Historical Fiction

Freedom Pledge

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Synopsis

Outmanned, outclassed, outgunned. Can this Anglo-Irish soldier reach beyond his training to save the allied effort?

Crimean shores, 1854. Young Lieutenant Samuel Kingston is eager to prove himself in combat. But after a traitor fiendishly sets him and his handful of Lancers adrift in a storm, he fears death is inevitable when the raging waters sweep them behind enemy lines. And when he discovers the Russians have fortified their position, he must somehow warn the British cavalry before they charge to their doom.

Crossing the forbidding landscape, Kingston and his men struggle to elude Cossacks and bandits alike. And just when they think they’re in the clear, they find an even greater threat blocking their path.

Can Kingston and his ragtag company beat the odds to prevent a massacre?

Freedom Pledge is a standalone prequel in the thrilling 'Adventures of a Victorian Soldier' military historical fiction series. If you like tactical maneuvers, Nineteenth-Century warfare, and thoughtful meditations on social class, then you’ll love M.J. Twomey’s exquisite battle cry.

Download Freedom Pledge to ring the warning hear the first shots fired today.

September 14, 1854

Calamita Bay, Crimean Peninsula

Sleek frigates, three-decked warships, and lumbering transports crowded into Calamita Bay to land their cargoes of men, horses, and equipment for the allied attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, some twenty-five miles to the south, and the Russians failed to oppose them. Black-hulled steamers towing fat merchantmen to their anchorages vomited greasy smoke into the blue autumn sky, and Royal Navy frigates churned the Black Sea to a creamy froth as they circled the fleet like guard dogs and worried the stragglers into line.

On the deck of Himalaya, a three-masted steamship, Samuel gagged at the reek from the cholera corpses floating in the bay. “Poor buggers. May God have mercy on their souls,” he murmured, casting his gaze to the heavens. “And damn the inept aristocrats who stranded the army for so long in disease-plagued Bulgaria.” He raised his voice so William could hear him. “I can’t believe it. There must be three or four hundred ships here.”

William nodded. “Odd, yes, with former enemies united against Russia. Who’d have thought we’d be fighting alongside the frogs when Waterloo wasn’t that long ago. And those Ottomans? I’m sure there’s more to this alliance than what they tell us. I don’t even know why we’re fighting. All I know is that the press and every man on the street back home started howling for Russian blood, and next thing we poor sods are out here suffering disease and bad food because corrupt quartermasters stole the best of it back in England.”

Padraig had read old newspapers that the officers had left around the boat and regurgitated the news to Samuel, insisting they shouldn’t fight without understanding the reason, so Samuel took the opportunity to impress his captain.

“The tsars have been expanding Russia at the expense of Turkey’s waning empire for decades, and Tsar Nicholas is using the excuse of protecting religious freedom  and his Balkan subjects to lunge for control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. His real reason is to give his warships in Sevastopol access to the Mediterranean. Of course, the resulting threat to British commerce with India and other nations terrifies their high-and-mighty lordships back in London.” Samuel imitated Lord Lucan’s accent to add, “Such is intolerable when Britain rules the waves. British affluence, power, and prestige depend on preserving our overseas trade. The Mediterranean Sea lanes will remain free from Russian domination.”

William pushed a lock of hair off his face. “What has trade to do with religion?”

“Nicholas invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, claiming to protect Orthodox Christians from persecution. When he ignored all ultimatums to withdraw, Britain, France, and Turkey allied against Russia. Since we made a hash of punishing Russia for crossing the Danube and idled for months in Bulgaria, when some idiot called for attacking Sevastopol, every preacher with a soapbox on a London street corner took up the cry. So here we are, embarked on another useless exercise.”

William frowned and glanced around. “You really shouldn’t speak like that, cousin. Your Anglo-Irish countrymen already scorn your family for such radical thinking, and they come from the same background. Your father’s estate in Cork won’t save you if a vengeful Crown comes after you.”

