Two days had passed since the victory at Salamanca, which had done a great deal to establish Lord Wellington’s credentials as an offensive general and was already being talked about as his most impressive military success. Intelligence gathered by his exploring officers had given him the confidence to execute a succession of flanking manoeuvres that had resulted in a rout of the French left wing, injuring both Marshal Auguste Marmont and his deputy commander, General Bonet, and creating confusion amongst the enemy ranks that the Anglo-Portuguese army had successfully exploited.
One of those exploring officers, Major Colquhoun Grant, was sitting with Colonel William De Lancey and the Army’s Magician, Jonathan Strange, in the Plaza del Corrillo, a small irregularly shaped courtyard just off the city’s main square, reflecting on the battle and drinking copious amounts of a local wine which had none of the refinement of the vintages they were used to back home but certainly made up for this with its natural, earthy qualities.
Grant was deep in conversation with Strange, who had also played a vital role in the victory by helping to conceal the majority of Wellington’s troops from the French and raising a dust cloud to make Marmont think they were retreating and he was facing nothing but a rearguard.
De Lancey leaned back on his stool and studied the houses on the opposite side of the square, trying to work out the meaning of the carvings of various celestial bodies and mythological figures that topped the columns supporting the porches.
“I have heard quite enough from you two about your heroic exploits,” he complained, “We are supposed to be relaxing, not rehashing the battle over and over again. May I suggest that we play a little game?“
Grant looked at Strange and raised his eyebrows. He knew De Lancey very well by now and was a little wary of the kind of game he might suggest, given his somewhat ribald sense of humour and penchant for practical jokes and the like. However, the wine was having the desired effect and he found himself saying “What game would that be then?”
De Lancey grinned. “Each of us must choose between revealing a truth or undertaking a challenge of some sort. Of course, the particular truth or challenge is not to be revealed until the choice is made. Major, I will allow you the honour of going first, and Merlin, you can come up with the truth or challenge.”
Grant took a sip of his wine and looked at Strange, trying to decide which would be the lesser of the two evils. He reminded himself that the magician was not a military man and might not have the decorum to refrain from asking questions of a personal nature, which would not do at all. Besides, what kind of challenge could he set that would not be simple enough to accomplish?
“I choose a challenge,” he said with a confident smile.
“Of course you do,” Strange replied, “I would expect no less.” He glanced around the courtyard seeking inspiration and his eyes lighted on the Spanish soldiers at the next table.
“I challenge you to drink wine from a one of those odd looking bags the locals are using.”
Grant looked around. He had seen men drinking from these goatskin botas before but never paid them much attention. Now that he actually watched, it did not seem to be so very much of a challenge. Surely all one had to do was hold up the teardrop-shaped wineskin and squeeze it to squirt the wine into one’s mouth.
Having appropriated a bota from one of the men at the next table, who seemed to find it rather amusing that this British officer should wish to participate in one off their traditions, he held it up in front of his face. He did not want to put his mouth too close to the damn thing in case that showed him up as a novice and made him the target of mockery, so he took hold of the spout with one hand and supported the bag with the other, tipped his head back, moved the bota a small distance away from his face, and squeezed.
The wine came out at a bit of an unexpected angle, but Grant managed to catch it in his mouth and maintain the position for the best part of half a minute before lowering the bag and turning to Strange and De Lancey in triumph, only to discover that they were looking over at the next table where the Spanish men had started moving their botas to arms-length and back again while still drinking, making this look like the easiest thing in the world.
Unwilling to lose face in front of his friends, who were now regarding him with a mixture of expectation and barely concealed glee, Grant raised the bag again and attempted to copy what the Spaniards were doing. This proved, of course, to be a huge mistake. As soon as he started to move the bota, the stream emanating from it deviated from its course, missing his mouth completely and spraying wine all over his face and the front of his coat.
Strange and De Lancey could not contain their laughter and Grant could not stop himself from joining in, causing the wine to spray in an even wider arc.
“Enough,” gasped De Lancey when he managed to stop laughing for a moment, “ I do not wish to be responsible for causing any more harm to your precious uniform. Now it is my turn and I also choose a challenge. Major?”
When Grant did not respond immediately, De Lancey rolled his eyes and impatiently prompted him to play along. “Come on Grant, what it is you wish to see me do?”
Grant swallowed and hoped the colour he could feel rising in his cheeks would pass as the effects of the alcohol; there were a lot of things he wished to see De Lancey do, none of which were appropriate for the current situation.
There was one thing though. De Lancey could often be heard around the camps singing all manner of lewd and bawdy folk songs to help boost the men’s morale on the night before a battle and although Grant did not always appreciate the lyrics, he did find the sound of the Colonel’s voice very pleasing.
