|No rights infringement intended. M/F
2001 by inkling. Standard "they don't belong to me they just come out to play now and then" disclaimers apply. No infringement of any copyrights or trademarks is intended or should be inferred. The settings and characters are fictitious, even if a real name may be used. Any similarity to actual persons, living or deceased, or to actual events is purely coincidental and is not intended to suggest that the events described actually occurred.
For Cathy, gratuitous Hagman-bashing. Sorry, that left Sharpe to tell the story...
Captain Richard Sharpe stumbled and lurched into the cliff, biting back a curse and hoping he didn't tumble completely off the trail. Getting his balance, the hair on the back of his neck rose up, and he pressed against the cold rock for a moment, listening. It didn't take his upraised hand for silence as the Chosen Men came to a stop, lined out behind him on the narrow path. Moonlight glinted through the trees, reflecting off of a rifle barrel, but there wasn't any noise, not even the shifting of someone's booted feet. They all waited, listening...
And they all heard it at the same time: French soldiers, calling to each other. Bits chinking and saddles creaking, the soft voices moved through the small valley Sharpe and his men had just abandoned, climbing up a barely discernable track in the dim light. Harper and Harris had lifted Dan over the rougher parts; the wounded man's chin was black in the faint light where he'd bitten through his lip to keep from crying out. Now he sagged between Cooper and Perkins. It was impossible to tell in the darkness exactly where the old Rifleman had been hit. Sharpe just hoped the man could hold on until they found a safe place to care for him.
Leaving him behind to die wasn't an option.
Sharpe didn't need Harris's whispered interpretation to know that the Frogs beneath them were splitting up to search for the Riflemen. He'd have done the same, with an enemy wounded and cornered far from their own troops as his small band was. Cavalry would flush out the English soldiers eventually, or else the Infantry could follow them up the sides of the ravine.
A scrape on the path ahead brought both his and Harris's rifles up, but it was only Harper, Hagman's rifle slung over his shoulder and his own seven-barreled monstrosity cradled held in one hand.
"Sir, there's a wee bit of a cave ahead. It's not much, but we can catch our breath and take a look at Dan." Patrick wiped sweat from his forehead with one hand while he waited for Sharpe's answer.
With a nod he sent Patrick back the way he had just come, Harris at his heels. Richard waited while Cooper and Perkins eased past him as well. His hand found Dan's shoulder briefly, and he frowned at the tremors shaking the man's slender frame. Dan was never the strongest member of the unit. His heart and his courage made him seem much larger than he really was.
"Hang in there, man," he whispered, then swung around for one last look down the trail before following his men into the darkness.
Patrick was right; the cave was shallow, but it extended down the cliff face a ways. Harris was watching the further end, while Cooper sat sentry over the way they had just come in. Halfway between the two entrances, Harper kindled a tiny fire so they could see just how bad a shot Dan had taken.
The old poacher lay quietly, eyes closed and gasping for breath. He groaned as Patrick's fingers brushed his chest and then carefully began to unbutton the few remaining buttons of his jacket.
"Capn's permission to speak, Sir?" he whispered.
"Just be quiet while we have a look, Dan," Sharpe replied.
Dan nodded, his powder-smeared face grim and saturnine in the flickering light. Perkins, hovering at Dan's shoulder, looked cherubic by contrast. They all held their breath as Harper peeled the dark green jacket back.
"Damn," Sharpe whispered before he caught himself. Blood glistened blackly on the dingy white shirt, far too much of it for anyone's comfort. Dan wheezed and coughed. Sharpe grabbed the other man's shoulder, wiped gently at the blood the man had coughed up. The whites of Dan's eyes flashed briefly, and then his teeth as he grimaced. He was shivering as Patrick pulled his shirt up.
A hole in the thin pale chest oozed blood, the skin around it red and swelling. Perkins caught his breath in a sob, and Dan's hand came up, fumbling for the boy's. He grimaced as Harper poked gingerly around the wound.
"Don't take on, so, lad. Comes to all of us, it does. I've had a few good years, eh?"
"You shut your bloody gob, Daniel Hagman," whispered Harper in his best sergeant's voice. "You've a lot of time left to ye yet, so don't you go giving up on us now. Or we'll have to kick your butt from here to the gates o' hell, so we will."
Perkins, tears trickling down his face, flashed Harper a smile and grabbed Dan's hand with both his own. Sharpe watched silently, then caught Harper's eye. The big Sergeant knew as well as he did that Hagman's assessment of his wound was probably right. But Sharpe was grateful for his reassurances none the less. They needed some hope to get them through this night. He only hoped the dispatches in his pouch were worth the life of the man before him.
"Now you stay put and I'm gonna get something to put on that little cut you've been carrying on about," Harper said, and Dan nodded once, never opening his eyes. Sharpe stood when Harper did and followed him over to where they had dropped their packs. Harper knelt and dug in his, not meeting Sharpe's gaze.
"It's a bad 'un, Sor. He's got a broken rib, sure, and it nicked his lung. And, I'm not sure but what a surgeon digging for the bullet wouldn't kill him outright."
"So even if he lives to get to camp..." Sharpe trailed off, refusing to finish the thought.
Patrick nodded miserably, pulling a strip of dingy linen from his pack, along with a couple of tins. Richard didn't follow to watch him bandage the wound, choosing instead to stare down the length of the shallow cave. Damn. Thanks to an idiot who didn't know better than to let himself be followed by the French, what had been billed by Hogan as a simple, "Duck in and collect some paperwork" mission had become a nightmare. The thought of losing one of his Chosen Men to the machinations of Wellesley's spies grated hard. Dying in battle was one thing; dying because some fool of a Spaniard didn't think to check his back trail was another thing entirely.
