"This isn't human country! It was never meant that anyone should be here, stand, sit or walk here. This isn't country worth fighting for. Leave it to bake in the summer, freeze in the winter; leave it to bury its dead or not even to bury its dead--leave them to bleach away to nothing in the sun. What did Bismarck say? 'Not worth the good bones of one Pomeranian grenadier.' He was thinking of the Balkans or some other God-forsaken part of Europe but it's even more true of this part of India. The North-West bloody Frontier! Not worth the bones of a single gallant native Scout. Not worth the bones of a Sandhurst-trained British officer. My bones! A subaltern, who has--dammit--only been in this foul oven for two weeks."
The serrated and crumbling mountains, grey with hideous old age, black with seams of basalt, were empty, sterile and useless. Empty? Not quite. In the middle distance a lonely signal flag was frantically wagging. All the watching officers turned their binoculars on this. Someone read it off. Under attack. Carrying wounded. Three dead. Can you help?
The Colonel turned to his second-in-command. "Send this, Neil," he said. "Stand by to retreat on the Tit. Await my signal. Will cover you
." He paused for a moment. With urgent speed the signal flag swished beside him in the hands of his second-in-command. "Have they got that?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, sir, they acknowledge."
"Now send, Abandon the dead.
" The signal flag swished again at his side. "And add, Don't abandon wounded
Paddy Brownlow out there commanding the beleaguered patrol would know how to translate that--"Bring them in if you can--shoot them if you can't." Any British officer falling into the hands of the Afridi would, without question, be tortured to death. A process which would generally be extended to cover two full days especially if the women came down to join in the fun, and the same fate awaited any Hindu soldiery who might have the bad luck to fall into enemy hands.
"They acknowledge, sir."
"In that case, Neil, send Retreat
and open covering fire on the ridge . . . now!"
The three twin Lewis guns burst into a wild and deafening rattle of sound. Chips of stone began to fly and whine away from the ridge. Surely nothing could live in that?
The little temple, derisively designated "the Tit" by the British, stood half-way between the relieving force and the retreating men. A swelling dome surmounted by a blunt pinnacle, it was aptly named. The Colonel was only reasonably confident. Out there were thirty men carrying wounded under fire, doubtless running short of water, exhausted by three days in action with half a mile of country to cover and only the fragile support of his advancing relief force. But at least they'd picked up his signal and the scrambling retreat had started. Had started according to a well-worn formula: a practised leap-frog, one unit to lay back and give covering fire while another passed back through them to lay back in its turn. Orderly. Safe. Well-tried.
The Colonel turned to Neil. "Take over here, Neil, will you? I'm going in with the chaps. Just for once." His eye lighted on the young subaltern standing by. "You, Jock? Want to get a closer look at the Afridi? Come on then!"
At the double, the relieving force spread out across the naked hills under the cover of the three Lewis guns. Neil watched them with agonized pride. This was where months of practice bore fruit. How many times had they in the familiar hills around the fort attacked, defended and retreated from various familiar features? Here, though, was grim reality.
The two forces met in the shadow of the Tit. Seamed and cracked, shattered indeed by a hundred baking summers and a hundred frozen winters, little of the Tit but its dome remained to suggest that this once had been the peaceful abode of God in these hills. What must once have been a placid statement now provided at least a sketchy shelter for the relieving force to combine with the desperate patrol.
After a little congratulatory back-slapping and sighs of relief as the two units mingled, a careful roll was called. "Let's enter up the scoreboard," said the Colonel. "Let's make sure who's here and who isn't before we move. Hurry though. I don't want to stay here longer than necessary."
The word came back to him--"Four Scouts killed and five walking wounded if we get a move on. Jackie's badly hit but I think we can move him along between us." And then after a long pause, "Harry's missing."
"Anyone know what happened to Harry?"
"Last I saw of him, he was strapping up Jackie's shoulder. He was supposed to be behind us. Oh, Lord! I know what happened to him, poor sod! Got cut off and had to come back up the black nullah. Had to climb a cliff face."
