Louis-Henri Loison could not die.
Putrid grey smoke exploded from a hundred Austrian muskets. Bullets hammered past the French general as he raced forward, hurdling the stream in his path. But none touched him.
Loison's lungs rasped from his efforts, the enemy so close the stench of their burnt powder stung his nostrils. His legs were tired, long boots blistering raw heels, but he must run on: must. Behind him his blue-coated infantrymen struggled desperately to keep up, anchored by heavy backpacks. He shouted, swore; encouraged the men onwards. Into the musket smoke: into hell.
In front, the Austrians reloaded. Strain scored soot-stained faces as they thrust ramrods down hot barrels. Men desperately fumbled unfitted bayonets; but they would be too late, Loison saw. He laughed at their indiscipline, and in his joy the sound became a scream; a visceral cry to loosen bowels. Now he would kill them.
More bullets tore the air about his face. He threw himself at the Austrian front line, slashing at the nearest man with his sabre. The infantryman fell, clutching a face bloodied to the bone. Another Austrian thrust forward with his musket. Loison saw the weapon coming and ducked underneath, cannoning sideways into his opponent who reeled back from the blow. He brought his sword across, a vicious sideswipe that cut into the man's midriff. Then a French bayonet punched through the Austrian's lungs as he tried to twist away. Loison's men had caught up.
As their attackers forced the Austrian infantry to give ground, something tugged at the shoulder of the general's coat. He was shoved roughly in the back and almost fell, but a hand grabbed his collar. One of his sergeants hauled him upright while plunging his short sabre into the belly of the Austrian whose bayonet thrust had narrowly missed piercing Loison's neck. The grenadier offered his commander a muttered apology, yanking and twisting at his sword as he struggled to free it from the Austrian's sucking flesh.
More of the enemy pushed forward to join the fight. Loison's gold-braided coat seemed a magnet for steel and lead, yet nothing found a mark. He cut at another man. The Austrian jinked away, only to be smashed in the head by a French musket butt. A pistol exploded directly ahead and the general tensed, knowing he must be hit, but inexplicably the ball went wide. Loison lunged at the perpetrator, his razor-honed blade sliding easily through the man's coarse clothing to split his ribcage. Fear and realisation flashed in the Austrian's eyes before he fell away, writhing and screaming.
Bluecoats on each side of Loison stabbed with bayonets, driving the Austrians back, but now the enemy were too many. In such a tight crush of bodies the general's pace slowed to a crawl. He found no room to swing his sword. The Austrian infantry began to drive the French back by sheer weight of numbers; Loison's brave attack balanced on a knife-edge of failure.
Except for one thing; a fact no enemy could have foreseen. A miracle, so inexplicable, so fantastic, the French general had only just come to believe in it himself. In all the battles he had fought, against every man he had killed, no blade had spilt his blood; no bullet even caressed his skin. Whilst all around him others bled and died, he survived, impervious to harm. He was immortal - a god.
Summoning his strength, Loison screamed at the sky. Again and again he jammed his sword-point into the crush of bodies ahead; he hacked and thrust, stabbed and slashed; a warrior without fear of death. Until, abruptly, the Austrians faltered. Loison saw their panic begin. The packed ranks surrounding him thinned.
His infantrymen piled into the weak spot he had created. Jabbing forward, their long bayonets scattered the enemy; encouraging their flight. More and more Frenchmen poured into the gap, shrieking like demons, until the whole Austrian front line seemed to explode outwards. They ran.
And the general lowered his sword, laughing out loud in triumph and relief. For here he was god, and no-one could stand against him.
Splashing back through the stream he had jumped across only minutes before, Loison drew his sabre again just as a water-rat dropped from a hole in one bank with an audible plop.
"Hah!" The Frenchman slashed his gore-crusted blade through the shallows, scaring the tiny animal so it arrowed away upstream. He would be another Tudieres - he knew that now - the ancient Hammer of the Franks, voracious slayer of Moors and forever victorious in battle. The general raised his arm to let his sword drip, frowning that the running water had not scoured it of blood. His servant must see to that later. As he slid the sabre back into its snakeskin-covered scabbard, his stomach grumbled, reminding him he had not eaten since he woke. His servant could solve that problem, too.
Marshal Ney galloped towards him. French engineers must have repaired the bridge over the Danube. When the Austrians collapsed its roadway into the slowly swirling water, only the two main arches remained intact, crossing the river. Loison had led his men along one narrow ribbon at daybreak, boots sliding, musket shots whistling about his ears, only inches from falling. Now thick timbers spanned the arches, allowing cavalry to stream across without any risk of soaking their fancy uniforms. They were too late, though. He had won the battle without them.
Ney pulled to a stop. "You are injured?"
Mounted, the marshal towered above him. Damned cavalrymen always looked down on the infantry, Loison thought. He stared at Ney with disgust before realising what his commander meant. With one hand he scrubbed at his face, and his glove came away rust-flaked with drying blood. "It is not mine."
Ney grunted. "Brigadier Villatte?" he asked.
