hall, which now began to fold in on itself in earnest, with a noise that echoed and amplified in the surrounding mountains to deafening levels. The weather beaten and painted wood that had adorned the hall’s outer façade snapped and spun into the wind, forming deadly projectiles for any caught in their path, and all bolted for what cover they could find.
Stones toppled and the mountain shook as it claimed that tenuous manmade structure as it’s own, many supports tumbled down and out into the abyss that surrounded the jut of stone that much of the monastery defiantly clung to. Cacophony ruled as the work of centuries was undone in the space of minutes.
Many more passed.
Silence stole over the scene.
Only the wind filled their ears.
“It’s over,” breathed Lieutenant Baker.
“Not yet, sahib,” answered Chandra Singh, checking the remaining ammunition for his Martini-Henry.
“We are well on our way, Singh,” said Havildar Benny Fish, as he pulled the remaining rifle and bullet pouch from Zukharov’s shoulder, and checked to see that it was loaded.
“But we must stay on guard.”
“There are many doors, Havildar,” said the last Gurkha sepoy of the expedition, Kulbir Thapa, as he wiped his bloody kukri on the hem of his coat.
It was true. Doors studded the perimeter of the courtyard they found themselves in. Any one of them could lead to either freedom or uncertain doom back in the winding maze of the lower monastery. No doubt monks yet lived. The place was like a beehive, with innumerable passages and cells.
“Which one leads out, Zukharov?” asked Braxton.
The Russian moved to his side, pulling the pith helmet from his head and offering it to the man to whom it belonged. He dragged a dirty hand through the hair it had disheveled.
“This looks better on you, I believe. The door there, at the far end of the yard. That is our salvation. Beyond that we must flee down a long path, little better than a cattle trail. A covered bridge lies at the end, connecting two halves of a cleft in the mountain. Once we have passed that, we are free. There is a village not so terribly far from here…the monks often bartered with or extorted from the men there. From that place, we will be on our way…”
Chandra Singh fixed Zukharov with a gaze full of contempt and spoke.
“Sahib, I feigned sleep during our ascent to this place. The monks did not notice. I can also guide us from here.” He left out the implied, ‘We no longer need this dog.’
Braxton Fitzroy took the proffered helmet, poking a finger through the bullet hole in the crown and shooting a disapproving look at Zukharov and a nod to Singh before he jammed it back onto his head and secured the strap. Something seemed more complete about him to the men around him with that battered piece of pith back where it belonged.
“Then let us be rid of this place.”
Another rumble passed through the stones at their feet.
“And quickly now.”
They all moved to the door Zukharov had pointed out, and this one opened without ceremony, unlike the last one they had encountered. Beyond lay another decrepit passage, ancient and ornate prayer wheels were mounted along either side of the hall. They were defaced with the same symbols that decorated every monk they had met.
Baker stared at them with disgust as they moved.
“What the deuce do these symbols mean, Zukharov?”
“My skills as a linguist failed me when I inquired as to that same question. The Lama fell to discussing obscure Buddhist doctrine and I couldn’t follow him. This did not stop him from talking for at least an hour, I am afraid. The little I could glean from his babble was that they were some sort of charms, protections and spells. Mystical nonsense.”
“I’m not so sure about that last part now…”
Zukharov was oddly insistent.
“It is nonsense, I tell you. They are, rather, they were, mad, not magical. A bunch of lunatics…” It sounded as if the Russian was trying to convincehimself more than anyone else.
Braxton looked over his shoulder at the arms dealer with a knowing look before speaking.
“And yet you came here, even though you claim they are lunatics. You hired porters, secured everything that was asked of you and climbed to this place before the snows set in…”
“That is enough, old friend. I have no desire to discuss any of this further.”
Lieutenant Baker scowled, pushed the arms dealer against one of the prayer wheels and jabbed an accusing finger into his chest to emphasize his point.
“Now you listen here you damned fool. That is enough. You will address the man by his proper title and you will answer his bloody questions when he bloody well asks them. You might have saved our skins, but we lost good men back there because you took your sweet time coming to the rescue. Now this whole expedition has stunk to me from the minute we set out on it, and too much has happened for any of us to be able to just wave things off. Once we reach safety, you have explaining to do.”
Zukharov scowled back at Baker, and looked to Fitzroy.
“Your dog, Braxton,” he used his first name, looking pointedly at Byron, “you would do well to keep him on a shorter leash.”
“Lieutenant Baker must use his own initiative when he thinks it appropriate to do so. But for now, we must keep moving. Lieutenant, kindly act as Mr. Zukharov’s escort. Try not to be too gentle.”
“With pleasure, sir.”
Baker released Zukharov with a grunt, and jabbed him back into line with the point of his sword. They kept walking as the hall stretched on and the floor rumbled ominously once again. The lower levels must have still been collapsing.
“That bloody Lama did something to me back there. I had him. I had him. Then with a wave of his hand…” muttered Baker to himself.
“We have stories back home about the powers of Tibetan lamas, sahib. They are rumored to know many secrets, and can cast strange spells,” offered Kulbir Thapa. His Havildar shook his head.
“Those are children’s tales, Sepoy Thapa, and you would be doing well to forget them. What killed our comrades were not magicians, but men. And they died as men. And we will come back here, and with deepest respect to the burra Sahib Fitzroy who is dear to me, we will return with a pukka Colonel sahib at the head of a full expedition and we will finish this bloody job and deliver proper revenge for our comrades.”
Baker shook his head.
“Sepoy Thapa is right though, Havildar. Something happened. Something…”
They reached the end of the long hall. Another large door loomed before them, with gilt knockers carved into hideous faces. Buddhist prayers were carved into the stones surrounding it, benedictions and protections made foul with the ubiquitous profane symbols. Snow scudded under the bottom of the door and wind whistled through gaps in the wood. Everyone looked at one another, silently wondering if after all they had witnessed whether things might be this easy. But there was no time for contemplation.
Benny Fish took point with his rife, and pushed it open.
The land tumbled down and away from them beyond the door, and the greatest peaks on earth jutted up before them, fingers of stone and snow standing defiant against time and the elements.
The air was a thick whirl of powder and wind, and stole the heat from the men’s bones the moment they set foot in it. They flinched from the cold, clutching close what they wore.
All except for Fitzroy.
He stood for a moment in the wind, his boots crunching through the fresh snow, his blood caked Afghan coat and scarf snapping in the thin air, his eyes closed. He took in a stinging breath, a bellows breath, and what thoughts passed through his mind the others could not know, but when he turned to them, it was with a shadow of a grin, and as they picked their way down the treacherous path, something close to confidence passed again through their hearts.
Singh pointed out an enormous knuckle of stone that lay at the bottom of the path. It had been cloven in two millennia ago.
“Sahib, between the two stones…there is the bridge there we must cross.”
Zukharov spoke up as well, trying to keep up a usefulness he had gotten into the habit of outliving.
“It crosses the chasm between the two stones. Fortunately, this chasm is not great, and fortunately, this bridge is covered. Beyond…beyond we will be free.”
Singh kept him fixed with a look of contempt. They all did. Except for Braxton. He strode on, goat-like, over the impedimenta of the wild mountains.
The path there was indeed little better than a switchback cattle trail, as the Russian had promised. Poles with prayer flags bowed in the wind along either side of the path, marking it out even when it grew lost, and slowly over the course of a quarter of an hour they made their way down to the bridge.
The cracked knuckle of ancient stone loomed large, black and imposing before them, but they could not halt, would not halt. Freedom loomed too close to slow their steps now. A passageway through the stone made was soon seen by all, a natural gap widened with chisel and hammer to fit the size of two or three men walking side by side. They knew the promised bridge lay beyond.
“We are nearly there, Sahibs!” Sepoy Kulbir Thapa nearly ran to the passage, so eager was he to be rid of this terrible place where so many he had known had died. Havildar Benny Fish did not stop him. How could he after all that had happened? Kulbir’s boots carried him, crunching through the snow with a loping mountaineer’s gait over stone and jag, to that portal of stone that promised so much. The rest lagged behind as Kulbir disappeared through the entryway, reappearing briefly to wave them forward.
Fitzroy went first towards to stone tunnel, ignoring the wounds that brought an ache to his bones. There was someone he very much wished to see once this was all over. He was determined not to pause until he had.
“I made myself a promise to leave this Great Game to younger men who still lust for glory while I yet have my head. It’s high time to make good on that.”
Braxton let his mind wander for the briefest of moments, away from the wounds and the cold, across mountains and plains and deserts to the one place he wished he could be, to the one person he knew would be there.
The thought sustained him as he made his way to the passage, but it did not sustain him through what he saw next.
Kulbir Thapa stood silhouetted in the entryway, strangely stiff.
Something was wrong. The sound of the wind was deadened weirdly in the shadow of the enormous stone.
Blood trickled down from the corner of the Gurkha’s mouth. Fitzroy felt the cold once again.
He reached instinctively for where his Mauser would have been, but found no holster and no pistol. Hadn’t Zukharov retrieved their effects?
The sepoy fell forward with a sick thud into snow that was soon stained red.
A figure filled the space where he had stood, and an unnatural silence closed on all present, thick and heavy, a silence that was soon pierced by a single word.
The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - Cut & Run
Byron Baker fell forward beneath the weight of the monk who had collapsed on top of him, cursing loudly, when suddenly more shots and more yells rang out, mixing with the echoing din that surrounded him.
He felt his bonds being cut and something metallic and cold was shoved into his hand…a Webley revolver.
“About bloody time!”
Baker rolled out from beneath the dead monk, trying to take in the entirety of the situation before the confusion cost him his life.
The monks who had held him, Singh and Benny Fish were dead. The two remaining further down the line were quickly being dispatched by the Gurkhas they had once held captive. The Lama’s masked bodyguards closed around their master, and the two that had rifles began firing as their leader shouted into the noise.
“Fools! Imbeciles! What have you done? My visions! Can you see, my brave guards, how they defile our holy places? How they bring evil to this place? First here, and then the world!”
The executioner monk raised his sword in a white heat, chanting angrily as he prepared to kill Fitzroy and deny the rescue it’s leader, when his master halted him.
“No, the fool English is mine!”
So he instead grabbed Fitzroy by the collar of his shirt and prepared to drag the man into the protective circle of masked guards surrounding the Lama. A bullet to the head halted his progress, and Chandra Singh smiled for the first time in a long time beneath his wiry beard as he reloaded and cocked his rifle for a second shot.
‘What good is their bloody faith now?’
It was truly pandemonium in that great hall as the pillars shook and centuries old wall paintings cracked and gunfire cut through the deep rumblings like knives.
The four remaining Gurkhas, including Havildar Benny Fish rushed to cover on either side of the hall, kukris in hand, eyes gleaming with thoughts of revenge. To attempt a frontal attack on the circle of guards, four men against ten, would not be wise, especially with two enemy rifles covering the floor. They would flank them instead. There was no predetermined plan. Hard fighting along the frontier had made such tactics automatic, and Lieutenant Baker saw at once what needed doing.
Chandra Singh flung himself down into a prone position behind the bodies of the two freshly dead monks that had guarded himself and Baker, and took aim on the gun wielding men guarding the Lama. Baker did the same, cocking his Webley and firing, providing cover for the Gurkhas.
“This whole damned mountain will be coming down around our ears if we are not getting the hell out of here!” yelled Zukharov to the Lieutenant, as he hefted another dead monk as a human shield, emptying his remaining Derringer fruitlessly in the general direction of the monks. Fitzroy’s pith helmet poked incongruously above the red robes, and promptly had a hole put into it by a well-placed shot.
Braxton struggled with his bonds on the floor as it rumbled beneath him and bullets whistled above him, and he heard two cries echo out as each rifle-wielding monk met their fate.
He heard the war cry of his Gurkhas and the sound of close combat ring around him as a familiar face filled his field of vision, and he felt his bonds being cut.
“Time to make good on my oath, eh old boy?”
“No time for that, chap. This belongs to you, I believe?” Byron presented Braxton’s saber to him in a mock serious fashion.
“I believe it does.”
“Sir, permission to kill these self-righteous bastards?”
