Authors: Suzanne Enoch
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For Monique Patterson, who gave me some very good advice: Sometimes bigger IS better.
Battle. Hot, bloody, dirty battle. Major Gabriel Forrester loved it. Strategy, bluffs, feints, maneuversâfancy words, but it all came down to who hit harder, and who flinched first. And he'd never flinched.
Kicking Union Jack in the ribs, he sent the bay careening down the slope. Like everywhere else he'd been in Spain, the land around Salamanca offered little but shrubbery and dust and crumbling, steep-walled gullies. Except for the area directly in front of him, that was. Wellington and Marmont had found the one pleasant valley for ten miles around in which to slaughter each other.
A cannonball whistled over his head, and Gabriel ducked as sparking gunpowder rained down on his face. The allied forces had set their troops into a vast semicircle around the valley, with the intention of enclosing and crushing the French in the middle. A fine sight it would be, no doubt. He was supposed to be up on the hill himself this morning, watching with Wellington and his commanders. The word he'd said to General Wellington in response to that order would likely get him court-martialed later. It didn't matter; if they meant to take him away from battle because someone had pinned the word “Major” in front of his name, they might as well lock him up or shoot him, anyway.
“Humphreys!” he bellowed, calling for his second in command as he neared the position where the Sixty-eighth Foot was supposed to have been holding. They'd charged too early, damn it all, a ragged mob halfway across the valley floor and directly in the path of the French cavalry.
Angling Jack so sharply the horse skidded on its hind legs, he made for his regiment at a dead run. A French bayonet nearly took off an ear, and Gabriel kicked the soldier in the face as he passed. With the chaos around him, he might as well have been a wolf trying to catch the moon's attention by howling, but even so he could feel rhythmic thuds reverberating in his chest, deep and primal and growing louder.
The French cavalry.
With another hard kick he leveled a boot into a second blue-coated chest and veered left, cutting a swath through a tangle of blue and red coats.
Lieutenant James Humphreys had made a bloody poor choice strategically, and it wasn't just about the Sixty-eighth, either. If the allied army's left flank collapsed, the casualties would number in the thousands. Earl Wellington's plans to retake Madrid would fall into the privy, as well. To prevent that, he didn't doubt at all that the earl would risk crushing some of his own soldiers caught in the center.
And now that included him. The observation hill on his left, the one manned by Wellington and his prissy, aristocratic officers, remained the only landmark still visible in the smoke and dust and sea of heaving bodies. The hill where he was supposed to be waiting, watching to see if his own men lived or died.
Something white-hot grazed his left arm. His fingers could still flex, so with a curse he ignored it. Finally Humphreys and his officer's shako came into view, a French fusilier four feet behind him and drawing a bead on the lieutenant's head.
Gabriel drew his saber and slashed. “Humphreys!” he bellowed again. “You've cavalry riding down on you, damn it all!”
“Major?” the lieutenant stammered, stepping backward as the fusilier collapsed at his feet. “Whatâ”
Gabriel stood in his stirrups. “Sixty-eighth! Left face! Form ranks and fix bayonets! Now! The French ponies mean to break our flank!” Regimental ranks would look grand, but at the same time he'd seen enough war to know the foot soldiers would barely slow the horsemen. And he needed to alter that arithmeticâquickly. Skidding out of the saddle, he grabbed hold of an abandoned French light cannon. “Humphreys! Davis!”
A twelve-pounder wouldn't do much damage, but he wouldn't want one pointed at him from ten yards away. Together he and Lieutenant Humphreys pivoted the cannon to face east, hauling it up directly behind his assembling regiment, while Sergeant Davis hopped onto the makeshift cart that carried it and shoved powder and a lead ball down its throat. “This is the only gunpowder cartridge and cannonball, Major,” the sergeant grunted in his Highland Scots accent, hanging on as they set the heavy tail end of the tripod back into the mud again. “It's nae enough.”
No, it wasn't. The Sixty-eighth Foot regiment readied themselves, the front line going down on one knee and the back one standing, bayonets at the ready. They'd get off one round before two hundred heavy horses smashed through them like paper. “Buttons,” he snapped, and began tearing them off his uniform. “Musket balls. Flasks. Whatever you have in your damned pockets.”
Smoke curled away, parting to reveal the French cavalry charging directly at them. Gabriel's mouth curved in a grim smile. He didn't need to stop the charge, but he did need to make the front line falter. It would cost him men, regardless, but at least they would be fighting back instead of slaughtered. And he would be in the middle of it, as he preferred. Drawing his pistol, Gabriel stepped up as Davis leaped to the ground. “Center line, down!” he bellowed.
