October 19, 1854
Bloody aristocrats—it was their fault the Russians had pinned down fifty thousand allied British, French, and Turkish soldiers twenty miles short of Sevastopol. Samuel Kingston’s rapid breaths fogged the morning air as he scanned the wood across the river. Russians were lurking in the barren trees beyond the dead ground, and the Light Brigade had to find them before the allies could advance.
Samuel’s palomino stomped the frozen ground, excited by the jingle of harnesses and the creak of tack as the 270 chargers of the Seventeenth Lancers stirred beneath their fidgeting riders. Close by, a lancer in C Company coughed, phlegm rattling in his throat. Another one sick. Dear God, not cholera. It had taken too many soldiers already.
Colonel Lawrence twisted in his saddle. “Captain Marley, if that man coughs again, give him a dozen lashes this evening.”
The ashen-faced lancer squirmed in his saddle and pawed the sweat beading his forehead. He was dying in the saddle; his threadbare navy-blue uniform and ripped boots were no defense against the Crimean winter. Samuel glared at Lawrence. The conceit of their bloody lordships. Lawrence didn’t give a damn that the lancer was ill—that many of them were. The lads and their horses were overworked and starving. Someone had to help the poor man; that lickspittle Marley wouldn’t.
Samuel untied the cloak behind his saddle and nudged Goldie toward the quaking lancer. It was all he could do. He was taller and broader than average; the large cloak would swamp the trooper, but at least it would keep him warm.
“God damn you, Kingston,” Colonel Lawrence snapped. “Get back in line. They’re not a bunch of sissies.”
Samuel thrust his cloak into the lancer’s clammy hand and wheeled Goldie back to C Company, shrugging at Captain William Morris as he returned to his side.
“Don’t provoke him,” William hissed. Samuel’s cousin was the only member of the gentry he still respected. “He’s already refused your promotion twice.”
That the colonel had denied his captaincy was bloody frustrating, considering how hard he’d worked. He was more than qualified. At twenty-one, he had three years of combat experience in India and Burma, more than inexperienced men like Marley who commanded B Company. Lawrence did seem to have a grievance with Samuel.
He glanced at Lawrence. “Perhaps you should ask him why?”
William threw up his hands. “I did.”
A trooper coughed close by. Samuel widened his eyes at William in question.
William leaned closer. “He said the refusal came from Horse Guards. Your permanent tan convinced them you’re a Spanish spy—that and those eyes of yours, dark as a pint of Guinness. You sure we’re related?” He grinned. “Anyway, there are sixty thousand Russians across that river. Here’s your chance to prove Colonel Lawrence wrong.”
Samuel darted a glance across the river. If he had an enemy in military headquarters at Horse Guards, nothing he did, no glory won, would advance his career.
Lawrence raised a gauntleted hand, looking more like a well-fed farmer than a cavalryman. “I need volunteers to scout that tree line. Ten men should more than suffice.”
A chance. Samuel heeled Goldie forward. “I’ll go, sir.”
Lawrence snorted. “You? Good lord, no, you’re not capable of this. Captain Marley, be so kind as to take nine men across.”
A flush crept across Samuel’s cheeks, and he pulled at his collar. The entire regiment had heard that. The Anglo-Irish officers had to be laughing at him. He reined Goldie about and fled back to C Company. The men opened ranks to receive him, nodding supportively. At least they respected him. They’d follow him through the gates of hell, and he’d likewise die for them.
Marley’s patrol splashed onto the northern riverbank, red-and-white pennons fluttering on their lances, and disappeared into the forest. Goldie nickered, blowing white mist from her nostrils into the pine-scented air.
William nudged his mare alongside Samuel. “Bloody ridiculous, cousin. But never mind. We’ll get our chance at the Russkies soon.”
Samuel lifted his knee to check the saddle girth. Goldie was so thin. He fiddled with his gear in a familiar ritual, checking the loads in his Navy Colt, drawing his saber six inches out and sliding it back into the scabbard. More coughing barked from the ranks behind him. The men had been in the field too long.
We should be in Sevastopol already, swilling vodka and loving Russian girls, Padraig had complained last night. Instead, we’re freezing our arses off with nothing to eat and sick as dogs. Oh, and winter’s coming, as if it weren’t cold enough. It’s all because of these idiot lords: Raggles Raglan, Look-On Lucan, Lick-Me-Arse Lawrence, and Lord Cardigan, who’s too busy tupping Lucan’s sister and every doxy in London to win a war.
Samuel smiled bitterly and glanced back. Padraig lifted his broad nose with a forefinger and grinned. It was reassuring to know another Irishman guarded his flank.
