The men stood firm; Percy gave a quick glance down the line.

“No one hit,” he said, sounding breathless. “Too far!”

Grey took one more fast look—good ground, open to the copse. It was a small copse; no chance of a regiment hiding in it. No artillery; if they’d had cannon, they’d have used it. Retreat or advance? The trail they’d come up was steep and rocky, a sheer drop to the river on one side, thicket on the other; infantry would cut them down, firing from the trailhead.

“They’ll move closer. Charge them before they reload.” Grey had gathered his reins hastily into one hand as he spoke, preparing to draw his sword.

Instead, he was just in time to grab the reins of Percy’s horse, as the latter threw them to him, slid to the ground, and bellowing,

“CHARGE!” at the top of his voice, rushed toward the copse on foot, grappling for the sword at his side.

The company, caught midway in reloading, flung order and caution to the wind, abandoned the openmouthed corporal, and galloped after their lieutenant, roaring enthusiastically.

“Jesus Christ!” Grey said. “Mr. Tarleton—stand fast!” Leaning across, he thrust both sets of reins into the ensign’s startled hands, flung himself off, and ran—not after the charging company, but to the side, circling the copse.

He plunged into the trees, pistol in hand, trying to look everywhere at once. His worst fear—that there was a large company inside the copse—was dispelled at once; he caught sight of white uniforms, but no great mass of them. In fact, they seemed to have come upon a foraging party; Grey dodged round a bush and nearly collided with the group of donkeys whose scent had disturbed the horses, the small beasts heavily laden with nets of grass.

One donkey, equally startled, put back its ears, brayed shrilly, and snapped big yellow teeth an inch from his arm. He slapped it smartly across the nose and shoved through the brush, cursing his own idiocy, and that of the French commander, whoever the bloody-minded frog was.

What had possessed the Frenchman to fire on them at such distance? Sense would have been to keep quiet, or retreat unobtrusively through the trees. And why had he told Percy the French were coming toward them? More than likely, they had realized their folly and were about to retreat, being outnumbered and lightly armed.

As for Percy’s idiocy…he could hear Percy shouting somewhere ahead, hoarse and wildly elated. He had an overpowering desire to punch Lieutenant Wainwright, and hoped no Frenchman would deprive him of the chance to do so by killing Percy first.

A shriek came from his right and he jerked aside as someone charged him. Something tugged at his coat, pulling him off balance. He stumbled, grabbed at a tree branch to keep from falling, and fired by reflex at the man who had just tried to bayonet him.

The French soldier jerked, struck in the side, and turned the incredulous face of a young boy on him before falling. Grey swore silently to himself, teeth clenched as he reloaded. The boy wore a corporal’s insignia; chances were that this fourteen-year-old nitwit was the commander of the foraging party.

He thrust the reloaded pistol into his belt, and picked up the musket the young corporal had dropped. The boy was still breathing; Grey could see his chest rise and fall. His eyes were closed, but his face was twitching with pain. Grey stood for an instant, hand on his pistol, then shook his head and turned again toward where he had last heard Percy’s voice.

Percy’s tactic had been unorthodox in the extreme—to say nothing of contravening every known principle of order and command—but it was amazingly successful. The dumbfounded French soldiers had been taken completely by surprise, and had scattered like geese. Most of them had fled—he could hear crashing at a distance—and the remainder were being efficiently felled by Percy’s troops, quite off their heads at the ease of their first victory.

This was madness. The French should surrender at once, while there was something left to save—but of course, he’d just shot their commander; there was probably no one to surrender, or to call for it.

Just as he thought this, someone did. Percy, voice cracked from shouting, was yelling, “Surrender, God damn you! You’re beaten, for God’s sake, give up!” He was shouting in English, of course.

Grey dashed aside a hanging branch, and was just in time to see Percy kill his first man.

A large French soldier feinted deftly to one side with his bayonet, then lunged upward with murderous intent. Percy lunged at the same moment, dropping into a perfect Passata-sotto—doubtless by accident, as he’d never been able to do it in practice. He looked completely astonished as the bayonet slid past his ear, and the point of his sword passed cleanly beneath the Frenchman’s arm and into his body. The Frenchman looked still more astonished.

Percy let go of the sword, and the Frenchman took three small steps backward, almost daintily, sat down with a thump, and died, still looking surprised.

Percy walked away a short distance and vomited into a bush. Grey was watching him, and nearly missed the flicker of movement. He whirled by instinct, already swinging the musket by the barrel. The stock slammed the Frenchman—yes, white, he was French—in the back and knocked him sideways as the Frenchman’s own gun went off with a bang and a bloom of black smoke.

