The sun was hot, relentless, beating down on soldiers clad in uniforms designed for much colder climates. Heavy red wool was all very well and good for cool, wet England, for guard duty at Buckingham and putting down rebellions along the northern border, but, in the dry heat of India, it was a misery. The dye on the red coats ran with the sweat of the men who wore them, turning skin and white trousers pink.
Dom tried to ignore the sweat running down his face and back as he stood at attention before his new commanding officer.
The Scot paced around him, sharp eye catching, Dom was sure, on each pink smudge, each slightly cockeyed strap, each tarnished button. He hadn't said anything since he was presented with the transfer orders, just... paced. For what felt like an eternity and then some in the heat, around and around.
"So." The silence was finally broken. "How'd a nice English lad like yourself get assigned to a Scots regiment?"
"The King's own 74th, my lad. We're a Scots regiment. Did you think I was wearing a kilt because I like the feel of hot breeze against my private parts?"
Dom blushed. "No. No, sir, I mean. I don't know why I-"
The officer shrugged, cutting him off. "Never mind. King's logic. Scots regiment has some holes to be filled, send some English lads over. Makes about as much sense as teats on a boar. Go on over, pitch your tent with the rest. If you hurry, you won't miss supper."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, Lieutenant Boyd, sir."
The men of the 74th were clustered around a fire over which was suspended a massive cast-iron pot. The pot was half full of a thick blurbling stew. Each of the soldiers held a bowl of it in one hand and a rough hunk of bread in the other, with a tin mug of coffee on the ground by their feet. They sat, in groups of two and three and four, laughing and talking and gulping down their food as though it were something better than army rations and scavenged bits of things thrown together to make a hot meal on a too-hot day.
Dom edged up to the group, bowl and mug in hand. The conversations slowly faded, then died, as he ladled some of the stew for himself. He couldn't see where the bread had come from; perhaps there had been a loaf sitting next to the pot earlier on, but it was long and away gone. He poured himself a mug of coffee from the carafe tucked into the edge of the fire, the handle of which was wrapped in rags to keep it from burning their hands.
Mug and bowl carefully balanced to keep from spilling and eyes on the ground, Dom turned to make for a secluded corner in which to sit and eat. He found his way blocked, however, by three pairs of hairy knees sticking out of the bottom of heavy pleated kilts and one set of legs in white trousers as pink and dirt-smudged as Dom's own.
"And who would you be, then?" The question was asked in rough voice thick with a Scottish accent.
"Dominic Monaghan. Private." Dom didn't look up as he answered, keeping his eyes knee level.
"The 74th, now. Previously of the 43rd."
There was a silence, one Dom imagined to be pregnant with dangerous possibility, before the group surrounding him broke out in laughter.
"Ah, Bloom. Looks like we've got you another English bastard for company."
Dom found himself unexpectedly pulled against the side of a tall, lean body. The owner of the trousered legs had switched around to stand next to Dom, facing the other three in his group, and had thrown a long arm across Dom's shoulders. Dom cursed under his breath as the move sent coffee sloshing over the lip of his mug, burning his fingers.
"Don't you worry, Dommie." The voice was distinctly English. "You 'n' me'll hold the line of civilisation against these heathens. Scots, eh? Can't trust them as far as you can see up their skirts-"
"Kilts!" The correction, belted out in chorus by the entire group of men clustered around the fire, had the feel of routine to it.
"Ignore 'em, man," Bloom said, leaning in conspiratorially but pitching his voice so that everyone would be sure to hear him. "Rude, degenerate bastards, Scots. I'm glad to have another person of real moral fibre around to-"
He was interrupted again by laughing jeers and shouted insults. Dom looked up in time to see Bloom be pulled away and tucked neatly into a headlock by one of the burlier Scots. One beefy arm was clamped over Bloom's head so that only the British Private's messy mop of brown curls were visible. Bloom squirmed and pushed ineffectually against the larger man's side but the Scot ignored his efforts as if they never were. "Now, now, Bloom, we'll have no more of that sort of speak. Apologise to the lads; you've hurt their feelings, you have."
Bloom spat out a muffled something that might have been invective but was too smothered for Dom to tell.
