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The Killing Edge

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 4

 

There was boiled rice for breakfast and not a word said of last night's conflict. Sano looked at him, straight in the eye, while the old man shuffled off to see to his mules, daring him maybe, to make issue of it. Hoping for it even, Sano tending to seek out conflict, when Kenshin went out of his way to avoid it.

Kenshin put on his placid face, mostly because he did not wish to start an argument that they could not in all decency carry out once the old man came back, but partly because he knew it would annoy Sano. He was not above small digs.

Sano hadn't the time to pursue it though, the day beginning much as the last one had, with people coming early with jobs and requests and the old man demanding Sano's assistance with the forge.

Kenshin spent the morning, while they were busy with it, to take both their packs to the stream and thoroughly wash bedding and clothing. He got looks from village women who were there about similar tasks, and quiet speculation as they spoke with lowered heads, but he was used to that, a foreigner among them. An Indian stopping in a rural village in Japan would be as much a curiosity.

He sat while the laundry was laid out over rocks to dry in the sun, mending the strap of a sandal. Children that had come with the women to the stream, and were not so shy about direct inquiry as their mothers, drifted close, asking where he'd come from, and then when he told them, bombarding him with questions. He had a fondness for children and their honest enthusiasm, and the smiles he wore for them were never manufactured. A few of the women even came closer, using the proximity of their offspring as an excuse to ask questions of their own.

The women here seemed no less fascinated by the notion of marriage than women at home, or women in general he guessed, for inevitably they inquired as to his state of it. Do you have a wife? No? A woman would be lucky to have a man who does not shirk at doing laundry. Are Japanese women as beautiful as Indians?

The bluntness of their questions as they warmed to the topic was less endearing than that of the children. He smiled politely, letting them answer the majority of their own questions, as a group of women past their initial shyness tended to do.

When they began to speculate about the fairness of the babies made between a Japanese and Indian pairing, he gathered up his damp laundry and made excuses, inclining his head at them as he made a retreat back to the village. Enduring the occasional scowl of Sano's was preferable to becoming the focus of a matchmaking scheme.

He was hailed on the walk back by a man he recognized as the constable to whom he'd reported the location of the captured bandits. The man seemed fresh from the road, mud spattered boots and rumpled jacket.

"Did you find them?" Kenshin inquired.

"We did. Dead, the lot of them. Throats slit and still manacled to the tree. I'll need to speak to the smith and the both of you that were with him. I've sent one of my men from the scene to fetch authorities from Twadi."

Kenshin nodded, stomach churning with unease. If they'd done it themselves, then he'd underestimated the depth of their desperation at the thought of capture. If their comrades had slit their throats rather than let them be taken - - then they were a cold, cruel bunch. Regardless, it was not the outcome he had imagined.

Ayog and Sano took a break from their work when the constable called for them. Kenshin laid his burden down and sat on the back step of the wagon while the constable spoke with Ayog, asking for specific details about the night of the attack. Then he spoke with Sano and asked the same questions. Then Kenshin.

"Do you think he thinks we did it?" Sano asked Kenshin when the constable had returned to talk with Ayog one last time.

"I would think any reasonable man wouldn't point out the scene of his crime and send the law to investigate it."

Sano snorted softly. "I'd think, too. But I've known some damned obstinate assholes that work for the law."

Kenshin had as well, but at least the man hadn't accused them outright.

When the constable left, marking notes on his pad, Ayog ambled over, scowling. "He wants us to stay in town until authorities he's summoned from the south get here."

"What authorities? More police?" Sano asked, rubbing a dirty hand across the back of his neck.

"The Raj army has a regiment patrolling for bandits in the region. He's sent for them." The old man spat on the ground.

Sano cast Kenshin a look.

"Ahh -- that might not work out so well for us," Sano admitted.

Ayog raised a thick brow and Sano shrugged, admitting more than Kenshin might have liked to a man that might, under duress repeat it to insistent British officials.

"We had a little run in with the army a few weeks back. Didn't start it, or break the law - - but the officer in charge'll probably be holding a grudge."

