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Prologue

 

Nepal, 1889

 

 

The night was crisp and clear as the two men moved slowly up the snowy ridge, heavily wrapped in layers of fur. They hefted heavy packs and each carried the reassuring weight of a Martini-Henry rifle over one shoulder. They moved purposefully, scanning each piece of snow carefully before trusting it with their weight.

The majestic peaks all around glistened in the silver brilliance of a full moon and a mournful wind echoed through surrounding valleys, ricocheting off sheer cliff faces in a haunting warning.

Neither of the men was unduly perturbed; they were both seasoned explorers and it was not their first ascent in this stretch of the Himalayas.  They were not risking life and limb without a deadly purpose, either. Although they hoped not to have to use them, the quarry they sought necessitated their guns.

Arthur Braithwaite and Jonathon Ferrier were on their third, and most definitely final, attempt to achieve the impossible. Both were accomplished soldiers, who together had spent over fifty years in the service of the British Army. Now they were virtually guaranteed to be forever labelled as failed adventurers.

Unless, of course, they could do what they planned. Could they be the first people to ever obtain evidence of the existence of the mythical monster of the Himalayas? Said to tower ten feet high and resemble a hybrid between a ferocious bear and a giant ape, locals only spoke of the beast in hushed, terrified whispers.

The creature went by several names but here, in Nepal, it was known locally as Bun Manchi, although the Sherpa people in the region referred to it by a different name. Yeti.

For years, since the British first set greedy foot on their colonial drive in the East, rumours and legends had come to light about this most dreadful of creatures. Tracks had been found in the snow, even up as high as twenty thousand feet, and many eye witnesses existed in the remote villages; claiming to have looked the devil in the eyes as it carried away a less fortunate villager.

Hair samples had even been discovered and some ancient relics, purported to be from the creature, had turned also up in desolate monasteries. Science was making rapid progress but it had yet to reach a stage where matters could be accurately investigated on a cellular level. The only way to prove the existence of such a beast was to trap one, or photograph it. Such a coup would secure them a place in the history books and reverse their failing financial fortunes in one fell stroke.

They were nearing twelve thousand feet and the lower slopes at this altitude were still adorned with sporadic evergreen forest and shrubbery, especially rhododendrons. The trail they were on was an established one between two small settlements where the creature had allegedly been seen in the vicinity a few weeks before, leaving huge footprints and taking with it an unfortunate yak herder; barely out of his teens.

Arthur knew that such tales of disappearances needed to be treated with a pinch of salt. It was not unheard of for villagers to vanish in the forests. At such an altitude, even the hardiest tiger hunter was unlikely to be tempted up from the sub-tropical lower forests where they plied their bloody sport. Along with a very healthy Bengal tiger population, huge brown bears posed a constant danger to the human population. Added to the risk from falls and avalanches, this recent disappearance might have been explained away if there had not been a witness.

Braithwaite and Ferrier had come to this place in the hope of finding out whether the witness’s story would hold water. The surviving herder lived a few miles further up the slopes, in the tiny settlement of Bruk. The clear skies and moonlight pushed aside all thoughts of stopping for the night as they were so close to their destination. The thought of a warm fire and hot food helped to spur them on.

They moved off the ridge and into a wide, heavily wooded valley. The path remained clear for them to see, rising between the trees like a monstrous, meandering white snake. As they moved into the forest, and the trees sprung up on each side like a living rampart, the sound of the wind eased away and a strange, eerie silence descended over them.

The only sounds they heard were the crunch of their boots on the snow and the panting of their own breath, accompanied by ever-present clouds of exhaled vapour.

The path was deep with fresh snow but wide enough for them to walk two abreast. They had not pushed themselves too hard, despite the onset of nightfall, and they still retained enough energy to strike up a conversation.

‘How far up ahead do you think Bruk is now?’ asked Ferrier. They had both left the army a few years earlier, as corporals, but Braithwaite was the better outdoorsman and Ferrier naturally allowed him to take on the role of lead explorer.

