Baker gave the pile old flesh and robes a kick.
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.