"Don't have much love for them myself," Ayog admitted. "British taxing my grandfather out of his home and shop back when the Company ruled, is why my father took up traveling with a forge. Harder to pin a man down and take all his profits when he never stays in a place long enough to find him."

"As good a reason for traveling as I ever heard," Sano agreed. "But I'm thinking me and Kenshin might take to the road again this afternoon."

Kenshin nodded with he glanced at him for affirmation.

The old man scrubbed a hand across his stubbled jaw, looking back at the forge. "I know a thing or two about leaving a place in a hurry with trouble on your heels. Wait until nightfall, when there won't be so much notice of a pair of old mules hauling a wagon out of town."

"You don't have to leave with us," Kenshin said. "Perhaps it would be easier for you even, if you did not. You could simply claim ignorance of us - -"

"No. The villagers I visit on my circuit each year are decent people, with a care for my work. The Raj authorities have little love for the Gadulia Lohar."

Sano canted his head inquiringly, and the old man grinned. "It is what I am. A nomad. A roaming smith, though I've never traveled with a caravan. We who forged the armor of Hindu kings in times ancient. We're vagrants as far as the British are concerned, avoiding their rule and their taxes, if we can. I'd as well avoid speaking with Raj officials who'll come to me already suspecting me of ill-deeds, thank you."

Sano shrugged. "Well, you make a mean campfire supper, so I'm game for your company on the trail."


 

The 49th Royal Light Infantry had rousted a lot of insurgents in a village east of Twadi. A gathering of locals that had been inciting rebellious thoughts in the minds of their neighbors, complaining against the just rule of the British who sought to tame this wild land and its superstitious, ignorant people. If they'd offered resistance, Captain Worthington would have been more than willing to make examples of them to deter further rebellious talk - - but they'd surrendered quietly and the best he could do was put the leaders in custody and send them to Alheribad and the Royal justices there on charges of sedition.

They'd ridden out of the little town with the villagers properly subdued and respectful in their wake and Worthington supposed he'd accomplished something for his trouble. When the runner from Dhannagiri reached them on the road, they were two days out from the town. He put his men to double pace to cover the distance, and reached the spot where the deputies from Dhannagiri were waiting, standing guard over tarp covered bodies already bloated and beginning decomposition in the Indian heat.

He wrinkled his nose in distaste when they uncovered the corpses to show him and his young British aide gagged and stumbled back, not having the stomach at all for the sight or the smell.

"Burn them," he directed and turned his attention to the locals, who were waiting expectantly for his order.

"These were bandits you say, and not victims?"

They nodded and one of them held out a small stone pocket charm. "They had nothing on them but this. A charm of Kali the Deathbringer."

Worthington turned the little charm in his fingers. The Hindu goddess had many incantations, but chief among them was the bringer of death and destruction. The followers of Kali in this incantation were the worst of the thorns in the side of British order.

"And they were apprehended you say, and detained here?"

The local indicated a pile of rusty chains and manacles. "They attacked a Gadulia Lohar and two travelers and were rebuffed."

"Three men took this lot and possibly more?"

"So they said. They reported the crime and sent us here when they reached Dhannagiri. The smith is well known to us, but the travelers were strangers. Orientals."

Worthington turned a sharp eye to the man, his attention keenly snared.

"Orientals, you say?"

"Yes sir. I saw them myself when they entered town."

"One as tall as me, the other shorter with hair to the small of his back?"

"Yes. Yes. It is them."

He had suspected those two of having some connection with nefarious goings on and now his suspicions were confirmed. He rather suspected them more of being murderers than victims. Perhaps in cahoots with the local troublemakers and the grisly scene here was the result of some falling out.

"And they are still in Dhannagiri?"

The local shrugged. "I do not know. I have not been back."

"See to the disposal of these vermin, then." Worthington snapped, eager to be on his way. He waved a hand, stalking to his horse, and his subordinates roused the regiment and got them moving again.


