Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 96

   

The sling had to be removed almost at once, in order for him to dress—another orderly arrived with a uniform and a tray of breakfast—and by the time he was made tidy and had been forcibly fed, he was wild with impatience.

He would have to wait for Hal to reappear, though; no point going out to scour the camp for him. And he really must talk to his brother before seeking out William. A small dish of honey had been provided with his toast, and he was dipping a dubious finger into it, wondering whether he ought to try dabbing it into his eye, when at last the flap opened again and his brother was with him.

“Did you actually tell me that Ben is dead?” he blurted at once. Hal’s face contracted a bit, but his jaw was set.

“No,” Hal said evenly. “I told you that I’d had news of Ben, and they said he was dead. I don’t believe it.” He gave John a stare defying him to contradict this belief.

“Oh. Good,” Grey said mildly. “Then I don’t believe it, either. Who told you, though?”

“That’s why I don’t believe it,” Hal replied, turning to lift the tent flap and peer out—evidently to be sure of not being overheard, and the thought made Grey’s belly flutter a little. “It was Ezekiel Richardson who brought me the news, and I wouldn’t trust that fellow if he told me I had a hole in the seat of my breeches, let alone something like that.”

The flutter in Grey’s belly became a full-blown beating of wings.

“Your instincts haven’t led you amiss there,” he said. “Sit down and have a piece of toast. I have a few things to tell you.”

WILLIAM WOKE with a shattering headache and the conviction that he had forgotten something important. Clutching his head, he discovered a bandage wound round it, chafing his ear. He pulled it off impatiently; there was blood on it, but not much and all dried. He recalled vague bits of things from the night before—pain, nausea, his head swimming, Uncle Hal . . . and then an image of his father, white-faced and fragile . . . “If you and I have things to say to each other . . .” Christ, had he dreamed that?

He said something bad in German, and a young voice repeated it, rather doubtfully.

“What’s that mean, sir?” asked Zeb, who had popped up beside his cot with a covered tray.

“You don’t need to know, and don’t repeat it,” William said, sitting up. “What happened to my head?”

Zeb’s brow creased.

“You don’t remember, sir?”

“If I did, would I be asking you?”

Zeb’s brow creased in concentration, but the logic of this question escaped him, and he merely shrugged, set down the tray, and answered the first one.

“Colonel Grey said you was hit on the head by deserters.”

“Desert—oh.” He stopped to consider that. British deserters? No . . . there was a reason why German profanity had sprung to his mind. He had a fleeting memory of Hessians, and . . . and what?

“Colenso’s got over the shits,” Zeb offered helpfully.

“Good to know the day’s starting out well for somebody. Oh, Jesus.” Pain crackled inside his skull, and he pressed a hand to his head. “Have you got anything to drink on that tray, Zeb?”

“Yes, sir!” Zeb uncovered the tray, triumphantly revealing a dish of coddled eggs with toast, a slice of ham, and a beaker of something that looked suspiciously murky but smelled strongly of alcohol.

“What’s in this?”

“Dunno, sir, but Colonel Grey says it’s a hair-of-the-dog-what-bit-you sort of thing.”

“Oh.” So it hadn’t been a dream. He shoved that thought aside for the moment and regarded the beaker with a cautious interest. He’d had the first of his father’s restoratives when he was fourteen and had mistaken the punch being prepared for Lord John’s dinner party as the same sort that ladies had at garden parties. He’d had a few more in the years since and found them invariably effective, if rather startling to drink.

“Right, then,” he said, and, taking a deep breath, picked up the beaker and drained it, swallowing heroically without pausing for breath.

“Cor!” said Zeb, admiring. “The cook said he could send some sausages, was you up to eating ’em.”

William merely shook his head—being momentarily incapable of speech—and picked up a piece of toast, which he held for a moment, not quite ready to consider actually inserting it into his mouth. His head still hurt, but the restorative had jarred loose a few more bits from the detritus in his brain.

“. . . Advice? You’re too old to be given it and too young to take it. . . .”