Loison had charged his subordinate with concluding the attack; re-forming battalions which would be scattered and disorganised from pursuing the enemy. He should be able to do that without having his hand held. "I left orders for him to consolidate, once he has taken the abbey."
Ney grunted again. "The Emperor will reward you for this day's work, Louis-Henri." He gave the general a curt nod before galloping on.
Loison watched him go and spat on the ground. Bonaparte would never reward him; the bastard Corsican was too busy handing honours to his usual cronies, including Ney. But Loison did not care. He had fought and won. Again. He was immortal.
Even the damned Emperor could not say that.
Joshua Lock stabbed a grubby forefinger at the book's yellowed pages. His mouth worked, fish-like, over the text, which bled badly from one gauzy page to the next. Crossly, he pushed unruly brown hair up from his forehead. He was fourteen, now. He could manage the other words, so why not this one? Moving the table nearer the window did not help, either. Lifting the heavy oak was easy; hammering iron had muscled his arms and chest; but there was no moon that night to add to the feeble halo of light cast by his sputtering oil-lamp. He tried again
"Supp..." he began, his lips making an involuntary popping sound at the end. "Supp-or..."
Lock's crashing fist made the old table leap a good inch off the stone floor. Motes of dust rose up from between its thick planks, and the oil lamp teetered precariously. Instinctively he grabbed at it, scorching his fingers on the glass.
He fumbled with the lamp, at last righting it on its base. Between stifled oaths he blew furiously on smarting fingers.
His anger was subsiding. His grandfather had taught him the trick soon after his parents died; how to count up to ten before the emotion consumed him and he lost control. Then, he had been angry all the time. Now, he rarely got past
Lock sighed. He felt stupid, for what had angered him was merely a word. He looked at it again, squinting in the lamplight, and ran his finger under it on the page. Supp - something.
The lamp flickered as the door behind him opened and a draught caught the flame. He knew it was his grandfather; Lock could hear the old man's rasping breath and the slow shuffle of boots over the flags. He straightened on his stool.
"What is it, boy?"
Lock pointed at the damned word. "I can't read that, Abraham."
His grandfather picked up the old book with reverence. Its end boards and title page had been lost long ago. Abraham raised it so that it was just a couple of inches from his face, his eyebrows working comically as he strained to read the words in the meagre lamplight.
"Suppurate," he enunciated the word, a subtle note of pedantry in his tone.
"What's that mean?" Lock had never heard it before.
Abraham paused, as if in thought. "When a wound fills with pus: means it needs a poultice." He placed the book down carefully and put his finger under the word. "Look; sup-you-rate," he said, jabbing each syllable for emphasis. "It's not difficult."
Lock snorted. "That's easy for you to say."
"You shouldn't be reading in this light, anyway," his grandfather scolded. "Do you want to end up with eyes like mine? God made the daylight for reading and the dark for the devil's work."
Lock shrugged. He could not see himself ever being as old as his grandfather. But he obediently picked up the book and crossed to the shelf where it was stored, alongside the only other book in the smithy. That was a heavy, leather-bound Bible with faded gold lettering across its wide spine. The word of God. Once, Lock enjoyed its stories, but he never read them now. God had taken his parents, he had been told, so why should God's word matter to him? He could go to hell, he thought, feeling no guilt at the blasphemy. There was a piece of oilcloth on the shelf. He carefully wrapped it around the book he had been reading and placed it alongside the Bible. He still had chores to finish.
It was quiet and still outside the cottage. Ice had begun to form on the surface of the water barrel. Lock stuck a dirty finger into it, tracing a pattern and breaking the thin skin. His breath steamed in the cold air. He walked away from the smithy and down a short track to the meadow where a horse grazed. Earlier, he had left an armful of hay under the hedge. Now he pulled it out, shaking the new frost from it. The horse looked up as he walked towards her, calling, and eventually she ambled over, whickering in recognition. Lock dumped the hay in a pile on the ground in front of her and watched as she took a mouthful and chewed contentedly. She was old, and her coat grew thick at this time of year to keep the cold at bay. As a small child, Lock had been thrown up on her broad back and led around, up and down green pathways, holding tightly to her long mane. When he was older, he had ridden bareback through the woods and meadows, fancying himself an armour-clad knight of old. In his reverie he would charge into battle, standard fluttering from his lance, beating down enemies with a razor-sharp sword to save the lives of kings and princesses. Lock patted the mare's sway-back affectionately and traced his steps back to the cottage.
Even though he closed the door behind him, cold air still trickled in where its frame warped. He hooked up a piece of thin leather that served as a curtain across the window. The fire was almost out, he saw; if it died now the cottage would be freezing in the morning, which was bad for his grandfather's chest. But bringing the coals back to life would mean fetching more from the forge inside the smithy next-door, and he decided that tonight he could not be bothered. He looked into the iron pot by the fire containing leftovers of vegetable stew they had eaten earlier in the day. It was cold and congealed. Lock prodded at it with a spoon, but could not bring himself to eat it. There was bread and some cheese in the larder, but if he ate that there would be no breakfast, so he left it. But there would be meat tomorrow, for, with any luck, he planned to go hunting coneys in the afternoon. Rabbit stew for supper! He could almost taste it, and the thought made his stomach growl. He was used to that feeling.