It was a convenient way to avoid a discussion, having to pick up and high tail out of a place with possible trouble from the law on your heels. But Kenshin was good at avoiding talking about things he didn't want to talk about. Damned annoying when Sano had gotten to the point that he wanted to discuss actual feelings - - not a place he generally found himself. It was easier to get physical and force an issue - - but that hadn't worked out right either. Frustrated as Kenshin made him, he really didn't want to get into a fight - - at least not a knock down drag out one. Least not yet. Maybe in a few months if his levels of frustration continued to rise.

It wasn't even that he didn't understand where Kenshin's head was at. Kenshin shouldered the burden of everything and the failure to save his family - - the guilt over what he and Sano had been up to even before they'd died - - it was enough to crush a man with a conscience and an overdeveloped sense of honor.

But it had been close to two years and it was damn well time that the dead stayed dead and the living went on with their lives.

He cast a glance at Kenshin, a dark figure walking on the other side of the mules down the narrow track Ayog was leading them. Not a common road leading to other respectable villages, but a back way, less traveled and not on Ayog's yearly route. If the army cared enough to come after them, hopefully the villagers who were familiar with the old smith would direct them along the road he usually followed.

This way led to less populated areas, the road rutted and narrow and poorly maintained and likely to bog the wagon down if they got much rain. The forest was close around them, and Sano and Kenshin walked the route ahead, machetes in hand, hacking away at roots or undergrowth that had spilled over onto the road.

Kenshin stopped once, staring intently into the forest on his side of the trail, tensed and still. It took Sano a few seconds to hear what he'd heard, the low growl of something large in the foliage. He caught a flash of spotted hide as a big cat bounded away, fleeing human encroachment of its territory.

The mules flicked their ears, tossing their heads nervously and the old man sweet talked them, urging them along with a flick of the reins.

That was night travel in the thick of the wilderness. A slow treacherous process when there was a wagon and a pair of surly mules to consider. They had to stop, an hour or so before dawn, not daring to cross the width of a wide stream bed in the darkness and risk the wagon and the forge. So they stopped on the wide, rocky bank and set up watches, turn and turn about, not trusting the jungle or possible human threat on their heels.

Come morning it was cold rice from the day before, and Sano and Kenshin up to their thighs in water trying to map out the best path for the wagon to cross. They ended up unhitching the forge and taking the wagon across without it, then bringing it across separately. The trail on the other side of the stream was not much better, miles of tangled undergrowth and uneven terrain. But by afternoon, after they'd given the mules a rest and eaten a little of the salt cured fish they'd gotten in trade from the villagers in Dhannagiri, the path began to widen and show signs of more frequent use.

By evening, they passed a cleared area where a modest field of cotton flourished and not much further a, open fronted shack off the side of the road, half obscured by climbing vines, where a handcart and empty bushels crates were haphazardly stacked.

It was as good a place to stop as any, Ayog being unfamiliar enough with this road and what lay ahead to judge if any village or settlement were close enough to make before nightfall. It was a dark night, threatening rains, so they chanced a small fire to boil water and fry bread. The old man spoke of days when he and his father had traveled with roaming nomads, four families and eight wagons, plying their various trades in small villages and towns, avoiding the larger towns and the scrutiny of the British rule. Before the British and their thirst for control, nomadic groups had not been so distrusted, but the Raj government - - the Indian people's name for the British - - had branded them vagrants and criminals generations ago, sowing prejudices that seeped through the vast country.

Kenshin who had spoken not at all during the meal, offered first watch, and blended into the forest to find a vantage that even Sano couldn't pinpoint. He'd taken the machete with him. Nervous then, about the things that dwelled the deep woods.

It did rain during the night, but not a deluge and the trail was only marginally muddy next morning when they set out. The forest thinned, hacked back by human hands, to clear small plots off the side of the road where small crops grew. Melons and squash, corn and tomatoes.

A boy, dozing in the shade of a tree roused at their approach and ran, yelling, ahead of them down the road.

It was not much further, barely around a bend in the track that they came to the outskirts of a tiny village. Warned by the boy, men and children gathered to stare ominously at them as the wagon rattled its way into town.

A dirt poor town if Sano were any judge. The people were weathered and hostile looking, no few men holding hatchets and clubs, as if they were expecting some attack instead of weary travelers passing their way. The women hung back, in the doorways and shadows of thatch huts. A mongrel dog barked, skirting as close as it dared to the wagon wheels.

