"Good Lord, it would almost make a man miss the stifling heat." De Lancey shivered and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders as he looked out over the scene of chaos on the docks from his vantage point on the Brunswick’s forecastle. The British Isles had been gripped by a fierce winter storm and despite its sheltered position, Cork Harbour was being lashed by a blizzard the likes of which he hadn’t seen since his first campaign in the Netherlands back in 1794.
The biting wind was so strong that the men of the 11th Foot were struggling to remain upright as they disembarked and waited for transports to take them from the island of Haulbowline to the mainland, where they were due to spend a few days at the barracks on the north side of the city before setting out on the long march to Dublin.
Standing beside him, Grant leant forward with his hands on the rail, watching the dock workers slipping on the ice-covered quays as they tried to load the regiment’s equipment onto the waiting carts.
"I don’t care about the damn weather, I just want to get off this blasted ship and feel solid ground under my feet."
De Lancey knew there was more to it than that. Although the mood on board had lightened significantly after Finney’s disappearance and nobody had seemed inclined to pursue the matter, every day had been filled with the fear of discovery and every night had brought him to the verge of tears as Grant had gradually revealed the depth of his pain.
Glancing around to make sure they were unobserved, he moved closer and covered Grant’s gloved hand with his own.
"I could not agree more."
De Lancey was woken early by the sound of a great commotion outside his window. Pulling on his breeches and boots and throwing his coat over his nightshirt, he ran into the yard where he found Grant shouting orders amidst a melee of men and horses.
"What is it?" He tried in vain to get somebody’s attention. "What has happened?"
Grant ran up to him, his eyes flashing with excitement. "It is the highwayman Willie Brennan. He had the audacity to enter a gentleman’s house in Milgrove and rob him of 40 guineas in cash. He has evaded capture so far but he can’t have got very far in these conditions. I’m certain we can catch up with him."
"Brennan?" De Lancey frowned. "That scoundrel who deserted from the 12th and claims to be defending the poor with his heinous acts of highway robbery?"
"The very same."
De Lancey raised a hand to protect his eyes as the freezing wind drove the snow into his face. "Perhaps you should let Lord Cahir deal with it. I hear he has been after that scum for years and his men are far better acquainted than ours with the lay of the land around here. This is no weather to be scouring the countryside for a dangerous villain."
But Grant was not to be deterred. It was as if the years had fallen away and he was once again a boy who thought joining the army would be a splendid adventure.
"Oh come on William, admit it, it is rather thrilling and it will be quite a feather in the regiment’s cap if we are the ones who finally manage to apprehend him."
He mounted his horse, laughing gleefully as he wheeled around and headed for the gate.
"Ready, men? Let’s hunt the blackguard down!"
De Lancey took a step back, fighting the urge to grab the reins and stop Grant rushing off into the unknown. The last time he had heard that sound, they had been trapped in a burning building and Grant had been laughing in the face of death.
It sent a chill down his spine that was nothing to do with the subzero temperature.
De Lancey sat in the mess hall staring at the order he had received to report to Colonel George Murray, Deputy Quartermaster-General of His Majesty’s Forces in Ireland. He had been expecting something like this since his promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel but now it was real and his heart ached at the thought of telling Grant he would be staying behind when the 11th sailed for England.
The door flew open and a ragged figure staggered into the room and collapsed to the ground. De Lancey swore as he recognised Ensign Miller, one of the soldiers from the garrison who had ridden out with Grant. He rushed over and pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered around the fallen man.
Miller sat on the floor, shaking with the effects of exhaustion and cold and trying to answer the questions that were being fired at him from all directions.
"They were waiting for us…Brennan and his gang… it was an ambush…they shot Lieutenant Carter…I think there were six…I didn’t see…. "
De Lancey scanned the yard outside, hoping to see the rest of the party emerging through the falling snow, but Miller appeared to be alone. He bent down and grabbed the front of the young soldier’s coat with rather too much force.
"What of Captain Grant? Is he hurt?"
Miller looked terrified. "I’m sorry, Sir, I do not know. I concealed myself when they attacked and made my way back here as fast as I could."
"Dammit." De Lancey stopped short of calling the man a coward for hiding and running from a fight but he had heard enough. He picked up his cloak and strode out of the hall, calling out to anyone within earshot. "Bring me a horse!"
He ran to the barracks to fetch his pistol and returned at full tilt, almost colliding with Colonel Fitz-Patrick in his haste to mount the charger that was being led into the yard.