“Righto, sir. With gusto, sir. At once, sir.”
As Braxton leapt to his feet, Baker drew his own sword and fired off a hasty shot into the gut of one masked bodyguard who moved towards the two Englishmen.
The English Captain moved purposefully into the fray, as his Gurkhas made deadly use of their kukris and Baker popped off another shot into the circle of bodyguards. One moved to intercept Fitzroy, and the Englishman rushed towards him, ducking under his swinging blade and standing up to grab a fistful of the monk’s robe. He pulled him forward and shoved his saber into the man’s belly, and felt the blood soak the robes he clenched in his fist.
He kicked the dead man from his blade, and parried a blow from the left, jumping above a low swing and bringing his sword down in a savage arc through the red robes and past a monk’s collarbone. Another monk closed from the right and Fitzroy met him with steel, parrying left and right, moving into his guard, forgoing subtlety in his cold rage, driving a left hook into the man’s jaw, propelling one hobnailed boot into his groin and dropping one elbow onto his bowed neck. The monk dropped, and Fitzroy brought the heel of his boot down on the man’s throat. He twitched once before he stopped moving.
He could see the Lama now through the whirl of fighting, clicking his prayer beads with a fevered intensity, his eyes closed, his lips mouthing prayers as the number of his bodyguards dwindled quickly.
Braxton walked to him, death in his eyes and his step quickened to a run. Before he could reach him though, something slammed into his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and reminding him of every wound that had yet to heal.
A monk wearing a terrible devil’s head mask had kicked him to the ground, and Fitzroy found himself in the unenviable position of being flat on his back once more. His saber had flown from his hand at the impact, skittering away through the fighting. The huge man raised his bloody sword for a killing stroke when a compact form flew through the air, crashing into the monk with a bloodcurdling cry. It was Benny Fish! The Gurkha wrenched his kukri across the monk’s throat, screaming into the dead man’s mask as the life spilled from his body.
The Gurkha havildar scrambled from the monk and helped Fitzroy to his feet as the walls cracked terribly. A pillar began to wobble, and toppled tremendously in the hall, sending a shower of dust and stone down upon the heads of all the men there.
Monks began to trickle back, finding the lower levels beyond saving; they sought the guidance of the man who had taught them salvation lay with his words and his plan. What were they without their Lama? What they saw horrified them. Their captives were closing on their leader. They rushed into the fray as the ceiling began to drop down around their ears, tremendous blocks of stone and woodwork crashed to the floor, blocking many of the entrances and exits to the main hall.
Zukharov rushed forward to the fighting, his Derringers spent long ago, brandishing a monk’s sword. Fitzroy’s khaki dyed pith helmet rocking unsteadily on his head. His monocle dangled from it’s chain around his neck and his entire person was an image of absurdity far removed from the usual suavity he presented to the world.
“Now would be a good time to be running, my old friend!”
“Not yet, Zukharov! He still stands.”
“You are going to get us all killed, you stubborn English fool! This mountain is coming down around our ears!”
“You promised a diversion, not that this entire mountain would collapse!”
“Then I miscalculated! This place is older than the hills, and honeycombed with passages! The lower levels must have collapsed. It is all coming down!”
Fitzroy looked about the surreal scene and saw one more of his Gurkhas fall to a monk’s blade as more stumbled back into the main hall. Byron had waded into the fray, laying about with his own sword, and Chandra Singh used his Martini-Henry like a club, fending off three monks at the same time. The Lama had been backing away all the while towards a statue of the Buddha at the rear of the hall, clicking his prayer beads and speaking prayers. His dark eyes were wide at what went on as his monastery crumbled about him.
Baker dispatched the monk he was fighting, and turned towards the Lama, rushing at him with a furious cry. Something curious happened then, and it went nearly unnoticed in the surrounding chaos. The Lama gestured with his free hand, and Baker flew backwards, knocking into a pillar that shook dangerously. A chunk of masonry fell then, cutting off Fitzroy from the Lama and the rear of the hall.
“Baker!” Fitzroy rushed to his friend, helping him to his feet.
“We must go!”
“What the hell did he just do to me?”
“There’s no time, we’ll find out later!”
Braxton stood, and caught the eyes of his remaining men.
“We must cut our way out of here! We haven’t a moment to lose!”
They all began then to do just that, stumbling over falling stones and fighting their way through thin crowds of bewildered monks as they rushed towards the front of the hall, the large wooden doors there and salvation beyond.
A loud grinding rumble shook the floor at their feet as they ran, and another large pillar fell to the floor, snapping into pieces, as one more Gurkha fell then at his Havildar’s side, crushed beneath a huge block of stone.
“Go!” the doomed man croaked beneath the weight, and Benny Fish saluted his soldier, his eyes tight as the now four remaining escapees rushed through the mayhem.
The doors loomed larger, and larger and larger still and all of them could nearly taste the cold air beyond as the last scattered groups of confused monks gave way. They all slammed into the huge wooden doors at nearly the same time, hoping beyond hope that a great heave would be all that was needed to break out to the beyond. The door barely budged. It was held shut through years of disuse and the sticky accretion of grease given off by the butter lamps that seemed to cover everything.
“Damn it all!” cried Baker, “now what?”
Chandra Singh cried out and pushed Baker away as another pillar began to topple towards them. Providentially enough, it crashed into the doors, the top of the pillar blasting a hole in the wood. A rush of cold air flew into the hall, bringing with it the promise of escape. It leaned at an angle, but one not steep enough that they couldn’t make their way up the incline. Zukharov went first, pushing the others out of the way and disappearing up, over through the hole in the door.
Benny Fish then ordered his remaining sepoy, Kulbir Thapa, up the pillar to escape beyond. Fitzroy grabbed Benny Fish, pushing him to the pillar, overriding his objections with a stern face and a barked order.
“Up, Benny Fish! Go!”
Baker then grabbed Fitzroy by the arm.
“You next old man. Get out of here! You’ve done quite enough. We’ll come back with a whole regiment and finish the job. That damned Lama can’t do anything more now.” “What happened to a ‘kick in the balls and a bullet in the gut’ for every man here?”
“I can wait, old man.” Baker grinned, and winced, clutching his side.
“You’re wounded, go, Baker, go! That’s an order.”
“We’re all wounded, old man,” protested the Lieutenant, but he climbed up and out regardless.
Braxton looked quickly behind him as the roof began to collapse in earnest. Monks fluttered through the destruction, crying out in despair and fear as their very home swallowed them up. He channeled every swift footed bazaar footpad he had ever seen as he half climbed, half ran up the pillar, flinging himself out and over the crack in the thick wooden door to a hard fall below.
The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - A Suitable Distraction
Zukharov made his way through the silent and empty halls at a jog. Time truly was short. In one hand he held the key to what would prove to be either their doom or their salvation. It was not encrusted with jewels, or special in any way. One of it’s kind could be gotten from nearly anywhere in the world for a pittance. This particular specimen had seen better days, so long had it been squashed in the pocket of the Russian’s coat. It was a matchbook, and Zukharov was about to put it’s contents to good use.
In the other hand he held a small keg. Within it was something rarely found this high in the Himalayas. The Lama had sought to use it to bring death to his enemies. Zukharov was about to see it brought death only to the Lama’s own men.
When he at last reached the long workroom where monks had previously toiled at work, crafting rifles and casting bullets, he found it empty and eerily silent. He made his way to the rear storage, to the stacked barrels powder stored there.
He swiftly pulled the cork plug from his own keg, and carefully began to tip it’s contents in a pool at the foot of the barrels. It was more powder. He backed carefully, slowly from the room, making sure the trail was not too thick or too thin. He didn’t wish for it to burn too quickly, or to be interrupted by any ill placed crack in the floor.
His plan was ridiculously simple. It had worked for him once in China and he prayed that it would work again. He had stopped being subtle weeks ago when he finally realized he was beast in a gilded cage in this place, with few options and little hope. What was needed was a blunt action, something to disrupt proceedings and offer suitable confusion and destruction to make an escape. An explosion would do that nicely. An explosion created by a roomful of powder, bullets and rifles would do that even better.
He wended his way from the room, back out into the hall and down it until the powder from his keg gave out.
He knelt at the termination of the trail, opened his last packet of matches, struck one against the bottom of his boot, took a deep breath and lit the trail. It sizzled off into the gloom of the hall and into the armory.
Another Gurkha knelt where Gaje had, his knees wet with the pooled blood of his comrade. The chanting continued, rising higher and higher as the executioner monk again waved his sword in ritual arcs, droning a prayer.
The monk raised the sword as the sepoy held the gaze of his Captain.
“Jai mahakali!” cried the Gurkha.
The sword descended.
“Ayo gorkhakali!” called the remaining Gurkhas, as they finished the battle cry of their people.
Lieutenant Baker bucked against his captor, letting loose an inarticulate growl of rage, frustration, and a stream of incomprehensible invectives.
“You bloody insane red robed goat buggers, you’ll not survive the year when news of this reaches India! You’ll be blasted from these damned mountains by bigger things than rifles, and if I can’t give you all a bullet in the guts and a kick in the balls, you can bet your arses that the men who follow will!”
Fitzroy said nothing. He gave nothing away. He never did. He had made his career on a being able to make himself as cold as stone. He had faced death too often to let that stone warm now. Men under his command had died before. He never forgot their faces. To be made to stare them in the eye now though as they were ritually executed, that was growing to be too much. But to give in now would mean letting the Lama win. He was not about to let that happen. He and his men had one chance, but that chance grew less with every second that passed…until a rumble began to grow deep within the belly of the monastery.
Zukharov stumbled up the long, steep stairs that led to the main hall of the monastery, his coat stuffed with recovered arms. The prisoner’s effects had been left unguarded. He was sure to take all that he could carry. They would need it.
Fitzroy’s pith helmet rocked unsteadily on his head. He thought the Englishman looked less without it somehow. Two swords, six kukris, two Webley revolvers, one Mauser, and two Martini-Henry rifles, one slung over each shoulder, jostled with every step as he rushed to the only men who might help him escape this place. He nearly pitched over the frail wooden bannister separating him from a deadly drop when the latest explosion rocked the stones of the structure.
‘I suppose I hauled more powder up through these mountains than I thought.’
Another explosion knocked him forward, up the stairs.
‘Perhaps too much.’
The ceiling rained dust and chips of stone upon his head. He knew this place to be old. Just how old, he did not know. He just hoped that it did not disintegrate before he had a chance to watch the spectacle, preferably at a safe distance.
A monk appeared at the doorway at the top of the stairs. He looked confused for a moment as he watched the Russian arms dealer struggle up the stairs with his preposterous load. The moment of confusion was all Zukharov needed as he shook a Derringer from his sleeve, took aim, and fired. The monk fell back through the doorway, and Zukharov scrambled over his quickly cooling corpse to the hall beyond. Chants reverberated from the nearby main hall. They were nearly as loudly as the roaring explosions that were quickly claiming the lower levels of the monastery.
‘Well, it’s now or never Zukharov. Save the English, save your own damned hide. I never thought I’d live to see the day…’
The booms that reverberated through the hall were now beyond ignoring. Dust began to pour from the ceiling, and one of the wall paintings suddenly developed an alarming crack. Some of the monks halted their chanting, looking to their Lama for guidance.
“Go, go, seek the cause of this and stop it! I shall finish the work we have started…”
Monks began to pour out of the hall, and the air was alive with nervous voices, the flutter of red robes and the ominous rumbling of stone. The Lama’s ritually masked bodyguards stayed where they were along either wall, the monks guarding the six remaining prisoners kept their charges firmly in hand, and the executioner kept a tight grip on his bloody sword.
The Lama fixed his gaze on Fitzroy in the midst of the confusion and he closed with the Englishman, his robes fluttering like the feathers of a vulture.
“What is this? What have you done, English?!”
Captain Braxton Fitzroy, Political Officer of HM’s Indian Army, on indefinite leave of absence from the 3rd Sikhs of the Punjab Frontier Force, on extended loan to Indian Intelligence at Simla and the Foreign Office in London, at last broke his cold countenance. He smiled at the Lama. It was a smile without charm and without warmth. It promised one thing. It promised death.
