There were quite a lot of foothills between the plains and the real mountains of the Pir Panjal range. For the first couple of days, they'd stayed mainly in the valleys between the hills, driving over roads that led up the valleys. They'd loosely paralleling the rivers coursing down from the mountains, still raging as the carried the snowmelt downstream. Luckily, none of the bridges had been out. There had been some worry at one, where the water was almost up to the bottom of the bridge, but the whole caravan had made it across.
The valleys and lower slopes had been more populous than Marley would have guessed before, with farmsteads and tiny hamlets anywhere the slope was not severe. The populace was dressed colorfully, and the land felt nothing like home. But the weather was merciful to them, save for the heat and the blinding, burning sun.
Even as the valley had begun to narrow, one would be hard pressed to avoid sight of a farmstead, a tiny hamlet, a shepherd's shack on a hill around the next corner. Now, though, the road had narrowed to a trail, and settlements were few and far between. The caravan had left civilization behind. Or maybe it was its own little bubble of civilization, moving through the near wilderness.
From what he'd gathered at breakfast, this day's travel would see them to a camping spot just a couple of hours short of the ascent up to the pass. That couldn't come soon enough. In the past few days, he'd really started to feel much better than he had in ages, fully recovered from his ordeal in Umballa, and from the hurried trip to Jammu, which he'd undertaken perhaps a bit too soon. But they'd been on road for many hours in the hot sun, and a nice meal was starting to sound mighty inviting. Starting up the steeper portion of the trail, up to the pass, was something he'd just as seen wait until the next day to face.
Marley stifled a yawn, and squinted a bit against the glare. At least we're headed north, with sun at our backs, not in our eyes. Still, this glare is--
It was the suddenness of the attack that caused him to freeze. One minute he was traveling in contemplative peace with the caravan, and the next the land was roiling with bandits. For a moment, he completely failed to process the situation, and then a shriek of surprise and shout of pain shook him from his stunned state. He pulled his pistol from its holster and took aim at one of the bandits.
He missed. The bandit was wielding a viscous-looking sword and made to strike at one of the caravanners as he rushed down, but the caravanner was faster, and using his walking stick as a staff put paid to the attempt. In a panic, Marley looked around, trying to comprehend the situation better. Another pair of bandits were racing downhill, waving their own swords. They were still far enough from the caravan that Marley risked a few shots in their direction.
The shots again missed, but they did give the two bandits brief pause. And that was enough for more of the caravanners to respond and bring their own swords into play. Unfortunately, the shots had also drawn the attention of one of the bandits, and Marley suddenly found a pair of sword-wielding bandits rushing toward him.
copyright (c) The Other Sean