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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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The Damascened Blade (36 page)

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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Careless of further rifle fire, Joe surged to his feet and hurled himself forward, arriving, lungs bursting, to stand groaning helplessly over the two blood-drenched bodies.

‘Shit! God Almighty! Fucking hell!’

Joe sobbed with joy to hear a stream of curses such as he had not heard since he and James had shared a trench.

‘Course I’m all right! When a bloody .303 bullet whizzes past your ear, you hit the ground! See you did too! How did you know, Joe? My God! Get this murderous bugger off me, will you? And who the hell fired that shot? Wasn’t you with that little pop gun!’

They looked back to the fort where for a second a blonde head bobbed between the battlements and disappeared.

‘Oh, my God! Annie Oakley!’ said James.

Together they raised Iskander’s body, from which the blood was pumping at an alarming rate. The left arm was a shredded mass of flesh and ribbons of khaki sleeve. But, ‘He’s alive!’ said Joe. ‘James, he’s still alive! Give me your lanyard and I’ll try to get a tourniquet on this.’

With practised hand, Joe worked swiftly to stop the blood flow. ‘Grace! Where are you?’ he groaned. ‘Half-way to bloody Kabul by now! Here, put a finger on this, James.’

As they worked on him a knife slipped from the shattered left sleeve and fell on to the blood-soaked earth. Rubies winked in the black jade hilt and Joe recoiled from it as from a rearing cobra. Iskander’s eyes flickered open for a moment and Joe caught a familiar green gleam of amusement.

‘God! That was meant for me!’ said James. And with relief of tension came a flood, a rush of confused words. ‘He asked me to come out here with him. To discuss the siting and wording of a headstone for Zeman . . . said he wanted to say one last prayer for him . . . thought it would be a good idea if I joined him. Least I could do, I thought. He was going to kill me,’ said James. ‘Wasn’t he, Joe? For Zeman. He was finishing the job for him. Look.’ He reached over, shuddering, and took something from Iskander’s right hand.

Joe peered at it. ‘It’s a crucifix,’ he said in puzzlement.

crucifix,’ said James. ‘I put it into the hand of Harry Holbrook seconds before I shot him. He was a good man. A man of God. I thought it might bring him some comfort at the last. He firmly believed that God was with him in these hills. Though the behaviour of those two bloodthirsty tormentors must have tested his faith to the limit . . . They were torturing him, Joe. The very worst they could think of . . . He could never have survived such treatment. He couldn’t ask me not to give Grace all the dreadful details – they’d torn out his tongue – but I knew what he wanted me to say when I got back and I said it. I’ve never told anyone the truth until now. But Zeman must have found the crucifix on the body and kept it all those years. A talisman? A reminder? A clue to the identity of the man who killed his brothers?’

‘All those, I expect,’ said Joe, putting a calming arm around his friend’s shoulder. ‘And he must have vowed to return it one day. I think he had it with him to press into your hand as he killed you. Iskander removed it from Zeman’s body – there was a moment on the stairs when he and his men had sole access to the corpse. He must have taken it then and put it away intending always to use it himself. To complete the circle.’

‘Well, it seems to have taken a rifle shot to get their attention! Here comes Eddy Fraser sprinting ten yards ahead and the whole pipe band at the double!’

As the sun dipped behind the line of the Hindu Kush a bugle sounded the haunting notes of the Last Post and the small party by the second fresh grave in the Muslim cemetery turned and began to make its way slowly back to the fort.

Betty left James to escort Lily and hurried to take Joe’s arm. ‘There’s no good time, Joe,’ she said, ‘to thank you for what you’ve done. This is a bad time and I’m having trouble with my thoughts and my words . . . but if I’ve learned anything from this awful country it’s to do and say things at once however badly because it doesn’t often give you a second chance. If you hadn’t noticed that James was missing it’s his grave we’d be standing by now.’

‘And Iskander would be well on his way to Afghanistan, his duty done.’

‘Not happy, though,’ said Betty. ‘I will do him the justice of saying that he would not have been happy.’ She paused for a moment, looking at the two warriors’ graves side by side. ‘His men didn’t come back for him. Why, do you think? They must have heard the shot?’

‘Obeying orders. I think it was simpler for Iskander to just say, “Ride! Don’t look back, don’t come back. Take Dr Holbrook and I’ll join you if all goes well.” It’s what I would have done.’

Betty sighed. ‘So Grace is a hostage up there with those barbarians?’

Joe laughed. ‘Grace is
a hostage! She is up there with friends. Friends who understand her, who value her and who will make sure she gets to the Amir in safety.’

‘And there’ll be no reprisals? About Iskander, I mean.’

‘No. I don’t think so. You heard Sir George on this. What he had to say was brutal perhaps but the truth. Iskander was an outlaw. There will be no follow-up from the Afridi. The Amir? Iskander wasn’t directly related to him and there’s no shortage of eager young officers to take his place. That end of things should be all right, I think, especially since there’ll be Grace in position to keep the lid on.’ Joe was being determinedly cheerful. Betty had twice in the past week had to deal with murderous attacks on her husband and, if he had it right, was carrying a sad burden. He wondered if she would ever be ready to share it with him.