Someone yelled across the river, and gunshots shattered the silence. More shouts and the clash of steel rippled through the autumn air. The patrol was in trouble. Samuel’s hand flew to the worn hilt of his saber.
Hooves pounded through the forest. Branches rustled and snapped, and a lone scout burst from the trees. Dirt flew from his horse’s hooves as he galloped down the sparse slope. “Cossacks!” The scout glanced over his shoulder as his gelding plunged into the river.
Goose bumps prickled Samuel’s arms as he drew his saber. Time to show his mettle.
And time to prove their wretched lordships wrong.
The cry lifted the hair on the nape of Samuel’s neck. He slipped the flat leather strap on his saber’s hilt over his wrist with a calloused hand.
William’s eyes gleamed as he wheeled Old Trumpeter. “Defensive line along the riverbank. Prepare to give covering fire.”
Padraig waved an arm. “You heard the captain. Price, Hoffman, move your arses and spread out.”
Lawrence met the scout as he splashed from the water. “How many enemies? Where are the rest of the scouts?”
“Trapped by hundreds of Cossacks, sir, back in the woods. They’re surrounded.”
Lawrence turned to a stocky second lieutenant. “Lieutenant Short, inform Lord Lucan we’ve contacted the enemy. They’ve trapped our scouts. Ask him how I should proceed.”
Samuel huffed. He was asking how to proceed? What was the matter with the man? They hadn’t that time to waste. The enemy would slaughter Marley’s patrol.
“Yes sir.” Short reined his horse about and pushed through the edgy lancers.
William nudged his mount alongside the colonel. “The scouts? We must rescue them now.”
Lawrence glowered. “My orders were to reconnoiter the river, not to risk the Light Brigade. We’re the only British cavalry in the allied army until the Heavy Brigade clears the beach.”
“But Colonel, we can’t—”
“Can’t what?” Lawrence snapped.
William showed a control Samuel envied. “We can’t wait a moment longer. We must rescue our men.”
“Return to your men, Captain. I’ll advise the rest of the companies.” Lawrence yanked his bridle and rode back through the regiment.
More bullshit from their aristocratic leaders.
William cantered back to Samuel. “Madness. We need to cross that river.”
Samuel opened the flap of the Colt’s holster. “If old Scarlett and his Heavies were here, he’d have charged across already. Lawrence is an old woman.”
“Perhaps he’s right,” William said. “We may not be up to it. Look at the state of the men. Half are squirming from chilblains, more are frostbitten, and we’re all feeble for lack of a decent meal.”
Muskets crashed across the river. The lancers behind Samuel cursed as their horses bucked and jostled. Goldie’s bridle jingled as she threw up her head.
“Hold them steady, lads.” William’s knee bumped Samuel’s as he about-faced to the river and patted his chestnut charger. “Damned Syrian beasts are only half trained. Not like Old Trumpeter here.” True, but only officers could bring their own mounts.
More gunshots and shouts across the river sent Samuel’s heart racing. Poor bastards. That could be him over there. He craned to look back. Where was Colonel Lawrence? Christ, men were dying over there.
He stood in the stirrups to stare across the river. Nothing moved in the distant trees. “They’re still holding out. If Colonel Lawrence isn’t back soon, I’m going across.” He edged Goldie forward.
William shook his head. “If we cross that river, Colonel Lawrence will have us up on charges. He’s already looking for a reason to nail y—ah, here he comes now. Let me see what’s happening.” He rode back through the twitching lancers.
Samuel patted Goldie again, more to reassure himself than the horse. This wasn’t his first battle, but dread constricted his windpipe all the same. It wasn’t so much a fear of death as the apprehension of committing some blunder that would harm his men. His Colt clicked as he spun the cylinder to check the loads. Touching the hard steel reassured him. Raw power.
He holstered it and glanced over his shoulder. Padraig, guarding his back as usual, gave him a reassuring nod.
“Check weapons and dress ranks,” Samuel called. With any luck, nobody noticed the quaver in his voice.
The officers broke from their huddle with Colonel Lawrence. Samuel twisted the sword knot at his wrist as William returned, as easy in the saddle as if riding out on a Sunday.
“We’re going across.” The gleam in William’s eye betrayed his relish. The veteran was happiest charging his enemies. “Keep the men together, boot to boot. General Cardigan and the rest of the brigade shouldn’t be far behind.”
The Earl of Cardigan was another idiot lord, skilled only in spit and polish. The promise of his arrival meant little.
“Good luck, cousin.” Samuel nudge Goldie to the right side of C Company.
