Yes, I know I have been significantly MIA for – well, a year, basically. There has been writing done, there is a new Uncivil Wars book on its way, the third Russells mystery is all but done, and there will be another Russells novel in the autumn.
In the meantime, I was chatting on Twitter last night about horses. I thought it was overdue that I introduced you to the bridle side of the rebel rabble. (I can’t believe it’s six years since the world met Doubting Thomas, so I’ll re-share that again in a day or so.)
First, though, meet Tyburn, in a previously unpublished short story. Hollie’s first acquaintance with the colt who was to become his best friend and at times, and quite well deservedly, the only friend he did have…
“You can’t keep this up, Red.”
Hollie scooped his tangled hair out of his eyes with one hand and squinted up at his spotless sidekick. “I bloody well can, lad. And you can stop there and watch, if you don’t believe me.”
He probably would, too, knowing Rackhay. He was a lovely lad, was Nathaniel. Loyal, generous to a fault, good-hearted. Shame he knew bugger-all about pain. Nat thought pain was the immediacy of having a wound searched, or a bone broken; not when you woke up every morning and just for a few heartbeats looked at the dawn with a sense of expectancy before you remembered there was no bloody point, none whatever. And you couldn’t not go on, because you didn’t know how to stop; all you could do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other and stop it hurting the best way you could. He remembered at Dessau Bridge – the first real battle he’d fought in – remembered afterwards, in the pale spring sunshine, sitting in the grass with a white-faced lad not much older than he was. Talking to the lad about the spring sowing, like Hollie had known anything about farming more than the bits they mentioned in the Bible, while the lad tried to hold his guts from spilling in the churned grass. The lad had asked Hollie to cut his throat in the end. Wallenstein’s camp surgeon had took one look at the wound and agreed.
He wondered what Nat would say if Hollie asked him to perform the same service.
You might not be able to see any of Hollie’s internal arrangements, but it didn’t mean there wasn’t a hole where half his heart had been cut away and buried in a neat, respectable grave in Amsterdam. And that was a remarkably lucid thought for someone who’d been drinking solidly for two weeks, and that probably meant he was getting sober and that would not do at all.
“No,” Nat said, correctly interpreting the sudden gleam in his friend’s eye. “That’s enough, Red.”
“No, it isn’t, Nathaniel. It isn’t nearly enough.”
“Fine.” And Nat had leaned across the table, snatched the bottle of geneva and necked it, straight. Shuddered. “Christ, Babbitt, that stuff’s like oil of vitriol.”
Hollie shrugged. “She’d not want me on the cheap stuff. I owe her that, at least.”
Rackhay screwed his face up. “Jesus, Babbitt. That’s – well,” he looked round the dingy inn with an expression of astonished disgust, “or have they barred you from the Cat as well these days?”
And without thinking, without any conscious decision on his part at all, Hollie was half across the table with his sword drawn, bottles crashing to the floor, bench overturned. And the worst of it was that Nat didn’t care, he’d just looked down his patrician nose at Hollie – as if he was a mildly annoying insect – and disarmed him, most ungently.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” he said coldly. “You think that’s what she’d want, to see you dead in a gutter?”
Not much Hollie could say to that, face down on a not very clean table with his arm twisted up his back. Other than – she’s dead, she don’t get a say in it. That’s sort of the point, isn’t it? She’s dead. She doesn’t get to tell me anything. That’s what dead means.
“Get up,” Nat said, still in that same cold, furious voice. “I’ll not put up with this. If you think the best way to honour your wife’s memory is by getting yourself killed, I’ve got more respect for her than that –“
The badly-scoured wood under his cheek was sticky. On the other hand, it might have been his cheek. Nat leaned, harder, on his twisted arm till Hollie felt the muscle creak but he didn’t actually care. Not any more.
“Get off me, Nathaniel.”
“Or what? The state you’re in at the minute, I could snap you like a twig –“
He closed his eyes, went limp in Nat’s grip. Waited till his friend’s fingers loosened from hard enough to bruise to just damned uncomfortable, then wrenched himself free, not caring what tore in the process – rounded on Nat panting and shaking with a blinding rage. “Don’t you dare talk of my wife –“
And then he was blinded not by fury but by a flat-handed slap across the face that made his eyes water, and after that Hollie was lost to everything but the fierce joy of battle. Nat still had the advantage of weight – sleek, cream-fed bastard that he was. Neither of them, however, had the advantage of the massive bravo who provided the protection in this dockside tavern. He had a vague impression of Nat adjusting his cuffs and easing his way out of the bully’s grip. Hollie didn’t do urbane excuses – never apologise, never explain – and so the next thing he knew he was flat on his back in a stinking gutter with most of the breath knocked out of him and the world spinning in a way that owed regrettably little to a quantity of cheap geneva.
“Well I reckon that’s somewhere else you just got barred from, Red,” Nat said beside him, his voice shaking with laughter.
