“It’s cold,* I said to the fair-haired man sitting by the church door.
He hunched broad shoulders inside his heavy black wool coat and shivered, grimacing. “Bitter,” he agreed, getting to his feet. “And I swear, it gets darker earlier.”
“You always say that,” I said, and tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow.
There was no full moon, no wisps of mist rising from the autumn-chill ground on this Halloween night. It was cold and damp and it smelt of wet soil and bitter coal-smoke from the little cluster of houses nestled at the foot of the Vale of the Red Horse.
Possibly, the smell of rank, wet decay came from the coat of Captain Nathaniel Rackhay, casualty of the first battle of the English Civil War, on this very hillside, three hundred and sixty years ago –
“And a week,” he said wryly. “Three hundred and sixty three years. And a week. But – who shall count the hours, unless they be sunny ones?”
Handsome bugger, was Captain Rackhay, for a man who was dust for every other night of the year. Big, and broad-shouldered, with a lion’s mane of fashionably dishevelled fair hair, a swashbuckling grin, and one raffishly missing canine tooth that gave him the look of a cavalier Errol Flynn – which comparison, given that he’d been a cavalry captain in the Army of Parliament, would have appalled him. No, I didn’t fancy Nathaniel Rackhay, living or otherwise. For a dead man, he fancied himself sufficient for both of us.
“It’s freezing,” he grumbled again, and pulled his tawny silk scarf up further about his throat. “I’m sure it never used to be this cold.”
“Yes it did. They reckon that if there’d not been such a hard frost, the night after the battle, hundreds more would have died. The cold saved their lives, you see. Stopped the bleeding.”
“Bollocks,” he said cheerfully, and tugged the silk scarf away from his throat to show me the glistening grey-blue ropes of muscle and ragged artery where a Royalist sword had taken him, just above his breastplate. “Would have done me as little good were it as cold as Acheron out there. Those as God meant to die, died. Speaking of which, madam – ” he cocked an eyebrow at me, with a wolfish grin that I suspect he thought was irresistible – “we have an assignation with them, I believe?”
I’d known Rackhay for six years, now, and he still didn’t give up. He was one of the vainest of the Edgehill ghosts, though not above claiming the old war wounds pained him, if he thought the sympathy might get him somewhere. He wasn’t the only one who disguised the more disfiguring of his injuries, in the faux-candlelight of the pub. There were a number of ragged felt hats worn slantwise, and carefully-arranged lovelocks artfully concealing shattered skulls; pinned-up sleeves where the glint of bone showed through shot-tattered fabric. It amazed me that the locals never noticed – or at least, seemed not to, as a knot of young farm labourers in fleece jackets and jeans chatted perfectly amicably through a dozen ragged grey pikemen in buff leather, clustered at the bar.
“Miserable old turd,” Rackhay said without moving his lips, nodding to Sir Edmund Verney, hunched glowering on a bar stool with his pint held huddled against his chest by the bloody stump of his left arm. The King’s standard-bearer had left his severed hand on the battlefield, still clutching His Majesty’s precious banner, though there had been precious little else left to identify its bearer. I did not like to look at Sir Edmund. He’d been caught under a flying cavalry charge, and he looked like it; but more than that, he was furious. He had been cold-furious for three hundred and odd years, and his temper wasn’t getting any better. He gave me one simmering fiery glare, and then he returned to his contemplation of his pint.
“Why?” I said, when Nat rejoined me with our drinks.
“Why’s Verney a miserable old turd? Born so, I imagine, or wasn’t spanked sufficiently by his nurse -”
“You know what I mean.” I sipped at my cider, and glared at him.
