They had been walking down the river bed for hours. Muscles strained during the climb and descent had stiffened overnight. Both Trager and Freya walked with unaccustomed clumsiness through the uneven terrain, It was not steep; at the same time, it was not any easier walking down than walking up. The day was hot, and the monastery on the hill seemed to recede from them as they approached, quivering in a heat mirage.
At the flat below the monastery, the campsite had been transformed. Three of the familiar yellow tents had been set in a neat row. Opposite was a large cook tent, buttressed by piles of blue duffle bags. The wind fluttered the nylon fabric in time with the prayer flags on the monastery roof.
"I told you Lakpa would come around," Freya said. She called the sirdar's name, but there was no answer. Trager dropped his pack, and walked over to the cook tent. As he reached for the flap, it opened by itself. Leftenant Nazir stepped out.
"Ah, there you are," he said.
"What are you doing here?" Freya asked. "Where is my sirdar?"
"I thought it best to guard your belongings in Lakpa Tsering's absence. I have detailed your boys to attend the official review party at their camp by the road. You should know it does not look well to have the holder of a Restricted Area permit absent for an inspection committee.“
"What inspection committee? From where?"
"Delhi," said Nazir. "From Defence. And also the Lok Sabah representative's man from Leh. And some lamas from Mulbekh and Thikse."
"Shit," Freya said quietly.
"Excuse me?" said the officer.
"Listen," Freya said, "I don't care what your responsibilities are to those people down there, but you don't have any business sending my staff to go wait on them. Lakpa is my sirdar.“
"And I am your liaison officer."
"I suppose you volunteered for that," Trager said.
"As a matter of fact, yes. And now we will just go down to the road. Your guests are waiting."
"Can't they wait just a little more?” Trager asked. "We've been climbing for two days straight."
"Mr. Trager, you have obviously not done military service in your own country," Nazir said. "Inspections are always held at the convenience of the inspectors. And where exactly did you go climbing?“
Ansel!" Freya interrupted. “Stay here and get some sleep. Someone has to watch the camp. I'll go down and be inspected. Leftenant, thank you for waiting for us. Let me see if I have some clean clothes, and I'll be right with you."
She found a bag among the duffels and dragged it into the cook tent. There was the sound of splashing water. If Nazir had not been there, Trager would have gone in and bathed with her. Even as a prisoner in Darcha, Trager had not hated the officer so much. He sat down on his pack. His legs still twitched in a walking rhythm, like those of a sailor just home from the sea.
Nazir paced nervously back and forth. Trager noticed that in place of military shoes, the officer now wore a pair of well-used mountaineering boots.
He decided to try conciliation, if only for Freya's sake. "You were on Everest with Lakpa," he said. "Congratulations."
Nazir stopped his pacing and regarded Trager for a moment. "It was a privilege," he said. "It is always a privilege to visit the mountains for sport. Do you not think so?"
Trager hesitated. Nazir was using his interrogator's voice. "Sure," he finally said. "What are you driving at?"
"It might interest you to know that I agree with Freya, about the chaps waiting at the road. There is no reason why they should not have walked up here. Except that some of them would die in the attempt. The Delhi types. There is not enough air for them up here. Most of them have never inspected anything that did not appear on paper or a dinner plate. It is not the sort of group one would want to have in the mountains. And that is what I do not understand. That is, I do not understand why you want them up here, or people like them. Last week you were a mountaineer. Now, if I understand correctly, you are to be an innkeeper."
"Freya's plan is to provide a base for climbers and trekkers."
“The gentlemen waiting at the road are surely not mountaineers."
"They're not our clients, either. The people we'll be with on Murghi-II are climbers. Having a base means that we won‘t have to trample a lot of campsites. It will mean jobs for the local people."
"What campsites? What local people? This is a desert. There is nothing at this end of the valley except a half dozen lamas and a riverbed of sand and boulders. And that very barrenness is the total reason for this monastery being here.“
"And some people will come here to see it. I understand it's the only gompa left in this part of Ladakh."
"So why are you so keen on destroying it? Your Miss Martens has nothing more or less in mind than the replacement of Murghi Gompa with her bloody hostel. That is what they say in every bazaar in Ladakh."
"Is that where you gather your intelligence on what Freya plans to do? The bazaar?"
