A Wind in Cairo. Judith Tarr. In Search of the Forty Days Road. Michael Asher. With Mercy Toward None. The Fire in His Hands. Hasan Ali Toptas. The Ancient Allan. Rider Haggard. From the Sahara to Samarkand. Rosita Forbes. Adventure Tales 4. John Gregory Betancourt.
Impossible Journey. King--Of The Khyber Rifles. Drinkers of the Wind. Carl R. Beloved Exile. Alexander Cordell. The Blood of Titans. Michael Forsyth. Leonid Solovyev. The Daughter of Erlik Khan. Robert E. Hoffmann Price. Told in the East. Scarlet Feather. Joan Grant. Khairy Shalaby. The Lanterns of the King of Galilee. Ibrahim Nasrallah. Son of the White Wolf. Adventures In Arabia. Katharina Gerlach. A Desert Dies. Keeper of the Seal. Leroy Dumont. Alamut, the Assassins' Nest. Shokouhi N. Talbot Mundy's Collected Works.
Names in the Black Book. Shadows: Book of Aleth, Part One. Michael Duncan. The Blue Wolf. Frederic Dion. The Prophet's Camel Bell. Margaret Laurence. The Treasure of Akram el-Amin. Chris L. The Shepherds of Shadows. Harry Mark Petrakis. Conan: The Complete Collection. Robert Louis Stevenson. The Second Western Megapack.
Zane Grey. The Horror Megapack. Johnston McCulley. Steve Rasnic Tem. The Occult Detective Megapack. Sheridan Le Fanu. The Wildside Book of Fantasy. Gene Wolfe. Dorothy Quick. Mark Twain. The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. Lester del Rey. Cynthia Asquith. The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1. The Horror Stories of Robert E. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Only five El Borak stories were published during Howard's life.
The remainder have been printed in the years since his suicide by various publishers. There are two fragments of El Borak stories that Howard did not finish before his death. Both were untitled. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. This article is about the fictional character. For the mythological steed, see Buraq. The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1: Volume 1: Crimson Shadows. New York: Ballantine Books. Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword, Volume 1.
Howard Works. The moonlit plateau showed no evidence of the attackers beyond the puffs of grayish-white smoke that bloomed in woolly whorls from behind the boulders. But there was a tense expectancy in the very air. The moon was visible below the overhanging crag; it rested a red, bent horn on the solid black mass of a mountain wall.
In a few moments the plain would be plunged in darkness and then it was inevitable that Baber would rush the cavern.
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Yet Baber would know that in the darkness following the setting of the moon the captives might be expected to make a break for liberty. It was certain that he already had a wide cordon spread across the plain, and the line would converge quickly on the cave mouth. The longer Gordon waited after moonset, the harder it would be to slip through the closing semicircle. He began wrenching bullets out of cartridges with his fingers and teeth and emptying the powder into his rifle barrel, even while he studied the terrain by the last light of the sinking moon. The plateau was roughly fan- shaped, widening rapidly from the cliff-flanked wall in which opened the cave mouth.
Perhaps a quarter of a mile across the plain showed the dark mouth of a gorge, in which he knew were tethered the horses of the Orakzai. Probably at least one man was guarding them. The plain ran level and bare for nearly a hundred yards before the cavern mouth, but some fifty feet away, on the right, there was a deep narrow gully which began abruptly in the midst of the plain and meandered away toward the right-hand cliffs.
No shot had been fired from this ravine. If an Orakzai was hidden there he had gone into it while Gordon and his men were at the back of the cavern. It had been too close to the cave for the besiegers to reach it under the guns of the defenders. As soon as the moon set Gordon intended to emerge and try to work his way across the plain, avoiding the Orakzai as they rushed toward the cave. It would be touch and go, the success depending on accurate timing and a good bit of luck. But there was no other alternative. He would have a chance, once he got among the rocks and gullies.
His biggest risk would be that of getting shot as he ran from the cavern, with thirty rifles trained upon the black mouth. And he was providing against that when he filled his rifle barrel to the muzzle with loose powder from the broken cartridges and plugged the muzzle solidly with a huge misshapen slug he found on the cave floor.
He knew as soon as the moon vanished they would come wriggling like snakes from every direction, to cover the last few yards in a desperate rush —they would not fire until they could empty their guns point-blank into the cavern and storm in after their volley with naked steel. But thirty pairs of keen eyes would be fixed on the entrance and a volley would meet any shadowy figure seen darting from it.
