He was wearing an tawny silk sash, a bright, barely-faded one, and his hair was so fair it was almost white, and he wore it long and tied back, and you couldn’t miss the bugger, even from the back. Pacing – not walking, pacing, on his dignity, managing to look like a man who was braced to receive blows even when he was just picking his way gingerly across the whins a quarter-mile distant.
There was little less dignified than a cavalry officer sprinting in riding boots, but it was often said of Hollie Babbitt that he had no dignity anyway, and so he sped up. Careful of outflung hands and upturned faces, with the dew wet on open eyes and open wounds – of the just cause and impediment of battle, of spent shot and dead horses. “Russell.”
The lieutenant didn’t look his way. Almost under Hollie’s feet there was a groan, and he shot sideways like a startled partridge, and then Russell looked his way, and came hobbling across. Still stiff and straight and upright, but limping like a man who’d been on his feet all night and who had the blisters to show for it. “Sir.”
“Hapless…what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Some of the corpses looked better than Russell. He stopped, and looked up with his mouth open, and blinked, and then said, “I don’t know.” Thought about a second, and then said again, sounding surprised, “I don’t know.”
The wounded man at his feet groaned again, a horrible, graveyard noise, and Russell yelled, “And you can shut up, as well!” And then sat down abruptly in the ditch and burst into tears.
Hollie’s first reaction was that he was going to laugh, and that he couldn’t stop himself. His next, thank God, was to sit in the wet moss between Russell and the casualty – whose side? Buggered if he knew, a lad with his leg broke, badly broke, under a dead horse – and what with the wounded trooper whimpering on one side and Russell whimpering on the other, he wasn’t sure where to put his sympathies first.
“Right,” he said firmly, because he was the senior officer here, and that meant he was in charge. “I know who youare, Russell. No introductions necessary. Who’s your mate?”
The wounded man was crying, now, a sort of desperate, relieved, sobbing, as if he had been afraid alone and now he had other living men about him and he could let go, a little. “You’re not dying, old son,” Hollie said over his shoulder. “Not on my watch you’re not. Hapless, have you been preaching at this poor bugger or something? What have I told you about saving souls when you’re on duty?”
And Russell looked up, blinking, affronted, and swiped the back of his hand under his nose like a little boy. Which did nothing for his dignity, especially since it was the hand with the armoured bridle-gauntlet on, and it hurt. “I – you – he said – “ and then stopped, and frowned, and looked at Hollie out of the corner of his eye. “I see. You are teasing me.”
Hollie nodded, and stood up, and put his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Aye. I’m teasing you. Blow your nose, and let’s get this poor sod out from under.”
There were two of them, and the hurt trooper – and he was on the wrong side, he was one of Widdrington’s horse, and Hollie sat back on his heels and whistled through his teeth at that, knowing how close Widdrington’s men had been to Rupert’s troops – was starting to run a fever, after a night on the moor, and was neither use nor ornament. He did know who he was, though. His name was Will Bailey and he was Northumbrian-born and he was twenty-six and he wanted his wife, very badly.
“Now you can do a bit of praying, if you like, Hapless,” Hollie said grimly.
Bailey’s horse had stiffened, in the night. “How are you going to –“ Russell began, and Hollie cut him off. “Faith, sir. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove. Faith, and a musket butt, and you are going to pull like a bastard, lad. I got a bad wrist. You, on the other hand, are fit as a butcher’s dog. Now stand to, and on my command, heave like hell.”
Bailey screamed like a rabbit, and even with the leverage of a musket-butt under the dead beast it was only possible to rock the horse’s bulk a finger’s breadth or more, and it was barely enough to drag the trooper a few inches. “Do it again,” Hollie said, panting, and Russell was sobbing again, because it was horrible, it was undignified and agonising and Bailey had pissed himself in his pain –
It took forever. It probably didn’t, but it felt like it did. Bailey was out cold and bleeding badly, and Russell was all but useless, gone beyond shock into a shaking numbness. “He’s going to lose that leg,” Hollie said, because it needed to be said, while the Royalist trooper was unconscious. “If he’s lucky, he’ll go home. Better off with one good leg and a peg ‘un than dead in a ditch.”
The scarred lieutenant was staring at his bloodstained hands. “I walked out to – to see if I might be of help.” He blinked, without his gaze shifting the once. “There are so many dead men. Colonel.”
“Hollie. I can’t be arsed with colonel.”
“Dead men. Everywhere. Dead, and dying, and hurt, and –“ And still not looking away, still looking at his blood-sticky hands. “I killed one of them. Colonel.”
“Me. I thought I could. I’m not sure I can. It was horrible. And what if –“
“What if he wasn’t dead? What if he’s just lying there? With a hole in his belly – and the worms crawling in, and the –“
“Russell.” He shook the lad, not hard, just hard enough to stop him, because thinking like that did nobody any favours. “You killed someone. Aye. You did. You’re a soldier. That’s your job. What the hell did you think, Hapless, you’d do a bit of smiting and the Lord would bear the buggers off in a fiery chariot?”
And it was hard to tell with Russell, but his level brows drew sharply together, as if he was shocked, and anything that that shocked him out of that mad spiral of blame was good. “I – “ he lifted a shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Suppose I did. Rather.”
“Well, that was a bit bloody stupid, wasn’t it? Hey!” Hollie could hear voices. He raised a hand. Looked down at Bailey’s limp, broken form. “Got a live one over here, lads!” He looked at Russell. Russell looked back, quite level, and quite sane.
“He’s one of ours,” Russell said coolly. “Be so good as to take him to our –“ his voice broke a little, “to Witcombe. I imagine he will be able to attend to Trooper Bailey’s hurts somewhat quicker than awaiting the attentions of the Army’s own surgeons. He has the less to deal with. Witcombe,” he said again, and they hoisted Bailey’s body onto a makeshift hurdle, “of Babbitt’s company. And should he wake – should he be afraid – tell him – tell him that Lieutenant Russell is praying for him.” His voice cracked, and he got up and fled, abruptly.
“Bloody funny lad, that one,” the soldier on the head end of the hurdle said, shaking his head. Looked down at Bailey. “You reckon he’s going to make it?”
Hollie shrugged. “Bloody will if Hapless has got anything to do with it.”