"Yes," said Nazir. "Where do you gather yours? No--please! That was not meant to offend. I only ask, are you trusting completely the word of this woman, who you yourself told me was sending you last month across the Himalaya with no good itinerary, insufficient equipment . . . ."
Freya emerged from the screen in her khaki skirt and blouse. She had replaced her climbing boots with running shoes. She turned her pack out on the ground, keeping only her sleeping bag and a toilet kit. "I may stay the night down there, or I may come back up. In either case, there are some things I'd like you to do while I'm gone." She handed Trager a scrap of paper, and called, "Leftenant!" She started for the downstream trail without waiting to see if the officer was coming.
"My understanding is that the gompa remains. She told me it is the reason people would come here. Can I ask, are you a Buddhist?"
“Oh, by no means. I am Muslim. And my family is from Delhi. I am a city man as much as any of these fellows waiting below. But I am also a mountaineer, as you are, and I am Indian. And this gompa is the heritage of India, and the heritage of these mountains. Tourist hotels are not. Not here. You must prevail on her to reconsider. You should not want to be in association with this scheme. My concern is that it could not have been done legally."
"Leftenant?" Freya called. "Are we in a hurry, or aren't we?"
"We are," he said, and started after her, stopping by the cook tent to retrieve his swagger stick.
Trager watched them go around the first corner, and then looked at Freya's hastily scratched note.
We have to get along with Nazir. We won't have much time alone together for a while. But I'm thinking of what we share, and I hope you are too. If the wind picks up, put some extra guy lines on the cook tent so the damned thing doesn't blow away.
Trager wondered what things Freya might not have shared with him, but the wind was gentle, and in the warmth of the sun, he could feel sleep coming toward him like a wave. The gompa would last at least until tomorrow. He heaved himself to his feet, and aimed for a tent door.
Something tugged on Trager's foot, and he woke with a start. A goat was nibbling on the heel of his socks. He kicked at the animal, but a pair of gnarled hands suddenly appeared to lift the kid out of danger.
An old man in voluminous russet robes stood before the door. The visitor was stooped, as if borne down by the weight of his attire. The deep folds of the fabric seemed to extend into the valleys of the man's weathered face. He held out a piece of paper to Trager. It was a wrinkled and waterstained page torn from a pocket note pad. The message was written carefully in soft pencil:
Come to me now.
“All the way down to the road?" Trager asked. His watch said it was six o'clock, too late to make a round trip in daylight. The man didn't answer. "Where is she?" Trager asked. "Kahan?"
The man nodded and pointed up the hill. "Gompa," he said.
Freya was meeting with the monks. As she had said, they might actually want her hotel. Nazir had not even considered that. She must have turned on the charm along the trail and persuaded him to see for himself.
The old man walked with tiny, shuffling steps up the steep path, but he took them steadily, tirelessly. Trager, sore from the last three days, had trouble keeping up. The trail switchbacked between willows sprouting along a tiny stream. An evening wind had risen and the thin branches lashed around. The cook tent would have to hold up without him.
The gompa was smaller than Trager expected. What Trager had taken to be the tapering perspective of great height was an actual inward cant to the walls. The downhill face might have been seventy feet of actual building, plus supporting brickwork. Where the sides merged into the cliff, they were only about forty feet high. A long mani wall led to a gateway of willow trunks. Prayer flags, faded from exposure to the sun, fluttered from the corners. Old foundations lined the approach, as if the gompa at one time had supported a bazaar below its walls.
The double front doors were massive, built of planks that must have come from some distant forest. They stood ajar, and Trager ducked after the monk into total darkness. The old man's face appeared at the end of a hall, disembodied, floating above a small lamp. Trager could make out a steep flight of steps built against one wall. The monk held the lamp high and waved Trager ahead, up the stairs. Trager hadn’t even considered bringing his headlamp. Now he followed his own shadow up into another hall. This one was brighter, with light falling through a narrow slit window at one end. The air smelled of woodsmoke and incense. The sound of deep chanting came from somewhere deeper in the building. Around a corner was another staircase, leading to another story, another hall. And another walk, another climb. And again. Four stories? Five? Trager lost count. In one of the halls, they came suddenly on a monk. He was even older than Trager's guide, and stood motionless as they passed, a statue with flickering eyes. At the top of the next flight of steps, they emerged into the blinding light of a balcony. Blinking, Trager looked down on the river and the bright tents perched along the bank. In the distance, he could see over the tops of the ridges to the crest of Murghi-I. He scarcely believed he had walked out of those mountains this same day.
