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The Deepest Cut

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“My lord." De Lancey stood before his commander wearing an incredulous frown. “Surely you do not mean to have an officer flogged? There must be an alternative.” He knew Wellington was not averse to using corporal punishment to discipline the “scum of the earth” and make examples out of those who broke the rules but this was unprecedented.

The General looked up from his desk.

“Are you questioning my decision, De Lancey? I gave my word when the local authorities agreed to hand him over and the court martial has ruled that he should bear the consequences of his actions. He steadfastly refuses to name the men responsible for these crimes and must therefore be subject to the punishment that would otherwise have been inflicted upon them.”

“But, sir!”

“That is enough, Colonel. I will not tolerate this. You are dismissed.”

De Lancey strode out of the tent and headed for the centre of the camp where the men were erecting a triangle by planting three halberds in the sun-baked ground and lashing them together at the top with cord. He knew he had no choice but to watch the punishment and the thought of it made him feel physically sick.

Grant had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, attempting to stop the British troops who had consumed all the brandy and wine they could find in the shops and houses of the town and were reeling through the streets in a drunken rampage of looting and violence. If only he had followed their lead and fled when challenged by the local militia, or at least given up their names so that they could be tracked down and brought to account.

But no, this was Grant, and of course he had done what he thought was the honourable thing and decided to take the blame himself, although it was obvious to all concerned that he had nothing to do with it. De Lancey and Strange had tried to get him to change his mind, but to no avail. Grant had simply shrugged. “The men are already suspicious of my motives. How would I ever gain their trust if I were to turn them in?”

De Lancey heard the parade-call being beaten and watched as the companies gathered in the clearing and the other officers began to turn out. The men’s faces were solemn as they formed a square around the edges of the space where the drummers waited, and Wellington’s expression was unreadable as he joined the adjutant and the surgeon next to the triangle.

Men of all ranks stood to attention when Grant was marched into the square by Colonel Murray. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and held his head high as the adjutant read out the proceedings of the court martial and the sentence of one hundred lashes and complied without hesitation when Murray ordered him to strip.

Some of the those watching could not stifle their shocked gasps as Grant removed his shirt to reveal a back crisscrossed with ridges of scar tissue, the unmistakable relics of a previous flogging. De Lancey had gasped as well the first time he saw the scars, running his fingers gently over the raised skin and shaking with anger as Grant had revealed how he had come by such marks. The thought of those memories being stirred up again by this needless punishment sent a chill through his veins.

The silence was broken by the sound of Wellington’s voice.

“You are the last man I would have expected to find in this situation, Major Grant, and yet I have no choice but to order that the punishment go ahead, unless you have anything further to say on the matter.”

Grant remained silent.

“Damn it, Grant, just tell him!” De Lancey muttered, cursing himself silently as Wellington’s head turned in his direction.

“Colonel De Lancey? Do you have something to say? If you cannot hold your tongue, perhaps you would like to call the lashes.”

“My lord, I...”

“Good.” Wellington ignored his protest. “Step up then.”

For once, De Lancey found that he could not obey. He watched the senior drummer pick up the cat o’ nine tails and shake it to free up the cords from their entanglement with each other, and his feet simply refused to move.

“Colonel!” Wellington was clearly getting impatient. “That was an order. Take up your position.” he indicated a spot to the left of the surgeon, where an observer would be able to see both Grant’s face and the damage inflicted by the lash.

Grant looked over his shoulder as his hands were tied to the top of the triangle and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

De Lancey bit his lip and shook his head in sorrow and amazement - even now, Grant’s first thought was to protect him from the wrath of his superior officers.

He walked around to the other side of the halberds, giving a small nod of his own as he met Jonathan Strange’s eyes. The magician had come to him the previous night in a highly agitated state, demanding that he do something about Grant’s refusal to let him attempt any kind of magic that might soften the blows or dull the pain, and now here he was standing with the other men, even though his civilian status meant that he was under no obligation to do so. De Lancey understood that this was as much for his benefit as for Grant’s and he was thankful for it.

Officers who would normally be joking among themselves and taking bets on how long the prisoner would last before he broke down or passed out remained quiet and bowed their heads as Wellington conferred briefly with the surgeon before ordering, “Proceed.”

The slow beat began and the first drummer stepped forward, raised his arm and applied the lash to Grant’s back with a sickening crack that echoed in the silence of the camp.

Wellington gave De Lancey a pointed look and the younger man swallowed.

“One.” He managed to force the word out although he felt like his voice was betraying him.

Again the drummer struck.

“Two."

“Three.”

