Wellington and Bonesapart
10. Wellington and Bonesapart
"Will you just look at this beauty!" exclaimed General Sutherland. He fixed his monocle more securely over his dicky eye so that he could have a proper look at the new prize being wheeled into position. Sutherland had spent all morning clearing the spot. He'd chosen carefully—a nice level bit of ground well outside the village wall, tucked round the very back and hemmed in by the forest. A nice little clearing. From here one could just make out the church spire over the trees. All was safely removed from the village proper.
Just the way he wanted it. Sutherland grinned a private little grin and smoothed his mustache.
"Money well spent!" agreed General Adrin, handing over a tip to the man who had done the delivery, with the aid of a stout pair of oxen. "Especially for those brand-new wheels! Not to mention the new carriage mount."
Most of the money for this most recent acquisition had come from Adrin's funds. The pair of them enjoyed their military antiques. Scouting, bargaining, and purchasing was a hobby for Adrin and a matter of near obsession for Sutherland. It was only fair to take the purchases in turns. Sutherland had paid for a centuries-old sword, and Adrin had put up the money for a like-new helmet dating from the 17th century. From Sutherland had come the handsome brace of pistols last month.
Those pistols really were beauties. A retirement gift to some forgotten officer, most likely. Still fired brilliantly, Sutherland had been pleased to find. Monsieur Paul, his landlord at the Tavern, had not been so pleased. Mostly because of the hole the bullet had left in the dining room wall. Sutherland didn't see a problem. In fact he felt Monsieur's ire a bit unwarranted. The hole wasn't large, after all. It gave the room character. And a damn good story. Adrin had offered to pay for the damage, but still Monsieur had decreed that there were to be no more antique weapons at the Tavern, on pain of a rent hike, and, even more harshly, a withdrawal of brandy rations. Sutherland had been dismayed and surprised by how willing Adrin seemed to be to agree to such a ridiculous ultimatum.
But who could have resisted a piece like this? A salvaged six-pounder, pulled from the briny deep and going for a song. A little green around the edges, perhaps, and the muzzle could do with a scrape, but all the same it was a coup. A real coup. Adrin had come round eventually, even though Sutherland had had to agree not to have the piece delivered inside village walls, to keep it quiet from Monsieur and Miss Plum, and to please, please not wear his uniform when they went to meet the deliveryman, as it would give the game away. On all points but the last Sutherland had given in.
The tiffs of the previous days were forgotten at the moment, however. Together Sutherland and Adrin turned to inspecting the cannon.
"Makes you think of the old days, doesn't it?" Sutherland said, clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder. Adrin, who was several heads shorter than Sutherland, had to take a step backward in order to look up at him.
"That it does," he agreed. "I haven't seen a gun like this in years."
Neither had Sutherland. Oh, how dearly he missed the military. Often he wished he'd never retired. Those days had been the very best of his entire life, and these antiques he collected let him relive the memories. Some might accuse him of living too much in the past, too much in his head—actually, most did. He drew more than a few odd looks for wearing his dress uniform when he was out and about. As far as he was concerned, why not fly the colors, as it were? The only one who understood, even if he didn't feel quite the same, was Adrin.
The pair of them were best friends. Comrades. Had been ever since they'd met at the military academy up north. It was just a shame that they'd been, by accident of birth and affiliation, on opposite sides during the actual war.
Real friends didn't let such trifles as that get in the way, though. They'd kept up a lively correspondence after the war, Sutherland never making mention or light of the fact that Adrin's side had lost. From their comfortable desk jobs they'd written back and forth for decades. When they'd retired—Adrin by happy choice, Sutherland by coercion—Adrin had proposed that they head off together. Both bachelors, both orphans, and now both on pensions, all they had was one another. So Sutherland had agreed. At Adrin's suggestion, they'd wound up relocating to a little village far from both of their home countries, in a tiny place that seemed hardly bothered by or interested in the wider world. Sutherland had never even heard of it. Apparently Adrin's unit had been encamped nearby the village many years before, and he'd become enamored of it. Why, Sutherland had no idea. And didn't feel it quite proper to ask, particularly now that the village had become as much his home as anywhere else had been.
"Yes, indeed," Sutherland said now, crouching as much as his old knees allowed to take a closer look at the charge. All was as it should be, just as he'd arranged with the dealer. Fire-ready condition. He stood and moved on to loving, careful inspection of the barrel. "Just like old times, Adrin. Inspecting the guns, readying the men..."
"Mm-hm," murmured Adrin. Sutherland spared him a quick glance. Adrin was standing next to one of the wheels, at ease with hands behind his back. The wheel was nearly a head taller than he was. "It's a handsome piece, isn't it? Nice for show."