Damn them all anyway, spooks and their tricks. On both sides.
Shaking off the melancholy, he strode forward to where Harris watched the shadows outside for Frogs. The mans's face was a pale smear in the darkness; Sharpe swore softly as a gust of wind splatted moisture against his face. The rain would hinder the hunt, but make their lives much more miserable.
And diminish Dan's chances of survival even more.
"Nothing, Sir. Just rain on the way. I can still hear them down the in the ravine, but they haven't looked up here yet." The pale blur looked over his shoulder to where the faint flames illuminated Perkins, supporting Dan as Harper wrapped the linen around his chest. "Dan, Sir?"
Sharpe heard the plea in the normally sarcastic voice, knew that there was nothing he could do but answer it honestly, and brutally.
"Low and on the left. Broke a rib. Pat thinks it nicked his lung. Bullet's still in him."
Harper was silent for a moment, then he swore.
"We may have killed him hauling him over the rocks, then."
"Aye, but he'd be dead for sure if we hadn't. He's alive, Harris, and where there's life there's hope, right?"
There was a reluctant nod from the redhead, and Sharpe pushed away the sudden thought that his men's blind faith in him, in the luck he somehow had that got them out of whatever impossible situation they were in, might be worth more than any ability he had at all. Before he was forced to perjure himself with further reassurances, Cooper came jogging up.
"Frogs, sir, down the path. I think they've found our trail."
"Damn!" Sharpe turned to his men, but Harper had already stamped out their tiny fire. Perkins was only a darker shadow, bending over Dan, presumably finishing up the buttons on his ragged coat.
One hand on his sword, Sharpe pushed past them, leaning out of the cave mouth just long enough to verify Cooper's story. When he turned around, a large shadow that had to be Harper was standing there, a blanket-wrapped form limp over his shoulder.
"He went out, Sir, when we bandaged the wound."
Sharpe sighed, and nodded.
"All right, let's move, then."
They moved through the night, rain spitting at them and the wind pushing and pulling them about the narrow trail. Harris kept point, Harper behind him with his burden. Perkins followed, one hand out unnecessarily to steady Dan. Cooper followed him, and Sharpe had rear guard, shepherding his men ahead of him. Only he had no certainty of any safe haven he could direct them to.
It was Perkins who discovered the next cave, stumbling over his own two feet, from weariness or despair. He put a hand out to the rocks to catch himself and simply disappeared into the shadows.
His startled cry brought them all in a hurry, and Sharpe was the first one to find the crevice the boy had fallen through. Ducking through the narrow entrance, Sharpe found himself in a cave that felt deeper than their previous shelter. The air was rank with an odor of decay and guano, but at least it wasn't wet. Richard wiped the dampness from his face and tried to see into the velvet darkness.
"Perkins?" Mindful of the French in the valley below, he kept his call low. The roof squeaked and rustled and something skittered across the floor--many somethings, as he stepped further into the cave. Reminded of the hordes of rats who haunted the streets of his childhood, Richard shuddered. Where was the boy?
"Perkins?" he called again, softly, stepping in and to one side. He crouched, reaching out and feeling through the pitch black before him for some sign of his man. A rustle to his rear told him that at least one of the others had joined him in the cave. Harris swore, and there was a sudden squeaking that grew and surrounded them. The night filled with furry bodies, fluttering and beating the air all about him. Sharpe's hand came up to protect his face, and he fell on his rump into soft sand. The bats were gone as fast as they had appeared.
"Sir?" Harper whispered from the narrow entrance. "Frogs coming up took a wrong turn. We may have lost them for the moment."
"In here," Richard replied, and heard more soft scraping as Harper maneuvered Dan into the cave. Despite the smell, they may as well take shelter while they could. But before Sharpe could get up from the floor to organize the men and find Perkins, there was a noise they knew all too well, the shink of a sword being drawn from its sheath. The soft sound of one of his men cocking a rifle came from his right, but the sudden flare of a match drew all attention to it.
The tiny flame lit a shuttered lantern, but the hands that held the match moved too swiftly for Sharpe to see anything more than the motion itself before the lantern was turned on them.
One hand up to block the light, Richard blinked away tears before he could focus on what the light revealed: Perkins, laid out on the floor, blinking up at someone whose boot sat on his chest. A sword pressed against his throat. Behind Richard, another rifle cocked, loudly this time. He waited one second to be sure Perkins' captor had heard the rifle being readied, then he scrambled to his feet and tried to take command of the situation.
"All right, just who the hell are you and get your bloody foot off my man." Mindful of the Frogs outside, he didn't shout. He took one step towards Perkins and in the darkness behind the lantern-bearer, weapons cocked. Lots of them. Oh, shit.
For a second nobody moved, and then someone coughed. Dan, Sharpe realized, and he sounded like he was choking. He wanted desperately to go to his man, to get Perkins up and Dan up and all of them out of here, but mindful of the rifles in the shadows, he stayed put. Perkins moved, though, and the sword flickered. Sharpe willed the boy to stay still, took a step forward. A rifle muzzle glinted behind the lantern light, pointed straight at him, and he froze. Behind him there was shuffling, and then Harper's soft brogue, shushing the older man. Dan's painful coughing and wheezing seemed to go on forever, while Richard stared into the darkness beyond young Perkins, willing Dan to stop, to be all right, trying desperately to figure some way out of this mess. Something stirred in the shadows in front of him, but nothing materialized.
