Behold, A Black Horse

 

612_friesianEhistory

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First, though, meet Tyburn, in a previously unpublished short story.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…

Amsterdam, 1633

“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 -?”

Me?”

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.

“Red?”

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.

The Road North – a ghost story

It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man. 

But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….

It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.

They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –

“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”

– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous

Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”

“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”

“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”

“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”

” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”

” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”

” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”

“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”

“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.

Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.

Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”

“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”

“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”

They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”

“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”

” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.

And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.

It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.

It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )

“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”

“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.

I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”

” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”

The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.

“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”

It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.

“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.

There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.

“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”

“Hwhat?”

” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”

Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”

– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”

“Then hwhat-?”

” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”

“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”

“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”

Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.

” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”

“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”

“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”

“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”

The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”

“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.

“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”

“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”

All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”

” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”

” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”

Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”

Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”

“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.

“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”

They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “

Putting Your Trust In Princes

“No,” Russell says, very firmly. “I will not countenance it.”
Hollie sniffs. “Oh, straighten your face. Call it a starburst, if you like, instead of an arsehole.”
The marred lieutenant closes his eyes and looks pained. “I will not countenance it. I am not – it is not funny!”
“Why do you care? Do you carry ’em?” Hollie wants to know, and then says nothing, very smugly.

Luce is trying not to laugh, not very successfully.
See, it’s a bit like this. They had colours, previous. Quite inconspicuous colours, they were, a rather discreet shade of madder-red quartered with a white cross on a black background: several previous careful owners. It was possibly His Majesty’s musketeers at Marston Moor that finished them altogether – that, or the red mare’s habit of pivoting in circles on her own axis, at a point when the said colours were underneath her. (So, to be fair, was Lucey. Not one of his better days.) Or, possibly, the dog’s tendency to sleep on them. Whichever. By the end of the Yorkshire campaign, Hollie’s colours were in rags.
And then Hollie decided –
“I did not decide!” he says indignantly, “Henrietta decided I should have summat a bit more befitting!”

So Het decided to make something that was more befitting to her husband’s status as a respectable senior officer.

“That wench wants her sight tested, she thinks you’re respectable,” Captain Venning – whose own troop colours are an unremarkable blue and bear neither the form of a fish nor a pie, to Hollie’s disgust – mutters darkly.

They began life as Het’s best company silk skirt, a garment she has possessed since her girlish youth. Hollie is prepared to be indignant about the sacrifice of the said garment, until Luce points out that anything that fitted her in her girlish youth is unlikely to be a comfortable fit after two years of marriage, a daughter, and provisioning the bottomless likes of one Colonel H. T. Babbitt.
“Are you suggesting that my wife has increased?” Hollie says, and Luce raises his eyebrows.
“She’s my auntie, sir. Ihave known her some time. And, well, you are known to be a good solid trencherman, when the mood is on you. She was ever possessed of a competitive streak.”
“I dunno where he puts it all,” Venning mutters, not quite under his breath, “he never seems to get no fatter.”

It’s a sunburst. It’s a black sunburst, a black sun with spiralling black arms, on that silvery birch-green background.

“You’d have to be some kind o’ special to have an arsehole looked like that!” – Venning’s determined to make the best of it, and Hollie is determined that having found a device that will give alarm and distress to the more proper members of his company he’s sticking to it.
Russell won’t even look at it if he can help it, which is going to make following it into battle awkward. Luce giggles every time he looks at it.

“Lot o’ work she put into that,” Hollie says smugly, and there is a shy tenderness in the way his hand lingers over the silk.

But a motto? That’s going to be difficult.
Baiser mon cul, is Hollie’s suggestion.
Luce favours Classical allusion, if they must -Contritionem praecidit superbia. Arrogance goes before contrition – pride before a fall.

But in the end they go with Russell’s preference, as much as to shut him up as anything else.

Put not your trust in princes.

The Smell of Smoke – a true story….

It wasn’t one of our better days, yesterday.

My son was at a party, and he was messing about with one of his rowdier mates. Fell off the stairs and hurt his foot, and by tea time he was crying with pain, couldn’t put his weight on it.

And then next thing my mum’s on the phone, asking if we have any butterfly plasters because she’s fallen over the vacuum cleaner and split her head open, and she’s bleeding heavily. (Mum’s 75, not always great on her feet. It happens.)

And having sorted out the mess all round, when all was quiet bar the laundry, and little ‘un was in our bed having woken up with nightmares at 2am, I decide this is the absolute perfect time to have a panic attack.

Again – it happens, I’m a lady of a certain age, I do this stuff. But the last thing my sleeping boys – the big one and the little one – need, is me shaking hard enough to rattle the bed under them. So I get up, and go and sit in the bathroom in the dark.

Oh – and the toilet started leaking last night, as well.

But I’m sitting there, very gingerly on my leaky khazi, in the dark,while the house sleeps and settles around me.

And I start to smell smoke. Cigarette smoke.

We don’t smoke. I used to, gave it up ten years ago. Husband is an asthmatic and a very passionate anti-smoker. Little un’s six.

Can’t smell it in our bedroom at the front of the house, so it’s not someone passing on the road outside. Just in the bathroom.

And that means it’s downstairs. Someone is, or has been, smoking cigarettes downstairs.

It’s two nights before Halloween. The night when the dead come back to watch their beloved living.

It’s not the anniversary of his death. It’s nothing so obvious. But I sat in the dark, smelling smoke, and stopped shaking, and went back to bed.

The toilet stopped leaking. Little un’s bruised his foot, but he’s all right. Mum stopped bleeding within a few minutes.

We’re all right, dad. We’re good.  

You can go back, now.