I never could get the hang of mornings.
Before the suns contemplated rising, before even the Army though it was time to be up & at 'em, and certainly before any rational human being's criteria for what constitutes morning had been fulfilled, I found myself stumbling away from the safety of our camp after Sergeant Feil, half of me dressed and the other half asleep.
The broken ground and unbroken chilly wind of the meandering hanging vale he forged down did little to aid my composure. Rehearsed explanations rebounded off my fuddled brain, the occasional phrase piercing a little into my awareness, and I grunted acknowledgement as the issue of bland wherewithals and by-your-leaves tapered off; "...Which is why I though it best to raise you as soon as I was able, Sahir."
I finally tugged my tunic, scarf and sword-belt into some form vaguely worthy of an officer, and as I looked about our path to gain my bearings my brain finally caught up with my ears. I nearly cried aloud as the cold dagger of despair stabbed into my belly.
If I had read his meaning, near impossible as it was not to, I had slept through events most terrible this night.
That dreadful dagger thrust deeper as Feil's pace slowed, and I found myself near-feverish as the moonlight illuminated dark shapes in the gloom amongst the rock and thorn some hundred yards ahead of us. Feil stood to one side respectfully, his bearded visage inscrutable in the half-light, and the weight of my worries dragged me downward. Closer, I was able to discern the high cockaded caps of a handful of Grist's Dragoons, on foot, gathered 'round a cluster of low shadows, and flanking them, a cluster of horses and a scatter of mounted troopers. The wind and valley walls brought mutterings and chucklings to my ears, which died away swiftly as my booted foot lost its battle with the odds and slipped on an outcrop, announcing my presence. Their identity was not lost on me, and the fact they had doubtless already informed His Lordship was in no way comforting, but it was that pitiful huddle of dark shapes they guarded with loaded fusils that dispelled the blissful disbelief of the early morning - and any hope I had left that there was some misunderstanding. For there, on the unwelcoming rocky floor of that forsaken valley, with hands and feet bound, lay half a dozen men; my men; deserters.
Full understanding ground my pace to a halt and, finding myself utterly incapable of trying to meet the pleading eyes I knew the captives must have fixed upon me, I turned my focus instead to their captives. Speaking slowly and enunciating clearly, I addressed the still-mounted dragoons and asked whom was in charge.
"That'd be me, begging your pardon, Sahir." One of the mounted troopers spurred gently towards me, stopping close enough for me to smell the saddle-sores, and, lifting his right leg out of the stirrup and over the pommel, smoothly twisted side-on in the saddle to show the stripes on his shoulder - The change of angle doing nothing to improve his countenance, I can tell you.
I hardly noticed at the time, such was my anxiety for the fates of my men and my future, but that Dragoon Sergeant must have been a true veteran, a born soldier, if you will; nobody of lesser skills could have spoke with such copious quantities of professionalism and insolence in equal measure.
"A good morning to you, Sahir,' he spoke, with a drawl verging on sarcasm and a grin audibly brimming with relish, 'I do hope you slept well. Alas, myself and my boys, now, we haven't slept a wink - have we lads?"
He swivelled that damnable smirk of his beatifically downhill, and was rewarded with a supportive chuckle from out of the gloom.
"Lucky for you, Sahir, that we were awake enough to spot these little piglets and round 'em up before they got too far; and lucky for us, too.' He shifted in his saddle, getting more comfortable, then leaned down toward me to deliver the punchline, 'The lads haven't seen a good pull in weeks!"
That sergeant had the measure of me, and no mistake, for even as he threw his head back to bellow a great laugh, counterpointed by a wail sent up from one of my poor damned lads, he still kept one horrid little eye on my face - to his satisfaction as an appalled expression gripped my features. The wail drew my glance onto the captives in time to see the butt of a dragoon's fusil fall like an axe-blow and cut the sound short.
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