After an eternity, Dan sighed and his coughing eased. Over Harper's gentle urging to "Just sit back, mon, I've got ye," Sharpe spoke.
"Harris, tell them if they've got nothing to bloody do but stand and stare at us in the dark, then bloody well let us go. In Spanish."
There was a brief second before Harris's voice rolled out of the shadows to his right. That meant Cooper was to his left, and the only one of them the muskets didn't have a fix on yet. Another long pause in which the only sound was Dan's labored breathing. Just as Sharpe opened his mouth to tell Harris to try Portuguese , a voice came from the shadows behind Perkins.
"Inglis?" The query seemed to swell and fill the cave, despite its softness. The voice was indeterminate, no way to tell if it was male or female.
"Just look at our bloody uniforms, eh? Captain Richard Sharpe of the bloody South Essex, under Wellesley's command, and my Chosen Men." Richard knew he shouldn't antagonize whoever held both muskets and swords on them, but he was tired and weary and had had enough of games in the dark for one night. His men were far from safe, a known enemy was on their tail, and this new, unquantifiable danger irked him more and more.
Harris finished translating in Spanish, and Richard spoke again.
"Look, if you're bloody Frogs lets have at it and get it over with. If you're not, then let my man up and we'll get out of your hair. We're not here to harm you."
Harris translated again, and Richard realized that there must be another opening to the cave. Fresh air flowed past his face, and the stench of the cave lessened. Behind him Dan coughed again, but movement in the shadows before him caught Richard's eye. A skirt appeared beside Perkins, the hand that flashed in front of the lantern before lifting it strangely abbreviated. The light shone full on Perkins for a second before the woman said something in Spanish. It was the same voice as before, Sharpe realized, the second before Harris's whispered translation.
"'This one's only a boy."
The lantern flashed again, past Richard. He jerked around to find Harper pinned by the light. The Irishman crouched against the back wall, cradling Dan in one arm and his rifle in the other. All seven barrels were aimed into the shadows where the woman stood.
The woman spoke again, Harris's translation a heartbeat later.
"They have wounded."
The light flashed in his eyes now, and once again, Richard brought a hand up to block it. She spoke again, longer this time, her voice rolling pleasantly about the cave. He caught Wellesley's name, but that was all. Gold flashed in the darkness as she moved forward, her skirt brushing the soiled floor at Perkins' ear.
Harris hesitated, and Sharped glanced impatiently over at him. Cooper still hadn't moved or spoken from wherever he was in the shadows, and Sharpe was grateful for that one small advantage.
"She said we can leave the wounded man and the boy. They'll bring them to Wellesley's camp when the wounded man can travel."
"Not bloody likely, not when they don't even have the balls to show their faces so we know who they are," Richard snarled, taking a step forward. Perkins gasped as the sword shivered against his throat, and Richard couldn't miss the light glinting on several more rifle barrels, all pointing at him. Seething, he stopped, but the woman spoke harshly before he could open his mouth. The rifle barrels were lowered, slightly, and the sword lifted just a fraction of its pressure from Perkins' throat. The light turned away from him, flashed up at the woman's face.
"I am Urenia," she said, in perfect if heavily accented English. "We are what's left of our people after the French and the Spanish were finished with our caravans."
Gypsy. From the long dark hair bound back with a bright handkerchief to the gold glinting at her neck and ears and on her fingers, Urenia was a Gypsy. Slender, her bodice lifting from the shadows with a respectable amount of bosom, she must have been pretty once. But a long, puckered scar slashed down across one eye and her nose, another from her ear and across her cheek and lips, ruining her looks forever. She allowed their perusal for a few seconds before turning the lantern on each of his men in turn. Perkins, Harris, Harper and Dan, and lastly Cooper. Sharpe was galled that her light nailed the lanky Rifleman, his one advantage, without even searching.
The silence was broken by Dan's coughing. He was trying to speak, and refused to be shushed by Harper.
"Sir," Harper said, and after a second Richard turned and crossed the cave to his side, Urenia's lantern obligingly lighting his way. He knelt by the old rifleman, and Dan's hand came out of the blanket. Richard grabbed it, trying to ignore the man's rasping breath and the bloody froth it left on his lips.
"Don'...don' leave me 'ere, Sir. I'll no' die among...among strangers."
Richard squeezed the hand he held. A rustling sound from where he'd been, and Perkins was there, kneeling beside them. The light came with him, and Sharpe hated it for the way it gave the dark shadows on Dan's blanket bloody substance.
"Ye'll not die yet," he said, but the look in the old Rifleman's eyes before they closed said they both knew better. He squeezed Dan's hand and stood.
Urenia wasn't nearly as tall as he was, but Sharpe knew the look on her dark face, and knew it well. Wellesley had it, his lover, Teresa, had it; he had it. This woman commanded here, and commanded well, if her troops' behavior tonight was any indication.
Harris and Cooper joined the group, but Richard ignored them, holding Urenia's gaze steady instead.
"You heard Dan." He hesitated, knowing he was condemning his friend to death and hating that fact. But Dan had spoken. "Either you let us all go, or we all stay."
The lantern flashed, illuminating Dan briefly, and Richard watched Perkins wipe more blood from Dan's lips with sick certainty. Dan wouldn't last more than a few hours, but was it too much to ask that he be dry and maybe warm and surrounded by his comrades in arms until it was over?
Urenia was gazing at them all, then she flashed the lantern in Sharpe's eyes.
