Bold Destiny, страница 1
It was that uneasy time of day, when shadows fell long from the craggy peaks, pooling in dark mass along the narrow track of the pass as it wound its tortuous way between crouching cliffs.
George Spencer glanced over his shoulder at the caravan moving slowly behind him. The camels, their panniers laden with the merchant’s goods, plodded, heads high on their elongated necks, looking absurdly dignified as if to disassociate themselves from the ridiculous business of being beasts of burden. Their drivers clicked their tongues, and cried their strange encouraging sounds that camels were supposed to understand; cries that in this instance were intended to hurry them up as the shadows lengthened and the narrow throat of the Khyber pass through which they crept still showed no signs of emerging into the comforting familiarity of British India.
If Annabel had not taken it into her head to disappear from the camp that morning—following an ibex, she had maintained in excuse—they would have set out two hours earlier and would have been well onto British soil by dusk. Instead, they were journeying through this gray and threatening defile as the day drew to its close. The evening star had already shown its face, bringing not reassurance but alarm. The horsemen, riding in escort, caressed the smooth wooden stocks of their rifles, shifting in their saddles as they glanced around them, along the narrow twisting track disappearing into gloom, and upward to the massive peaks that seemed to huddle, malevolently waiting.
“You seem uneasy, George.” Rosalind Spencer, riding at her husband’s side, spoke with customary calm. “It cannot be much farther.”
George smiled down at her. As always, just the sound of her voice soothed him; the quiet brown eyes calmed his restless anxiety. “Something has to be done about Annabel,” he said, but without conviction. They had been saying that for the last ten years. The only difficulty was that the child refused to have anything done about her. She continued on her own sweet way, and all the remonstrance in the world could not turn her from a course once she had set it.
Rosalind returned the smile, well aware of her husband’s thoughts. Their daughter was an everlasting delight, a joy second only to the pleasure they had in each other. Of course, she was unruly, obstinate, thoroughly spoiled one would say with absolute truth, but that was frequently the case with only children.
“She will settle down again when we return to Peshawar,” she now reassured her husband comfortably. “The familiar routine of lessons and riding and meeting with her friends will soon occupy her, and she’ll forget about stalking ibex and haunting the bazaars.”
Annabel Spencer wrinkled her small, well-shaped nose. They were talking about her again. She could always tell by the way they leaned toward each other, by a certain conspiratorial set of their heads. It was probably about this morning. Papa had been quite dreadfully annoyed, almost angry, really, just because she had delayed them for a couple of hours. The truth was that she could hardly bear to contemplate returning to the prim, orderly existence in the large white house at Peshawar, with its lush gardens, armies of servants, rigorously executed social life; the inane chatter of the little girls considered by her parents to be suitable companions for their daughter; their fond mamas smiling and nodding on the verandah, where the hot air was stirred by the punkahs energetically wielded by small, ignored servant children.
She looked around her and found nothing in the Afghan landscape to alarm. Instead, it stirred her with its untamed grandeur. She had reveled in every moment of the last six months, during which George Spencer had made good his promise that after her twelfth birthday, he would take her with him on his next journey across the mountains into Afghanistan and Persia. He had bought carpets, rich silks, silver, and beaten gold, to be shipped to England and the eager market that had made him a nabob.
But Annabel had little interest in the means by which her father had amassed his fortune. For her, the fascination lay in the people with whom he bargained: the khans, lords of life and death in their own tribes; the shrewd-eyed merchants, soft-voiced yet implacable; the women who moved like shades, enwrapped from head to toe; the hillmen, rangy, turbanned warriors with pointed cleavers at their sides, or Persian scimitars, so sharp you could see the edge shimmer in the sunlight. She had lost herself in the exotic wonders of the bazaars; in the richness of the aylag, those wonderful summer pastures high up in the mountains where the nomads took their fat-tailed sheep, the goats, cattle, and ponies to graze in the spring until the first snows of September. She had shivered in pleasurable apprehension at the howl of wolves, the spoor of black bear, the great, grayish, clumsy bulk of the lammergeyers, hanging over the landscape in search of decayed and decaying flesh.
So absorbed was she in her reminiscent musings that the first cry of alarm from one of the leading horsemen failed to penetrate immediately. She glanced up from her sightless contemplation of her mount’s braided mane … and was engulfed by terror.
Ghazi tribesmen were everywhere, swarming down the steep sides of the cliffs, jumping from rocks, those on horseback pounding down the track toward George Spencer’s now screaming, milling caravan. Shot after shot cracked from their jezzails, as they aimed the long rifles into the panic-stricken group and men fell from horse and camel, to litter the track, where the wounded were slaughtered by the knives of their fanatical attackers.
Rosalind died with a bullet between her shoulder blades, knowing no more than an instant of pain before infinity swallowed her. George flung himself from his horse with a cry of outrage and despair, but the broadsword pierced his heart before he could reach her, and the breath left his body as he spoke her name.
