Sharpe wasn't walking completely straight when he left the group gathered round the fire. Judging by the sniggers behind him, the Chosen Men had noticed the fact. It wasn't that he was drunk, he reassured himself. Just tipsy.
And nobody could blame him for it. Safe behind British lines for the first time in weeks, his men alive and uninjured, and all of them free to relax.
Understandable they'd loosen themselves a bit and him with them.
It was chilly away from the fire and he pulled his jacket closer. Autumn was here with a vengeance, the dark night and brisk wind further evidence of the change of season. The heavy black of the overcast sky could have been eerie if he was a superstitious man, he reflected. Thankfully, he wasn't. The only thing the dark might be hiding was a French picquet and that was bloody unlikely in the middle of the British Army. It certainly wasn't superstition that caused the sudden shiver down his spine. Not a chance of it. "Goose walked over me grave," he muttered. Then he lurched backwards, his hand closing on the hilt of his sword as a mass loomed out of the dark.
"Jesus, Harper." Sharpe shoved his sword back into its scabbard. "You scared the life out of me."
"Not surprised, sir." Harper glanced around suspiciously. "I think you'd be better off stopping with the rest of us tonight."
"Oh, aye?" Sharpe straightened with barely a wobble and copied Harper's surveillance. "What've you heard?"
"It's All Hallows Eve, sir," Harper confided.
Sharpe stared at him blankly, barely able to make out the broad features in the dark. "What are you on about?"
"All Hallows Eve, sir. A night when you're best off by a roaring fire with your friends."
Sharpe laughed. "For Christ's sake, Pat! I thought you meant something serious."
Harper shrugged. "I'm not saying there's anything in it but – why take risks?" He rubbed his arms against the chill.
"Thought you were a good, Catholic boy?"
"Aye, sir. I believe in God the Father, God the Son and the sidhe that ride the winds." Harper recited it quietly. "And because of that, I'm spending tonight with as many people as I can pack around me."
Sharpe shook his head slowly and patted Harper's shoulder as he passed. "You do that, Pat. If it makes you feel better." He glanced back in time to see Harper shiver and stride determinedly to the fire. Still smiling at Harper's whimsy, he ducked into his tent and nearly tripped over his own feet.
"Shift your arse, Harris." Without complaint, Harris shuffled closer to Hagman and Harper squeezed on to the bench. "Chuck another log on the fire and pass me the drink, boys."
"Fire's big enough, sarge," Perkins said.
"Not for tonight. Tonight we want it as big as we can."
Harris kept his gaze fixed on the fire as he answered. "All Hallows Eve. Isn't it, sarge?"
Harper took a swig of beer but didn't bother answering.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Perkins demanded.
Harris settled into lecture mode. "As far as the Celts-"
"The who?" Cooper interrupted but he was ignored.
"-were concerned, it's the night when the spirits of the dead come back to mingle with the living. If you've done anything to annoy the spirits - been the one who turned them into spirits, for example - this is the night when they seek their revenge." Harris lifted his head and looked around, smiling slightly. "Not a good night to be a soldier." Hagman nodded wisely. "So, you light a big fire to scatter them. You gather with as many people as you can and you all wear masks, to confuse them. Maybe they'll take their revenge on somebody else instead of you." He twitched an eyebrow ominously.
"Well, yeah, but that's just superstition." Perkins looked at the other men. "Isn't it?"
"City lad, aren't you?" Hagman said. Perkins nodded but Hagman didn't elaborate further.
Perkins swallowed. "So, what else can we do?"
"Oh, turnip lanterns. You carve a face in them and it confuses the spirits even more. An Irish tradition, I believe?"
"Waste of a good turnip," Cooper said. "Better off putting it in the stew."
"But if a spirit gets you, you're never going to get to enjoy the stew," Harris pointed out maliciously
Perkins shivered and glanced around warily. Hagman smiled and rested his hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's just superstition, though. Nothing to worry about."
Harper looked up sharply and the two men studied each other for a long moment. "Give us a song," Harper said eventually.
Hagman thought for a moment and began the Ballad of Tam Lin.
Harper wrapped his hands around his mug and stared into the fire.
Sharpe held on to the tent's central pole for balance as he unfastened his trousers. Harris must have put something in the damn ale, he decided, struggling to undo his boots so he could actually get his trousers off. Straightforward ale wouldn't do this to him. Not even the eight mugs or so he'd had.