‘How do you think Lily’s taking it, Joe? I mean, I have a feeling she thought Iskander rather special . . . not so special as Zeman perhaps but she seemed to get on well with him. What do you think a woman feels when she’s killed a man? Lily had to do it, I know, but even so . . . taking a life, Joe, that’s something women should never have to do. It’s something completely against our nature. We save life . . . we give life. Will she ever . . . do you think there’s a chance she will ever be reconciled with what she’s done? With what she had to do?’

‘Devastating. It was devastating and it will take her a long time to recover from it but she’s a resilient girl and very intelligent. She knows she did what had to be done.’ He smiled. ‘Do you know what she said when James asked her why she hadn’t simply ordered the sentry to fire at Iskander from the wall? She said, “I didn’t know the feller – how was I to know how good a shot he was? This was a job that had to be done right. First time. I knew I could do it so I grabbed his rifle.” She had the time to think about what she was doing and made, in my estimation, the right decision. Bless her, she tried for a wounding shot – went for his left arm – darned near impossible at that range – and she very nearly pulled it off. But it’s not only women whose natural impulse it is to thwart an aggressor. It’s a very basic human reaction. We’re born with it and so I suppose you could argue that it’s God-given. But women have one great advantage over men. We can take lives but we can’t create them. It may seem an odd thought but it’s my idea that when Lily has a child of her own, when she has created life, that’s when I think she’ll start to forgive herself for taking one. I shall pray for Lily. No reason why God should listen to
, I’ve been off the air so to speak for quite a while, but I’ll have a go.’

Betty stopped walking, turned to him and looked up at him earnestly. ‘Joe?’ she said quietly. ‘When communications are restored – would you mention my name too?’

Joe squeezed her arm. ‘I already have.’

Lily was glad of the support of James Lindsay’s strong right arm. Pale, with red-rimmed eyes, she was avoiding contact with everyone except for James and Joe. They had found her, a shaking heap behind the battlements, wild-eyed and speechless, the .303 rifle by her side, and it had taken Joe a long time to persuade her to let him take her back to her room. He recognized shock when he saw it and stayed with her for hours, his arm around her shoulders, talking quietly. If she’d been a man he’d have known exactly what to do. What the hell! He’d summoned a havildar and sent him off to find half a pint of rum.

‘I’ve arranged with Sir George that he will take you back to Simla tomorrow if that’s still what you want, Lily,’ James said. ‘Joe will be going with you too. Couldn’t have a more perfect pair of knights to escort you.’

Lily managed a smile. ‘Joe is more like Sir George than he would ever want to admit, I think. In fact, give him a few more years and you won’t be able to distinguish the one from the other.’

‘Lily,’ said James. ‘Will you forgive me for ever thinking . . .’

‘James!’ said Lily, interrupting. ‘I think we’ve both had to do a little reassessing. I was a lot smarter than you gave me credit for and you were a lot dumber than I thought. Forget it.’

‘Well, at least let me thank you for what you did this morning. I can’t believe it but I haven’t until now had a chance to . . .’

Again she broke in. ‘Thank me for saving your life? Any woman would have done the same. Ask Betty.’

James stood still and looked about him. They were out of earshot of the rest of the group. ‘You know?’

Lily nodded.

‘But how? What . . .?’

‘Joe and I looked into your room. We knew what we were looking for and we found it. Candlesticks on each bedside table. You and Betty are both right-handed. I notice these things. If you, James, had really hit Zeman you would automatically have picked up your own candlestick from the table on the right of your bed – that’s on the side away from Zeman’s knife hand, and hit him . . .’ She aimed the side of her hand at James’s head. ‘Allowing for the fact that he was hovering over you . . . somewhere about there. On the left side of his head. You’d need to be a contortionist to have hit him where he was hit – over the other side. But for Betty, reaching for her own candlestick . . .’

‘Does Joe know this?’

‘We haven’t talked about it but he’s pretty smart so I shouldn’t wonder. He seems to catch on to things a minute or two after I’ve worked it out.’ Again a faint smile. ‘But we’re neither of us the kind to go shooting off our mouths where it’s not necessary. I think it would be a very bad idea if anyone else were to find out. For Betty’s peace of mind. And that’s what you have to hold on to, James. Not much else matters in this ghastly affair. Don’t be concerned for me. I’m tough and I guess I don’t have Betty’s Christian conscience to wrestle me down. Don’t get me wrong – I have a relationship with God but it’s not the regular kind.’

They stood to watch the last blood-red segment of the sun slide out of view and Lily shivered. ‘Sundown. Bad time of day for humankind, my pa always says.’

James ran his eyes over the horizon and the gloomy shadows of the Khyber. ‘Bad country for humankind. Brings out the best but it brings out the worst as well. Look at that uncompromising ugliness! What are we all doing here? It isn’t a country worth fighting for. It’s not worth the bones of either of those gallant men in that cemetery. Leave it to bury its dead, Lily.’

Table of Contents




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
3.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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