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Odd's bones, Sir Daniel, I swear 'tis but a maid!" The trooper was on his knees beside a crumpled figurejust one crumpled figure among the many littering the field; some were silent, others shrieked their agonies to the night sky, yet others moaned their prayers for surcease with the helpless resignation of the vanquished.
Daniel Drummond swung down from his big black charger, whose head drooped listlessly in the August warmth. "How can that be, Tom?" He joined the trooper beside the inert body. "A maid in this charnel house?"
The body stirred, moaned, eyelashes fluttered upward, and Daniel found himself looking into a air of enormous brown eyes now clouded with pain. "I want Will. Where's Will?" a small voice croaked, then the eyes closed again.
"Sweet heaven," muttered Daniel, unfastening her buff leather jerkin stained heavily with blood at the shoulder. Had there been any doubt as to the sex of this victim of the three-day battle of Preston, it was quickly resolved. Beneath the coarse linen shirt were outlined two unmistakably feminine hillocks. He had heard tell of the women who donned a trooper's britches and buff jacket, took up pike and halberd, and followed their men into battle, but he had never come face-to-face with the phenomenon before. This particular example seemed remarkably young for such devotion to love.
"'Tis a pike thrust, I'd say," muttered Tom, peering at the ugly wound. "There'll be parties searching for the wounded soon enough; we'd best leave her to them and be on our way, else ye'll be languishing in a Roundhead prison.'
"Aye." The Cavalier agreed absently, but he did not immediately straighten and get to his feet.His fingers were probing the wound. 'Tis not excessively deep, I'd say, but there's no saying when she'll be discovered. She could bleed to death before a stretcher party arrives." He gestured expressively around the battlefield, its grim scene shrouded by the night, only occasionally brought into stark relief when the moon appeared fleetingly from behind the scudding clouds. Figures were moving among the bodies in a curious crouching run. They could be as easily robbing the dead and wounded as offering succor, Daniel thought with somber realism.
"We'll take her with us." He spoke with sudden decision, tearing off his sash. "She'll fare as well with us as leaving her here." He bound the wound as tightly as he could and the deep blue of the sash darkened with ominous rapidity.
"We'll not make much speed," grumbled the trooper, looking anxiously around . "Not with a wounded maid on our hands. I don't mean no disrespect, sir, but if we're taken, you'll be as much service to her as a dead fish."
Despite his anxiety, Daniel smiled at his companion's customary lack of subtlety. "I'll not argue with ye on that score, Tom, but we're still taking her. She's no more than a child, not much older than little Lizzie."
Tom shrugged. The decisions were not his to make, although it did occur to him that if this girl in trooper's clothing were indeed little more than eight years old, matters had come to a fine pass in this land torn by civil strife. He took the still figure from his master while Sir Daniel remounted, then handed her up before mounting his own sturdy cob. "Where to, sir?"
"We'd best keep off the roads ... strike out across country," responded Sir Daniel. "They'll be looking to round up the runaways." A bitter smile twisted his lips. "As God is my witness, Tom, this is the last time I'll run from those foul, treasonous bastards " Prophetic words, but he was not to know that. He touched spur to his mount, and the charger seemed to summon up the last reserves of strength as he surged forward into the night, away from the ghastly field where agony and death hung like a miasma over the spectral shapes.
They rode for four hours, until dawn streaked the eastern sky and he could feel the beast beginning to founder beneath him. The body in his arms had stirred little, only an occasional whimpering cry indicating that she still lived. They came upon a small copse where a green-brown stream flowed sluggishly over flat stones, and Daniel reined in.
"We'll rest a while here, Tom. 'Tis secluded enougha spot for cowherds and milkmaids, not soldiers."
"'Tis to be hoped they're not cowherds and milkmaids in search of the reward to be won for a betrayed Cavalier, " muttered Tom, dismounting to take his master's burden from him. He laid her on the bank of the stream and stood frowning down at her. "She bears no insignia; 'tis impossible to tell whether she fights for King or Parliament."
"Whether her lover does," corrected Daniel, removing his steel helmet with a sigh of relief. The rich, flowing locks of a Cavalier tumbled in dark profusion to the deep lace collar at the neck of his doublet. "I suspect 'tis love, not politics, that motivates this maid." He unfastened his breastplate and flexed his arms, stretching luxuriously. "Do you see to the horses and I will do what I may for her."
Kneeling down, he gently eased off the girl's leather jerkin. His sash was soaked and dark with blood. As he began to unfasten it, her eyes opened again. "I want Will," she said clearly. "Where is he?" She made a move as if to sit up.
"Easy now." He restrained her with little effort, but panic flared in her eyes.
"Leave me be. Who are you? What are you doing?" The panic edged a voice that he noted with interest was refined, bearing no trace of peasant dialect.
"I just wish to help you," he said. "Unless I much mistake, you have taken a pike through your shoulder." He drew aside the sash and took the torn edges of the shirt, ruthlessly ripping them apart to lay bare the wound where fresh blood still bubbled up to add another layer to the caked gash.