“. . . Er spricht Deutsch. Er gehört! . . .” He speaks German. He heard.

“I heard,” he said slowly. “What did I hear?”

Zeb appeared to think this another rhetorical question and, instead of trying to answer it, asked one of his own.

“What happened to Goth, sir?” His thin face was solemn, as though he expected to receive bad news.

“Goth,” William repeated blankly. “Has something happened to Goth?”

“Well, he’s gone, sir,” Zeb said, apparently trying to be tactful. “That is—when the regulars took you and the Indian away from the Rebels, you wasn’t on him.”

“When the . . . what Indian?—what the devil happened yesterday, Zeb?”

“How would I know?” Zeb said, affronted. “Wasn’t there, was I?”

“No, of course—bloody hell. Is my uncle—the Duke of Pardloe—in camp? I need to talk to him.”

Zeb looked dubious.

“Well, I can go and look for him, I s’pose.”

“Do, please. Now.” William waved him off, then sat still for a moment, trying to stick the jagged fragments of his memory back together. Rebels? Goth . . . He did recall something about Goth, but what was it? Had he run into Rebels, who took the horse? But what was this about Indians and deserters, and why did he keep hearing echoes of German speech in the back of his brain?

And who, come to think of it, was the Colonel Grey that Zeb had referred to? He’d assumed it was Uncle Hal—but his father’s rank was lieutenant colonel, and he’d also be addressed as “Colonel” in common use. He glanced at the tray and the empty beaker. Uncle Hal certainly knew about the hair of the dog, but . . .

“As long as you’re alive, everything’s all right.”

He put the untouched toast down, a sudden lump in his throat. Again. He’d had the lump last night, when he saw Papa. When he’d said to his father—yes, God damn it, his father!—“I’m glad you’re not dead.”

He maybe wasn’t quite ready to talk to Papa—or Papa to him—and he didn’t quite agree that everything was all right, but . . .

A shaft of brilliant sunlight lanced into his face as the tent flap was shoved aside, and he sat bolt upright, swinging his legs out of bed to be ready to meet—

But it wasn’t either his uncle or his father who appeared out of the eye-watering blur of sunlight. It was Banastre Tarleton, in uniform but wigless and unbuttoned, looking indecently cheerful for someone whose face seemed to have been beaten badly not too long ago.

“Alive, are you, Ellesmere?” Ban spotted the dish and, scooping up a coddled egg in his fingers, gulped it. He licked his buttery fingers, making pleased noises.

“Christ, I’m hungry. Been up since dawn. Killing on an empty stomach leaves you rare sharp-set, I’ll say that. Can I have the rest?”

“Be my guest. Who’ve you been killing for breakfast? Rebels?”

Tarleton looked surprised, arrested with a mouthful of toast. He chewed this imperfectly and bolted the bite before answering with a shower of crumbs.

“No, Washington’s troops withdrew to the south, so far as I know. Hessian deserters. The same lot that crowned you and left you for dead, or so I assume. They had your horse; recognized him.” He reached for another egg, and William thrust a spoon into his hand.

“For God’s sake, eat like a Christian. Do you have my horse?”

“I do. He’s lame in the right fore, but I don’t think it’s bad. Mmm . . . have you got your own cook?”

“No, he’s my uncle’s. Tell me about the deserters. They knocked me on the head, and my memory’s a bit spotty.” More than a bit, but chunks of it were beginning to come back pretty fast now.

Between bites, Tarleton gave him the story. A company of mercenaries under von Knyphausen had made up their minds to desert during the battle, but not all the men were of the same mind. Those in favor of desertion had drawn away a bit and were quietly discussing whether it was necessary to kill the dissenters, when William had shown up unexpectedly in their midst.

“That knocked them a bit skew-ways, as you might surmise.” Tarleton, having finished the eggs and most of the toast, picked up the beaker and looked disappointed at finding it empty.