“Radical? The indifference of the Anglo-Irish ruling class to the starvation, sickness, and suffering of their Catholic tenants disgusted my family. It should disgust you too. Their greed—exporting all the produce harvested in Ireland, leaving nothing for their tenants to eat, driving people from their homes, and tearing the roofs from over their heads during the famine—killed thousands.” Samuel offered his snuffbox to William. “Fine stuff. I got it in London.” He took a pinch after William had helped himself and savored the kick. “Someone must speak out against it. You live in England, so you’ve no idea what it was like, but you must accept all men are equal in the eyes of the Lord. The Irish should follow the Americans and break away from the empire.”

Lieutenant.” William tugged Samuel farther from the nearest officers and peered around again. “That’s close to treason.”

Samuel scrubbed a hand across his face. “Sorry. The bigotry of the aristocrats riles me. I’ll say no more.” He was sorry. He hadn’t intended to drag William into a discussion of Irish independence. At least not on the deck of a converted steamer ferrying hundreds of Her Majesty’s troops.

William placated himself with a pinch from his own silver snuffbox, extended the box to Samuel like a peace offering, and changed the subject. “Did you see how the French handle their boats; we were lucky more didn’t collide. And Lord Raglan rewards them by letting the buggers land first. At this rate we won’t get ashore for days. How will the horses bear it? The poor beasts have languished head-to-head in their stalls with no space to lie down for five days now. We already lost twenty-six on the voyage from Queenstown to Constantinople. I shudder to think how many died on this leg.”

William plucked at his neat black beard, a habit he fell into when his thoughts scattered. He was quite a few years older than Samuel—thirty-five, if Samuel remembered correctly—but fit for his age. And he stood tall even when no one was watching. Height ran in their family, and William used his height to press his authority as commander of C Company. Samuel was three inches taller, and he’d learned from William. As a growing boy who never stopped growing, he’d tried to hide his height. Now, as William’s senior lieutenant, he stood tall, taking advantage of every inch.

“I can’t speak to how fit the horses will be, but we’ve lost none so far.” Samuel rolled his shoulders. And he intended that they wouldn’t lose any before the battles began. “The troopers bathed the animals’ noses with vinegar and water, and that got them to eat. I’m going to check on Goldie in a moment.” 

Samuel raised his brass spyglass and glassed the narrow, four-mile stretch of beach and the salt lakes behind it that divided the beach from the crescent of turfy downs ending in reddish sandstone cliffs to the south. The French were scrambling ashore from rafts, the blue uniforms of the infantry demure beside the scarlet pantaloons, the blue tunics, and the red burnooses of France’s chasseurs, the Zouaves, and the Spahis from North Africa. They were already erecting colored tents at measured distances along the beach to designate the separate landing points for the infantry divisions of Canrobert, General Pierre Bosquet, and Prince Napoleon.

“The frogs seem handy enough now that their anchors are down,” Samuel said. “They’ve disembarked their three divisions already and are landing their big guns from those artillery rafts.” He cursed under his breath when he discovered he was sucking on his cheek—William wasn’t the only one with a nervous habit—and checked the sky. The weather had been good, but the clouds stacking on the horizon would make for a lumpy sea. “I don’t think we’re going to have it so easy.”

William rubbed his hands down his navy-blue trousers. “Don’t I know . . . Winching the horses into the barges and swimming them ashore will be downright dangerous when the winds shift.”

Samuel realized he was tapping his foot and stopped. “I’ll risk the sea, anything to get off this boat, and I’m sure the horses feel the same way.”

Foraging French soldiers were returning to the beach with firewood and food, and Samuel’s mouth watered at the sight. “Mmm . . . What I wouldn’t give for a roasted chicken or duck.”

“. . . horses in the surf. Are you listening?”

“I beg your pardon, dear William. I was just thinking about roasted fowl. I’m sick of salted beef and wine that’s turned to vinegar.”

“No chance of that; the frogs will have stripped the land bare by the time we land.” William held out his hand. “Lend me your spyglass.”

Samuel wiped his sweat off the spyglass and passed it over. “You were saying we need to land before the weather turns. I agree. It’ll be brutal on the horses if that surf picks up.”

“It beats me why the Russians failed to defend the beach; artillery could have swept the French from the bay before they reached shore.” William scanned the beach with the spyglass.

