Grant listened for a moment before entering the farmhouse where the stewards had set up a decent, though dusty, temporary mess. It was well past midnight so he found no one tending a stew in the stone fireplace, nor even washing up the heavy black kettles. Thank God for the dark and the quiet at last, he thought as he removed his stiff jacket and unbuttoned his waistcoat. Time to pursue the next mission: to find a crust of bread and cup of wine.
Grant had not eaten a morsel since before the wretched ordeal of the Neapolitans that day. He prayed he might find a scrap of salty ham to get him through the night while he spread out his maps to plan the rescue of Wellington’s artillery. He would lead a small patrol out of camp at dawn. He’d sent his men to sleep for a few hours, but knew that he himself would not shut his eyes. Too many plans and too many terrors of the day at odds in his mind.
Those voices gasping their Hellspeak through rotted throats, whispering, pleading with breath that smelled of brimstone.
He shuddered and steadied himself with a long drink of red wine. Not as fast as cheap English gin for removing inconvenient memories, but good enough for tonight. Grant’s sigh of satisfaction as he swallowed another draught echoed a moment later behind him.
“Ahhhh. The earth and rain are good for vineyards in this otherwise bleak land, aren’t they, Major?”
Grant turned toward the voice and saw a grey shape at the far end of the long room. A dark, curly mane and one arm draped over the edge of what appeared to be a deep trough for watering swine or cattle. He heard a soft splash and another echoing sigh.
“What the devil . . . Strange?”
“Forgive me, Major Grant, I felt the need to cleanse my mind and body. Please don’t let me disturb your feast, but do look behind the kettle on the hearth, and you will find a store of butter and Wellington’s precious marmalade. I highly recommend it.”
“Grant smiled and felt his breath come a little easier suddenly, now that he had a companion with whom to share the blackest hours of the night. He did not bother to question the giddy joy that animated his step as he gathered bread and butter and a dollop of only slightly mouldy marmalade. It was enough to enjoy the feeling for the moment.
“I don’t blame you, Strange. I still feel the filth of those corpses upon me as well, but how can you bear a cold bath on a night like this? Is your skin impervious to the chill by some magical means?”
The magician’s laugh echoed into the rafters, and Grant caught a glimpse of white teeth and shining eyes reflecting the crackling flames in the fireplace. The Major felt warm inside and out, a small ripple of longing emerging somewhere deep in his belly and traveling into his chest. He turned away when he saw Strange lift himself up for a moment to grab at something on a chair near the trough.
“It’s all right, Major Grant. I’m not a modest man, and I may need your assistance. Bring your supper and come close—sit beside me while I try to clean this wound on my hand. You will see one of the benefits of the magical arts is that water can be thoroughly heated with a few respectful words and a firm touch.”
Grant pulled up a small barrel near the trough, allowing his eyes to glance, but not linger, on long, muscular arms and shoulders, a strong chin and weary, maddening, brown eyes. Thick clouds of steam rose from the water before condensing into glittering droplets on Strange’s nose.
Grant touched a finger to the water, “Damn it, sir! You’ve fashioned your own Roman baths in the middle of this wilderness! Well done!”
Strange smiled and nodded, then winced as he tried to untie the cloth that bandaged his palm. Grant quickly lay aside his food and took over the task of peeling away the scarlet linen and gently bathing the wound in warm water until there was no visible sign of the dust and grime of the mill.
Strange’s hand began to tremble violently when Grant let go of it in order to tear a corner of his own shirt to cover the wound.
“I am no soldier, sir. I apologize. Forgive this weakness. I find I am afraid, quite overcome with fear sometimes.”
Grant could not find the words he wanted, nor did he think it was right to offer this man the kind of comfort he had offered young De Lancey months ago when he expressed a paralyzing fear of setting forth into the front lines for the first time. He’d parsed De Lancey’s character well enough to know he would be welcomed into his bed with no regrets. He was not so sure about this gentleman.