Another floor remained before the roof, but the monk passed by the flight of steps at the end of the balcony. He led Trager back into a hall, stopping at a low doorway covered with a faded curtain. Trager stepped into a tiny, plain room with a single slit window. A thin-faced man with white hair sat on the floor before a low table, a blanket across his knees.
The man looked up and spoke with an articulate American accent, like a character from an old film. "Yes, hello, what can I do for you?"
Trager stood up too fast after entering and hit his crown on the low ceiling. "I'm Ansel Trager," he said, rubbing his head. "I'm a climber, from the camp."
"A climber! Of course you are. You can tell a mountaineer by the way he walks." Trager hadn't taken a step since entering the room, but he nodded in uncertain agreement. He looked around for another door. This had to be an anteroom to wherever the meeting was being held.
"I'm looking for Freya Martens. She sent me this note.” He plunged his hand into the pocket of his breeches and pulled out the paper.
"Did she? Yes, that's her writing. Terrible--indecipherable. They should require calligraphy in the Canadian schools." As he handed it back, Trager saw that he had given the man Freya's note to him, not the message from the monk.
"Handwriting," the man said, sketching some figures in the air. "You can always tell. One of the things I hoped to work on with her. She's coming. I have just sent her a note. Who did you say you are? One of the clients, I think?"
Trager had found the neatly lettered note the monk had brought. "Is this yours?" he asked. The man stared at the paper.
"How did you get that? Who did you say you are?“
"Ansel Trager. I work for Freya. Who are you?"
The man looked offended. "Weston Ferndecker,“ he said. "Surely you've heard of me.”
Freya's fatigue showed as she walked the last few steps into camp. It was dusk, but Trager could see the gleam of her glazed eyes. She gave him a quick hug, and sat down on a pile of duffle bags.
"We're hosting lunch for the Ministries of Tourism and Defence tomorrow. It's going to be harder than I thought. The people in Delhi don't get along with the people here in Ladakh. They seem to feel the locals have overstepped their authority. Or something. Who the hell knows? Anyway, the whole crowd is coming up here to look around. They want the lamas to come down from the gompa. What a waste of time. They talk and talk about tourist development, and then . . . . God, I am tired."
"Ferndecker is alive," Trager said.
Freya looked at Trager as if he had spoken in a foreign language. "Ferndecker is alive," he repeated. "He's staying at the monastery. I just saw him. He wants you to come up there. I guess there was a space melted out under that snowbridge. He came up and managed to get out of the water on some rocks. He was there for a while, days I guess. Anyway, the top of the bridge fell in, and he managed to crawl out."
Freya continued to stare. Trager babbled on, wishing she would interrupt.
"He seems to be OK, except that his toes are infected from frostbite or immersion foot. I just got back here a few minutes ago. I was going to take him some penicillin."
"Oh, my god," Freya murmured. "Oh, my god." She heaved herself to her feet and walked a slow circle. When she got back to Trager she spoke quietly, as if not wanting to be overheard, although they were alone. "Lakpa and Sonam are coming with ponies. You meet them, tell them I've gone to . . . . Don't tell them about Ferndecker. Yet."
"Why not? Lakpa should be glad to find out he doesn't have to worry about ghosts.“
"Ansel, we have to very careful now. Actually, I think you'd better come with me. Does he really know I'm here?"
"Sure. He's probably watching us right now."
"His binoculars," Freya said. "Of course. Why the hell didn't the monks report anything? Why didn't he just walk out to the road?"
"Because of his feet," Trager said. "And he paid the monks to put him up and not report to Nazir. He told them he was just waiting for you to come get him. So he’s been there for what—three weeks? I think he's a little feverish from the infection. He talks like he was the guide and you were the client last month. He treated me like I was working for him."
Freya looked up at the gompa. "You are,” she said.
The great door was closed when they arrived below the walls, and they had to wait for someone to answer their knocks. Freya leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.
"Freya, you need to tell me about him. I'm getting a sense of Springtime in Kashmir about all this."