The Scot laughed. "And aren't you a one to talk about moral fibre. Mouth like that."
After a few moments more of fruitless writhing and cursing with no apology apparently forthcoming, the Scot finally let Bloom go. Bloom's hair was standing on end and his face was red with exertion when he was finally let loose. He glared at the laughing company, but the fact that he looked like a ruffled cat when he did so only made the soldiers laugh harder.
"C'mon, my little British man." The Scot who'd had Bloom in a headlock took Bloom's place, throwing his arm around Dom's shoulder. More of Dom's coffee slopped over the lip of his mug, splattering to the ground at his feet. "Come sit over here."
He guided Dom around the fire, over to a group of men seated together on the other side. Bloom followed, grumbling under his breath and running his fingers through his hair, pushing it down and back, patting it back into something resembling order.
"S'a bloody world," Bloom grumbled half-heartedly as he trailed along behind. "Man can't trust his own bloody regiment not to molest him."
"Stuff it, Bloom," someone shouted out, the jeer followed by another round of laughter.
Bloom rolled his eyes, then gave in and laughed. "That's it. I've had enough out of you bastards." He stooped and picked up his empty plate and mug from the ground.
"Off to see Liv?" the man with his arm still draped across Dom's shoulders asked with an audible leer.
Bloom grinned but didn't answer, just turned and sauntered away from the fire. "See you in the morning," he called back over his shoulder.
"Cocky bastard," Dom's erstwhile companion chortled, finally letting Dom loose and dropping to the ground with a grace surprising of a man his size. "Sit down, Dommie. Eat up. Tell us how we managed to get another of you British bastards in our regiment."
Dom sat as well, folding his legs beneath himself and setting his plate on his knee. He shrugged, smiled a little, and offered up, "King's logic?"
The Scots laughed, all of them, perhaps louder and longer than the comment truly warranted. Dom choked a little on his coffee as he was pounded on the back by the men sitting on either side of him, then joined in, laughing until he couldn't quite remember what had been so damn funny in the first place.
"Aren't you a lucky one, Dommie." Bloom kept his eyes forward, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. Dom was careful to not look at the man standing at attention next to him, concentrating instead on keeping his spine ramrod straight and ignoring the sweat running down his face. "A week in the 74th and it's into battle."
Dom checked to make sure none of the sergeants were paying attention before replying. "Lucky?"
Bloom laughed, a quiet, choked sound under his breath. "It's a matter of perspective."
One of the sergeants paced by the line, killing the conversation until he'd passed.
When the man was out of hearing range, Dom cast a quick glance sideways at Bloom, then turned his eyes forward again before asking, "Have you fought before?"
Bloom shook his head. "I've been on supply detail and guard duty and pickets since I got to India. You?"
"No. Nothing like this, anyway. A couple of skirmishes."
"And now Assaye."
"And now Assaye," Dom agreed, tightening his hold on his musket.
"God be with you, Dommie, and with me."
Their conversation was cut off as the pipers started up, the wailing music drowning out even the sound of the orders being bellowed down the lines.
The inside of Dom's mouth was dry, the result of heat and dust and gunsmoke and biting the tops of countless paper cartridges of coarse, salty gunpowder. The bitter taste of the powder had settled at the back of his throat and he desperately wanted to spit it out, but lacked the saliva. Instead, he dragged his tongue, which felt thick and papery in his mouth, over his lips, sighted down the barrel of his musket, and fired. The kick back was white fire against his already bruised shoulder. He ignored the pain and stuck the twisted end of another waxed paper cartridge between his teeth.
"Aim low! Aim low! Take the bastards out at the knees!" Boyd's voice was hoarse from screaming orders above the din of gunfire, cannon fire, battle cries, screams of pain. The two sergeants of the 74th, whose job it was to be doing the screaming of orders, were both dead. Dom had seen Wallace take a musket ball to the abdomen and fall, had seen MacArthur's body lying splayed on the ground.
"Aim low!" Boyd yelled again, the end of the order drowned out by another volley from Assaye. Men staggered, fell, crying out with pain or silent in death. The rough squirmishing square was left rougher still, ragged and gaping. Training kicking in faster than conscious thought, the 74th closed ranks, moving closer to one another almost as soon as holes opened up. The wounded and the officers were enclosed at the square's centre. The dead were left to fall outwards, their bodies forming a macabre break-fire between the regiment and Assaye's high walls.