‘If conditions stay the same, we’ve probably got another hour of walking ahead of us,’ replied Braithwaite.

‘I’m starting to get hungry,’ admitted Ferrier. ‘A decent drop of hot stew would go down a treat.’

Braithwaite suppressed a smile, always amazed at how his companion always thought about his stomach. For him, food was often an inconvenient necessity that drew his time, and attention, away from the adventure at hand. His own stomach had not received any nourishment since that morning, the same as Ferrier’s, but it was being quiet and respectful. 

Suddenly, somewhere up ahead, in the trees to their left, came the sound of heavy movement from deep within the foliage. Both men froze in their tracks, wasting no time in slipping their rifles off their shoulders and into their hands. The Martini-Henry rifle was a single shot, breech-loaded weapon. It fired a bullet heavy enough to bring down big game at close range and each man already had a bullet tucked up neatly inside the chamber.

The sound ceased as swiftly as it had erupted, plunging the clear night back into silence again. The moonlight could not penetrate into the trees, so the trail seemed to shine even more brightly, beckoning them deeper into the forest. If something was there, and charged out of the trees, it would be touch and go whether they would have time to get off their shots before it was on top of them.

They waited, hardly daring to breathe. Still, nothing.

‘I don’t know about you, Arthur, but I have the distinct feeling that we’re being watched.’

Braithwaite nodded. ‘Me too. Something is in those trees, fairly close to the trail, and it has suddenly decided not want to make any more noise.’

‘That suggests a predator,’ agreed Ferrier slowly. ‘A deer or goat wouldn’t care about being quiet. If it felt in danger, it would bolt away and rely on speed, not silence.’ He frowned, keen eyes trying their best to make out anything within the darkness beneath the trees. ‘Could be a tiger?’

‘Easily, up here, or a bear,’ agreed Braithwaite. ‘Perhaps it’s even the very beast we’re hiking up this bloody mountain to try and find.’

The silence became palpable and Ferrier instinctively lifted the rifle to his shoulder, sighting up the trail towards the left edge of trees about five hundred feet ahead. He was a superb shot at double this distance. Braithwaite kept his rifle at waist height, still watching.

‘Come out, come out, wherever you are,’ breathed Ferrier.

Five tense minutes passed and still the trail was empty. Even Ferrier felt the tension of foreboding ease and he lowered his rifle.

‘We can’t stand here like fools all night,’ decided Braithwaite suddenly. ‘We’ll have to press on but just keep our eyes open for any sign of trouble.’

‘We seem to have been doing that all our lives,’ Ferrier smiled, recalling half a dozen occasions when they had battled insurmountable odds together and come out unscathed. ‘You lead on, Arthur. I will shoot anything that jumps out of the forest to eat you.’

‘You see that you do, Corporal Ferrier,’ he chuckled. ‘Come on.’

They started up the trail again, filled with trepidation until they drew level with the danger point. Still, no sound threatened them and they hurried on as fast as they could. Continuing to climb, the valley narrowed, shrinking the width of the trail until it threatened to become lost; swallowed up completely within the body of the forest. The visibility needed to spot a predator in time to take any action was gone.

Barely five feet wide, and almost a foot deep with fresh snow, their situation quickly took another turn for the worse as the clear sky clouded over and the first heavy flakes of an approaching snowstorm began to fall.

‘What do we do, Arthur?’ called Ferrier, now having to walk a few feet behind his companion. ‘If there is something nasty in here, it will be on us before I can pull my trigger. Maybe we should turn back until the storm passes?’

Braithwaite’s instinct was to continue but he was becoming genuinely concerned for their safety. Reluctantly, he agreed, spun on his heels and followed Ferrier back down into the valley, past the danger point again and moving right back to the lip of the snow ridge.

From there, even in the heavy snow now falling steadily, they had clear sight for fifteen feet in every direction. The darkness had taken on an insidious thickness since the moonlight had been banished above the clouds so their previous near-daylight visibility was finished for the time being.