It was a funny thing how easy it was to forget that flirtatious, raffish, amusing Nathaniel was a dead man. That the young man with the long, mousy curls, laughing with his mates on the other side of the bar, was a dead man, and so were his ribald mates. I’d known Nat these six years past, since I’d seen him on the battlefield site with a handful of his officer comrades, walking the slopes pointing out sites of significant interest as the late October light faded. Assumed he was a tour guide, listening to them muttering darkly about alternate battle-plans and how the day would have been won if this thing or that thing had not happened. Realised in very, very short order that he wasn’t. And I’d been coming back every Hallowe’en since, not because there was anything romantic or longing about it, but because –
He sighed, or cold air whistled through his throat; one or the other. “Because no other bugger will remember us, if we do not.”
And that was why I came back, year on year. He gave me a wry look. “Oh, I know, I know. They have a service to mark us, on the day of the battle, and another service to mark all soldiers, in a sennight’s time. Aye. Well. My thanks, but -” he lifted a somewhat grubby hand dismissively. “Where’s it say my name? Verney’s? That lad’s, yonder? They put us in a pit, all of us together, in Radway parish. I’m an Essex boy, by birth, mistress. All my family’s over Colchester way. I’ve not even a marker for them to mourn me by. D’you know how many men died on that field, that day?”
I shook my head, because I didn’t – we didn’t, still – and he gave me a wry smile. “Aye, and neither do I, for no one was keeping tally of what lads came from where, and who they might belong to. They slung us all in a hole together, in the cold clay, with none to mark us one from another. King’s men and Parliament’s, all piled on top of one another. But mistress – I had a wife. I had two daughters, and a son. That lad there – he had a girl, in Sevenoaks. We had people who cared what became of us, and they never knew. We were living, feeling, breathing men, till this war. And now – what are we? Not even names. We could not even take that to the grave.”
I didn’t want to finish my drink, suddenly. He shook his head at me. “No, no, girl, don’t weep for us, that’s no good. Spoil your pretty eyes.” He raised his eyebrows in what he evidently hoped was an irresistible fashion. “Gets cold, out there in Radway ground. Cold, and a long way from home. A man gets to missing a bit of a kiss and a cuddle, before -“
“You’re a married man,” I said tartly, and he shrugged.
“Can’t blame me for trying, now, can you?”
One day. One day, in every year, set aside for the remembrance of the spirits of the dead – but what of the unclaimed dead, the unwanted, the unknown? He put his cold lips gently to the back of my hand, and there was no lewdness in it, now. “God bless you, mistress,” he said softly. “For remembering.”
I nodded. “Always, Nathaniel.”
He finished his beer, sucking the last of the froth from his moustache with every sign of evident relish. “Best be off, then. Some puppy in the King’s Lifeguard getting ideas above his station again – and doubtless Verney’s going to get maudlin-drunk again and start a fight with some poor bugger – I’m off for a walk up the field, while there’s still a moon to see it by. Want to come?”
The first spatters of rain hit the black window-glass, and I shook my head. “Er, no. No, I’ll give that a miss. Thanks.” Because walking a battlefield in the dark with half a hundred muttering ghosts arguing about who died where, and whose fault it was, held little appeal. “Same time next year?”
“Aye, that’d be nice.” He bent over my hand again. “Same time next year, then. Pray for me?”
He tipped a hat that had been rotted to nothing for three hundred years, and stood up, tucking the tawny silk that had been his sash of office, around the gaping bloodless hole in his throat. The door closed behind him, and not a one of the young men around the bar – living, breathing young men, talking of girls and sport and music – none of them saw him go.
I looked around the pub.
In the shadows by the window, there was a man in the colours of Hampden’s Greencoat regiment – young-ish, too thin, freckled, with dark hair cut short that stood on end. He was quite by himself, and his knuckles stood out white as bone as he stared around the room with frightened eyes, tears rolling down his freckled cheeks.
Not a man I recognised, but then, they said over a thousand men had died at the battle of Edgehill. Nat Rackhay was a gregarious sort, but he didn’t make a point of introducing me to everyone.
I picked up my drink, and sat down opposite him. “Hello,” I said. “I’m Kit. Captain Rackhay’s friend. I don’t think we’ve met before. What’s your name?”