Vidal's Honor, page 1
by Sherry Gloag
Published by Astraea Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
Copyright © 2012 SHERRY GLOAG
Cover Art Designed by For the Muse Designs
With thanks to Kim Bowman for believing in me J
And a huge thanks to my readers, who make the joy of writing even more special.
Salamanca – 22 July 1812
“We’ve endured some bad storms, have we not Dev, but I misremember one as severe as this.”
Lady Beaumont snuggled up to her lord, her head on his shoulder. They’d celebrate three blissful, if unusual, years of marriage in a month’s time. Hopefully this time they’d be back in England and she’d throw a party like none before.
“The lightning was so bright at one point I thought it struck our tent.”
“At least we had some cover.” Honor sighed. “Those poor soldiers have little shelter and Wellington will expect them to perform their duties regardless.”
“We are at war, my dear.” Lord Beaumont pulled his wife closer. One more day and they’d be on their way home to enjoy three months leave. One more day…
So why did Devlin dread the coming dawn?
Another burst of thunder overhead shook the ground, and lightning lit up the meagre bivouac.
“The intensity of this storm is shocking. It must be all of two hours since it began, and silly as it sounds, I almost feel it is on a personal mission, a vendetta.” Honor traced Dev’s lips with her finger. “Perhaps we should distract ourselves?”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” Pushing the unidentified dread to the back of his mind, Devlin kissed his wife long and hard.
“That’s a good start.” She returned his kiss and followed where he led.
* * * *
The growing light of dawn chased the storm away that had left a field of mud in its wake. Honor’s even breathing failed to sooth Devlin. The niggling apprehension slithered snake-like through his system. Had his concerns added intensity to their lovemaking, or had they shed every inhibition knowing the thunder would drown out their cries of ecstasy?
Grunts, groans, and cursing outside rose in crescendo as more and more soldiers began the rituals of another day at war. The day before, certain Marshal Marmont would not open an attack, Wellington had ordered the baggage and supply carts to retreat a good way to the rear. Word had spread that they wouldn’t break camp today, but would continue to observe the movements of the French divisions.
“Bonaparte’s sent them to stop us from marching upon Madrid,” Wellington told a select few the previous day. “I admit they may equal us in numbers and they’ve taken the Grand Arapiles and the woods behind. I do not wish to fight an action, unless it is to our advantage, or becomes essential.”
So, Dev asked himself again as he slipped out of Honor’s embrace, why did this sense of foreboding not only stalk him, but increase in strength? For the few hours in her arms during the night he’d managed to push it away. Tonight they would set out for home. The beginning of three months' leave. He searched for his clothing and carefully folded Honor’s and laid them at the end of the cot. They may have been under cover for the night, but the rain had seeped through the repaired tears and soaked everything in the way; those that missed the downpour were damp anyway.
He shrugged into his bright red jacket and reached for his watch. Six o’clock. In the distance, the cooks struggled to light the rain-sodden wood. Another cold meal to start the day, but happily for him and Honor, it would be their last army breakfast for several months.
With care, he let the tent flap drop behind him and made his way to Wellington’s quarters.
* * * *
Honor woke with a smile on her lips. The storm, now gone, had become their audience, roaring applause when she and Dev rose to new heights together. She reached out and sighed upon discovering his side of the cot was empty.
One more day. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and inhaled the dank after-storm mugginess. With a groan, she wriggled into her under-garments, shuddering at the cold dampness of the material against the warmth of her skin. How like Dev to gather up the clothes they’d scattered about the place, and fold them neatly for her.
The day before, Wellington had sent all the other women who followed the drum to the rear with the baggage and supply carts. “If I thought you would obey my orders, I‘d pack you off with them,” the earl told her at supper later.
“I’m so pleased you did not.” She knew Wellington liked to have pretty women around him, and while he never dallied with married ladies, he’d let her remain as much for his own pleasure and hers. “You are a level-headed woman, my dear,” he’d told her a few months after her arrival in Spain. “I didn’t approve of your husband’s insistence you join us, but there…” He patted her hand. “You have made yourself indispensible and I am glad Dev wore me down.”
She’d soon understood how overworked the army medics were and she’d set about learning how to assist them in their work. From the women following the drum, she’d learned about the power and various uses of local herbs to help aid the sick and wounded men. No more did the doctors insist upon amputation as the only solution to a shattered arm or leg. To begin with they’d looked askance when she’d applied lotions to clean and draw out putrefaction from the wounds and ease the boils so often suffered by the soldiers.
It didn’t take long for word to spread that chopping off a limb wasn’t the only option and men sought her out for treatment, and as their trust grew she soon got to know many of them well.