Lock sighed. He would go to bed hungry. Stepping into the back room, he lay down on the cot that served as his bed, but left his boots on when he pulled the blanket up over his head. At least his feet would be warm in the morning.
The Honourable John William Killen stood on the landing that served all of the rooms on the first storey, right at the summit of the staircase. It was a massive structure, with two wide wings which curved downwards into the hallway of Halcombe House. He laid his head on top of the right-hand banister rail and sighted along it. The polished wood was cool against his cheek. This time, he decided, he would go all the way down.
Killen had practiced for weeks when no one was looking. He started low down, near to where the end of the rail curled to meet its final support, and had gradually moved upwards, one stair at a time, until he reached the half-way point. But today was a special day. It was his father's birthday, and in honour of the event, dinner was to be served in the main dining room. He would sit at the head of the table, below the huge portrait of his father his grandfather had commissioned. Killen felt unworthy of this honour, and had decided that, to deserve it, he must do something bold and reckless; a dare that would surely have made his father proud.
Killen hitched his right leg up so his calf lay across the rail, and shifted his body so that he was half sitting on it. Years of polishing made the banister slippery as ice; that would be a boon once he was moving. He inched his way slowly along to the point where the rail started to fall. Now he could see the whole staircase curving downwards. It looked an awfully long way! Perhaps he should start lower down? No! He had decided he must brave the entire length. Steeling himself, he flicked away the lock of hair that habitually fell across his forehead. He took a deep breath: it was now or never. He wriggled a bit further, and suddenly he was off! Killen wobbled slightly as he accelerated. Then he was whooshing madly down the rail towards the tiled floor below, exhilaration flowing through his frail body. In his excitement, the short journey seemed to last an eternity. He slid past portraits of relatives and ancestors whose stern faces seemed to glare disapprovingly as he flew by. Then suddenly he was at the end. The banister dropped him towards the floor and he landed feet-first, staggering for a couple of steps until he regained his balance. He smiled broadly, for though his heart was hammering he had done it. He had done it!
"I wish you wouldn't, Johnny." His grandfather emerged from the corridor on his left and scolded him gently. "It is all too easy to break one's leg. Dinner will be served shortly, if you are ready?"
Killen looked at him sheepishly. "Sorry, grandfather," he said, but without much conviction, for he did not feel contrite. He had done it!
Roberts, Lord Halcombes manservant, had lit both large silver candelabra on the dining table. There were two places set, and Killen walked slowly to his seat at the far end. He touched the back of each chair he passed; there were ten of them, for the table had been extended to its full length. Before he sat down he walked the few extra steps to the end of the room. On the open lid of the harpsichord which stood there he noticed his grandfather had stood a small portrait of his grandmother, but it was dwarfed by the picture above. Killen stared up at the huge painting on the wall behind his dining-place. It celebrated a young man in the uniform of a cavalry officer; bright gold braid on a dark jacket, a crested helmet on his head and in his hands a great, curved sword. Killen had gazed at the portrait a hundred times, but its magnificence always twisted his stomach into knots. His father was standing, moustached and smiling with his sabre in front of him, tip propped on the stump of a tree and with his gloved hands resting on its pommel. The portrait's background was dark, brooding almost, but around his father's feet spring flowers bloomed in a coloured carpet that slowly faded into the shadows behind. A willow tree sprouted at one side to frame the shining figure with sad, drooping branches.
Lord Halcombe seated himself heavily and rang a small silver bell. As he replaced it on the white linen tablecloth, his manservant appeared.
"We'll eat now, thank-you, Roberts."
The servant gave a small bow. "Very good, my lord," he said quietly, and disappeared again.
Killen put down his glass. He was not allowed the best wine very often, but this evening the cellar had been searched for an exceptional bottle of claret to mark the occasion.
"A toast," his grandfather said, "a toast to William Grenville Killen. My son: your father." They both turned to the portrait, raising their glasses. It was odd, Killen thought, to be celebrating a man he had never known, although he often had to toast the King, who he did not know either, and that was deemed acceptable. His grandfather seemed to have a watery look in his eyes as he took a draught from his glass, but Killen could not be sure, so said nothing.
In the awkward silence afterwards, Killen wondered if now was the right time to broach a subject dear to his heart. His grandfather picked up a napkin, dabbing his mouth. It was white linen, matching the tablecloth, and Killen noticed that when he put it down his lips had left a red stain. "Grandfather," he began, "I'm old enough now." He paused, not quite sure how best to continue, but Halcombe stayed silent so he plunged on, "And you did say you would write when the time came." He gave his grandfather a pleading look.
George Arthur Killen, Lord Halcombe, looked back at his grandson and smiled sadly. He knew what the boy was after, and while it was true that his fifteenth birthday was two weeks past, he was not yet ready. Neither was Halcombe ready to lose his grandson to a service that had already killed the boy's father. He mulled over different excuses for weeks, knowing that the boy would soon ask him to write a letter requesting a recommendation to join a cavalry regiment. "Have you decided yet," he asked slowly, "which regiment you wish to join?"