They set up their tent with practised ease, keeping their ears trained on any noise in the darkness that might represent a lurking set of hungry jaws. Cold and growing tired of being on such high alert, they were both relieved to slip inside and secure the ties on the entrance flaps. They laid a sheet of rubber down on the snow inside the tent before settling down together, keeping their assortment of furs on to act as both nightclothes and bedding. Quickly, the temperature inside the waxed cotton tent rose in response to their accumulated body heat and breathing, which meant they always had to leave a small slit open in the top of the tent flap to allow fresh air to enter; as the waxed material created a completely watertight seal otherwise.

With barely enough room for them both to lie down, side by side, their backpacks were left outside the tent, although they took the precaution of bringing their rifles inside with them. There was no point trying to eat, or light their small paraffin lamp either. They needed to sleep a few hours and wait for the storm to pass before continuing up the trail to Bruk.

Inside the dark tent, with an angry wind now buffeting the taut material mercilessly, whistling its mocking tune, other men might have quailed and allowed their minds to imagine all kinds of horrors. But Braithwaite and Ferrier were experienced soldiers and explorers who were not prone to superstition. They knew that a tiger, or bear, would generally leave a human tent alone and seek easier prey.

Still, as a precaution, Ferrier took the first watch, albeit still laying down. He laid his rifle on his chest, ready, just in case. Braithwaite slept for a couple of hours until Ferrier roused him and they swapped roles.

In the snowy darkness beyond the flimsy protection of their sheet of waxed cotton, wild eyes regarded the triangular shape purposefully as it silently approached, summoning the courage to finally approach after watching for so long from afar. It slowly circled around the exterior, sniffing the multitude of scents emanating from within. There was one overriding smell, however, that tickled its nostrils and pushed trepidation aside.

Simply put, it was the aroma of fresh meat.

With a low, guttural rumbling alive in its chest, the huge creature drew closer to its next meal, flexing wickedly curved claws in preparation, gaze fixed upon the tent. Salivating, all fear suddenly evaporated, the huge creature sprang forward with a blood-curdling snarl. Huge arms flailed, claws sliced and teeth bit down into warm, sweet flesh. Screams, shouts and guttural roars were instantly swallowed up by the shrieking wind, as were the fire cracker pops of  a couple of rifle shots, all too soon lost in the darkness.

The next morning, barely ten minutes after sunrise, the bloody, broken figure of Ferrier staggered into the small settlement of Bruk, too weak to scream or cry for help. Collapsing in the snow, staining it red where be fell, villagers rushed to his aid.

Bringing him inside one of the huts, they laid him close to the smoky fire, stripped off his clothing and tended to his extensive wounds. He had lost a great deal of blood from deep scratches to his back and chest. Ragged claw marks lined his face, from brow to chin, and he was completely missing his left eye, leaving just an empty, oozing socket. Worst of all, his left arm was also completely missing, bitten clean off just below the shoulder. Clearly his left side had taken the brunt of a vicious attack.

Delirious and jabbering, in agony, about a fiendish monster, Ferrier tossed and turned as the fever of poison-fanged infection began to bite. With no medicine to offer, the village elders ordered a scribe to record any lucid words that the dying Englishman might utter, at the same time as posting a watch on the pass in case the creature might steal into the village to reclaim its missing prey.

Apart from a brief moment of mental clarity, Jonathon Ferrier succumbed to his terrible injuries before sunset. To appease the spirit of the mountain beast, his naked body was then dragged out into the snow and left halfway down the pass as an offering. The next day, his corpse was gone and the event passed into local folklore.

As for Arthur Braithwaite, no trace was ever found save for a few shreds of tattered tent and a heavily blood-stained patch of churned up snow that had once been the explorers’ campsite. The two backpacks were gone but both Martini-Henry rifles were recovered intact at the campsite and thereafter became important relics, protected by the authority of the village elders along with the records of Ferrier’s final words.