Another paper cartridge, another shot. Reload and fire. Reload and fire.
On Dom's right, Bloom was hissing curses between his teeth as he reloaded. He cursed the Maharrata horsemen who lurked just out of sight, behind the screen of drifting gunsmoke, waiting for the faltering 74th to drop their protective square before swooping in for the kill. He cursed the idiot Colonel who had led the 74th too far north, leaving the regiment cut off from the rest of the British troops and alone against Assaye's defenders. He cursed Major-General Sir Wellesley for pitting his army in a frontal assault against the greater Maharrata force. He cursed India for its heat and Britain for its tendency to take too much interest in far flung corners of the world. He cursed and fired and cursed some more.
A musket ball streaked past Dom's head, hitting the man on his left in the shoulder, turning bone and flesh into mulch. With a choked scream, the man fell back, opening up yet another gap in the square. Dom was about to shift and close ranks, when the space was suddenly filled. Lieutenant Boyd had scooped up the man's fallen musket and pushed into the front line. Quickly, as efficient as any private, Boyd reloaded the musket and brought it to bear against his shoulder. In his rush, he'd over-primed the trigger and the excess of gunpowder ignited to leave a long, angry scorch along his cheekbone. Ignoring it, he reloaded again.
Bloom, noticing the Lieutenant, gave a little choked laugh, the sound as dry as Dom's mouth. "Come to get your hands dirty, sir?" The joke was weak and strained around the edges but Boyd smiled anyway, a grim twist of lips that held no humour.
"I'll be buggered if I'm going to die here without taking some of those Indian bastards with me."
Reload and fire.
The Lieutenant suddenly jerked against Dom's shoulder, grunting softly. Glancing over at him, Dom saw that Boyd was reloading again, his lips drawn back over his teeth in a grimace. He was favouring his left side and it took Dom a moment to notice the black-edged hole in his jacket. The red of the officer's blood was lost against the red of his uniform jacket, but a wet stain was slowly spreading outward from the hole.
A flash of movement, caught out of the corner of his eye, made Dom turn away from the Lieutenant. He turned back, bringing his musket up and ready, straining his eyes to try to see. The battlefield was a folk tale's nightmare of drifting smoke and optical illusions but-
The ground beneath Dom's feet shuddered with the impact of hooves as mounted men exploded from the smoke on either side of the square. Dom started, his finger tightening on the trigger, before what he was seeing sunk in.
No sleek little Indian horses, these, but great chargers, the men on their backs clad in the blue coats of British cavalry. Following in their wake, red coated infantry, running to flesh out the ranks of the near-decimated 74th.
Dom allowed himself to be pushed back, herded away from Assaye's walls. Bloom was already up and moving, running back to the fold of the British army. Within moments, the smoke closed behind his back, hiding him from view.
As he was about to follow suit, Dom saw the Lieutenant attempt to rise out of his crouch and stagger, almost falling. The hand he held clamped against his side was slick with blood, the side of his kilt black and wet with it. He tried again to rise, using the butt of his borrowed musket as a crutch, but got only halfway before the firearm slipped out from under him and he began to topple to the side.
Before he'd made the conscious decision to do so, Dom doubled back, running back to the remains of the squirmishing square. He slipped an arm around Boyd's waist, tucking his shoulder under the arm of the smaller man to prop him up.
"Who... Monaghan?" The Lieutenant's voice was thin. He staggered a little, knees buckling, as Dom turned him around and began guiding him away from the battle now being waged by the mounted soldiers against Assaye's guns.
Boyd hm'd then fell silent, concentrating on getting one foot to fall in front of the other. Dom, trying not think about the muskets facing his vulnerable back, matched his steps to those of the stumbling Lieutenant. One faltering step at a time, they made their way back until, finally, the doctors, with their black-plumed hats, rushed forward to collect the officer from Dom's arms.
Feeling strangely lost, Dom stood, watching as Boyd was guided away to the surgeon's tent.