Hooves drummed the frozen ground as Lawrence took his place at the head of the regiment. Samuel wet the roof of his mouth. C Company would cross the river first. Images of Father and Jason flashed through his mind, together with Emily’s teasing smile. Dear God, if I fall today, take care of them, for I love them dearly.
“Seventeenth will advance at a walk. Death or glory!” Lawrence lifted his saber and heeled his horse toward the river. The stallion shied from the water, and Lawrence goaded him on.
The river swirled up to Samuel’s thighs, drops splashing up like sparkling diamonds. The chilliness of the water shocked him. He checked Goldie’s eager rush and twisted in the saddle. The muzzle of Padraig’s gelding almost touched Goldie’s hindquarters, and C Company had fanned out behind him.
“Trot.” Lawrence emerged from the river and cantered up the riverbank toward the trees.
The gunfire ahead was closer now. Samuel let his saber dangle and swiped his sweaty palm down his blue tunic. He never wore gauntlets; they made it too hard to fire his Colt.
Orange-yellow flames flashed in the undergrowth ahead as shots crashed out and lead balls whipped through the leaves. Bearded Cossacks burst from the trees with wild howls. Their brown greatcoats and rangy mounts blended with the foliage as dirt flew from the hooves of their galloping horses.
William’s horse screeched and reared, pitching him off. Goldie swerved to miss his tumbling body.
Lord God, William was down. Now he commanded C Company.
A bugle sounded the charge, and his stomach clenched. He wasn’t going to fumble this. He extended his saber at Right Engage, dug his heels in, and surged across the vibrating ground at the Cossacks. The rhythm of Goldie’s snorts sped up. He chose an opponent among the host of Cossacks and touched the reins. Goldie’s muscles pumped harder between his thighs as he steered her toward his target.
The Cossack jinked right, seeking advantage. Samuel nudged with his toe. Goldie whirled left, forcing the Cossack to swing his sword across his own horse’s ears. Samuel drove his saber into his chest with a jarring thump, and the Cossack gasped in pain.
He twisted his wrist and pulled back his bloody blade just as they hit the mass of grunting, swearing men. Goldie snapped at a horse on her right. The spooked beast jumped aside. He shouldered back a Cossack pressing him from the left, stood in the stirrups, and cut deep into the man’s neck. Warm blood flecked his face, tart on his tongue, painting Goldie’s flanks red. Something blunt whacked into his side. He winced and swung his saber across Goldie’s ears to split the face of the Cossack who’d punched him.
Gunfire, the clash of steel, and the screams of men and horses—British and Russian alike—filled his head. He gulped for air; he’d been holding his breath. A knee cracked against his: Padraig, his face covered in gore, swinging his saber and cursing in Spanish.
Sunlight glinted on a blade from the right. He blocked it and drove the hilt of his saber into the attacker’s face. A fountain of blood streamed like rubies in the sunlight. The Cossack screamed and toppled over his horse’s rump. Samuel hacked open another Cossack’s arm, and the man peeled away. He punched and elbowed with one hand and thrust and hacked with his saber, heaving for breath, his blood pounding in his veins.
They were closer to the scouts. “Close up, boys.”
Behind them, Cossacks poured from the trees. His stomach churned as he warded off a shashka and sliced down to carve off the fingers gripping it. The screaming man wheeled away with blood gushing from his maimed hand.
The British line bowed as the Cossacks pushed the regiment back. A bugle trilled the urgent notes to retreat.
Samuel scanned the field for his men. Padraig was right there, his bloodied face straining as he flailed around him. All his men were still in the saddle. White smoke puffed in the woods, and blue cloth flashed. Some scouts clearly still survived back there, but Lawrence was leading the regiment back toward the river.
Samuel spurred Goldie to intercept him. “Colonel, the scouts are right there.”
Lawrence’s face went ashen as he glanced back at the trees. His lip curled up into his bushy mustache. “I won’t risk the regiment. Cover our withdrawal.” He spurred his heaving horse toward the water.
Samuel ground his teeth. Lawrence was a bloody coward.
A bullet pinged off his chapska. He adjusted it with an instinctive touch and whirled to block the thrust of a blade on his left. Two Cossacks fronted him, reaching for him with long swords, their leathery faces contorted. Lancers swept in and speared them out of their saddles.
He risked another glance at the scouts. They’d never break through on their own.
He craned his neck, wincing as his collar chafed his sweating skin. Enemy riders were circling behind. This was the end. He would die in that godforsaken place.