Fitz-Patrick put a hand out to steady him and took a firm grasp on his arm, looking him straight in the eye.
"If I had seen you, De Lancey, I would have to order you to stand down and wait for further instructions." The concern on his face was clear. "But Grant is one of my best men and I have no wish to put you on a charge for insubordination so it is fortunate that this blizzard is making it impossible for me to see a thing. Go." He took the bridle from the stablehand and held it as De Lancey climbed into the saddle. "And bring him back safe."
De Lancey had been riding for a couple of hours when he came across a small group of men in familiar uniforms by the side of the road and as he got closer he recognised Lieutenant Carter, wincing with pain as one of the men tended to what was clearly a gunshot wound in his right thigh.
He dismounted and rushed towards them, shouting to make himself heard over the noise of the wind.
"Where is Captain Grant?"
A young corporal pointed in the direction of the tree line on a hill to the east. "He went that way, Sir."
"With the rest of the men?"
"No, Sir. The robbers split up after they attacked us. The others are pursuing the gang on the road to Clonmel but Brennan took to the hills and Captain Grant insisted on going after him alone."
De Lancey cursed and handed over the reins - the horse would be more of a hindrance than a help in that terrain.
"Get this man back to the barracks and tell Colonel Fitz-Patrick what has occurred."
"Will you not return with us, Sir?"
De Lancey shook his head. "No, corporal, I am going to find Grant," adding to himself as he turned and headed up the hill, "and give him hell for doing this to me again."
The unrelenting storm made progress slow and difficult and it was not until he reached the shelter of the trees that he had a chance to catch his breath and take stock of the situation. Only then then did he realise he had no idea which path he should take. The trail that the two men had carved through the deep powder on the hillside had been easy enough to follow but it ended at the edge of the woods and he was not a skilled enough tracker to read the signs in the broken branches and frozen leaves underfoot.
"Dammit, Grant." He leant against a tree and looked around for any hint of a track to follow." Which way did you go?"
The wind dropped for a moment and his nostrils caught the unmistakable scent of burning peat in the air. It seemed to be coming from the higher ground so he set off up the hill and soon came upon a clearing in the trees where a small cottage stood with a flickering light in the window and smoke rising from the chimney.
He knocked cautiously and pushed the door open.
There was a roaring fire in the hearth and candles burning on the mantle. Grant’s uniform was lying in an untidy heap on the floor and he was sitting on the edge of an old sofa, shirtless and wrapped in a blanket from the waist down, trying to tie a bandage around the top of his left arm with one hand.
He looked up as De Lancey struggled to close the door behind him against the wind, smiling to himself at the expression of astonishment and concern on the younger man’s face.
"Oh do not look so worried, it is only a flesh wound. Here, give me a hand with this."
Not knowing what else to do, De Lancey sat down beside him and took over the bandaging. His initial surge of relief at seeing Grant alive was fading and he pulled the bandage tighter than he needed to, feeling a small sense of satisfaction as Grant winced at the pain.
"That’s for the merry chase you have led me." He sighed heavily. "You can’t keep putting yourself in danger like this, Grant. Your luck will not hold forever."
Grant just grinned. "I would say finding this place was pretty lucky, wouldn’t you?"
De Lancey gave in - it was impossible to stay angry when Grant was smiling at him like that.
"So what happened to Brennan?"
"Oh, he got away." Grant did not look as displeased with the notion as he should have. "I suppose I ought to be out there looking for him but I thought I would just make myself comfortable here and wait for you."
De Lancey's confusion was evident in his furrowed brow.
"You make it sound like you knew I would come."
Grant reached out and took his hand, tracing a fingertip over the palm as if he were trying to read a story in the lines nature had placed there and pressing his lips to the one line whose story he knew - the scar that ran from one side of that beautiful hand to the other, the scar that stirred memories of another time and place and a youthful confession of love.
"Oh William, do you think I don’t know you after all these years?" He kissed each finger in turn as he looked deep into De Lancey’s eyes.
"You never stopped trying to reach me, even when I pushed you away so hard it must have broken your heart. You loved me when I believed I didn’t deserve to be loved and refused to give up on me when I’d all but given up on myself. You followed me to the other side of the world and brought me back from a waking nightmare I thought I’d never escape. You stayed beside me when others would have fled, held me when I faltered and caught me when I fell. The one thing I can count on in this life is that you will be there when I need you. Of course I knew you would come."