“How are you feeling now?” I say, and Luce looks up from under his hair and makes a noise which is, I think, intended to express malaise.
“Horrible,” he says, with heartfelt sincerity, and to prove a point, honks into an extremely sodden handkerchief, and subsides back into the warm corner of the settle by the fire with a groan. “I hate having a code.”
“Mustard plaster,” Hollie says from the shadows. “That’ll settle what ails you, brat.”
I suggest a hot toddy, and have to explain what one is, but upon explaining the combination of whisky, lemon juice and sugar, am met with a series of further groans from which I infer that both Hollie and Luce may have already entertained this suggestion on an earlier occasion. It apparently ended, on that occasion, with Luce’s disclosing that his Auntie Het had something of a soft spot for one large, scruffy, russet-haired captain of horse – and the rest, of course, is history. “As well you should know, you baggage, for you set every bloody word of it down in that damned book,” Hollie mutters darkly. “Every bloody word.”(I think he means “Command the Raven”. And he’s right, he does get sweary when he’s drunk. Swearier.)
So. Yes. I’m expecting Luce to still be full of zeal and ardour for the Parliamentarian cause?“Ye-es,” he says, “well, sort of, but – perhaps not as hot as I was.”It seems Witless – Witcombe, they’ve got me at it, the fat lad who serves as troop surgeon, having been apprenticed to one before the war – has taken Luce on as his apprentice. Nothing too responsible, but -“I should rather mend men than hurt them,” Luce says, and for the first time, he sounds grim. “It should not come to this. It should never have come to this.”
“Well, we know whose door to lay that blame at,” Hollie says, and Luce looks at him thoughtfully. As if he can’t quite decide, two years into this most uncivil of wars.
On the other hand, Luce has seen the world. (He says ardently, and who am I to dissuade him that getting as far as Yorkshire does not constitute seeing the world? In 1644, it pretty much does, bless him.) He’s seen the Humber and the Ouse, and the ships that go down to do their business in great waters – Hollie, that most notoriously appalling sailor, makes a horrible gurgling noise – eaten toasted cheese in Cheshire, ridden across Yorkshire in the dark, listened to seditious sermons in Bolton. Eaten strawberries in the Vale of Evesham and had his heart broken at Edgehill. – it’s not cured him of a degree of cork-brained romanticism, Hollie mutters.
So, you know, is there anybody special at the moment? I say. (I do get asked that quite a lot, regarding our dashing young cornet.) Hollie makes another horrible noise. “Aye. Several somebodys.”“Shut up,” he says, quite amicably, and it’s rather nice to see how far they’ve come, in two years. That Hollie, who is neither so grizzled nor so cantankerous as he pretends to be, at thirty-six, has acquired a habit of heavy-handed playfulness, and that Luce, who was so very proper and conscientious two years ago, can now call his commanding officer an arsehole without turning a hair.
There’s a smart tap at the door. “Colonel Babbitt. Sir. Company coming up the York road.”
“Reckon you’d best get on, then, mistress,” Hollie says, with a sigh. “Duty calls. You remember Russell?”
Of course, I say, and the scarred lieutenant gives me one quick starry-eyed glance of purest joy from under his eyelashes. He says nothing, of course. Hapless Russell has been in the throes of a crush of epic teenage proportions on one author of his acquaintance ever since she rescued him from a future of monumental boredom as the Earl of Essex’s secretary. Luce looks at his friend, who is now blushing like a rose and trying to look cool and unruffled, and then at me.
“Not going to happen, Hapless,” he says, with a degree of sympathy that makes me think that Luce has, somewhere, grown up. Somewhere in three books, that daft principled romantic boy has become a young man. “Come on.”