After a moment, he took away his hand and rolled onto his hands and knees, where he paused for an instant, steadying himself, before being able to stand.
“Good,” he said to Percy, having got up at last. He sneezed and cleared his throat. “That was good.”
“Was it?” Percy said faintly.
Both Grey’s eyes were streaming and the injured one wouldn’t stay open, but he could see well enough to summon the men back and begin to take stock. The French had fled, leaving six dead. The wounded, including the corporal, had either crawled into the brush or been dragged off by their companions; he was not disposed to spend time searching for them. He had Brett make a quick tally; no one injured, bar a slight wound in the thigh to Private Johnston, who was limping cheerfully round going through the pockets of the dead French.
Grey gave brisk orders for retirement—there was no telling how far the foraging party had been from their main company, nor how quickly they might return with reinforcements—and they collected the weapons and left, heading back to camp.
It was nearly dark when Grey returned at last to his tent, having sent out a scouting party, received reports from the regimental captains, waited for the scouting party’s report, conferred with Ewart Symington, sent Ensign Brett with stiff remarks to the quartermaster regarding a cask of what purported to be salt beef, but which in fact appeared to be the remains of an extremely elderly horse, made his own report to Hal, and written orders for the next day, all with a wad of damp guncotton pressed over his wounded eye. His head throbbed, his hand hurt, and he was famished, but he felt happy nonetheless.
The same sense of anticipation and excitement that rose within his breast flowed through the camp around him; you could hear it in the scraping of whetstones, the clank of kettles and the singing. Soldiers nearly always sang in camp, save when completely exhausted or dispirited, but what they sang varied, and was a good indication of their feelings. Sentimental ballads and mangled bits of music hall were standard camp fare. Marching songs, not surprisingly, when marching.
But when anticipating battle, the songs tended to the comic and the bawdy, and the snatches he heard as he walked through the camp would have made a sailor blush. The news had spread. The French were close, and the troops smelt blood. He whistled under his breath as he walked.
He found Tom Byrd and Percy in his tent, conversing amiably. Both of them sprang up at once when they saw him and there was a certain amount of fuss made over the state of his eye, by Percy, and the state of his uniform, by Tom—who, once having satisfied himself that the eye had not actually been gouged out, seemed more concerned with a large tear in the skirt of the coat he had just shed.
“Look!” Tom thrust three fingers through the rent, and waggled them, looking accusingly at Grey. “Gone right through the lining. What’s done that, me lord—a sword?”
“I don’t recall—oh, yes, I do. It was a bayonet.”
Tom inhaled, as though about to say something, but subsided, muttering, and set the coat aside.
“Sit yourself down, me lord,” he said, resigned. “I’ll fetch a bowl of barley water for your eye.”
Grey sank onto a camp stool, surprisingly glad to sit down. Appetizing smells of stew and hot bread drifted through the tent, and his stomach growled; he hadn’t eaten since dawn. He hoped Tom would bring supper; the eye could wait a little longer.
“Your men—” he began, only to be stopped by Percy’s snort.
“Fed, watered, brushed, curried, and stabled with ribbons braided into their little tails, or rather, getting drunk round the fires—I ordered them an extra ration of beer, was that right?—or slinking off into the bushes with the local whores, but they have been fed. Did you think I’d forget them?”
There might have been an edge to this, but it was said lightly, and Grey smiled, tilting his head to look at Percy with his good eye.
“I am quite sure you would overlook no detail of their welfare. I was going to say that they did very well today. They’re a credit to you.”
Percy flushed up at this, but only said, “Oh. Well, they’re a good lot,” in an offhanded way. He cleared his throat; he was still hoarse. “None of them much hurt, at least.”
“No. And you?”
Percy glanced quickly at him, then away.
“I can’t stop shaking,” he said, low-voiced. “Does it show?”
“No,” Grey said, choosing not to add that given his own present state of vision, he likely wouldn’t have noticed had Percy been quaking like egg-pudding in a high wind. He reached out a hand, though, and put it on Percy’s arm, which seemed solid enough. “No,” he repeated, more strongly. “You aren’t. Not to look at.”
“Oh,” Percy said, and took a deep breath. “It’s just inside, then. Good. What did Melton say?”
Most of Hal’s remarks wouldn’t bear repeating, but Hal could convey his own opinions to Percy in the morning, by which time Hal would be considerably calmer, and Percy might have stopped shaking.
“Not a lot,” Grey said. “Just flesh wounds. Don’t worry about it.”
They talked of nothing in particular then, taking no great interest in the conversation, only glad to be in each other’s company. This went on until Tom came back, carrying a flask of brandywine and a bowl of some cloudy liquid, which he claimed was warm barley water with salt, sovereign for sore eyes.
He handed this to Percy, and disappeared again in search of supper.
