Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 90

   

“It’s maybe no my business, sir,” he said mildly. “But I shouldna like to see ye ruin your career over a wee mistake.”

“Be qui—what mistake?” the lieutenant demanded. He had taken off his wig because of the heat but now crammed it back on his head, evidently thinking it might lend him authority. He was mistaken in this impression, as the wig was a good deal too large and immediately slipped sideways over one ear.

“This gentleman,” Murray said, gesturing to Grey, who sat up straight and stared impassively at the lieutenant. “I canna imagine what’s brought him here or why he should be dressed as he is—but I ken him well. This is Lord John Grey. The, ehm, brother of Colonel Grey, the Duke of Pardloe?” he added delicately.

The hue of the young lieutenant’s face changed noticeably. He glanced quickly back and forth between Murray and Grey, frowning, and absently shoved his wig back into place. Grey rose slowly, keeping an eye on the guards.

“That’s ridiculous,” the lieutenant said, but without force. “Why should Lord John Grey be here, looking like—like that?”

“The exigencies of war, Lieutenant,” said Grey, keeping his voice level. “I see you belong to the Forty-ninth, which means that your colonel is Sir Henry Calder. I know him. If you will be so kind as to lend me paper and pencil, I will write him a short note, asking him to send an escort to fetch me. You can send the note via the water carrier,” he added, seeing a wild look come into the boy’s eyes, and hoping to calm him before he panicked and decided that the simplest way out of this imbroglio was to shoot Grey.

One of the privates—the one who had broken Grey’s arm—coughed gently.

“We’m goin’ to need more men, sir, in any case. Three of us with a dozen prisoners . . . and doubtless more comin’?” The lieutenant looked blank, and the private had another go. “I meantersay . . . might be you’d mean to send for reinforcements anyroad.” The man caught Grey’s eye and coughed again.

“Accidents happen,” Grey said, though with no great charity, and the guards relaxed.

“All right,” the lieutenant said. His voice broke on it and he repeated, “All right!” in a gruff baritone, looking belligerently around. No one was foolish enough to laugh.

Grey’s knees were wanting to tremble, and he sat down rather abruptly to prevent it. Murray’s face—well, the faces of all the prisoners—were carefully blank.

“Tibi debeo,” Grey said quietly. I acknowledge the debt.

“Deo gratias,” Murray murmured, and only then did Grey see the trail of blood that streaked Murray’s arm and side, staining his breechclout—and the stub of a broken arrow protruding from the flesh of his right shoulder.

WILLIAM CAME round again lying on something that didn’t move, thank God. There was a canteen being pressed to his lips, and he drank, gulping, lips reaching for more water even as it was drawn away.

“Not that fast, you’ll be sick,” said a familiar voice. “Breathe once, and you can have more.” He breathed and forced his eyes open against a glare of light. A familiar face appeared over him, and he reached up a wavering hand toward it.

“Papa . . .” he whispered.

“No, but the next best thing,” said his uncle Hal, taking a firm hold on the groping hand and sitting down beside him. “How’s the head?”

William closed his eyes and tried to focus on something other than the pain.

“Not . . . that bad.”

“Pull the other one, it’s got bells on,” his uncle murmured, cupping William’s cheek and turning his head to the side. “Let’s have a look.”

“Let’s have more water,” William managed, and his uncle gave a small snort and put the canteen back to William’s lips.

When William stopped to breathe again, his uncle set the canteen down and inquired, in a perfectly normal tone of voice, “Can you sing, do you think?”

His vision was going in and out; there were momentarily two of his uncle, then one, then two again. He closed one eye, and Uncle Hal steadied.

“You want me to . . . sing?” he managed.

“Well, perhaps not right this minute,” the duke said. He sat back on his stool and began to whistle a tune. “Recognize that, do you?” he asked, breaking off.

“’Lillibulero,’” William said, beginning to feel rather cross. “Why, for God’s sake?”