Works by Robert E. Howard
The moon sank, plunging the plateau into darkness, relieved but little by the dim light of the stars. Out on the plateau Gordon heard sounds that only razor-keen ears could have caught, much less translated: the scruff of leather on stone, the faint clink of steel, the rattle of a pebble underfoot. Rising in the black cave mouth he cocked his rifle, and poising himself for an instant, hurled it, butt first, as far to the left as he could throw it. The clash of the steel-shod butt on stone was drowned by a blinding flash of fire and a deafening detonation as the pent-up charge burst the heavy barrel asunder and in the intensified darkness that followed the flash Gordon was out of the cave and racing for the ravine on his right.
No bullet followed him, though rifles banged on the heels of that amazing report. As he had planned, the surprising explosion from an unexpected quarter had confused his enemies, wrenched their attention away from the cave mouth and the dim figure that flitted from it. Men howled with amazement and fired blindly and unreasoningly in the direction of the flash and roar.
While they howled and fired, Gordon reached the gully and plunged into it almost without checking his stride—to collide with a shadowy figure which grunted and grappled with him. In an instant Gordon's hands locked on a hairy throat, stifling the betraying yell. They went down together, and a rifle, useless in such desperate close quarters, fell from the Pathan's hand. Out on the plain pandemonium had burst, but Gordon was occupied with the blood-crazy savage beneath him. The man was taller arid heavier than himself and his sinews were like rawhide strands, but the advantage was with the tigerish white man.
As they rolled on the gully floor the Pathan strove in vain with both hands to tear away the fingers that were crushing the life from his corded throat, then still clawing at Gordon's wrist with his left hand, began to grope in his girdle for a knife. Gordon released his throat with his left hand, and with it caught the other's right wrist just as the knife came clear. The Pathan heaved and bucked like a wild man, straining his wolfish muscles to the utmost, but in vain. He could not free his knife wrist from Gordon's grasp nor tear from his throat the fingers that were binding his neck back until his bearded chin jutted upward.
Desperately, he threw himself sidewise, trying to bring his knee up to the American's groin, but his shift in position gave Gordon the leverage he had been seeking. Instantly El Borak twisted the Pathan's wrist with such savage strength that a bone cracked and the knife fell from the numb fingers. Gordon released the broken wrist, snatched a knife from his own boot and ripped upward— again, again, and yet again. Not until the convulsive struggles ceased and the body went limp beneath him did Gordon release the hairy throat. He crouched above his victim, listening. The fight had been swift, fierce and silent, enduring only a matter of seconds.
The unexpected explosion had loosed hysteria in the attackers. The Orakzai were rushing the cave, not in stealth and silence, but yelling so loudly and shooting so wildly they did not seem to realize that no shots were answering them. Nerves hung on hair triggers can be snapped by an untoward occurrence. The rush of the warriors across the plain sounded like the stampede of cattle.
A man bounded up the ravine a few yards from where Gordon crouched, without seeing the American in the pit-like blackness. Howling, cursing, shooting blindly, the hillmen stormed to the cave mouth, too crazy with excitement and confused by the darkness to see the dim figure that glided out of the gully behind them and raced silently away toward the mouth of the distant gorge.
Protests, exhortations and fervent profanity did not serve to ease the flying pace at which his escort was trundling him, and presently he had no breath for protests. He did not even have time to be grateful that the expected pursuit did not seem to be materializing. He gasped like a dying fish and tried not to look down.
He had an uncomfortable feeling that the Afridis blamed him for Gordon's plight and would gladly have heaved him off a ridge but for their leaders' parting command. But Willoughby felt that he was just as effectually being killed by overexertion. He had never realized that human beings could traverse such a path—or rather such a pathless track—as he was being dragged over. When the moon sank the going was even harder, but he was grateful, for the abysses they seemed to be continually skirting were but floating gulfs of blackness beneath them, which did not induce the sick giddiness resulting from yawning chasms disclosed by the merciless moonlight.
His respect for Gordon's physical abilities increased to a kind of frantic awe, for he knew the American was known to be superior in stamina and endurance even to these long-legged, barrel-chested, iron-muscled mountaineers who seemed built of some substance that was tireless. Willoughby wished they would tire.