Then they were forgotten to the world but not to the local people. That fateful day spawned a change in the relationship between the local people and their nemesis, once and for all. An elite group of warriors was created, drawn from the best fighting men in Nepal; the Gurkhas. Their only reason to exist was to hunt the Yeti and drive the creatures back into the vast badlands from whence they came.

Never numbering more than twelve at any one time, trained by the most powerful monks in the arts of death and stealth, each warrior gave his soul to the mountains and pledged his blood to protect the people from harm. Quickly embedded as a tradition, a dozen young boys were selected every fifteen years, undertaking a murderous training routine that consumed them for the full span of those years before taking themselves out into the wilderness to hunt down the Yeti; each destined to guard a designated zone, all alone, forever. As one set of Blood Gurkhas left the sanctity of the temple, the next set of young trainees were being selected in the villages far below.

And so it went on.

Once embarked on their lifelong quest, these ghostly figures were never seen again. Sometimes, deep in the night, terrible sounds of titanic battles could be heard, carried on the mountain’s breath. The Blood Gurkhas took up their posts, as guardians of their kin, and the feasting on human prey slowed, then finally ceased. Peace returned to the mountains and the once feared sight of a gigantic half bear, half ape, faded into memory alongside Braithwaite and Ferrier.

Out in the vast emptiness of the upper peaks, or deep within the thick, snowy forests of the lower slopes, the Blood Gurkhas watched.

e to this place in the hope of finding out whether the witness’s story would hold water. The surviving herder lived a few miles further up the slopes, in the tiny settlement of Bruk. The clear skies and moonlight pushed aside all thoughts of stopping for the night as they were so close to their destination. The thought of a warm fire and hot food helped to spur them on.

They moved off the ridge and into a wide, heavily wooded valley. The path remained clear for them to see, rising between the trees like a monstrous, meandering white snake. As they moved into the forest, and the trees sprung up on each side like a living rampart, the sound of the wind eased away and a strange, eerie silence descended over them.

The only sounds they heard were the crunch of their boots on the snow and the panting of their own breath, accompanied by ever-present clouds of exhaled vapour.

The path was deep with fresh snow but wide enough for them to walk two abreast. They had not pushed themselves too hard, despite the onset of nightfall, and they still retained enough energy to strike up a conversation.

‘How far up ahead do you think Bruk is now?’ asked Ferrier. They had both left the army a few years earlier, as corporals, but Braithwaite was the better outdoorsman and Ferrier naturally allowed him to take on the role of lead explorer.

‘If conditions stay the same, we’ve probably got another hour of walking ahead of us,’ replied Braithwaite.

‘I’m starting to get hungry,’ admitted Ferrier. ‘A decent drop of hot stew would go down a treat.’

Braithwaite suppressed a smile, always amazed at how his companion always thought about his stomach. For him, food was often an inconvenient necessity that drew his time, and attention, away from the adventure at hand. His own stomach had not received any nourishment since that morning, the same as Ferrier’s, but it was being quiet and respectful. 

Suddenly, somewhere up ahead, in the trees to their left, came the sound of heavy movement from deep within the foliage. Both men froze in their tracks, wasting no time in slipping their rifles off their shoulders and into their hands. The Martini-Henry rifle was a single shot, breech-loaded weapon. It fired a bullet heavy enough to bring down big game at close range and each man already had a bullet tucked up neatly inside the chamber.

The sound ceased as swiftly as it had erupted, plunging the clear night back into silence again. The moonlight could not penetrate into the trees, so the trail seemed to shine even more brightly, beckoning them deeper into the forest. If something was there, and charged out of the trees, it would be touch and go whether they would have time to get off their shots before it was on top of them.

They waited, hardly daring to breathe. Still, nothing.

‘I don’t know about you, Arthur, but I have the distinct feeling that we’re being watched.’

Braithwaite nodded. ‘Me too. Something is in those trees, fairly close to the trail, and it has suddenly decided not want to make any more noise.’

