Authors: Chris Paton
Tags: #Steampunk Alternative History
“Not squalls, British.
Jamie shook his head. “Egmont told me the squalls took form in the powder clouds, they dwarfed
.” Jamie remembered Egmont’s description of them as they swirled up inside the British fleet, closing their vaporous fists in the sheets and shrouds of HMS
and Nelson’s command
. Sailors jumped, Egmont had told him, from the rigging as the masts were torn from their hulls. Sharpshooters on the French and Spanish ships picked off survivors as they clung to the flotsam and jetsam, the remains of the British ships. Jamie sighed. “Admiral Egmont gave the signal to retreat to Gibraltar shortly after the squalls ripped into the fleet.”
“And Nelson lost the battle?”
“Yes, and Gibraltar fell shortly after.” Jamie looked up at the grey snow clouds pressing down upon the dawn landscape. “It was a dark day for the Empire and the day the Royal Navy lost the seas.”
Jamie fell silent as Hari tidied up and bandaged his leg. The mystic gave Jamie a knowing look. “Djinn,” Hari patted the midshipman on the leg. “The worst kind.”
Jamie looked at his leg. He rubbed his fingers over the stitches. “How old are you, Hari?”
“How old am I?”
“Yes,” Jamie gestured. “When were you born?”
“Hari thought for a moment. “I was born on the banks of the
“Yes,” Jamie shook his head. “You know.
“In the wintertime,” Hari shrugged. “It was cold.”
“That’s it?” Jamie studied the mystic’s face. Beneath the wispy beard, Hari had smooth brown skin with what could be dimples in his cheeks. Jamie guessed that Hari was younger than he was. “You are an enigma, Hari Singh.”
“An enigma?” Hari laughed. “I knew an enigma once.”
“Yes, she was a complete puzzle to me.”
Hari Singh?” Jamie fidgeted his leg into a more comfortable position. “I should like to know more about her, Hari. But...”
“Wait a moment, British,” Hari walked over to the body of a raider lying closest to where Jamie sat. Sitting on his heels beside the body, Hari tore open the raider’s shirt and examined the man’s chest.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for something,” Hari tugged the shirt over the man’s chest and stood. “He does not bear the mark,” Hari scratched at his forehead beneath his turban. He walked over to Jamie and squatted beside him. “These men are not Pathaan. The Pathaan believe in the old ways,” Hari patted his chest, “as do I.”
“Then where are they from?”
“I do not know,” Hari paused. “But they must have seen the emissary, and they ignored it.” Hari looked up at Jamie. “That means they were looking for you,” he took a breath, “or me.”
“It must be you they are looking for, Hari. I am a nobody.”
“What is so funny?”
“After fighting with ten raiders trying to kill him on the Khyber Pass,” Hari gestured at the walls of rock either side of them, “only a British man would imagine he was innocent, a nobody.”
innocent, Hari,” Jamie shrugged. “Unless it is a crime to be British.”
“Truly?” Hari shook his head and laughed. “I am travelling with a madman.”
“That makes two of us, Hari.” Jamie picked at the flap in his trousers.
Flicking his riding stick on the neck of his horse, Bryullov dismounted as the beast bent its forelegs and kneeled on the snow covering the track leading to and beyond Lalpura. The Russian’s boots slid on the ice beneath the inch of snow. He reached out to break his fall, the riding stick snapped as he leaned on it.
“Damn,” Bryullov cast the broken stick into the scrub to the side of the track. Pulling at the rip across the knee of his trouser leg, he poked his fingers through the hole, smearing the blood between thumb and forefinger. He turned as Najma approached and dismounted.
“What did you do?” Najma peeked around Bryullov’s back.
“Nothing,” he wiped his hands on his Burberry coat. Bryullov bent his knee and grimaced.
A stupid mistake,
Just as the trail starts to get difficult.
“It is slippery,” he turned to face Najma. “And I am an old Russian.”
“You are not so old,” Najma bent down and examined Bryullov’s knee. Rocking on her heels, Najma poked at the bloody cut.