Now it was Sutherland's turn to make a non-committal noise. "Mm-hm," he said. Even as he murmured his mind was busy with figuring trajectory, length of charge, and the clear path through the nearest copse of trees just ahead. No one about. No one ever used that little lane. Everyone took the road over the bridge, on the very opposite side of the village from where they were now. Perfect.
"Good morning!" came a voice from those self-same trees. Sutherland, very surprised, looked up. A young man, only in his early twenties, had appeared over the little hill which the lane took through the woods, and was making his way toward them. He was well-dressed and carrying a leather satchel.
"Good morning, Master Van Dort!" said Adrin, offering a cheery wave over the cannon's muzzle. Annoyed and trying to hide it, Sutherland raised one hand in greeting.
"Hel-lo," said William Van Dort, stepping right up to the cannon and looking it over. "What's all this, then?" Adrin opened his mouth to reply, but Sutherland was quicker.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked, a touch more forcefully than he'd meant to. Adrin gave him a look. Sutherland peered at William through his monocle. The last thing he'd expected today was to have someone come across them. How he hated having plans upset. Particularly when he'd spent so much time and care on them.
William was a chap seemingly impossible to bother. He made no note of Sutherland's tone, but grinned and tipped his top hat to each of the older men in turn. "On my way back from business at the coast," he explained, indicating his satchel, handsome brown checked suit, and best, if now rather dusty, leather shoes. "Quite a walk! The stage only goes so far."
"It's our latest acquisition," said Adrin kindly, answering William's earlier question. "A cannon. Six-pounder, salvaged from a shipwreck."
William gave a low, appreciative whistle. "Very nice. Cleaned up well. That's the ammunition, I take it?" As he said this last he indicated a small wooden crate underneath an oak tree, which Sutherland had placed this morning in advance of the cannon's delivery.
"Yes, indeed," Sutherland proudly replied, unable to help himself. "Gunpowder, charge, ramrod, and, of course, shot. All the necessaries."
As William nodded, Sutherland caught Adrin's eye. Adrin, his small eyes as wide as they could get, were fixed squarely on him. A dark kind of look came over his kindly old face as he blinked slowly up at Sutherland.
"You said that was the lunch Miss Plum packed," Adrin said in a low, accusatory tone. Sutherland shrugged.
"You're not going to try to fire this, are you?" William asked. He was kneeling in front of the cannon, peering down the barrel. "It looks nice, but if it's been underwater who knows what kind of condition it's in. It might explode and kill you both."
"Of course we're not going to fire it," said Adrin immediately, with a significant look at Sutherland. "It is purely for show. Won't even take it inside the village walls, just in case."
"Yes," Sutherland added, prompted by Adrin elbowing him in the leg. "Purely for show."
William nodded. Standing up again he took up his satchel and tipped his hat once more. "Well then, that is certainly good to know. I'd imagine Lord Everglot and his grandson might enjoy an invitation to see it. They enjoy their military antiques, as well. Good day, gentlemen!"
And with that, William dusted off his trousers and went on his way, taking the narrow dirt lane back into the trees, heading for the village.
The moment William had disappeared around the first bend and the coast was clear, Sutherland turned to Adrin. "All right, let's fire this off, General!"
With a confident stride that betrayed his almost boyish excitement, he made for the crate. He patted his jacket pocket, relieved to find he'd remembered the matches he'd knicked days ago from Miss Plum's kitchen.
"Sutherland!" Adrin protested, close to hopping with agitation, "It's not in firing condition! As Master Van Dort said-" Sutherland waved an impatient hand.
"Master Van Dort is just a boy," he replied, rattling his saber as he strode past Adrin. "I was dealing with gunnery years before he was even thought of."
With Adrin still sputtering behind him, Sutherland bent carefully and opened the crate. There was only one cannonball, but that was all he needed for now. Again he checked his planned trajectory. If all went according to plan, the shot would wind up deep in the forest well away from any people, roads, or buildings. Provided no other surprise travelers happened to be coming down the lane, of course.
"Come on, man, I need a second pair of hands," he said over his shoulder. Time had been when he could lug six-pounder shot about as though it was nothing. Not so anymore.
"Please, please be reasonable," Adrin pleaded. "It was underwater for who knows how long. The barrel is probably corroded. Look how green the bronze is, it's not stable-"
Sutherland was no longer listening. He was focused on loading the cannon. With a sigh Adrin gave up and bent to help him lift the shot. Together they loaded it, packing the gunpowder and ball down tightly, fitting the charge just so, their muscle memory seeming to take over. For a dizzy moment Sutherland could hear gunfire, smell the horses, hear the wheels of cannon being brought into place. He patted the muzzle as though it was a favorite dog.
