Monday, December 15, 2008
Duking Days Rebellion
Excerpt 1 - Chapter Nine
"Not much of a patrol,” Helena sniffed, intending to reassure Harry, who looked terrified, but her own hands felt clammy.
“Don’t be deceived, one musket can kill as well as six,” Bayle spoke out of the corner of his mouth, giving a low warning to the men behind.
The soldiers looked hot and tired, their coats flung open and hats tilted back. Their horses were tethered to a tree at the side of the road, tails lazily flicking away flies, heads down as if they had been there for a while.
One of them held up a hand and with a sharp swiping motion, signaled them into a verge. Bayle obeyed.
Helena shivered. These two were professional soldiers. Their long-coats were faded across the shoulders, now reddish-brown from marching long distances in all weathers. Patched in places, the turned back cuffs were no longer crisp. The younger one had a front tooth missing, while the other sported a cropped ear and two hacked-off fingers.
“Where are ye bound?” the officer demanded in a rough voice, indicating for Bayle to climb down.
Helena sat quite still as Bayle complied, proffering the churchwarden’s letter. The soldier gave the parchment a contemptuous look and ignored it, which told Helena he could not read. This did not bode well.
The second soldier stared at her, a leering grin on his face, his musket held across his body at waist level. She could not take her eyes from it, although when the man ducked his head to attract Harry’s attention, the boy glared at the ground as if frozen. The soldier sniffed and moved away, but Harry fidgeted, stilling only when Helena placed a comforting hand on his arm. The cart creaked and a bird called in a nearby tree, the tension growing as they waited. Helena glanced over her shoulder to watch the officer circle the contraption, flicking a contemptuous hand at the arranged flowers.
Without warning, he flipped up the edge of the makeshift pall, coming face to face with Simon, whose head lay inches from his hand. Helena gave a moan and for long seconds, the Rebel and the officer stared at each other as if immobile with shock.
The Rebel moved first. He lunged out of the cart, grabbing the officer round the neck with both hands. They tumbled onto the road as one, with Simon’s full weight on top of the soldier. Neither man had a chance to call out.
In the split second it took for his companion to register what was happening, Bayle closed the space between them. The second soldier lifted his musket, but at the same second, Bayle pulled his arm back and punched him squarely in the face. He hit the ground with a dull thump, and stayed there.
Helena’s shocked cry was smothered as the ponies crabbed sideways, threatening to trample Simon and the man beneath him. She hauled on the reins to keep them still and Harry scrambled down, almost colliding with a moving wheel. The soldier beneath Simon pulled a knife from somewhere, but as Simon’s fist connected with the man’s face, Harry sprang forward to wrestle it from his hand.
Joel hauled himself out of the cart and grabbed the musket the other soldier had dropped. Harry leapt out of the way and Joel stepped over the unconscious man, checked to see the weapon was loaded and shouted. “Roll, Simon!”
Simon reacted immediately, flinging himself to one side as Joel fired into the exposed soldier’s chest.
The sound of the shot echoed across the fields, sending up a flock of crows in a nearby tree, dying away quickly into the afternoon quiet. A crimson bloom spread over the front of the officer’s shirt and with a final grunt he relaxed into the earth, dead eyes staring at the sky. The ponies whinnied once, stamped, and then fell silent.
The other soldier stirred, groaning. In two strides, Joel raised the musket and brought the wooden butt down on the man’s temple with a sickening crack.
Helena thrust her fist into her mouth to muffle a scream, transfixed by the unnatural dent in the man’s skull. She looked down at her skirt, where spots of blood stood out for a few seconds before soaking into the fabric.
The horses whinnied in fear, pulling against the reins so that all Helena’s strength turned to keep them standing. When she could bring herself to look, Bayle and Simon were dragging the shot soldier toward a deep ditch running along the side of the road.
“Harry,” Simon shouted. “Go and collect ferns and branches, as many as you can.”
Wide-eyed, Harry stumbled away, hampered by his skirt.
The three men had turned their attention to the body of the officer. “There should have been six of them,” Simon grunted with the effort. Bayle looked up, his gaze sweeping the horizon. Helena looked too, but nothing stirred; the only sound was that of insects in the long grass. They rolled the limp bodies into the ditch, flattening the long grass on the incline.
Joel collected the other musket and threw both guns in after them. Harry returned, his arms full of branches and wide leaves they all set to spreading over the bodies and the disturbed vegetation, hiding them as best they could.
“How long before they find them, do you think?” Simon asked no one in particular.
