Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 44)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(44)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

“Do you—do we—use these often?” Percy nudged the toe of his boot at the horse, a wooden thing like a child’s rocking-horse—save that the back was not flat, but rose to a ridge.

“It depends.” Grey watched him, saw the disturbance in him, his usual grace lost as he moved about, restless, unable to settle. He felt the echo of it in his own flesh, and coughed, trying to dispel it. “Some officers use punishment a great deal; others not so much. And sometimes there’s no help for it.”

Percy nodded, but without looking at him. He stood for a few moments, looking at the shelves that ran along one wall, where various bits of equipment were stored. There were two baize bags there, where the cats were kept.

“Did you ever wonder what it’s like?” he asked suddenly. “To be flogged?”

Grey felt a clenching in his innards, but answered honestly.

“Yes. Now and then.” Once, at least.

Percy had been kneading one of the red baize bags, like a cat sharpening its claws. Now he let it fall to the floor, and took up the cat-o’nine-tails itself, a short handle with a cluster of leather cords.

“Do you want to find out?” he said, very softly.

“What?” An extraordinary feeling ran through Grey, half-fear, half-excitement.

“Take off your coat,” Percy said, still softly.

In a state of something like shock, Grey found his hand go to the buttons of his waistcoat. He felt as though sleepwalking, not believing any of it—that Percy had suggested it, that he was doing it. Then his shirt was off, and gooseflesh rose on his back and shoulders.

“Turn around,” Percy said, and he did, facing the horse.

The cords struck across his shoulders like the sting of a jellyfish, sharp and sudden. His hands closed tight on the horse’s back.

“Again,” he said, half breathless.

He heard Percy shift his weight, felt his interest shift as well, from the sense of nervous excitement to something more.

“Sure?” said Percy softly.

He bent a little forward and spread his arms, taking a fresh grip, exposing the full reach of his bare back. The stroke caught him just below the shoulderblades, with a force that drove the breath out of him and stung to the tips of his fingers.

“More?” The word was whispered. He could feel Percy’s breath, warm on the back of his neck, feel him close, the touch of a hand light on the nak*d skin of his waist.

God, don’t touch me! he thought, and felt his stomach clench as his gorge rose. But what he said, hoarse and low was, “Again. Don’t stop.”

Three more blows, and Percy stopped. Grey turned round to see him gripping the cat in both hands, face white.

“I’ve cut you. I’m sorry.”

He could feel the weal, a vivid line that ran from his right shoulderblade, angled down across the center of his back. It felt as though someone had pressed a hot wire into his skin.

“Don’t be,” he said. “I asked.”

“Yes, but—” Percy had seized his shirt, draped it across his bare shoulders. “I shouldn’t have started it. It—I didn’t mean—I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Grey said again. “You wanted to know. So did I.”

He dreamed of it, the night before they left.

Felt himself bound, and the dread of shame. Pain, disfigurement—but most of all, shame. That a gentleman should find himself in such case, exposed.

The men were drawn up in their square, eyes front. But he realized slowly that they were not looking at him. Somehow he became separate, and felt profound relief that after all it was not him.

And yet he felt the blows, grunting with each one, like a beast.

Saw the man taken down at the end, dragged away by two men who held his arms across their shoulders, his own feet stumbling as though he were drunk. Saw a stark-boned face gone slack with exhaustion, eyes closed and the water running, dripping, face shimmering with it, his hair nearly black, so saturated as it was with sweat and rain.

Spreading ointment across the torn and furrowed skin, his fingers thick with it so as to touch as lightly as possible. Fierce heat radiated from the man’s back, though the skin of his arms was cool, damp with drying sweat. Picked up a linen towel to blot the sweat from the man’s neck, untied the thong that bound his soaked hair and began to rub it dry.

He felt the hum of some tune in throat and chest, and felt great happiness as he worked. The man said nothing; he did not expect it. He smoothed the long thick strands of half-dry hair between his fingers, and wiped the curve of ears that reminded him of a small boy’s, heartbreaking in their tenderness.

Then he realized that he was straddling the man, and that they were both nak*d. The man’s buttocks rose beneath him, smooth and round and powerful, perfect by contrast with the bloody back. And warm. Very warm.

Woke with a dreadful feeling of shame, heavy in his belly. The sound of dripping water in his ears.

The dripping of rain. The drip of sweat, of blood and seed. Not tears. The man had never wept, even in extremity.

Yet his pillow was wet. The tears were his.

Through the rest of the day, as he rode at the head of the marching column, as they passed through the streets of London, and down to the Pool where they would embark, he would now and then brush his fingers lightly beneath his nose, expecting each time to catch a whiff of the medicated salve.

Chapter 23

The Rhineland

Tom Byrd was in his element. He circled Grey like a vulture round a prime bit of carrion, visibly gloating.

“Very nice, me lord,” he said with approval, reaching out to tweak a small fold out of the buff lapel of Grey’s best dress uniform, straighten the edge of a six-inch cuff, or rearrange the fall of an epaulet cord. “Don’t you think he looks well, sir?” He appealed to Percy, who was lounging against the wall, watching Grey’s apotheosis.