For the first set of blows, Grant never moved a muscle. He continued to stare straight ahead and the only sign that he was feeling anything at all was a slow blink of his eyes each time the cat’s tails made contact. Again and again the drummer struck, until twenty-five lashes had been called and he had completed his part of the task. He stepped back and handed the cat to the next man, who waited for the surgeon to inspect the damage and signal for him to continue.

When the beat began again, Grant clenched his jaw and flinched a little from the lash. As blow after blow rained down on his shoulders and upper back, the skin onto which the cords fell became blue and swollen and his head started to drop forward onto his chest. The fiftieth lash drew forth a smothered groan as he struggled to quash the natural exclamations of pain, and suddenly all De Lancey could see was a seventeen-year-old lieutenant, taken captive after his first battle and facing another night of torture.

It was a matter of record that Grant had spent a year as a prisoner of war at Fort L’Escarpe when the soldiers of the 11th Foot were captured after an ill-advised attempt to blow up the canal at Ostend, but only De Lancey knew of the brutal treatment he had received at the hands of his captors, who passed the time by drinking beyond excess and flogging their prisoners for sport. Only De Lancey had witnessed the sobs that wracked his body when his dreams took him back to those seemingly endless nights in 1798, and only De Lancey had held him through those nightmares, stroking his hair and softly kissing his forehead until the terrors subsided and he fell into a fitful sleep.

De Lancey looked around, hoping that he would be able to somehow draw strength from Strange, but the magician’s own feelings of helplessness, compounded by the knowledge that he could have done something to alleviate Grant’s suffering, had become too much for him to bear. Strange turned his back and walked away from the square.

The third drummer was a stronger man and wielded the lash with a heavier hand, bringing out blood on the right shoulder blade after a couple of strokes. On perceiving this, he altered his angle so that the cords bit lower on Grant’s back but this prompted a frown from Wellington and the surgeon stepped forward and ordered him to continue striking on the bleeding part.

De Lancey, pausing in his count as he waited for the beating to resume, looked at the General with interest. He knew from the reports he had read that it gave much less pain at this point to continue the blows as directed rather than to strike on the untouched skin and clearly Wellington did as well. Perhaps his lordship was not as unmoved as he would have them believe by the sight of one of his best officers enduring a punishment he did not deserve.

The blood that was flowing freely from the cuts on Grant’s shoulders sprayed from the cords of the lash each time it was whipped back for another blow. Despite the horror of the shredded skin and lacerated flesh, De Lancey kept his eyes fixed on Grant’s mutilated back, fearing that he would break down if he saw the face whose expressions of pleasure he knew so well now contorted in pain.

“Seventy-five,” he counted through clenched teeth as the blood splashed across the front of his uniform.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Wellington incline his head slightly in the surgeon’s direction, as if in recognition of something that had previously been arranged between them, and the medical man once again stepped forward to inspect Grant’s injuries. This time, there was no nod to the next drummer. The surgeon held Grant’s head up and looked into his eyes, felt for the pulse on his neck and then walked formally over to Wellington and made his report in a low voice, whereupon the drummers were ordered to take the prisoner down and convey him directly to the field hospital.

Wellington announced for all to hear, “Your punishment is over, Major, the sentence being reduced to seventy-five lashes in accordance with your previous good character and the need we have of your continued service,” but Grant didn’t seem to notice as he struggled to push away the men who were supporting him and walk to the medical tent on his own.

-------

Grant desperately needed to sleep but he couldn’t find a position that did not result in searing agony. The medics had rubbed salt into the wounds to prevent infection and every move he made sent a burning pain shooting through his back and shoulders and forced a moan from his lips. The sensation was so intense that he didn’t notice he had company until he heard a soft cough and looked up to find De Lancey standing a few yards from the bed.

The younger man was staring at the floor and fiddling with a small jar.

“From Merlin,” he said quietly without raising his eyes, “He has infused this balm with magic. He says it will dull the pain.”

When Grant didn’t move to take the jar, he put it down on the floor and started to leave.

“William?”

De Lancey paused by the entrance and prepared himself to face the only thing he could imagine that would be worse than seeing the pain in Grant’s eyes during the beating - the accusing gaze of the man he felt he had betrayed - but all he saw when he turned around was the man he loved, asking for his help.

“Please?“ Grant was sitting on the edge of the bed holding the jar in one hand and reaching out with the other. “I cannot do it myself.”

De Lancey could barely hold back the tears.

“But I made it so much worse for you.” He sat down next to Grant and started gently massaging the cream into the ragged cuts.

“Worse?” Grant breathed deeply as Strange’s magic began to take effect and the pain faded to a dull ache.

“By going to Wellington, questioning his decisions, making him choose me to call the lashes.”

Grant shook his head and smiled, twisting his upper body round and reaching up to take De Lancey’s face in his hands.

“You did not make it worse for me, William. It was the sound of your voice that gave me the strength to go on.”