“First we anchored at of Eupatoria, then we sailed east down here,” Samuel said. “And if Raglan himself couldn’t decide where he was landing, what hope had the Russians of guessing where our fleet was headed?” A pink reflection glittered on the low hills. A dozen dark and bearded men with shaggy hats sat on rangy horses with the setting sun twinkling on their lances. “Russkies, by golly. Do you think they’re Cossacks?”

“Where? Let me see.” William swiveled the glass. “I daresay they are. Ragged-looking beggars, eh? Nothing but ill-bred peasants. Take a look.”

Accepting the spyglass, Samuel bit his tongue and fixed the lens to the Cossacks in their brown greatcoats. William was a fine fellow, but he could be as arrogant as an aristocrat. Samuel had once yearned for a title; what Anglo-Irish man didn’t? But the cruelty and greed of aristocrats during the famine in Ireland had turned him against them.

So these were the ferocious irregulars of lore, the Cossacks . . . They looked nothing special to him. “Raglan should have landed the cavalry first. The Seventeenth would have chased those buggers away in a jiffy.”

William pushed off the guardrail. “Well, I’m going ashore to secure the regiment a decent patch before the frogs hog all the suitable spots. Look after the lads while I’m gone.”

“See if you can find us a fowl or two. I’m off to check on Goldie.” Samuel pocketed his spyglass and headed for the companionway.

Gulls wheeled and shrieked above, diving for scraps thrown overboard by the cook’s helpers. The birds reminded Samuel of the seagulls soaring in from the bay across Springbough Manor—and he sighed. He missed Father and Jason and Emily.

He tried to imagine Jason next to him on the rolling water, smiling at the image. Jason was no fighting man. But he didn’t have to be. He’d inherit the family estate and continue Father’s successful management. Samuel’s smile grew when next he pictured Emily striding aboard a ship. She was only three years older than Samuel, but she’d try to mother him, even among the troops.

He shook his head even as he walked the crowded deck. No, he couldn’t think such things about her. She’d always dusted him off when life tripped him up; she was generous and tempered her corrections with kindness. They were a close-knit family, never happy unless they were meeting one another. He missed them dearly and knew that they thought of him and prayed for him daily. But they weren’t with him now, and he had better concentrate on what was happening on the ship.

The officers had the best vantage points on the bow and the stern, while the troopers were crammed in the ship’s waist between the two idle masts. The men were fidgeting and grumbling down there, eager to get ashore, and the noncommissioned officers were pushing them about and shouting for order.

The clatter of horses fighting and kicking in cramped stalls drew him back from his reverie, the cacophony ringing up from below deck accompanied by the funk of grease and horse dung, and he ground his teeth. Bloody commanders should have allowed the horses off first. Poor Goldie.

Padraig, his childhood friend, stood with Trooper Price by the companionway, watching the rafts and tenders shuttling between the boats and the beach. They were likely judging the men’s efficiency and skill, finding both to be lacking.

Price spat over the gunwale. “Look at that lickspittle Lawrence sucking up to old Bloodyback and Lucan. What a circus.”

Samuel pretended not to hear Price. The pugnacious Liverpudlian was a good lancer and didn’t deserve a flogging for saying what Samuel also thought.

In one cutter, wearing full dress uniform—sabers and all—stood Colonel Lawrence, commander of Samuel’s Seventeenth Lancers; Lieutenant-General James Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan and commander of the Light Brigade; and General Bingham, third Earl of Lucan and overall commander of the British cavalry, with Lawrence bobbing his head like a bird, almost bowing to the generals.

Price blushed and saluted clumsily. “Sir.” Samuel held back his smile when he saw Price’s discomfort. Perhaps the tough soldier would learn to watch his mouth.

“Good afternoon, sir.” Padraig snapped off a smart salute.

“Idling? Shall I ask the sergeant major to find you something to do?”

“No, sir. I’ve me jobs, I have,” Price said gruffly, his accent stronger than usual. “I’m just on me way. Excuse me, please, sir.” Price saluted again and scampered to the companionway.

“And you, Corporal,” Samuel snapped in his parade ground voice. “Have you no work to do?”

