Warnings for: violence, brief mention of animal death
Albert ‘Bertie’ Horner clutched the small stone tightly to his chest, running his fingers over the familiar grooves and notches that defined its form. Overhead the boom of cannon shot thundered over the skies blasting men, horses and the very earth indiscriminately to pieces.
“Watch over me, please. Give me the courage to see this battle through.”
He raised his shaking hands to his lips and pressed a trembling kiss to the forehead of Saint Benedict.
No sooner had he tucked the statue safely away in his breast pocket did the held beat of anticipation shatter with a bark from his commanding officer.
Soldiers all around him surged forward, moving as one roaring beast towards enemy lines. They crashed, wave against wave, bodies churning and flying as sabers slashed and thrust, cutting men down into meat.
Men fell upon him and around him and he was helplessly swept up in the mass of carnage. After what felt like an eternity, the crushing press of bodies lessened and he staggered into a small clearing of open ground. The ranks thinning. But whose?
Before he had a moment to get his baring and set himself to action, eyes locked on his and the hatred in them pinned him like a hare caught in a hunter’s grasp. He couldn’t help but brush his hand against the reassuring weight of the stone, the action steadying his fingers long enough to draw his saber and prepare for death. Hopefully not his own.
Please. He sent out the silent plea to Saint Benedict just as the man stepped into swinging distance and his sword came sweeping down on Bertie like an executioner’s blow.
He felt a strange push under his arm. Out of the corner of his eye thought he saw the ghost of a hand steadying his elbow.
Not a moment later his arm shot through from wrist to shoulder with an unpleasant ringing. The weight of the other man’s sword had been stopped just in time by Bertie’s raised saber. They stared at each other in equal surprise, both marveling at his continued survival. The moment passed quickly enough though. The man’s features contorted into a mask of rage and he drew back for another killing blow.
Again he felt a gentle tug and his saber arm whipped out to the side, catching the blow and knocking it away effortlessly. The man’s third swing was made clumsy by frustration and this time Bertie was ready. He stepped to the left, almost stumbling and then twisted round to throw his whole weight into a solid thrust.
His opponent collapsed dragging Bertie, whose sword was stuck deep in the man’s fleshy side, down with him. He struggled against the dead wright, bracing his legs for purchase against the man’s side and pulled until the saber popped free in a wet slide and he scrambled to his feet. His heart was pounding and his ears ringing from being knocked against the hard earth, but he was alive.
The battlefield had changed completely while he dueled his opponent. Blinking, he took in all the dust and blood and bodies. The uniforms of his comrades in arms were scattered pops of color in the grime of mud and blood, beacons of hope in the desolate landscape.
A faint chorus of the coughs and wails of broken men and the sick wet puncture of the injured fallen being slaughtered peppered the air in the otherwise eerie silence of the aftermath. Bertie was still trying to shake the ringing out of his ears when an arm clamped around him and he was swept into the filthy and blood stained embrace of his fellow soldiers.
The battle was won, and he had lived to see it.
He rubbed at his chest, fingers brushing against the cool stone pressed against his heart.
They arrived back at the encampment backed by the setting sun, and Bertie was carried along with the group and deposited in front of one of the many campfires that had sprung up. The atmosphere was festive, an almost manic relief at having won the day and survived to enjoy it. Hands deposited a mug of strong ale in his, gone before he could thank them, and he sipped at it as he basked in the warm huddle of light and laughter.
He hadn’t made any great friends when enlisting, or in training, or on the march and often found himself on the outside looking in longingly at the easy joviality around him. There was one officer he had watched especially closely. His laughter was always bright and infectious and drew Bertie’s eye no matter where it came from. The officer’s handsome smile made it impossible to look away once Bertie spotted him, and he couldn’t help but steal a private smile even though the officer’s easy warmth never turned on him.
