Above them, still enormously above them, earth towered away towards the snow-line, where from east to west across hundreds of miles, ruled as with a ruler, the last of the bold birches stopped. Above that, in scarps and blocks upheaved, the rocks strove to fight their heads above the white smother. Above these again, changeless since the world’s beginning, but changing to every mood of sun and cloud, lay out the eternal snow.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim
“I am sorry,” said the master of the caravan, and he seemed to mean it, “that here we must leave you and hasten on. But you no longer need our company. You can now come to no harm.”
We had just crossed the fourth pass in safety if not in comfort. Above us the peaks towered white and menacing. Beside us an ice-cold stream was tumbling headlong into a deep and distant valley where welcome patches of green, the first we had seen for many a day, stood out among the stark grey rocks. Below us the camels were picking their deliberate way downhill. My head ached, my lungs laboured, and so profound a lethargy gripped me that it was hard to string thoughts together, let alone words.
“The next part is easy,” the master went on. “Follow this valley down. The lower you go, the less the pain in your head and the more the grass for your beast. After two days you will come to a point where the track divides. All three branches cross the final mountain. If you bear right you will find it exceptionally rough and barren, but the left-hand path is smoother and offers plenty of grazing. When you reach the summit you will see the Indus, two or three hours ahead. Beside it lies Batanagra and civilisation.”
From my sluggish mind I dredged up two questions. “Where the track splits into three — you spoke of the right and left turns. What about the middle way?”
“I have never attempted it. The left-hand one is good enough.”
“And does the king have an official at Batanagra?”
“Then would you please get word to him that we are on our way? You may tell him who we are, but nobody else.”
“And for all your help we thank you from our hearts.”
“May you be attended by the best of good fortune.”
Giving us a deep namaste, the master strode off to catch up with his caravan.
I now seemed to be in charge. “Let’s get this over,” I said reluctantly, and Datis chivvied our camel into motion. The next two days down the valley proved the master right, for they were almost a holiday. As we descended, my head cleared and the camel grazed with gusto. We even passed a few wretched little summer huts, as yet unoccupied. And when, short of the fifth pass, we came to the promised parting of the track, a final decision had to be taken.
Datis scanned the landscape ahead with his hillman’s eye. “The master didn’t try the middle way,” he said. “But that’s the one that looks best to me.”
“No. We’ll go left, as he recommended.”
The master’s advice was undoubtedly well-intended, but before long I bitterly regretted taking it.
At this point I must go back in time and explain how I, a Greek, and Datis, a Bactrian, came to be on the roof of the world, alone in a bleak and frigid wilderness yet within arm’s reach, it seemed, of the wrath of the more malignant gods. Mine is a painful story; or rather it was painful once, before time and contemplation smoothed the hurt away. Let me cut a long tale extremely short.
My name is Dion, son of a line of kings but with no desire to be a king myself. The moment Alexander of Macedon, having conquered half of Asia, had died on his way home, his squabbling generals came to blows over his legacy. While Macedon finally went to Cassander, Asia Minor to Lysimachus, and the riches of Egypt to the Ptolemies, the lion’s share ended up with Seleucus and his heirs. For a time their realm extended the whole vast distance from the Middle Sea to the borders of India. But not for long. Diodotus, their governor in the far-off province of Bactria, was a renegade; and there he proclaimed an independent kingdom, bounded on the east by the friendly Mauryans of India, beset on the west by the ambitious and upstart Parthians who were even then overrunning the neighbouring slice of Seleucid territory. Not long afterwards, in a bout of civil war, Euthydemus wrested control of Bactria from Diodotus.
Euthydemus was my great-grandfather, and on his death his kingdom was divided amicably between his two sons. Antimachus inherited the north of Bactria which embraced Sogdiana, with his capital at Baktra. Demetrius, my grandfather, took the southern parts including Arachosia. At that time the teachings of the Buddha were becoming ever more widely accepted and for many years had been promoted by the Mauryan rulers to the east. Then the Mauryans were supplanted by the new dynasty of the Sungas who, amid widespread disgust, swung from support to persecution. Demetrius seized the opportunity to invade, and the population welcomed him with open arms, not least because he sympathised with followers of the Buddha. Soon his kingdom stretched east across the Paropamisadai to Gandhara, south to where the Indus meets the sea, and north into the mountains of Kaspiria. At Taxila in the foothills he established his new capital.
