Argyle, Scotland, 1832
“Nay! Na-ay! I’ll niver gang wi’ ye!”
The small boy, swaddled with blankets, cried out into the darkness. After each word, he took a loud, wheezing breath. The fire had gone out in the hearth but the room was still hazy with peat smoke. “Mam…Mam! Dinna let her get me, Mam!”
A door creaked open and a dim lantern lit the expanse of flagstone to the bed and gilded the child’s fevered face. A woman carried the lamp over, placing it next to a tin cup on a nearby stool.
“Shoush, bairn!” she whispered. “O’ what are ye a’feared? What vexes ye so?”
She sat on the bed and took the boy in her arms, rocking him and smoothing her hand over his sweaty forehead.
“A terrible wummin, Mam. She came te tak me awa’! Wi’ a face as black as coal,” he gasped and then coughed. “And eyes o’ reid.”
“Tis nought but the fever, ma wee lambie.” The woman took the cup from the stool and held it to the child’s lips. He drank greedily and coughed again. “There we are… guid boy,” she soothed, patting his thin back. “Now back to sleep wi’ ye or ye’ll n’er get weil.”
“But… ‘fit if she come back, Mam?”
His mother shifted him onto the pillow and tucked the blankets around his frail little body. She smiled down. “Ye say yer prayers nicely and the angels’ll watch o’er ye. Tell ‘er: ‘Awa wi’ ye! Git awa wi’ ye!’”
The boy nodded, his face very serious. “Awa wi’ ye!” he repeated weakly.
“Tha’s richt! Tha’s ma brave loon.”
She watched as the child sank back into sleep, and for many hours she kept her vigil. But the awful specter never returned and, by dawn, the fever passed.
Cawnpore, India, 1857
Most of the men who Captain Calum McNeill of the Thirty-second Regiment had taken to hold the line a mile east of the garrison were dead. They had been picked off, man by man, during the night.
By dawn there had been only four of them left: two privates and a burly sergeant by the name of Hills. Out of ammunition, McNeill had commanded them to pull back to the compound, but the native mutineers were everywhere. Both the privates had been killed trying to pick their way through a cashew orchard. Hill had fallen soon after, as they gave up their attempt at stealth and fled up the broad, tree-lined street that led past the garrison’s powder magazine. That was where McNeill had taken a shot to the leg.
By three in the afternoon, he had found his way to the wall outside the compound where the women and children were taking shelter from the mutineers. His thigh felt like it was on fire. The piece of lead shot, which had burrowed into his muscle, had burned as it entered. Now, as the wound began to fester, the unbearable heat crept up under his regimental kilt and over his left hip. Every step he took was a torment.
Limping alongside the high, whitewashed wall, he turned into the compound’s west gate and faced a group of ragged men, peering out from behind a barricade.
“How many left?” he asked as the soldiers pulled him through and rebuilt their makeshift line.
“Sixty…perhaps seventy…including the civies in the garrison,” one of the men said. He had the look and the manner of an officer, but his kit was half shredded and hanging off him like rags.
“Out of 400?” McNeill was stunned. How could they have lost so many?
When he reached the grounds of the half-finished hospital, he understood. It wasn’t just the Sepoys who’d taken their toll, but the sun and sickness too. Pitiful heaps of loose dirt by the west wall marked the graves of many. He could smell the sweet, cloying scent of death rising from the shallow graves. A skinny stray dog was already pawing at the ground.
A woman with mousy hair and filthy hands bandaged his thigh with a piece of blue cotton. There was no doctor, no water. He thanked her and went in search of a ranking superior.
In the church nearby, he found a clutch of fellow officers – perhaps eleven or twelve of them – and Sir Hugh Wheeler. An offer had been received from the Nana Sahib offering a truce and guaranteeing safe-passage for the women and children to the river, where boats would take them down the Ganges to Varanasi.
“Do we trust him, Sir Wheeler?” asked a thin, sickly looking man in a ragged tunic, wearing the tattered plaid of the 84th regiment. His gaze darted from face to face, nervous and close to breaking. “He’s not one of us. These black bastards don’t understand the meaning of honor.”
McNeill kept his silence, hovering on the edge of the group. He noticed the men exchanging glances.
Wheeler cleared his throat. “I know the Nana Sahib well. He’s a personal friend. We’ve dined many a time and he’s practically a gentleman. He’s sent one of his sons up to Oxford, for God’s sake. Of course he’ll keep his word,” he said, jutting out his bony chin.
“But, sir!” another man said. He was tall and bulky, but pale now and obviously suffering from fever. “There have been rumours that he’s one of the dark hands behind this evil business – that he fanned the flames of the mutiny. I just don’t think we should take the bastard’s word for anything.”
“Nonsense,” barked Sir Hugh. “Rubbish.” He turned towards the officer from the 84th. “Send the Sahib word that we accept his offer with thanks.”