Grey leaned over the bowl and sniffed it.
“Am I to drink it, do you think? Or pour it over my head?”
“I don’t mind what you do with it, but I strongly suggest you don’t pour the brandy into your eye. It would sting, I expect. Besides, I need it.” Percy poured a generous portion of the latter liquid into a cup and pushed it across the table. He didn’t bother finding another cup for himself, but drank directly from the flask, thus giving Grey an idea of just how much he likely was shaking internally.
Grey sipped his own. It wasn’t good, but it burned pleasantly, and numbed the annoying pain in his eye a little. Still, he should do something with the barley water; Tom would be offended if he didn’t. He groped for the handkerchief in his sleeve, inspected it critically, and decided it would do.
“You meant it, didn’t you?” Percy said quietly, putting down the flask.
“When you said you were a beast.” Percy was looking at him with an expression that seemed somewhere between awe and mild revulsion. Grey didn’t care for either.
“So are all soldiers,” he said shortly. “All men, for that matter. Get used to it.”
Percy made a small huffing sound, which might have been amusement.
“You needn’t tell me that, my dear,” he said dryly. He stood, took the cloth from Grey’s hand, and dipped it in the bowl. “Put your head back.”
His hand on Grey’s neck was warm, his touch delicate.
“Can you open your eye?”
Grey tried, and managed a slit. Percy’s face swam in a haze of tears, dark and intent.
“Not so bad,” he murmured. “Here, relax.” Percy’s fingers spread the lids of his injured eye, and squeezed the liquid from the cloth into it. Grey stiffened a little in reflex, but found that it didn’t hurt much, and did relax a little.
“All I meant is that you are a great deal more honest about it than most.”
“I doubt it is any virtue.” A thought came to him, belatedly. “Are you wondering whether you are sufficiently a beast, yourself? That you acquitted yourself well, I mean? You did. I should have said so.”
“Yes. You don’t remember?”
“No,” Grey said, honestly. “I was rather busy.”
Percy chuckled, low in his throat, and dipped the cloth again.
“I am sufficiently honest as to acknowledge my own inexperience, at least. You were right, about having no idea what you’ll do in battle. Had you not shouted at me to shoot that fellow, I should simply have stood there gaping, until you got up and did it yourself.”
Grey opened his mouth to remonstrate, but Percy bent and kissed him quickly on the lips, his breath warm on Grey’s water-chilled cheek.
“I don’t seek reassurance, my dear, no need.” He stood upright and the cloth came over Grey’s eyes again, with its soothing flood. “I did not disgrace myself utterly, and perhaps will do better later. I meant only to say that I understand now what you told me. And that at the end of it”—the cloth drew away, and Grey blinked—“the only thing important is that we are still both alive.
“That,” he added, his tone offhand as he turned to dip the cloth again, “and that I am proud of you.”
Alarmed and stirred by the kiss, deeply embarrassed at the praise—and not a little shocked that Percy did not instinctively perceive the essential truth of the matter—Grey began to say the obvious: it was his duty. But Tom Byrd came in with the supper then, and in the end, he contented himself with no more than a feeble “Thank you.”
In early May, the Duc de Richelieu returned to France, replaced by the Comte de Clermont. The Comte de Clermont, reluctant to engage his troops in spite of their numerical superiority, continued to play at tag through the Rhine Valley. Brunswick, who understood these tactics well enough, continued patiently to answer them, flanking Clermont’s sides, blocking an advance here, prodding there—little by little driving Clermont’s army back toward the French border.
By late May, it was clear that the French had nowhere left to skip away to; within weeks, perhaps days, they must either turn and fight, or retreat into France with Brunswick baying at their heels. Clearly Clermont would fight.
That being so, Duke Ferdinand wisely chose to take time now to ready his troops and burnish his cannon, wishing to meet the attack, when it came, in a state of maximum readiness.
To this end, Grey spent much of his time in riding to and fro, inspecting companies, taking the reports of company commanders, arguing with quartermasters, giving orders for resupply, refitment where needed, the obtaining of more wagon mules (these in great demand, and thus both scarce and expensive), and the ten thousand other details that fell to a major’s daily lot.
The only good thing about this process, Grey reflected, heading back toward the small village where he was presently quartered, was that he had no more than the ninety seconds between the time his head hit the pillow and his falling asleep, in which to experience sexual frustration. The ninety seconds were required in which to administer such palliative action as was possible; otherwise, he would be asleep in three.
He uncorked his canteen and drank deeply; it was a warm day in late spring, and the water seemed to taste not only of the tin and beechwood canteen, but of rising sap, half sweet and pungent. The Drachenfels loomed before him—the “Dragon’s Rock,” that stony peak on the shore of the Rhine, where Siegfried was said to have slain his dragon—romantically wreathed in river haze, its foot a-welter in greening vineyards.