At this juncture, when all seemed set fair, we Greeks suffered another bout of internal discord. While Demetrius was visiting his brother Antimachus at Baktra, both were assassinated by a disaffected general named Eucratides. Their sons, one of whom was my father Pantaleon, attempted to rule in their place. But Eucratides’ arm was too strong, and within two years he had them eliminated as well. The whole of Bactria itself remained firmly in his hands, and he celebrated it by issuing magnificent coins with portraits as pitiless as the man himself.
In Gandhara, however, a strong figure stepped in to save the day. Apollodotus had been an officer of Demetrius, and under his benign rule the Indian territories were retained and consolidated. This is the point at which my real story begins, for my father Pantaleon had married a Kaspirian lady of high rank named Vasanti, and I had been born at Taxila.
When Demetrius made his ill-fated visit to Antimachus, he left my parents at home but took me with him. As his only remaining grandson — my two older brothers having died in infancy — I was no doubt deemed ready for a first and gentle introduction to the duties of kingship. I was then eight years of age. The murder of my grandfather and great-uncle left me, needless to say, at the usurper’s mercy. But instead of killing me, Eucratides kept me in Bactria. I used to wonder why. It was not, I felt sure, because he was incapable of slaughtering a child. More likely he saw me as a bargaining-counter, should one be needed; for once my father and uncles were also out of the way — news which he gloatingly told me in person — I was the last survivor of the house of Euthydemus. He did not ill-treat me or even lock me up, but allowed me a half-free life, not at the capital but safely out of the way in the substantial city of Alexandria Oxiana which was tucked among the mountains in the easternmost recess of his kingdom.
Often I dreamt of escape, but the huge distances and the inhospitable terrain were a good deterrent, and I was conscious of watchful eyes upon me. There for nine years, as my growing up continued, I languished. I was side-lined and wholly out of touch with India. Every day I pined for my home, of which memory stayed vividly green. All my friends were in Gandhara. No longer was there even diplomatic contact between the two Greek realms. More than half my life passed under restraint, which is hard for anyone and especially hard for a youngster. It would be good to say that I rode triumphantly over my tribulations; but it would be a lie, for my confidence and self-esteem were in tatters. What I did learn was that rank is meaningless. At home I had had status and privilege, in Bactria I had neither. Yet was I not still the same inadequate Dion?
I am a mixture; call me a mongrel if you prefer. Time was when I was confused about it, unsure which gods to call upon and therefore calling upon none. I tended, in those days, to see myself as more Greek than Indian, whereas now I take pride in being both, with the instincts and standards and languages of both. From my father I have fluent Greek. I learnt Gandhari, which is but a dialect of Prakrit, at my mother’s knee. And at Taxila, where Greeks and Indians lived cheek by jowl in happy harmony, there was no distinction between peoples. Alexandria was different, because it was segregated. The divide was harder to cross. There I was quartered with Greeks in the Greek Town and willy-nilly spoke Greek with them. But, being attended by Bactrian servants, of necessity I picked up Bactrian too, a tongue which, being akin to Persian, is very different from either of my own.
I was given a modest allowance. I had a tutor who tried to drum Greek philosophy and Greek literature into my head. I had my own horse, a handsome white named Leucon to whom I was more devoted than to any Greek in that realm. I had the company, if not the friendship and certainly not the love, of a number of boys of my own age. And as I matured I had my adventures in bed — what youngster does not? In my case, on top of the usual lust for simple bodily pleasure, I was looking for relief from the dreariness of my life. I bedded a few girls — Bactria, after all, is renowned for its beauties — and more than a few boys. And while for Bactrians, as dutiful followers of Zoroaster, to penetrate a male is taboo and cannot even be suggested, between Greeks there are fewer restraints. Who, I used to wonder as I found relief in their bodies and they in mine, would I be bedding were I still in Taxila? When last I was there I had been too young to understand such matters. The rules at home, for all I knew, might be more severe.