“Knew a chap once who was hit on the head with an ax and lost his ability to make out music. Couldn’t tell one note from another.” Hal leaned forward, holding up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two. Stick them up your nose,” William advised him. “Go away, will you? I’m going to be sick.”

“Told you not to drink too fast.” But his uncle had a basin under his face and a strong hand on his head, bracing him while he heaved and coughed and shot water out of his nose.

By the time he had subsided back onto his pillow—it was a pillow, he was lying on a camp cot—he’d recovered enough of his senses to be able to look around and determine that he was in an army tent—probably his uncle’s, judging from the battered campaign chest and the sword that lay across it—and the glare of light was coming from the low afternoon sun flooding in through the open tent flap.

“What happened?” he asked, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

“What’s the last thing you recall?” Uncle Hal countered, handing him the canteen.

“The—er—” His mind was full of confused bits and pieces. The last thing he truly remembered was Jane and her sister, laughing at him as he stood bare-arsed in the creek. He sipped water and put cautious fingers to his head, which seemed to be wrapped in a bandage. It felt sore to the touch. “Taking my horse down to drink at a creek.”

Uncle Hal raised one eyebrow. “You were found in a ditch, near a place called Spottiswood or some such thing. Von Knyphausen’s troops were holding a bridge there.”

William started to shake his head, but thought better of it and closed his eyes against the light.

“Don’t remember.”

“It will likely come back to you.” His uncle paused. “Do you happen to remember where you last saw your father?”

William felt an unnatural calm come over him. He just bloody didn’t care anymore, he told himself. The whole world was going to know, one way or another.

“Which one?” he said flatly, and opened his eyes. His uncle was regarding him with interest, but no particular surprise.

“You’ve met Colonel Fraser, then?” Hal asked.

“I have,” William said shortly. “How long have you known about it?”

“Roughly three seconds, in the sense of certainty,” his uncle replied. He reached up and unfastened the leather stock around his neck, sighing with relief as it came off. “Good Lord, it’s hot.” The stock had left a broad red mark; he massaged this gently, half-closing his eyes. “In the sense of thinking there was something rather remarkable in your resemblance to the aforesaid Colonel Fraser . . . since I met him again in Philadelphia recently. Prior to that, I hadn’t seen him for a long time—not since you were very small, and I never saw him in close conjunction with you then, in any case.”

“Oh.”

They sat in silence for a bit, gnats and black flies caroming off the canvas and falling onto William’s bed like snowflakes. He became aware of the noises of a large camp surrounding them, and it occurred to him that they must be with General Clinton.

“I didn’t know you were with Sir Henry,” he said at last, breaking the silence. Hal nodded, pulling his worn silver flask out of his coat pocket before tossing the coat itself over the campaign chest.

“I wasn’t; I’ve been with Cornwallis. We—the regiment, that is—arrived in New York about two weeks ago. I came down to Philadelphia to see Henry and John and make inquiries about Benjamin. I arrived just in time to leave the city with the army.”

“Ben? What’s he done that you’re inquiring about?”

“Got married, had a son, and been mug enough to be captured by the Rebels, evidently,” his uncle replied lightly. “Thought he might do with a bit of help. If I give you a sip of this, can you keep it down?”

William didn’t reply, but reached for the flask. It was filled with good brandy; he breathed it in cautiously, but it seemed not to trouble his wobbly stomach, and he risked a sip.

Uncle Hal watched him for a bit, not speaking. The resemblance between him and Lord John was considerable, and it gave William an odd feeling to see him—something between comfort and resentment.

“Your father,” Hal said after a few moments. “Or my brother, if you prefer. Do you recall when you saw him last?”

Resentment sparked abruptly into anger.

“Yes, I bloody do. On the morning of the sixteenth. In his house. With my other father.”

Hal made a low humming noise, indicating interest.

“That when you found out, was it?”

“It was.”

“Did John tell you?”