The dreadful, unbelievable images tumbled before Annabel’s transfixed gaze. She sat rigid on her little brown pony, the wild savagery of the hillmen’s yells of triumph and exhilaration as they slaughtered the infidels, the feringhee dogs, battering against her eardrums so that the sounds seemed to be inside her head. Around her whirled, swirled, the hellish scene. Faces—brown, bearded, flashing white teeth—merged, then separated. Horses screamed, gun smoke fogged then cleared, and out of the fog suddenly materialized a face that she knew instinctively had her own fate written upon it. A small, pointed beard; long ringlets hanging beneath a skullcap; the glistening eyes of the fanatic. One arm raised high, the khyber knife poised at the top of the arc, poised to sweep the head from her shoulders.
Her mouth opened wide on a soundless scream of terror. Her hood fell back. Her eyes stared, huge, terrorized.
The Ghazi saw eyes the color and depth of jade, a complexion of the most delicate purity, hair like burnished copper, glowing in the dusk-gloom. A look of speculation banished the glare of blood lust. The cleaver was returned to his belt.
“Akbar Khan.” She heard the inexplicable mutter even through the horror that rendered her mute and immobile. Then she was swinging upward, through the air, as a pair of huge hands caught
As hangovers went, this one certainly qualified for the superior category, Christopher Ralston reflected painfully, and if anyone was a good judge of such matters, he was. The sun seemed unnecessarily shiny in that bright blue mountain sky, glinting in unfriendly fashion off the eye-hurting dazzle of the snowcapped peaks.
Ordinarily, the majesty of the Afghan landscape could stir him despite his general malaise, but today was a particularly bad day. Smiling plains, stark mountains, busy streams, bravely winding tracks pursuing their rocky, devious course despite all the odds thrown up by the terrain—all failed to ease the persistent throb at his temples, to lift the numbing heaviness of depression, to lubricate his dry mouth, soothe his frying eyeballs, quiet his uncooperative stomach.
As always, he wondered why he did this to himself. Why play the last hand … and the last hand … and the very last hand? Why have the last brandy … and the last brandy … and the very last brandy? Why fall, night after night, onto his cot, cursing his batman, who struggled with hooks and buttons and boots, as he put his near-insensible officer to bed?
Silly question. Who wouldn’t seek oblivion, banished to this godforsaken outpost of the civilized world? Banished to the mediocrity of a lieutenancy in the East India Company’s Cavalry?
God, what an irony! His lip curled in self-mockery. The Honorable Kit Ralston, society’s darling despite his rakehell reputation—or perhaps because of it—the dashing captain of the Seventh Light Dragoons, cast into outer darkness because of a drunken impulse!
“Your pardon, sir, but we’ve been riding for four hours. The men will be better for tiffin.”
The soft tones of Havildar Abdul Ali fell like raindrops, but the reminder, for all its gentleness, was none the less an imperative. Kit nodded brusquely to the sergeant, trying to appear as if the reminder had been unnecessary. “I have it in mind to halt in those trees. We’ll be less exposed.” He gestured with his whip to the lee of the mountain, where a small copse offered a jewel of lush green in the bare sandy plain.
“Of course, sir,” murmured the ever-tactful havildar. “A perfect choice.”
Kit wondered if he could detect irony in the man’s tones, and decided he didn’t much care either way. Lieutenant Ralston’s disaffection from his present service was no secret to the men or officers; but then, none of them was overjoyed to be part of an army of occupation with not the slightest legal or moral excuse for the role, using British bayonets to force upon the unwilling Afghans a ruler whom they loathed … and loathed with good reason. Shah Soojah was that species of oppressor whose tyranny had its base in his own lack of spirit and excess of fear. He was no ruler for the fiercely independent Afghan tribal chiefs.
Lieutenant Ralston gazed wearily around the landscape, speculating idly on what he and his patrol would do if they came face to face with a warring party of Ghilzai hillmen. Turn tail and run for it, probably. The Ghilzais were hardly civilized foe, although more so than the Ghazi fanatics, but they were all zealots when it came to their determination to engage in guerilla warfare against the feringhee invaders and their puppet ruler, who presumed to tax them and dictate to them; who denied the hillmen their immemorial right to levy charges for safe use of the mountain passes; whose arrogance ignored the self-determination of the Afghan tribes and their khans.
He touched spur to his horse. “Let’s stop dallying, Havildar.”
Abdul Ali permitted himself the slightest lift of an eyebrow before calling an order to the five sepoys behind him and following his commanding officer at the gallop across the plain.
The cool green copse was one of those delightful surprises with which this generally inhospitable landscape was dotted. It was more extensive than had appeared from the distance, and they found a clearing floored with a carpet of thick green moss sprinkled with golden buttercups.