A double-edged sword, she thought now. The pain of loss never lessened, and she took it upon herself to write to the families of each man lost. A small thing, she had thought, until she received letters of gratitude from the grieving relatives.
She’d set about learning from the doctors how to treat the wounded and had attended so many operations she often felt she could do one in her sleep. Honor smiled. Of course she couldn’t, and she hoped no one would ever ask her to. But army surgeons became victims of enemy fire as easily as their fighting companions.
Only the day before, too fatigued and starved to hold onto his reins, a medic had fallen from his horse and broken his neck. On the same day another took a sniper’s bullet in the forehead during one of the regular skirmishes with the French troops.
Covering her head with her shawl, Honor lifted the flap and searched the camp for any sight of her husband.
Phillipe, his batman, hovered close to Wellington’s large tent. Was it her imagination, or were Dev’s orders more detailed today?
She thought about his question last night. Was she looking forward to returning home?
In truth, Honor couldn’t say. Since her arrival in Spain as a new bride she’d witnessed sights no gently bred woman should. She had experienced situations even the hardened "baggages," as the troops called the women who followed the drum, found hard to deal with.
Honor shifted uneasily. A light breeze whispered across her face, lifting stray tendrils of hair into her eyes, and she brushed them away while watching the men working methodically through the morning rout
Since none of them were attempting to break camp, Honor assumed they intended to stay put for the day and their leader did not anticipate any confrontation with the ever-moving French divisions occupying the larger of the two land rises on each side of the village of Arapiles.
Would Wellington send Dev out to scout the French movements before his leave began? Or would the earl order Devlin to report to Whitehall when they arrived home?
“I am not breaking a trust when I tell you word has come from London about a French agent within our midst,” Dev had told her in confidence a couple of days earlier. “I tell you this, my dear, for you own safety. You must keep this to yourself and maintain vigilance at all times.”
Would Wellington charge her husband to carry the information back to London if they’d uncovered the spy’s identity?
It was less than a week since they'd last fallen back at Toro, only for the enemy to seize the advantage and cross the Bridge of Tordesillas two days later. The movements of the two armies reminded her of chess players summing each other up. Watching… waiting… anticipating before combat resumed.
“Why is it we always go into battle the morning following storms such as this one?” When the resigned mutter of someone nearby reached her, she silently agreed, as she crossed the camp towards Wellington’s headquarters.
“Is it my imagination or are they —“ Honor cast a glance at the tent, “— or are they taking longer in there than usual?” she asked, when Phillipe headed towards her.
Phillipe, too, stared in the same direction, Honor noticed. Not the interest of a man waiting for instructions, she thought, and failed to define the expression in the man’s eyes.
“You are correct, my lady.” Phillipe took her arm and led her away.
“What is it?” Tension flowed off her husband’s batman. Had he heard something? He’d certainly been close enough to hear the conversation within the tent.
The sound of distant cannonading impinged on her growing unease. Would Wellington hold his position or move against the French? With one more day to go before they left for home, she didn’t know, and wasn’t sure she cared. This morning something nibbled at her usual ability to cope with the daily demand of following an army. What was keeping Dev?
* * * *
Why hadn’t he insisted Honor join the other women when Wellington sent them and the baggage to the rear of the lines? Marmont was already moving his armies in an attempt to outflank them. It wouldn’t work of course, couldn’t work, simply because in doing so he’d overextend his army, leaving them open to attack from Wellington’s different divisions. No way would Old Nosey sit back and let that happen without going into action. And Honor would be right there in the middle of it all while he would be too far away to provide her with protection.
To avoid meeting Honor before he was ready, Dev slipped through an aperture at the rear of the tent and sought out his friend, and batman, Phillipe. They’d been together through many conflicts — since long before he’d married Honor — and now he needed Phillipe’s word to see his wife safely away from Salamanca.
It wouldn’t take Phillipe long to reunite Honor with the wagons and get back to camp before he completed his mission, Dev thought.
If he returned.
And if he returned, Dev promised himself, he’d make his own way home to rejoin his beloved Honor.
Dev observed the despondency in his leader’s eyes, heard the false encouragement in his words, and the previous night’s niggling sense of foreboding exploded into life as the Earl revealed plans and issued orders.
It looked like "one more day" had just become "one day too long."
For a moment, Dev wondered whether Honor would be safer within the ranks of his comrades, then dismissed the notion. Nor would taking Honor to join the retreating wagons keep her secure if anything happened to him.
He’d hand Honor into his batman’s protection before he left camp this morning. As a local man, Phillipe’s vast organisation of contacts could arrange for Honor’s safe passage across Spain and into France. Not an easy journey under any circumstances. Add in the combination of Napoleon and Joseph Bonapartes’ armies plus rogue or deserting soldiers filling the roads or trying to escape, it would be fraught with even more danger.