I did have the friendship as well as the company of a few older Bactrians, whom I trusted more than I dared to trust the Greeks of that kingdom. Foremost among them was Datis, a hillman of maybe fifty years, independent-minded and tough as an old root, with whom I regularly hunted and hawked and simply passed the time. He seemed for some reason to have a fellow-feeling for this exiled princeling, and although I was never allowed outside the Greek Town unescorted, he was authorised to accompany me, and he evidently enjoyed it. He knew the mountains as nobody else did, and had travelled widely. Several times he had crossed the only pass into the desert which lay beyond it to the east, and had ventured as far as Chaurana. An evil region, he would say, of endless sand and few oases but yet of strange allure. And that, it transpired, was where the next chapter of my life began.
One day, not long after I turned seventeen, the order came out of the blue that I was to accompany a diplomatic mission to Chaurana, the largest of the oases. The Tocharoi, the lords of the desert, were opportunists only too willing to slink across the frontier mountains and raid far into Bactria in search of loot of any kind; and the purpose of this mission, I gathered, was to keep them sweet. It was to be led by Eucratides’ eldest son Heliocles, a callow youth whom I had met a few times and heartily disliked. The summons not only astonished me but made me cautious. Never before had such a duty come my way, and I could not fathom the reason behind it. But the group, made up of Greeks of quite high standing, was allowed to nominate one Bactrian servant apiece to attend to our needs and drive the camels that carried our baggage. Wanting a friend beside me, I asked Datis if he would come, and after looking at me for a long moment he said yes, he would be honoured. I hardly expected my choice to be approved from on high; but it was, perhaps because Datis had a fair grasp of the Tocharian language.
So early in May our fifteen Greek horsemen assembled at Alexandria, accompanied by fifteen camels each with a Bactrian attendant on foot. We were armed with swords and spears enough for self-defence, and Heliocles was no doubt also armed with florid letters of friendship from the king.
For the last nine years I had found little enjoyment in life. Of the next two months I positively hated every moment. The journey was long and tedious. First there were seven days up the headwaters of the Oxus and through the towering Komedai Mountains. With the coming of spring the snow had retreated from the pass, exposing a desolation of bare rock, and my head ached because at this altitude, Datis explained, the air was so thin. There followed another five days down the other side to the meagre village of Lithinos Pyrgos, where we spent the night. Next morning we stood beside the stone tower, built who knows when or by whom, which gave the place its name, and looked out over the desert and its endlessly rolling dunes of wind-blown sand interspersed with expanses of meagre and struggling grass. Very few of our company had set eyes on it before. It stretched, Datis said as he helped me saddle up, an unimaginable distance to the east, but on every other side it was hemmed in by mountain walls uncrossable except by occasional and forbiddingly high passes.
He flung my saddlecloth across Leucon’s back and smoothed it lovingly. It fascinated him. It was a woollen tapestry of Greek manufacture intended for a wall hanging, which I had found cast aside at Alexandria and purloined for my own purposes. Round the edge was a border of centaurs blowing trumpets.
“They don’t really exist, do they, Dion?” he asked. It was pleasing that he always called me Dion, not ‘sir’ as other Bactrians did. “Half horse, half human?”
“No,” I smiled. “They’re only mythical. But that man is real enough.”
The centre of the tapestry showed a Greek, nearly life-size, with a spear over his shoulder and the typical headband of a soldier; but rather than a Greek tunic he was wearing a decorative Bactrian kaftan of the sort, borrowed from our host country, that we habitually sported.
“Yes,” Datis agreed. “Very real. He looks rather like you.”
I cast a doubtful glance at it. The face was pale and blue-eyed, the expression mature and resolute.