Padraig glanced around before answering him in Spanish. “Ah, don’t be a fucker. Do you blame Pricey? I’ve never seen such a muster of peacocks.”

María Kerr, Padraig’s Spanish mother, was married to Jerry, manager of the Kingston’s estate, and had wet-nursed the boys together when Samuel’s mother had died in childbirth. They were brothers in all the ways that counted but miles apart in a British army where commoners—especially Catholics—seldom held a commission and in a society where Anglo-Irish Protestants considered Irish Catholics to be superstitious, intemperate, and indolent. The army forbade officers from fraternizing with enlisted men; therefore Samuel had appointed Padraig his orderly so they could look after each other, at the same time providing Padraig useful perquisites. So far each had kept the other alive and relatively injury-free through campaigns in India and Burma.

“Let’s have a look at them, then.” Samuel took out his spyglass and glassed the senior officers in the cutter.

Ruddy-faced Lawrence, second Earl of Sligo, looked more like a well-fed farmer than a cavalryman, and his feeble whiskers looked like an untidy butcher had plucked them. Samuel pinched his lips when he moved on to Lucan. For some reason unknown to Samuel, General Bingham held a grudge against him and had blocked his promotion twice. Bastard.

Samuel huffed and kept his lens centered on Lucan, who was looking down his long nose at Lawrence. Lucan was fit for a man in his midfifties, but everything about him hinted at conceit: his rigid posture, the immaculate gray beard, and the gold ropes looped across his breast and covering the cuffs of his cobalt frock coat. Lucan was an Anglo-Irishman like Samuel, but Samuel despised him for ordering mass evictions in the west of Ireland during the Great Famine. Irish Catholic peasants reviled him and called him the Exterminator, but the Anglo-Irish, those who’d welcomed the famine that cleared the land of countless Irish peasants, admired him.

Samuel turned his attention to the other general. No doubt Lieutenant-General Brudenell had quaffed champagne and slept in a feather bed on his luxury yacht all the way across the Black Sea, with nary a thought for his suffering cavalrymen. Cardigan was lean, with a long face and pork chop sideburns billowing like sails in the ocean breeze. He was typical of the incompetent aristocrats filling the army’s top ranks. Lucan and Cardigan were stiff-lipped and tense, looking anywhere but at each other.

“Would you look at those idiots?” Samuel chuckled and handed the spyglass to Padraig. “Lucan’s married to Cardigan’s sister, and Cardigan believes he cheats on her. Cardigan’s no one to talk. The randy old goat has dropped his trousers for every loose woman in London. William heard that countless times at the Army and Navy Club in London.”

“I didn’t figure Captain Morris for a gossip. I thought your cousin was a saint.” Padraig focused the spyglass. “The boatload of them are as useful as a chocolate teapot; may the Blessed Virgin save us from the lot of them.”

“How’s Goldie?”

“I just looked in on her. She’s fine, considering. She’s lost weight and looks down, but she’ll perk up as soon as she gets ashore.” Padraig handed back the spyglass.

“Good. I’ll visit her, anyway. I miss the old girl.”

Padraig opened his mouth, paused, and then glanced furtively around. “You need to hear this.” He spoke quietly and in Spanish. “That prick, Maxwell, is acting strangely. He was flashing the shore with a signal mirror this morning and gave me a dirty look when he noticed I saw him. I don’t know . . . Something’s off about him.”

Samuel’s head pulsed as memories from the days of his bleak life in boarding school stabbed at him. The classroom—where the sons of the privileged sat on hard wooden desks arrayed in straight rows before a pontificating teacher, learning by rote, reciting words from the Classics, and speaking ill of Irish Catholics—had been bad. And he’d loathed the fagging system so highly prized by Victorian society to teach boys something of service. Fagging created a progressive social structure in the school that virtually gave senior boys total power over younger boys, and bullies frequently abused that power.

And one of those bullies had crossed halfway around the world with Samuel.

When Samuel shivered, he turned the movement into a shrug, not willing for Padraig to see his instinctive reaction.

