Desertion

A scene cut from the final version. Be warned it might give away some of what happens…


“So, you finally desert us, Master Matthews,” said Elizabeth. She held her head high and her voice was cold, strangely echoing. The contempt tore into him.
“I’m deserting no one,” he said.

“You are no friend to anyone, sir; King or Domon’el, English or trolls. You were born in ignominy and raised a bastard. You are nothing.”

Daniel’s eyes filled with tears. “No,” he said. “No.” He blinked furiously to clear them, and when he opened them again he was awake.

He stared at the wooden bench for a moment and let the despair drain out of him. No, it hadn’t been like that. He hadn’t seen Elizabeth since he had been carted off to Maidstone for trial. He sighed in relief. Elizabeth hadn’t been his profoundest admirer when they last saw each other, but she hadn’t despised him.

Yet he did wonder what she would be thinking of him now. When he didn’t return. Would she assume he had been executed? Would she cry? Or would she assume he had deserted her, and his father, to join Cromwell’s rebels? That, surely, was the fear that had informed this dream.

All these thoughts took a bare second, before he realised he was still immensely tired and would much rather have his eyes closed again than open. He was dry and warm and sleepy and it was all very pleasant. He pulled the blanket tighter about him and another second more he was asleep again, lulled by rain pattering on the canopy above him, the sound of rushing water past his head and the soft murmur of conversation between Khon’ol Le and Cromwell in the stern.

Cromwell looked up from his Bible and glanced at the figure stretched out in the bows of the barge. “Is he awake?”

“He stirred. He’s asleep again.” Khon’ol Le didn’t share her commander’s reading tastes. She held up the barrel of the pistol she was cleaning and squinted down it. Not satisfied, she proceeded to wrap a square of oiled cloth around a cleaning stick and slid it in. The bargeman at the tiller gazed idly ahead, instinctively nudging the rudder to keep the boat on course as the horse on the bank plodded on, towing the boat up river. Rather than take the direct overland route to their destination, they had headed due north and hit the Thames. Cromwell had secured the services of a loyal bargeman and now they were heading west, towards London. It was slow and tedious, but Khon’ol Le had to admit it was probably the fastest safe way for them to travel. They would be there that evening.

“Good.” Cromwell looked back at his book. “Of us all, he is most in need of rest.”

“Do you think this plan will succeed?”

“Do you have a better plan?”

“No.”

“Then it will succeed, or the Lord will show us a better one. This is our hour, Mistress Connolly. I feel it. The Lord has raised up his servant.”

“Surely he raised you up a long time ago.”

Cromwell looked up in surprise. “I meant Master Matthews.”

“So he is not a witch?” Khon’ol Le was strangely relieved.

Cromwell shook his head. “No. He is young and inexperienced, and was too comfortable in his life as a Holekhor to make a firm commitment to righteousness, though doubtless his conscience prodded him. So the Lord brought him to this moment of crisis so that he could finally make his choice. You saw him at Brighthelmstone. And has it not occurred to you that he could have chosen the safe route at the ambush? He could have kept quiet and remained with the survivors? Yet he chose to accompany the prince and princess.”

Khon’ol Le smiled. “I think that was for baser reasons than his Christian sense.”

Her leader scowled and she groaned inwardly. One day she would remember that Cromwell had no sense of humour on certain subjects: odd, because he was positively childish on others. She had seen him put pins on chairs where people would sit down.

“The instinct of a young man to enjoy the company of a young woman is not base, Mistress Connolly. It is ordained and celebrated in scripture. ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.’ No. It only becomes base when distorted by unnatural lusts.”

“Of course,” Khon’ol Le murmured. She knew Cromwell had never developed a sense of irony either.

“And consider this. He chose to sacrifice himself for someone he loves; a subject upon which Our Lord also had words to say. And now, finally, he is to prove the means by which we will deliver England. The Lord takes pleasure in confounding the expectations of the wise, Mistress Connolly, and I am not too proud to admit to having been confounded. I would never have expected it, but I do believe that out of the ranks of the heathen, He has raised a mighty Christian warrior.”

In the bows, the mighty Christian warrior mumbled “Sausages” in his sleep and rolled onto his front.

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2003. Not to be reproduced without permission.