"You may stay," she conceded, and turned away, leaving her lantern on the rock beside Dan. Blinking, Richard stared after her as she stalked back to where her men had yet to come from the shadows. Then he turned to his Riflemen. Their uncertainty at his decision showed in their faces, and as Urenia spoke to her people in the background, Richard gathered his men with a glance. He met each man's gaze steadily, then looked down at Dan before looking back at them. Each man in his turn nodded, Cooper miserably, Harris reluctantly, and Perkins tearfully. Harper's gaze was murderous, though whether his anger was directed at their current enigmatic hosts, the French or simply the death that stalked the old poacher now--or all three, Richard didn't know.
But they were agreed. They'd stay in the cave with the Gypsies until Dan was gone, and then they'd be on their way.
Raised voices echoed from the dark shadows of the cavern but even as Sharpe jerked around the argument was over. Urenia's voice came again, obviously giving orders.
"Harris?" Sharpe tried, and the redhead's curls shivered in the semi-darkness above the lantern.
"Sorry, Sir. Romany wasn't on the required list."
Sharpe nodded, then stepped back as two men appeared in the circle of light, two long poles and a length of canvas between them. Urenia followed at their heels.
"We must move to an interior cavern. With the French about we cannot risk the lights here." Her ruined hand flashed from the shadows, its wave encompassing both the narrow opening they'd fallen through, then the litter the two men had deposited at her feet. "He will travel easier this way." Urenia stared at Dan, then up at Sharpe, her eyes dark, moonless pools in the limited light. "I am..." the word she spoke meant nothing to any of them, and after a short hesitation, she tried again. "An herbalist. A healer. May I look at his wound?"
A healer? Sharpe choked on the bitter laugh that threatened to burst out of him. One look at the blood-soaked blanket wrapped about Dan should have told her they were long past healing and into miracles. Dan's eyes were closed; his chest heaving as he fought for breath. Someone shifted beside him, and Sharpe turned toward the noise to find Harris at his elbow.
"If she can ease his pain..." he whispered. Ease his passing, Sharpe saw in Harris's eyes, and Urenia's, as he met her steady gaze. Grief was bitter in his mouth as the taste of powder and shot. He nodded, then pulled Perkins up and back, out of the way as Urenia stepped forward.
Slowly, reluctantly, Harper released Dan, but the gentle touch Urenia used as she tilted Dan's chin up seemed to ease the sergeant's suspicions. Kneeling in the spot Perkins had just vacated, she slipped one hand between Dan's face and Harper's shoulder, cradling him while she ran her maimed hand over his features. Her eyes closed, she whispered, then cupped both her hands about the haggard cheeks and seemed to be listening to something. Seconds later, Dan groaned and stirred, but she shushed him, brushing the lank hair from his face, and he quieted.
Richard knew he wasn't the only one staring at her ruined hand as she examined the old poacher. Not only was she missing the last two fingers, it looked as if half her hand itself was gone. Harper shifted infinitesimally as she released Dan and pulled at the blanket, the sergeant helping her to work the dark wool loose. She reached beneath Dan's jacket and shirt, feeling about the wound. Her touch was delicate, and the gold on her fingers shot small sparks as she moved. Finished with her examination, she drew the blankets back together, then raised her hands to Dan's face again. Both her wrists were encircled with a shining ring of scarred flesh. Dan shivered, muttering unintelligibly, but then that maimed hand ghosted across his brow once more and he sighed and was still.
A step beside them, and a Gypsy wormed his way between Sharpe and his men. His purple shirt shimmered as he held out a battered tin cup and clean cloths to Urenia. Thirst bit suddenly, and someone beside him swallowed audibly. When was the last time they'd had water? Their canteens had been emptied hours before, there'd been no time to stop for more in their hurried retreat. What little they had with them they'd saved for Dan. Urenia took the supplies, then softly ordered something else. Canteens were produced and offered about, and the band of weary soldiers took turns drinking as Urenia washed the blood from Dan's face. Pulling a tiny vial from her belt, she carefully measured a small amount into the cup. She gestured towards Harper.
"Hold him so he can drink."
At Harper's glare she turned to Harris and snapped something in Spanish. Harris looked surprised, then turned to Harper.
"It's poppy juice, Sergeant. Opium."
"It will ease his pain as we move him," Urenia offered, holding the cup towards Dan.
Harper glared at them all for a moment, then shifted. He moved Dan's head so Urenia could hold the cup to his lips. Dan coughed and spluttered as she began to pour the liquid into his mouth, but Harper spoke softly and in the end they got most of the drugged water into him.
The opium must have worked, because Dan slept throughout the process of getting him and the Chosen men moved through the dark tunnels. Following Harper, dogging the litter carried by rotating shifts of Gypsies, Sharpe thought irritably that he might as well be asleep for all the use he or his men were in this hike. The shielded lanterns revealed little about their path, the only sounds were boots soft on sand and rock and the occasional blasphemy from a Rifleman who stumbled over a rock. Despite the fresh air wafting past, easing the guano-drenched stench of that first cavern, the odor seemed embedded in the back of his nose and throat.
He wasn't sure if it was moments, hours, or eternities later when the feel of rock before him suddenly opened out, and somehow he knew they were now entering yet another large, thankfully less aromatic, cavern.
The two or three lanterns that had guided them through the tunnels bobbed into the dark distance, but Sharpe and his men halted just inside the cavern with Dan's litter bearers and the rest of the band. Water trickled somewhere in the dark, and moments later flames brought shadowy shape to the rocky walls, and the Gypsies about them scattered in the unmistakable business of making camp in the firelight. More wood was produced from a hidden cache and three more fires were quickly lit, spaced in a ring about the cavern. The roof above them was blackened with smoke; obviously this was a regular wayside camp. Wellesley's soldiers rarely had it this good on their marches.