The group broke up, some of the men muttering. McNeill recognized an officer, a lieutenant from his own 32nd regiment. “Marcham?” he called.
Frederick Marcham turned to face him. He was also suffering from fever – his skin was greenish and a thin layer of sweat covered his face. “Oh, McNeill. Good to have you with us. Thought we’d lost you.”
“I held the line as long as I could, Marcham, but we ran out of supplies,” muttered McNeill. He tried to keep the note of shame from his voice, but failed. ‘I lost them – every last one. Sergeant Hill was with me, but he…”
The man raised a shaky hand and patted his shoulder, raising a cloud of dust rose off McNeill’s tunic. “Good man. Did the best you could, I expect,” he said vaguely.
“Is it true? The truce? Do you trust them?” McNeill looked into the other man’s eyes.
Marcham’s face held no expression. He gazed past McNeill toward the church’s open door. “Does it matter? We’re dead already.”
* * *
The following morning, after a stifling night in the partial shelter of the hospital, the sun turned the sky peach as it rose into a cloudless sky. They’d lost eighteen more during the night: twelve civilians, two officers and four privates. Some went to fever, some to their injuries.
Cut off from the garrison well, there was no water and nothing to eat. The remaining 73 men, women and children of the garrison of Cawnpore gathered in the yard of the hospital before seven in the morning. Many of the women still clutched bags and bundles of possessions, but Sir Wheeler told them that they must leave everything; it was part of the agreement made with the Nana Sahib. And the men must leave their rifles.
McNeill, whose leg had kept him awake most of the night, stood swaying in the early sunlight, leaning on the man next to him. The wound was festering and he could barely put his weight on the leg. An intense itching told him the maggots had already made the wound their home, but he couldn’t bear to take the bandage off and look.
No one said anything for a long time. Gradually, McNeill gathered up the courage to speak. “What about our side-arms, Sir Hugh?”
The older man standing before them thought for a moment, gnawing on his moustache. “The terms said nothing about side-arms. But no true gentleman would deprive an officer of his revolver. I gather it is a sign of good faith.”
The man that McNeill was leaning on, an enlisted man with a bandaged head, gave a low, bitter laugh. “Got no fucking bullets anyway.”
A older, reedy man with disheveled white hair took Sir Wheeler’s place. The garrison’s padre stared down for a moment at a worn, black bible in his hands. They shook. Then the old man looked up. “Let us pray.”
“Almighty God. Heavenly Father. Care for these good Christian souls in their hour of need. For they have done their utmost to bring your word, oh Lord, and civilisation to this terrible place, godless place. Keep them safe from these native devils, these filthy unbelievers, who have rejected our Christian charity and guidance. Deliver them into defeat, oh, Heavenly Father. Cast them down into the well of their own dark ignorance and the snake pit of their own sinful, heathen hell. Amen.”
As the soldiers at the main barricade cleared the way, the straggling line of civilians began to trudge out of the walled compound and up onto the raised road leading down to the river. Those soldiers who could, flanked the women and children – some, like McNeill, hobbling, some blinded by shot and guided by the men in front of them. A few of the children began to mew and complain as the ragged snake of humanity made its way towards the Ganges River.
They reached the rise and McNeill could see the water. Boats of every variety bobbed and shimmied against the river’s pull, tied up to the small dock beyond. Some were touring boats, some simple fishing scows, and two were East India Company mail boats. Not nearly enough to take everyone, thought McNeill. Then he looked back towards the rear of the line. Men, some of them wounded themselves, bore others on stretchers. They struggled to keep up.
As the head of the line reached the shore, soldiers began loading the women and children into the boats. McNeill caught up and helped to steady one of the larger scows, guiding passengers over the rickety plank.
Suddenly, a large woman waiting to board began to panic, saying that she would not, could not travel in the filthy native vessel. Some of the wives around her went to calm her, edging her along the plank towards the craft with quiet words. But she stalled in the middle and tried to turn back, making both the boat and the plank rock precariously.
McNeill lost his footing and fell into the water. It wasn’t deep, but the rocks beneath him were slippery with weed and mud and he fought to gain purchase. He grasped the lip on the side of the boat and heaved himself upright. And as he did, he heard the first shot.
“Oh, my God, an ambush,” said a soldier on the dock behind him. They were his last words. Another shot caught him on the neck, taking half the man’s throat with it.
The shooting erupted from all directions. The women already in the boat started to scream. To the side of the dock, McNeill could see the mutineers rising up from behind bales of cotton and crates, rifles aimed and firing. And above, from the bridge, a line of mutineers aimed below, raining shot down onto the evacuees.
“Get down! Get down in the boat!” he bellowed. But it made little difference; they were being fired upon from three sides.