* * * *
“There you are, Dev.” Keeping her tone light and carefree, she held out her hands when he joined her. The way Dev’s gaze slid away confirmed her instinct that it wasn’t going to be a normal day.
Just one day…
A shiver ran down her spine.
He revealed his soul in his eyes, and as she looked into them now, Honor detected the tumult of emotions stirring within them.
His face lit up when he saw her coming, and he opened his arms to welcome her, wrapping them around her tightly. For a moment he rested his forehead on hers, inhaling the scent of her, enjoying her warmth and softness before stepping back.
“What an age you have been. I do declare I began to wonder if Wellington sent you off without giving you a chance to say ‘goodbye’.” She angled her head for his kiss, letting it fall on her cheek. She wanted to grab hold of Dev and drag him back to their little tent.
His smile vanished. He glanced round at the general mêlée of movement and pulled her to one side.
Taking her hand he kissed her palm before holding her gaze. Without preamble he held her still when she went to embrace him. “Listen to me, Honor.”
She wanted to reach up and trace her finger over his lips. Instead she fisted her free hand at her side to prevent herself giving in to temptation.
“When I agreed to let you come with me to Europe you gave me a promise. Do you remember?”
All desire to caress Devlin vanished. Unable to get any words passed the constriction in her throat, she nodded.
“It is time.”
“But—” they came thick and fast now. “You said… we’re going home… you said…” Her words fell off her personal cliff of fear and tumbled to the ground between them, along with hope. What was that saying? Tomorrow never comes. Was Dev implying their future was an illusion? Her heart plummeted, and the pain in her chest was sharp as a knife.
“I will join you tomorrow,” he said.
The look in his eyes stopped her protest from tumbling out. She’d promised to be strong. For him, for her.
Now, it seemed, the moment had arrived to make good on that promise.
This time she didn’t resist her urge to touch him. She caught the lapels of his red jacket and pulled him to her. She stood on tip toe and pressed her lips to his.
“I love you, Dev.”
His eyes darkened, and for a second she wondered whether she’d made a mistake, added to his emotional burden. He needed a clear mind free from a sense of personal obligation to do his work, but the words slipped out before she could check them.
His hand came up to cover one of hers. “I know, and I love you too. You are my life.” He leaned down and deepened the kiss, then stepped back with a sigh.
“I will take you to Phillipe. In the name of your promise to me, do what he says without question. Your safety, and his, will depend upon it.”
Once more words failed her; once more a nod was all she could give him.
He took her hand and kept it close to his heart for several seconds. When he pulled on it she followed him as they made their way to the perimeter of the camp beyond the commander’s tent. A minute later Dev placed it in Phillipe’s; she recognised the understanding in the Spaniard’s eyes, saw the gleam of admiration when she nodded to him and stepped away from Dev.
It was the
“I have to go.” He looked over to where a soldier stood beside his waiting horse.
“I have to go,” he said again, then placed his hands on her face and pulled her close. To Honor, his kiss stopped time. Whether it lasted a second or a lifetime, she didn’t know. The cool air on her cheeks brought her back to the present. To a separation she feared might last forever.
The next hardest thing was to keep a smile on her lips when Dev stole another brief kiss before striding away.
“Phillipe, I promised Dev I would follow your instructions without question, and I will, but please just this once, may I stay here until Dev leaves?” If he agreed she vowed she’d never ask him for any more favours.
She held her breath when he hesitated and released it with a whoosh when he acquiesced.
They stood side by side in the brightening daylight as Dev strode over to another officer, nodded after a moment’s discussion, then mounted his waiting horse. He didn’t look back. Had she expected him to? At a gentle trot, Dev headed for the outskirts of the camp where he was joined by three other soldiers.
When Phillipe gripped her arm, she cast a puzzled glance at him. She read the horror in his eyes and swung round in time to witness one of the men swing his sword in an arc and bring it down on Dev’s head, then the others closed in to haul his unconscious body from the horse. She wanted to scream, but Phillipe’s hand over her mouth prevented any sound from escaping. She wanted to rush to Dev’s rescue, and found herself restrained by the Spaniard’s other arm clamped her waist.
She wanted to deny what she seen but couldn’t take her eyes of the unfolding horror.
Where were his friends? She fought Phillipe’s insistence they move away until the men, with Dev, disappeared from view. Where were the men taking her husband? Who were they and why hadn’t anyone gone to her husband’s rescue?
“What’s going on?” she demanded when Phillipe remove his hand from her mouth. “I want to go to him,” she insisted, but Phillipe shook his head and began dragging her in the opposite direction. She wanted to curl up and die.