“The others, if there are others, could be back at any time.” Joel jerked his head toward the road ahead. “They are always in packs, like dogs.” He brought a contemptuous foot down on the brittle twigs, their sharp crack making Helena jump.
Harry tore off the skirt and bonnet and hurled them into the cart. “What about their horses?” He nodded toward the docile animals grazing a few feet away.
“Get rid of anything which marks them out as soldiers’ mounts,” Bayle told him. “You and Joel will have to ride them. We cannot leave them here.”
Joel examined the docile horses. “Two knapsacks and a blanket with a military crest.” He held them up for inspection. “Their saddles are ordinary.”
The men gathered up their meager belongings from the grass. For want of something to do, Helena climbed down and scraped a mound of soil in her hands from the side of the ditch, sprinkling it over the patch of bright blood in the road. Somehow she felt better having done it.
Clambering back onto her seat, she fixed her gaze on Bayle’s face, willing him to get them away from there. Joel held both horses reins in one hand, their heads straining forward. As he passed the cart, his eyes narrowed and he hooked a thumb backwards. “He’s beginning to smell.”
Bayle scowled at him, but Helena pretended she hadn’t heard, tucking her skirt around her legs, avoiding the damp blood. The horror of the past few minutes had rendered Joel’s comment as little more than a distant idea.
With the men mounted, Bayle flicked the reins and turned toward her, his voice filled with sympathy. “Let’s get Master Edmund home and give him a proper burial.” She was trembling too much to answer, biting her bottom lip to stop it quivering
They maintained a fast pace for the next mile or so, while Helena kept a careful eye on the horizon, alert for the sound of pounding hooves. She held fast to the seat as they bumped over the uneven road, the vibrations running through her as Bayle urged the horses to go faster.
At the Appledore turnoff, Bayle hauled the cart into the verge. “Get everything tidied away,” he ordered. “If there’s another patrol, this would arouse suspicion.”
Helena looked back and understood. The cart no longer resembled a funeral wagon. The cross and the flowers had been ripped away in the brief conflict, leaving the black cloth draped untidily over the body; her skirt and cap jumbled in a heap in one corner.
Her legs shook as she climbed down onto the road and made for the rear of the cart, the image of the dead soldier’s battered skull imprinted in her head. She gathered up her discarded clothing and paused, transfixed by the sight of the body in its linen wrappings. It had shifted slightly and lay to one side; its head, torso and legs clearly defined, like a large doll with no face.
Her practical self told her it was Edmund, but she could not reconcile the slight, lifeless shape with the moving, breathing man she loved. Her throat closed and tears spilled down her face, leaving her breathless and shaking. It was really him.
With a muttered curse, Bayle stepped forward and flipped the cover back into place, painstakingly securing the sides.
Harry appeared at her shoulder. “Was he a close relative?”
“He is…was my uncle.” She faltered on the words that consigned Edmund to the past.
“He didn’t have the smallpox, did he?”
“No.” She knuckled tears away with both hands.
“I got this at Weston.” Harry indicated his bandaged arm. “We scattered after the first charge and found ourselves on the wrong side of the ditch.” He shrugged apologetically. “We could see our men, but couldn’t reach them, and by the time we found our way round, well. . .” He sighed as if embarrassed. “Then Joel got knocked out, and Simon and I carried him off the field.”
Helena stayed silent, her gaze fixed on the body. Harry was no longer a shy boy, she had seen the look on his face when he grabbed the fallen soldier’s knife. She was convinced he would have used it, had Joel not shot the man.
“What was his name?” Harry asked.
“Edmund Woulfe.” She examined their faces for a reaction. There was none. Disappointed, she jammed the clothing back into her bag.
“We part company here, masters,” Bayle called, startling her. Her nerves were so on edge. “I am worried about the rest of that patrol arriving.”
Joel gathered what meager belongings they had and led the horses closer.
As Simon bowed over Helena’s hand in farewell, unexpected warmth crept up her neck. He was a gentleman.
They re-mounted the trooper’s horses, and with Harry perched behind Joel, set off toward Tiverton.
They were still in sight when Helena turned to clutch the manservant’s arm. “Bayle.” Her tremor turned into heavy shaking as she fought hysteria. “We killed two men.”
“We didn’t kill anyone.” He snatched the rein and flicked it hard against the nearest pony’s flank. “Those men would have been hanged, and us with them.” He glared at her steadily. “Forget them, and tell no one what happened today, ever.”