“But my skin is darker and my eyes are brown. He’s a lot older than me. And he looks a far cry from what I feel.”
“That’s not surprising. He’s his own master. You aren’t. Not yet. You haven’t had the chance.”
“I would be my own master if I could. But how? And when?”
“I wish I could tell you. But don’t give up hope, Dion. Of all virtues, remember, patience is the greatest.”
Datis had quoted that proverb to me more than once before. He served, I reflected gratefully, as my father-figure, a replacement for the parent I had lost half my lifetime ago. What little self-confidence I had I owed to him. Had he taken on the role deliberately?
He finished the saddling and I mounted. Horses were necessary for the prestige of a diplomatic mission, but in soft sand they cannot operate at high efficiency. That was why we had camels, which can walk on anything, to carry our baggage. We set off, preceded by a Tocharian-speaking outrider to announce to any challenger that we came in peace.
We anticipated another nine days across the desert to Chaurana; but after only six a personal and almost lethal thunderbolt was hurled at me. That sixth morning, soon after leaving the waterhole where we had spent the night, Datis signed to me to ride beside him and his camel. For days a strong hot wind had been blowing in our faces, whipping up dust into dancing eddies. It made me yearn for the cool comfort of Alexandria. The camels plodded phlegmatically on, but the horses disliked the flying sand, and all human heads were bent. Nobody was watching us.
“Dion,” he said in a low voice, “last night I was on duty outside Heliocles’ tent, and Ariston was in it with him. I don’t think they know that I understand Greek. And I heard Heliocles briefing him about the purpose of the mission. It’s to bribe the Tocharoi not to attack Bactria while Eucratides and the whole of the army,” he paused for effect, “are invading Gandhara.”
My head shot up.
“And,” Datis continued, “Ariston asked, ‘So what’s that squirt Dion doing with us?’ Beg pardon, it’s what he said.
“And Heliocles replied, ‘He’s not to return to Bactria. He’s to be eliminated. So the king has ordered.’
“‘Why not eliminate him at Alexandria, then?’
“‘Because when the king took the squirt as hostage he publicly promised to protect him. If he disappeared at Alexandria the Gandharans would smell a rat. So another of my jobs is to bribe the Tocharoi to pick a quarrel with him and bump him off. If word reaches India of an unfortunate tiff at Chaurana, no harm done.’
“And that,” Datis ended, “is all I heard.”
It knocked the wind out of me. My first reaction, I fully admit it, was fear. Then came anger at being treated as disposable. Finally came understanding. If Eucratides invaded India and managed to remove Apollodotus, the last thing he would want was a potential claimant to the throne of Gandhara. My days of usefulness, if they had ever existed, were over. I must get away from the mission, and at once. But how?
Datis was watching me and reading my mind.
“It’s not all lost, Dion. I’ve been thinking. If we try to go back west, they’re bound to catch us at the pass if not before. East and north, there’s nowhere to go. South is the only hope.”
I glanced south. We were riding eastwards, parallel to a great wall of snow-capped mountains, maybe a hundred and fifty stades away, which looked unbroken and impregnable.
“Those are the Emodon,” said Datis softly. “There are five ranges of mountains, as I’ve heard, one after the other. They take a good twenty days to cross. The last range, the Imaus, looks down on Kaspiria. Dion, we’ve got urgent news that Gandhara needs to know. We’re as close here to Gandhara as we are to Bactria. So to Gandhara we must head.”
The notion and the implications were mind-blowing.
“I will come with you. You couldn’t make it by yourself. Oh, I don’t doubt your courage. But you don’t have the experience, and perhaps not the endurance.”
“But why? Why you? You belong in Bactria.”
“I did once. Not now. But this isn’t the time to discuss it.”
“Have you been in those mountains? Do you know the way?”
“I’ve never been. But I’ve been told.”
“But how do we get away? Unseen?”
“I’m hoping for conditions like this, and worse. A real sandstorm, where you can hardly see a spear-length. It smells to me as if one’s brewing up. So be ready to go, without warning, and bring nothing you can’t carry on your person. I loaded our camel this morning” — he patted it — “with food and water-skins and tent and blankets and all the warm clothes I can lay hands on.”