Bertie had a small smile now, hearing that laughter from somewhere close. His face flushed when he sought out the officer’s warm light and found that the man had sat down beside him, clapping Bertie on the back and drawing the attention of the surrounding men to recount what he had seen of Bertie’s desperate duel on the battlefield. The Bertie of the officer’s story was nothing like the scared wreck that he had really been, but he relished the respect in the other men’s eyes and the flattering way the handsome officer described him.
“Our very own David.” The officer winked at him when he finished the tale and Bertie quickly ducked his head to take a deep drink of ale in order to hide the shiver of pleasure at the attention. He hoped that his flushed cheeks would go unnoticed thanks to the ale or heat of the fire. He clutched again at the statue still at his breast, its surface cool through the touch and calming. When he felt the puzzled gaze of the handsome officer on him he hurriedly return his hand to the mug.
The officer leaned in, so close that Bertie could feel the brush of his mustache tickling against his ear. Hot breath as much as the proximity of the man’s mouth made pinpricks of sweat break out along the back of Bertie’s neck. “Were you wounded?”
“What?” Bertie stuttered.
“You keep clutching at your chest.” He reached out a hand to the spot to demonstrate and Bertie jerked back.
The officer looked startled, then something else flickered across his face before he drew back as well, still smiling but careful not to touch Bertie again.
Lamenting the cooling space between them, Bertie leaned forward and hurried to explain, “No, I’m fine, I wasn’t hurt I mean. I wasn’t even touched.” Except for that ghostly hand.
“I just feel a bit, a bit off that’s all.” he finished lamely.
The officer seemed to relax slightly, his smile becoming less fixed. “First time will do that to you. Best get off to bed before the crash comes.”
He clapped Bertie on the back, hand lingering just a bit and then turned away as the man to his left pulled him in to some debate.
Bertie finished his ale quickly, stumbling away from the warm campfire and back to his tent. The sounds of revelry drifted after him like a lullaby. He toed off his boots and collapsed on the rough cot, out of energy to do anything more.
Now that he was alone with his thoughts, he considered the memory of the guiding hand that saved him on the battlefield before his mind drifted to another arm closing around his shoulder, a warmer hand on his back. Through the haze of his exhaustion, arousal pulsed at the edge of his tired body. Lingering on thoughts of the handsome officer’s mouth, his hand drifted languidly downwards to work out his release.
A sharp stab shot through his chest and he cried out, not in pleasure but in pain.
He sat up in a panic, his arousal doused. Perhaps he had been hurt after all. He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt, feeling across his chest for broken or tender flesh but there was nothing amiss. He quickly stripped off the jacket and tossed it aside, his eyes heavy. As he slipped into sleep he felt the ghost of an icy kiss press to his forehead and cold fingers around his heart.
They marched ahead through rough road walled by a thick forest, a small party sent to scout this stretch of road before the main force marched through to the site of their next battle. The silence of the dense forest on either side of the road unnerved him more than the cacophony of the battle had the previous day. No doubt the other men felt it too, they were quiet as they marched. He thumbed at the statue again, the familiar ridges soothing.
“Chest still bothering you?” I understand wanting to avoid old sawbones but best to get it checked out.”
Bertie jumped and looked around to the source of the voice, reddening instantly when he caught the eye of the handsome officer.
“I’m fine really. It’s nothing.”
The officer looked doubtful but nodded. Grateful for the man’s attention and the distraction from his nerves, Bertie continued.
“It’s, you may think it’s foolish, but…” Bertie pulled out the small statue, presenting it open palmed for the officer to inspect.
He stepped in to walk beside Bertie, leaning over to look at it. “A lucky charm?”
The officer looked amused but not mocking. Reassured, Bertie continued, “It’s Saint Benedict. I know votives are a bit old fashioned but my mother sent it off with me when I enlisted to keep me safe.”
The officer frowned slightly, “You’re a religious man then?”
Why would that trouble him? Unless… Bertie felt his heart quicken at the possibility. The statue felt cool in his hand. He quickly shook his head, “No, I mean, I’m not a heathen but it’s more that it brings me comfort. Like part of my home is still with me.”
The officer relaxed again, “We all take our courage where we can. May I?”
