Artillery cracked like lightning across the quagmire of the battlefield as rain lashed down. Mud churned underfoot, sucking down those who could not keep their balance, like demons hiding below ground, snatching at the ankles of unsuspecting soldiers. Another enemy to add to the one they clashed with. All around, the whistle and blast of cannonballs screamed past the ears of frightened men. For those who were hit, there was no time to say a prayer or think of loved ones back home in fair England. If lucky—though luck was a matter of perspective—they would escape with a missing limb. If not, there would be little to recognize them by. “Cavalry! Ready!” The call bellowed above the din of the cannon fire’s terrifying thunder, echoing down the line of waiting horsemen. The beasts pawed the ground and snorted in nervous anticipation, their hides soaked, saddles slick from the storm. The riders stared dead ahead, water dripping from their peaked caps, the shadows concealing their terror from the enemy. “Brace yourself, Hudson.” Dorian Wilson tossed a personal warning to the companion at his side as he prepared to call out again. His childhood friend and brother-in-arms, Mark Hudson. At home, they were the Earl of Langston and the Viscount of Bentley, respectively. Here, they were known only as Captain Wilson and Lieutenant Hudson.
Soldiers, not lords. Though fate did not care, either way. War stole away the lives of poor and wealthy alike—the great leveler. Hudson flashed a grin as lightning forked through the bruised sky. “Make the call, Captain. I will say a prayer for both of us.” “Cavalry!” Dorian boomed, his horse stoic beneath him. Others were beginning to take a turn for the skittish. As though they could sense they were about to race headfirst into the seething fracas ahead. “Ready swords!” The line of riders drew their weapons with a grate of metal, gripping the reins tighter with their free hands.
Dorian took in a deep breath, filling his lungs to the brim. “Charge!” He dug in his heels, and his horse lurched forward, pounding across the battlefield toward the enemy. The infantry was already firmly in the fray, bayonets seeking out enemy flesh. Behind, the artillery on the British side paused, slipping into eerie silence. There would be casualties caused by their own people, in due course, as the cannons aimed wide, and the muskets continued to fire, but they were not foolish enough to shoot while the Cavalry was making their charge. Will today be the day? Dorian focused on the French as the dense muscle of his mount ebbed and flowed beneath the saddle, the beast snorting with the same fury that lay in his breast. They were both creatures of war, unafraid of what fate waited for them. His horse, whom he’d named Sergeant, had been bred to accept whatever may come. As for Dorian, he had nothing left to fear. Death would merely have been a blessing, a swift departure from the nightmares that taunted him instead of the constant endurance of existing with them.
A cannonball shrieked past his head, but Sergeant pressed on without a flinch. Nor did Dorian look back as he heard the unmistakable sound of a wounded horse. A bestial bellow that could not easily be forgotten. A human scream followed, and he knew there would be one more man carried away on a stretcher when the battle subsided. If he made it that far, that is. Come morning, perhaps there would be one more cross instead, bearing his name. They will call him a hero, but his mother will weep for him all the same, and that word will do naught to ease her broken heart. Dorian had swiftly learned that “hero” went by another word here, in the thick of it all: worm-fodder. He did not care for medals and accolades. He had not come here for that.
He had come here to forget. Hudson charged at his side, keeping pace, as the rain slanted down in icy sheets, and the horses struggled to stay upright in the thick mud below. Sergeant soared over the craters left by cannonballs, stumbling only slightly over the smaller, unseen dips in the terrain. Finally, unscathed by enemy fire, Dorian and Hudson clattered into the enemy forces. Bayonets glinted in the dim light, and the roars of French tongues rose up to meet them. Dorian slashed left and right with his sword, the movements of conflict now second nature to him, the clash of steel adding cymbals to the symphony of combat. I wonder where you all hail from. Who is waiting for you to return? It was a curiosity to Dorian that he did not see actual faces when he fought. In truth, he saw nothing at all. He acted instinctively, letting some primordial part of his mind take over until he heard the bugle that would signal their retreat.
After that, the fighting spirit drained out of him, leaving him exhausted and desperate to feel something once more. Not from the killing—he tried not to think of that if he could help it—but from the thrilling danger of being killed: the adrenaline, the anticipation, the racing of his heart. Sergeant reared unexpectedly as a Frenchman tried to charge him, kicking out with his front hooves. Dorian squeezed his thighs to hold on, but as his horse landed, the French had other ideas. He felt hands snagging at him, yanking him down from the saddle and dragging him down into the quagmire. Bitter faces leered down at him; bayonets poised to end his life. So… it is today. “Captain!” Hudson’s cry cut through the war cries as he barreled through the cluster of aggressors with his saber drawn. He was no longer atop his horse but running with all his might, his face streaked with dirt and blood. “Do not even think of dying, my friend! It is not your day!” A few of the Frenchmen ran from Hudson’s wild swipes and slashes, while others felt the bite of the blade.