The wind eased temporarily and the riders’ heads came up. I moved away. For the rest of the day no opportunity arose. I spent the time agonising, drawing hope from the sight of Datis, that monument of dependability, and from the friendly feel of Leucon’s back between my knees. Most of the night, when we were camped at another waterhole, I spent in agonising as well. Next day the wind was still blowing and, as evening approached, grew ever stronger. I kept an eye on Datis, who was scanning the sky, and when he gave me a meaning glance I edged closer. Ahead a great wave of darkness was sweeping towards us and inexorably engulfing the desert. Then with startling suddenness it hit. Sand lashed our faces and visibility dropped to almost nothing. My companions were cursing and trying to twist scarves around their horses’ heads and their own. We were already at the back of the column, and I felt Datis’ hand on my knee. He passed me a rope which I tied to my bridle, for we were almost blind and if we lost contact we would hardly find each other again. I could just see his face, and as he mouthed “now!” I swung my horse round.
Leucon, glad to have his back to the blast, made as good progress as the underfoot softness allowed. Datis guided us by keeping the wind diagonally on our left, so that we were heading south-west and away from our earlier route. After a few stades, when the gradients told us we had crossed several sizeable dunes, he stopped. The sand was still lashing and the darkness deepening.
“Time to let Leucon go,” he said, mouth to my ear. “I’m sorry, Dion, but we can’t take him. Once we’re out of the desert, water should be no problem. But grazing will become impossible. All very well for camels, but not for horses. Tie the rope to your belt — that’s right — and send him off to our last camp. Our tracks will already be covered, but he’s bound to be found by someone, whether by chance Tocharoi or by searching Greeks. And if by Greeks, they’ll assume you’ve been thrown and died of thirst.”
I dismounted. Seeing the sense of it, but sick at heart because I loved Leucon dearly, I patted his neck in farewell, stroked the saddlecloth of which I was also fond, and smacked him on the rump. “Water, Leucon,” I ordered. He gave me a trusting look, and off he obediently went, tail to the wind, in the general direction of last night’s waterhole.
“Good,” said Datis. “Now come on. We have to reach the foothills by dawn.”
So through the night we tramped, growing ever wearier, the camel patient beside us, steering by the wind until the storm and the sand died down and the stars appeared. When dawn broke we were at the edge of the desert where shrubs and rough grass were growing and streams came down to be lost in the sand. A little further up began thin scrubby woodland. In its lee we camped, hobbled the camel to graze, and ate dried meat and slabs of wheat-cake washed down with water.
“So far so good,” said Datis, looking up at the snowy peaks. “And too far from the mission for the most hawk-eyed Greek to spot us. Nobody will find us here. What we have to find is the way to the pass. From what my Tocharian friend said, the break in the mountain wall must be to the west, maybe half a day’s journey. So let’s get some sleep and then go in search. Are you all right, Dion? You’re very quiet.”
“I’m all right. I’m just trying to get to grips with what’s happened. And trying to think how to thank you.”
I knew very well that it would be utterly wrong to offer him any reward; not that I had much money with me.
“I need no thanks, so don’t bother to think. Just sleep.”
I did, and woke at noon. Datis was chafing to be off. Hugging the lowest foothills, brushing through clumps of artemisia that left an appalling stench clinging to our clothes, we made our way west. It was well before sundown that his hillman’s instinct recognised that we had reached our goal. To my ignorant eyes the scene looked much as it had done all day, but he pointed out this detail of the landscape and that. Then he abruptly pulled me and the camel into a hollow.
“Ah!” He peered cautiously out. “Yes. Look.”
Following his finger, I could just make out a remote string of figures creeping through the desert towards us. My heart leapt to my mouth. Not the mission on our heels?
“I think we’re in luck,” he said. “Again. A caravan, going south for the pass and therefore for Gandhara. But wait to make sure.”