"There's nothing here. No place to rest, no food to spare," A man said, belligerent, gripping an ax in a raw boned hand.

"Don't need food." Ayog leaned elbows on knees over the wagon perch. "Just a Gadulia Lohar passing through. If there's work that needs the hand of a smith, I'm open to trade."

"No work here," the same man said.

There were maybe forty people that Sano could see, and a half that many buildings. Even the children looked hostile, glaring around their mother's hips.

"Fair enough," Ayog said and slapped the reins, urging the mules into motion.

"I've work," an old man hobbled out from the gathering. "I've an axel needs mending."

"I've a pot with a crack in the bottom," a woman ventured. "It's a good pot."

"I can fix that," Ayog said and the dam broke, people crowding close, moving around the men who still clutched their makeshift weapons and glared, children getting under the mules legs, and trying to climb the side of the wagon and pulling at Sano's vest begging handouts.

He kept a hand to his purse in his pocket, more than one small hand venturing that way. A group of little cutpurses in the making and not a parent in the lot that seemed to care.

The village was called Gheta and the people here did what they could to survive. They farmed and they hunted, and once a year they took salves and medicinal powders that they gathered from forest roots and plants, to the markets at Chadaragore to sell. Twice a year, the British landowner that managed this vast region of forest for the crown swept through with armed militia and demanded taxes that more often than not, they had no ability to pay. No few young men had been conscripted into service of the Raj as payment.

They knew what British faces looked like, pale skinned and round eyed, but they had never seen a Japanese, or even a Chinese, as remote as they were. Sano and Kenshin found themselves the center of much wary and often hostile fascination.

"I'm not sure I want to sleep here, tonight," Sano said to Kenshin, after a second man had spat on the ground at his feet, barely missing his sandal. Kenshin had had to catch his arm and prevent him from knocking the guy on his ass.

"They're wary of strangers, foreign or not," Kenshin said, trying to placate him. "It's doubtful many travel this way, except for those that demand something of them."

"Yeah, well, just watch your back and your pockets. These kids are a bunch of little thieves."

Kenshin gave him a half smile, the one that Sano had learned to interpret as being just a little condescending, Kenshin no doubt convinced that no fleet fingered thief could get past his notice. That, or he thought Sano was being paranoid.

But at least he'd seemed to be over avoiding Sano, apparently having decided to put the incident in Dhannagiri behind him.


It took the afternoon to get the axel off the old villager's wagon and repaired. Ayog took on a few odd jobs then. The woman's pot, a bit of small repair work that he was paid for in dried mushrooms, and medicinal herbs and salves that the village women made their living off of. He didn't ask much of them, knowing they had little to spare and their animosity ebbed. At least towards the old smith, who told his own tales of woe about crippling taxes and greedy landlords. They still looked at Sano and Kenshin as if they were scouts for some invading foreign horde. They spoke of shaking the yoke of Mogul rule hundreds of years past like it was yesterday. Long memories, these folks.

Kenshin had known no few people in his own land with equally intolerant views.

Ayog closed down the forge long before dark, the work dried up, and he stood around the dying embers smoking cheap, hand rolled cigarettes with one of the village elders. Sano had taken off down the dirt road a little, cooling off after one too many sideways comments tossed his way from the less tolerant of the village men and that was just as well, if they didn't want to be chased out of town and forced onto a dark road.

Kenshin had more patience with surly strangers and ignored the glares and the distrustful looks. He went to the village well and refilled the water jugs that hung from the sides of Ayog's wagon. A group of children watched him, dirty, clothing, dirty faces. Nothing unusual for children, but these were lean, hungry looking kids, wary and suspicious. He'd seen them throughout the day, young enough not to have tasks to keep them out of mischief, curious enough to be keenly interested in what strangers were about, and very much swayed by the talk of their elders.

They were building themselves to something, whispering and shifting among themselves. Kenshin ignored them, carefully pouring water into the ceramic jug.

