In 1885 in India, while working late at night in his newspaper office, the journalist Rudyard Kipling is approached by a ragged, seemingly crazed derelict who reveals himself to be Peachy Carnehan, an old acquaintance. Carnehan tells Kipling the story of how he and his comrade-in-arms Danny Dravot, ex-sergeants of the British Army who had become adventurers, travelled far beyond India into the remote land of Kafiristan.
Three years earlier, Dravot and Carnehan had met Kipling under less than auspicious circumstances. After stealing Kipling’s pocket-watch, Carnehan found a masonic tag on the chain and, realising he had robbed a fellow Freemason, had to return it. At the time, he and Dravot were working on a plot to blackmail a local rajah, which Kipling foiled by getting the British district commissioner to intervene. In a comic relief turn, Carnehan obliquely blackmails the commissioner in order to avoid deportation.
Frustrated at the lack of opportunities for lucrative criminal mischief in an India becoming more civilised and regulated, partly through their own hard efforts as soldiers, and with little to look forward to in England except petty jobs, the two turn up at Kipling’s office with an audacious plan. Forsaking India, they will head with twenty rifles and ammunition to Kafiristan, a country virtually unknown to Europeans since its conquest by Alexander the Great. There they will offer their services to a ruler and then help him to conquer his neighbours, but proceed to overthrow him and loot the country. Kipling, after first trying to dissuade them, gives Dravot his masonic tag as a token of brotherhood.
After signing a contract pledging mutual loyalty and forswearing drink and women, the two set off on an epic overland journey north beyond the Khyber Pass. Over the next few weeks, they travel through Afghanistan, fighting off bandits, blizzards, and avalanches as they make their way into the unknown land of Kafiristan. They chance upon a Gurkha soldier, Billy Fish, the sole survivor of a years-before British expedition. Speaking English as well as the local language, Billy smooths their way as they begin their rise, first offering their services to the chief of a much-raided village. When a force has been trained in modern weapons and tactics, they lead it out against some hated neighbours. During the battle, an arrow pierces Dravot’s jacket but he is unharmed.
Both sides take him to be a god, though in fact the missile was stopped by his leather bandolier. Victory follows victory, with the defeated added to the ranks of the swelling army. Finally, nobody is left to stand in their way and they are summoned to the holy city of Sikandergul by the high priest of the region. He sets up a re-enactment of the arrow incident, to determine whether Dravot is a man or a god by seeing whether or not he bleeds. When his shirt is torn open, they are amazed to see the masonic tag around his neck. It contains the sacred symbol left by Sikander (their name for Alexander the Great), who had promised to send a son to rule over them.
Hailing Dravot as king as well as god, they show him the royal treasury, which is full of unimaginable amounts of gold and jewels that are now all his. Carnehan suggests that they leave with as much loot as they can carry as soon as the snows have melted on the mountain passes. Dravot, however, is beginning to enjoy the adulation of the locals, settling their disputes and issuing laws, and even dreams of visiting Queen Victoria as an equal. He is also struck by the beauty of a girl called Roxana, the name of Alexander’s wife, and cancels their pact to avoid women, saying he will marry her in order to leave the people an heir. When she is reluctantly brought to him, he tries to kiss her, but she, terrified that the touch of a god means death to a mortal, bites his cheek. Seeing him bleed, the people realise he is only human and try to grab the English impostors.
Outnumbered in the ensuing battle and captured, Dravot is made to walk onto a rope bridge, where he lustily sings the hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth to War”. When the ropes are cut, he falls thousands of feet to his death. Carnehan is crucified between two pine trees but, on being found still alive next morning, is freed. Crippled in body and unhinged in mind from his ordeal, he eventually made his way back to India as a beggar. Finishing his story, he leaves Kipling’s office after putting a bundle on the desk. When Kipling opens it, he finds Dravot’s severed head, still wearing a golden crown.