Hollie rolled over and shook his head, touching a hand to his bloody nose and spattering blood across the rotten cabbage leaves and fish heads. Stifling a wild desire of his own to laugh. “By Christ, I must be rough, then,” he said thickly – spat a further mouthful of blood into the gutter, ran his tongue across his teeth. All still there, which was something of an astonishment. The wind off the sea was very cold, very fresh, even in spite of the piles of debris from the market that surrounded them.
“You look better for a bit of fresh air,” Nat said. (He sounded like her. Oh, Christ, he sounded like her. If he told Hollie he’d feel better if he put a clean shirt on -)
He got to his feet – the fresh air had gone to his head, that or he was dizzy with want of food, but he couldn’t stand another bloody second with well-meaning Nathaniel, not without wanting to hit him again. Picked an wet onion skin off his sleeve with dignity, and dropped it on the cobbles at Nat’s feet. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t bother coming with me.”
Though not sure where he was going, for where he went she went with him. Or the lack of her went with him, and the great gap of not-knowing that went with it, for he had not been there, not at the last. (They had said. All along. Not good enough for her, they said, Let her down, they said. Rackety, they said. Unreliable. And he had, and he was, and she had died while he was outside the city walls of Nuremberg and he had no idea if she had wanted him or cursed him at the last because she was gone, she was dead, she was rotting in the ground and there was no more Margriete and no more light in the world, and God was a liar -)
He didn’t think he had the stomach for the sea, not to float on it and certainly not to drown in it. No, if Hollie was going to court extinction – and he wasn’t still sure that he wasn’t – he’d take it at the point of a blade like a soldier, thank you. Up through De Walletje – no, thank you, ladies, he wasn’t interested, and they’d have to be hard up to look at him in his current state – and on past the fish market. Without looking, he knew he’d reached the fish market, and once he’d finished puking into the Amstel he felt better. It put the whores off, at least, though. Onto Kalverstraat. Was it the spring market so soon? It had no right to be spring – the world had no right to keep on turning without Griete in it . It should stay frozen winter forever. He could hear the beasts – squealing and trampling in their pens in the marketplace, poor bastards –
– and that was no cow.
They were bidding on a thin, shaggy black colt, all legs and hair. Frightened out of its life, and wearing a heavy bridle with a cruel curb that tore blood and foam from the corners of its mouth – for God’s sake, you stupid butterboxes, the beast’s barely old enough to be broke, and you have him bridled with that? – lashing out with lethal forefeet at anyone stupid enough to come within range. There was a collective groan from the greedy, angry knot of fleshmongers gathered around the wild colt, and a sudden outburst of shouting – another scatter of shod hoofbeats on cobbles and a squeal of pain and distress –
One of the butchers was down, his thigh broken, apparently, by a well-aimed kick from the colt.
All those avid red faces, waving, stabbing fingers, making Hollie feel queasy. The black colt was scared nearly witless, panicked to madness by the crowd. “Bread and fucking circuses,” he said, aloud, in English, and was rewarded by a blank look from the nearest man. Switched to his slow, clumsy Dutch. “What is this? What happens here?”
“The horse is for meat, mijnheer. Unless -?”
The man shrugged. “The beast is useless for anything else. Incurably vicious, as you see. It has killed a man already, they say –“
And he probably bloody well deserved it, if he’d been beating the horse anything like the pig-nosed butcher currently taking a whip to its flanks. Blood and froth dripping from that cruel bit. Under the tossed, tangled black mane, the white roll of a dark eye. Not mad, not vicious. Just scared beyond reason, and hurting, and laying about him the best way he could to make it stop.
Between the two of them, maybe, they could make an understanding. Or they could kill each other in the trying, which was likewise a consummation devoutly to be wished.
“Mine, sirs.” He pitched his voice to carry. “What d’you want for the beast?”
Someone snatched at his arm. Nat. Who else would it be? As if Nat Rackhay would think him capable of managing his own affairs without being tailed by his nursemaid. “Red, will you just listen to yourself – pull yourself together, man – you can’t afford to keep a horse in town, and you certainly don’t want that one.”
Hollie smiled, that sweet blank smile that he reserved for the times when he heard what had been said to him and he was being polite but it had gone in one ear and out the other without the words having touched the sides.
“I might as well be speaking bloody Welsh, mightn’t I?” Nat said irritably.
“Surely.” He reached into his doublet, weighed his purse ostentatiously. That had been what she’d wanted, wasn’t it? She’d left him a sufficiency of gold to kit himself out according to his commission. She’d been bloody proud of his commission. (And hadn’t the neighbours been outraged by that, that boy of eighteen with his forty year-old wife. Overlooking that that boy of eighteen had been a captain of horse by twenty, and not a penniless, beardless youth any more.) His shoulders jerked though he wasn’t sure if he must laugh or cry.
The colt screamed again in fear, shrilly, going straight up on its hind legs, and the crowd scattered again.
Hollie put his shoulder to the nearest well-upholstered back and gave the man a shove. Who turned round, found himself almost nose to nose with a dangerous-looking ruffian with a well-used backsword hanging at his side, and did some shoving of his own – backwards. That much closer to the black colt, and Hollie bit his tongue because there was no use swearing at this lot in English and that was the language he cursed in most fluently. Close enough to see where the tender skin at the corners of the colt’s mouth was torn and bleeding – ripped to pieces by that vicious bridle some time previous, by the white scars on the black velvet muzzle – more white scars on chest and flanks and legs, where the horse had been most cruelly whipped. No wonder the beast was ungovernable. Hollie had been, too.