Grey threw himself into the smoke and hit the man, shoulder first, fell with him, and rolled in the leaves. Came up gasping, punching, and yelling. Hit the man’s face accidentally and felt something crunch in his hand; a shock ran up the bones of his arm and paralyzed it for an instant. The Frenchman’s hand struck clawing at his face, caught him in the eye, and as he flinched back, the man twisted under him, seized his arm, and flung him off.

He hit the ground on hip and elbow. Eyes watering, he scrabbled one-handed for his dagger and thrust blindly up with all his strength. Cloth scraped his hand, body warmth and the reek of sweat, and he shoved as hard as he could through tearing cloth, hoping for flesh, fearing the jar of bone.

The man gave a gurgling scream, and staggered back. Grey covered his injured eye with one hand and through a haze of tears made out the Frenchman, doubled over, a dark stain in his crotch spreading beneath his clutching hands. Beyond him stood Percy, mouth open, pistol in hand.

“Will you fucking shoot the bastard?” Grey bellowed.

Like an automaton, Percy raised his pistol and did. He blinked at the sound of the shot, then stood, eyes wide, watching as the Frenchman fell slowly forward, still grasping his crotch, curling in on himself like a dried leaf.

“Thank you,” Grey said, and shut his eyes, pressing the heel of his hand hard into the injured socket. Colored pinwheels spun behind his eyelid, but the pain lessened.

After a moment, he took away his hand and rolled onto his hands and knees, where he paused for an instant, steadying himself, before being able to stand.

“Good,” he said to Percy, having got up at last. He sneezed and cleared his throat. “That was good.”

“Was it?” Percy said faintly.

Both Grey’s eyes were streaming and the injured one wouldn’t stay open, but he could see well enough to summon the men back and begin to take stock. The French had fled, leaving six dead. The wounded, including the corporal, had either crawled into the brush or been dragged off by their companions; he was not disposed to spend time searching for them. He had Brett make a quick tally; no one injured, bar a slight wound in the thigh to Private Johnston, who was limping cheerfully round going through the pockets of the dead French.

Grey gave brisk orders for retirement—there was no telling how far the foraging party had been from their main company, nor how quickly they might return with reinforcements—and they collected the weapons and left, heading back to camp.

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The men stood firm; Percy gave a quick glance down the line.

“No one hit,” he said, sounding breathless. “Too far!”

Grey took one more fast look—good ground, open to the copse. It was a small copse; no chance of a regiment hiding in it. No artillery; if they’d had cannon, they’d have used it. Retreat or advance? The trail they’d come up was steep and rocky, a sheer drop to the river on one side, thicket on the other; infantry would cut them down, firing from the trailhead.

“They’ll move closer. Charge them before they reload.” Grey had gathered his reins hastily into one hand as he spoke, preparing to draw his sword.

Instead, he was just in time to grab the reins of Percy’s horse, as the latter threw them to him, slid to the ground, and bellowing,

“CHARGE!” at the top of his voice, rushed toward the copse on foot, grappling for the sword at his side.

The company, caught midway in reloading, flung order and caution to the wind, abandoned the openmouthed corporal, and galloped after their lieutenant, roaring enthusiastically.

“Jesus Christ!” Grey said. “Mr. Tarleton—stand fast!” Leaning across, he thrust both sets of reins into the ensign’s startled hands, flung himself off, and ran—not after the charging company, but to the side, circling the copse.

He plunged into the trees, pistol in hand, trying to look everywhere at once. His worst fear—that there was a large company inside the copse—was dispelled at once; he caught sight of white uniforms, but no great mass of them. In fact, they seemed to have come upon a foraging party; Grey dodged round a bush and nearly collided with the group of donkeys whose scent had disturbed the horses, the small beasts heavily laden with nets of grass.

One donkey, equally startled, put back its ears, brayed shrilly, and snapped big yellow teeth an inch from his arm. He slapped it smartly across the nose and shoved through the brush, cursing his own idiocy, and that of the French commander, whoever the bloody-minded frog was.

What had possessed the Frenchman to fire on them at such distance? Sense would have been to keep quiet, or retreat unobtrusively through the trees. And why had he told Percy the French were coming toward them? More than likely, they had realized their folly and were about to retreat, being outnumbered and lightly armed.

As for Percy’s idiocy…he could hear Percy shouting somewhere ahead, hoarse and wildly elated. He had an overpowering desire to punch Lieutenant Wainwright, and hoped no Frenchman would deprive him of the chance to do so by killing Percy first.

A shriek came from his right and he jerked aside as someone charged him. Something tugged at his coat, pulling him off balance. He stumbled, grabbed at a tree branch to keep from falling, and fired by reflex at the man who had just tried to bayonet him.