By unspoken agreement, Sharpe and his Riflemen found themselves gathered at a single fire to one side of the cave. The only Romany who deigned to notice them in the bustle of setting up camp was Urenia, helping Harper settle Dan into a bed of blankets produced from dark recesses of the cavern by her lieutenants. They were bedding the old Rifleman next to a wall, where the warmth of the fire would be reflected back to them. Sharpe was absurdly grateful for that consideration of Dan's comfort, since it meant that the rest of the small group of English soldiers would benefit as well.
As the light flickered over the craggy earthen walls and warmth seeped through the cavern, Sharpe studied Urenia's band of Gypsies. It was a motley band, well-armed by scavenging from both armies, it looked like. A few dozen Romany men of all ages, mostly mustachioed, some with bandanas, others with battered hats. One or two looked like someone's kindly grandpa, several looked like someone's son, younger even than Perkins. Half a dozen of the men looked downright murderous, the type of man he wasnt sure hed want to meet even on his own side of the battlefield. The rest might have passed for any of Commandante Teresa's Spanish Guerillas until you looked into their lean, dark faces. A little more brightly dressed, a bit more gold glinting about them, perhaps, yet the same bandoliers and knives and easy confidence of seasoned warriors. But for the Romany, enemies wore the uniforms of all the armies, and civilians besides. Who would they fight for, in a pinch? Sharpe could hear Major Hogan's speculation now, wondering if he could recruit them to fight for Wellesley in the guerilla, the "little war", fought across Spain on a thousand fronts in a thousand villages and hills.
Doubtful, Richard thought. Friends were few for the Romany, and they had learned long ago to stick to their own and pledge their allegiance to none. These were hard men, their eyes glinting in the firelight, teeth flashing as they shared meat and drink and quiet laughter with each other. Studying her men from where he squatted at their own fire, Urenia rose in Sharpe's estimation. Teresa would have understood this woman, respected and liked her, perhaps. Their scars were similar, no doubt, for all his lovers were not physically visible. And they held the men they commanded in a velvet iron grip.
His ruminations were interrupted as the same Romany youth in his bright purple shirt approached, bearing a three-legged cauldron and a battered, tin beaker. Smiling shyly as he set the pot carefully in the fire, he offered the pitcher to Sharpe. The young man's resemblance to Urenia was obvious, and as he accepted the drink, Sharpe found himself wondering if he was son or brother. In his inattention, he swigged a drink and found himself choking, not on water, but on a bitter, fiery brew. His glare failed to wipe the smirk from Harris's face or the grin from Cooper's and the boy's, so in revenge Sharpe took another, much longer drink from the beaker before offering it to Harris. He wiped his mouth with a sleeve, as Perkins slipped over to sit beside Dan, who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Whatever meat was starting to bubble in the pot smelled heavenly, and Sharpe allowed himself to relax, just a bit. He gave a nod of thanks to the boy, who inclined his head in an imitation of Urenia before turning away to his own fire. Sharpe and his Chosen Men might not be among friends, but they weren't among enemies. They just might make it out of this mess alive--all of them but Dan, that was.
An hour later, fed and warm, Sharpe found himself dozing in the soft haze of firelight. At his left, Harris sat cross-legged, mending a strap on his pack, Cooper stretched out beyond him. Their conversation was quiet, both men keeping an eye on the quiet form of Dan. Perkins snored softly, leaning back against the rock wall by Dan's head. Harper knelt at Dan's feet, watching the room about him warily, rifle cradled in his arms even as he kept the deathwatch. Only the faint rise and fall of his blankets indicated Dan was still with them; Urenia's medicine had made the man's last hours quiet and comfortable, if nothing else.
At the fire beyond theirs, Urenia stared into the flames, seemingly unaware of the intense conversation taking place between her kinsman and two other, older men. A violin sang from the most distant fire, soft and melancholy notes woven over and through the murmur of voices and flickering flames. Dan would have been livid if he'd known he was missing the chance to play with and swap songs with a fellow musician. Who would they pass Dan's fiddle on to when the poacher was gone? Would he play the dirge at Dan's wake? Taking a deep breath, Sharpe swigged the last of the liquor from the small pot, and smiled grimly at Harper, before closing his eyes and relaxing onto his blanket.
He dreamed of drums and war, of good comrades gone in a haze of blood and smoke, of men singing around campfires, of Dan, playing his fiddle while dirty, ragged soldiers and their dirty, ragged women danced around him. Last, strangely, he dreamed of a woman singing, high and clear and heart-breakingly pure.
When Sharpe awoke, both Dan and the Romany were gone.
"Bugger it all, Sor. They must have drugged us." Hefting his rifle in one hand, Harper delivered a particularly vicious kick to Cooper's leg; the Rifleman snorted a protest and rolled away from the abuse, but didn't wake. "Must have been the liquor, Sor. That stuff had enough of a kick to it to hide just about anything. And they were free with the offering of it. We're lucky they left us anything, anything at all." The big sergeant glared around at the men's kits, scattered about their fire. Nothing, it seemed, was missingnothing but Dan and his rifle.