Grant said nothing because there was simply too little and too much he wanted to say. He finished the bandage and rolled up his own sleeves. He took the small piece of rose-scented soap from Strange’s hand. The soap was surely a token from the man’s lovely and lonely wife. He rubbed the soap in his palms, growing almost dizzy from the perfume and the feel of steam upon his face.
He moved to his knees and began to rub the soap on Strange's back, his shoulders, arms—in small circles that grew larger as the pressure of his fingers increased. He massaged the taught muscles of the magician’s neck and stroked his stubbled throat with long, slow movements of the tips of his fingers.
Grant’s own skin shivered and dimpled as he coaxed a sigh and then a moan from Strange’s lips. And he grew bolder. Grant cupped his hands in the water and scooped it up, pouring streams over the mad curls. He tugged at the curls and Strange let out a rasping, almost pleading sigh as Grant tangled his fingers deep.
When Grant felt the heat of his own desire building uncomfortably, pressing against his breeches and clouding his mind with need, he stood and walked toward the fire. He was sure that he could gather his wits and bring the scene to a close, blaming it—as was half-true at least—on the presence of demons in their midst today.
Strange coughed, mumbled something incoherent, and then demanded. “You must join me, Major Grant. How long has it been since you had a good, warm bath? It will make the long journey tomorrow more tolerable, I think.”
Grant had no memory of how his clothes fell to the floor or when he stepped into the soothing waters.
Grant and Strange faced each other, leaning closer, skin to skin, knee to knee. In a steady voice, as if he were talking of yesterday’s weather or tomorrow’s breakfast, Grant told the story of his own first days in battle: the revulsion he felt at the sight of limbs and organs scattered crimson and black across a snowy field; the curses he spat out at God and King. Grant said that when he began in Wellington’s service, he thought the man’s sneering jokes and callous insults were the grossest sort, but now he himself had adopted the same dark humor and careless attitude because it was the best—perhaps the only—way to survive. Grant looked into Strange’s eyes and touched his cheek. Then he held up his hand, showing his long, slim fingers—steady and calm.
“My hands trembled too, just as yours do. You must learn to behave as if it is all a game. Roll the dice. Move forward and live one more day. Do your best to gain some ground, so that one day we will be free to go. We are all afraid, sir. But the game must be won before we can go home.”
Strange touched Grant’s hair and put his good hand around the man’s neck, pulling him closer. “Returning home to wives and mistresses, as Wellington says? Women who cannot understand who we are on the battlefield, or what we’ve done?”
Strange’s wet lips brushed against Grant’s. A question lingered in the damp air between them.
Grant hesitated, staring down into the grey water, unsure how far he should go, unsure whether this was just the magician’s version of a tease or a joke. Strange made a graceful gesture across the water, and suddenly Grant saw two figures entwined in an embrace of passion—one dark-haired and one light.
He pressed his lips to Strange’s, licking into his mouth and spreading his own legs wide to pull the magician into a rough, close embrace.
Grant's heart raced as he felt the warmth and friction of hands and lips on his skin. Hot breath against his ear, whispering nonsense words about stones and trees and skies. A tongue and teeth at his neck and fingers opening him, stroking, and spreading. Strange entering him in a rhythm that made him gasp and curse and laugh.
Strange held the Major tight, taking his breath and caution away. They moved as one, weightless in the water. Finally, Grant felt a peak of pleasure so strong that he begged for release.
They lay together, half-asleep until the sound of barn owls signaled it was time for Grant to return to his maps and Strange to his tent.
As they lingered over one more kiss, Strange asked, “Do your hands ever shake now, Major Grant? Will mine ever stop?” The magician held out his wounded hand, visible as a trembling outline against the light of fading embers.
“Indeed. Mine do tremble still sometimes, and I believe that yours may not be still for a long while, knowing all you have seen and done these past months. It's a poorly kept secret that we are all afraid. You will often tremble in fear, Merlin.
Grant took the palm of his friend’s hand and held it to his lips in wonder and awe. “But sometimes, Merlin, unlike the rest of us, you will tremble because you are doing great magic.”