"I'm sorry," Freya said, without opening her eyes. "He was dead. I thought he would stay that way.“ She looked at him, and then pushed herself slowly upright. "I met him two years ago. He came to a lecture I gave in Berkeley on trekking in Ladakh. He said he had been there. He sent me some route itineraries. It turned out what he really wanted was to be a leader, a guide. It was an old fantasy of his. There are a lot of people like that, and I thought he'd be a good customer. You know, he'd get a group of clients, and we'd run the trek. Then it turned out he also had money. A lot of money. He wanted to be part of the company. I was going to send him to Max, and then I thought, why not put him to better use? That was when Vasant and I realized we had a chance to get some control of the business."
"It sounds like you should be pretty happy to get him back," said Trager.
"He was a problem client before," Freya said. "I can't imagine what he's like now.“
The same old monk who had guided Trager before finally appeared at the door. He offered his lamp again, but Freya had already turned on her headlamp.
Ferndecker sat where Trager had left him. He threw out his arms when Freya stepped through the curtain.
“Freya! Freya, Freya, Freya! My dear, darling Freya!"
"Weston, I thought you were dead." The old man held her fast.
“No, no, not me. Just waiting for you." His hands explored the curve of Freya's back, until he caught sight of Trager.
"Excuse me, thank you, but you can go now."
Freya pried herself away. "Weston, this is Ansel Trager."
"Yes. One of the clients, I think."
"No, Weston," Freya said patiently. "We don't have any clients right now. The Murghi-II people are coming next week. Ansel is going to lead the climb."
"I don't need any help."
"Weston! Look at your feet! You need to see a doctor." She spoke close to his ear, almost nuzzling him. "Weston, while we were looking for you, Ansel took over the Springtime in Kashmir trek. He found the route with no problem."
"Found the route? I found the route! All he had to do was follow the list I gave you. That was from Richardson, you know. Damned heavy book to carry across the Himalaya. But he was the authority. That was before independence, of course, and people had respect for authority."
"Weston!" Freya interrupted. "Listen--it's all working. Everything is going just as you planned it. But I'll be much to busy with the travel business to do the climb. We need Ansel."
"You can always tell a project has gotten too complicated when you start hiring duplicate help. Everyone should have at least two jobs."
"We all do, Weston."
"That's the problem! Spread too thin. So we don't need this fellow for the climb. Time to think, Freya. I had time to think. You believed I was dead? I was! And when the roof fell in I came alive. Concentrate on the important things. You can tell the important things. That's what lives when all else is dead."
Trager saw Freya's eyes twitch. She shook her head and looked up. "Okay, Weston. What did you decide is really important?“
Ferndecker pulled her close to him again. "This is no place for comfort, no place for safety and profit. This is a place for danger. A place where a man can die, and be reborn. Why do you think these monks live here, chanting and chipping at their rocks?"
"Because if they didn't, the Moghuls, or Persians, or Punjabis, or Chinese, or any of the others who keep invading Ladakh would have killed them." She broke his hold and stood up. "Weston, we have to get you out of here."
"Survival! Yes! They came here to survive. Just as we do. For recreation. Re-Creation."
"Do you realize we have clients arriving in less than two weeks?"
Ferndecker just smiled. "Did you think you were really going to make a mountain guide out of that old man who drowned? Threw himself in the river. Should have done it years ago. But I'll continue to take care of you. There should be ample left from my advances. If I understand the head lama, he will let us have this room for only ten rupees a month."
Freya actually wrung her hands. "Concentrate, damn it! What are we going to do with the clients in a place like this?"
"Are you still thinking of that hotel business?" Ferndecker asked. "We got rid of that idea long ago. Told the head lama already. Gave him my affidavit that we would not tamper with his gompa. Why should tourists accomplish what the Moghul armies could not?"
He nodded at the corners of the cell, as if addressing a board meeting. He frowned when his eyes fell on Trager again. "Are you still here?"
"Get out!" Freya snapped. She herself was backing toward the door.
"You want the penicillin tablets for him?" Trager asked.
"Freya!" Ferndecker said. "You know I can't take tablets. Capsules only. Maybe with some tea . . . ."
"I'll get it," Freya said. She shoved Trager ahead of her into the hall.
On the open balcony, Freya leaned on the parapet and put her head in her hands. The nala was deep in shadow, and the Murghi peaks had turned pink in the alpenglow. The very tips of the prayer flag poles were in sunlight for a moment, but as Trager watched, they went out like snuffed candles.
"Were you really going to tear down the monastery?" he asked.
"No," said Freya. "Maybe some remodeling. Leave me alone. I have a lot to think about. Do you have any idea what all this means? We’re completely out of it."
