It was a pale pearl of a midsummer dawn, and Thankful Russell looked like a dead man.
Sitting on his bed, he looked fragile and very, very young. As well he might. He’d turned twenty-one two weeks before the battle at Naseby. He was twenty-one, poor bugger, and as of three days ago, he was blind.
It had been an accident, or a case of mistaken identity, or something of the sort that inevitably happened to Russell. It hadn’t even been during the battle. Colonel Hollie Babbitt hadn’t got to the bottom of it, didn’t want to get to the bottom of it. Thank God, he had spent most of that particular sickening low point in the trajectory of the New Model Army, laid out cold in a churchyard in the nearby village of Marston Trussell, perfectly, and literally, unconscious of the vile massacre being enacted by men he’d fought shoulder to shoulder with. His own troops. Oneof the troops under his command, at least. Hollie had been endeavouring to stand between the ravening ranks of the godly, hellbent on unjustified revenge, and those poor bloody brave, stubborn, doomed camp-followers. One of the women had had smacked him in the side of the head with a griddle. Collapse, as Lucey would put it, of stout party. It had done no good in the end, either. There’d been over a hundred of those poor women dead or mutilated – hacked apart by good Parliament men. And there had been nothing Hollie could do to stop it.
Whatever Russell had been doing to stop it, he ought not to have, because it had ended with him shot in the head, not to say having been, by the look of him, very badly beaten. Sitting upright on his bed after three days unconscious, Russell was a horrible sight, and he hadn’t been that lovely before. The scarred lieutenant had a stunning black eye, and a series of clotted, black gouges torn into the cheek that wasn’t already marred: his mouth was swollen and torn, and there was old, dry blood on his top lip and his chin. The funny thing was, the pistol ball had only grazed his skull – the troop bonesetter had taken it out from under his skin with no trouble at all. Hollie had always said Russell had a thick head, and now he had actual, slightly-flattened, lead evidence of same. It had been enough to leave him senseless for the better part of three days, though, and it had bled something fierce.
“You can’t do this, Hollie.” Luce was bumping about like a bee in a bottle, trying every way he knew to deflect Hollie from his stated business of removing Russell to a place of safety. “You can not expect a man with a serious head wound to ride sixty miles. You’ll kill him.”
Russell turned his head to look in Luce’s direction. That was the pitiful thing, that the lad was trying to look as if he was intact. Looking at the blank wall behind Luce’s head, his head slightly cocked, looking alert and intelligent and facing in just slightly the wrong direction, his eyes not moving. “I should rather not be left behind,” he said, his voice as cool and accentless as ever it was. “Thatwould kill me, Cornet Pettitt.”
“My baggage is packed, sir. I will ride when the colonel wishes to leave. At first light.”
Luce looked at Hollie and his mouth quivered. It was first light. And proper, impeccable Russell’s baggage was shoved anyhow into a saddle-bag, one forgotten stocking still flung across the bed where it had been missed. Hollie reached across and very quietly emptied the bag, smoothing the crumpled shirts and folding them before replacing them. Russell was frowning very faintly, his head jerking almost imperceptibly as he tried to pinpoint the sound. “What are you doing?” he said, and his voice had gone high with anxiety. “Sir? What -“
Hollie put his hand on Russell’s shoulder. “Nowt, lad. I’m not doing nowt. I just thought I’d dropped summat a minute ago.”
“Colonel Babbitt, sir, I will not allow the lieutenant to leave my care!”
All he needed, bloody Witless. The troop bonesetter, who may have been christened Witcombe but who was definitely Witless, was a fat young man with bad skin who stuttered and blushed and only had any degree of competency at all when he was bloody to the elbows. As a plain trooper he was almost wholly useless. He’d managed to put a pistol ball through the brim of his hat in battle, on one occasion. Clear through, clear enough to see daylight. Give him a lancet or a fleam and he was transfigured. The worst thing was, that lummox had trained Luce in his own image, and now the brat was an eager apprentice in his own right. Frightening.
“Why? You going to give him a better haircut?”
Russell looked uncomprehending. Actually, he looked like a lunatic, with a patch of hair cropped to the skin where Witless had stitched that bloody runnel through his scalp. Witless was never going to make a gentleman’s gentleman. He’d hardly flattered Russell’s vanity, such as he had had in the first place. What the lieutenant was going to say when he regained his sight – and he bloody well would, Hollie would not have it any other way – and realised that possibly the only beauty he had remaining to him was stuck out at crazy angles to his head and matted with blood. Hollie shook his head, and then remembered that he had a row of stitches of his own, slightly more considerately put in by Luce, who might only be a half-trained butcher but at least he had warm hands. Head-shaking, notwithstanding, made him feel somewhat dizzy.
“I’m not sure you ought to be racketing about the countryside on your own, either, Hollie,” Luce said gently, and Hollie scowled at him.
“That’d be it, then, brat.” Luce might be his dearest friend in the world, but he was still ten years, and at least one rank, Hollie’s junior. Brat he was and brat he would remain. “You can come with us. There you go, Witless. Lieutenant Russell’s got his own private physician. There’s posh for you, Russell.”