A rock was flung at his back, and he didn't quite turn, simply snatched it out of the air before it reached his head. He did turn then, and met five sets of startled, wide eyes. The one who'd thrown it stood in the forefront, mouth open in surprise while the others as one, scattered like rabbits.

The boy stood his ground as Kenshin approached and held out the rock. "Is this yours?"

The boy swallowed, staring at it, then back up at him. Then set his small jaw and demanded. "How did you catch that? You weren't even looking."

Kenshin shrugged. "I've had a thing or two thrown at me before."

The boy gave him a dubious look. "I get rocks thrown at me all the time and I can't catch them even when I know they're coming."

"That's too bad. Perhaps you ought to find another game to play that doesn't hurt so much."

The boy shrugged skinny shoulders. He couldn't have been more than six or seven - - only a few years older than Kenji would have been now. But, he reminded Kenshin more of Yahiko, when he'd first encountered him. Dirty faced and intelligent and fallen on bad times. A kid that needed a chance to make something of himself and might never get it.

"They say you're Chinese, is that true?"

"No," Kenshin went back to continue filling the jugs and the boy followed. "I'm from Japan."

"I've never heard of that," the boy admitted. "Is it like China?"

"Well, it's a very large island that lies off the coast of China."

"Oh." The boy looked dubious. Then, "What's an island?"

Kenshin smiled, hefting filled jugs and heading back to the edge of town where the wagon was parked. The boy trailed him, the questions overflowing, now that he'd found an adult willing to take the time to answer.

He walked back into the village a little, Sano not back yet, and sat on a crumbling stone wall while the boy, whose name was Jai talked.

His father had died before he was born, but his mother had remarried and their family had a plot all their own that they farmed. Jai helped now, during harvest and planting. He had never left this village. His mother hadn't and her mother.

"But one day soon, Aakash will take me with him and I'll leave here and see all the world," the boy claimed.

"Who is Aakash?"

"My brother."

"Ah. And where does he live?"

Jai swelled a little with pride. "He is a great warrior who fights against the evil Raj."

"Really? A great warrior. That sounds as if it might be a perilous life for a young boy."

"I'll be a man soon," the boy puffed out his skinny chest. "If I could catch rocks like you, I could impress my brother when he comes."

"It takes a great deal of practice."

"I could do it."

"No doubt." The unshakable confidence of this child reminded him suddenly of Kenji. Stubborn set to his little jaw as his mother cautioned that even though the older children could hop across the stone pathway of the garden pond, he might not be able to accomplish the feat himself. And Kenji so sure that he could - -making it two stones across before he couldn't make the next step and toppled in. Kenshin had had to wade in to get him, a soaking wet child disturbing the peace of the koi, his mother smothering a smile so as not to offend wounded pride when they got back.

It hurt, that memory, a strain inside his chest. The happiest memories seemed to strike the deepest. But this time there was a child staring at him with unshakable confidence, so he took a breath and the smile wasn't forced.

"Jai!" The boy started, looking up as his name was called and a woman appeared at the door of a nearby hut. She marched out, giving Kenshin a wary look, as she gathered her child.

Kenshin inclined his head respectfully and she frowned, casting glances over her shoulder at him as she marched Jai home. A very reasonable concern from a mother who found her child in the company of a stranger.

Not a bad people, he thought, simply a very poor village made poorer by the greed of the landowners who'd been granted privileges over lands these people had inhabited for time untold. But there was always one hand or another demanding things of the helpless and not just here.

For the first time in a long time, he recalled his childhood, usually nothing more than a foggy memory, and his own poor village, taxed into poverty by the shogun they owed allegiance to on the one side and beset constantly by brigands and bandits on the other. It had been a bad time, with the stirrings of the revolution making the Shogunate greedy for the wealth to maintain their armies. As always, here, there, then and now, it was the poor that suffered the most. The poor upon whose backs the wealthy danced their dance of power.

Sano was back when he returned to the camp they'd made alongside Ayog's wagon. They'd taken the dying coals from the forge and built a fire in a metal crock, over which the smith was boiling rice with bits of the mushroom he'd gotten in payment today. Sano tossed Kenshin a piece of fruit, guava, that he'd already cut in half. It was sticky on his hands and sweet when he sucked the juices off his fingers. Sano must have found it along his cooling off walk.