‘That suggests a predator,’ agreed Ferrier slowly. ‘A deer or goat wouldn’t care about being quiet. If it felt in danger, it would bolt away and rely on speed, not silence.’ He frowned, keen eyes trying their best to make out anything within the darkness beneath the trees. ‘Could be a tiger?’

‘Easily, up here, or a bear,’ agreed Braithwaite. ‘Perhaps it’s even the very beast we’re hiking up this bloody mountain to try and find.’

The silence became palpable and Ferrier instinctively lifted the rifle to his shoulder, sighting up the trail towards the left edge of trees about five hundred feet ahead. He was a superb shot at double this distance. Braithwaite kept his rifle at waist height, still watching.

‘Come out, come out, wherever you are,’ breathed Ferrier.

Five tense minutes passed and still the trail was empty. Even Ferrier felt the tension of foreboding ease and he lowered his rifle.

‘We can’t stand here like fools all night,’ decided Braithwaite suddenly. ‘We’ll have to press on but just keep our eyes open for any sign of trouble.’

‘We seem to have been doing that all our lives,’ Ferrier smiled, recalling half a dozen occasions when they had battled insurmountable odds together and come out unscathed. ‘You lead on, Arthur. I will shoot anything that jumps out of the forest to eat you.’

‘You see that you do, Corporal Ferrier,’ he chuckled. ‘Come on.’

They started up the trail again, filled with trepidation until they drew level with the danger point. Still, no sound threatened them and they hurried on as fast as they could. Continuing to climb, the valley narrowed, shrinking the width of the trail until it threatened to become lost; swallowed up completely within the body of the forest. The visibility needed to spot a predator in time to take any action was gone.

Barely five feet wide, and almost a foot deep with fresh snow, their situation quickly took another turn for the worse as the clear sky clouded over and the first heavy flakes of an approaching snowstorm began to fall.

‘What do we do, Arthur?’ called Ferrier, now having to walk a few feet behind his companion. ‘If there is something nasty in here, it will be on us before I can pull my trigger. Maybe we should turn back until the storm passes?’

Braithwaite’s instinct was to continue but he was becoming genuinely concerned for their safety. Reluctantly, he agreed, spun on his heels and followed Ferrier back down into the valley, past the danger point again and moving right back to the lip of the snow ridge.

From there, even in the heavy snow now falling steadily, they had clear sight for fifteen feet in every direction. The darkness had taken on an insidious thickness since the moonlight had been banished above the clouds so their previous near-daylight visibility was finished for the time being.

They set up their tent with practised ease, keeping their ears trained on any noise in the darkness that might represent a lurking set of hungry jaws. Cold and growing tired of being on such high alert, they were both relieved to slip inside and secure the ties on the entrance flaps. They laid a sheet of rubber down on the snow inside the tent before settling down together, keeping their assortment of furs on to act as both nightclothes and bedding. Quickly, the temperature inside the waxed cotton tent rose in response to their accumulated body heat and breathing, which meant they always had to leave a small slit open in the top of the tent flap to allow fresh air to enter; as the waxed material created a completely watertight seal otherwise.

With barely enough room for them both to lie down, side by side, their backpacks were left outside the tent, although they took the precaution of bringing their rifles inside with them. There was no point trying to eat, or light their small paraffin lamp either. They needed to sleep a few hours and wait for the storm to pass before continuing up the trail to Bruk.

Inside the dark tent, with an angry wind now buffeting the taut material mercilessly, whistling its mocking tune, other men might have quailed and allowed their minds to imagine all kinds of horrors. But Braithwaite and Ferrier were experienced soldiers and explorers who were not prone to superstition. They knew that a tiger, or bear, would generally leave a human tent alone and seek easier prey.

Still, as a precaution, Ferrier took the first watch, albeit still laying down. He laid his rifle on his chest, ready, just in case. Braithwaite slept for a couple of hours until Ferrier roused him and they swapped roles.

