Mathias sat by his tent, bone-weary and half-slumped in his canvas chair. Becher, his batman, knelt before him, struggling with the loops on Mathias’s blood-soaked jacket.
“The threads have swollen, sir,” he said. “My fingers…”
Mathias turned his face away from the man’s sour breath. “Cut them.”
“Sir?” Becher looked positively shocked at the suggestion—whether it was for the uniform or for his fingers, Mathias didn’t know.
“Cut the damned things off.” When Becher reached for his knife, Mathias took it from him. “Give it here.” He ripped the frogging apart, gold threads trailing and the brass buttons scattering around his feet. “Now. Get over to Rittmeister von Ratzlaff’s tent and see how his day went.”
“I should wash—”
“You should damned well do as you’re told, Becher, that’s what you should do!” Breathing heavily, Mathias pulled his hat from his head and leaned on his knees, listening to Becher’s footsteps squelching away through the mud. He knew he’d been too harsh, too quick with the man, but his side hurt damnably, and he’d not seen Rudolph once since right at the beginning of the battle, and even then he wasn’t sure that the man he’d picked out—the dark-haired rider galloping on the far side of the copse, riding straight and fierce—had been his lover.
Gingerly he pulled the dolman off and dumped it on the ground next to his pelisse. The blood wasn’t pouring out of him—or I wouldn’t have made it from the horse lines, I’m sure of it—but his shirt was wet to the touch. Cold, though. That has to be a good sign, surely?
Becher had a pan of salted water on the boil, and he’d put some clean rags beside it. Mathias dipped the rags into the water, then waited a moment for them to cool before wiping at the flesh under his shirt. Soldiers—officers and enlisted men—passed him as he worked, but he didn’t look up. Each man had his own concerns after a battle. One kept to oneself until one could present oneself in a better light than bloody and broken.
Damn it. Let Rudolph be alive. Please, God. Let Rudolph be alive.
He hadn’t allowed himself to think what he’d do if the reverse was true—wouldn’t even allow himself to think the words. Death was something he expected for himself, but never for Rudolph. Rudolph was one of those men who would live forever, the type who would grow huge gray moustaches and bore his grandchildren and possibly even great-grandchildren about the battles he’d been in, the charges he’d led.
Mathias knew he wasn’t half the fighter Rudolph was. While his own sword work was passable— certainly as good as most of the Regiment—Rudolph could disarm him without breaking a sweat. No matter how often they sparred, no matter how often Rudolph taught him the trick of it, he had never taken Rudolph’s sword, not once. Their horse-craft was on a par, just, but Rudolph had been born in the saddle—his family had put him on a sturdy little pony in his first months of life, while Mathias had worked hard from enlistment and trained several times a week. He was, along with all the other men, perfectly capable of guiding a horse without saddle or rein—a man didn’t stay with the hussars for long if he couldn’t master a horse by touch and voice alone—but he never achieved that perfect symbiosis that Rudolph did with his mounts.
He paused for a moment at the image of Rudolph as a fond grandfather, with those ridiculous moustaches. He hadn’t been shocked when Rudolph told him he was married. Not shocked exactly. Rudolph had—although Mathias had never met any of them—a large aristocratic family and a fortune which, although Rudolph rarely spoke of it, was something that needed to be managed. There were always letters that required answering, and sometimes—only sometimes—Rudolph would complain about the incompetence of estate managers who couldn’t manage to find their arses with both hands.
“How is it that your family allows you to risk your life the way you do?” Mathias had asked him once. It had been the only time he’d asked a direct question about Rudolph’s family, and he’d deliberately not said “wife.”
“My parents are both dead—oh, I hardly knew them. Brief visits to the drawing room, that kind of thing. They were both dead—typhus—before I was six. I’ve had the inheritance ever since, but other people have always run the place. And my life is my own to dispose of—to do with what I like. I made that very clear. My aunt Gretchen von Ratzlaff took over my upbringing. Her and a gaggle of visiting relations. Aunt Gretchen was a crotchety widow with firm views on many things. One thing she taught me was to speak my mind, so I did. And I have a healthy younger brother. I’m expendable.”
“And you prefer to do this?” That Mathias found hard to understand. A choice between luxury and comfort and servants and clean sheets—and life in the army.