Bertie nodded and held out his hand. The officer reached out to pick it up but snatched his hand back immediately.
“Sharp little thing,” he hissed, sucking on his thumb, “You ought to be careful keeping that so close to your heart.”
Bertie clutched the statue like a lifeline, trying not to stare at the officer’s mouth moving over his thumb. Perhaps he failed, because the man gave him a quick wink and another clap on the back that felt more like a caress before moving back into his marching position.
Bertie frowned, running his fingers carefully along the ridges of the statue but felt no sharp edges. How odd.
He didn’t have a moment longer to consider. A cry rang out from ahead in the line. A force of armed men burst forth from the trees and the undergrowth. He stuffed the statue back into his breast pocked and drew his saber, falling into position at the officers rallying cries.
With a victory under his belt and a battle survived he was no longer paralyzed with the same fear. Buoyed by the tight defensive press of his comrades and the urge to protect them and one smiling man in particular, he slashed and stabbed the enemies driving in on them.
He successfully beat back the first three men that came for him but when he swung down to parry a fourth, he felt that ghost of a hand again, this time jerking his arm so that he swung wide. The enemy did not waste the opening, viciously stabbing out. Bertie moved just in time so that his shoulder was grazed but not pierced through. He grit his teeth against the sting in his right arm and swung out again, biting into the man’s flesh.
He squeezed his eyes shut, fingers drifting to a sudden cold constriction around his heart, feeling it lessen slightly as the first breath of a prayer formed on his lips.
Then he heard a shout from a familiar voice.
He scanned the mass of bodies and spied him beset on all sides, standing in brave but futile defense while he covered a wounded man’s retreat, one arm bleeding heavily. Bertie cried out, hot anger and panic pumping through him and charged forward even as the claws around his chest returned and squeezed the breath from his lungs.
Using the momentum of his run he pierced right through one of the attackers. Gasping, he swung at another, determined to beat them back.
The officer wasted no time taking advantage of the assistance fighting back with renewed vigor and cut down another man who moved to take a swing at Bertie. Together they made short work of the barricade and the forest stilled around them as the ambush was thwarted.
The officer, still blessedly alive, turned to beam at Bertie. He felt giddy and lightheaded, but unlike the battle high of yesterday it was because he gasped for breath. The officer’s smile quickly turned to a worried frown, calling out Bertie’s name as Bertie collapsed to the ground. He felt panicked hands running over him, searching for wounds. Bertie tried to speak and to raise his hands to his chest but it was as though a hand was clamped over his mouth, fingers down his throat choking him. He felt those ghostly hands again, a shadowy nightmare as they pulled him away from the warmth.
He could hear his name being called, pleading and panicked, but it was through a fog as though he were underwater. And then again, reverberating with a possessive chill, “Mine, you’re mine.”
At last he felt fingers at his collar even as others squeezed at his heart, then a ripping so violent he thought his skin was being flayed.
And then he gasped. Air rushed into his lungs and the icy fingers melted away. His vision cleared, the light creeping back in and the only voice in his ears was the officers, soothing and gentle, “There, I’ve got you. You’re alright Bertie.”
Bertie rolled onto his back, coughing and gulping down fresh air. The officer’s warm hands rubbed his back, soothing and so full of warmth and life that Bertie couldn’t help but sob. The officer stayed by his side, grounding him and keeping him in the light.
Some time later the surgeon came round. His shoulder hurt but he reassured him that the cut was shallow and he patched it up quickly with a bandage. The officer had cracked a rib and gotten a few nasty cuts, especially the one on his saber arm. They sat together, catching their breath while the company slowly reassembled itself, and when it was time to move on they leaned into each other as they staggered to their feet.
Bertie bent to pick up his jacket but before putting it on he flipped open the breast pocket and shook it out. The statue tumbled to the ground, unchanged in appearance but now filling Bertie with a cold dread.
He stared down at it a moment before pulling his jacket over his shoulders and turning to his companion, fitting himself under the officer’s shoulders and walking forward, wound round each other.