"Ferndecker is, but he's doing pretty well for someone who was dead."
"It's not Ferndecker I'm talking about. It's his money. I spent it all. And he doesn't know that. I don't even know how much was spent and who got paid off. It was all under the table. He wasn't accounting for it. All he wanted was a chance to be the mountain guide he didn't become when he was young enough to actually do the job. And now the son of a bitch gets religion on us. A month from now, you and I could be living in a rotting apartment in Kathmandu, pimping one another for the chance to walk a bunch of tourists into Everest Base Camp."
"So? We'd get by. We'd still be together, and we'd still be working in the mountains. I'm committed to that, Freya, I really am."
"What the hell do you know about commitment? You've never committed to anything in your life! You would have left India if Max hadn't embarrassed you into staying. You practically walked out on me in Kargil. Commitment doesn't mean deciding to do this or that. Commitment means putting so much of yourself into something that you have no choice. Anyway, God damn it, I'm too old to just get by!"
There was movement on the trail below the gompa. The sound of harness bells floated up on the breeze. "Get down there," Freya said. "Don't mention Ferndecker. Tell them I'm--I don't know--talking to the lamas. I'll be along as soon as I can."
"What are you going to do?"
"What do you think? I'm going to sell a crazy old man a trip in the mountains. That's what we do."
A new pile of food boxes was stacked by the cook tent. The ponies had dropped their loads and gone, but the camp still smelled of bidis and horses. A lantern in the cook tent threw shadows against the walls. The night was growing cold, and Trager put off entering the tent long enough to retrieve his parka from his rucksack. This is my world, Trager thought--a camp in the mountains. And yet the terms on which he knew these mountains had been determined by Freya Martens, playing a game he did not understand. Sonam's voice came from the cook tent, and Lakpa answered in Ladakhi. These are the men who really belong here, Trager thought, but he was a stranger to them. So, it occurred to him, was Freya. The two Ladakhis looked up from a folding table covered with onion skins and potato peelings.
"Sahib," Lakpa nodded with a tip of his head. "Where is Freya?"
"Talking to the lama," Trager said. "Old guy," he added, trying to think of some convincing detail.
"But he is not so old," Nazir said. The officer had been sitting in the corner by the door, so that Trager had not seen him when he entered. "The head lama at Murghi Gompa is relatively young. The old ones chose him for that reason."
"Memsahib is not speak Ladakhi," Lakpa said. "How is she talk to this lama?"
"I don't know," Trager said. “I don't speak Ladakhi either. All I know is she got a note asking her to go up there."
"Note? In English?" Nazir asked.
"I don't know," Trager said, rattled. "Anyway a guy came down here from the gompa."
There was a moment of excruciating silence. Trager was both frightened for Freya, and furious at her. Then Nazir said, "The mechanics of all this are not important. What is she talking about with the lamas?"
Saying he did not know again seemed like a bad idea. “The monastery. I asked her about it, like you said. She told me no--the gompa stays.”
"Did she?" Nazir said, eyebrows raised. He got up. "Well, this is something. I should like to hear her conversation with the lamas."
"She told me she'll be right down," Trager said.
"Then she is truly ignorant of this gompa. They will keep her drinking tea for hours."
A gong began to sound from the hillside above them. Nazir looked out the tent door. "Have you heard this before?" Nazir asked Trager.
"No," Trager said. Lakpa was listening intently. He put down his paring knife.
"I go now, sahib," he said, "Find the memsahib."
"We'll join you," said Nazir.
The echoing gong from the gompa took the place of conversation on the path. Trager could not have talked in any case. It was his third hike up the trail that day. Where the trail cut into the willows, Lakpa and Nazir stopped and stared up the hill. The slit windows of the first story were faintly illuminated from within. Suddenly a bright orange hole appeared in the face of the dark building, like an open mouth giving voice to the bell.
"Achcha, it's on fire!" Nazir gasped.
Lakpa yelled down to Sonam at the camp.
"Tell him to bring buckets," said Nazir.
Trager thought of Ferndecker‘s room, high on the south wall. "And a rope," he said. "We need a rope." He started to run up the trail.
The crackle of desiccated wood timbers and willow floors catching fire was deafening at the foot of the tower. The metal fittings of the main door were too hot to touch. Through a slit window, Trager could vague glowing shapes of beams and lintels on the second story. Then a section of the first floor collapsed, and the image dissolved into cloud of sparks.