“I’ve just ended you.”
A strange figure stumbled unnoticed through one of many doorways to the main hall, pushing his way into the confusion, past the monks who had been sent off on a futile quest to stop what he had started. Rifles dangled from his shoulders and curved knives from his belt. He cast about through the sea of shaved and tattooed heads that bobbed before him, looking for the bodyguards of the Lama, the Lama himself and the men he came here to save. None took notice of him in the confusion. He continued his way through the crowd, making his way to the line of four remaining Gurkhas, one Sikh pundit and an English Lieutenant, and shook another Derringer loose from his other sleeve. He calmly made his way behind the monks guarding Lieutenant Baker and the Pundit Chandra Singh, placed the barrels of either gun behind the heads of either monk and pulled the triggers.
The Daedalus Expedition, March 29th, 1897 - The Beginning of the End
A hotel room in Istanbul, 1884
“I enjoy this arrangement we have,”said the countess to the solider, as they lay tangled among the sheets. “It is one simple thing in our vagabond lives.”
He said nothing, the twist of his lips suggesting a smile as he trailed figure eights down the bare, warm skin of her stomach, further and further down.
She gasped when his fingers reached their destination, and she laughed into the pillows.
“Again? You are cruel to me.”
“Very cruel,” he whispered into her ear.
She looked into his eyes with a smile before she closed her own and bit her lip. The soldier kissed her there, and on her eyelids, and on her forehead, and on her cheeks, and down her long neck, slowly, softly, and with every kiss came a word…
“So very, very cruel…”
She moved onto him, moving her hips onto his knowing hand and her lips to his knowing mouth, as he held her and touched her, coaxing her higher and higher, whispering words in her ear that made her safe and made her his for that time in that place. With his left hand on her heart and his right hand between her thighs, she let herself go, as he brought her to her full again and again, a soft, warm and liquid yielding to pleasures only he could bring, he, her soldier, as her eyes filled with stars and there was nothing but his words, his hands, his lips, his hips, moving into her, over her, through her, again and again and again guiding her to every secret ecstasy and every long awaited release…
When they had stopped, she laid her head on his chest to listen to the beat of his heart and fell asleep to that sound in the arms of the one man who she could never truly have, her elusive constant, her soldier.
“You are still a mystery.”
“Your entire sex is a mystery, Countess.”
“Oh, we both know that you understand us better than you let on.”
“Years of close observation.”
“I can only imagine.”
“I’m sure you can. You have quite the imagination.”
“In my imaginings I think of you, sometimes.”
“In the carriage rides between the opera and the theatre and all your wonderful old dukes and politicians.”
“You can’t possibly disapprove now.” She frowned.
“You know I never have. We all do what we must.” He contemplated the glow of her cheek in the candlelight as she spoke again.
“I wonder about your ‘close observations’ sometimes, and all your mysterious travels…” She trailed off, playing with the hair on his chest, trying to gather her words.
“You have been everywhere. Whenever we meet there are Persian slippers or Chinese silks, sweets from Bokhara…and you can never talk about your work. It sounds silly, but your life is still so exotic to me, even after all this time. And I wonder…
“What do you wonder?”
She breathed an embarrassed laugh onto his chest, and Braxton smiled warmly at her, the show of vulnerability sparking a swell of affection. For the rest of the world she was the Countess de Rola, formidable, independent, an adventuress. But for him, she was no idealized thing. She was better. She was simply a woman.
“This is silly…”
“Go on. I want you to tell me.”
She laughed again, and began to speak.
“I…I wonder if you have ever loved princesses…or temple dancers…or if you have loved under the stars, or somewhere with the scent of blooming jasmine…or if you have loved in a tent, or in the jungle.”
He said nothing, gazing into her eyes.
“…I wonder if they are beautiful, and about the color of their skin…and I wonder how they touch you, and what they whisper to you in moments like this…and I wonder what you say in return, and if you say anything at all…In my mind, you never do.”
“Say something, just this once, Braxton. Tell me a lie if you must. Just this once. Just this once. Tell me lies…say something…”
“Well? Say something! Tell him lies before his life is ended. Tell him all will be well. Comfort your dog, Englishman. It is the least you can do for one of your slaves before he dies!” shrieked the mad Lama. His cries echoed throughout the long, cavernous columned hall where all had been gathered.
Monks stood along either wall in silence. The walls glowed menacingly in the flickering glow of hundreds of rancid butter lamps. The ancient paintings on them had been defaced by the accretion of grease born from long years and more recent, stranger things…Harsh symbols scarred the centuries old paintings of Buddhas, saints and demons, the same symbols that had been inked onto the flesh of the monks of the monastery.
Braxton clenched his jaw and looked straight into the eyes of Gaje Ghale, the Gurkha who knelt before him. The two monks who had forced the man to the ground were impassive as he struggled in their grasp. Fitzroy could do nothing. He was himself restrained by two more monks. The remaining survivors of the expedition were held off at a distance, and looked on tensely.
“Do not worry for me, Captain sahib!” Gaje spat in the face of one of the monks who held him and received a slap in return. The Gurkha smiled through a cracked lip and held the gaze of his Captain, the man who had led him here to this fate.
“I am not afraid. If I die, I go to join Sahi and all my other comrades. I will live on!”
At a signal from the Lama, a hideously masked monk from the circle of onlookers stepped forward, raising a sword from the depths of his robes and began to intone a chant, one that was taken up by the monks surrounding them. Twin horns sounded somewhere from the depths of the hall, whining through the still air like wounded beasts, as ritual cymbals clashed. The sound was otherworldly.
The executioner monk stepped forward to the prostrate Gurkha as the Lama circled Fitzroy like a bird of prey.
“You have nothing to say, English? No words? You English are usually so filled with words…with words you claim men and land, and seek to supplant high truths with base lies. I will take the words from your mouths and with your heads mounted on spikes, you shall be flown before my monks like banners as they spill over these mountains and over your armies.”
“You’ve twisted your own religion to serve your own madness, Lama,” said Fitzroy.
“No, I am saving my religion! I am saving us all.”
The monk raised his sword, spinning it in ritual arcs, and Braxton knew that time grew short. He had to buy Zukharov as many minutes as he possibly could. He had to save his men. He kept talking.
“How? How does murder equal salvation?”
The Lama smiled beneficently as the sword continued to whirl, and began to tell his tale…
“I have foreseen what your kind would do…I have seen it all. For ten years, English, did I immure myself in silence in the deepest depths of this forgotten place. For ten years did I give myself to prayer and meditations in utter solitude, thinking thoughts of peace, thoughts of harmony, seeking, seeking, seeking enlightenment, an end, oneness with all…Ten years of utter solitude. Ten years. But what is ten years?”
The twin horns blared once again as the chanting of the monks rose and fell and the Lama’s tale continued on…
“It is nothing, English. It is a succession of present moments. Time has no meaning but what we give it. And when my soul knew this as truth and not merely as doctrine, when the days and nights and moments ceased to hold meaning, I saw beyond it all.”
“The future. The past. Every life. Every death. Oneness. I saw and felt and knew, English. How can I explain such things to a heathen? I cannot. Language is a poor thing to express truths. It can only hint, intimate. It cannot lay bare before your eyes an infinity of experiences. It cannot lay bare the sorrow at the heart of all.”
“For above all, English, above all in the things I saw…above all was suffering. So much pain. So much sorrow. So much death. And this world, English? The bones of the world will bleed. They bleed now, but little. Soon, though, soon…”
“Men will butcher one another on a scale grander than has been seen in in thousands of years over trifles. And one butchery will lead to another, and another. Reprisal sparks reprisal again and again in the history of man that is yet to be written. I have seen it all. And I will end it all.”
“And how will you do this? How?” asked Braxton, the slightest hint of desperation creeping into his words as he watched the executioner’s sword spin.
“I will murder the world so that it might be saved. I will end humanity. I will end suffering. I will break the wheel. I will end it all it so that all might begin anew.”
“That is insanity. You can’t possibly carry this out. You would send, what? Two hundred of your monks against the whole world? You’ll be stopped the minute you set foot into India, rifles or not. If you truly gained any wisdom you’d know that.”
“My monks have more than rifles to aid them, fool English. They have faith. And faith is more powerful than any rifle.”
The Lama gestured sharply to the executioner spinning the sword. The blade cut true.
Zukharov made his rounds to each cell where the members of the expedition were being kept. He answered the same questions of ‘why’ and ‘when’ and ‘where’ each time. He played at the same politeness when he passed each red and black robed monk. He did all of this as he made his way into the bowels of the monastery, past the makeshift firing range he had helped plan, past the mix of clumsy and expert efforts of the men at practice there, down, down into the stones and cold of the forgotten place of worship.
He adjusted his monocle and wiped the steam from it when he finally reached his destination, the place that the monks had dedicated to the creation of the tools they believed would sweep the English from the Himalayas, and forever grant security to their home. Fire and smoke poured through the hall, and the sound of hammers and tongs jangled incessantly under the light of melting butter candles stuck into alcoves in the walls.
Monks went at their work of crafting rifles and molding bullets with all of the seriousness and sanctity of prayer, and indeed as they worked, a low chant mingled with the noise of industry, adding another eerie element to a scene already unusual beyond reckoning.
The acolytes at work paid the Russian little heed as he passed through their benches to the storerooms at the rear. He was none of their concern. He had brought them what they sought and he provided what initial instruction was required, but now he was outgrowing his use. They regarded him with increasing ambivalence. Only the word of their lama kept him here, and their lama required he be treated with respect and deference. In return Zukharov kept out of their way and paid their customs all the cursory respect that a man who has long lived among strangers takes as second nature. His tongue was barbarous to them; a polyglot mix of Tibetan and Chinese ensured a broken flow of communication among the bulk of the monks. It was only with their agent in the outside world that Zukharov had any dealings of importance with, and that agent appeared only when Zukharov was needed, and once the first few months of his residence had passed, that need grew less and less.
The arms dealer’s mind was full of none of these things though as he made his way into the room where the gunpowder was stored in the rear of the large foundry. Once there he proceeded to engage in what would have appeared to be a series of very puzzling actions had anyone been there to take notice of them, but none were, and so Zukharov carried out his task unnoticed, moving casually among the barrels, and left as quietly as he came. If any of the monks had suspected what had just occurred, he would have been killed on the spot. After all, he had just sealed their doom.
Lieutenant Byron Baker of the North-West Frontier Force’s Guides Infantry was not in the habit of waiting for his own death quietly. He was not in the habit of being captured. He was not in the habit of being beaten, literally or figuratively. He was in the habit of marching, commanding, shooting, stabbing and killing and doing all of it tremendously well. The Guides Infantry had earned their reputation more times over than nearly any other soldiers under the banner of the Queen, and Byron Baker had on more than one occasion been a part of the reason for this, despite whatever personal failings he may have possessed.
As he sat, huddled in his cell, his back a bloody mass of cuts and welts, he channeled his pain into anger. The fire in his wounds became a fire in his mind, an unquenchable desire to escape and make good on his promise to put a bullet in the guts of every monk in shooting range and to give a kick in the balls to all those in reach. Now that desire seemed ready to manifest. The Russian arms dealer, Zukharov, had told him many interesting things earlier that hour. His oldest and dearest friend lived, there were yet six Gurkhas held captive, and the pundit Chandra Singh stewed much as he did in a cell much the same as his. He learned that all were very, very close. In the same hall, in fact. And he learned that they were all sentenced to die, slowly, terribly, painfully, very, very soon. And he learned that he was to do absolutely nothing.
This was unacceptable to Baker. His life had been built on action, on movement, on march and countermarch, on the swift skirmish and the quick draw. Now he was being told to wait. His soldier’s instincts balked at the suggestion of waiting for death. His fatalism had flourished during the Second Afghan War. He did not fear dying exactly. What he did fear was dying without glory, without a fight. He would not go quietly, and Zukharov’s plan seemed to insist that he appear to do just that.
‘That damned parasite is our only hope to escape this place…’ he thought.
‘But won’t this be a grand story for the officer’s mess?’