“No, he bloody didn’t!” Blood surged to William’s face, making his head throb with a fierce suddenness that made him dizzy. “If I hadn’t come face-to-face with the—the fellow, I don’t suppose he’d ever have told me!”

He swayed and put out a hand to keep from falling over. Hal grabbed him by the shoulders and eased him back down onto the pillow, where he lay still, teeth clenched, waiting for the pain to ebb. His uncle took the flask from his unresisting hand, sat down again, and took a meditative sip.

“You might have done worse,” his uncle observed after a moment. “In the way of sires, I mean.”

“Oh, really?” William said coldly.

“Granted, he is a Scot,” the duke said judiciously.

“And a traitor.”

“And a traitor,” Hal agreed. “Damned fine swordsman, though. Knows his horses.”

“He was a f**king groom, for God’s sake! Of course he knows horses!” Fresh outrage made William jerk upright again, despite the thunder in his temples. “What am I bloody going to do?!”

His uncle sighed deeply and put the cork back in the flask.

“Advice? You’re too old to be given it and too young to take it.” He glanced aside at William, his face very like Papa’s. Thinner, older, dark brows beginning to beetle, but with that same rueful humor in the corners of his eyes. “Thought of blowing your brains out?”

William blinked, startled.

“No.”

“That’s good. Anything else is bound to be an improvement, isn’t it?” He rose, stretching, and groaned with the movement. “God, I’m old. Lie down, William, and go to sleep. You’re in no condition to think.” He opened the lantern and blew it out, plunging the tent into warm gloom.

A rustling as he raised the tent flap, and the searing light of the sinking sun outlined the duke’s slender figure as he turned.

“You are still my nephew,” he said in a conversational tone. “Doubt that’s much comfort to you, but there it is.”

AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

THE SUN WAS LOW and shining directly into my eyes, but the casualties had come so fast that I couldn’t take time to move my equipment round. They’d fought all day; it was still going on—I could hear it, close by, but saw nothing when I glanced up, blinking against the sun. Still, the shouts and banging of muskets and what I thought must be grenades—I’d never heard a grenade explode, but something was making a sort of irregular hollow poong! that was quite different from the boom of cannon or the slow percussion of musket fire—were loud enough to drown the sounds of groaning and crying from the shade trees and the relentless buzzing of the flies.

I was swaying with weariness and heat and, for my own part, was nearly indifferent to the battle. Until, that is, a young man in militia brown staggered in, blood streaming down his face from a deep cut in his forehead. I had stanched the bleeding and half-wiped his face before I recognized him.

“Corporal . . . Greenhow?” I asked dubiously, and a small spurt of fear penetrated the fog of fatigue. Joshua Greenhow was in one of Jamie’s companies; I’d met him.

“Yes, ma’am.” He tried to bob his head, but I stopped him, pressing firmly on the wad of lint I’d slapped on his forehead.

“Don’t move. General Fraser—have you . . .” My mouth dried, sticky, and I reached automatically for my cup, only to find it empty.

“He’s all right, ma’am,” the corporal assured me, and reached out a long arm to the table, where my canteen lay. “Or at least he was last time I saw him, and that was no more ’n ten minutes gone.” He poured water into my cup, tossed it into his own mouth, breathed heavily for an instant in relief, then poured more, which he handed to me.

“Thank you.” I gulped it; it was so warm that it was barely discernible as wet, but it eased my tongue. “His nephew—Ian Murray?”

Corporal Greenhow started to shake his head, but stopped.

“Haven’t seen him since about noon, but I haven’t seen him dead, either, ma’am. Oh—sorry, ma’am. I meant—”

“I know what you meant. Here, put your hand there and keep the pressure on.” I placed his hand on the lint and fished a fresh suture needle threaded with silk out of its jar of alcohol. My hands, steady all day, trembled a little, and I had to stop and breathe for a moment. Close. Jamie was so close. And somewhere in the midst of the fighting I could hear.

Corporal Greenhow was telling me something about the fighting, but I was having trouble attending. Something about General Lee being relieved of his command and—

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