“Yes, they’ll be close,” he answered patiently. “They have artillery; they’ll find it slow going.” So, of course, did Ferdinand of Brunswick’s Prussians and Hanoverians and their English allies; they’d been chasing the Comte de Clermont’s army for the best part of a month, down the Rhine Valley.

This was rich farmland and the soil was fertile and damp—so damp, in fact, that when latrines were dug, the seep filled them halfway with water within a day. The English artillery crews were perched, grumbling, on the driest patch of land available, off to the west. Karolus lifted his head as they passed, neighing to the horses in the artillery park. Grey felt a sudden surge of interest pass through the stallion, his mane lifting and nostrils flaring as the damp, drifting air evidently brought him the scent of a mare.

“Not now, you randy sod,” Grey said, nudging him firmly with a bootheel and reining him round. Karolus made a disgruntled noise, but obeyed.

“Pining, is he, sir?” Tarleton asked, joking.

“Eh, balls full to bursting will get anyone in trouble, won’t they?” said Brett, endeavoring to sound worldly.

Grey raised a brow and thought he had better have a word with each ensign, privately, regarding the unwisdom of dealings with whores—not that such warnings would be heeded in the slightest. The battalion had been encamped in its present position since mid-morning; more than enough time for the ragtag collection of camp followers to catch them up. He stood briefly in his stirrups, looking toward the river, where the line of sturdy farmhouses stood, all their windows lighted like beacons.

There was no smudge of smoke on the horizon yet, though, to mark the arrival of the heavy wagons and the mule drovers, the untidy straggle of laundresses, cooks, foragers, children, and wives—official and less so—and the women whose ill fortune condemned them to eke out a living following an army. But they’d be there soon enough; it was an hour at least before full dark, and he’d wager his best boots that the camp followers would be solidly entrenched before moonrise.

The ground in this part of the Rhine Valley was flat as a flounder, though the hedgerows and woods between the fields grew high enough to obscure the view. From where he sat at present, he could just make out the spires of one, two…yes, three village churches, poking black into a sky the color of molten pewter.

The ensigns had continued their raillery, daring each other into still more lewdly suggestive remarks. Half listening, Grey caught a phrase and jerked his head toward the ensigns. It was a movement of surprised reflex, more than an actual realization that they had been making a clumsily veiled reference to Percy Wainwright, but the effect was immediate.

There was a brief hiss from Tarleton, and Brett shut up sharp. He was sure they had meant no deliberate offense; neither of them knew Percy well, and likely had not recalled the family relationship between the disgraced lieutenant and Grey—until it was too late.

There was a constricted silence behind Grey. He ignored it for a moment, then reined up.

“Mr. Brett?” he called over one shoulder.

“Sir!”

“Go back to Captain Wilmot; I’d forgot to tell him to join Lord Melton and the duke at field headquarters after supper. The same message to each of the other captains. Then you are relieved.” It was unnecessary to tell the captains, since they would naturally come anyway—and riding back through the camps would occupy Brett for the next couple of hours and cause him to miss his own supper. It gave the young ensign an opportunity of escape, though, and he seized it gratefully, reining abruptly round with an “Aye, sir!” and making off at the gallop.

“Mr. Tarleton.”

“Sir?”

Tarleton’s voice cracked; Grey ignored it.

“Do you see that church spire?” He chose one at random, pointing. “Go up it. Survey the countryside.”

“Aye, s—but, sir! It will be black dark before I reach it!”

“So it will,” Grey said pleasantly. “I suppose you’ll have to wait for the dawn, then, before you report back.”

“Ah…yes, sir,” Tarleton said, crestfallen. “Certainly, sir.”

“Excellent. And don’t fall into the Landwehr, please.”

“No, sir. The…er…?”

“The land dyke. Large double ditch, walled canal filled with water? We crossed it, earlier.”

“Oh, that. No, sir, I won’t.”

Grey remained where he was, until Tarleton had disappeared in the direction of the distant church, then swung off Karolus. He welcomed the chance to be alone, if only for a bit.

Holding the reins in one hand, he bent his head on impulse, pressing his forehead against the horse’s neck and closing his eyes, taking a little comfort in the stallion’s solid warmth. Karolus turned his massive head and blew a generous blast of moist breath down Grey’s neck, as an indication that he forgave Grey’s earlier thwarting of his desires.