Five years older than Samuel, who’d just turned twenty-one, Viscount Ian Maxwell had made his life miserable because he and many other students considered the Kingstons traitors to their privileged class when Samuel’s father publicly condemned the Anglo-Irish landowners for their cruel treatment of their Catholic tenants during the famine.

He hadn’t stopped making Samuel’s life miserable.

Getting ashore would already be difficult enough; he refused to clash with the well-connected captain. “I’m sure it’s nothing; perhaps he was gaffing about.”

“That lout? Ha.” Padraig pounded on the gunwale. “And it’s not the first time he’s done it. I saw him using the mirror back in Varna too.”

Samuel ran a hand through his hair, taking the time to unsnarl a few wind-tied knots to give himself a chance to think. That was indeed strange, but Maxwell was a captain and an aristocrat; Samuel couldn’t challenge him. “Ah, I . . . I’ll mention it to William and see what he thinks. He’s gone ashore; I’ll tell him when he returns. Do you want to come see Goldie with me?”

“It’s foul down there, but why not?”

Padraig wasn’t exaggerating about the stench; it was appalling. Poor Goldie. Samuel pinched the skin at his throat as he ducked through the low doorway into the gloom. But worse were the dangers that awaited them ashore. Thousands of entrenched Russians and cannons crouched like predators behind the stone walls of Sevastopol, ready to rain death upon the allied army.

***

Himalaya had lain at anchor for four days, and finally the regiment was disembarking. Thirty lancers from C Company struggled to calm their horses on the rolling deck, their pale faces burning in the autumn sun. Even the freshening wind failed to shift the rancid stench of damp serge, sweat, and dung. The forlorn whinnies and the ring of steel horseshoes were out of place on the stirring sea.

Would the officers ever get a move on and order them ashore? Samuel tilted his head back and studied the brassy sky. Three days of rising to the expectation of getting off that stifling tub followed by three days of standing around all day going nowhere had drained him. And he at least had the small comforts of an officer—more space and better food. It must have been hell for the troopers crammed amidships and worse yet for the horses penned down below. If he didn’t get off today, he’d go crazy.

The chink of Goldie’s bit drew Samuel’s attention back to the palomino standing with Padraig, and he winced at her dull gold coat and splayed legs. “Pobrecita. I should have left her back in Clonakilty; this campaign’s been hell on the horses.”

“Are you mad?” Padraig stroked Goldie, instantly earning him a soft whinny. “She’s the finest charger in the Light Brigade. If you’d left her at home, you’d be as bad as me—stuck with a Syrian mule. I don’t know why that braggart Nolan bought those beasts for the troopers. Cheap, I’d wager. It wasn’t worth the navy’s time ferrying horses from Britain down to Bulgaria.” He continued to run one hand over Goldie, soothing her. “I sure wish I had Rogue here. Silly regulation that only officers can ship their own nags. Save them a bit of coin if they didn’t have to buy animals everywhere we go.”

Samuel pictured the ridiculous image of a lancer charging into battle on a mule and hid his smile at Padraig’s irreverent croaking, complaints that would have landed Padraig at the knotted end of the lash years ago if his superiors understood what he was saying. Samuel shifted Padraig aside and patted Goldie. “If anything happens to her, I’ll be devastated.” Her soft, spikey hair tickled the pad of his palm, and her silky nostrils flared, puffing warm breath over him.

“Of course you would be.” Padraig shifted and looked toward land. “That wretch, Maxwell, is holding us back out of malice. I told you he was angry that I saw him with a signal mirror. What did Captain Morris say about him?”

“Damnation, I forgot. William stayed ashore that night, and it slipped my mind. I’ll tell him as soon as I see him.”

“See that you do. I don’t trust that bastard. He wasn’t signaling for the good of his health. Not unless he was lining up a whore to tup when we get ashore.”

Padraig could be dramatic, especially when his dislike of aristocrats colored his suspicions. But dislike was hardly a reason to stir up problems with a man like Maxwell. “I will. Now stop rhyming.” Damnation, it was time to get off the boat, but the rafts were taking forever. Samuel glassed the beach.