"The Seventh." No hesitation, "Lord Paget's."
Halcombe nodded gravely, "A good choice."
"You know him, dont you?" Killen asked.
Halcombe was non-committal. "Only slightly," he said carefully. "I have dined with him once or twice, but he may not remember me."
Killen smiled at him. "Of course he will! When will you be able to write?"
His grandfather looked serious. "I believe the Seventh will only take officer recruits who are over sixteen," he said. "Perhaps it would be better if you were to wait a year."
"I'm sure they would take me," Killen refused to be dissuaded. "William Meacher joined the 33rd last year, and he was only fifteen."
Halcombe sighed. "The infantry are less particular, so I am told," he said with distaste. "And in any event, there is plenty for you to do on the estate. I need you here, to oversee my affairs if I must travel away. My bones grow older," he smiled, teasing. "Who would take over if anything should happen to me?"
Killen scoffed at the thought. "You're not that old, grandfather! And you have the staff to help you. And in any event," he added as persuasion, "you promised you would! Please... will you write?"
Halcombe decided to drop the matter for now. "We'll see," he said vaguely. "Have you anything planned for tomorrow?"
Killen seemed not to notice the smooth change of subject. "I thought I'd take The Tempest out again," he said. "He's getting much easier now, and I must keep working him."
His grandfather nodded agreement, "He should make a fine hunter for next season," although privately he thought the thoroughbred horse he had purchased as a birthday present might be proving too difficult for the boy. "Now, off to bed with you. Goodnight, Johnny."
He watched his grandson trot gaily down the length of the dining room and out through the door. He was young for his age, Halcombe thought. Johnny's slight build and poor constitution did not help matters. In that he was unlike his father, who had always been of robust good health. Halcombe felt protective. Johnny would not find the rigours of a military career easy to bear, even cushioned by an officers more privileged lifestyle. And if he were ordered into battle? Halcombe did not wish to consider the possibility, but Napoleon's seemingly unstoppable progress across Europe made that likely at some point if the boy insisted on a military career.
Halcombe rose from the table and stood in front of his son's portrait. He looked up at the gaudily dressed cavalry officer, seeing Johnny's fair hair and smiling blue eyes. "Damn you," he cursed the painting quietly, under his breath, "Damn you."
Retrieving the oval frame he had placed on the harpsichord before dinner, he stared at the face of the picture it held; a woman, young, fair haired and smiling. Halcombe had ordered the painter to capture her happiness as that was what had first drawn him to her. Always a smile, he remembered. Always laughing; filled with joy. His late wife's eyes looked back at him, and he put his right hand on the picture, trailing his fingertips gently over the contours of her face. "I shall keep him close, my dear," he promised the likeness. And clutching the portrait to his heart, he turned away from his dead son.
Smoke poured out of the open workshop doorway and, blown by a gentle breeze, turned wispy as it rose upwards. It shredded through the winter-bare branches of an old horse-chestnut tree that in better seasons would throw shade onto the tiled smithy roof. A few small birds, perched on the ridge, scattered at the hammering noise from inside. It was not the ring of steel on steel but a flat sound, like driving a metal spike into timber.
Lock pushed the horse's left hind foot off his knee and straightened up from where he had been crouched beneath its belly. He brushed filings from the hoof trimming off the leather apron that protected his legs and looked down critically at the animal's foot. The bright metal clenches, where the shoe-nails had been turned over, were filed smooth. At the outside edge, where the wall of the foot met the shoe, the horn was neatly rasped. And the line of nails showed a third of the way up the foot. A good job, he thought, satisfied.
The big bodied cob stepped sideways, putting its weight on the hind leg as if testing the fit of the shoe Lock had just applied. Then, seemingly happy that all was well, the horse rested its opposite foot. The animal's owner, the parish priest, a stout young man recently arrived in the village, stood to one side leaning against the rough stone wall. He put a hand inside the black woollen cloak he wore over his cassock. His purse was hidden there, and he drew out a palm-full of copper coins.
Knowing his grandson would not take money from the fat clergyman, Abraham Lock stepped forward, chest wheezing, and accepted the payment graciously. Still holding the coins, he put his hand into the pocket of his apron. The garment was more patch than original, and the old gnarled leather scraped at his calluses like sandpaper. He remembered his son making it, years ago; before the fever took him, together with his wife, leaving Abraham to bring up a small child alone. Years later, Joshua patched it, once Abraham had shown him how to stitch. He smiled, remembering the boy's curses when the sharp awl slipped and he stabbed a finger. It was not long afterwards that he began teaching Joshua to read. He shook his head sadly, half to himself. Joshua was a good boy. It was a worry that he would no longer go to church, but Abraham prayed for him. The Lord would forgive a child.