Grey jerked, and laughed a little.

“All right, then.” With an eye to the nearness of the invisible mare, he hobbled Karolus and left him to crop grass, while he himself sought the relief of a quiet piss.

There were no trees in this country, save the orchards near the farmhouses. He nearly chose a pile of stones that loomed in the twilight, realizing just in time that it was in fact one of the small shrines that littered the countryside like anthills, and switched his aim to a convenient bush.

Finished, he did up his flies and put a hand to his pocket, almost involuntarily. It was still there; he felt the crackle of paper.

The note had arrived during the afternoon; he had nearly ignored it, but recognizing Symington’s sprawling fist on the direction, had opened it. Symington-like, it was brief, blunt, and to the point.

Custis is dead, it said, without salutation, adding as an afterthought, Flux. It was discreetly unsigned.

br />

“Yes, they’ll be close,” he answered patiently. “They have artillery; they’ll find it slow going.” So, of course, did Ferdinand of Brunswick’s Prussians and Hanoverians and their English allies; they’d been chasing the Comte de Clermont’s army for the best part of a month, down the Rhine Valley.

This was rich farmland and the soil was fertile and damp—so damp, in fact, that when latrines were dug, the seep filled them halfway with water within a day. The English artillery crews were perched, grumbling, on the driest patch of land available, off to the west. Karolus lifted his head as they passed, neighing to the horses in the artillery park. Grey felt a sudden surge of interest pass through the stallion, his mane lifting and nostrils flaring as the damp, drifting air evidently brought him the scent of a mare.

“Not now, you randy sod,” Grey said, nudging him firmly with a bootheel and reining him round. Karolus made a disgruntled noise, but obeyed.

“Pining, is he, sir?” Tarleton asked, joking.

“Eh, balls full to bursting will get anyone in trouble, won’t they?” said Brett, endeavoring to sound worldly.

Grey raised a brow and thought he had better have a word with each ensign, privately, regarding the unwisdom of dealings with whores—not that such warnings would be heeded in the slightest. The battalion had been encamped in its present position since mid-morning; more than enough time for the ragtag collection of camp followers to catch them up. He stood briefly in his stirrups, looking toward the river, where the line of sturdy farmhouses stood, all their windows lighted like beacons.

There was no smudge of smoke on the horizon yet, though, to mark the arrival of the heavy wagons and the mule drovers, the untidy straggle of laundresses, cooks, foragers, children, and wives—official and less so—and the women whose ill fortune condemned them to eke out a living following an army. But they’d be there soon enough; it was an hour at least before full dark, and he’d wager his best boots that the camp followers would be solidly entrenched before moonrise.

The ground in this part of the Rhine Valley was flat as a flounder, though the hedgerows and woods between the fields grew high enough to obscure the view. From where he sat at present, he could just make out the spires of one, two…yes, three village churches, poking black into a sky the color of molten pewter.

The ensigns had continued their raillery, daring each other into still more lewdly suggestive remarks. Half listening, Grey caught a phrase and jerked his head toward the ensigns. It was a movement of surprised reflex, more than an actual realization that they had been making a clumsily veiled reference to Percy Wainwright, but the effect was immediate.

There was a brief hiss from Tarleton, and Brett shut up sharp. He was sure they had meant no deliberate offense; neither of them knew Percy well, and likely had not recalled the family relationship between the disgraced lieutenant and Grey—until it was too late.

There was a constricted silence behind Grey. He ignored it for a moment, then reined up.

“Mr. Brett?” he called over one shoulder.

“Sir!”

“Go back to Captain Wilmot; I’d forgot to tell him to join Lord Melton and the duke at field headquarters after supper. The same message to each of the other captains. Then you are relieved.” It was unnecessary to tell the captains, since they would naturally come anyway—and riding back through the camps would occupy Brett for the next couple of hours and cause him to miss his own supper. It gave the young ensign an opportunity of escape, though, and he seized it gratefully, reining abruptly round with an “Aye, sir!” and making off at the gallop.

“Mr. Tarleton.”

“Sir?”

Tarleton’s voice cracked; Grey ignored it.

“Do you see that church spire?” He chose one at random, pointing. “Go up it. Survey the countryside.”

“Aye, s—but, sir! It will be black dark before I reach it!”