Chandra Singh prayed in the gloom of his cell as he had never prayed before. He did not consider himself a religious man, but the faith of his fathers had always been a comfort to him in times of dire circumstance. The imminent future most certainly counted among the direst he had ever found himself in. Prior secret service in Tibet had seen him roughly handled, brutally questioned and forcibly ejected from the country several times over. He had beaten armed bandits alone in the hills of the Hindu Kush. He had outshot Afghan hill men in Khyber Pass. He had mapped the most forbidding passes of Chitral alone. Never before had he faced mad monks in the Himalayas. More importantly, never before had he been asked to wait silently for death to claim him. Most importantly he had never been asked to wait silently for death to claim him by a man who should by all accounts be his true foe in all of this, the cause for all the burned villages, the man who supplied the rifles that saw men, women and children and Gurkhas butchered, the man who was at the root of the entire expedition in the first place.
Yet this Russian arms dealer, unscrupulous, disagreeable, held out to Singh that one thing that might make him, for a moment at least, palatable.
It was this hope that caused the hard pundit to listen, and it was this hope that spurred his prayers onward to whatever god would listen.
Havildar Benny Fish had been extremely glad to know that two more of his men yet lived in addition to the three he shared his cell with. He had been thrilled to learn of the survival of the Lieutenant Byron Baker, relieved to hear that Chandra Singh still drew breath, and overjoyed to discover that the burra sahib, Captain Braxton Fitzroy, was alive, slightly less than well, but more than willing to make good on his desire to see all men under his command leave this place.
He had been less than happy to hear all of this from a man who was by all rights his foe in the matter of the expedition, but he was canny enough to recognize that the Russian was the lesser of two evils, at least for the time being.
All of this he related to his men, and they thanked their gods, for hadn’t their Havildar been correct when he said that answers would present themselves in due time? What they did not thank their gods for was the immediate future they all faced, for when the monks entered their dark cell with guttering lamps that cast an eerie pall over their tattooed flesh, the promises and plans of one Russian arms dealer seemed hollow things but for the hope of escape they held…
Captain Braxton Fitzroy sat cross-legged on his cot, his eyes closed, his breath whispering in and out of his nose, his mind playing over what was to come again and again and again. When the door to his room opened, and the glow of a lamp filled the dark corners, he opened his eyes, and he saw the madman whose actions had brought him here.
He was slightly disappointed. He liked the men he was soon to kill to look as evil as their acts. Sadly this had rarely been the case in his career.
He knew him to be the lama of the monastery by the embroidery of his robes and the imperious tilt of his head. Several monks swept in behind him, their heads bowed, their hands tucked into their sleeves. Two carried rifles, which they swiftly trained on Fitzroy, the rest no doubt had weapons concealed on their person.
The Lama moved curiously, haltingly, like a puppet on strings, as he closed the distance between himself and Fitzroy. His bodyguards glided along behind him, their steps noiseless beneath their red and black robes.
He stopped before the Englishman, craning his neck, looking for all the world like a vulture examining a fresh corpse. His eyes were small and heavily lidded, and glowed with a fevered look, his face was a mass of wrinkled flesh and tattoos. Fitzroy examined these closely, his face an impassive mask, before he locked eyes with the madman whose actions had led Fitzroy and his men to this place, this dark place on the roof of the world.
The lama did then something Fitzroy did not expect. He spoke. It was the most curious mixture of Chinese, English and Kashmiri Fitzroy had ever heard…
“You are the Englishman, Fitzroy.”
Braxton cocked a brow, slowly nodding once, his eyes searching the lama’s face for any hint of what might be next.
“You are the bringer of death, the storm crow. Where one of your kind walks, more follow with their guns and their flags and their priests. You English are the doom of men. You think that machines and war will bring peace and enlightenment. You are wrong. You are fools. My people do not yet understand how much of a poison you are, but I do. My monks do. We will fight you, Englishman. We will keep you from the sacred places. We will drive you from this place. The villages were nothing. They stunk of you, English. The plains of India stink of you, English. The world stinks of you. I have seen it. I have walked it. Your poison spills into the earth and into the seas and you have the arrogance to claim all of it for your Queen, an old woman who sits in a high windowed palace, a woman who has never seen her own Empire, never seen the suffering of her people, the tears and the blood and the war. Ignorance. Ignorance. Ignorance!”
The lama spat these last three words, quaking with a righteous anger, gazing off into a black corner of the room. He collected himself, muttering a prayer, thumbing the beads he wore around his neck.
Braxton normally knew better than to argue with madmen, but his present circumstances got the better of him. He wrestled his words into the same sort of pigeon language the lama used, his natural talents stretching themselves as he searched for the words.
“You would fight violence with violence? You would kill innocents to harm us? This is madness.”
The lama himself up, birdlike.
“Madness? Madness? Madness? We are saving them, English. We are saving them from you! Better to die than be slave to the English. Better to walk the path for lifetime after lifetime than live under English rule!”
“You are a fool. Have you never once stopped to consider how much good we have done? We have brought the world to India. We have brought civilization wherever we go! Where we rule, there is justice and order! You would bring about anarchy! Bloodshed!”
“WE WOULD BRING PEACE!”
“This is not the way of the Buddha. This is not what your religion preaches.”
“You would DESTROY our religion. You would stable your horses in our temples. You would defile our women. Piss on our sacred shrines!”
“This is lunacy. We want nothing to do with Tibet. We want nothing to do with these damned mountains.”
“Lies. You and the Russians scheme and plot and fight over us. You seek what you shall never have, never have, never have. I shall see it is so. I shall safeguard us all. My monks will sweep you from the land and back into the sea from where you came. Your stink will not infest this place. The wind of the Himalayas will blow it away. Your light shall go out like a candle in the wind. And you, English Fitzroy, you will be first.”
The lama turned abruptly, snapping his fingers, gathering his robes and fluttered from the room. Three monks pulled Braxton from his bed, binding him roughly as he struggled. He pretended to give in, and as they dragged him from the room, Fitzroy thought one thing.
“I killed you. In Singapore,” said Braxton Fitzroy, keeping his voice as level as he possibly could.
“Obviously you are not doing a good job of this. I am here,” replied Zukharov.
“You are here. In the Himalayas. In this place. This…What is this place?” Fitzroy managed, his eyes casting about in the gloom.
“This, my friend, is the monastery you have so diligently sought. You and your trained Nepalese hounds.”
Braxton started. The faces of his men leapt to his mind, and a wave of guilt and concern rode to the fore.
“My Gurkhas! How many survived? If you have killed them Zukharov…”
“Worry not. Six yet remain. And you should be thanking me, my old friend. If it were not for me, you might all be dead by now.”
“And the other Englishman? Baker? Lieutenant Byron Baker? Is he alive?”
“He is alive. Although, not perhaps well. A touch tender, I am guessing. A thorough switching will do this to a man.”
“You bastard,” spat Fitzroy. “What are you doing here?”
Zukharov shook his head, taking another drag on his increasingly small cigarette.
“Your memory perhaps is faulty I am thinking, from the loss of blood and the beating you were given by our Tibetan hosts…”
“You sold them the rifles. You’re behind all of this.”
The arms dealer shook his head, pacing the room, an amused look on his face.
“You give me too much credit my friend, far too much credit. I am not responsible for the villages. I merely provided certain necessities.”
“Why? This is not your style, Zukharov. This is a sideshow. These are no rebels. This is no cause to sell to. This is a single monastery in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere.”
“You were thinking to kill me, long ago, my friend. This you nearly succeeded in. This solved your problems, your government’s problems. It did not however solve mine. My associates in Singapore are not kind to those who do not carry out the tasks they say they will. They expect results. They expect the delivery of certain goods. This I could not do being dead, or very nearly so…”
Braxton Fitzroy rubbed his temples with a wince. This was too much to wake up to, even on the best of days. He was in far too deeply to go back now though.
“How did you survive?”
“Money. Connections. Beautiful things to have in a foreign land far from home. I think that you were not truly wanting me to die, Fitzroy. If you had wanted me dead, you would have killed me. You are not nearly so bad a shot as all that. It was dark, I give you that, but still my friend, you did not kill me. I thank you for this. It is the little things, as they say…”
Braxton clenched his jaw, a hundred thoughts flying through his mind.
“However I do not thank you for the enormous pile of problems you have left me. The men in Singapore still want their money. For time and goods wasted of course. Things that are not easily replaced…I am having to take on many not so glamorous jobs, do many degrading things. Things below my honor, Fitzroy. My honor!”
“Do not speak of honor. You have none. You were selling guns to butchers, I shot you, the men who wanted their guns grew angry that their man was not there to sell them more and they want compensation. You needn’t dance around the point.”
“Fine, fine. I have no honor. Or shame. It is a failing, I am conscious of this. The point is that I am owing much money to many people and they are growing impatient and my time is running very short. Several ventures of mine have done a less that satisfactory job so far as financial remuneration is concerned. Several men in Egypt are misplacing certain things, a doctor in Istanbul has had the misfortune of dying on me and there is an Afghan that is most desirous of a new Winchester rifle and a kennel full of attack hounds. This is a curious order, to be sure. I do not usually deal in live goods, as you know…”
Fitzroy barked a laugh at ‘live goods.’
“…However, I am doing my very best. The strangest of jobs though, is this one to be sure. You are asking how I have come to be in these borderlands of Tibet, in this strangest of company, here at the very roof of the world. It is very cold, Fitzroy. I am Russian to be sure, but I have spent much time in the south and I am growing accustomed to the heat, I think. Regardless, the reason for being here is long and complicated, but I will explain as best I can…”
Zukharov dragged a flimsy wooden chair over to Braxton’s cot, spinning it around so that the chair back faced Fitzroy. He sat down, crossing his arms over the top, and placing his chin on them.
“I was in Cairo you see, after Singapore and Istanbul and Afghanistan, in a very small and very dirty coffee house. I was enjoying myself immensely in the Arab style, having a grand time doing nothing in particular. Checking my books, balancing my accounts, doing as a good businessman does in his leisure hours. This is to say, busywork to distract me from my troubles. I had left these behind for the moment. I was approached then, through the smoke and the smell of coffee by a very curious specimen of humanity. It was a man, swaddled in thick robes, yellow and red and black. He was stooped. Wizened. He was like something from a novel. From your Dickens, perhaps. Or Dostoevsky. A crumpled and blackened piece of paper in too much cloth.”
“Your powers of description are legendary, florid and not appreciated, Zukharov. Your point, now,” prodded Fitzroy.
“Yes, yes, as I was saying. He deposited himself before me, and taking no coffee and no pipe, he stared at me most queerly. I was unnerved, to be sure. This is an odd sensation for me, you understand. Men do not often disturb me. I deal with the dregs of our sex daily. This little one however, had a strange power behind his eyes. He was an oriental. I guessed Chinese perhaps, some mongrel breed from the Taklaman. He did not look like any proper Chinaman to me, though. There was something off. After a very long while he began to speak in the most curious mix of Chinese, English and Kashmiri I have heard in my entire life. It took me many minutes to decipher exactly his meaning, but the crux of it all was clear enough. He was a monk, he was from Tibet and his lama wanted rifles. Many rifles. Modern rifles. Things with which to kill the English. Now Tibet is very far from Cairo, and I had many questions for this man, but he was not talkative and he silenced me most effectively when he concluded his speech with, ‘there is far more where this came from,’ and passed to me the most valuable idol I have ever had the pleasure of holding. It was a Buddha, Fitzroy, a Buddha made of solid gold and encrusted with tiny jewels. Rubies, diamonds, sapphires, opals, the thing shone in that coffee house like a beacon in the dark! Such a thing of value in such a den of ill repute is bound to attract the wrong sort of attention. I hid it away, the little man disappeared, and I set about selling the little thing for as much as I possibly could. I realized my friend, that working for these monks would be potentially far more lucrative than any dozen projects I could possibly take on at any given time. I was of course suspicious. Things such as this are often suspect in my trade. It was too good to be true, as they say. This idol was no joke though. I cut the jewels from the thing and paid off nearly half of the debts I owed. This little oriental was to be my own personal savior if he kept up this practice of largesse!”