The prospect of food revolted Lieutenant Ralston and he left his men cheerfully preparing their tiffin, himself wandering on foot further into the trees. The path began to slope gently downhill, and he followed it without much thought, venturing deeper into the wood. The lake, when he came upon it quite unexpectedly, took his breath away. It was a perfect circle within a necklace of trees, large, flat stones at the bottom glistening through the translucent water. He took a step toward it, out of the trees, intending to cool his aching head in the inviting water, when something caught his eye and his step faltered. He moved back instinctively into the trees and stood still, staring.
Someone was swimming in the lake. A bare white arm curved, cleaved the surface. At this distance, he could make out no distinguishing features, but his eye fell upon a pile of material some feet from the water’s edge, quite close to where he stood. The swimmer’s clothes, he presumed. The little heap offered nothing that could identify the dress as European. Curious, he stepped from the screen of trees and moved to the pile, bending to examine it.
He heard nothing, until the tiny prick in the soft vulnerable spot behind his right ear froze him, rigid with alarm. Someone was standing behind him, holding the point of something very sharp against his skin. A voice, a female voice, spoke harshly in Pushtu. He swallowed, trying not to move his head in case he might inadvertently drive the point into his scalp.
“I speak a little Persian,” he said in that language, “but no Pushtu. I mean no harm.”
To his relief, the pricking pressure was lifted, but he remained still, not daring to turn. It seemed incredible that he might have come upon an Afghan woman, unattended, taking a bath in the lake. These people guarded their women with all the care decreed by Koranic law. It was fair to say they did not accord them consonant consideration in their daily life, but their women most certainly did not go around taking baths in public lakes, however secluded such lakes might be.
“We will speak the language of the feringhee, if you prefer,” the voice amazingly said. “Turn around very slowly.”
Christopher obeyed with the utmost caution. Surprise and alarm, he found, were wonderful stimulants. His head had cleared, although his heart was racing in response to the knife’s threat. Once he had turned, however, the speeding of his heart had a quite different cause.
He was never sure what he noticed first. Was it the jade-green eyes, slightly almond-shaped, tilted at the corners? Was it the extraordinary whiteness of her skin? Was it the deep, glowing copper of her hair, massed damply on her shoulders? Or was it that she was quite naked—slender, lissom, delicately curved … and quite naked?
A naked white woman, water glistening on her body, stood before him, holding a wicked stiletto in the manner of one who knew how to use it and would have no hesitation in doing so.
“Who the devil are you?” he heard himself demand, somewhat hoarsely.
“And who the devil are you?” came the prompt response. The green eyes darted around the lake, glanced toward the trees. “Feringhee soldiers do not ordinarily travel singly. It is a little dangerous, is it not, these days?”
The taunt in her voice was unmistakable, and he felt his hackles rise in annoyance. However covertly sympathetic he might be to the Afghan’s rejection of the British military presence, he was still an officer in that army and accusations of cowardice, implicit or no, were not to be tolerated.
But just how did a gentleman express his annoyance with a stark-naked woman armed wit
He was still struggling with the dilemma, uncomfortably aware of the glint of mockery in the green eyes, when she spoke again. “You had best leave here. They will kill you if you are discovered.”
“Who will?” He was swamped with confusion, conscious that he was at an appalling disadvantage, yet feeling that he should not be—a lieutenant in Queen Victoria’s army at such a loss. Surely it ought to be possible to wrest that dagger from her. But to do that, he would have to touch her, and he did not think he could do that with any objectivity in the present circumstances.
“That is none of your business,” she replied. “But you may take my word for it that if they find you here with me like this, they will kill you. And it will be a singularly unpleasant death—something at which they are expert.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, but he became aware of a sudden tension in the lithe body. “Go,” she said.
“Now just a minute!” He discovered an imperative if belated need to assert himself. “I do not know who you are, or what right you have to be here when I do not. But I see no reason on earth why I should run away. It seems to me that you are the vulnerable one at this moment.” He allowed his gaze to drift pointedly down her body and felt a prickle of satisfaction as a tinge of pink showed against her cheekbones. “Make no mistake, I am not denigrating your charms, but English ladies do not make a habit of exposing themselves to strange men. And if you are not an English lady, what are you?”
She moved so fast, he did not know how it happened, but the point of the stiletto pricked his throat, drawing a bead of blood, and the jade eyes were cold as stone. “Who I am and what I am are nothing to do with you, feringhee dog!” she said softly. “I do not live by your rules or bear your labels.”
“Goddamn it! But you are as much a feringhee as I am,” he said, abruptly grasping the wrist of the hand that held the blade to his throat. He was too angry to calculate the risk he took, but it paid off. She did not drive the point deep into his flesh, as she so easily could have done. Instead, her eyes widened in surprise and with an element of chagrin. They stood thus for an instant, his fingers banding a narrow, fragile wrist, her naked body drawn so close to his that her breasts brushed his tunic with her sharp indrawing of breath.