“So it will,” Grey said pleasantly. “I suppose you’ll have to wait for the dawn, then, before you report back.”

“Ah…yes, sir,” Tarleton said, crestfallen. “Certainly, sir.”

“Excellent. And don’t fall into the Landwehr, please.”

“No, sir. The…er…?”

“The land dyke. Large double ditch, walled canal filled with water? We crossed it, earlier.”

“Oh, that. No, sir, I won’t.”

Grey remained where he was, until Tarleton had disappeared in the direction of the distant church, then swung off Karolus. He welcomed the chance to be alone, if only for a bit.

Holding the reins in one hand, he bent his head on impulse, pressing his forehead against the horse’s neck and closing his eyes, taking a little comfort in the stallion’s solid warmth. Karolus turned his massive head and blew a generous blast of moist breath down Grey’s neck, as an indication that he forgave Grey’s earlier thwarting of his desires.

Grey jerked, and laughed a little.

“All right, then.” With an eye to the nearness of the invisible mare, he hobbled Karolus and left him to crop grass, while he himself sought the relief of a quiet piss.

There were no trees in this country, save the orchards near the farmhouses. He nearly chose a pile of stones that loomed in the twilight, realizing just in time that it was in fact one of the small shrines that littered the countryside like anthills, and switched his aim to a convenient bush.

Finished, he did up his flies and put a hand to his pocket, almost involuntarily. It was still there; he felt the crackle of paper.

The note had arrived during the afternoon; he had nearly ignored it, but recognizing Symington’s sprawling fist on the direction, had opened it. Symington-like, it was brief, blunt, and to the point.

Custis is dead, it said, without salutation, adding as an afterthought, Flux. It was discreetly unsigned.

He supposed he should feel sorry—perhaps he would, later, when he might have both time and emotion to spare. As it was, he felt Custis’s death to be nearly as significant to himself as it undoubtedly was to Custis.

Everyone knew what had happened at the Gasthof. The fact remained that only Grey, Custis, and Hauptmann had seen it. Michael Weber was dead, Captain Hauptmann gone to Bavaria. Now Custis was gone, too. Which left Grey as the sole eyewitness to the crime.

Hal, with his usual obsessive ruthlessness, had laid hands on every record he could find of courts-martial for the crime of sodomy—surprisingly few, considering just how widespread Grey happened to know that particular crime was in military circles. The conclusion there was obvious, and something Grey had also known for years; the military hierarchy had no appetite for that sort of scandal—save, of course, when it might cover something worse. But when a blind eye might be turned, it almost certainly would be.

By the same token, a military court was not eager to convict an officer of sodomy—save the officer was a nuisance for other reasons, as Otway and Bates had been. Thus, while a court-martial was not bound by the rules of evidence that constrained the barristers and judges, there was still a strong reluctance to accept anything short of an eyewitness’s account.

And Grey was now the only eyewitness.

The evening was not cold in the slightest, but he shivered abruptly.

Could he stand before the court-martial, swear to tell the truth—and lie? With everyone—including the judges—completely aware that it was a lie?

It would be the ruin of his own career and reputation. Some might see such an act as misguided loyalty to family; many more would see it as an indication that Grey sympathized with Percy’s inclinations—or shared them. Either way, rumors would follow him. Discharge from the army was inevitable, and with the odor of such scandal clinging to him, he could not hope to find any reception in English society—or even in the service of a foreign army.

And yet…it was Percy’s life. If there is any kindness left between us…I beg you. Save me. Could he tell the truth and see Percy go to the gallows—or to prison or indentured servitude—and then simply return to his own life?

For an instant, he fantasized the possibility of securing Percy’s freedom, whether by lies or bribery, then going abroad, the two of them together. He had money enough.

To live a pointless existence of idleness with a man whom he could not trust. No, it would not serve.

“Damn you, Perseverance,” he said softly. “I wish I had never set eyes upon you.” He sighed, rubbing the palms of his hands over his closed eyelids.

And yet he did not mean that, he realized. He did feel that way about Jamie Fraser—but not Percy. And became aware, very much too late, that he did love Percy Wainwright. But…enough to try to save him, at the cost of his own honor, his own life, even though there could be nothing left between them?