Money was tight but the coins warming in Abraham's palm would feed them both for a while. War with France had stopped virtually all trade with Europe, and the hardships felt by wealthy merchants gradually filtered downwards. When they spent less money, fewer people were employed. Food prices fell. There was no money to pay farm-workers. They went hungry, and when they went hungry their work-horses went unshod. Abraham believed that Bonaparte, for all his fine words about freedom, was an agent of the devil. But God would deliver them all from the tyrant.
The clergyman retrieved his broad-brimmed black hat. He had left it alongside the forge, presumably hoping its heat would drive out the February dampness while he waited. He untied the cob. The horse followed him sullenly outside where the priest stood and waited under a grey afternoon sky that matched his expression, for there was no mounting-block in the yard. Farm-workers mostly vaulted aboard by themselves, but the clergyman obviously expected a further service. Lock was forced to leg him up into the saddle, grunting a little at the man's weight. The priest failed to notice Lock wipe his hands on his apron straight afterwards, and did not bother to thank him either, seeming to believe the courtesy was merely his due. He clapped heels into the horse's sides and the cob, reluctantly, trotted off. Lock stared after them. Bugger you, he thought crossly, though he dared not say it out loud.
Back inside the smithy, Lock raked through the coals in the forge, dragging unburned fuel to one side, for there would likely be no more business that afternoon, and no need to keep the fire hot. His grandfather shuffled over and stood beside him.
"I'll be away shortly," the boy said, without looking up.
Abraham nodded. "Where are you going this time?"
Lock sighed with frustration. His grandfather had forgotten already! "I told you last night; over to the combe. We need meat for the pot, and there's a warren I haven't tried yet."
Abraham was warning. "You take care. His Lordship's gamekeepers have been busy of late. I hear they caught someone from the next village over at Mile End, and he's for the magistrate."
Lock smiled. "I'm always careful," he said on his way out.
"That was what Our Lord said to Pilate," his grandfather said seriously. "And the weir will be flooded," he reminded loudly, but Lock was gone out the door.
At the back of the stone cottage, the boy kept a hob polecat in a timber hutch with barred front. He opened the door and peered in. The animal uncurled from its bed of dried grass and chirruped in anticipation. Lock picked it out gingerly because it had not been fed that day, and a stray finger was as good a meal as any. He tied a string lead around the polecat's neck and stuffed it carefully inside his heavy wool coat, before collecting a canvas knapsack from inside one of the outhouses. Then he strode away, down the muddy track that led to the village.
Killen ran down the grand staircase into the wide expanse of tiled hallway at its foot. He took the steps two at a time, flushed with enthusiasm. Lessons were finished for that day which meant time for the more important things in life; for riding, or hunting. His dusty ancestors still seemed to stare down on him with disapproval, but now he stuck his tongue out at them irreverently. Skating across the floor at the foot of the staircase, Killen turned sharp left, arms flailing, into the first corridor. The maids would have to scrub at the marks his boots left on the tiles, but, well, that was their job.
The panelled oak door with ornate brass handle that led into Lord Halcombe's study was ajar, and muted voices came from within, but Killen's momentum sent him skittering through as he tried to slow down. All three men around the huge desk looked up, slightly startled, as he went in. A clock ticked on the mantel; the only sound.
"Im sorry, grandfather," he started, contrite.
Halcombe smiled. "Come in boy, come in," he beckoned. Killen knew the two men who stood opposite his grandfather; one short and stout, the other tall and thin. The Head Gamekeeper and the Estate Manager. The keeper, Trollope, offered Killen something between a bow and a nod, though the boy noticed he held his cap nervously in front of him as if expecting a dressing down for some error. But the Estate Manager, who seemed to Killen to have a touch of arrogance about his manner, ignored the boy completely and turned back to his employer. "As I was saying my lord," he continued, "we seem to be suffering more and more from the depredations of poachers. If you will only allow me..."
Lord Halcombe interrupted. "Yes, yes, Perkins," he said tiredly, "you've told me all this before." He looked the Estate Manager in the eye. "And I have told you, I will not entertain those damned man-traps anywhere on my property. Ive heard tell of them catching children, severing a limb even, and I will not be made party to that event. You must do your best without." He picked up a sheet of paper that had escaped to one side of the desk, stuffing it unceremoniously beneath a large grey pebble balanced on an untidy pile of more loose papers. "And if that is all, gentlemen, I bid you good day."
The two men nodded at his lordship and left, the Estate Manager stalking imperiously from the room while Trollope hovered behind him, an anxious satellite, politely closing the door. Halcombe turned to his grandson who was studying the carpet intently. "Well, m'boy," he said, smiling slightly, "what did you say you were planning for the afternoon?"
"I'll be taking The Tempest out," Killen said in a serious voice, as if to prove to his grandfather that this was to be no frivolous undertaking.
Halcombe pursed his lips in thought: The Tempest. The horse was proving to be a handful, even for a rider of the boy's undoubted talent. It was entire, a stallion, and it was in his mind that castration might make the animal more tractable, more amenable to discipline. Unfortunately, his grandson had immediately seen mastering the horse's temperament and manners as a challenge, and would no doubt object to having it gelded.