Harris appeared from the shadows, and poured a cup of water in Cooper's face. Turning away from Cooper's sputtering, Sharpe stared grimly into the dark and empty cave. His head was pounding, his throat was sticky and his stomach felt like it had after that last curry-laden meal hed had in India. Perkins sat in a mournful lump by the fire, Harris was helping Cooper to his feet, making sure he didn't stagger into the flames as he tried to get his bearings. All three men looked pale and shaky and probably felt at least as bad as he did. Harper was the only one who didn't look like the fourth day of a three day drunk, and that was probably because that wild Irish temper of his had burned away anything that dared linger in his system to hinder him.
"Did they leave any lanterns?" Sharpe asked, settling his sword in his belt.
"One, sir," Harris answered him, producing the lamp from beside the dwindling fire. "I found it by one of the entrances while Harper was waking folks."
"Then why did you pick it up, mon? That lantern may have marked our only way out of this maze!" Sharpe took a threatening step towards the redhead.
"I marked the passage, Sir, with my hat."
Stung, Sharpe nodded. He turned away as the redhead added to his report. "There's no way to tell which way they went, sir. I don't think even Dan..." The redhead stumbled over the name, then finished miserably. "Dan couldn't even track them over the rocks."
Damn and double damn. Richard kicked impotently at the blanket Cooper had been lying on. He'd been a fool to accept the Romany's offer of help; they were just as likely to send the French after them as show them the way back to Wellesley's camp. But there was no use crying over spilt milk, and Dan... there was no way to tell time in the cavern, but surely the old poacher was dead by now. And Hogan would be wanting his dispatches. Why the Gypsies felt the need to take Hagman...
"Maybe because he was part Rom, sir?" Cooper's voice came from the shadows, startling to Sharpe as the sound of his own voice asking the question. "His grandma. He told me once, when he was a bit in his cups. Maybe they..." Cooper's voice faded and he shrugged. Sharpe sent a curt nod Cooper's way. Aye, Dan had always had a roguish look to him, his appearance far more dangerous than the actuality of the man. When he thought about it, Dan's lean, dark face belonged with the Romany around their fires last night far more than with Wellesley's ragged band of Riflemen, huddled together for safety and reassurance in the cavern's gloaming.
"What will they do to him, sir?" Perkins' voice was raw and his eyes red, from smoke and tears. Dan had been father to the young lad, ever since they'd saved him from that first, disastrous massacre of the 95th. Cooper and Harris had looked after the boy like genial, forgetful older brothers, harassing him and teasing him by turns, but Dan had taken him in hand, doctored his hurts and seen to his wounds, treated him as a father would a nearly grown son. And it wasn't just Perkins Dan had taken in hand. In many ways the old poacher had been the heart and soul of this unit. They would be missing him sorely, for a long time.
"They'll bury him, lad. Burn the body, most likely," Harris supplied after an awkward silence. "It's their way."
"But he was ours, Sir," Perkins pleaded with Sharpe. "Not theirs. They had no right, no right to take him from us. He said he didn't want to--" Harper laid a hand on the boy's shoulder, and Perkins caught his breath in a strangled sob before lurching to his feet and stumbling away into the darkness. The other four men turned their backs, gave the boy his privacy to mourn. Aye, Dan had been theirs, but there wasn't any way to bring back what the Gypsies had stolen. Richard Sharpe was just grateful they still had their rifles and--a quick check revealed--that damned pouch Hogan had sent them after in the first place.
"Best be off, then," he said, ignoring the sharp gasp of anger from Perkins. Cooper, Harris, and Harper knew better, and simply bent to the grim task of taking up their kits. Soldiers didn't have time to grieve, not without the knowing where they were and how far from safety. Chances were they'd stick their heads out of the caves and into a French patrol's sites. It was a long way home, yet.
"Don't worry, Perkins. We'll come back and get the bloody bastards," Harper growled, Cooper and Harris voicing their quiet affirmation. "We'll get Miss Teresa to find them for us, and then we'll have our answers, so we will."
And our vengeance went unstated.
It was a sullen group that followed Harris and his hat through the narrow passage marked by the Gypsy lantern. They could only hope it led out, and not further into the caverns. Harper had to carry his pack in his hand; twice the big man barely scraped through the passageway. Sometimes they could stand, there were two or three small caverns that would have sheltered half a company comfortably. And sometimes they were crouching and then crawling, over and through rocks and seeping water and God knew what. Sharpe tried not to think about what lay under or over them as they maneuvered their way through the twisting, turning passageway.
Theyd marched for slightly less than an eternity when he became aware of the faint grey glow in front of them.
"Harris," he hissed. Boots scraped, the Riflemen coming to a halt. After a second, Harper's growl came from behind him.
"We must be getting close to the outside." There was a hint of restrained panic in the sergeant's voice; Sharpe sighed. There'd be hell to pay if open skies didn't soon replace this stifling presence of rock. With the light came a faint smell of outside, of trees and rain, and it was almost more than he could bear in this prison. How did the Gypsies stand to use these passages?
Desperation, replied his mind, and Sharpe pushed away the image of Urenia's hacked up hand and face.
"Go slowly," he admonished in a whisper. "We don't want to poke our noses out amongst the French."
Harper shoved his way up to the front, and the Riflemen crept slowly forward. After a few seconds they heard birdsong, and then...
Singing? Someone was singing? The song was soft, more murmur than voice, but with a start, Richard recognized the voice from his dreams. He swore and shoved his way to where Harris and Harper had taken up position in the shadows behind a rock outcropping. The grey light of day shone beyond them, illuminating craggy rock and little else. The singing was accompanied by the crackling of a fire, and now a faint scent of woodsmoke and cooking meat overlaid those of the outdoors. Sharpe leaned carefully out into the cave. One person, a woman with long dark hair, cascading out from beneath a scarf, and gold on her fingers, squatted near a fire built against the wall of the cavern. Urenia.