Jesus, it was cold. He decided against removing his shirt and settled on to the camp bed, pulling the blankets over him. Typical Army issue, they were scratchy and too short and he was forced to curl up so he could cover his feet and his nose.
It didn't help that there was a howling draught coming from somewhere. Surely he'd remembered to lace the tent flaps? But the beer was muffling his thoughts and he wasn't sure. He considered getting out of bed and checking but a particularly chilly gust across his face made up his mind and he burrowed further under the blankets. He wasn't getting out until he absolutely had to.
With the tent spinning genteelly around him, he slept.
He woke with a start as his blankets slithered off the cot. He grabbed wildly and caught a rapidly disappearing corner but when he pulled it back, the blanket managed to wrap around his sword and rifle and send both flying. Somebody yelled at him to keep the fucking noise down but he ignored it in his haste to get the blankets back over his legs.
The tiny bit of warmth he'd managed to accumulate was gone and he was left aching with cold. The thought of leaving the minuscule comfort the blankets provided was horrifying but he could just make out his trousers lying by the pole where he'd dropped them, promising warmth and comfort. He stretched for them, doing his best to ignore the fact that the breeze was raising goosebumps through the thick fabric of his shirt, but his trousers were too far away.
Half-formed plans to jump out of bed, straight into his trousers and back under the blankets were foiled when he managed to trip over a blanket's trailing corner and land face down on the damp earth floor of the tent. Winded, he could barely move despite the cold attacking him but he eventually managed, with the aid of the pole, to pull himself upright.
His feet were turning numb which made it difficult to get his trousers on in the darkness and he was shivering too much to be able to button them. Socks, he thought, reaching out for his pack as the wind tickled his back.
"Oh, shit!" He'd somehow left the damned thing propped against the tent's canvas side and, with the evening's intermittent drizzle, it was thoroughly damp. Continuing to curse under his breath, he tracked down a pair of socks that weren't too wet and pulled them over his clammy feet, a task made more difficult by his desperate haste.
Back to bed and he could have sworn he'd left the blankets heaped on it but they were, again, draped on the floor. The bottom one had picked up damp from the ground and his swearing intensified. It'd just have to go on top and hopefully it wouldn't be too noticeable.
Eventually, after what had turned into an epic journey, he was back in his bed, colder than he'd been to start with and with the comforting blur of his beer-soaked mind rapidly diverting to alcohol-fuelled paranoia.
Because Sharpe knew what happened to him when he got drunk and it wasn't the kind of clumsiness he'd just displayed.
A finger of wind caressed his cheek, as if to prove his fears.
His heart was pounding and he had the same surge of energy as if he was facing battle. His eyes were wide and shadows danced at the edge of his vision.
He took a deep breath and managed to force his eyes shut but they flew open at the first rustling of the tent.
Damn it, he wasn't a superstitious man. Never had been. His life had held too many physical terrors for him to go turning shadows into enemies.
But then the breeze whispered his name in a familiar voice and he was up and fumbling with the lacings of his tent. A breath of wind lifted his hair and murmured in his ear and he didn't bother unlacing the whole thing but dropped and rolled out through the bottom.
His shirt was soaked with sweat and rain but, out here, there was no wind to chill him further and he took a trembling breath, blinked and stretched. The terror seemed so far away now that he turned, actually rested his hand on the tent, before backing away.
It was pathetic. He shook his head, disgusted with himself. Grown man scared of things that went bump in the night.
Pathetic though it was, he wasn't going back in there alone.
"Harper!" Sharpe's hoarse whisper sounded loud in the silence of the camp but it didn't penetrate Harper's snoring. With a quick glance around, Sharpe grabbed Harper's foot and shook. "Pat!"
Harper lurched upright, blinking and reaching for his volley gun.
"It's me. I need to talk to you."
It only took Harper a moment to adjust. "Keep your voice down. Ramona needs her sleep."
"Then come out here."
Harper sighed then wriggled out of the blankets. "Coming, sir." Ramona mumbled dozily and treated Sharpe to a glimpse of warm, brown shoulder before she pulled the blankets closer around her. Harper's hand was heavy on Sharpe's shoulder. "Eyes to yourself."
"It's alright, Pat." The warmth of the other man's presence was already burning away the ghosts and Sharpe was starting to feel even more of a fool. "I'm not going to fight you for her."