Soon I saw what he saw, a dozen men and twice as many camels. An hour, and they were abreast of us and evidently stopping to set up camp at the first good grazing after the sands. Snatches of their talk reached us. Datis listened, shook his head in perplexity, and looked at me enquiringly.
“They’re speaking Gandhari,” I breathed.
“Good. Will you talk to them, then? Don’t startle them. Be very polite, and ask if we may join them in their camp.”
Slowly and nervously I stood up and waited until someone spotted me and shouted a challenge.
“I bow to you,” I called, putting my palms together in a namaste. It was so long since I had heard or spoken my mother tongue that it did not come readily. I gestured to Datis to stand up too, and together we approached them, hands outspread. They were not hostile but cautious, and when I held out my sword with the words, “We come in peace. Our weapons are yours,” they relaxed. A stocky and grizzled man came over, whom I guessed to be the master of the caravan. Giving us a token namaste, he looked us up and down.
“May I ask who you are, and where from, and whither bound?”
“My friend Datis is from Bactria.” The master nodded almost impatiently. No doubt he had already deduced it from the cap which Datis, like all Bactrians, wore. “He does not speak Gandhari. And my name is Dion …”
I hesitated, wondering how to explain myself. But his eyebrows rose and he nodded again, this time slowly and thoughtfully.
“To judge by your appearance, if I may hazard a guess,” he said, “you are part Yona, part Gandharan. And to judge by your speech you are of high rank. If I am not deceived, you come from Taxila but have not spoken your native tongue for many a year.”
He had the air of putting two and two together. An intelligent man of his age and profession, one who kept his ear to the ground, was perfectly capable of drawing the right conclusion.
“That is all true,” I said, impressed.
The master gave me another namaste, this time deep. Yes, he had worked out who I was. “In that case,” he said firmly, “I shall ask no more.”
I was almost in tears. Not for years had I been shown such consideration and respect, except by Datis.
“And if you are heading for Gandhara,” he added almost conversationally, “would you care to join us as we travel?”
“Sir, we would be more than grateful. My friend is a hillman and at home in mountains. But I am green and know them only from afar. One moment, if you will excuse me …”
I turned to Datis who was standing uncomprehendingly by, and told him in Bactrian what had transpired. He bowed his thanks and asked, in Greek, “Do you speak Greek, sir?”
I should have thought of that for myself. Of course the master did. Men of his calling must have command of many languages. Not necessarily Bactrian — too far west of his stamping ground — but Greek, yes, emphatically.
“Then let us speak Greek,” said Datis, “and we can all understand each other.”
We brought over our camel, set up our tent next to theirs, and ate with them. Afterwards we sat with the master and talked under the stars. He enquired no more about us and why we were on the road, but he spoke freely on his own behalf. His caravan was on its way south from Soita to Gandhara, laden with salt from the northern desert and silk from the far-off Seres. Caravans transport not only long-distance commodities but long-distance news, and he told us much. While his tidings from the north and east meant little to me, those from the south held my attention.
“On India,” he said, “I am sadly out of date. It is fully half a year since we left it. But, the last I heard, everything is in order and at peace. King Pusyamitra of the Sungas is weaker now and King Apollodotus has stabilised the frontier with him along the Hyphasis. All is quiet in the Paropamisadai too. Last year’s rains were good and the harvests were rich. The mausoleum of the late kings has been completed, and extremely fine it is. The Rani Vasanti,” he went on, casually but surely deliberately, “is well. She still lives at Taxila in the winter, but now she spends her summers at Srinagari.”
The master was not looking at me, but he could hardly miss my indrawn breath. Srinagari, and therefore my mother, was in Kaspiria itself and considerably closer than Taxila. The last leg of our journey would be shorter than expected. And he went on to bury the information in a pile of less important news: or news that was less important to me. Finally he turned to the immediate future.