Sharpe glared at her back, then checked quickly. She was alone, the small cave adequately lit from outside to eliminate any hiding places for her men. There were no other entrances or exits, other than the opening just visible beyond her. They'd have to go by her to get out. Just as well, they could get some answers, some satisfaction for their grief. Maybe they could take Urenia with them in exchange for their man the Gypsies had stolen.
Urenia's voice dropped off and her hand moved. The fire leapt up and changed colors, then died down again. Urenia held out her hands, chanting instead of singing, and a knife flickered as she passed it over the flames. With a start Richard realized that what he'd taken for a stick at her feet was a rifle, a Baker rifle, just like the ones he and his men carried, like the one Dan had carried.
He ducked back into the passageway, and gathered his men with a glance. Pulling his sword, he nodded at them. There was a faint shuffling they readied themselves, the softest of clicks as they cocked their rifles, and then Sharpe and his Chosen Men stormed into the cave.
Urenia's only response to being surrounded by rifles and angry Riflemen was a short comment in Spanish. Mouth open, Sharpe stared at her, then looked at Harris for clarification. The woman spoke English, they all knew that. Why she wouldn't just speak so they could all understand... Then he took a good look at Harris. The redhead's rifle pointed almost to the floor and he stared at the Gypsy woman like she'd grown warts and two heads. The look on Cooper's face said he was almost more interested in the birds roasting over the fire than in any satisfaction over Dan's missing body, and Sharpe's stomach growled. There were six birds, and a small pot bubbling by the edge of the fire. Yanking his attention back to where it belonged, to this woman who had stolen his man, he opened his mouth to demand his answers. But Urenia spoke sharply to Harris before he could get his answer.
"Well?" Sharpe demanded when a stupefied Harris still didn't answer. The Captain spared a glance at the woman. She'd taken one of the birds from the fire, and her long, elegant fingers were busy taking the meat off the bone.
"She...she said...to be quiet. If we're not careful, we'll wake him before it's time."
"What? Wake who? What's that bloody got to do with--"
Harper suddenly pushed past Richard, nearly knocking Urenia into the fire. He went down on one knee beside what Sharpe had thought was simply a pile of blankets against the wall and, studying them, carefully pulled one end aside.
Dan! There was a shocked silence, then the Chosen Men gathered around their fallen comrade; Urenia moved to the other side of the fire to accommodate them. She added two logs to the fire; the flames obligingly leapt up to light their inspection.
His eyes closed and his face returned to its normal tan instead of last night's ghastly white, Dan could have been peacefully asleep. Hagman looked even more foreign, more kin to Urenia's sharp, dark features in the flickering light. Still, he was theirs, and the Gypsies had had no right to take him. Sharpe's stomach twisted, and his resolve hardened. He'd not take Urenia back to Major Hogan; no the wily old Irishman would be too kind to her, too willing to use her for information. He'd take Urenia back and turn her over to Teresa, to the guerillas, and see what they wanted to do with a Gypsy who messed with Teresa's favorite Riflemen.
Harper's hand shot out, and sought Dan's neck--checking for a pulse, Sharpe realized. He shook his head. Hopes died hard, they did, and no matter how much better Hagman looked than he had yesterday night there would have been no surviving that wound.
"He's alive, Sor!" Harper hissed, his gaze darting up to Sharpe. "He's alive!"
"Alive?" Sharpe repeated, stupidly, over the surprised murmurings from Cooper and Perkins. Harris gaped at Dan, his face pale and confused. When Sharpe twisted around to stare at Urenia, she shrugged, seemingly more interested in tearing the meat from a legbone. Harper pulled the blankets back, and there was the bloody stain on Dan's jacket and shirt, but the old poacher never moved, not even when Harper pulled the jacket aside and the shirt to reveal the neat bandage circling his ribs. Arms braced on her upright knees, Urenia tossed a bone into the fire and stared darkly at them.
"Cover him, you fool, before you wake him."
Perkins and Cooper shared the space abruptly vacated by the Irishman. Both men leaned over and looked closely at the sleeping figure of their friend, as if to reassure themselves. Harris stepped back, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to get too close. Sharpe didnt know who was more surprised, himself, or Harper when he turned and found Harper's rifle beneath Urenia's chin.
"What did ye do to him, ye Gypsy bitch?"
Cooper and Harris shifted uneasily, looking to Sharpe for cues. He waited, one hand on his sword, willing to let Harper dig the answers out of the woman. There was time to stop him from killing her. The ugly scar twisted her smile. Urenia shrugged, dismissing Harper with a look that said he was worth about as much as the bat guano in that first cavern, so long ago.
"I removed the bullet. I cured him. He will wake when he is ready, if you fools let him sleep. He will be fine once he wakes, but sleep is best for him, now. It has been a long night."
For more than Dan, Sharpe suddenly realized. Urenia's face was haggard in the light, her eyes bloodshot and shadowed. The small carcass she held in her hands was already half-devoured, the meat hanging from it in strips.
"Pat," Sharpe said, softly, then again, louder, when the seven-barreled Knock Rifle remained under Urenia's chin. He stepped up and pushed the gun down just as Harper let it drop. Urenia gave them no acknowledgment, simply returned to tearing the meat from the small bird. His stomach growled again, and Richard took breath, ready to invite his men to rest of the meat.
