Authors: Marie Laval
âLord McGunn. Wake up.'
His breath caught in his throat and he moaned.
âWake up!' She shook him harder.
He opened his eyes and grimaced in pain, his hand clasped his chest.
âHell, it hurts,' he groaned.
âWhat's the matter with you?'
He heaved a few laboured, raspy breaths.
âI think it's overâ¦this time.'
âWhat do you mean, it's over? You drank too much whisky again, didn't you? Don't even think of denying it. Your flask is over there, on the table. That's the second time I've seen it happen. You should know it doesn't agree with you.'
âQuiet. Stop chatteringâ¦ and let meâ¦ let me die in peace.'
Panic squeezed her chest in a tight, cold fist.
âNonsense! You're not going to die and leave me all alone here, do you hear?'
He blinked. âWould be hard not to, with you shouting in my ear.'
At least he was talking, even if he sounded weak. That had to be a good sign.
She rose to her feet and looked around the room.
She needed more light, and to get the fire going again. She searched his bag, pulled a new candle out of the front pocket and lit it. Her throat tightened when she looked at him again. In the glow of the candle, his face was gaunt, his lips grey and his eyes dark, so dark they were almost hollow. He did look ill, more than ill. He looked haunted.
What if he really was going to die? Fear tightened her chest, panic made her heart flutter. She threw a handful of twigs and a couple of logs on the fire, struck a match. Flames rose, curled timidly around the logs at first, then jumped higher.
âLet's get you warm,' she said, hurrying to his side. âCan you stand up?'
âLeave me. I told youâ¦ it's too lateâ¦ this time,' he said in an exhausted whisper.
âNo, I'll help you.'
She slipped her hands under his arms and pulled him up in a sitting position. He was so weak he sagged against her. Gritting her teeth, she slipped her hands under his arms again, pulled and pushed, panting with the effort. It took three attempts but he eventually managed to sit up.
She then grabbed hold of his boots, slid her hands slowly along his calves, along his strong, muscular thighs, and she tried to fold his legs up. His body shuddered under her touch. He opened his eyes and shot her a stare as hot as molten lead.
âWhat the hell are you doing?'
âI said to leave me alone.'
She curled her hands on her hips and smiled.
âI never thought I would say this, but I'm actually glad to hear your grumpy voice. If you have the strength to be cantankerous, then you can't be feeling that bad. Anyway, whether you want it or not, I'm not leaving you on this cold, dirty floor.'
She patted his knees and added an authoritative âDon't move', before slipping her hands under his armpits again.
âNow, push with your heels into the floor while I lift you up.'
She heaved, pulled, pushed and panted until at last he was up on his feet. Then wrapping both arms around his waist to support him, she staggered with him towards the fireplace.
âSit on that chair while I make some tea.'
He flinched as he collapsed into the chair, and lifted his hand to his chest again.
âIs your chest hurting?' she asked, kneeling down in front of him and gently brushing his hair back from his forehead.
Her anger melted away at once, and she was shaken by a potent blend of compassion, helplessness and the inexplicable urge to stroke his face, his hair, and make him well again.
He gave a weak nod. âMy head too. Always my head.'
âAnd you're sure it's not because you drank too much whisky?'
She cast a doubtful eye towards the flask and the tumbler on the table. She didn't care what he'd say, the thing was vile and she would dispose of it at the earliest opportunity.
He squeezed his eyes shut, took a few shallow breaths.
âIt's not the whisky. I've had these fits before, but they're getting worse.'
He paused. âI know what it isâ¦ It's the curse.'
âMy curse. Here.' He pointed to his chest and spoke in a strange language. â
âYou mean â the tattoo?' Her breath became short, her face warm, as she remembered the dark blue letters stencilled just above his heart. âWhat does it mean?'
He closed his eyes and spoke barely unintelligible words.
âPride. Mine. Ferozeshah. It's because of me it happenedâ¦ It's my curse, my own bloody fault my men died.'
His voice broke and he slumped against the back of the chair.