The French soldier jerked, struck in the side, and turned the incredulous face of a young boy on him before falling. Grey swore silently to himself, teeth clenched as he reloaded. The boy wore a corporal’s insignia; chances were that this fourteen-year-old nitwit was the commander of the foraging party.

He thrust the reloaded pistol into his belt, and picked up the musket the young corporal had dropped. The boy was still breathing; Grey could see his chest rise and fall. His eyes were closed, but his face was twitching with pain. Grey stood for an instant, hand on his pistol, then shook his head and turned again toward where he had last heard Percy’s voice.

Percy’s tactic had been unorthodox in the extreme—to say nothing of contravening every known principle of order and command—but it was amazingly successful. The dumbfounded French soldiers had been taken completely by surprise, and had scattered like geese. Most of them had fled—he could hear crashing at a distance—and the remainder were being efficiently felled by Percy’s troops, quite off their heads at the ease of their first victory.

This was madness. The French should surrender at once, while there was something left to save—but of course, he’d just shot their commander; there was probably no one to surrender, or to call for it.

Just as he thought this, someone did. Percy, voice cracked from shouting, was yelling, “Surrender, God damn you! You’re beaten, for God’s sake, give up!” He was shouting in English, of course.

Grey dashed aside a hanging branch, and was just in time to see Percy kill his first man.

A large French soldier feinted deftly to one side with his bayonet, then lunged upward with murderous intent. Percy lunged at the same moment, dropping into a perfect Passata-sotto—doubtless by accident, as he’d never been able to do it in practice. He looked completely astonished as the bayonet slid past his ear, and the point of his sword passed cleanly beneath the Frenchman’s arm and into his body. The Frenchman looked still more astonished.

Percy let go of the sword, and the Frenchman took three small steps backward, almost daintily, sat down with a thump, and died, still looking surprised.

Percy walked away a short distance and vomited into a bush. Grey was watching him, and nearly missed the flicker of movement. He whirled by instinct, already swinging the musket by the barrel. The stock slammed the Frenchman—yes, white, he was French—in the back and knocked him sideways as the Frenchman’s own gun went off with a bang and a bloom of black smoke.

Grey threw himself into the smoke and hit the man, shoulder first, fell with him, and rolled in the leaves. Came up gasping, punching, and yelling. Hit the man’s face accidentally and felt something crunch in his hand; a shock ran up the bones of his arm and paralyzed it for an instant. The Frenchman’s hand struck clawing at his face, caught him in the eye, and as he flinched back, the man twisted under him, seized his arm, and flung him off.

He hit the ground on hip and elbow. Eyes watering, he scrabbled one-handed for his dagger and thrust blindly up with all his strength. Cloth scraped his hand, body warmth and the reek of sweat, and he shoved as hard as he could through tearing cloth, hoping for flesh, fearing the jar of bone.

The man gave a gurgling scream, and staggered back. Grey covered his injured eye with one hand and through a haze of tears made out the Frenchman, doubled over, a dark stain in his crotch spreading beneath his clutching hands. Beyond him stood Percy, mouth open, pistol in hand.

“Will you fucking shoot the bastard?” Grey bellowed.

Like an automaton, Percy raised his pistol and did. He blinked at the sound of the shot, then stood, eyes wide, watching as the Frenchman fell slowly forward, still grasping his crotch, curling in on himself like a dried leaf.

“Thank you,” Grey said, and shut his eyes, pressing the heel of his hand hard into the injured socket. Colored pinwheels spun behind his eyelid, but the pain lessened.

After a moment, he took away his hand and rolled onto his hands and knees, where he paused for an instant, steadying himself, before being able to stand.

“Good,” he said to Percy, having got up at last. He sneezed and cleared his throat. “That was good.”

“Was it?” Percy said faintly.

Both Grey’s eyes were streaming and the injured one wouldn’t stay open, but he could see well enough to summon the men back and begin to take stock. The French had fled, leaving six dead. The wounded, including the corporal, had either crawled into the brush or been dragged off by their companions; he was not disposed to spend time searching for them. He had Brett make a quick tally; no one injured, bar a slight wound in the thigh to Private Johnston, who was limping cheerfully round going through the pockets of the dead French.

Grey gave brisk orders for retirement—there was no telling how far the foraging party had been from their main company, nor how quickly they might return with reinforcements—and they collected the weapons and left, heading back to camp.

It was nearly dark when Grey returned at last to his tent, having sent out a scouting party, received reports from the regimental captains, waited for the scouting party’s report, conferred with Ewart Symington, sent Ensign Brett with stiff remarks to the quartermaster regarding a cask of what purported to be salt beef, but which in fact appeared to be the remains of an extremely elderly horse, made his own report to Hal, and written orders for the next day, all with a wad of damp guncotton pressed over his wounded eye. His head throbbed, his hand hurt, and he was famished, but he felt happy nonetheless.