He joined a troubled-looking Adrin at the back end of the gun. Sutherland grinned and put a hand on his friend's shoulder before striking the match and setting it to the fuse. Expectant, he watched it flame. Adrin pulled him back to a safer distance as the fuse burned down.
But when it had burned down completely, nothing immediately happened.
"What in blazes-?" Sutherland began, making to investigate, but Adrin threw out a short, ineffectual arm and cried,
"Take cover, I think it's going to-"
And then, with a low, deafening boom, the cannon exploded. Sutherland saw the back end blow first, beginning with the spark of the charge. The force splintered the wheels and mount. Adrin was knocked off his feet and rolled grotesquely, meatily, coming to a stop near the edge of the trees. Through the haze of smoke Sutherland could see blood beginning to seep out into the ground around where Adrin lay facedown in the dirt. Still.
"Oh..." was all Sutherland managed to say. It came out in a whisper. He'd seen carnage before, yes of course he had, had even seen guns go up with enough force to send debris thousands of yards. But in all his years, he'd never had a beloved friend be mowed down beside him. Never once.
Before he could move or speak or think any further, the rest of the cannon exploded. He could feel the heat even from here, felt hot pricks and slashes where shards of shrapnel hit him. The cannonball shot with explosive force out of the back of the gun, rather than through the largely destroyed barrel.
Then, a feeling like being punched in the chest. Cold, deep cold. A taste of blood, the acrid smoke in his nose. After that, it all went dark.
"Well," said Sutherland, "that didn't go quite as planned."
"No," agreed Adrin.
Together they sat, side by side on the edge of an overturned stone crypt. Sutherland had quickly taken in the fact that he had died. A military man made peace with mortality early on. One had to. Adrin seemed to be having a bit more trouble. Above them a half-toppled marble angel stood watch. Literally. Her marble eyes moved this way and that, surveying the area. Every now and again her wings would move, crunching and cracking. But she did not speak.
The veterans' section of the cemetery was a rowdy one. It had the air of an encampment. All around were monuments and memorials to the gallant fallen, the words more crisp and legible than they would have been above. In the distance there was a crooked little village, more sprawling and with more rooftops than in the land of the living. Above all stood a rickety-looking tower, glowing from within with a purplish lamplight. Corpses who'd seen battles of nearly a century past, judging by their swords and muskets and sabers, milled about and traded stories. It must have been the villagers who banded together to bury both him and Adrin, as neither of them had any relatives. Sutherland was touched and surprised in equal measure by the gesture.
Adrin didn't look too bad, considering. One of his eyes had been knocked in by the blast, and shrapnel had shredded most of the flesh on his face. He'd been buried in his dress uniform, still clean and pressed as the day he'd removed it for the final time in life. That would've been Miss Plum, no doubt. She'd even remembered the hat.
Sutherland had died with his boots on, as it were, and whoever had prepared him had left him in the clothes he'd died in, ghastly wound showing and all. Fitting. He didn't really have much nicer clothes, anyhow. He'd been pleased to find his helmet beside him in his coffin, and his saber still by his side. No antique dealers would be getting his treasures.
A row of snappily outfitted skeletons, all with mismatched weapons and a few with rusty buckets on their heads instead of helmets, marched past them just then. Bringing up the rear was a skeleton who wore tatters of the old Prussian uniform.
"Old soldiers never die," said the leader, whose moth-eaten uniform bore the insignia of a lance-corporal.
"They merely fade away!" came the chorus reply from the rows of dead soldiers.
Even as Sutherland grinned, Adrin gave a morose little sigh.
"Oi, there, Wellington!" came a cry from the ranks. "Yes, you! Sittin', with the helmet!"
"I'm sorry?" Sutherland asked, turning. A staggering corpse, clearly quite drunk, had broken rank and was making his way toward them. His voice was young, tinged with the country accent Sutherland had grown up with, but he was a skeleton. Only his eyeballs, permanently bloodshot, remained, along with most of his uniform. Private, Sutherland recognized immediately. The dead private neared, a flask in one hand.
"And look!" the corpse slurred, waving his flask at Adrin. "You're with your friend Bonaparte." What with the slurring, it came out sounding more like "Bones-apart."
"Ah, no," said Adrin, sounding wary. He hopped down and stood before the dead soldier, holding his hands up before him in a palms-out gesture of deference. Sutherland stood as well. "We were only officers under those men. We aren't-" But the drunk wasn't listening.