He might be delirious but she had to keep him awake until he'd had a hot drink.
âWhat happened at Ferozeshah?' she asked, even if she already knew about it. Cameron had told her about McGunn's debacle in the Punjab. It was the reason he had been dismissed from the army.
âI didn't know you wereâ¦ interested in war andâ¦ battles.' He spoke slowly, wincing with every word.
âDon't forget my father was a colonel in Napoleon's Cuirassiers. I grew up listening to his battle stories. He and my brother would discuss strategy and battle tactics. Actually, I think you might be interested in some of the accounts in his war diaryâ¦'
The words died on her lips as a vague memory fluttered into her consciousness then fluttered right out again. She held her breath, closed her eyes. It was something about the diary, something important. She shook her head. Now wasn't the time or the place to think about her father's diary. She had to concentrate on making Lord McGunn better.
âPlease, tell me about Ferozeshah,' she insisted.
Bruce straightened up in the chair. Kicking the pain out of his mind, he breathed in, long and deep, and gathered his thoughts and memories. He never talked about it, hadn't mentioned it since the enquiry and his dismissal from the army.
âAre you sure you really want to know?'
âVery well. My plan was risky. I knew it, yet I pushed ahead without waiting for my colonel's go ahead.' He stopped to catch his breath.
âGeneral Gough's earlier attack against the Sikh camp at Ferozeshah was rushed and poorly planned. The men were exhausted. Our eighteen-pounder guns were still at Mudki and we had no heavy artillery. By nightfall we had lost hundreds of men and gained no ground.'
He closed his eyes. Suddenly he was back in the hell of that day â the relentless push through the jungle to reach the Sikh lines, the fire of enemy artillery on the plains causing such dense smoke it was hard to breathe and see the way forward; then the ferocious hand-to-hand combat and horrific injuries inflicted to his men by the Sikh warriors'
âI decided to infiltrate the Sikh camp with my unit, neutralise them from the inside and blow up their ammunition depot. My unit was the best. I was the best. I never doubted we would succeed.'
He paused and corrected in a low voice, âWe had to succeed.'
He gritted his teeth as another spasm constricted his chest, squeezed his heart in an iron fist. âDamn,' he muttered, clenching his fists to stop his hands from shaking.
Small, soft, cool fingers touched his face, stroked his cheeks. A gentle voice murmured comforting words.
He looked up. Caught in the light of the fire, her blonde hair formed a halo around her face and shone like the sunshine. Summer. She made him think of summer. A summer morning, filled with light and life, with the scent of wild flowers, and the promise of sweetness, life and love. Would he live long enough to see another summer?
âA Sikh guard spotted us and gave the alarm,' he carried on. âMy men tried to disarm him, but failed. Other fighters arrived. We were soon outnumbered. So my men started firing. I shouted not to shoot but they didn't hear me. Shots went astray, the Sikh gunpowder magazine blew up, too early.'
He swallowed hard. âTwenty of my men were still inside, rigging the place up with explosives.'
He rubbed his face.
âI can still hear the blast, the screams, smell the stench of burning flesh mixed with gunpowderâ¦'
âDid the British win the battle in the end?' she asked after a moment of silence.
He nodded. âIt took two days of fierce fighting for our side to secure the victory, but casualties were high. Too high.'
Rose scooped some hot water into a tumbler, sprinkled tea leaves into it and knelt down next to him. She handed him the cup. His hands shook so much he could hardly lift it to his lips.
âYou said something about your tattoo.'
He forced a few sips of hot tea down and gave her back the tumbler. He'd never told anyone about that before.
â that's Gurmukhi for pride, the cardinal evil, the worst of the five demons which plague humankind according to Sikh religious beliefs. It's my demon, my evil. I always believed I was good at what I did. Always thought I was the best.'
He let out a bitter laugh. âI was wrong, fatally so.'
He took a few shallow breaths. Hell, even breathing hurt.