Zukharov stretched, taking one last drag of his cigarette. It turned to ash all the way to his fingertips before he flicked the last meager bit into a corner.
“That was my last Turkish cigarette. I had been saving it for this, my friend.”
Braxton still lay there, propped on his elbows. His body still ached from head to toe. The wounds would hurt for a long time yet, he knew. He only hoped he would be able to cut his way out of this place before the demands of the flesh overrode the iron of his will. Zukharov would be one of the men his steel would find before that happened. He swore it to himself. He wished the man would keep talking. It gave him time to plan, to think. Knowing Zukharov, he was not disappointed.
“So, I secured rifles for this little man. Old Berdans, as I am sure you have seen. I did not yet know how he was going to get them back to Tibet or wherever he was truly from. I did not care. So long as he received the guns, I received my idols and all were satisfied. Slowly and surely my debts ceased to mount. I was making progress. The men in Singapore suddenly were no longer quite so vengeful. However, this did not stop their desire to murder me should I not give them what it is that they desired. The little man still had need of rifles. I still had need of his gold. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, I am thinking. Suddenly however the little man disappears. He says he is going back to his monastery and that he is still in need of rifles and that I should be delivering them. I objected of course. However he was…persuasive. Gold is a lubricant in all such dealings. He also stated that he would act as my guide. His monks would need training, said he. I am no drill instructor, I reply. He says that he knows I was once a soldier. I was quite taken a back at this. No one knows this. You know this, I know this, but this small man from Tibet, how is he to know such things? He told me many disturbing things then. He recited events from my past that I had not spoken of to anyone in a very long time and this made me very curious, and this is something I admit to no one, ever, my friend, but…he made me afraid…”
Zukharov trailed off. He shivered then in his jacket, rubbing his palms together, his eyes for once far off.
“You? I do not believe it,” said Fitzroy.
“No one could know what this little man from Tibet told me, Braxton,” said Zukharov, using the Englishman’s first name, “no one.”
“So you agreed then. You agreed to follow him here. To secure more weapons and to train these mad men.”
“I did. The gold, Fitzroy. The gold, and the knowledge. I need the gold, and he knew too much. Too much. I followed. I nearly died once, my friend. I do not wish to experience this again.”
Zukharov recomposed himself, his eyes locking onto Fitzroy’s now as he leaned into his chair, towards the prostate Englishman.
“My friend, your coming here is a blessing.”
Braxton leaned back, suspicious now.
“I am a beast in a gilded cage here. These monks are indeed mad. They are not true Buddhists anymore. They have perverted their religion in service of a blind fear and hatred of your people. They think your armies will march into their country and destroy the fabric of their culture. They think the English are demons. They think you will violate their women, they think that your horses will be stabled in their temples and that swine will piss on their shrines. Fear is a powerful motivator, Fitzroy. I know this from personal experience.”
“I don’t care that these Buddhists have gone mad over their own delusions. My men must be saved.”
“In your pain I am thinking you are missing where I am going with this, my friend…” Zukharov pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut.
“I am very, very tired, Fitzroy. And now, I am thinking I need rest. And I will not find it here.”
“Or in the hereafter,” added Braxton.
“Your wit slays, as always. Pardon the joke….Braxton, I am enlisting your help. And the help of your men. I am in agreement. We must get out. Now.”
Fitzroy looked quizzically at the arms dealer.
“And won’t your fellow Russians object to this?”
It was now Zukharov’s turn to look quizzical.
“When I took the two monks captive they said Russians were here. I took it to mean there was more than one of you.”
“Your translator is mistaken, Braxton. There is only I.”
“There is no involvement of your government then?”
“Fitzroy, I was a soldier a long, long time ago. I have not been in years. I would sooner be shot by the Czar than engaged by him.”
“Your plan then? I take it you have one.”
“When I was hired to bring more guns here, it was also impressed upon me the importance of being able to manufacture more, as well as bullets to go with them. I thus brought with me the means to make both. They are turning this place into a foundry. In the depths of this place they have created casts, molds, all of the things one needs to create the stock of my trade.”
“Yes, yes. Ambitious little men, aren’t they? I would be impressed if I took the time to set aside my desire to escape.”
“But back to the plan. The monks have amassed quite a stockpile at this stage. The workmanship is…interesting, to say the least, but this is a good thing. Where there are mistakes in manufacture, there are bound to be accidents…the kind that reshape mountains.”
“You want to blow it all up.”
“Precisely, my friend! Most perceptive. A suitably large distraction, I am thinking. One in which we shall all be quite able to escape.”
“Not if you bring the whole damned mountain down on our heads.”
“This is something we must risk, I am sad to say. If it were otherwise, I would make things so that we were given such a guarantee. However, I cannot. It is beyond me. We must trust the swiftness of our step and the sureness of our sword arms. However, with the majority of our hosts occupied, our chances are greatly increased.”
“This is a fool’s plan.”
“And yours was a fool’s errand. The British know better than to send such a small party against an unknown foe. Where are your mountain guns? Where is your cavalry? Where are your Highlanders? Your Lancers? You come with a squadron of Gurkhas, a Lieutenant and a Sikh tracker. This is no way to mount an expedition, Fitzroy. There is no style in this. No glory.”
“Do not speak to me about glory, Zukharov. I’ve come to do my job. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more? This is not the Fitzroy of olden days then! Ha! Nothing more! Pah. I remember you in Turkestan, when you fought off a tribe of Uzbeks and shot their chieftain clean from his horse! All over a woman!”
Fitzroy’s face darkened at the recollection of those memories. This was all beginning to be too much. He did not need reminders of that past at a time like this. Before Zukharov could blink, the English officer’s hand shot out from his side, his fingers wrapping themselves around the Russian’s throat. He squeezed. Hard.
“You will not speak of that. And you will help us escape. And when this is over, you will pay for your crimes.”
Zukharov smiled through gritted teeth and he clutched at Braxton’s hand.
“The unflappable Fitzroy cracks at last…” He uttered a low, choked chuckle. “There were always more. She was not the first, or the last. Not by far. How many have died for you? How many have gone to their graves because duty and honor and the crown came first?”
Braxton forgot his wounds, he leapt from the bed, still clutching Zukharov’s throat, and dragging him across the floor, slammed him into the wall.
Zukharov again laughed through the vice around his neck.
“Goood…goood…I needed to know whether or not you were up to the task…whether your anger could push you past your wounds…now let me go now before you kill me and doom us all!”
Braxton slammed Zukharov again against the wall, and then dropped him, collapsing backwards onto his cot. The arms dealer gasped and rubbed his throat, buckling against the stones behind him, croaking out the following words…
“We have much work to do now, and very little time in which to do it…now listen closely…all of this depends on the most exact timing. They are coming for you, and they are coming for your men. They are going to execute you, and you are going to let them…”
'One does not mix politics and passion. It leads to those early graves I spoke of.”
March 28th, 29th? 1897? 1889? 1875?
The Himalayas? Istanbul? Cairo? Tehran? Baku?
“We have much more in common than you are thinking, you and I. We are the bastard sons of countries for which we owe no allegiance.”
The man speaking was obscure behind a gauzy cloud of smoke and the fragrant haze of hashish. He paused his speech, putting aside his water pipe to sip from a small cup of coffee. The man’s monocle glinted in the light, light that was golden and diffuse, filtering though the intricate latticework windows of the room. He stretched languidly onto the pillows around him, and spoke more, slowly, meditatively.
“I simply am in acknowledgement of this, and so I do as I do. You however, are conflicted. You are pulled between the horses of duty and desire, and this my friend, this is the road to an early grave. I have seen many men pulled limb from limb for pursuing such a path.”
Braxton gazed into the ripples of his coffee, hearing the other man’s words distantly. What was he doing here? He had forgotten, and it didn’t seem to matter. She was dead. He had been responsible. What did it all matter?
“I speak and you do not listen, but you hear me, my friend, even though your eyes and your mind are elsewhere. She was young, and full of the passions of the young. She knew very well what would happen for going to you. One does not mix politics and passion. It leads to those early graves I spoke of.”
“Her father is still an agent of the Crown,” said Braxton. “I fulfilled my mandate.”
The monocle continued to shine in the darkness across from the young Lieutenant.
“What is the sacrifice of one daughter in exchange for a yearly pension in gold sovereigns and modern rifles? You know the ways of things here. Life is nothing. Death is nothing. And if this is true than we are nothing, for all we do is take one to serve the other. I do this with my trade, you with your own. The only difference is that mine lies outside the law, while yours does not. The end result is the same. Men die. Women die. It is the way of things.”
“You speak like one of them, Zukharov,” said Fitzroy as he stared into the whispering gloom of the coffee house.
“You forget that my mother was a Turk, Fitzroy.” With that, Zukharov closed his eyes, and settled again into his cushions.
Fitzroy sucked on his water pipe, and fell into the haze of the afternoon, drifting into his own private oblivion, sick with the knowledge of what he was responsible for…
Chandra Singh squinted against the light that filtered through the crack in the wall, and wrapped his tattered furs around himself against the cold that seeped through the same. They had been stuck in the belly of this monastery for too long. He was not a man to be confined. They had all been kept separate from one another since they had been captured. Singh knew that the remaining five Gurkhas had been each thrown into different cells. He knew not what had happened to the porters. He knew not what had happened to the Lieutenant Byron Baker or Captain Fitzroy. He was isolated, alone and angry. Fear was something he felt, but he smothered it with a burning desire to be free of this place. He had tried to dislodge the door to his cell repeatedly, but had ceased once he realized that the only thing he would be dislodging was his shoulder should he push against it further.
He had been knocked unconscious during the ambush on the expedition’s small camp the night before. He had awoken to the sensation of being carried over stone and snow, up and up and up into the mountains. His pundit training served him well. He counted the steps and took what few observations he could while feigning to be senseless. They had been taken higher into the peaks, to a monastery long hidden and long forgotten. They had been walked past a crowd of monks, young, old, all with the same red and black robes, all tattooed with bizarre sigils, and intoning eerie prayers, then they were sorted, searched violently, and pushed into the bowels of this place, locked into the bones of the mountain to which the structure clung.
‘I must escape…’
Lieutenant Byron Baker ground his teeth and stifled a cry as the switch came down again on his back. The stone bench beneath his chest stuck fast to his skin, his sweat and blood chilling in the air as soon as it left his body. He had been bound to the bench, and a circle of monks stood about, watching, chanting in the whipping wind. The one who whipped him was one of the two they had taken captive. An eye for an eye, so to speak.
Baker did not want to die. He had survived this long. He was nearing forty, and had seen and done far more in his lifetime than many would do in several. He was a Lieutenant of the Guides Infantry. He had proven himself under fire. This was no end for a man of his stripe.
‘I took a dozen of these bastards with me the other night and I’ll kill them all before this is through. I swore to give them all a bullet in the guts and a kick in the balls. They won’t have the satisfaction of breaking me. I won’t have it!’
The switch descended again, and Baker growled and arched his back, straining against his bonds. This continued several more times, each time the pain grew harder and harder to bear, and Baker’s jaw ached from being clenched so tightly.
Then a voice sounded out, an order from the tone of it. The switching stopped. Baker slumped. His raw back steamed in the cold. He could see little from where he was, and hadn’t the strength to stretch his neck to see more. A pair of booted feet entered his field of vision.
‘Those aren’t Tibetan boots…’ thought Baker. The man the boots were attached to crouched then to look Baker in the eye. Byron’s eyes widened. He hadn’t expected the face he saw now…
Havildar Agansing Rai, called Benny Fish by the sahibs of India clutched his chest and sucked in a deep breath through gritted teeth. He would recover, but the cuts and bruises he received during the ambush did not hurt any less with that knowledge. In his small cell, three more Gurkhas sat huddled together, speaking in low tones. Their room was a crude affair, hewn from solid rock and obviously designed to have been never anything more than a storeroom. It was dark, but their eyes had all grown used to it by now. Candlelight flickered to them from beneath the door, just out of reach. He picked himself up to join his men.