Halcombe smiled. "So you've not given up on it yet?"
Killen shook his head determinedly. "He just needs more time, grandfather, and more work. I waste too many hours on boring lessons instead of being out there." He waved his hand in the general direction of the stable-yard. "And what use are Mathematics and French for schooling the best hunter in the shire."
Halcombe sighed. When it came to his grandson, he found it difficult to be objective. And there was no doubt that the boy was a fine horseman; the Hanoverian riding master he had employed said as much. He nodded, "Very well." Killen smiled and turned away, but Halcombe called him back. "Will you be going far?"
The boy grinned. "Oh, just down to the combe, through the fields, probably." The wooded valley was a half-league away, reached over galloping pastureland.
Halcombe watched his grandson leave and felt a great surge of love. Ever since his son's death he had treated the child as his own, hoping Johnny might grow up in the father's image. True, he was a quiet boy, but friends assured Halcombe that was not unusual in one who had lost both parents at so young an age.
With no wife to help him, Halcome had done his best. The child was sickly at first. The nurses he employed cosseted the boy unduly, and Halcombe was convinced that was the reason for his poor constitution. Even so, as Johnny grew he ensured his grandson was tutored in the usual subjects; the arts, the sciences and languages. But he knew that it was horsemanship that the boy both excelled at and loved best. He shot and fenced well, and Halcombe was glad of it. Though he realised that these, the arts of war, might take Johnny far from home in troubled times, he had prepared him as best he could. And in any case, now he had made a promise to his late wife. He would not let the boy go.
He stood and stepped back to where a tall bookcase leaned against the wall, pulling at a tasselled cord which hung beside it. Less than a minute later, his manservant entered the room and bowed.
"Tea, I think, Roberts," Lord Halcombe said, "and I shall take it in the drawing room, if you'd be so kind."
Killen could smell the harness room before he reached it. He walked across the stable-yard with a spring in his step and a whistle on his lips. The clean-leather smell of soap and oils, the sharp tang of polished brass and steel caught in his nostrils and made him think immediately that he was home. This was where he really belonged.
Edward Gaunt, Halcombe's Stud Groom, was stooped in the far corner scrubbing at a horse blanket. A cloud of dust and stray horsehair rose into the air. Daylight shone only weakly through a heavily barred window, forcing him to squint at the blanket as he brushed.
"Hullo, Edward." Killen dumped a hunting rifle and leather cartridge bag on the table. There might be the chance of some game in the combe.
The Stud Groom turned and inclined his head. "Master Johnny?"
"I thought I would take The Tempest out for a hack."
Gaunt nodded again. "The work won't hurt him," he agreed. He hesitated before asking, "Will you be going far, Master Johnny?"
Killen shook his head. Edward Gaunt always wanted to know where he was going. And it was not just because he was nosy. Killen's grandfather would want a full report. And it did make sense, he supposed, in case of an accident
"Just thought I'd take him down to the combe," the boy said easily, "and see if he'll leap a windfall." He noticed Gaunt was looking at the rifle, and hefted it almost apologetically. "I might come across some game," he added offhandedly.
Gaunt grunted. "I can't say as he's been schooled to a gun, mind," the Stud Groom warned, but Killen was dismissive.
"Oh, he'll be fine," he said, blithely. "Would you mind awfully dragging my saddle out, Edward?"
Lock met two of his friends in the village. Well, they had been friends, once. Now they just annoyed him, still stuck in childish ways. Lock had stopped stealing birds' eggs and scrumping for apples years ago.
"Where're you going, Josh-wah?" Terrence Tranter danced around and kept getting in Locks way. Showing off; being stupid. The other boy hung back.
"Why dont you get lost, Terry?"
"Huh!" Tranter muttered. "What's got into you then? What's got into him, then?" he repeated to the other boy.
"I'm busy." The polecat stirred inside Lock's coat and started to wriggle.
"I've got something," Tranter tried a different tack, "want to see?" He reached inside his jacket. Lock only kept half an eye on what Terrence was doing, but was glad of it, because the boy produced a knife. It had a six-inch blade, pointed and sharp, and he shifted it from one hand to the other, back and forth.
"See. Scared of me now, aren't you, Josh-wah?"
Lock stared at him. "No."
"Yes you are, you liar. Want to fight?"
"Bugger off, Terry," Lock said heatedly, and stalked away towards the river.
Abraham had been right. The weir was in flood; the tops of its flat stones submerged under rushing water. Lock studied the barrier carefully. It was crossable, just. But he would have to take his boots off or suffer cold, wet feet for the rest of the day.
He tied the laces round his neck so that the boots hung down on his chest, and pulled the string tighter round his waist. It would be a pity for the polecat to fall into the river to drown. Carefully, Lock inched his way across the top of the weir. The water was incredibly cold and the current tugged at his calves, but its force had scoured the stones of slippery green weed so his bare feet gripped the rough surface easily. He made it to the other side without so much as a slip.