They hauled him along with a man at each arm, and one to pull, and another to push when necessary, but even so the exertion was killing him. Sweat bathed him, drenching his garments. His thighs trembled and the calves of his legs were tied into agonizing knots. He reflected in dizzy fragments that Gordon deserved whatever domination he had achieved over these iron-jawed barbarians. But mostly he did not think at all. His faculties were all occupied in keeping his feet and gulping air. The veins in his temples were nearly bursting and things were swimming in a bloody haze about him when he realized his escort, or captors—or torturers—had slowed to a walk.
He voiced an incoherent croak of gratitude and shaking the sweat out of his dilated eyes, he saw that they were treading a path that ran over a natural rock bridge which spanned a deep gorge. Ahead of him, looming above a cluster of broken peaks, he saw a great black bulk heaving up against the stars like a misshapen castle. The sharp challenge of a rifleman rang staccato from the other end of the span and was answered by Khoda Khan's bull-like bellow.
The path led upon a jutting ledge and half a dozen ragged, bearded specters with rifles in their hands rose from behind a rampart of heaped-up boulders. Willoughby was in a state of collapse, able only to realize that the killing grind was over. The Afridis half carried, half dragged him within the semicircular rampart and he saw a bronze door standing open and a doorway cut in solid rock that glowed luridly.
It required an effort to realize that the glow came from a fire burning somewhere in the cavern into which the doorway led. This, then, was Akbar's Castle. With each arm across a pair of brawny shoulders Willoughby tottered through the cleft and down a short narrow tunnel, to emerge into a broad natural chamber lighted by smoky torches and a small fire over which tea was brewing and meat cooking.
Half a dozen men sat about the fire, and some forty more slept on the stone floor, wrapped in their sheepskin coats. Doorways opened from the huge main chamber, openings of other tunnels or cell-like niches, and at the other end there were stalls occupied by horses, a surprising number of them. Saddles, blanket rolls, bridles and other equipage, with stands of rifles and stacks of ammunition cases, littered the floor near the walls. The men about the fire rose to their feet looking inquiringly at the Englishman and his escort, and the men on the floor awoke and sat up blinking like ghouls surprised by daylight.
A tall broad-shouldered swashbuckler came striding out of the widest doorway opening into the cavern. He paused before the group, towering half a head taller than any other man there, hooked his thumbs in his girdle and glared balefully. We rescued him from Baber Ali, who would have slain him. We were at bay in the cave where Yar Muhammad shot the gray wolf three summers ago. We stole out by a cleft, but the rope fell and left El Borak on a ledge fifty feet above us, and—".
You left him to die! Accursed ones! Forgotten of God! He snatched up rifle, bandoleer and bridle. Forty men with me to rescue El Borak! The rest hold the Castle. I leave Khoda Khan in command. His three comrades expressed similar intentions at the top of their voices—after fighting and running all night, they were wild as starving wolves to plunge back into hazard in behalf of their chief. Allah rot me if I ram not a rifle stock down thy accursed gullets—dogs, jackals, noseless abominations, hasten with the horses!
Yar Ali Khan yelled bloodthirstily and rushed into the tunnel, brandishing his rifle, with everybody pelting after him except the men detailed to saddle the horses. Willoughby had been forgotten by the Pathans in the madhouse brewed by Gordon's lieutenant. He limped after them, remembering tales told of this gaunt giant and his berserk rages. The tunnel down which the ragged horde was streaming ran for less than a hundred feet when it widened to a mouth through which the gray light of dawn was stealing.
Through this the Afridis were pouring and Willoughby, following them, came out upon a broad ledge a hundred feet wide and fifty deep, like a gallery before a house. Around its semicircular rim ran a massive man-made wall, shoulder-high, pierced with loopholes slanting down. There was an arched opening in the wall, closed by a heavy bronze door, and from that door, which now stood open, a row of broad shallow steps niched in solid stone led down to a trail which in turn looped down a three-hundred-foot slope to the floor of a broad valley.
The cliffs in which the cave sat closed the western end of the valley, which opened to the east. Mists hung in the valley and out of them a horseman came flying, growing ghostlike out of the dimness of the dawn—a man on a great white horse, riding like the wind. Yar Ali Khan glared wildly for an instant, then started forward with a convulsive leap of his whole body, flinging his rifle high above his head. Electrified by his yell, the men surged to the wall and those saddling the mounts inside abandoned their task and rushed out onto the ledge.