“Stop that, girl,” Bryullov pushed Najma’s hand away. “What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Najma stood up. She stepped onto a flat rock and stared at Bryullov, her eyes an arm’s length from his own. “I am just wondering if you are ready for the mountain?” she pointed up the narrow track winding its way steeply along the contours of the mountain. “You said you wanted to visit the lookout post above Adina Pur?”
“I was walking these mountains before you were born, girl.” Bryullov took a deep breath of cold air. Najma was perhaps as old as his youngest sister, fifteen or more years younger than his wife.
. He allowed himself a smile.
“You only call me
when you are feeling old or stupid.” Najma stepped back off the rock and walked into the scrub by the side of the track. She came back carrying Bryullov’s broken riding stick in her hand. “It was
to throw this away,” she waved the stick in Bryullov’s face. “Anyone can find it. Then they can follow us.”
Bryullov shook his head. “I
stupid,” he reached for the stick.
“No,” Najma pulled it out of his reach. “I will put it in my pack.” She walked off to where the packhorse stood tethered to the pommel of her horse. Bryullov watched the young Afghan woman snap the stick in two and slide both pieces inside a saddlebag. She walked back to Bryullov and pointed at his knee. “Can you walk?”
“Yes.” Bryullov tugged at the sleeve of Najma’s quilted jacket.
“What are you doing?” Najma took a step toward the Russian as he tugged her closer.
“Just how old are you, Najma?”
“Old enough,” she stuck out her chin. “If I want to be.”
“And do you?” Bryullov ran his hand up her arm and rested it on her shoulder. “Do you want to be?”
Najma looked up at the Russian’s face, studied his grizzled beard, black flecked with white. “Are
“What? Me?” Bryullov laughed. He slipped his hand from her shoulder and stepped back. “Of course I am old enough.”
Bryullov nodded at the mountain peaks ringed with grey snow clouds. “I first walked these paths when I was twenty years old.”
“Twenty years later and I am still walking them.”
“You do not need a guide.”
“I really don’t.”
“Hah,” Najma laughed. “You are younger than my uncle and he has three wives, two of them are younger than me.”
“I am not looking for a wife, Najma.” Bryullov thought back to his house on the banks of the
in St Petersburg, his two sons, the daughter who died of consumption. “I have a wife.”
“And my uncle has three,” Najma paused. “What is it you are looking for?”
“A companion, perhaps.”
“A companion?” Najma stood on one foot and twirled in the snow. “Am I not better than a companion? Am I not magnificent?” She laughed. “I could be your second wife. Your Afghan wife.” Najma poked Bryullov in the chest.
“Magnificent? Where did you learn to speak English?” Bryullov closed her finger in his fist. “Where did you learn such a word as
“From the British, of course.” Najma tried to pull her finger free of Bryullov’s grip.
“What British? When, Najma?” Bryullov gripped her finger.
“Stop, you are hurting my finger.”
“When did you see the British?”
Najma slapped Bryullov on the chest and pulled her finger free. “Why should I tell a brute such as you?” She turned her back. “You are just like my uncle. The way he treats his wives. Maybe I would be better off with him?”
“Najma,” Bryullov place his hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off. “I am sorry, Najma. But it is important. You must tell me. Slowly, so I can understand you.”
“I might,” Najma crossed her arms over her chest.
“You will,” Bryullov spun Najma by the shoulders. Gripping her upper arms, he drew her close. “Was it this spring, after the snow? Before the rain? Was it in the summer?”
“No,” Najma shook.
? The summer?”
“After the rain,” Najma shuddered in Bryullov’s grasp. “Before the snow.” He released her. She ran to her horse.
“After the rain,” Bryullov walked along the path, the pain in his knee forgotten. “After the rain, before the snow.” Reaching into his coat, Bryullov fumbled a notebook free of the deep pocket sewn on the inside of the sleeve of his right arm. Licking his thumb and brushing the pages of the notebook, Bryullov paused at the whir of a priming handle. He turned as Najma pushed the long barrel of the ornate lightning jezail in his face.
