“We have to do something,” De Lancey insisted. “It is his birthday after all.”
Strange gave him a doubtful look. “I’m not sure about this, colonel. I may not be privy to his lordship’s inner thoughts but I am fairly certain he is not the type to celebrate birthdays. Besides, what on earth does one get for a man like that?”
“Good point, Merlin.” Grant shook his head. “What do you think William? You know him as well as anyone. What would he wish for?”
“In truth, I think he would wish for the war to be over and the killing to stop.” De Lancey sighed. “I saw him after Badajoz, you know. Weeping over the men who had fallen. He will never admit it but he feels responsible and just wants to put an end to the bloodshed.”
Strange rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, if I could do that we wouldn’t be sitting here now would we? Any more bright ideas?”
Grant looked pensive. “You know,“ he said, “it must be awfully lonely at the top. I know he thinks of his staff as family but if I were him I would wish for nothing more than a true friend and confidant. Somebody I could talk to on an equal footing without fear of being judged or having my words repeated. I don’t suppose you can magic up one of those for him Merlin?”
Strange was about to retort with his usual bluntness when his eye was caught by the sight of the 16th Light Dragoons going through their morning drill. He smiled enigmatically. “He already has one. He just doesn’t know it.”
Lord Wellington made his way to the stables, intending to escape the confines of his headquarters and the surrounding encampment so he could be alone with his thoughts. The losses of the past few months weighed heavily on his mind and the last thing he wanted was to spend the day putting on a false smile for everyone who offered their felicitations.
When he arrived, however, he was in for quite a shock. The stall where he had left Copenhagen was empty and a young man in a long brown coat was sitting on an upturned barrel in the corner, chewing on a piece of straw.
Wellington drew his sword. “Who the devil are you, sir, and what have you done with my horse?”
The man jumped up from his makeshift seat and gave a small bow, his hair falling forward over his shoulder in an elaborate braid. He removed the straw from his mouth and gave a broad, toothy smile. “Greetings, my lord.”
Wellington frowned. “You did not answer my questions, sir.”
“I’m not sure I am allowed to.” The man shrugged. “Perhaps you should ask your magician.”
“Merlin?” Wellington advanced a couple of paces, raising his sword so it was level with the stranger’s chest. “What on earth has he got to do with this?”
“Think about it.” The cheeky grin that accompanied this suggestion was too much for Wellington.
“You will address me in the proper manner, sir,” he growled. “You may not be one of my men but I’ve a good mind to have you flogged for your insolence.”
His anger was met with a wink and another wide smile.
“Well it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve whipped me, although from what my friends tell me you are a lot more lenient with that particular implement than most of your officers.”
Wellington’s sword arm dropped as he began to realise what was going on. He looked from the empty stall to the grinning stranger and back again and shook his head in disbelief.
“The one and only.” The man stepped forward and held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally talk with you, my lord. Please do not judge Mr Strange too harshly for this, he was only trying to help.”
De Lancey smiled and clapped Strange on the shoulder as they watched Wellington walking through the camp, deep in conversation with his old friend.
“How long will it last?”
Strange swallowed nervously. “Until they return to the stables, I hope, or else we will have to spend the rest of the day convincing anyone who sees the transformation that it was just a figment of their imagination.”
When they joined Wellington for dinner that evening, his mood seemed a lot lighter than it had for the last few days. There was even the hint of a smile on his lips as he looked at the three of them and raised his glass.
“To good friends, in whatever form they may appear.”
Strange lifted his glass and inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Happy birthday, my lord.”