“There’s probably water in that canteen,” William said, motioning toward the battered tin-and-leather object hanging from the tent pole. “So that’s it. . . . They looked a bit nervous, but when I asked one of them in German whether there was a farrier nearby—that was it! Goth threw a shoe, that’s why he—but then I heard someone whispering, sounding frantic, and he was saying, ‘He heard! He knows!’ Must’ve meant he thought I’d overheard them plotting and knew what they were up to.”

He breathed out in relief at having this much of the previous day restored to him.

Tarleton nodded. “Imagine so. They did kill some of the dissenters—gather a barney broke out after they bashed you on the head and threw you into the ravine—but not all of them.”

A few of the mercenaries had escaped and headed for von Knyphausen, who, upon hearing the news, had sent a dispatch to Clinton asking for assistance in dealing with the miscreants.

William nodded at this. It was always better to have matters like desertion or treason dealt with by troops outside the affected companies. And knowing Ban Tarleton, he would have leapt at the chance to track down the deserters and—

“Were you told to kill them?” he asked, striving for casualness.

Tarleton gave him an eggy grin and wiped a few lingering crumbs off his chin.

“Not specifically. Got the impression that as long as I brought a few back to tell the tale, no one much cared how many. And there was a hint of pour encourager les autres in my orders.”

Politely suppressing his shock at the revelation that Tarleton could read, let alone read Voltaire, William nodded.

“I see. My orderly said something rather curious: mentioned that I’d been found by Rebels—with an Indian. D’you know anything about that?”

Tarleton looked surprised, but shook his head.

“Not a thing. Oh—” He’d sat down on the stool and now rocked back a little, hands clasped about one knee, looking pleased with himself. “I do know something, though. Recall you asked me about Harkness?”

“Harkness . . . oh, yes!” William’s exclamation had less to do with mention of Captain Harkness and more to do with the important thing he’d forgotten, which had just come back to him: Jane and her sister.

He had an immediate impulse to get up and go find her, make sure they were all right. The fugitive Loyalists and camp followers would have been well clear of the actual battle, of course—but the violence and agitation that attended fighting didn’t simply stop when the fighting did. And it wasn’t only deserters and scavengers who looted, raped, and hunted among the hapless sheep.

He spared a flickering thought for Anne Endicott and her family—but they did at least have a man to protect them, however ill-equipped. Jane and Fanny . . . but surely Zeb would have known, if anything—

“What?” He looked blankly at Tarleton. “What did you say?”

“That knock on the head affected your hearing, too, did it?” Ban took a swig from the canteen. “I said I made inquiries. Harkness never joined his regiment. For all anyone knows, he’s still in Philadelphia.”

William’s mouth felt dry. He reached for the canteen and took a swallow; the water was warm and tin-tasting, but wet.

“Absent without leave, do you mean?”

“Very much without leave,” Tarleton assured him. “Last anyone recalls seeing him, he was promising to go back to some brothel and give some whore a proper seeing-to. Maybe she saw to him, instead!” He laughed heartily at the thought.

William stood up abruptly, then—for something to do—reached to replace the canteen on its nail. The tent flap was down, but a stray beam of dust-filled sunlight still fell through the gap, catching the glitter of metal. His officer’s gorget hung from the nail, its silver gleaming in the sun.

“PERCIVAL WAINWRIGHT?” John hadn’t seen Hal so disconcerted since the events concerning their father’s death—which had also involved Percy, come to think of it.

“In the—very fashionable—flesh. He’s apparently an adviser to the Marquis de La Fayette.”

“Who’s that?”

“A flash young frog with a lot of money,” Grey said with a one-shouldered shrug. “Rebel general. Said to be very close to Washington.”

“Close,” Hal repeated, with a sharp look at Grey. “Close to Wainwright, too, you think?”

“Probably not that way,” he replied calmly, though his heart beat a little faster. “I gather you’re not altogether surprised that he isn’t dead. Percy, I mean.” He was vaguely affronted; he’d gone to a lot of trouble to make it appear that Percy had died in prison while awaiting trial for sodomy.

Hal merely snorted. “Men like that never die so conveniently. Why the bloody hell is he telling you this, do you think?”

Grey suppressed the vivid memory of bergamot, red wine, and petitgrain.

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