The men directly in front of him went flat onto their bellies. Holding the pistol against the breech, Gabriel fired. The flash sparked, and he held his breath. Three hard heartbeats later the cannon went off with a thunderous blast. For a second he couldn't hear anything but the concussion thudding about in his skull. All at the same time, his troops surged to their feet and fired in ragged unison, the riders at the front of the cavalry seemed to explode in dirt and blood and sparks as they stumbled and veered away, smashing into their fellows on either side, and the cannon came careening backward.
Gabriel grabbed Humphreys by the collar and threw him sideways a split second before the rolling cannon could crush them both. Then he climbed to his feet, drew his saber again, and charged into the middle of the melee. “Jack!” he yelled, giving a sharp, two-toned whistle.
The bay appeared beside him a moment later, and Gabriel swung into the saddle. Robbed of its fastenings his jacket flapped open, tangling into his arm. He shrugged out of it and threw the red coat at a French horse's head, then sliced into the rider as the man struggled to keep his seat. The rest became a chaos of slashing and shooting and kicking and punching, muscle against muscle, French eyes widening in mute surprise and horror as he cut down one soldier after another. Thisâthis was what he'd been made for. Anyone who thought to force him to go stand on a hill and watch was a madman. And a fool.
His arm began to feel weighted as if by lead, and Union Jack stumbled on the torn-up, bloody ground. Then he heard the French calling
âretreat. A moment later familiar red uniforms with their green collars and cuffs charged into the fray to encourage the Frogs' flight. The Eleventh Foot. Better late than never, he supposed.
“Major Forrester!” A messenger skidded to a halt beside him, saluting with one hand as he held out a missive in the other.
Gabriel lowered his saber. “Next time you ride up on me, you declare yourself first,” he ordered, wiping a blood-smeared hand across his forehead. “Unless you care to have that arm lopped off.”
The messenger paled. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” He lifted the paper again. “It's from Earl Wellington, sir.”
Gabriel nodded, taking the note and for the first time feeling the pull of pain in his left arm, and the cuts and scrapes and bruises he'd acquired over the past hours. “Six o'clock this evening, my command tent,” was all it said, but that was a plentitude. Either he was about to be promoted, or more likely, court-martialed for swearing at and then galloping away from his commanding officer at the beginning of a battle.
Lieutenant Humphreys, pale but for a streak of dirt and blood up the right side of his face, approached as Gabriel pulled Jack up and jumped to the ground. “GabrielÂ â¦ Major Forrester, Iâ”
“It's done, James,” Gabriel grunted. He wanted to punch the young man, pummel some sense into him, and he clenched his fingers against the urge. Fists didn't cure stupidity, and he didn't know that any cure at all had been found for ambition. “Don't you dare apologizeâand bloody well not to me.”
“I know. I couldn't see the signal flags, and I moved too quickly. Theâ”
“You lost men,” Gabriel countered. “You're an officer. You will lose men again. For God's sake, make certain it's for a better reason than you couldn't see, or sell out your damned commission and go home.”
The lieutenant swallowed, drawing in an audible breath through his nose. Gabriel half expected to be reminded that while he outranked James Humphries in the army, if they ever encountered each other on the streets of London
would be the one bowing. Not that he made a habit of bowing to anyone. Bowing was all about who someone's parents happened to be. Saluting could be the same, but at least there was the slim chance that a man's position had been earned rather than purchased.
The insult didn't come, though, and with a curt nod Gabriel turned on his heel and went to assist the stretcher bearers. Bowingâlosing sight of an opponent and exposing the top of one's bared head at the same timeâwas idiotic, anyway. If the custom had been up to him, he would have outlawed it. At least he didn't have to worry about anyone bowing to him. Whether his boots trod the rutted roads of Spain or the cobbled streets of London, he remained simply Major Gabriel Forrester. And thank God for that.
He'd earned every ounce of what he had, and he damned well preferred it that way. No one would ever comment behind their hands that his father or his uncle or brother had purchased him a commission to which he was completely unsuited. Fellow officers had long ago stopped asking who his family was, who he was, because the answer, quite simply, was that he was a soldier.
Or, if he listened to the men hurrying about and sending him salutes and nods as they passed, he was the Beast of Bussaco. Evidently setting fire to French munitions wagons and sending them rolling through the middle of the blue-coats' advance had made him legendary. All that concerned him was that the Bussaco attack had done what it was supposed to and kept the French from taking Lisbon. Whatever it was that made the difference between a hero and someone doing their duty, he would leave to others to figure out.