He drew his sword. Just behind him, he heard Nat groan. “The bridle,” he said, and he hated that his voice was shaking but he was just about furious enough to gut the butcher on the end of that rein. “Take it off, if you please.”
“Mijnheer, this is a dangerous beast, not loose in the street, if you please –“
“Then get me a – “ he had to stop, because he was so bloody mad he couldn’t even remember the word – “rope.” Oh, what the hell. “Five gold pieces, sir, for the horse. I’ll not want the harness.” He’d done this before. In another life, up on the moors in Lancashire, with the little black Fell ponies that were half this size and a hundred times more biddable, looping the length of rope into a makeshift halter, singing half-under his breath and God knows Hollie Babbitt’s singing would have frightened most people out of their wits but the colt was exhausted, shaking with it, and Hollie considered himself lucky to have only been bitten by the end of it.
And yes, he was aware that he’d spoiled their nasty little afternoon’s sport, but they could go and find a bear to bait or something. There were mutterings at the back of the crowd and no doubt with his Judas hair they’d be calling him a witch just on the edge of his hearing, making the signs against the Evil Eye, though there was no witchcraft in it. Common sense, and a spark of what decency he had left, maybe. Someone moved, suddenly, in the crowd, and Hollie turned just in time as the colt reared again, squealing in panic. If he hadn’t moved the horse’s shod hoof would have clipped his temple and he’d be dead on the cobbles with his head caved in. Instead the black colt had only – only! – slashed his shoulder, and it hurt like fire and he was buggered if he was going to let on. Sick with the pain of it, and thank God for his pause by the fish market because he had nothing in his belly to be sick with and he could just stand there grim and dizzy hanging onto the colt’s head until it passed.
“That bloody horse will end up killing you,” Nat said, quite calmly, and Hollie glanced at him. And then away, back to the shuddering black flanks where the sweat was drying rank and sticky-streaked.
“But you say that like I should care, owd lad?”
The cruel bridle hit the cobbles with a wet clink. Both Hollie and the colt looked at it with mutual disfavour. Somewhere under this mass of hair there was a good Friesland horse – an entire one, if his glimpse when the colt had reared was anything to go by – not such a bad bargain after all, Griete, if I can bring him round. No malice. No viciousness. Just fear, and pain, and misery. How soon one should know another.
“And how do you plan to stable the beast?”
“Oh, shog off, Nathaniel, and don’t be so bloody reasonable. I’ll find something.”
He knew he couldn’t keep the horse within the city. He hadn’t lived in Amsterdam for seven years without noticing the deficiency of accommodation for the common run of horse. Fine. He’d move. He’d go out of the city – it wouldn’t kill him – find himself lodgings in one of the farms outside – he wasn’t city-bred, he’d be useful to someone, and there was nothing to stay him in the city itself now –
“The animal doesn’t even have a name, Red. What d’you plan – Supper? Sausage?”
The black colt had likely never heard a man laugh before and Hollie thought he was somewhat out of practice himself. It hurt, too. Once he’d got the colt down from bouncing about on its hind legs like some kind of demented stork, he thought the pair of them would have to learn how to do any number of things together, that most civilised men took for granted.
It was like to be bloody hard work. But there. It was something.
It was near dusk when Nat finished his supper in the farmhouse six miles outside the city. Smiled at the goodwife, who carried on looking at him as if he was slightly touched in the head, and went out to the yard carrying a covered plate of bread and good cheese. He wasn’t sure he wasn’t slightly touched in the head, to be doing this.
The black colt was stabled and fed. Better than some of the quarters they’d enjoyed on campaign, he thought ruefully. A thick bed of straw lined the floor.
The colt lifted its head and looked up at Nat, ears flicking.
It hadn’t let them close enough to groom it. It still looked like it had slept in a ditch on campaign, all its ribs showed through its rough coat, and its ears were so suspiciously pricked that the tips of them all but touched. It had not, however, kicked its way through the stall, and Hollie Babbitt was bitten and somewhat bruised but despite all Nat’s suggestions to the contrary stubbornly unkilled.
In the gold evening light, sprawled full length in the straw, the redhead was stretched out sound asleep, his head pillowed on his doublet. There was blood on the shoulder of his shirt, bis breathing was easy, and he was relaxed, still. (He had not touched a drink in six hours. A coiled something in Nat’s belly that might have called itself fear, if that wasn’t too womanish a sentiment, uncurled itself.) The horse snuffed his new master’s hair warily and then turned away, apparently satisfied.
Nat wasn’t aware he’d been holding his breath, but he let it out in a great sigh anyway.
They’d be fine. The pair of them. They’d both be just fine. Give them time to heal, and enough work to keep the Devil from idle hands and hooves, and they’d come out the other side.
Pair of crazy bastards both. They deserved each other.