“We must find Captain Fitzroy. We must find the Lieutenant Baker. We must find the pundit Chandra Singh. We must be finding a way to retrieve our rifles, and then we must be escaping from this place. The order of things is simple,” said the shortest of the three, the Gurkha called Gaje Ghale.
None of us here are calling the order of events into question, Gaje. We are now having to come to an agreement as to how best to see all of these things carried out ‘toot-sweet’ as they say,” said the Gurkha Kulbir Thapa.
“And we might be doing them ‘toot-sweet,’ Kulbir and Gaje, by being very quiet, and using stealth to our advantage in order to best catch these bloody bastards by surprise,” said Netrabahadur Thapa, of no relation to Kulbir.
“These ‘bloody bastards’ outnumber us all. Gurkhas or no, without rifles and without support, we cannot escape without being pursued,” said their Havildar, settling himself into their circle.
“Have patience. A solution will present itself to us in due time.”
Gurkhas quieted then. The word of their Havildar was law, and even if his words were sometimes enigmatic, he was seldom wrong.
“If you so much as twitch in a way that displeases me, I swear that I will end you.” Fitzroy cocked his Webley, taking another step forward, his arm held out straight, his aim true. The room was still, the air thick in the hot Singapore night. A single lantern guttered in the corner, throwing shadows over the boxes of arms stacked around the room.
“You must do as you think is right, of course, my friend,” said Zukharov.
“We have never been friends, Zukharov. I could never call a man friend who sells guns to men who butcher children.”
“Commerce, my friend. I sell Maxim guns to the Arabs, submarines to the Turks, and rifles to the Chinese. It is all the same. Men die. Women die. It is the way of things.”
“You will be arrested and tried, Zukharov. If you are very lucky, perhaps the Czar will want one of his deserters sent back to be shot. I can’t say an Indian prison would be a better fate.”
“You play at being righteous my friend, but we have much more in common than you think, you and I. And can you not recall all of the pleasant conversations we have had in our time? All of the adventures we have shared?” Zukharov had been gesticulating all the while. At this last question he spread his arms, and Fitzroy did not at first see the small Derringer fall into Zukharov’s palm from out of his shirtsleeve. He soon rectified this.
“My friend, we are both the bastard sons of countries for whi-,” Zukharov stopped speaking, and looked down at the spreading dark stain on his shirt. Braxton’s Webley smoked in the darkness, his face a gaunt mask in the lamplight.
“I am not your friend, Zukharov,” said Braxton, as the world blurred before the Russian’s eyes and he sunk slowly to the floor.
Fitzroy’s eyes fluttered, he cried out, and started awake. A lamp guttered dimly in the corner of a small room. It was dark, and only the sound of his labored breath and the beat of his heart drummed in his ears. It took a moment for anything to register fully. He was in a rude cot, swaddled in torn blankets and dressed in his uniform. His coat had been taken, as had his helmet and weapons. They had been in an ambush. He had been wounded. He fell unconscious. Where was he? What had happened? A million questions whirled inside his mind but he quieted them all with a discipline born of years and experience. He forced his breathing to slow; he could hear his heartbeat calm. He took stock of his situation as his vision cleared. He could make out something odd in corner of his eye. Something glinted in the there, a cloud of smoke obscuring a face that could not be here, should not be here. A monocle shone in the darkness behind the smoke, and through the smoke stepped a man. The face beneath the monocle puffed thoughtfully on the stub of a cigarette, smiling an enigmatic smile.
“It is so good to see your face again, my friend.”
The Daedalus Expedition, 1897 - March 28th, 2:37 AM
March 27th, 1897, 2:37 A.M.
Eight Days into the Expedition
Havildar Agansing Rai, called by all the sahibs who knew him as ‘Benny Fish,’ trusted his Captain, Braxton Fitzroy. They had been through much together. They had fought and bled and upheld the integrity of the Empire for nearly ten years. Their friendship had lasted through long absences, bloody conflict and the gap that separated an Englishman from his men in India. To Fitzroy there was no such gap. It’s what made him such an effective commander. The respect he was afforded was on the quiet strength of his character, the bravery he showed in all things, and his willingness to share in all the hardships of his men. In all else about the man though, there were many gaps. Despite having known him for such a long period of time, Benny Fish could still not say that he truly knew Braxton Fitzroy. He didn’t know if anyone could claim that privilege. All the Havildar knew was that one of his men had died, and a fine Gurkha had gone to join all those who had gone before in the service of Queen and Country.
These were the thoughts that passed through his mind in the cold pre-dawn air, as he stood his watch along the perimeter of the small camp, and these were the thoughts that perhaps prevented him from seeing what was to come….
Braxton Fitzroy would not sleep this night. He paced his tent, the two monks they had taken prisoner the afternoon before sat bound and gagged, tied to a tent pole, staring with an eerie vacancy at him. Chandra Singh stood off to one side of the entrance to the tent, rifle in hand, a flinty gaze fixed on their captives.
‘Russians…’ thought Fitzroy.
‘I’d told myself that I would do no more than my mandate. That I would assess the situation and take only what action is necessary. This changes everything. We knew that they had designs on Tibet. The Pandjdeh Incident showed us all just how close they are to our borders. And then the meeting of Gromchevsky and Younghusband…Our men can wave at one another across the passes in the Pamirs in some places. Their Maxim guns stand frozen in the mountains in the direction of their borders, as our own do in their’s. Nine Gurkhas, two Englishmen, one pundit, a handful of porters. All of this against an unknown number of fanatics… and I have more to live for than I once did.’
A cry split the silent night air then, cutting through the mountain wind and straight into Fitzroy’s bones. Another sounded out. Then another. The two bound monks smiled then, closing their eyes and began to mumble a dull and eerie chant through their gags. Chandra Singh cocked his rifle and bolted through the tent flap, and with his departure came the crack of gunfire and the sound of a hundred echoing battle cries. Braxton knew the sound too well.
A flood of memories welled from the sound, like blood from a wound. He had heard it before, years ago in Afghanistan during the storming of the Sherpur Cantonment outside of Kabul. Then he had been a part of an army, 7,000 British soldiers against 50,000 native warriors. Here the numbers seemed just as poor.
He drew his Mauser from within his coat, made of his heart a stone, and gave over all fear to the rush of what was to come. He stepped through the flaps of his tent, out into the frigid indigo night, the chaos and the fire.
There was no time for thought, all things moved too quickly.
Men garbed in black and red swept over the small camp with knives and swords and flails, and Braxton saw Benny Fish fall to the ground, his form quickly being swallowed by a mass of howling monks. Another Gurkha drew his kukri and pulled his knife through the belly of one monk who drew near. Then he too was felled. Then his view of the rest of the camp was obscured by the whorl of battling men.
A swirling robe and a flashing sword flew to Fitzroy and he fired his gun, then he fired it again and again as monks drew close, closer and closer, surrounding him, howling, the air alive with the crack of gunfire and the screams of men and Fitzroy fired until his Mauser clicked and he knew there were no bullets left. He pulled a Webley then from within his coat and drew his saber and was swallowed by the weight of a dozen fanatics.
He cut his way through them, he was nothing now but bullet and blade, he had become one with his tools, tools he had used again and again in the service of the Empire, tools he knew too well how to use. He would not die like a coward in these blasted mountains. He roared his defiance with a lion’s strength; he parried blows and dealt them with a savagery that set the fanatics back. They came again, another wave, another crash of steel and blood.
He stuffed his sword into the gut of one man and shot the face off another who drew close with a bloodcurdling scream. Kicking the man from his sword and aiming his gun again, more monks fell. A sharp pain spread across his back then and he knew only his thick Afghan coat had saved him. He dropped to one knee to duck a swinging sword, spinning and shooting and cutting, no finesse, and no subtlety. He would not die without a fight. He would take a hundred of them with him. He had seen too much, done too much to go quietly and quickly.
More came, more died, and always more replaced them. He fought and fought and knew not time, and seconds seemed as hours then as he limbs grew leaden and his foes kept coming.
His right leg gave out from under him as a flail swept him from his feet, a sword barreled straight towards his face and he rolled left, then right, to avoid splitting his skull. Fitzroy fired a shot into the face of the man who swung at him, another into the arm of he who knocked him from his feet, and then the Webley too, gave out. He kept yelling, swinging his saber, rolling awkwardly to one knee, too exhausted to do more, too full of fire to give in.
The monks parted suddenly, the blows ceased, and their howls were halted by a single barked order. As quickly as it had all began, it ended.
A small man swathed in prayer beads and blood stained cloth stepped forward. He said nothing. His small dark eyes took in the prostrate form of Fitzroy and he nodded once, saying something brief and sharp to a monk behind him.
The screams had stopped. It had all stopped, Fitzroy finally noticed. The silence was eerie. The blood stopped pounding in his ears, but his heart still beat, fit to burst within his chest. The wind whipped powdery snow through the air, whistling a low forlorn dirge. His back stung horribly, and he could feel more wounds, a myriad of pains where before there had been only adrenaline.
The monk said more, but suddenly all seemed to swim before Fitzroy’s eyes. The world blurred. As he fell forward, he saw something curious, a vision from his past, stepping forward through the crowd of monks. That was absurd though. That man had no business being in Tibet. He was dead.
The Daedalus Expedition, 1897 - The night of March 26th
His eyes opened slowly, coherency and sense slowly returned to his mind with a sickening ache in his skull and the sound of an alien tongue in his ears. One rumbled with a barely suppressed rage, the other with restraint.
“Lieutenant Baker, I will NOT lose more men in these mountains to another ambush.”
“We must be close now, dammit! Let’s push forward and catch the bastards and put an end to this damn expedition swiftly!”
“I will question the prisoners before I take any more action. That is all, Baker. You are dismissed.”
“This could all be over by tomorrow, Braxton! We’ll march all night and catch them before morning! The rest must be close! Whatever happened to that Captain of the 3rd Sikhs who drove eight Pathans single handedly from a hill with nothing but a half empty Webley, a sword and a gut full of brandy and fire? Where is the Fitzroy who fended off the rogue cossacks of Crazy Ivan on the bare steppes of Turkestan? Or who was thrown to the tigers of Prince Maharbal and climbed out alive? Good god man, what has happened to you?”
“That is quite enough, Byron Baker! You. Are. Dismissed.”
All of this meant nothing to the bound monk, of course. He understood nothing of English. All he knew was hatred. It did not dim with the passing of one Englishman from the small tent and the entrance of the tall, spare Kashmiri pundit that he had nearly killed today in the ambush.
He looked to his left. There too was bound one of his fellows. That one groaned as he awakened, and jerked against his bonds once he realized where he was.
“Singh, have the older one stand. I need him to watch.”
Byron Baker heard the first muffled cry from Braxton’s tent before he’d gotten into the third pull on his flask. The sting of the brandy and the warmth that spread down his front and the bite of the cold night air distracted him from his anger for a moment. The second cry brought him back to his present situation.
The monks couldn’t be far. There were more, of that all of them were certain. The ambush had been a delaying action.
‘We got too close and the bastards got scared. Well I’ll give them something to be scared of. I’ll give them all a bullet in the gut and a kick in the balls for wasting my damned time in these godforsaken mountains,’ thought Baker.
He made his way into the small camp, where a few Gurkhas and porters sat around the pitiful campfire. The Gurkhas were all sharing stories about Sahi, their brother in arms, killed in the earlier fighting. One of the porters left the fire, and went off to tend to the pack mules. The remaining one stared off into the darkness with darting eyes. Perhaps he was scared. Baker decided to bolster the man’s courage, assuage his own resentment, and sauntered into the circle, greeting the soldiers with a feigned grin and a nod. He threw his arm around the shoulder of the porter, and took another sip from his flask. The brandy was particularly strong.
“Jolly rousing affair today, what? You can hardly understand me, can you?No problem you crazy looking little coolie. You just listen. I’ll speak…” Baker pulled the man up to his feet and together they began to walk slowly away from the fire, around the perimeter of the camp, Baker’s arm acting as rudder to the much smaller man from Sikkim.