In an instant the wall was lined with tense figures, gripping their rifles and glaring into the white mists rolling beyond the fleeing rider, from which they momentarily expected pursuers to appear. Willoughby, standing to one side like a spectator of a drama, felt a tingle in his veins at the sight and sound of the wild rejoicing with which these wild men greeted the man who had won their allegiance. Gordon was no bluffing adventurer; he was a real chief of men; and that, Willoughby realized, was going to make his own job that much harder.
No pursuers materialized out of the thinning mists. Gordon urged his mount up the trail, up the broad steps, and as he rode through the gate, bending his head under the arch, the roar of acclaim that went up would have stirred the blood of a king. The Pathans swarmed around him, catching at his hands, his garments, shouting praise to Allah that he was alive and whole. He grinned down at them, swung off and threw his reins to the nearest man, from whom Yar Ali Khan instantly snatched them jealously, with a ferocious glare at the offending warrior.
Willoughby stepped forward. He knew he looked like a scarecrow in his stained and torn garments, but Gordon looked like a butcher, with blood dried on his shirt and smeared on his breeches where he had wiped his hands. But he did not seem to be wounded. He smiled at Willoughby for the first time. I came the long way, but I made good time on Baber Ali's horse," said Gordon. But on horseback I could take that risk. I was shot at once, but they missed me. It's hard to aim straight in the early-morning mists. Had to kill a man in the gully before the cave.
We were all twisted together when I let him have the knife and that's where this blood came from. I stole Baber's horse while the Orakzai were storming the empty cave. Stampeded the herd down a canyon. Had to shoot the fellow guarding it. Baber'll guess where I went, of course. He'll be after me as quickly as he and his men can catch their horses.
I suspect they'll lay siege to the Castle, but they'll only waste their time. Willoughby stared about him in the growing light of dawn, impressed by the strength of the stronghold. One rifleman could hold the entrance through which he had been brought. To try to advance along that narrow bridge that spanned the chasm behind the Castle would be suicide for an enemy. And no force on earth could march up the valley on this side and climb that stair in the teeth of Gordon's rifles.
The mountain which contained the cave rose up like a huge stone citadel above the surrounding heights. The cliffs which flanked the valley were lower than the fortified ledge; men crawling along them would be exposed to a raking fire from above. Attack could come from no other direction. It was first fortified by Akbar himself. Afdal Khan held it before I took it. It's my best safeguard for Kurram. To attack Kurram, Afdal would have to pass Akbar's Castle and leave me in his rear. He doesn't dare do that.
That's why he wanted a truce—to get me out of the Castle. With me ambushed and killed, or hemmed up in Kurram, he'd be free to strike at Kurram with all his force, without being afraid I'd burn Khoruk behind him or ambush him in my country. I've repeatedly challenged him to fight me man to man, but he pays no attention. He hasn't stirred out of Khoruk since the feud started, unless he had at least a hundred men with him— as many as I have in my entire force, counting these here and those guarding the women and children in Kurram.
Geronimo almost whipped an army with a handful of Apaches, and I was raised in his country. I've simply adopted his tactics. The possession of this Castle was all I needed to assure my ultimate victory. If Afdal had the guts to meet me, the feud would be over. He's the chief; the others just follow him. As it is I may have to wipe out the entire Khoruk clan. But I'll get him. The dark flame flickered in Gordon's eyes as he spoke, and again Willoughby felt the impact of an inexorable determination, elemental in its foundation.
And again he swore mentally that he would end the feud himself, in his own way, with Afdal Khan alive; though how, he had not the faintest idea at present. Gordon glanced at him closely and advised: "Better get some sleep.
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If I know Baber Ali, he'll come straight to the Castle after me. He knows he can't take it, but he'll try anyway. He has at least a hundred men who follow him and take orders from nobody else—not even Afdal Khan. After the shooting starts there won't be much chance for sleeping.
You look a bit done up. Willoughby realized the truth of Gordon's comment. Sight of the white streak of dawn stealing over the ash-hued peaks weighted his eyelids with an irresistible drowsiness. He was barely able to stumble into the cave, and the smell of frying mutton exercised no charm to keep him awake. Somebody steered him to a heap of blankets and he was asleep before he was actually stretched upon them. Gordon stood looking down at the sleeping man enigmatically and Yar Ali Khan came up as noiselessly and calmly as a gaunt gray wolf; it would have been hard to believe he was the hurricane of emotional upset which had stormed all over the cavern a short hour before.