“You will not hurt me,” her voice quavered. The rifle did not.
“No,” Bryullov lowered the notebook, “I will not hurt you, Najma.”
“Never?” She took a step forward.
“Not ever,” Bryullov shook his head. “Never.” He watched Najma lower the barrel of her father’s jezail. “I imagine you know just how to use that,” he pointed at the rifle.
“Yes,” Najma gripped the charge lever between her fingers and thumb and lowered it to the contact pad. She rested the jezail in the crook of her arm, the tip of the long barrel inches from the snow. She nodded in the direction of the steep path leading into the mountains. “We should start before it gets too dark. There is a good place to stop for the night just around the bend. Up there,” she pointed. “But maybe you already know that?”
Bryullov slipped his notebook inside his cloak. “I am ready.” He walked toward his camel. Reaching Najma he stopped. “I am sorry, Najma.”
Najma gave Bryullov a cold look. She shrugged. “It does not matter.”
“It does to me, Najma,” Bryullov paused. He reached out and brushed snow from the stock of the jezail. “It is a fine weapon.”
“It has killed many foreigners,” Najma hefted the rifle in her arms. “See the notches in the stock?”
“I see them,” Bryullov ran his finger over the rough scratches in the dark wood. “Russian?”
“Some,” Najma turned the stock to reveal more scratches on the other side above the crank handle attached to the power cylinder. “Mostly British and Indian.”
Bryullov nodded. Patting the rifle stock he grasped Najma’s arm and squeezed it. “Good.” Bryullov released her arm and walked to his horse. The horse side-stepped with a snort, the hay whispered in the net hanging from the horse’s belly. Stroking his palm over its nose, Bryullov calmed it and climbed into the saddle. He made himself comfy in the saddle, wincing as he bent his knee to slip his foot into the stirrup. He pointed into the distance. “Can we ride to the camp you suggested?”
Najma rested the jezail against her shoulder. She looked at the ground and scuffed the snow clear of the ice beneath it. “Yes, if we ride to the side,” she pointed, “where the scrub is.”
“Then let’s ride,” Bryullov clicked his tongue and the horse plodded past Najma. They exchanged a look as he passed.
She has seen the British,
Before the first snow. I must be cautious.
A figure on the track some distance behind them raised his head from behind a swathe of tall grass. Kahn’s forearm trembled with the weight of the hawk. The boy smoothed his hand over the hawk’s chest and pressed a tiny piece of paper into the metal collar around the hawk’s leg. Turning away from his sister and the Russian, Khan released Shahin into the wind and watched as the hawk flew high above the track in the direction of his father’s camp.
“Come, British,” the tails of his robes flapping in the wind, Hari beckoned to Jamie. Leaning into the wind, brushing snow from his face and beard, the mystic searched for the emissary’s footprints in the snow. Jamie hobbled to where Hari stood, one hand on the butt of the rifle case, the other gripping the strap of his rucsac.
“I can’t keep up, Hari. Not at the pace you are setting.”
With or without a hole in my leg,
he thought. Pain aside, Hari’s intensity inspired Jamie to shrug the pack higher on his shoulder and follow the mystic as he moved off without a glance at Jamie.
“Keep up, British,” Hari called over his shoulder. Jamie trudged behind him, favouring his right leg.
Following the mystic as he tracked the metal beast, Jamie’s mind wandered to when he first arrived in Afghanistan, travelling up the
on a tiny steamboat delivering mail and newspapers, shipping water faster than the current. Jamie spent the first week of his journey bailing water and drying his feet on the rails. That little boat,
The Cotton Licker
, with its rotten strakes and flaked gunwales, was waiting at the village of Naushara, a little less than a week’s march behind them. Jamie thought of the so-called captain of the rotten vessel, a colourful, fat British boatswain with thick, red mutton chops and a passion for local women. The man was likely dead or drunk. But so long as his boat was still tied to the dock, and not beneath it, Jamie figured he had a chance of leaving the country.
Time will tell,