"You two," he ranted on, weaving this way and that. "You two and your dirty fight. I wasn't finished! I wasn't finished yet, you blasted...you blurry...!"
The drunk corpse dropped his flask and threw a punch, falling ridiculously short. Adrin took a step out of the way so as not to be fallen on when the corpse went down.
By this time the rest of the dead had become aware of what was happening. As the drunk heaved himself back to his feet they gathered round to watch. The Prussian was front and center, and moved to stand in between Adrin and the drunk. Sutherland recognized the tactic from his own days of dealing with rowdy recruits.
"You, sir," the Prussian said with distaste as the skeleton scooped up his flask, "are a disgrace to the uniform." There were murmurs and nods in the crowd.
"I'll give you a disgrace!" the drunk shouted, sounding the most coherent he had yet. He pulled a rusty saber from the grasp of a surprised skeletal onlooker, and thrust it at the Prussian. Unfortunately he was slow and stumbling, so he aimed too low. The Prussian stepped easily out of the way. Still more unfortunately, Adrin happened to still be standing right behind him, and was not that quick.
Adrin gasped in surprise when the saber sank into his middle. Gasps and exclamations were heard from the other dead men. Even the drunk seemed to sober slightly, and look a bit shocked at himself. The moment passed quickly, however.
"Serve you just right," the drunk muttered. Then he glared at Sutherland, and said with a sneer in his voice, "And same to you, too."
"Why that impudent...we should have a court martial," fumed Sutherland as the private stumbled away, headed toward the lights of the village. "Assaulting a superior officer! Are you quite all right, my friend?"
"Fine," replied Adrin. He turned this way and that, inspecting the saber, the blade of which was sticking out of his back. He'd been run clean through. Lucky thing he couldn't bleed, otherwise his uniform would be even more spoiled.
"Some just weren't cut out for soldiering," said the saber's owner, a mid-size skeleton with a beard miraculously still intact. "Keep that saber, if you like. It's a real antique!"
Sutherland couldn't help himself, and bent to inspect the saber. It was a mercy he was beyond feeling much. And the bearded corpse was quite right—this saber was at least two hundred years old.
"Just look at the detail on that handle!" Sutherland said, running his finger along it. Much to his surprise, Adrin took two pointed strides away from him.
"Poor fellow," Adrin said. He was looking off in the direction where the drunk soldier had gone. From his tone Sutherland could tell that his friend felt nothing but pity for the drunk. Sutherland would have been dueling already, if it had been him.
"You're too kind for your own good," Sutherland told him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't I know it," Adrin replied. Sutherland frowned, not liking Adrin's tone. Adrin never spoke to him like that.
"Look, they're forming up again," Sutherland said, friendly and coaxing. He wanted to make his friend feel better.
"If it's all right, I rather fancy a drink," replied Adrin, taking a step away and gently removing Sutherland's hand. "Maybe a little...time to think. You know?"
"But they're mustering the troops!" Sutherland said, waving an arm toward the rows of corpses who had reassembled and were standing at attention. He drew his sword. "Come on, old man, you always loved a good muster!"
"No," replied Adrin, sounding quiet and tired. "You did."
Sutherland was far too taken aback to reply. He dropped his sword-arm to his side and stared.
"Well, come now," he finally blustered, blustering being his very last defense. "We've all got to go sometime. I know I made my peace with it years ago. Hard not to, on a battlefield. Come on, then."
There was a long silence. Adrin stared up at him with his now mis-matched eyes, his expression coldly sad. The angel flexed her wings. When he glanced up, Sutherland saw the angel was staring directly at him. His unbeating heart seemed to seize under that gaze.
In a voice low enough to match his spirits, Sutherland said, "I'm very sorry, my friend. This was my fault. I beg your forgiveness. I...I'm sorry."
Adrin's expression did not change. "Thank you," was all he said before he turned and walked away, stopping only briefly to ask a loitering corpse the direction of the nearest pub.
Sutherland adjusted his monocle, even though his eye worked just as well as the other now. He watched as Adrin grew smaller in the distance, until even his hat could no longer be seen. Looking back, he saw the rows of dead soldiers in their tattered uniforms, some whole, some not. Some skeletal, some fresh. Some wounded, some not. All of them spending eternity going through motions so ingrained they couldn't help but feel unmoored without them. He thought of the drunk, really thought, and found a bit of pity for him.
Perhaps a drink was just the thing. With a decisive nod Sutherland replaced his sword, smoothed his mustache, and followed in the direction his friend had gone.