Muzzle flashes winked in the trees, so near yet so far away. Dutiful men were dying out there. Going back for them would risk Samuel’s career. His choices were straightforward: run to save his life and future, or risk all for the men in the forest. It was easier to accept Colonel Lawrence’s command and run.
The bugle sounded the retreat again, trilling. Insistent.
He had to rescue those men. He pushed back his shoulders. “With me, boys! We’re going back for them.”
Padraig drew alongside his left stirrup as they wheeled toward the woods. The change of direction must have confused the Cossacks, who fell back, mouths dropping open. The lancers charged through them with bloody blades rising and falling. “Death or glory!”
Samuel drew his Colt left-handed and fired twice. Two Cossacks fell. The press of horses eased, and the enemy line swung open like a gate. Seconds later, he barged through the Russian irregulars and into the crowded thicket sheltering the scouts. Gun smoke stung his nostrils. Marley fired, and the wind of his ball tickled Samuel’s ear.
“Hold your fire, God damn it!” Samuel’s shout was a screech. “Mount up. We’re taking you home.”
Marley’s eyes snapped into focus. “God, yes—mount, boys.”
Half a dozen surviving scouts swung into their saddles while C Company cut and parried to keep the Cossacks off balance.
Samuel shot a burly officer with gold braid on his shoulders. “A wedge on me!” He heeled Goldie into a daredevil charge as the wounded officer folded in his saddle.
It was chaos, with branches snapping and tearing at their clothes and whipping their faces as they dashed through the drifting gun smoke. The air tasted like sulfur or piss. Grunts and pounding hooves behind assured Samuel that his troopers and the scouts followed. Goldie cut left and right through the trees, spray from her foaming mouth flecking his hands.
A line of enemy riders stood between him and the river, and more chased them from behind.
“Colts, my lads,” he called over one shoulder. “Blast through them.”
He shot a gray-bearded Cossack out of the saddle and twitched his finger, firing again and again. Manic energy enlivened every move as their guns cleared a gap. Thank God the lancers had been the first British regiments to receive six-shot revolvers. He crashed into the breach and slashed an officer’s arm to the bone. The hollow-cheeked man spun away with a piercing scream.
The horses of fallen Cossacks plunged backward as Samuel’s men poured through, smoke and flame erupting from their pistols, sunlight flashing on their sweeping sabers and the blades of the few remaining lances. Goldie shouldered aside a Cossack and raced, snorting, down the slope toward the chain of smoke puffing along the far bank. The rest of the Light Brigade was providing covering fire. A dozen Cossacks tumbled from their saddles, some blasted off, others hurled from their stumbling horses. Behind, the enemy mounts skidded to a halt, blowing steamy breath into the chilly air.
Samuel snapped a shot behind him as the last of his lancers streamed past into the river. They were going to make it. The hammer dropped on a spent chamber with a mechanical click. He followed the last scout into the churning river, starting from shock when icy water filled his boots. He whooped and pumped his saber in the air.
Goldie stepped from the river with shivering flanks and flaring nostrils puffing mist. William waited bareheaded among the cavalrymen. A smile parted Samuel’s lips. Old Trumpeter had a bloody score down his flank but didn’t appear lame, and William seemed uninjured. Samuel counted his men; he hadn’t lost one. He closed his eyes and thanked God.
The ranks of cheering lancers separated, and Colonel Lawrence burst through, his florid face redder than usual as he yanked off his chapska.
“How dare you, Kingston?” Spittle sprayed from his lips and flecked his bushy sideburns. “You disobeyed a direct order—ignored the recall! I’ll have you for this. Captain Morris, arrest this blackguard and confine him to quarters.”
Troopers exchanged uneasy glances, squirming in their saddles.
William rode close. “But sir, these men would be dead but for—”
“—but nothing.” Lawrence impatiently pawed his bald pate. “This man’s unfit for my regiment. What will he do next? Mutiny. I’ll have Kingston court-martialed for this. Lock him up—that’s an order.”
Samuel slipped off his sword knot with a trembling hand. He’d expected this, but the reality was heady.
Body rigid and nostrils flaring, William backed away from Lawrence and heeled Old Trumpeter toward Samuel. His breathing was noisy as he reined in. “Come, cousin, let’s get out of here. This is bollocks. We’ll contest this, all the way to the top if we must.”
Samuel’s shoulders drooped. That was of little use. His problems seemed to be coming from the top, from the Horse Guards. He was an outstanding officer, and he’d done the right thing here today, but once again, a senior officer—an Anglo-Irish aristocrat—had wronged him.
He set his jaw and drew himself up. Something wasn’t right, and he would uncover the bones of it.