“This is nasty little affair, little coolie, a very nasty affair. A man has died, and for what? So that we can chase a group of robed lunatics for another week up into these mountains? The real fighting in on the Northwest Frontier, old man. That is where the glory is. That is where the medals are. But who cares for such baubles? Not I. All I know is that these yellow blighters don’t stand a chance against good English steel, old boy. There will be more fighting in the days to come. We will drive these bastards back over the border into their heathen Tibet and that will be the end of it… That is, until we march back over these hills with an actual army to do the job properly and simply take the damned country. A day will come when we do, mark my words…”
Baker continued to ramble. It was obvious to the porter that it might be unwise to interrupt. He was cold anyway, and walking kept him a little warm. Then Baker found a discarded bowl and offered him some of his foreign liquor. The porter began to see why the English were so fond of it…
Chandra Singh stepped back from the monk, looked to Fitzroy and spoke, “He is telling the truth.”
Fitzroy clenched his jaw and stared hard at the coughing and bruised man on the floor and the bound man beside him. The hatred in both their eyes had lessened somewhat from before. Braxton spoke one word.
“Russians, sahib,” replied Chandra Singh.
“Russians in the Himalayas.”
“Russians, in the Himalayas, sahib.”
“Things have just become far more complicated…”
The porter had seen Lieutenant Byron Baker off to his tent for the night after having his ear bent for the better part of an hour. While his grasp of the particulars of English might have been loose, he more than understood one thing. There would be more fighting and more death before all of this was through. He did not know English, and he did not know very much else for that matter, but he did know that he did not wish to die.
He glanced furtively about the camp. The Gurkhas kept a loose watch or huddled around the fire, talking about their dead comrade. The perimeter was unguarded. The night was dark. It was cold. Under the effects of strong drink, all of this seemed like a perfectly good time to run.
He gathered what little remained of his supplies and cautiously made his way through the tents, past the pack mules and his sleeping fellow porter and slipped away, off into the night.
He had made it nearly a quarter of a mile over rocky ground and treacherous trail when he was grabbed violently from behind, shoved to the ground, and found himself staring into the face of a man swathed in red and black robes. More gathered around. And then he saw something else, a booted foot moving swiftly towards his head. Then he saw no more.
The Gurkha sepoys Gurung Sukbahadur and Sahi Gopal were both brave men. They had fought under Havildar Benny Fish many times in many places for the many English sahibs of India, and they did not question why they did as they were told. They fought with disciplined ferocity, they were well paid, they were fed, and life was simple. To do as one is told and to earn honor and glory in the process was not something any good Gurkha worth his salt would scoff at. They did not even scoff now, when they ascended into the sharp crags of the Himalayas, on an uncertain mission in a disputed land. They trusted their Havildar, and they trusted the burra sahib Captain Fitzroy. He did not pretend at affection like the Lieutenant Baker did, and he spoke a great deal less.
“But I am not minding our Lieutenant, Sahi, this you must understand,” said Gurung, “I am merely saying that he speaks a great deal.”
“This I understand, Gurung,” said Sahi, “this I agree with. The Lieutenant speaks a very great deal about many things.”
“This is very true, Sahi,” said Gurung, “but I am not minding him.”
“Of course not,” said Sahi, “not at all. He is a rather charming fellow.”
“Most charming,” replied Gurung, “a real pukka sahib.”
“Most pukka,” replied Sahi, “jolly good and all that, as they say.”
The conversation continued quietly in much the same vein for quite some time as the two Gurkhas followed behind the pundit, Chandra Singh, as he tracked their quarry, his eyes to the stones and the turf and the sky above as he led the expedition after their elusive monks.
Elusive, that is, until the three men rounded the next switchback trail, for there, ahead of them, waited ten men in black and red robes. All of them carried rifles, and at the sight of their pursuers, all of them began to put them to good use.
Singh buried himself in a crack on the safe side of an outcropping, and Gurung did the same. Sepoy Sahi moved too slowly and was too late.
He jerked backwards as bullet after bullet reached their mark.
“SAHI!” screamed Gurung. Singh grabbed the collar of the man’s jacket and pulled him back into cover before he could make his way to his squad mate and took the young Gurkha’s chin roughly in his hand, forcing their eyes to meet.
“We wait for sahib Fitzroy! Your death does nothing to avenge him.”
Further down the trail, Captain Braxton Fitzroy, Lieutenant Byron Baker, Havildar Benny Fish, seven Gurkhas, several porters and three mules started at the sound of shots echoing throughout the pass.
“The bastards show themselves at last!” said Baker as he readied his rifle and made sure it was loaded. Fitzroy drew his Mauser from within his Afghan coat, cocked it, and turned swiftly to address the men.
“Havildar, you four, follow me! Lieutenant, you and the other three Gurkhas stay here to guard the baggage. I can’t risk this expedition falling into a trap. No arguments, Baker! Now stay here, man!”
Lieutenant Baker groaned in disgust and frustration but voiced no protest. It was too late anyway. Fitzroy and his men had already gone, bounding their way through the stones and switchback trails to where his scouts were pinned down…
Sepoy Gurung popped above his cover, firing off a shot and taking down one robed rifleman and the pundit Chandra Singh waited patiently as rock chipped about his head. His cover did not allow him to take aim effectively. He knew though, that help would arrive shortly.
And help did arrive, with a cry made fearsome by it’s bloody implications…
“JAI MAHAKALI, AYO GORKHALI!”
Gurung echoed the Gurkha war cry as his Havildar and brothers in arms advanced up the steep trail, firing on the move with all the precision and cool born of experience. Behind them strode Captain Fitzroy, conspicuous and tall in his helmet and coat, there was no fear in his step, no pause in his manner. Forward, forward, forward did the Gurkhas shoot their way up the trail, under an untrained fire from monks not yet used to firing at targets that fired back. One monk stumbled backwards under a well-placed shot, then another, and another, until six monks were left to shoot. These scrabbled for better cover among the stones, and the Gurkhas advanced, laying down a hail of fire, enough to keep them pinned, enough to kill any who ventured out of cover.
“Havildar, take two alive,” spoke Fitzroy over the staccato crack of bullets.
“Two, sahib?” answered Benny Fish.
“Yes. One to make the other talk…”
“Yes, sahib.” Benny Fish barked the order to his men and to the sepoy pinned further up the trail. The Gurkhas ascended swiftly now that their foes fire had been disrupted, and Captain Fitzroy drew his sword as the distance closed between them. His Gurkhas let loose a cry then that chilled as easily as the Himalayan wind as they charged their long sought foes.
The monks rose from their cover, firing off a few ineffective and high shots, but as the first died with a bullet in his belly at point blank range, they exchanged their rifles for swords.
The Gurkhas kept firing until they closed with their foes, which soon numbered three. One’s skull met with the butt end of a rifle hard sharply enough to kill him. Then there were two.
Six Gurkhas now closed in on two monks, and the monks showed no fear. They let loose a prayer-cry and ran swinging at the men who had chased them for so long, their swords ornate and shining in the cold air. One Gurkha raised his rifle to intercept a savage downward swing, Havildar Benny Fish moved panther-like aside the attacker, and tackled him to the ground, dealing him a sharp blow to the head with the butt of his gun, knocking him senseless.
The last monk snarled and spat, swinging his blade in arcs wide enough to make the circle of Gurkhas stand back.
Gurung dropped his rifle, drawing his kukri, the traditional curved blade of the Gurkhas, and closed with the monk. There was no finesse as the sepoy barreled through the monk’s guard and through brute force attempted to bring him to the ground.
“Alive, Gurung, alive!” yelled Benny Fish.
The monk used the Gurkha’s own force against him then, and swiftly threw him to the ground. Oblivious to the rifles and blades turned against him and with a fanaticism burning in his eyes, he readied his sword for a killing stroke.
Braxton reached them all then, raised his Mauser, and coolly put a bullet into his leg.
The following is an excerpt from the partially recovered diary of Lieutenant Byron Baker. It was passed on to Havildar Benny Fish prior to Baker’s disappearance and subsequent enlistment in the Foreign Legion. His reasons for doing this are unclear. Perhaps he wished that by exposing his thoughts to public scrutiny he might gain some measure of peace and vindication from the events that were to come.
March 20th, 1897
The lowest passes of the Himalayas
Two days into the Expedition
We’ve been following the trails the pundit, Singh, and Braxton laid out before we began. We passed through one of the villages that were attacked. It was probably a stinking little thing to begin with. The scent of death hasn’t added to it’s charm.
I have a hard time believing the old boy when he tells me that monks are responsible for this. ‘Singh has seen them,’ he says. Well perhaps Singh has. I, however, need to see one with my own eyes before I can wrap my head around this whole affair. Holy men as a general thing do not go about putting bullets into children.
The only monks I’ve ever seen were respectable old fellows. They spout wisdom, or what passes for wisdom in these parts, grow fat and rich on tribute secretly hoarded, die, and the truly crackerjack ones become saints. Or they go the other route, wasting away, begging with a bowl at the side of the road, and hoping their ascetiscm will carry them to Nirvana one step faster. Not an attractive life as far as I am concerned. Give me glory, give me a good fight, and give me wine, women and song!
I hope these blackguards show themselves soon.
Ten Gurkhas, two British officers, half a dozen porters, and three mules wended their way through the lower hills of the highest mountains in the world. By day the weather was fair, erring on the colder side of mild, for it was nearing spring. By night the temperature plunged, and all were glad for their furs and fires. These had been kept small to avoid detection in this barren country, where trees grew scarce and stone grew wild, and the earth stretched out for the heavens.
Baker wondered aloud during one march whether or not the proximity of the ground beneath their feet to the sky above their heads quickened the flight of one’s soul to heaven in case of death. He said this in jest. He was not a religious man. The Gurkhas laughed, the porters laughed because the Gurkhas did, and Fitzroy and Singh said nothing.
This continued for a day or two more, as Singh tracked their quarry with varying success. Discarded rifle shells, scraps of saffron cloth from a rock-caught robe, old cook fires and a handful of charred huts clustered into gatherings too small to term a proper village; these were their signposts, and Singh led them on with all the determination of a hound hot on the heels of a fox.
Onward they went, onward and onward, and the braying of mules and the slow marching of men filled each rocky pass.
Slowly they began to climb into the Himalayas themselves, and each day brought new evidence that they were on the proper path. Singh claimed that the men they sought grew close. They hunted monks, not soldiers, and monks are not always trained in the art of disguising one’s trail. And they were careless. In their haste they became clumsy, or so Lieutenant Baker was convinced…
“They may as well have left a trail of bread crumbs, old boy! We’ll trace these buggers back to their cave in no time and be back before the month lets out, eh? I only hope they give us a good fight for all the trouble we’ve gone through.”
The Gurkhas gave a ripple of consent, patting their kukris and chambering rounds into their rifles and nodding at Baker’s sentiment. He circulated among them, patting them on the back, making jokes and playing the part of the brother-in-arms that he was so fond of. Fitzroy smiled.
He never understood all the foul remarks that had been whispered about his friend since their boyhood. Petty rivalries? Slander? Taking claim of honors he had not personally won? Recklessness? He had never seen anything but the best from Byron Baker. Or so he convinced himself, again and again. As Fitzroy sat that night before his tent, pipe in hand, smoking meditatively, he thought about these things. He gazed up at the stars, shining with unreal clarity in a sky turning from the blood red of dusk to the deep indigo of night. He thought about his mission, and he thought about his past; about people and places and things that he had done and said, and he thought about them all in the cold, clear air on the roof of the world.
‘The Countess…Surely not. Surely not…Not Byron. Never Byron. They whisper. But they lie. Just as I do. Just as I must. I must lie to uphold lies. Lies told in the service of good. For the Empire.’
Just then a bit of schoolroom doggerel swam up from the depths of his memory, a little thing, a nursery rhyme, one he had thought long forgotten.
‘E is for Empire, for which we would die…’
This thought, like all the other unquiet thoughts that passed through Captain Braxton Fitzroy’s mind that chill Himalayan night, floated away on the wind with the smoke of his pipe.
Braxton Fitzroy knew better than to wake so swiftly. Every gallant wound gained in youth came back at once to protest loudly as he leapt from his hard barrack room mattress and swung his feet onto the cold mud brick floor. With every wince came a memory.