McNeill began to push the boat out into the middle of the river. If he could push it out far enough to catch the current, perhaps he could get some of the passengers clear.
His boots slipped on the river rocks and his wounded leg, which had been soothed by the cool water, screamed with pain as he began to shove with all his might. One of the women in his boat stood up, calling, “Arthur! Arthur! My son. Oh, dear God, my son. Where is my son?”
McNeill looked up to see a bullet catch her on the side of the head, raising a halo of red mist before the force of the shot sent her over the edge of the boat and into the water.
“Stay down, for God’s sake!” he screamed again as he pushed for all he was worth.
The craft began to move more smoothly as they cleared the turbulence of the bank. The water climbed to his shoulders, and above the roar of the guns, he could hear someone weeping in the boat.
“Almost there,” he panted. He could feel the boat begin to twist, the bow turning as the river caught it and then, as if taken up by the hand of God, the boat slid downriver and into the shadow of the bridge.
McNeill meant to let go then. He knew his duty was to get back to the shore and help his fellow soldiers and the civilians trapped at the dock. Just as he released his grip on the side, a small white hand caught his wrist.
A boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, peered over the side. “Don’t…don’t leave us.”
McNeill tried to pull himself free, but he was out too deep to dig his boots into the riverbed. He reached up with his other hand to push himself away from the side of the boat.
Just then he heard a sharp hiss in the water, and then another. A spear of pain ripped through his side and twisted him in the flow, wrenching him sideways. The tenacious little hand lost its grip and McNeill gasped before he felt the river pull him under.
* * *
His first conscious breath caused him terrible pain. McNeill rolled onto his back and clutched his side. Looking up into the sky, he gauged that it was almost noon. The sun hammered down, making his eyes water; he shielded his face with one hand and tried to sit up, but the mud sucked at his back. He turned onto his stomach and began to claw his way to the dry sand, further up on the riverbank.
There was silence but for the sound of water and insects. Then a few birds began to chatter somewhere beyond the bank. McNeill got to his knees, then heaved himself up onto his feet, grasping at muddy reeds. As he tried to pull himself along, another streak of agony ripped through his left side. Reaching the crest of the bank, he crawled beneath a tree, braced his back against it and pulled his wet tunic open to look at this wound.
Blood saturated his undershirt along his left flank; all those hours in the river’s embrace had not staunched the flow. And where had the river left him? He used his feet to push himself up the trunk of the tree and gain some vantage. The heavy wet wool of his kilt stuck and sucked at his legs. The wound in his thigh itched and throbbed.
He could see the far side of the river, but recognized no landmark. The other bank rose, festooned with scraggy, dry brush and thorny trees. Turning inland, he faced the same. No fields, no farmland, just wilderness.
McNeill wove his way through the high grasses. Thorn bushes scratched at his legs and tore at his sodden uniform. Tiring as he stumbled, he shirked off his tunic to be rid of its weight, but even as he did so, he knew it was foolish, for now the malicious branches clawed at his bare arms.
His will to go on ebbed. Like the blood oozing from his side, like the infection eating away at his leg, the sun leeched the sense from each thought until he did not care about direction or distance. He remembered a story his mother had once told him, of Christ wandering in the wilderness.
Damn Christ, damn the Company, damn honour, damn empire. He would die here, he thought, pushing through another thatch of dead bramble.
Something caught his foot – a stone – and he stumbled, his legs too weak to fight his descent. As he struggled to regain his footing, his hand found purchase on yet another stone. He braced his knee against the dusty ground and looked around. He had come upon a ruin.
Broken walls rose up on three sides. The clinging vines and bushes had used them to grapple their way skyward, but between the bare stems, he could make out strange, pagan carvings: women, their breasts heavy and bare, with narrowed waists and rounded bellies, their nether regions immodestly covered. Around him the cicadas screamed and hushed with the slightest breeze in a rhythm that supplied obscene music for the stone dancers.
Further into the culvert of the temple, he saw a round stone structure. Water, he thought, a well. And hobbling, clutching his side, he launched himself towards it. If he could only have a taste of cool, clean water, then he would gladly expire in paradise. This was what he promised his God as the ones around him hissed and laughed at his grunts of pain.
But the stone thing wasn’t a well. Its top was broad and dome-shaped, an altar of some kind, its sides carved with the same lewd, cavorting figures and, over the top, engraved deep into the rock was the tip of a giant phallus.
McNeill pushed himself away in disgust, tripping, tumbling backwards onto the leaf and twig-strewn ground. He tried to stop his fall, but his left arm was unable to take his weight. His head hit the stone.
* * *
The thunder wrenched him awake with a start, and the darkened sky was clawed apart with a streak of lightning. McNeill’s thirst raged, but he knew there would be no rain; the monsoons were weeks away.