“As a hillman, Datis will know this well, and maybe he has told you. But for many days we will be at a high altitude where the air is thin. We are accustomed to it, as no doubt is Datis too, and it affects our bodies little. But novices, if you will pardon the term, are apt to find it difficult. You are likely to be afflicted with headache, nausea, fatigue and insomnia, and steep ascents induce worse symptoms than gentle ones. You must be prepared to suffer, and to keep walking when you would much rather stop. We have five passes to cross, of which the first and fourth ascents are the most severe. If the sickness strikes, the only remedy is to descend; or else to rest and sweat it out, except that my caravan has no time to waste. So, while we will see you through the worst, I cannot promise you our company the whole way.”
That was understandable. To him, time was money. As for the suffering, I had endured nine years of mental pain. Some physical pain might balance it out. When we retired to our tent, sleep came hard to me. The reason was not the daunting prospect of the mountains but worry over what awaited us at the far end. A welcome from my mother was assured. But how would India greet the son of a former king who belonged very much to the past? Datis, recognising my preoccupation, asked about my mother. I had long before told him the sparse outline of my life, but hitherto little detail. For a while I talked of her, and he listened with a smile. I could not see it, but I heard it when he spoke.
“Yes, good women are a blessing,” he said. “Your mother, clearly. And my wife.”
I was astonished. “I never knew you had a wife!”
“I don’t. Not now.” The smile had left his voice. “She died twelve years ago, of a fever. I was like your father and married outside my own kind. Chryse was her name. A Greek, and it was from her that I learnt Greek. So let me now answer the question you asked the other day: why am I trying to help you? It is because we had a son. His name …” he interrupted himself with a long silence “… his name was Dion too.”
“Chryse’s last words to me were, ‘Look after Dion.’ I swore I would, on pain of the River of Ordeal scalding me away. But I failed her, though not through my own fault. Our Dion may have been short of confidence, but he was a capable lad with strong principles, and should have gone far. At fourteen he found his first job, as a scullion at a general’s house in Baktra. At Eucratides’ house, in fact — that was before he seized the throne. He ordered Dion into his bed with the intention of treating him in a way that our beliefs forbid. And when Dion refused, he killed him on the spot.”
I fumbled across the darkness of the tent for Datis’ hand, and held it tight.
“So you are helping me,” I said, fumbling through a mental as well as a literal darkness, “because of my name. Because both Dions were of mixed blood. Because your Dion was rather like me. Because we both hate Eucratides.”
“Yes. All of those. And because Zoroaster taught us that we should be active in striving to ensure happiness … in keeping the chaos of evil at bay … with good thoughts, with good words, with good deeds.”
I felt very young and small. “All of which, Datis, you do. I will try my best to take the place of your lost Dion. And when we get home — to my home — you must live with us.”
“Thank you, Dion. I no longer have any bond to Bactria.”
When early next morning we moved on, Datis had changed his role. Until we met the caravan he had been very much the leader. It was he who had ordered me to do this or that, and I had obeyed willingly and without questioning. I knew my place. Now that the master was in charge, he deferred to him. Indeed he stepped not one but two paces back and left me as the intermediary with my compatriots, to talk with them in our own language, to receive their instructions and put them into effect, to act as the senior of the pair. Although he did not say so, I recognised that he was deliberately placing responsibility on my shoulders. Never having carried real responsibility before, I both feared and relished it. I saw it, even at the time, as a stage in my growing up.
The next twenty days need not be chronicled in detail. Whether we were going uphill or down they had a monotonous sameness. All were hard labour, and some were excruciatingly hard. For a while the grazing was moderately good in the valleys, until we reached a wholly barren landscape of snow and naked rock. Datis had been right: this was no country for a horse. And the master had been right: the first pass, with a steep ascent, was evil. Having taken regular exercise in the palaestra and gymnasium, I was in fair bodily shape. Yet, as in the Komedai Mountains but worse, my head ached, I vomited, I hardly slept, I felt as feeble as a newborn pup. I longed to ride the camel, but it was already laden with our baggage and any extra burden would endanger its feet on the sharp stones. That was something we could not risk. The warnings were unmistakable: beside the track lay the bones of pack animals that had perished, and even of men, and wheeling above or perched expectantly on the crags were vultures. But, armed with my lust for freedom and with Datis’ advice about patience, I forced myself to carry on, foot plodding after leaden foot; and he was beside me throughout, lending me his strength and encouragement and sometimes his arm. None the less I was all too conscious that I slowed the whole caravan down.