“I challenge you to sing us a song, but not one of those vulgar ditties you entertain the men with. Something sweet and tender. Perhaps something that you would sing for a lover?”
He shut his eyes briefly and gave a small shake of his head as if he were chastising himself for the way he had phrased the request and expecting to be ridiculed, but De Lancey licked his lips slowly and, looking straight back at him, began:
Oh! why should the girl of my soul be in tears
At a meeting of rapture like this?
When the gloom of the past and the sorrows of years
Have been paid by a moment of bliss?
Are they shed for that moment of blissful delight,
Which dwells on her memory yet?
Do they flow like the dews of the love breathing night,
From the warmth of the sun that has set.
Oh! sweet is the tear on that languishing smile,
That smile which is loveliest then;
And if such are the drops that delight can beguile,
Thou shalt weep them again and again.*
The last notes of the song seemed to hang in the still evening air for some time after De Lancey finished and the way the two officers held each other’s gaze made Strange feel as if he were intruding on a very private moment that he wished he could be a part of, so he was glad when the silence was broken by a round of applause from the other British soldiers gathered in the square.
At this, De Lancey seemed to remember where he was, tearing his eyes away from Grant and giving a little bow.
“Your turn, Merlin.”
Strange sighed, “I suppose I must also choose a challenge now,” although he was secretly pleased that he would not have to reveal the sort of truth De Lancey was likely to ask for.
De Lancey looked delighted, he had clearly been thinking about this since he proposed the game in the first place.
“I challenge you to complete a task set by Lord Wellington that you have so far failed to even attempt.”
Strange was at a loss. “I do not know what you mean,” he said, sure that he had at least tried to fulfill every one of the demands Wellington had placed on him, no matter how trivial or impossible they had seemed.
“Do you not recall?” De Lancey paused and frowned as if trying to remember. “I think what he said was something like ‘I have a great fancy to see Major Grant sprout wings and flutter about.’”
Grant shot him a meaningful look. “It seems you remember that a little too well. Perhaps you could suggest something else, I am not sure Merlin should attempt to do magic when he has consumed such great quantities of wine.”
De Lancey just shrugged. “Rules are rules. Are you playing the game or not?”
Strange remembered the way they used to look at him with disappointment when he first arrived in the Peninsula and sometimes failed to produce the desired results with his magic and found that he very much did not want to see that look on De Lancey’s face again.
“Very well,” he said, “but not in such a public place. We do not want the locals spreading tales of magic being used in such a manner.” He looked over his shoulder and saw the Romanesque church of San Martín in the corner of the square. “In there, perhaps?”
They emptied their glasses and tried to act as if they were returning to their rooms for the night, hoping none of the British soldiers remaining in the square would point out that they were going in entirely the wrong direction. Luckily, the door of the church was hidden from the view of the Spanish soldiers, who no doubt would have taken offence at the sight of three drunken British Protestants staggering into one of their holy buildings.
Strange looked around the at the church’s ornate interior. “Right,” he said with a wicked grin, “wings it is then.”
He approached Grant and reached out his hand. “May I?”
“Oh, very well,” Grant laughed, assuming that whatever Strange was about to do, it would have absolutely no effect. After all, it was surely not possible for a man to actually sprout wings.
His expression changed abruptly when the epaulettes on his scarlet coat started to shift and grow, transforming into a magnificent pair of golden wings that reached from the floor to a good two feet above his head. The wings seemed to give off an incandescence that illuminated the church’s sandstone walls in much the same way as the earlier sunset had lit up the facades of the city, causing them to glow with a warm amber light. This light in turn reflected back off Grant’s fair hair, giving the impression of a halo hovering above his stunned face.
For a while, Strange and De Lancey simply stared at the vision in front of them, their eyes wide with what could only be described as adoration. Eventually, however, De Lancey found he could not resist the opportunity to tease Strange one more time. “So this is what you see when you think about Major Grant with wings then?”
“I imagine it is merely an effect of our surroundings.” Strange retorted, “My mind must have been addled by all these bloody religious statues. I suppose I could extend the spell to you but you would likely grow horns instead of wings.”
Grant, who had actually been looking like he was quite proud of his wings, cleared his throat and asked apprehensively, “This is not permanent is it, Merlin?”
“Of course not,” said Strange, reluctantly causing the wings to disappear.
Coda: Grant awoke convinced that his mind must be confusing the previous evening’s events with the wine-induced dreams he had experienced during the night. Surely that could not have actually happened. He got out of bed and started dressing, hoping that he would not feel quite so ill once he was properly put together and could at least give the impression that he was ready to face the day’s duties.
He picked up his coat from the chair where he had left it and was cursing himself for agreeing to play De Lancey’s silly game and getting wine stains all over his uniform when his eye was caught by a glimmer of light and he watched with a smile of amazement as a large golden feather floated gently to the ground.