A hand grabbed Trager out of the dark. It was Freya. Her face was sooty and her hair stood out in all directions.
"Thank God!" Trager said. "What happened?"
“Fire in the kitchen I guess. I managed to get these two out from the second floor." She pointed toward the shadows, where two monks huddled by the path.
"Where are the others?" Nazir asked.
"What about . . . ?" Trager began.
"I don't know," Freya said quickly. "I just don't know." She waved a hand up at the building. Light appeared behind the third floor windows. The gong fell silent.
"Top, sahib!" Lakpa said.
Now Trager could hear cries from the roof. He scrambled up the hillside along the base of the wall. The roof of the gompa ran directly into the cliff behind it. Trager felt his way up the rock a few yards, but it was crumbly schist, too rotten and steep to climb in the dark.
"We'll have to throw them a rope," Trager said.
"Then what?" Freya asked. "Call up directions on how to rappel?"
He had not even realized she was following. “We'll figure it out," Trager said. "You've done enough. I'll go up and lower them down.
"And who's going to lower you?"
"I'll rappel. Off of . . . something."
"Did you bring the ascenders? You can't pull yourself up there all the way hand over hand."
"Yes. I can.”
Sonam's breathing sounded like an approaching steam engine as he jogged up the slope. Lakpa pulled the rope from his shoulders and shook out the coils on the ground. He kept one end, which he wrapped around a chunk of rubble from the cliff. They all fell back as he began to swing the weight in circles around his head. The first throw ricocheted off the wall, narrowly missing Sonam. On the second throw everyone covered their heads, waiting for another miss. Instead, there was a shout from above.
“Tie off the line!" Trager called.
"I tell, sahib. They have no English."
"But Ferndecker does."
Trager couldn't answer. Freya had hit him in the stomach, hard. "Tell them, Lakpa," she ordered.
He sucked in enough air to whisper, "What the fuck difference does it make now?"
She ignored him. "Are they holding it? I'm going up.”
She's delusional, Trager thought. He already knew she was no gymnast. He pulled the rope out of her hands. She snatched it back. In the light of flames pouring from one of the third floor windows, Freya's face seemed full of lines that had not been there before. Her eyes were brighter than ever. But Lakpa seemed to know the drill from Springtime in Kashmir. Perhaps Sundown or Pratima had told him. He took Freya by one arm, and a moment later, Nazir took the other.
Trager was aware of the screaming and pushing below him, but he focused on the feel of the rope in his fingers, the grip of his boots on the brick. The climbing was easier than he expected. The sloping walls allowed him to get some support from his feet. His main concern was how the rope was anchored. It seemed to give now and then, and each time he wondered if he would find himself in free fall, the limp line floating in his hands.
At the top of the wall he reached over the combing to find himself in a tug of war with a huge seated figure. He swung a leg over the waist-high barrier and tumbled into the laps of the four men who had been holding the end of the rope. He smelled the incense that permeated their bulky robes. On the far side of the roof, smoke was pouring from a square hole where the final staircase emerged.
"Ferndecker?" he asked. He got only strange words and gesticulations in reply.
"Lakpa!" he shouted over the edge. "Tell them I'm going to lower them down."
“Hold rope, sahib," the sirdar answered. "Coming up." Lakpa took a long time, and Trager began to worry. An arm-over-arm pull up a line had to be done quickly or not at all. Finally he heard the scrape of shoes on the brick. Freya, trembling and gasping, tumbled over the combing.
"What are you trying to do?" Trager asked.
"Shut up. Tie these people in," Freya gasped. "There's enough rope to lower one on each end. Hurry up. Balcony's on fire, roof's going to go."
The jet of smoke shooting up from the staircase was mixed now with sparks. "What about Ferndecker?"
Freya nodded across the roof. "What do you think?"
The first two monks stood passively while the ropes were tied around their waists. Going over the edge was more difficult, but with Lakpa shouting directions from below, the old men managed to sit on the combing and slip over the side. There was some animated debate at the last moment, but a push from their colleagues decided the issue. By the time Trager‘s man was down and untied, Freya was already belaying a third. Trager turned to tie in the last monk, but he was gone. Trager made out a figure at the opposite corner.