The same sense of anticipation and excitement that rose within his breast flowed through the camp around him; you could hear it in the scraping of whetstones, the clank of kettles and the singing. Soldiers nearly always sang in camp, save when completely exhausted or dispirited, but what they sang varied, and was a good indication of their feelings. Sentimental ballads and mangled bits of music hall were standard camp fare. Marching songs, not surprisingly, when marching.

But when anticipating battle, the songs tended to the comic and the bawdy, and the snatches he heard as he walked through the camp would have made a sailor blush. The news had spread. The French were close, and the troops smelt blood. He whistled under his breath as he walked.

He found Tom Byrd and Percy in his tent, conversing amiably. Both of them sprang up at once when they saw him and there was a certain amount of fuss made over the state of his eye, by Percy, and the state of his uniform, by Tom—who, once having satisfied himself that the eye had not actually been gouged out, seemed more concerned with a large tear in the skirt of the coat he had just shed.

“Look!” Tom thrust three fingers through the rent, and waggled them, looking accusingly at Grey. “Gone right through the lining. What’s done that, me lord—a sword?”

“I don’t recall—oh, yes, I do. It was a bayonet.”

Tom inhaled, as though about to say something, but subsided, muttering, and set the coat aside.

“Sit yourself down, me lord,” he said, resigned. “I’ll fetch a bowl of barley water for your eye.”

Grey sank onto a camp stool, surprisingly glad to sit down. Appetizing smells of stew and hot bread drifted through the tent, and his stomach growled; he hadn’t eaten since dawn. He hoped Tom would bring supper; the eye could wait a little longer.

“Your men—” he began, only to be stopped by Percy’s snort.

“Fed, watered, brushed, curried, and stabled with ribbons braided into their little tails, or rather, getting drunk round the fires—I ordered them an extra ration of beer, was that right?—or slinking off into the bushes with the local whores, but they have been fed. Did you think I’d forget them?”

There might have been an edge to this, but it was said lightly, and Grey smiled, tilting his head to look at Percy with his good eye.

“I am quite sure you would overlook no detail of their welfare. I was going to say that they did very well today. They’re a credit to you.”

Percy flushed up at this, but only said, “Oh. Well, they’re a good lot,” in an offhanded way. He cleared his throat; he was still hoarse. “None of them much hurt, at least.”

“No. And you?”

Percy glanced quickly at him, then away.

“I can’t stop shaking,” he said, low-voiced. “Does it show?”

“No,” Grey said, choosing not to add that given his own present state of vision, he likely wouldn’t have noticed had Percy been quaking like egg-pudding in a high wind. He reached out a hand, though, and put it on Percy’s arm, which seemed solid enough. “No,” he repeated, more strongly. “You aren’t. Not to look at.”

“Oh,” Percy said, and took a deep breath. “It’s just inside, then. Good. What did Melton say?”

Most of Hal’s remarks wouldn’t bear repeating, but Hal could convey his own opinions to Percy in the morning, by which time Hal would be considerably calmer, and Percy might have stopped shaking.

“Not a lot,” Grey said. “Just flesh wounds. Don’t worry about it.”

They talked of nothing in particular then, taking no great interest in the conversation, only glad to be in each other’s company. This went on until Tom came back, carrying a flask of brandywine and a bowl of some cloudy liquid, which he claimed was warm barley water with salt, sovereign for sore eyes.

He handed this to Percy, and disappeared again in search of supper.

Grey leaned over the bowl and sniffed it.

“Am I to drink it, do you think? Or pour it over my head?”

“I don’t mind what you do with it, but I strongly suggest you don’t pour the brandy into your eye. It would sting, I expect. Besides, I need it.” Percy poured a generous portion of the latter liquid into a cup and pushed it across the table. He didn’t bother finding another cup for himself, but drank directly from the flask, thus giving Grey an idea of just how much he likely was shaking internally.

Grey sipped his own. It wasn’t good, but it burned pleasantly, and numbed the annoying pain in his eye a little. Still, he should do something with the barley water; Tom would be offended if he didn’t. He groped for the handkerchief in his sleeve, inspected it critically, and decided it would do.

“You meant it, didn’t you?” Percy said quietly, putting down the flask.

“Meant what?”

“When you said you were a beast.” Percy was looking at him with an expression that seemed somewhere between awe and mild revulsion. Grey didn’t care for either.

“So are all soldiers,” he said shortly. “All men, for that matter. Get used to it.”

Percy made a small huffing sound, which might have been amusement.

“You needn’t tell me that, my dear,” he said dryly. He stood, took the cloth from Grey’s hand, and dipped it in the bowl. “Put your head back.”

His hand on Grey’s neck was warm, his touch delicate.

“Can you open your eye?”


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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