"What if she's enchanted him, Sor? What if that's not Dan, but a changeling? We don't know what sort of deviltry she's done to him and--"
Urenia was on her feet, suddenly, and Harper may have had a foot or more and a hundred pounds on her but he was backing away before the anger flashing in her eyes.
"My deviltry," she spat," was to heal him. Not for you, or for you," she flicked a glance at Sharpe, "or for your Wellesley or your damned war. I cured him for our shared blood." Bird dangling from her whole hand, the two fingers on her maimed hand fisted and her thumb jabbed toward her own chest. Eyes wide, Harper stared at her. The scars made her scowl more ferocious, and she spat at Harper's feet, then pointed at Dan. "I took him away because you gadje would not understand. In your ignorance you would have tried to stop me. Fools! My men wanted to keep him, leave you lost in the caverns. But I said no, because you are his cumpania, and I would not deny you the soul he brings to you." She seemed unaware that she had delivered her diatribe in Spanish, Harris's soft voice was translating, stumbling over the unfamiliar words.
Silence that followed Urenias outburst, and Sharpe swallowed. What the bloody hell was a cumpania? And what the hell was he supposed to do with this situation? What was an officereven a born gentleman like Colonel Lawfordto make of this mess? Major Hogan, damn him, would probably thank her kindly for the service and ask her did she have anything she'd care to share about Frog troop movements in the mountains? Colonel Lawford would probably ignore the unfamiliar term, then simply politely bow and thank her.
But Captain Richard Sharpe, former gutter rat, was just superstitious enough that he didn't know what to do--have the balls to ask or just ignore everything and ask if she had tea to go with her gamehens.
The fire leapt and crackled. Cooper and Harris wisely said nothing from the shadows, and Sharpe fidgeted, wishing he had that option. Perkins stared wide-eyed from where he sat by Dan, a Dan that should by all rights be dead, and not sleeping. What had she done to him? And staring at the men gathered around him, hovering near their wounded comrade, he realized maybe he did know what cumpania meant.
"Thank you." His voice was loud in the cavern, and everyone but Urenia jumped. She simply continued staring balefully at Harper. Perkins gratitude followed Sharpe's; for that he got a nod and hint of a smile from the woman. Silence but for the bird singing outside held the cavern. Focusing on Harper, Urenia made some complicated motion with her fingers at him, and said something, softly, in Spanish, if Harris's stifled snort of laughter was to be believed. Harper, however, blanched and crossed himself. Urenia's smile was gloating, this time, and she turned to the fire, twitching her skirts and dropping the small carcass on the rocks.
The Riflemen jumped and grabbed for their weapons, but the three Gypsies who had materialized in the cave's entrance already had their rifles pointed at the soldiers. Sharpe waved his men back as Urenia spoke to hers. They gradually relaxed, but it was a relaxation of one group of cobras poised next to another, neither sure whether to let the other pass or to just attack.
Urenia picked up a dark piece of material from the floor and wrapped the shawl around her. Pushing past Harper, she knelt by Dan, placing her hand on his forehead and then resting it on his chest. After a second, a smile twisted her face and she leaned forward and whispered something to him. Brushing his forehead, she got to her feet, then turned and stared severely at the Riflemen. Her voice rolled out in Spanish, and a long finger pointed at the fire, and the small pot still bubbling there.
Harris translated, "She says to remain here until he wakens tonight. Make sure he drinks everything in the pot, and then feed him." Urenia waited for his translation, then spoke again, in Spanish. "Travel slowly, to the south, over the ridge and then west, down the valley there. You'll be in the English camp tomorrow night. Do not rush him. The French haven't been in these parts for two weeks, you will be safe."
Now she stared at Sharpe, and he found himself almost as discomfited as Patrick had been by her unwavering gaze. However, he was becoming used to dealing with formidable women. He nodded, then, with a gesture that took in both the fire and its bounty as well as Dan, said again, "Thank you."
She nodded regally, then left the cave without a word, her men close behind them. Harris and Cooper followed at a distance, peeking out of the cave. The sound of hooves and wagons accompanied their return.
"They're gone, sir. They went north."
Richard nodded, then squatted by the fire. Pulling a roasted carcass from the flames, he handed it to Harris. Cooper and Perkins grinned and grabbed their own meals, Cooper heading out to keep watch at the entrance.
"Pat, you going to join us?" Sharpe asked, when Patrick didn't join them by the fire. "Pat?"
Harper shook his head and sighed. Squatting down by Richards side, he stared gloomily into the flames. "I'm doomed, Sor. There's no sense feeding me now, I'm doomed. Been cursed by a Gypsy, Sor. It's not long for this world, I'll be."
Harris snorted and choked, netting him an irate glare from the Irishman. Perkins paused long enough to look at Harris encouragingly.
"Come on, man, spit it out," Sharpe said, "before Pat gets blight and dies of fear, here." He grinned at his men, even the one sleeping the enchanted sleep by the fire. He wasn't a gentleman, or a scholar, that he needed answers, and he'd been soldiering long enough that he knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. He had his entire band of men, safe and if not all hale and hearty, they would be soon enough. They had food and fire and had escaped the French patrols. Holding his bird carefully, Sharpe settled back against the rocks, stretching his feet out. As Harris and Perkins laughed merrily and Harper swore bitterly, he realized hed missed the redheads translation of Urenias "curse." Looking around at the familiar faces, he decided it didnt really matter. Hed find out soon enoughand Dan would certainly have a song that would drive the insult home. Grinning at that thought, Sharpe leaned back and tore into his meal.