"Get him!" Freya said. "As soon as this one is down, I'll try to find a rappel anchor. Maybe one of the flagpoles on the tall side."
Trager jogged across the warming roof. He was about to touch the monk's robe, when the man cried out and grabbed Trager by the sleeve. From a window two stories below, something flapped out of the smoke, disappeared, and flapped again. A blanket.
"The flag poles will work for an anchor," Freya called over. "It's the long side of the building, but I think the rope will reach."
"Ferndecker's alive," Trager yelled.
Freya leaned over the parapet and looked down the wall. "Shit," she said. "The lama still goes first."
"That room could go up in flames any moment!"
"And melt the rope if it's in there. Then we all burn."
They had to wrestle the monk over the edge. He moaned as Freya lowered him down, and reached out to the window as he passed. He vanished below the smoke, and a minute later the line went slack. Trager jiggled it nervously, waiting for the monk to untie or someone to untie him.
"We’re not going to make it," Freya said. "He’s already dead." Trager turned. Freya held the rope loosely, twisting it slowly in her hands.
"Freya, he's alive. That monk knows he’s alive. Ferndecker knows he's alive."
Freya pulled at the rope. It came free. “I’m not going to lose everything.”
“Freya! The money is gone! This building is gone! What are you trying to save?”
“You! I’m not going to lose you.”
"Give me that!" Trager cried. He pulled the rope up quickly hand over hand and tied into the end.
Freya stood close to him when he looked up. Flames shot out of the stairway. The heat of the fire warmed his face, while at the same time he could feel the cold void at his back.
"Put me on belay," he said.
"No," Freya said. “We'll rappel off the flagpole. Now. Bring the rope." She had her legs braced apart, immovable. Trager stared at the gargoyle that possessed the woman he loved. It reached out stony arms for him, but where Freya had been Trager saw only a pillar of rock.
"Watch out," he said, and quickly passed the rope from his waist around Freya, catching it on the other side of her. Still holding the rope, he rolled backward over the wall.
Freya screamed as she was slammed to her knees against the waist-high combing at the top of the wall. Trager lowered himself down a few feet, using Freya's body as a bollard. She cried out in pain as the rope burned across her back.
"You can lower me," Trager said, "or I can lower myself, but I'm going down."
"You’re going to kill us!"
"One way or another, I’m going down."
"Let me have it!" Freya gasped. "You'll pull me over." Trager hesitated, but he had no choice. He loosened his grip on the running half of the line, letting Freya take control of his weight. She let the rope slide, slowly at first, then faster. Trager's feet slipped off the wall and he scraped hard against the brick. Freya was dropping him past the window.
The man was very likely dead from the smoke. It would be easy to pass by, to land in the gravel at the base of the wall. Freya would rappel down from one of the flagpoles, and they would walk down to the camp together. They would not speak much at first, and when they did, they would not talk about this night. It would be only a little omission, considering all the other things they would have to share. But it would be permanent, irreversible. He grabbed the window ledge.
The shock wrenched his shoulders, and he couldn't hold on. But other hands had grabbed his wrists. He dragged his torso through the narrow slit, and dropped to the floor, his feet still sticking out of the window.
"You should always remain close to the floor in a fire," Ferndecker said.
"Pull on the rope!" Trager yelled. "Freya's holding it."
"Freya, is it? Bad, bad idea."
"Oh, fuck, just pull . . . . There!"
The rope went limp, and Trager tumbled into the room. He started to rise but three feet above the floor the air was thick with smoke.
"As I said, one should always remain . . . ."
Trager groped in the dark until he caught hold of a woolly sleeve. "Hang onto me. Freya will lower us down."
"I doubt that," Ferndecker said.
"She can do it," said Trager. "As long as you hang onto me, you'll be okay."
"I'm afraid the converse is not, as long as you hang onto me. Why would she have bothered to burn the place down?"
"And, if she intended to rescue you, why cut the rope?"
Trager grabbed at the loose rope from his waist. The severed end fell in the window by his feet. Trager scuttled to the opening and looked out. Freya was gone.
"She never would listen to me, either," Ferndecker said. "I recall when I first met her . . . ."
"Will you shut up?" Trager cried. He ran the remaining scrap of rope through his hands. It was no more than thirty feet. He guessed the drop below them was at least twice that.
"Petroleum fire," Ferndecker said. "Kerosene. You can tell. Quality of the smoke."