He sat up, momentarily confused and unable to remember where he was or how he came there. Then he recalled the events of the night; he was in the stronghold of an outlaw chief, and those detonations must mean the siege Gordon had predicted. He was alone in the great cavern, except for the horses munching fodder beyond the bars at the other end. Among them he recognized the big white stallion that had belonged to Baber Ali. The fire had died to a heap of coals and the daylight that stole through a couple or arches, which were the openings of tunnels connecting with the outer air, was augmented by half a dozen antique-looking bronze lamps.
A pot of mutton stew simmered over the coals and a dish full of chupatties stood near it. Willoughby was aware of a ravenous hunger and he set to without delay. Having eaten his fill and drunk deeply from a huge gourd which hung nearby, full of sweet, cool water, he rose and started toward the tunnel through which he had first entered the Castle.
Near the mouth he almost stumbled over an incongruous object—a large telescope mounted on a tripod, and obviously modern and expensive. A glance out on the ledge showed him only half a dozen warriors sitting against the rampart, their rifles across their knees. He glanced at the ribbon of stone that spanned the deep gorge and shivered as he remembered how he had crossed it in the darkness. It looked scarcely a foot wide in places.
He turned back, crossed the cavern and traversed the other tunnel. He halted in the outer mouth. The wall that rimmed the ledge was lined with Afridis, kneeling or lying at the loopholes. They were not firing. Gordon leaned idly against the bronze door, his head in plain sight of anyone who might be in the valley below. He nodded a greeting as Willoughby advanced and joined him at the door. Again the Englishman found himself a member of a besieged force, but this time the advantage was all with the defenders. Down in the valley, out of effectual rifle range, a long skirmish line of men was advancing very slowly on foot, firing as they came, and taking advantage of every bit of cover.
Farther back, small in the distance, a large herd of horses grazed, watched by men who sat cross-legged in the shade of the cliff. The position of the sun indicated that the day was well along toward the middle of the afternoon. They're wasting Russian cartridges scandalously. But you slept like a dead man. Baber Ali didn't get here as quickly as I thought he would. He evidently stopped to round up more men. There are at least a hundred down there. To Willoughby the attack seemed glaringly futile. The men on the ledge were too well protected to suffer from the long-range firing.
And before the attackers could get near enough to pick out the loopholes, the bullets of the Afridis would be knocking them over like tenpins. He glimpsed men crawling among the boulders on the cliffs, but they were at the same disadvantage as the men in the valley below—Gordon's rifle-men had a vantage point above them. He knows you're up here with me and he's taking a thousand-to-one chance. But he's wasting his time. I have enough ammunition and food to stand a six-month siege; there's a spring in the cavern. Then he has a dread of having me at his back.
Too big a risk that his men couldn't keep me cooped up. He's got to reduce Akbar's Castle before he can strike at Kurram. I've got to get out of here—got to get back to Ghazrael. I don't mind being outlawed for the things I have done, but I don't care to shoulder something I didn't do. Baber Ali means to close your mouth if human means can do it. But Baber will take good care Afdal doesn't know, of course. If I could get a letter to him—but of course that's impossible. Afdal knows your handwriting, doesn't he? Tonight I'll sneak out and take it to his nearest outpost.
He keeps a line of patrols among the hills a few miles beyond Jehungir's Well. No offense, but you Englishmen sound like a herd of longhorn steers at your stealthiest. The Orakzai are among the crags on the other side of the Gorge of Mekram. I won't cross the bridge. My men will let me down a rope ladder into the gorge tonight before moonrise. I'll slip up to the camp of the nearest outpost, wrap the note around a pebble and throw it among them. Being Afdal's men and not Baber's, they'll take it to him.
I'll come back the way I went, after moonset. It'll be safe enough. And there's the pinch, because Afdal won't dare show himself for fear I'd shoot him. He's broken so many pacts himself he can't believe anybody would keep one. Not where his hide is concerned. He trusted me to keep my word in regard to Baber and your escort, but would he trust himself to my promise? Willoughby scowled, cramming the bowl of his pipe. I imported that from Germany, by the way of Turkey and Persia.
That's one reason Akbar's Castle has never been surprised. It carries for miles. Seating himself on the ledge, Willoughby drew forth pencil and notebook, propped the latter against his knee, and wrote in his clear concise hand:.