âMy men died because of me. I can still hear them. I see their shadow, I feel their torment. They come for me, you know. They haunt me, every night and soon they'll take me with them.'
Suddenly the pain was back with a vengeance, its sharp nails clawing at his heart. Dizziness mind swirl and gave him the unpleasant feeling of floating away from his body.
His hand curled over his chest and he let out a moan. Perspiration beaded on his forehead, yet he didn't feel warm but cold, terribly cold as if the very centre of his being was gradually replaced by a core of ice. He started shaking.
He was dimly aware of Rose jumping to her feet, adding more wood onto the fire.
âDon't move, don't try to talk,' she said in a calm, soothing voice as she loosened his necktie and unbuttoned the top of his shirt to help him breathe more easily.
She wrapped the plaid around him and rubbed his cold hands in hers.
There was something he had to tell her now, before it was too late. Something that had been bothering him ever since his encounter with Rose's abductors.
âListen,' he started, summoning the last of his strength, âyou must beware of Morven. I think he means you harm. The mail guard and the driver were acting on his orders when they brought you hereâ¦'
âIt must be because I threatened him this morning when he was burning that village and warned him I would get him dismissed by Cameron.'
âThat must be why he didn't want you to reach Westmore. Another thingâ¦ Promise you'll leave this place as soon as the storm passes, whether I'm alive or not. Take Shadow and ride west, towards Borgie.'
He winced in pain. âAsk the innkeeper there to get a message to MacBoyd. To tell him he'll find me at
. Fairy Wood.'
The last thing he saw before the shadows engulfed him was her face, pale and serious, and her huge blue eyes as she leant over him. The last thing he felt was her cool, soft hand brush his hair back then linger a moment on his cheek.
Rose stayed at his side all night. She didn't even dare close her eyes in case he needed a drink of water or tea, or if the fire went out.
In case he died while she was asleep.
He was delirious most of the time, caught, it seemed, in the never-ending nightmare of Ferozeshah, and calling endless warnings to his fallen comrades. Only once did he cry out about somebody else â a woman. He didn't say her name but repeated over and over again that she shouldn't be afraid and he wouldn't hurt her.
âI fear I'm going mad,' he said in a brief lucid moment after drifting out of yet another series of terrifying hallucinations. âTalk to me. Please.'
So she told him about Bou Saada, and the stars shining like diamonds at night, and the moon making magical shadows that moved and danced across the vast Saharan plains surrounding the oasis. She told him about the thick, moist scent of her oasis and the delicate orange-blossom fragrance â her favourite â that bathed her garden in the springtime. Her voice tense with anger and grief, she told him about the hated French army and how they'd taken her mother's estate away only the year before because of her brother's involvement with the rebels.
âYour brother was a rebel?' he asked in a weak voice.
She nodded. âThat's right. Lucas fought against the French together with his childhood friend, Ahmoud. He's given up the struggle now. He found a store of treasure last year and realised he would be more useful building roads, railway lines, schools and hospitals rather than fight a hopeless cause.'
She let out a chuckle and added. âHis main reason for leaving the rebels' camp however was Harriet, the woman he fell in love with and married last year. They're expecting a baby any time now.'
âWhat about his friend?'
She shrugged. âAhmoud is still fighting. I don't think he'll ever give up. And neither will Iâ¦ I sometimes help delivering messages or giving information about the movements of the soldiers in and around Bou Saada.'
âYou help? Isn't that dangerous? What does your mother say about it?'
âShe doesn't know. For years she was busy running the estate, then when it was taken from us she tried to help our people survive. She's been even busier sorting the mess the French made since it was given back to us.'
Sadness and guilt tightened her throat. All this time, she'd been such a hopeless daughter, more a hindrance than a help in the estate office. Perhaps now she'd married Cameron her mother would be proud of her at lastâ¦
But McGunn wasn't listening. His eyes were closed, his breathing laboured again.
Some time before dawn she managed to coax him into getting up and lying on the bed where he would be more comfortable. He hadn't moved or made a sound since.