The end of the rope was a bush of fibers, with the braided core dangling six inches out of its woven sheath. Trager tore the knot open at his waist and hacked the whipping tape off the end with his pocket knife. He stretched the sheath a few inches off the core and put it in Ferndecker's hands.
"Pull on that while I work the rest of the sheath off. If we tie the sheath and the core together, we might have enough to reach the ground."
The hall outside the room erupted in flame. Trager could feel a wave of intense heat pass over his head, and then a rush of air sucking in the window to feed the fire. Trager could now see Ferndecker for the first time. He had been close to the flame already. The front of his wool coat was singed, and his eyebrows were gone. But his expression was calm and distant. They were in a strange room, one of the monk’s quarters. There were elaborate hanging paintings on the walls, and an altar in one corner. A small butter lamp smoked in front of a cast image of a bodhisattva, its little flame absurdly small.
"Do you know our great weakness, you and I?" Ferndecker mused.
"Pull!" Trager said. "Oh, shit! Just pull!" One of the scroll paintings burst into flames.
"Adventurers," Ferndecker said. “Not really. Just the same as everyone else. Our own little place, our own little duties. That's what we really want. Different duties, oh, yes. Different settings. But that just makes them a little distinctive. Now a real adventurer . . . ."
"I got it, I got it," Trager chanted. The two parts of the rope had separated in his hand. He threw his arms around Ferndecker and tied the sheath in a quick bowline onto his waist.
He looked quickly around the cell. The only thing that appeared at all substantial was the cast image on the alter. It was almost too hot to touch. And it was not fixed to its pedestal. Desperate, Trager measured the window with his eyes. It was wider than the statue, but if he turned the figure sideways . . . it was just another chockstone.
"With a true adventure, there's no end. There's no safe place. And the adventurer . . . ."
Trager tottered across the floor with the statue, eyes closed against the smoke. When he dropped the casting by the window, the mud floor buckled underneath, and more smoke welled up through the cracks. Trager tied the two parts of the rope together, and fastened the core end around the statue.
"On belay!" he cried, throwing the rope around his waist. "Out the window! Go! I'll rappel after you."
" . . . I say the true adventurer--well, he simply does not worry about those things."
Trager dove on the old man and pulled him to his feet. He was amazingly light. Trager shoved him head first into the window. The sheath of the rope twisted and folded where he held it around his back, slicing into his flesh. His whole back seemed on fire, and in fact it nearly was. The ceiling of the room was beginning to burn. He let the rope run faster, hearing his own groans rise over the crackle of flames. He almost let go when the knot in the middle hit his braking hand, He burned his palms trying to bring it under control, but his level of pain was so great that the added hurt made little difference. Then the rope was tight on the body of the Buddha. The metal figure rose from the floor, seared his hand, and jammed across the window as Trager twisted free from the line. The statue stuck fast, pinned against the inner wall by Ferndecker's weight. The rope didn't reach.
Something landed on Trager's head, and he smelled burning hair. Batting at the ember, he dove out the window. Only when he was hanging face down, did he realize he should have gone out feet first in order to grab the rope. Brands landed on his legs, and he thrashed to kick them off as he tried to turn himself in the narrow slot. He got his hands on the rope as his feet somersaulted out over his head. He began to slide immediately, screaming as the skin left his palms. It was a cry of fear or anger, not of pain. His hands felt strangely wooden as they burned down the rope. He stopped at the knot, but his fingers began to open of their own accord, as if melting off. He slid on down the core, braking with his feet against the brick, hoping to reach the end before his hands let go completely. Ferndecker stopped him. He landed in his lap, straddling both the rope and Ferndecker's stomach.
"Get off! Get off! Not the proper way at all!" Ferndecker groaned.
True, thought Trager. I did it all wrong. I should have found another way. Trager could see the moonlit rocks below where they would hit, and the hillside across from them. It rose under the wall so that to one side the drop increased, and to the other, it disappeared altogether.
"Swing," Trager whispered. "We can swing over. Over to the ground."
Ferndecker didn't answer. He had lost consciousness, strangling in the single loop of line that had slipped up around his chest. Trager tried to move the both of them, but all he could do was turn them over on the wall. He kept at it, kicking at the brick with his feet, rolling them back and forth together until the rope burned through. Trager hung on to the old man as they fell--hardly adventurers at the end, just two travelers needing a place to land.