Given a brief reprieve, Dorian tried to haul himself to his feet, but the mud sucked him further down like quicksand. The more he struggled, the harder it held him. And he could not see Sergeant anywhere. Spare him… I do not care for my own life but spare his. A moment later, a firm grip grasped him around the wrist and pulled him up. Hudson grinned through a face that was almost entirely masked with muck. “I thought you were doomed, Captain.” He laughed. Dorian mustered a smile. “As did I.
” “Shall we?” Hudson pointed his saber toward the enemy. “I believe we must.” Dorian plucked his own sword up from where it had fallen and prepared to attack. However, before he could put a single foot forward, he made the mistake of observing his surroundings. Bodies of animal and humans alike scattered the battlefield, while those who were not yet dead groaned and writhed in agony. It was not a new sight to him, but it never got any easier to bear. He may have been numb inside, but he was no monster. Sergeant, where are you? He smeared the rain and filth and blood from his eyes, but the downpour blinded his eyes again as soon as he swept it away. As he turned to his left to try and spot the absent steed, he froze. Out of the deluge, a white horse sauntered across the field of death and destruction, oblivious to the threat of artillery that had started up again from both sides.
On its back sat a young woman with long, golden hair, a flowing white gown flapping in the wind. She was beautiful, her head crowned with a glowing halo. Am I dead already? He gulped as she brought the horse to a standstill and slid from the saddle. Her bare feet picked up no mud as she wandered toward him, pausing beside the writhing wounded to touch a gentle hand to their foreheads. Their agonized eyes stared up at her, only to turn vacant as she drew her hand away, leaving smiles upon their faces as they took their last breaths. “Who is she?” Dorian whispered. He turned to his friend. But Hudson was not standing at his side any longer. He lay still on the ground, his eyes blank, a livid red gash trickling blood from his throat. And everything had fallen unnervingly silent.
No-one fired, no-one shouted, no-one attacked. Indeed, as he looked around, he found there was no-one still standing but him. Everyone had fallen, though he did not know how such a thing could have happened. His head whipped back around as the mysterious woman approached. As she neared, he thought she looked familiar. A face he had tried to forget for her sake as well as his. “Why did you do that? Why?” Dorian yelled, his heart clenching in a vise of pain for all the dead who were strewn around him. Hudson, Sergeant, his entire cavalry unit, all of the British, even all of the enemy battalions. The woman smiled and came to a halt just in front of him, her bare feet still unsettlingly clean of any dirt. “It was not me, Dorian.
It was you. You did this.” “How could I?” His cheeks were slick, the rain hiding his tears as they fell. He did know her, he felt sure of it. So why could he not remember her name? “How could I have done such a thing? I do not have the power for this devastation.” “Oh, Dorian.” The woman reached out to touch his face. “You know why.” As soon as her fingertips met with his skin, the battlefield vanished. He sat up, drenched with sweat and panting hard, in the familiar surroundings of his home.
The sheets were twisted around him like a python, his bedclothes as sodden as if he had dived into the pond of his estate. He blinked rapidly, his heart hammering violently as he spied a glowing light in the corner of his bed-chamber. Had she followed him here into the waking world? No… It is only the moonlight peering in through the drapes, he realized with an almighty gasp of relief. And a touch of sadness. For he was forbidden from seeing the young woman in his dreams again. That was the only place he could now find her, without taking drastic measures that would ruin the family name that he now upheld. Alone. No father, no mother, no siblings, no wife to help him bear the weight of it. “I think I understand,” he said softly, thinking of his dream. “I think I have always known it.
” Rain pattered against the windowpane, softer than the storm from his slumber. It rustled through the trees outside, the winds rising up to a howl that whistled through the hairline gaps in the window frame. In his delirious state, he thought he heard it say what he feared the most, and what he had come to understand from that decimated battlefield of his nightmare—three harrowing words: You are cursed. “I know.” He rolled his head in his hands as the tears came. “I know I am. That is why I am better off alone, so I cannot hurt anyone, ever again.” As his stifled sobs filled the silent room, no-one came to comfort him. No-one ever did.