"You make a new friend, huh?" Sano asked, his back against a wagon wheel. Still shirtless, but he'd washed up somewhere along the way.

Kenshin sat down cross legged next to him, shrugging.

Sano sucked the last strip of fruit from around the pit and tossed it into the darkness at the outskirts of the firelight. He drew up a knee and jerked his chin towards the old smith, tending the fire.

"The old man's shoulder is better," he said in an undertone. "But he hinted that he wouldn't mind the company, if we had a mind to travel the same trail. He's headed east, towards Calcutta eventually."

"Is that what you want?" Kenshin asked softly.

"It's food in our bellies and I'm okay with the company, if you are. It's four - - six months travel at the rate he goes, to the coast anyway. Not like we'd be stuck with him if we changed our minds."

"I think he's looking for an apprentice," Kenshin said.

Sano lifted a brow. "Yeah? Well, I can tell you, after a few days of working a forge, I wouldn't want a lifetime of it."

"It wouldn't be a bad craft to practice."

Sano snorted. Then again, softer, glancing at the old man. "Never hurts to learn a new skill or two, though."


Kenshin half drowsed, not so secure between the edge of this little village and the forest beyond, to sleep soundly when Sano and the old man snored, dead to the world.

He roused to voices raised, then lowered in apparent conflict, not too far distant. The village was cast in darkness barely penetrated by a sliver of a moon and the voices were close enough that he worried, silently rising and slipping away from the wagon and his sleeping comrades to assess threat, if there were any.

In the gully beyond a hut, two houses down, two men argued in the darkness. One he thought, was the belligerent man from the crowd yesterday. The other's back was to him and he could not see, but he seemed young and sloop shouldered. But neither held weapons, only bare hands and angry words.

"I told you that you are not welcome in my house," the man hissed. "Go back to the vagrants you call friends and seek their charity."

"It's not your house," the boy cried. "It is the house of my father. Who are you to tell me I have no place in it?"

"The man who married your mother and kept her from the street," the man snapped and swung a hand, hitting the boy with the back of his fist.

When the boy turned, clutching his cheek, Kenshin saw his face and recognition sparked. He knew this boy from the road. Had shared a fire with this boy before he and his brethren had attacked and then fled. A young thief that had likely come back with his comrades and slit the throats of their fellow bandits when they could not easily free them.

"Don't come back here to plague your mother and put ill-notions in your brother's head," the man cried.

The boy sobbed, backing away, then stabbing a finger and vowing. "You'll be sorry. You'll all be sorry."

Then he broke, scampering into the forest beyond the huts, disappearing into the darkness.

The man stood there, fists clenched staring after for a moment, then turned and headed back towards the huts. Kenshin stared into the forest as well, uneasily. If the boy was here, then his brethren might not be far behind. If this village was spared their attentions, perhaps it was only due to his association with it. An association likely strained now. He might have recognized the smith's wagon and the forge, if he'd even seen them. He might not have, if he'd crept into town the way he'd left. Either way, Kenshin had no intention of sleeping the remainder of the night.


Almost, Worthington lost the trail he sought to follow, the regiment poised on the brink of a crossroads, before his sepoy guide, a man who had proved as invaluable as any Englishman in the field over the years, spotted the tracks of a wagon with a heavy cart hauled behind it heading down another, less traveled path.

They had a day on him, but they were traveling at a snails march compared to the pace he pushed his men to. They complained of it, but not loudly and not within his hearing. He cared little enough, pride being at stake and a debt to be settled.

He was mounted, as was his native sergeant at arms and his young English aide, Corporal Culpepper. One or the other of them rode ahead, constantly appraising the state of the trail. A narrow, ungainly forest path that would have slowed the pace of a wagon considerably. Worthington's spirits rose, certain that within a day he could close the distance between himself and his prey.

They set up camp along the trail with darkness, twenty infantrymen and their officers making order with practiced ease. They traveled light, with no supply wagon to carry the makings for more than the most rustic of camps, but Worthington was used to the hardships of the campaign.

