March 29th, 1897
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.
‘Zukharov…You had better come through.’