An Afghan’s sword cutting through the flesh of his arm…A Mahdist bullet embedding itself in his ribs…There was the old riding injury to his knee…The claws of a tiger raking their way across his back…The teeth of an eastern European countess biting into the side of his neck…
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘perhaps that one was worth it.’
A score of similar old friends registered themselves as he walked to his desk, like soldiers at roll call. He welcomed them. Each pain he had to live with meant one death he had escaped.
A bundle of letters lay there, some from the Intelligence Bureau at Simla, some from London, none of them with anything important to say. At least nothing relevant to the expedition he was to mount.
The porters and mules had been hired, and the Gurkhas equipped. All was packed and ready. The sun had not yet risen over the eastern peaks, and Braxton’s pocket watch told him that it was 3:32 in the morning. He had two hours to prepare. His mean quarters at the fort were small and unassuming just like all the others, but he had a window. It was a small and irregularly cut thing, with two wooden shutters and goatskin covering for the frame to keep out the cold. It was March in the northern most reaches of the Indian subcontinent, and that meant that dawn was a bitter affair. He opened his windows regardless. He had grown used to the cold.
The sound of mules and men jostled through the opening, and Braxton’s lungs took in a bellow’s breath, a stinging breath, so cold was the air. He knew of no better thing to wipe the sleep from his mind.
In the interior yard of the fort below, he saw Benny Fish issuing orders to Gurkha and porter alike in an effort to make sure all was prepared for departure. The three chevrons of his jacket marked him as havildar of his men, equivalent to an English sergeant, and he had earned each of them time and time again.
‘I could ask for no finer men to take with me into these teeth of the earth.’
There was a knock at his door as he took stock of his command, followed by a most familiar voice…
“I say old boy, today is the day, eh? You up yet, man?”
Braxton pulled on his boots and buttoned his shirt as he made his way to the door, shoving his Mauser into the waist of his trousers through force of habit. He chided himself mentally for even taking such a precaution. Byron Baker was not a man he need arm himself against. He opened his door, and before him stood his oldest and dearest friend.
“Well there you are old boy. It’s a bit chilly today. Rather strange for the Himalyas, what?” said Lieutenant Baker with an easy grin.
“Your wit isn’t stopped by the cold, I see,” said Fitzroy, smiling in spite of himself. He couldn’t help it. Baker always had a way of lightening his mood.
“Rather improved, I should think. This air has the most marvelously stimulating effect on the senses. As does this coffee…Hot as the desert, black as sin and bitter as death. Your favorite, if I recall.”
Braxton turned and continued back into his room, engaging in his morning routine of shaving, washing and brushing. He had always felt it best to face the day looking smart. He hadn’t been a serving officer in many years, but he kept many of the old routines. They gave order to what was a life given entirely to it’s opposite.
Baker set down the carafe of coffee and mug he had brought for his friend and made himself comfortable in a crude wooden chair. He drank his coffee, looking out the window to the blue-black pre-dawn sky. He had been dressed for some time. Something about this expedition made him nervous, although nothing he spoke or did would have said otherwise. Like Fitzroy, he felt it best to keep up appearances. His attitude had become a ritual in some ways too. They talked of nothing in particular in those quiet pre-dawn moments, reminiscing about older days and speaking of Baker’s regiment, his commanding officers, his men, women, natives, all the talk of the military man in India.
Fitzroy finished dressing, doffing his khaki dyed pith helmet, and took his breakfast as he walked down the close mud-brick hall down the mud-brick steps onto the mud-brick courtyard that lay at the center of the mean little hill fort it’s garrison had christened “Stony Sally.”
Lieutenant Byron Baker followed after him, shrugging into his native coat and pulling down his cap. He secured his Webley revolver and jangled his sword in it’s scabbard, making sure the tools of his trade were in good order.
“I say old boy, you never did tell me where you got that German bit,” he said, gesturing to the strange pistol Braxton kept at his hip.
“No, I didn’t,” came the enigmatic reply.
“Well, out with it man. How did you find such a thing? It’s not standard issue.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Have your secrets then old boy! I suppose I should know better by now than to question an IB man!” Baker chuckled to himself as they strode into the thick of the packing.
‘Secrets, secrets, always secrets with him. That coat for instance. It’s a proper Afghan thing, not some cheap knock-off had in the Peshawar bazaar. Not a word as to where he got it. Or that sash. He’s as much a cavalry man as I’m the Viceroy of India. The less said about that ridiculous scarf, the better. All those secrets have touched him in the head more than he lets on.’
Not much about Captain Braxton Fitzroy was ‘standard issue.’ From the odd additions to his uniform to his entirely ambiguous official status, his appearance and existence flouted regulations with what might have appeared to be a sublime arrogance to some. None who had any proper dealings with the man would have called this the right word.
Havildar Benny Fish snapped to salute and let loose a loud, “Burra Sahib Captain Fitzroy!” His men immediately dropped what they were doing and did likewise with startling abruptness
Braxton nodded with satisfaction and motioned for the Gurkhas to continue their work.
“Damn fine soldiers, these Gurkhas,” said Baker. “And they quite like you, eh old boy? They come for the same reason I do. They know wherever Captain Braxton Fitzroy goes there is glory to be had.”
Braxton paused for a brief second before replying.
“They are indeed fine soldiers.”
“There you go again, getting quiet on me.”
Braxton grinned beneath his mustache.
“We have work to do, Lieutenant Baker.”
“And now you bring rank into it. This really is business then…do you feel it too?”
Braxton nodded once.
“I don’t like it, old boy. Give me a horde of screaming Afghans. I prefer my chances there.”
Braxton nodded again, and made his way into the thick of the loading of supplies and weapons, where his guide for this mission, the pundit Chandra Singh, waited stoically in his turban and furs.
“Monks,” said Braxton simply.
“Monks, sahib,” replied the pundit.
“Monks with rifles.”
“Monks with rifles, sahib.”
The two men had found a sort of camaraderie in their shared economy of words since they had met nearly a week prior. Singh was a professional. He did his job, which was mapping the forbidden passes of the Pamirs and Himalayas, and he did it extremely well. He could speak passable Tibetan, and had made his way into the country once or twice on secret service, never getting far before being forced back due to weather or rather more physical threats. That didn’t matter. All Braxton Fitzroy wanted was someone who would not get him or his men lost, someone who knew these hills and mountains, someone with knowledge of the Buddhists, and someone who could shoot a man stone dead before he’d had a chance to blink. Chandra Singh fulfilled these requirements admirably.
Fitzroy turned to look over his men. Ten Gurkhas had filed themselves into a line with Benny Fish at their head, while the native porters of Sikkim looked about with their mules, yawning in the chill air and staring at the hill fort’s sepoy garrison, which had turned out to see the small expedition off.
Baker joined him, and with the proper orders and little ceremony, Captain Braxton Fitzroy and his band made their way through the thick wooden gates of “Stony Sally” and out into the indigo dawn…
The Guides have lent me Baker, as I knew they would. He was sore to be taken from the fighting along the frontier, but when I call for him he knows there is always the hope of a good fight or two. Bluff, strong, good natured, and unafraid to die, the Empire could ask for no better soldier than a man made in Byron Baker’s mould. He is just the sort I want with me to face a screaming horde of murderous hill men.
Except according to Chandra Singh, these are not hill men. They are monks.
I’d have never thought Buddhists to be capable of great violence, at least not of the nature of the kind I’ve been sent here to stop. Singh has shown me the villages that were burned. Bodies lay strewn in the rubble; animals, and men and women and children. It was a terrible sight. Of course, there was far worse during the war, but there was a sense to the death there. You had an enemy, he stood against you. You shot at him or put your sword in his belly and he died. You took his starving goats to feed your grumbling belly and burned his home because you knew that was the only way he would lie down long enough to march further. Here there is none of that. There is no Kabul to march on. There is only a nameless stronghold in these lowest passes of the Himalayas, somewhere in those far white peaks.
Benny Fish arrived today as well, along with his squadron, as I requested. Their Colonel was perplexed by my requisition order, but when the seal of the IB is affixed to the head of a letter, regulars know better than to ask questions.
He was glad to see me, as I him. He has been of more than excellent use to me in the past. He is a Gurkha through and through. He and his men are born to these mountains. The live here, they fight here, and if asked, they will die here. I pray that will not be the case, but one can never be sure of these things.
But monks. Monks, monks, monks. Curious thing, that. “All life is suffering,” says the Buddha, but to inflict it on another?
We set out in two days, after I’ve further reconnoitered the area with Singh and arranged for porters to carry what little supplies we will be carrying. This is to be a quiet expedition. I cannot have a baggage train to slow me. We must be swift and silent, a knife in the dark.
They are sending a tiger to hunt a mouse by sending me off into these hills…
Frankly I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, and frankly I cannot blame them. With uprisings on the NW Frontier, mad mullahs and fanatical frontiersmen to deal with, I can understand their reluctance to send a larger force to stop these raids. I have been a blunt instrument for the IB before. This should be no different. And of course, the politics involved… If a fully armed and authorized British expeditionary force were to make a move on the Tibetan frontier, the Russians would of course cry foul. Keeping things small allows us to claim a certain ambiguity in our dealings. Ambiguity, of course, has been my specialty for too long for me to play at being righteous now.
I am to handpick a team of ten men, not counting my second in this matter, who of course will be Baker once again. I shall try to attach Billy Fish to this group as well. I am being assigned the pundit who did the bulk of the legwork on this entire situation as a guide. He is called Chandra Singh. Who knows what his real name is? You can never tell with these pundits.
If it is a simple case of bandits, then we shall make short work of them. Ten Gurkhas is more than enough for a hundred of these bloody hill creatures. If it is more than bandits, well, I shall stand by my mandate to ‘assess the situation’ and proceed as is appropriate. I seek no glory at this point in my life.
I think after this I shall go on leave and take the first boat headed to Suez to dissipate for a while in Constantinople. The English may as a general thing disdain the East, but can I truly call myself an Englishman?
To the casual observer, it is no wonder the Expedition has escaped notice. In the year 1897 the English were far more occupied with a series of religious uprisings on the North-West Frontier of India than they were with a group of bandits in the Himalayan foothills. It was no grand affair. Highlanders did not march to battle under the cover of tartan and the braying of bagpipes. Sikhs did not sweep the hills with a smart step and withering rifle fire. The Bengal Lancers did not pound flesh and earth with thundering hoofs and flashing steel. It was a short expedition, very small, and, on the surface, insignificant.
Or so one might think.
Ten men and a troop of porters were dispatched to halt a series of particularly brutal and unexpected raids along a disputed section of the Tibetan frontier, under the command of a one Captain Braxton Fitzroy, officially of the 3rd Sikhs Regiment, unofficially of no regiment in particular and functioning as an agent of the Intelligence Bureau of the Indian Army as well as for the Foreign Office in London. Little love was ever lost between these two organizations. The latter regarded the former as unscrupulous and the former regarded the latter as a bunch of accountants and political schemers. It is never easy to be a man with two masters.
The Expedition was launched ostensibly to enforce good English justice on what had appeared to be a simple group of rebellious Bhutanese bandits, or Tibetan army deserters. Villages had been burned, livestock stolen and lawful citizens killed during these obscure forays into the furthest reaches of the Raj, and could not continue. Obviously to let such offenses stand would be a slight to honor and the crown, and this could not go unpunished.
This is, of course, the official explanation of events. However, time has passed. Things that were once held as important secrets of state have long since outlived their usefulness, and vast stores of archives in the British Foreign Office have since been declassified.
This has been immensely useful for my research, especially regarding the players in this long veiled chapter of what is known as The Great Game, or the 19th century’s version of the Cold War, waged principally between the empires of Russia and England over India and the high mountains and vast deserts surrounding it.
What has since come to light regarding the Daedalus Expedition is of far more interest than the old “official” explanation of events, and what is to follow are a series of rediscovered photographs, correspondences and diary extracts presented in such a way so that events and personalities may be reconstructed, and so that this long obscure footnote of the Great Game and it’s unsung players be brought at last into the light…