"Anybody with him? You! Ahmad!" The Colonel switched easily to Pushtu and continued, "Did you see what happened?"
It emerged that the three men who'd been with him had succeeded in negotiating the cliff face, one slightly wounded, one slashed across the face by a flying chip of stone. But Harry had been hit climbing the cliff and had fallen to its foot. He'd been shot through the shoulder and one arm was useless. He'd broken his leg in two places falling down the cliff.
Harry had tried to move but he couldn't get his limbs to obey him. In his trouser pocket was a cyanide pill but he couldn't reach it. With years of experience of the frontier behind him he understood the situation in all its stark reality. If he was lucky he was within a few hours of death; if he was unlucky, within a few days. Uncomplicated, honourable and kind-hearted, Harry was well liked by all and loved by his men. The Pathan troopers he commanded were as uncomplicated as himself. They had no question at all as to what they should do. Slinging their rifles across their shoulders, they were already forming up to go straight back in and get him out but the Colonel took one further look at the terrain. Harry lay at the end of a narrow defile, thirty feet wide at the most at its base, overlooked on both sides by towering cliffs and by Afridi, each commanding a wide field of fire through which a rescuing force would need to pass. It was a lethal option.
"I'm going to have to give the order."
"Leave it!" he said. "Leave it! Prepare to fall back."
Jock mopped his red face. His hands were shaking and his eyes unfocused with remembered terror at the mad forward dash. "Bloody country!" He said it again to himself. "Who wants the bloody place? And these people? Leave them, for Christ's sake, to kill each other as they always have and as soon as possible!"
He squinted up at the hills. Was he imagining it or had the enemy fire subsided? It was nearly dusk and the dark fell abruptly in these hills. Had they given up for the day and gone home to their tea? Not willing to answer back to the Lewis guns probably. He'd heard the Afridi, like all Pathan tribesmen, were clever tacticians, brave mountain fighters certainly--none braver--but they were careful and knew when to retreat. They had the skill to disappear into the hills as silently as they had arrived. Save your men and bullets to fight another day was their policy. He listened hopefully. Yes, that's probably what they were doing. Getting out while the going was still good. It's what he would have done himself.
The men had fallen silent and were obeying the Colonel's command to prepare to withdraw back to the original position half a mile away, from where they could, under cover of darkness, make it back the five miles to their base at Fort Hamilton. Wounded were being tended, stretcher bearers were falling in.
The stillness was shattered by a thin and wavering scream. Rigid with fear, Jock said, "For God's sake! What was that?" His fellow officers couldn't meet his eye. "What the hell was that?" he asked again.
"That was Harry," said one of them at last.
The scream was repeated again and again and again. The shrill note changed abruptly to a bubbling gurgle. The silent company went methodically about their business, flinging an occasional stony glance at their commander. But for Jock, disgusted terror and helplessness were turning to furious rage. He'd only met him short days ago but Harry had been kind to him from the moment of his arrival at the fort on attachment to the Scouts, welcoming, encouraging, joking and now in the throes of a hideous death. The subaltern was a Scotsman. He was, moreover, a hill man himself, a stalker by upbringing and, reared on tales of ancestral gallantry, he had considered himself a match for anyone. The cry--the despairing cry from the gathering darkness--was heard again and was now accompanied by shouts of laughter muffled by distance but ribald and derisive.
It was too much for Jock. He cast a calculating eye on the progress of the well-drilled movements around him then began to inch away and disappeared into the shadows. Fuelled with rage and hatred he set off into the hills, remembering the terrain which he had surveyed earlier in the day, marking down occasional remembered landmarks, using the jagged country, exploiting skills acquired from a boyhood in the Trossachs. He advanced as fast as caution would let him towards the deadly defile at the bottom of which Harry lay agonizing, his screams now loud beyond bearing, even his sobs audible.