The alarm came from the sentry not long after dawn. A cry cut short, but clear enough to rouse sensitive sleepers. They came out of the woods in a rush, attackers drawn no doubt by the dying fires and the sounds of a slumbering camp. A damned foolish lot that should have taken a little more care scouting out their victims, or they might have hesitated to attack so well an armed group. Or perhaps they were driven by some religious ferver, for the most of them were wildly bearded and wore the turban, and came out of the darkness screaming curses in Hindu against the British and cries to the Goddess Kali.

Men scrambled out of their beds, taken by some surprise, Worthington among them. Guns were at each man's side, but in such close quarters blades were easier to draw in defense.

The confusion was so intense at first, and Worthington so pressed to defend himself, bootless and in shirt and trousers only, that he imagined this might be some revolt that his own native troops were in liege with. He had nightmares of the treasonous mutiny that had killed his father and never quite was able to put his full trust in the natives under his own command. But one of his sepoy infantryman put himself between Worthington and the blade of an attacker, and took the point himself, howling as the blade entered his gut. Worthington drew his pistol and put a bullet between the eyes of the leathery faced, wild eyed attacker. And the sound of that first shot was like a clap of thunder on the dawn stained trail.

He turned and shot another, and his sergeant at arms, who also had a side arm, took aim and accounted for another. By that time, the troop had gathered its wits and the wild battle cries of their attackers turned to screams of fear as more gunfire erupted.

Bandits tried to flee and Worthington cried for his men to shoot them down before they could gain the full cover of the wood. And they did, dead shots all of them, felling a half dozen men in short order. Then there was only the moaning of the wounded, and the labored breath of men roused to quickly and to violence from their beds.

Worthington among them, breath harsh from anger and exertion. He took account, crouching by the man who had put himself in front of him and taken the blade aimed at his gut. His regiment medic scurried over and shook his head grimly upon seeing the profusely bleeding wound. A death wound, even if they'd had access to medical facilities. And this man was not their only casualty. The sentry had been killed in the woods, throat neatly sliced, and one more of theirs, stabbed from behind.

Worthington rose, fists clenched, a cold rage knotting in his gut as he surveyed his camp and the bodies littered about it. That they had dared to attack a regiment of the Royal army was untenable. This was most certainly a portent of worse things. The beginning of another rebellion where the English rule was tested and it was beginning in territory he had been given authority over. He had to nip it in the bud.

There were the bodies of eleven dead attackers, and two alive. He put a bullet in the head of one himself, and the act barely served to salve the cold indignity he felt. The second was barely more than a beardless boy, and he hesitated, motioning his men to draw the shuddering lad up to face him. There was fear on the boy's face, but it was mixed with hatred.

"Is this all there is to your band? Who leads you? Where do you camp?"

The boy spat at him, blood mixed with saliva. Worthingtong stared at it, marring the crisp white of his shirt. He laid the muzzle of his gun to the lad's forehead and the boy quaked, trying to shrink back against the arms that restrained him.

"You will tell me what I want to know."

And the boy broke, eyes darting down to the man just shot, with the slowly seeping hole between his sightless eyes.

"Gheta," the boy cried. "They harbor us in Gheta. They hate the Raj rule, all of them, and curse you daily. The worst among them is my step father, a man called Gyan, who has killed many English travelers and wears English teeth as trophies."

His own smooth-faced English aid gasped upon hearing this tale and looked to him with wide, worried eyes. "Should we send back for reinforcements, sir, if we've found their nest?"

Worthington hated the notion of begging General Fletcher for aid. He hated worse, the chance that the insurgents might get wind of their approach and flee, leading them a merry chase in this wild, heavily forested region. Some of the bandits might very well have escaped into the forest. His only chance of eradicating the threat to English life and English sovereignty was to make haste and strike quickly and without mercy.

He barked at his regiment to break camp. He'd push them to their limits to reach Gheta before any bandit stragglers who would spread the alarm. Then he turned and put a bullet in the head of the boy bandit, just rewards and well within the rights of an officer of her majesty's army when dealing with an insurgent who threatened her rule.

 

 

 

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