The air stirred. Dry things scuttled across the stone, rasping as they went. He could hardly move; his legs had lost all their strength. With a groan he pulled himself back against the shelter of a tumbledown wall. Creatures slithered in the crevices. Each sound made him start and he began to imagine cobras in every corner. The dancers on the wall hissed at him again and he thought he heard their stone anklets tinkle as they raised and lowered their arched feet.
Again lightning branched out across the sky and this time his eye caught something moving in the shadows, the sound of its progress lost in the rumble of thunder.
No, he thought. It’s fever. Just the fever. But once more he heard a rustle, a tinkle. And laughter? A dark shadow detached itself from the far wall and inched towards him on delicate feet.
“Who’s there?” McNeill croaked.
The shadow came closer, living things skittered out of its path. McNeill took a deep, painful breath and spoke again. “Who’s there? Show yourself.”
With the next brilliant flash he saw her: a dark-skinned, bare-breasted woman, eyes bright as diamonds. Tendrils of long black hair danced around her shoulders, playing in the eddies of breeze and, at each footfall, her ornamented hips and ankles clacked and jingled playfully.
McNeill blinked and shook his head to clear the mirage, but she was a stubborn spectre and refused to disappear. He tried not to look at her breasts: they were full and perfectly rounded, swaying as she moved. Her nipples were large and almost black in the dull light. He forced his gaze up to her face and, when he did, she smiled. Her white teeth gleamed from between her dark lips, and she said something in a tongue he couldn’t understand.
“Please,” he begged. “Please help me.”
But how would she understand him? It was only then, defeated, that he allowed his eyes drift back down her body; the beautiful breasts, the gathering of her waist, the swell of her hips. And below, the ornaments that hung from her kirtle: dark knotted strands of black silk, gold, beads and old ivory, perhaps, and odd rounded things. They knocked together tunefully as her skirt swayed. It took him a moment to realize what they were – small, yellowed skulls. Monkey skulls. He squinted into the gloom as they swayed before him; he saw their teeth. No, not monkey – human. The skulls of children.
The creature crouched down to him, whispering. McNeill drew back in disgust, pressing his back into the wall and turning his face away as hers grew nearer. Her bracelets clinked as she reached to touch his cheek. He felt the fingers of her other hand skitter along his thigh and under his kilt.
“Awa wi’ ye!” he whimpered. “Awa wi’ ye, demon!”
Her laughter was the sound of a chandelier in the wind. She turned his face to meet her eyes and spoke again. It was a question, he was sure, but he shook his head, trying to free himself from her grasp. She sighed, her face so near that his next breath was hers, scented with cardamom and aniseed.
The hand beneath his kilt reached and cupped his organ. Despite his disgust, it grew instantly hard, as if her touch was enchanted. From nowhere a jolt of lust streamed up his body, taking every pain with it. Her touch was cool and deft. With each stroke of his cock, it felt as if she drew the fever from his veins.
The pain that had ruled his body for days was suddenly gone. A fresh breeze washed over him and, as the woman who crouched in front of him pressed one magnificent breast to his mouth, he moaned and shut his eyes. Behind his lids, the little skulls floated and swayed, but all his revulsion had gone. He closed his lips around the hardened nipple and began to suck.
She cooed and undulated, whispering words that sounded like rhymes, that made him forget everything but his lust. Edging closer, she brought her lips to his, kissing and sucking at them. Her hands, eager now, pushed up his kilt and, in a moment, she sank down onto his erection with a feral growl.
As her hips moved, he felt her passage clutch him tightly inside her. Lowering her head, pressing her teeth to his neck, he had the most delicious sensation: a sharp pain, a draw, and then she began to suck. It was as if his desire was a fountain of light; he exploded into her with a ferocity that he had never experienced before. His body shook; every muscle, every ligament, every inch of his flesh seemed to reach upward, as if drawn by a force, a need that could not be sated.
His own hot blood streamed down his chest, and she moaned and used her mouth to staunch the flow, devouring every drop of essence he relinquished. But still his pleasure did not stop, and she kept drawing him, over and over, into her strangely cool, wet flesh. He ejaculated again and again. Each time she drew at his throat, he gave up his seed until, at last, he had no more and never would again.
She sat back, panting, and gazed at him with drunken eyes. Her cheeks, mouth, and chin were scarlet with his blood. It should have horrified him. Instead, he felt her interior muscles, still twitching with her own pleasure. McNeill sighed as her image blurred and darkened. He groaned and reached up to touch her face. A terrible weariness engulfed him.
Despite all sense, all logic, he yearned to thank this terrible, beautiful creature. He wanted to tell her that he would have died anyway. That, if he had to lose his life, she had done him a great service by taking him this way, instead of leaving him die alone in this terrible place. As he took a breath to speak the words he knew she would not understand, she bit down on her own plump lip with sharp teeth, and kissed him.