No one shot at him from the crags above. Could it be that they had all climbed down to watch the entertainment? Crouching behind a boulder he checked his pistol and felt the handle of the skian dhu that he wore, up till then as a gesture of bravado, in his sock, preparing for his assault. Red battle rage, the rage of his Pictish ancestors was burning in him, and his hands which in the race under fire to the Tit had been shaking and uncontrolled were now steady and purposeful. A creeping shadow amongst the shadows of the ravine, he inched his way forward until he had a view of the scene under a cliff overhang.
Two tall turbaned figures bent with relish over the body lying between them on the ground. Knives flashed in their hands and Harry groaned. Laughing, one of them strolled to a thorn bush and broke off a twig. Jock's stomach churned. He knew what they were doing. And he'd dismissed it as an old soldier's story told to frighten the new recruits. The death of a thousand cuts. With special Pathan refinements. Into each cut they were grinding grass and thorns. His sharp eyes swept the area with calculation. Only two men. Why only two? Why had these two been left behind the general retreat? Were they volunteers? Specialists? The night shift left in charge with orders to prolong the death until daylight when they could all muster and enjoy it?
He waited until they were absorbed in their handling and insertion of the thorns with the accompanying screams from their victim, timing his rush for the moment of greatest distraction. They didn't hear his soft footfall. The skian dhu caught one of them from behind in the heart ribs and the second looked up aghast to hear words he did not understand spat at him by a red-haired, white-faced devil. "E'en do and spare not!" the Highlander hissed and he plunged his dagger into the tribesman's neck. His severed throat spouting, the second fell across the body of his comrade.
"Harry! Harry! They're done for! It's me, Jock."
He peered hopelessly down at the naked, shattered body. He was too late. But no. The eyes fluttered open and, he was certain, recognized him. Harry tried to speak but gurgled and choked as a rush of blood, black in the failing light, poured down his chin. They'd torn out his tongue and there was only one way he could get his message through to the horrified young face bending over him. He nodded and tried to smile with his eyes and then, unmistakable to Jock, came the message. The eyes slid down to Jock's gun and remained fixed there.
"Right. Right. I understand. Leave it to me. And, look here--if I get back, I'll say all the right things to those who need to hear them. No need to distress anyone." He glanced at the broken, tortured body and added, "I can imagine what you'd want me to say."
The pain-glazed eyes looked up again at Jock's face and blinked in relief. Tearing a crucifix on a leather thong from around his neck, Jock thrust it into Harry's palm and closed his hand over it. "Rest in peace, my friend," said Jock and he put his Browning pistol to Harry's head.
There was one more thing his intense rage pushed him to do before he left the scene. Pulling up the baggy dirty shirt of the second man he'd killed, he took his knife and, in a few swift strokes, he slashed letters into the dead flesh.
With infinite care and guile, Jock began to track his way back along the defile. He had gone perhaps fifty yards when his stretched senses sounded a warning. A glint of dying sunlight on metal high up above his head made him throw himself sideways. As he did the crash of an exploding musket echoed down the canyon and shot showered past him. A jezail? Was that an old-fashioned jezail? Who the hell would be firing such a thing? The Afridi were all equipped--God knows how--with bolt-action rifles to match the Scouts' own. He'd been told that in these mountain passes thousands of British men, women and children fleeing from Afghanistan had been pinned down and massacred by just such guns. But that had been seventy years ago.
The silence and the darkness bore down on him and, the last of his courage ebbing fast, the terror of the hunted was taking its place. He ran, weaving and galloping like a hare, the sting of several ricochet wounds in his arms and shoulders urging him on.
At the Tit all was ready for the ordered retreat back to Fort Hamilton.
"Where's that new chap? Jock, is it? Anyone seen him? Someone tell him this is no time to sneak off for a pee! Wouldn't like to hear he'd got his cock shot off! He's what! When? Bloody hell! Why didn't someone . . . ?"
"Sir! Sir! Look! Over there--three o'clock--that's Jock. He's coming in now! Running for it!"
Excerpted from The Damascened Blade by Barbara Cleverly. Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Cleverly. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.