Sharpe could just make out the darker shadow that was Harper as he pulled on his boots and jacket. "Jesus, it's cold. If we're going to talk, let's go back to your tent."
Sharpe was too embarrassed to object.
They didn't talk during the short walk to Sharpe's tent, not even when Sharpe had to finish unlacing the tent. The silence continued while Sharpe lit the lantern inside but finally Harper settled himself on the floor, leaning against the tent's central pole. "So, what is it?"
Sharpe perched on the side of his cot and rubbed his jaw. Now he came to talk about it, it all sounded even more bloody ridiculous. "What you were saying. About it being All Hallows. Spirits getting revenge and that. How do you get rid of them?"
Harper frowned "Why are you asking?"
Sharpe's mouth twisted into something approaching a smile and he rested his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. "I think it's Teresa."
He could hear the smile in Harper's voice. "Ah, to be sure, sir. And what cause does she have for revenge against you?"
"I was unfaithful, Pat."
There was a moment of consideration. "The Marquesa? Miss Teresa wouldn't be-"
"No, before that."
Harper's voice was gentle. "She knew about you and me, sir. Told me to keep you safe and happy, she did."
"Not that." Sharpe's voice cracked.
"The Contessa?" Harper ventured.
"No. I did nothing with the Contessa." Sharpe looked up. "It was the Colonel's wife. Isabella."
Harper blinked. "Ah. I can see where there would get Miss Teresa feeling..." He paused to consider his words. "Betrayed. Lady Farthingdale being the reason she died and all. So, when did this happen?"
"During the rescue. While I was in her cell, keeping her safe."
"So while Miss Teresa was still alive?" Harper winced. "Oh dear."
"I knew her, Pat! From before I got my commission. She was my woman for a while." Sharpe was pleading.
"It's not me you need to explain it to, sir."
"What do I do, Pat?"
Harper heaved a massive sigh. "Now that, sir, I don't know. You're sure it's her?"
Sharpe cursed, the sound harsh. "No, I'm not. For Christ's sake, Pat, I'm talking about a bloody ghost! The whole thing's damn stupid. I shouldn't have woken you."
The lantern died with a splutter and a hiss.
"I didn't shut it properly and there's a draught. That's all it is." Sharpe sounded defensive, even to himself, but his heart was pounding.
"Yes, sir. So, will you be lighting it again?"
Hell, yes! Sharpe wanted every splinter of normality he could find. He cleared his throat. "No. No point. I'm going to sleep now."
"Yes, sir." There was a significant pause. "Will you be wanting me to stay?"
Sharpe stared into the darkness. "Ramona's already having to cope with a fat belly 'cause of you. Not fair to make her put up with your snoring as well." He'd meant it to sound light-hearted but it came out heavy and bitter and he jumped as Harper's hand touched his arm.
"Will you be sleeping on your bed or down here with me?"
"On a night like this? I'm staying on my own." They knew from past experience that the camp bed couldn't hold both of them.
"She knew, sir," Harper told him gently. "She didn't mind. She knew it was her you loved." Harper's voice was curiously hollow and Sharpe frowned. "She knew you and me were just... What came to hand. Not a threat."
"More than 'what came to hand'," Sharpe felt he had to say.
"Aye, sir." Harper's agreement was a matter of form.
And Sharpe wasn't going to work out exactly what Harper meant to him and he sure as hell wasn't going to say anything about it but he reached out and rested his hand on Harper's knee. Harper's hand on his was heavy and comforting and seemed to do something to block out the wind and the cold. "You got your blankets?" Sharpe asked.
"Looks like we're going to be sharing, then." Sharpe's rictus might have been considered a smile. "I'm not enough of a bastard to make you do without blankets on a night like this."
The blankets were still cold and damp as he laid out an impromptu bivouac on the ground. The oilcloth from the base of his camp bed did something to cut out out the damp but they'd need to sleep close to fight the cold seeping through. "Come on, Pat."
Sharpe's eyes had adjusted to the loss of the lantern and he could make out the darker shadow of Harper moving towards him. His sudden warmth between the blankets was a comfort and Sharpe slipped easily into his embrace, welcoming the peace that came with the heat. "What'd I do without you, Pat?" he asked sleepily.
"Find some other pooor bastard to haul out his cosy bed on a freezing cold night." Harper rested his cheek on the top of Sharpe's head. "God knows where you'd find him, though."