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Baber was so unreasonably incensed at my failure to effect a truce that he allowed my servant Suleiman to be murdered, and now intends murdering me, to stop my mouth. I don't have to remind you how fatal it would be to the interests of your party for this to occur. I want you to come to Akbar's Castle and get me out of this.
Gordon assures me you will not be molested if you play fair, but here is a way by which you need not feel you are taking any chances: Gordon has a large telescope through which I can identify you while you are still out of rifle range. In the Gorge of Mekram, and southwest of the Castle, there is a mass of boulders split off from the right wall and well out of rifle range from the Castle.
If you were to come and stand on those boulders, I could identify you easily. Naturally, I will not leave the Castle until I know you are present to protect me from your uncle. As soon as I have identified you, I will come down the gorge alone. You can watch me all the way and assure yourself that no treachery is intended. No one but myself will leave the Castle. On your part I do not wish any of your men to advance beyond the boulders and I will not answer for their safety if they should, as I intend to safeguard Gordon in this matter as well as yourself.
He handed the letter over for Gordon to read. The American nodded. I don't know. He's kept out of my sight ever since the feud started. Then ensued a period of waiting, in which the sun seemed sluggishly to crawl toward the western peaks. Down in the valley and on the cliffs the Orakzai kept up their fruitless firing with a persistency that convinced Willoughby of the truth of Gordon's assertion that ammunition was being supplied them by some European power. The Afridis were not perturbed. They lounged at ease by the wall, laughed, joked, chewed jerked mutton and fired through the slanting loopholes when the Orakzai crept too close.
Three still white-clad forms in the valley and one on the cliffs testified to their accuracy. Willoughby realized that Gordon was right when he said the clan which held Akbar's Castle was certain to win the war eventually. Only a desperate old savage like Baber Ali would waste time and men trying to take it. Yet the Orakzai had originally held it. How Gordon had gained possession of it Willoughby could not imagine.
The sun dipped at last; the Himalayan twilight deepened into black- velvet, star-veined dusk. Gordon rose, a vague figure in the starlight. He had laid aside his rifle and buckled a tulwar to his hip. Willoughby followed him into the great cavern, now dim and shadowy in the light of the bronze lamps, and through the narrow tunnel and the bronze door.
Yar Ali Khan, Khoda Khan, and half a dozen others followed them. The light from the cavern stole through the tunnel, vaguely etching the moving figures of the men. Then the bronze door was closed softly and Willoughby's companions were shapeless blurs in the thick soft darkness around him. The gorge below was a floating river of blackness. The bridge was a dark streak that ran into the unknown and vanished. Not even the keenest eyes of the hills, watching from beyond the gorge, could have even discerned the jut of the ledge under the black bulk of the Castle, much less the movements of the men upon it.
The voices of the men working at the rim of the ledge were lowering the rope ladder—a hundred and fifty feet of it—into the gorge.
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Gordon's face was a light were lowering the rope ladder—a hundred and fifty feet of it—into the gorge. Gordon's face was a light blur in the darkness. Willoughby groped for his hand and found him already swinging over the rampart onto the ladder, one end of which was made fast to a great iron ring set in the stone of the ledge. Suppose some of those devils are down there in the gorge? They don't know we have this way of coming and going. If I can steal a horse, I'll be back in the Castle before dawn. If I can't, and have to make the whole trip there and back on foot, I may have to hide out in the hills tomorrow and get back into the Castle the next night.
Don't worry about me. They'll never see me. Yar Ali Khan, watch for a rush before the moon rises. The next instant Gordon began to melt into the gloom below. Before he had climbed down five rungs the men crouching on the rampart could no longer see him. He made no sound in his descent. Khoda Khan knelt with a hand on the ropes, and as soon as he felt them go slack, he began to haul the ladder up.
Willoughby leaned over the edge, straining his ears to catch some sound from below—scruff of leather, rattle of shale—he heard nothing. Yar Ali Khan muttered, his beard brushing Willoughby's ear: "Nay, sahib, if such ears as yours could hear him, every Orakzai on this side of the mountain would know a man stole down the gorge! You will not hear him— nor will they. There are Lifters of the Khyber who can steal rifles out of the tents of the British soldiers, but they are blundering cattle compared to El Borak. Before dawn a wolf will howl in the gorge, and we will know El Borak has returned and will let down the ladder for him.