In the snowy darkness beyond the flimsy protection of their sheet of waxed cotton, wild eyes regarded the triangular shape purposefully as it silently approached, summoning the courage to finally approach after watching for so long from afar. It slowly circled around the exterior, sniffing the multitude of scents emanating from within. There was one overriding smell, however, that tickled its nostrils and pushed trepidation aside.

Simply put, it was the aroma of fresh meat.

With a low, guttural rumbling alive in its chest, the huge creature drew closer to its next meal, flexing wickedly curved claws in preparation, gaze fixed upon the tent. Salivating, all fear suddenly evaporated, the huge creature sprang forward with a blood-curdling snarl. Huge arms flailed, claws sliced and teeth bit down into warm, sweet flesh. Screams, shouts and guttural roars were instantly swallowed up by the shrieking wind, as were the fire cracker pops of  a couple of rifle shots, all too soon lost in the darkness.

The next morning, barely ten minutes after sunrise, the bloody, broken figure of Ferrier staggered into the small settlement of Bruk, too weak to scream or cry for help. Collapsing in the snow, staining it red where be fell, villagers rushed to his aid.

Bringing him inside one of the huts, they laid him close to the smoky fire, stripped off his clothing and tended to his extensive wounds. He had lost a great deal of blood from deep scratches to his back and chest. Ragged claw marks lined his face, from brow to chin, and he was completely missing his left eye, leaving just an empty, oozing socket. Worst of all, his left arm was also completely missing, bitten clean off just below the shoulder. Clearly his left side had taken the brunt of a vicious attack.

Delirious and jabbering, in agony, about a fiendish monster, Ferrier tossed and turned as the fever of poison-fanged infection began to bite. With no medicine to offer, the village elders ordered a scribe to record any lucid words that the dying Englishman might utter, at the same time as posting a watch on the pass in case the creature might steal into the village to reclaim its missing prey.

Apart from a brief moment of mental clarity, Jonathon Ferrier succumbed to his terrible injuries before sunset. To appease the spirit of the mountain beast, his naked body was then dragged out into the snow and left halfway down the pass as an offering. The next day, his corpse was gone and the event passed into local folklore.

As for Arthur Braithwaite, no trace was ever found save for a few shreds of tattered tent and a heavily blood-stained patch of churned up snow that had once been the explorers’ campsite. The two backpacks were gone but both Martini-Henry rifles were recovered intact at the campsite and thereafter became important relics, protected by the authority of the village elders along with the records of Ferrier’s final words.

Then they were forgotten to the world but not to the local people. That fateful day spawned a change in the relationship between the local people and their nemesis, once and for all. An elite group of warriors was created, drawn from the best fighting men in Nepal; the Gurkhas. Their only reason to exist was to hunt the Yeti and drive the creatures back into the vast badlands from whence they came.

Never numbering more than twelve at any one time, trained by the most powerful monks in the arts of death and stealth, each warrior gave his soul to the mountains and pledged his blood to protect the people from harm. Quickly embedded as a tradition, a dozen young boys were selected every fifteen years, undertaking a murderous training routine that consumed them for the full span of those years before taking themselves out into the wilderness to hunt down the Yeti; each destined to guard a designated zone, all alone, forever. As one set of Blood Gurkhas left the sanctity of the temple, the next set of young trainees were being selected in the villages far below.

And so it went on.

Once embarked on their lifelong quest, these ghostly figures were never seen again. Sometimes, deep in the night, terrible sounds of titanic battles could be heard, carried on the mountain’s breath. The Blood Gurkhas took up their posts, as guardians of their kin, and the feasting on human prey slowed, then finally ceased. Peace returned to the mountains and the once feared sight of a gigantic half bear, half ape, faded into memory alongside Braithwaite and Ferrier.

Out in the vast emptiness of the upper peaks, or deep within the thick, snowy forests of the lower slopes, the Blood Gurkhas watched.