The second pass was a little easier, for we had not descended so much and the climb was shorter. Perhaps, too, I was becoming more accustomed to the altitude. Here we heard the occasional crack and rumble as a rock, pried from its parent by the winter frosts, was released by the comparative warmth of spring to crash down the slopes and sometimes onto the track. The third pass, the master said, was the highest of them all, but with a long gentle approach it was easier again. To my surprise, although snow lay deep on the mountains on either side, even here there was none on the track itself. The reason was the wind. It blew an increasing gale from the north which allowed none to settle, and at least it helped us up the hills. But the cold, bad enough by day, was worse by night, making me yearn once again for the comfort — this time the warm comfort — of Alexandria. And as soon as we breasted the third pass, the gale blew equally fierce from the south and into our faces. The wind gods, the master said, were battling for possession of this little notch nicked out of the roof of the world.
The next drop was short again and was followed by two days across a bleak forsaken plateau. Here we met a caravan going north. Should the search for me still be afoot, it might relay news of us to anyone in the desert. But by that time we would be out of the mountains and in total safety; and would the details of two muffled-up individuals be noted? Then a long descent into a valley was succeeded by a steep and longer ramp which, as the master foretold, made the fourth pass another time of pain. I felt worse there than at any stage so far, and once over the top we had the grief of parting with our friendly caravan.
But, as I have explained, my spirits were revived by two easy days downhill, and for the final pass we took the left-hand track. At first it led up, as promised, on a relatively gentle slope with good grazing. At the foot of the real climb we camped for the last time, we hoped, before civilisation. Next morning we spent slogging painfully up to the summit where, even though my head was hurting once more, we stopped. Datis hitched the camel, which was an unusually obedient member of its kind, to a handy boulder, and at his command it knelt down and began to ruminate. The immediate surroundings were all too familiar: snow-bound peaks above, bare jagged crags looming beside the track, fallen jagged rocks lying littered upon it. What made us stop, and what held the whole of our attention, was the view ahead.
Far below, but not much more than fifty stades away, lay a town: not a village, not a city, but a goodly jumble of roofs. Batanagra at last, and our immediate goal. Just beyond it ran the silver ribbon of a river, here still quite small but destined to grow into the mighty Indus which waters fertile Gandhara. We looked at each other. We embraced, Datis’ long-unshaved cheek against my downy one. For the first time in more than a month we laughed.
But the gods punished us for laughing too soon.
With no more warning than the usual crack and rumble, a great chunk of crag toppled onto the track. It hit Datis full-on and he fell as if pole-axed. In an instant I was on my knees beside him, but his head was crushed in. Shock paralysed me. It did not yet sink in that I had lost a friend, a protector, an almost-father, and a good, good man. My first thought was a Greek one: that in order to ease his soul into the next world he must be buried. My second was an Indian one: no, he must be cremated. My third was that both were wrong: he was a Bactrian, and Bactrians expose corpses to be picked apart by scavenging birds. On that score I need do nothing. My fourth thought was that I was myself in danger, and as I began to rise from my knees another chunk of crag came down.
It struck me partly on the right thigh — I felt the bone crack — and partly on the side of the chest, and the blow flung me headlong. As I fell I thumped my head on the ground. Dazed though I was, my only thought now was to get clear of this accursed place. Whimpering with pain and fear, I frantically dragged myself on hands and one knee to the camel. I drew my sword to slash the ropes that held its burden, which no longer mattered, and left the bundles strewn on the track. I slashed the halter too and fell across the camel’s back between the humps. I ordered it to its feet and smacked its rump to set it walking. I intended to swing a leg over and ride properly, but that was beyond me. Then I passed out.