Highland HonorBy: Hannah Howell
A deep groan escaped Nigel Murray as he awkwardly sat up. He clutched his head, wincing at the thick coat of filth caking his brown hair, and squinted painfully in the faint light of dawn as he looked around. It took him a moment to recognize where he was. Then he grimaced in self-disgust. He had not even made it inside his small tent, having fallen asleep in the mud just in front of it.
“I am fortunate I didnae drown in the muck,” he grumbled as he staggered to his feet, the pounding in his head adding to his unsteadiness.
Slowly, he became aware of a rancid smell. His disgust with himself increased tenfold when he realized that the unpleasant smell was emanating from him. Nigel cursed and started toward the small river the army had camped near. He needed to scrub the stench away and clear his head. The cold water would do both adequately.
Matters had gotten completely out of hand, he decided as he wended his way through the trees. When a man woke up sprawled in the mud, not sure where he was or how he had gotten there, that man needed to take a long, hard look at himself. Nigel had thought that of several of his compatriots during the seven long years he had been fighting for the French. Now he had to apply his own advice to himself. He knew he had reached the point where he either changed or he died.
Once at the river he located a shallow spot, yanked off his boots, unbuckled his sword and scabbard, and stepped into the water. After briefly immersing his head in the almost too cold water he lay down in it, resting his head on the softly grassed, gently sloping bank. He sprawled there, eyes closed, letting the chill of the water push aside the wine-induced clouds in his mind and the current take away the stench clinging to his clothes and his body.
Since he had come to France he had increasingly immersed himself in drinking and a multitude of faceless, nameless women. The occasional battles with the English or the French enemies of whichever French lordling was paying for his sword at the time were the only things that caused any break in his continuous round of dissipation. Nigel knew he was lucky that he was still alive after seven years of such stupidity. He could have fallen face down in the mud last night, too drunk to keep himself from drowning in the mire. He could have staggered into the enemy’s camp and been cut down before he even recognized his error. He could have had his throat cut and been robbed by one of the many shadowy figures that lurked close to the army, or even one of his fellow soldiers. He had slipped into a strange madness that could easily cost him his life in any one of a hundred ways.
And why? That was the question he had to ask himself. At first he had turned to wine and women to ease the ache in his heart, to try to end the pain that had driven him from his home, from Scotland and Donncoill. Now he suspected it had become a habit. The wine offered a tempting numbness, a welcome inability to think, and the women gave his body a temporary relief. That, he decided firmly, was not enough to put his life at risk. When he had left Scotland he had assured his brothers that he was not coming to France to try to die in battle. He certainly did not want to die in a drunken stupor.
Voices reached his ears, pulling him free of his dark thoughts and uncomfortable self-examination. Nigel dragged himself into a sitting position and listened carefully. Once sure of the direction the voices came from, he grabbed his boots and sword and stealthily approached. Curiosity drove him. So did the temptation of some diversion from looking at how low he had sunk in the last seven years.
Nigel barely stopped himself from walking right up to the pair he was tracking. They were nearer than he had realized, and were standing in a clearing that was not easily seen until one stepped right into it. He quickly ducked behind a clump of low-growing berry bushes. It was a poor hiding place, but the two people standing in the clearing were so intent upon what they were saying and doing that Nigel was sure they would never see him as long as he made no noise.
The young man was someone Nigel recognized, but it took him a moment to recall the man’s name. It was the smaller one of the pair that caught and held Nigel’s interest. Why was Guy Lucette talking so intently to a tiny, black-haired woman dressed in ill-fitting boy’s clothing? A quick glance at the pile of thick, raven locks on the ground told Nigel that the woman’s cap of curls was a very recent change. He felt an odd pang of regret when he looked at the discarded hair, and wondered why. Nigel decided that any man would regret seeing such long, beautiful hair shorn and cast away. Such hair was a woman’s glory. That made him wonder why the little lady would do such a drastic thing. He forced himself to stop thinking and listen to what was being said, struggling to follow the fast pace of their French.
“This is madness, Gisele,” Guy muttered as he helped her lace up her stained, deerhide leggings and worn, padded jupon. “We are soon to face the English in battle. That is no place for a woman.”
“DeVeau’s lands are no place for a woman, either. Especially this woman,” snapped the young lady as she touched her new, very short curls with long, unsteady fingers. “I could kill the man for this alone.”
“The man is already dead.”
“That does not stop me from wanting to kill him.”