But like the others, the huge Afridi leaned over the rampart listening intently for some fifteen minutes after the ladder had been drawn up. Then with a gesture to the others he turned and opened the bronze door a crack. They stole through hurriedly. Somewhere in the blackness across the gorge a rifle cracked flatly and lead spanged a foot or so above the lintel.
In spite of the rampart some quick eye among the crags had caught the glow of the opened door. But it was blind shooting. The sentries left on the ledge did not reply. Back on the ledge that overlooked the valley, Willoughby noted an air of expectancy among the warriors at the loopholes. They were momentarily expecting the attack of which Gordon had warned them. The Afridi squatted beside him near the open bronze gate, rifle in hand, the butt resting on the ledge.
Over them was the blue-black bowl of the Himalayan night, flecked with clusters of frosty silver. Afdal believed three men could hold it against an army, and so they could—against an army. Not against El Borak. While Baber Ali and Afdal were striving to pin Yar Ali Khan and us forty riders between them, and we were leading the dogs a merry chase over the hills, El Borak rode alone down this valley. He came disguised as a Persian trader, with his turban awry and his rich garments dusty and rent. He fled down the valley shouting that thieves had looted his caravan and were pursuing him to take from him his purse of gold and his pouch of jewels.
So they bade him take refuge in the cavern and opened the gate to him. He rode into Akbar's Castle crying praise to Allah—with empty hands, but a knife and pistols under his khalat. Then the accursed ones mocked him and set on him to strip him of his riches—by Allah they found they caught a tiger in the guise of a lamb!
One he slew with the knife, the other two he shot. Alone he took the stronghold against which armies have thundered in vain! When we forty-one horsemen evaded the Orakzai and doubled back, as it had been planned, lo! The forgotten of God charge the stair! From the shadows below there welled up the sudden, swift drum of hoofs and Willoughby glimpsed movement in the darkness of the valley.
The blurred masses resolved themselves into dim figures racing up the looping trail: At the same time a rattle of rifle fire burst out behind the Castle, from beyond the Gorge of Mekram. The Afridis displayed no excitement. Khoda Khan did not even close the bronze gate. They held their fire until the hoofs of the foremost horses were ringing on the lower steps of the stair. Then a burst of flame crowned the wall, and in its flash Willoughby saw wild bearded faces, horses tossing heads and manes.
In the darkness following the volley there rose screams of agony from men and beasts, mingled with the thrashing and kicking of wounded horses and the grating of shod hoofs on stone as some of the beasts slid backward down the stair. Dead and dying piled in a heaving, agonized mass, and the stairs became a shambles as again and yet again the rippling volleys crashed. Willoughby wiped a damp brow with a shaking hand, grateful that the hoofbeats were receding down the valley.
Hawk of the Hills (short story)
The gasps and moans and cries which welled up from the ghastly heap at the foot of the stairs sickened him. Baber Ali is a bull rushing blindly to his destruction. Rifles began to flash and crack down in the valley as the baffled besiegers vented their wrath in blind discharges. Bullets smacked along the wall of the cliff, and Khoda Khan closed the bronze gate.
Did you not hear the shots? But the path is narrow and one man behind the rampart could keep it clear. And there are six men there, all skilled marksmen. Willoughby nodded, remembering the narrow ribbon of rock flanked on either hand by echoing depths. Over the eastern peaks a glow began which grew to a soft golden fire against which the peaks stood blackly outlined.
Then the moon rose, not the mellow gold globe promised by the forerunning luster, but a gaunt, red, savage moon, of the high Himalayas. Khoda Khan opened the bronze gate and peered down the stair, grunting softly in gratification. Willoughby, looking over his shoulder, shuddered. The heap at the foot of the stairs was no longer a merciful blur, for the moon outlined it in pitiless detail. Dead horses and dead men lay in a tangled gory mound with rifles and sword blades thrust out of the pile like weeds growing out of a scrap heap.
There must have been at least a dozen horses and almost as many men in that shambles. Willoughby leaned back against the wall, drawing a heavy sheepskin coat about him. He felt sick and futile. The men down in the valley must feel the same way, for the firing was falling off, becoming spasmodic. Even Baber Ali must realize the futility of the siege by this time. Willoughby smiled bitterly to himself. He had come to arbitrate a hill feud—and down there men lay dead in heaps.