After half a mile, a track turned off the lane, and Lock took it. The path led into a wide meadow, where grass tufts were browned and dead from winter frosts. A few teasels remained, seed heads standing proudly, attracting a small flock of goldfinches which fluttered around them. Lock watched the birds for a while. Their bright red faces and flashing gold wing-feathers were jewels under a glowering winter sky. A charm; that's what a flock was called, he remembered. It was an apt name, and made him smile. Lock's breaths condensed in the cold air, and the breeze that was making the tree-twigs dance and tap scattered the vapour over his shoulder. It seemed to be getting colder. He pulled his coat tighter to his body, re-tying the string belt, and felt a wriggle inside it as the polecat snuggled into a more comfortable position, warm from the wind.
The track dropped downhill. Even though an easterly wind blew into Lock's face, he could still hear the river scurrying through the valley. It meandered quietly in summer, but now it was enraged, biting at its banks, swollen by melt-water from January snows that filled it close to overflowing.
At the tops of the first stand of trees Lock passed was a rookery, occupied even in February. The big black crows were beginning to build nests. Each pair squabbled with its neighbours over the ownership of twigs or perches, and their angry cawing disturbed the landscape's peace. Lock's feet were cold. The long, wet grass had soaked his scarred leather boots and one of them was untied. He knelt to re-knot the lace, and thought he might as well have left them on to cross the weir.
Above the woods, the river sound was muted. If he kept a sharp ear out he would hear if a gamekeeper approached on horseback. And if it was a 'keeper on foot he would run. They would not be able to catch him. Amongst the trees it was more dangerous; easier for one of them to creep close and surprise him. But Lock had no need to go deep into the woods. The rabbit warren he was searching for lay just outside, where the meadow shelved steeply down to the tree line.
The first burrow Lock found was dug beneath the trunk of an ash tree that stood tall and alone, separated from its neighbours by a well-worn track running jagged and stony along the hillside. Tree roots curled around the rabbit hole, their heartwood stained orange-brown from sap where the animals' chisel teeth had stripped the bark. Lock hunted for scrapings in the earth and scattered droppings at the entrance, proof the warren was occupied. Satisfied, he dug in his knapsack and drew out a small, bell shaped net, fixing it over the burrow with four wooden pegs. Further along, he found four more holes and fitted nets over them in the same way. There were probably more entrances, he reasoned, but he had no nets left, so they would have to remain undiscovered and unblocked. Then, going back to the first hole, he drew the polecat from inside his coat and tucked it carefully underneath the net. The animal needed no further encouragement. It gave several deep sniffs and immediately scuttled off underground, leaving Lock to lean against the ash tree. Now all he had to do was to wait.
Killen had been smiling to himself the last mile. The black horse beneath him strode out with enthusiasm, ears pricked so far forward they almost touched. It must be glad, he imagined, to be free of its confining stable. The Tempest's black mane was rippled by the cold breeze and its thick winter pelt gleamed with health, and from hours of strapping by the grooms. Killen checked his stirrups were level and saw again how the brown leather straps and panels of the saddle and bridle had been soaped and oiled, and buffed to a rich sheen. The steel of the bit in the horse's mouth and the stirrups at his feet had been burnished by hand so they caught the light and sparkled as the horse tossed its head or it skittered to the side when an unexpected movement caught its eye.
They crossed the five-acre field that in summer would yield a crop of oats, keeping to a grassy headland to avoid muddying the horse's feet in plough already prepared for spring sowing. The horse jogged a little, for Killen's hunting rifle, hanging muzzle-downwards behind his right leg encased in its leather holster, tapped its flank. It was not used to the feel. He steadied the horse lightly with the bit, holding the reins in one hand and stroking its neck with the other until the animal settled.
At the far end of the field was a gap in the hedge, which was otherwise ragged and overgrown. Killen knew that there was a rail across it, wedged a few feet above the ground. He shortened his reins in anticipation and urged the horse forward, but kept to a trot to allow The Tempest to see the obstacle clearly. The horse pricked its ears and, gathering itself momentarily, took off and leapt easily over the rail. Its jump carried it way out into the open ground beyond and Killen let the horse canter on across the grassland as a reward. He could see the trees of Combe Wood in the distance, and after a while slowed to a trot, then a walk. The horse was blowing after its short gallop, clouds of steamy breath floating backwards across Killen's face. He loosened the reins, letting the horse stretch out its neck to relax.
The track that led down into the valley was strewn with dead leaves and twigs that cracked dully under The Tempest's feet. The animal was startled at first, but soon accepted the strange feel and noise as normal events that warranted no response. Its ears swivelled this way and that, picking up woodland sounds; the rustle of mice and voles that the thaw had awakened early; the hollow hammer of a woodpecker chiselling grubs. Green shoots of early snowdrops poked through the carpet of dead leaf-carpet. And here and there lay the last icy remnants of snow; white patches that might remain for weeks in shaded corners that feeble early sunshine failed to warm.
Killen could hear the faint sound of the river rushing through the valley below. The wind seemed to have swung to the north, blowing the sound away from him. That was a shame, because it would carry his scent into the woods, spoiling any hunt. He pulled the horse to a halt, considering. He might as well load the rifle, because one never knew if the wind would change, and he might just be lucky.