And then there was Hal. He touched his pocket again, distracted. If Symington knew about Custis, so did Hal. His brother would be grimly calculating what this might mean—and doubtless arriving at the same conclusions. The notion that Grey would lie at the court-martial, though—he doubted that Hal would imagine that possibility.

He did not know how much Hal might know or suspect of his own inclinations; the matter had never been spoken of between them, and never would be. But if he were to declare his intent to perjure himself before the court-martial in order to save Percy’s life—Hal would likely do anything to stop him, including shooting him. Not fatally, he supposed, with a wry smile at the thought; only sufficiently as to justify shutting him up somewhere under a doctor’s care.

Still, that would not solve the problem; Percy would merely languish in prison until such time as Grey was recovered enough to testify. No, he decided, Hal’s response would more likely be to knock Grey over the head, bundle him into a sack, and have him smuggled aboard a merchantman bound for China, after which he would declare Grey lost at sea, and…

He discovered that he was laughing helplessly at the thought, tears coming to his eyes.

“Christ, Hal, I wish you would,” he said aloud, and quite suddenly thought of Aberdeen, realizing for the first time just how desperately his brother loved him.

“Christ, Hal,” he whispered.

Rubbing a sleeve over his face, he drew a deep breath of the heavy air, and smelled flowers. Peering downward, he saw a heap of wilted flowers, white and yellow, fallen to the ground. His elbow had dislodged them as he brushed against the little shrine; he gathered them gently into a bunch and laid them neatly back on the ledge at the front of it.

It was too dark to see the carving on the plaque within the shrine, but his exploring fingers made out a roman numeral—II, he thought it was. It must be one of the Stations of the Cross von Namtzen had told him of. People walked from one such shrine to the next as a sort of devotional pilgrimage, meditating on the events in Christ’s life leading to His crucifixion.

There was, of course, a threat in Percy’s power, and one Grey was only too aware of, though Percy had sufficient delicacy not to have mentioned it. Facing the gallows, Percy might decide to reveal his relationship with Grey. Grey did not think such an allegation could be proved; no one had ever seen them in a compromising situation—but under the circumstances, the accusation would be damaging enough.

This, of course, was not something he could discuss with Hal.

He was not religious, but was sufficiently familiar with Scripture as to have heard the story of Gethsemane. Let this cup pass away.

He looked across the fields toward Hückelsmay, and saw the watch fires burning—the stations on his own road to Calvary, he thought grimly. He’d like to know what Christ would have done in his position, that’s all.

He was quartered with several other British officers in one of the large farmhouses near the canal, a place called Hückelsmay. Despite the aura of suppressed tension, the atmosphere in the house was welcoming, the air filled with the scent of fried potatoes and roast pork, warm with smoke and conviviality.

Grey forced himself to eat a little, mostly for Tom’s sake, and then went to sit in a corner, where he could avoid having to talk to people.

He was near a window, tightly closed and shuttered for the night, but he felt the draft from it nonetheless, and heard the occasional grunt of sleeping pigs, perhaps disturbed by the rich smell of their erstwhile brother roasting. All the houses near the Landwehr were encircled by small ditches or moats. As well as providing defense for the houses, these moats provided easy access to water, and provided an excellent wallow for the pigs, who lay blissfully sunk in the mud of the ditch, handy when wanted.

He should go up and sleep, he supposed—but he had the feeling that sleep would not come easily tonight. Better to be where there were other people than thrashing to and fro in darkness, alone with his thoughts.

He became gradually aware of eyes upon him, and looking up, found himself the cynosure of a small girl who stood in front of him. She wore a neat apron, a cap, and an unexpected pair of spectacles, which magnified her eyes remarkably, thus intensifying her gaze. She wore a small frown, as though not quite sure what he was.

“Bitte?” he said, employing that useful German word which effortlessly encompasses “please,” “thank you,” “I beg your pardon,” and “what do you want?” in a single term of politeness.

The little girl at once executed a bob, and peered at him with increased intentness.

“Herr Thomas says I may speak to you, mein Herr,” she announced.

“Does he? Well, then, I am sure you may,” he said gravely. “What is your name, Kleine?”

“Agnes-Maria. Herr Thomas says you are a great lord.” Her frown deepened a little, and her tone held a certain dubious note, as though suspecting that she had been practiced upon.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
Source: www.StudyNovels.com