“I am blinded by his glory,” Percy assured Tom gravely. “He’ll be a credit to you, I’m sure.”

“No, he won’t,” Tom said, standing back with a sigh. “He’ll have gravy spilt down his ruffles before the evening’s out. That, or he’ll take a bet from someone and jump that big white bastard of a horse over a wall with his arms crossed, and fall off into a bog. Again. Or—”

“I did not fall off,” Grey said, affronted. “The horse slipped when we landed, and rolled on me.”

“Well, it did your clothes no good at all, me lord,” Tom said severely. He leaned closer, breathed heavily on a silver button, and polished it obsessively with his sleeve.

Grey was indeed splendid, got up regardless, with his hair tightly plaited, folded round a lamb’s-wool pad, bound in a club, and powdered. Boots, buttons, and sword hilt gleaming, and his officer’s gorget polished to a brilliant shine, he was the very model of a British soldier. It was largely wasted effort; no one would look twice at an English officer in a room full of Prussians and Hanoverians, whose officers, even when not royalty or nobility, tended to a great deal of gold lace, embroidery, and plumes. He stood stiffly, hardly daring to breathe, as Tom prowled round him, looking for something else to poke at.

“Oh, I want to go to the ball, too!” Percy said, mocking.

“No, you don’t,” Grey assured him. “It will be speeches half the night, of the most pompous sort, and an endless procession of roast peacocks with their feathers on, gilded trout, and similar glorious inedibles.”

He would, in fact, much prefer a supper of eggs and beans in his tent with Tom and Percy. Normally, a mere major would not be invited to the dinner which celebrated the joining together of the new allied Hanoverian army under His Grace, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick.

Hal must go, of course, not only as an earl in his own right—though English earls were small beer by comparison to the margraves, landgraves, electors, and princes who would be in attendance—but as colonel of his own regiment. Grey was invited because he was Melton’s brother, but also because he was acting as lieutenant-colonel of the regiment, in the absence of the officer who normally fulfilled that office, who had succumbed to food poisoning halfway across the Channel. It would not do for Hal to appear in such august company completely unattended. Ewart Symington had pleaded indisposition—Symington did not speak German and hated social occasions—and so Grey and his best uniform were being pressed into service.

“Are you ready?” Hal poked his own powdered head in, inquiring.

“As I’ll ever be,” Grey said, straightening himself. “Tom, you won’t forget about the bottles?”

“Oh, no, me lord,” Tom assured him. “You can count on me.”

“Well, then.” He crooked an arm toward his brother, and bowed. “Shall we dance?”

“Ass,” said Hal, but tolerantly.

The feast, held in the ancient guildhall, was exactly as Grey had predicted: long, eye-glazingly boring, and featuring course after course of roast pork, boiled beef, gravied mutton, roasted pheasants, sliced ham, braised quail, grilled fish, eggs in aspic and in pies, shellfish in soup, in pastry, and on the half shell, plus sundry savories, syllabubs, and sweets, all served on a weight of silver plate sufficient to purchase a small country and washed down with gallons of wine, drunk in a succession of endless toasts in honor of everyone from Frederick, King of Prussia, King George of England, and Duke Ferdinand down to—Grey was sure—the kitchen cat, though by the time this point in the proceedings was reached, no one was paying sufficient attention as to be sure.

The German officers were indeed splendid. Grey particularly noticed a tall, blond young Hanoverian, whose uniform was that of his friend von Namtzen’s regiment—though von Namtzen himself was nowhere in sight. Contriving to have speech of the young lieutenant before dinner—and wondering to himself how the man came to be at such an affair—he learned that the young man’s name was Weber, and that he was there as attendant to a senior officer of von Namtzen’s Imperial Hanoverian Foot, owing to an outbreak of some plague amongst the regiment that had temporarily rendered most of the other senior officers hors de combat.

“Is Captain von Namtzen also afflicted?” Grey asked, covertly admiring the man’s face, which, with its deep-set blue eyes and sensual mouth, looked like that of an angel thinking lewd thoughts.

Weber shook his head, a small frown marring the perfection of his features.

“Alas, no.”

“Alas?” Grey echoed, surprised.

“The captain suffered an accident, late in the autumn,” Weber explained. “No more than a scratch, while hunting—but it festered, you know, and his Blut was poisoned, so the doctors had to take it off.”

“Take what off?”

“Oh, Entschuldigung, I am not clear.” Weber bowed in apology, and Grey caught a whiff of his cologne, something spiced and warm. “It was his arm he has lost. His left arm,” he added, in the interests of strict accuracy.

Grey swallowed, shocked.

“I am so sorry to hear this,” he said. “The captain—he is recovering?”

“Oh, ja,” Weber assured him, turning his head a little as the gong began to sound as signal for the men to take their seats. “He is at his lodge. He will perhaps be well enough to join the campaign in another month. We hope so.” His eyes lingered on Grey’s in friendly fashion. “We meet again soon, perhaps?”