Killen dropped the reins onto the horse's neck, and the animal stared about, not bothering to move off, while he pulled the gun from its holster. It was awkward, loading on horseback. The Tempest fidgeted, stepping forwards, and Killen was forced to take up the reins to halt it again. The animal flicked its ears at the tapping sound when he rammed the ball down the barrel, but then seemed to settle. He managed to prime the pan without spilling too much from his powder horn and drew the hammer back to half-cock. The frizzen clicked smoothly into place, sealing in the powder, and Killen pushed forward the safety-lock lever to prevent the gun discharging accidentally.
When he dropped the rifle back into its holster, the small thump as it hit the leather stop made the horse jump, but Killen did not correct it. He was ready now, so simply picked up the reins and sought out a track that led downwards through the trees.
The net over a burrow five paces away from Lock shook and a brown furry body tumbled out, thrashing as the cords snagged it. He strode over and grabbed the rabbit before it managed to free itself, snapping its neck with a practised flick of the wrist. While he tied its long back legs together, the polecat stuck its nose out into the fresh air, and, finding its quarry had disappeared, turned again into the burrow and waddled purposefully back underground. Lock grinned. Tonight's supper caught, and perhaps a couple more that could be sold in the village tavern or used for barter. He walked along the line of nets, listening intently.
On the north side of the valley, a roebuck made its way down through the trees to drink. Over centuries the river had carved its way through the valley, its path changing the land. Now, the water was deep and fast flowing, swollen by melting snow and with foaming eddies where it ran over large rocks near the surface. But here and there, where its course curved, it widened, and the water slowed to drop its cargo of small stones and silt. At these places, the river bed shelved upwards and the midstream squall quietened.
The roebuck, in the way of its kind, was wary. It stopped frequently, looking about with huge liquid eyes. Big ears, flicking constantly from side to side, caught the tiniest sound that might indicate danger. It stepped daintily, small cloven feet avoiding fallen twigs, and ducked its head so its two miniature pointed antlers would not catch on drooping branches. The buck stopped right on the riverbank and looked around again before dropping its head to the shallow water.
The Tempest noticed the deer first. Turning its head and pricking its ears, the horse alerted Killen to the slight movement through the trees almost a hundred paces away. The boy's hand went to the rifle's stock, and, very slowly, he drew the weapon out. The trigger guard made a small scraping sound as it cleared the leather holster, but the wind had changed again. It blew into Killen's face now, and the deer remained undisturbed. He made his movements very slow and deliberate, raising the rifle to his shoulder and leaving the reins on the horse's neck. The deer was down to his right, which made the shot more difficult; he had to twist his seat around in the saddle. He dare not move the horse in case the deer saw it.
Then the roebuck lifted its head, as if sensing something, and Killen went very still. It must have looked straight at him, but then seemed to relax and lowered its head to drink once again. Killen slowly let out his breath. Now was the critical moment. He must cock the rifle, and the click as the hammer locked into place might be heard. But the mechanism was well greased. He pulled back the safety lever with his thumb and hardly heard the pawl seat, trapping the cock in its firing position. He sighted down the barrel, breathing in deeply, willing his heart rate to steady, because its thump threatened to spoil his aim. Just behind the shoulder. That was the place; where the heavy lead ball would pierce the animal's lungs and heart and drop it, dead, in an instant. He let his breath out slowly. The hammering in his chest eased a little, and then the roebuck raised its head again and he pulled the trigger. Too quickly! Everything happened too quickly, after that.
He should have squeezed, not pulled. The hammer snapped forward onto the frizzen and flicked it forward. A shower of sparks from the flint-strike dropped into the pan to ignite the powder, which flashed to the main charge in the barrel. Flame and smoke spat from its muzzle as the rifle hurled the spinning lead ball away. The butt hammered back into his shoulder. And in the same instant that he realised he had rushed the shot and missed, the horse, frightened to the point of blind panic by such an unexpected explosion, took off through the trees.
Killen grabbed desperately at the reins, but they had fallen down the horse's shoulder and he missed them. He ducked down over the horse's neck to avoid a low branch which scraped his hat off, and the rifle barrel caught on a tree and was snatched out of his hand. Caught in the trigger guard, his index finger broke. He cried out in pain as he felt the bone snap. Killen's right hand was useless. He tried reaching for the reins with his left, but it was hopeless. The horse galloped down a dip in the ground and up the other side, smashing his right leg against another tree. The impact almost knocked him out of the saddle, and he twisted his good hand into the horse's mane in an effort to keep his seat.
Then the river turned towards them. At the top of the rise, the ground fell towards the rushing water, an almost sheer drop, and the horse, panic receding, instinctively shied away to its right. Killen's right leg was numbed. He had so little grip that the horse's sharp turn threw him out to the side. His head crashed against another tree and he fell, a limp body tumbling down the drop and into the river. Where the rushing water picked it up and carried it, ever quicker, downstream.
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