Two rafts were bobbing on the swelling combers with four flagging sailors paddling hard for Himalaya, and beyond them horses reared and bucked in the surf as dragoons tried to coax them onto the beach. The army hadn’t shipped carts to transport supplies or even the sick and wounded, and the cavalry’s first mission would be to steal transport from the surrounding countryside. Thousands of blue-jacketed Frenchmen loitered on the beach, too many of them staggering or lying listlessly, crippled from cholera. The British were still landing on the north side, where redcoats and the riflemen in bottle-green jackets had formed a defensive line to keep the lurking Cossacks at bay.

Samuel and Padraig watched all afternoon, increasingly impatient as sailors winched horses over the side of the ship and lowered them thrashing and squealing onto the rafts. What began as heavy rain soon deteriorated into a storm that swept over the armies on the beach and battered the ships in the bay.

Padraig’s shoulders slumped, and he pulled at the collar of his sodden tunic. “Well, that’s it. Nobody in their right mind would try to unload a horse now.”

“C Company next, Lieutenant Kingston.” Captain Maxwell sneered as he beckoned Samuel forward. “You men, step aside and let them through while I check the raft.” His peaked brows and narrow gray eyes gave him a hawkish appearance, and his body was sluggish as he moved to the steamer’s open entry port, where the sea churned nastily not far below.

Samuel pressed his lips together. The lout was still a bully, and Samuel still didn’t want to tangle with him, yet the sea was getting dangerous, and he should ask Maxwell to wait until morning. He thumbed his ear, quickly running through likely repercussions of the simple request. Maxwell would make his life hell if he delayed the landing. His stomach knotted.

He had to get over his fear of men like Maxwell, and he had to report Maxwell’s suspicious behavior to William the next time he saw him. It was unfair that such men rose in the ranks purely by virtue of their pedigree. He stroked Goldie’s shivering neck while Padraig fitted the sling around her belly, and she nuzzled him for an apple. But she was out of luck. Even the officers had no fruit, though they still had fresh bread and meat every day, faring better than the men who choked on rotting salt meat, gin, and barrels of peas dated as far back as 1828.

“There you are, old girl, sound as a pound.” Padraig tsked and frowned at the towering white caps breaking over the gray sea. “I don’t like this at—”

“Stop griping, Kerr, and get that beast in the air.” Maxwell climbed back through the entry port. “You may be a corporal, but you can still get the lash.” He raked Samuel with his gaze, daring him to intervene.

What a churl. But now wasn’t the time to challenge him. Samuel would go through the chain of command. “I’ll go down to meet her at the raft, Corporal.”

They called it a raft, but thank God the craft was more solid than a typical raft with a flat bottom and high gunwales to keep out the waves. They’d lower the forward ramp when they reached the beach. Visibility was only five feet in the dying light by the time Goldie and five more mounts stood quivering in the raft where Padraig and a handful of Samuel’s troopers clung to their bridles.

Sergeant Major Wagner spat a wad of tobacco over the side and scowled. “This is madness, sir. Is Captain Maxwell trying to kill us? This raft is— Here comes another horse, goddamn it.”

Another horse’s hooves dropped through the driving rain, and Samuel shouted up through his bullhorn as the raft rose four feet and crashed against Himalaya’s towering hull. “Easy, easy. Another three feet.”

No, Wagner was right—this was madness. “Belay that. Winch this horse back on board. Take them all back. It’s insanity to t—”

Snap!

The rope suspending the black mare parted, and she fell with a pitiful scream. She thumped the gunwale, the raft tilted precariously, and the mare splashed into the boiling sea. The other horses threw up their heads and scrambled to keep their feet, hooves hammering the deck.

“Blessed Virgin,” Padraig roared as he hauled on the reins of the chestnut mare sidestepping beside him. “What the devil’s going on?”

“That’s my horse.” Price threw himself to the gunwale and peered over the side. “Poor thing. I’ll kill them for this.”

The bow line sprang free, and the raft whipped away from Himalaya’s plunging hull. A second later the last rope holding the raft to the ship parted with a twang, just missing Sergeant Major Wagner. A nine-foot wave lifted the raft and hurled it into the gathering gloom.

Samuel’s stomach clenched, and he hugged Goldie’s wet head. “We’re adrift. My God, we’re adrift. Paddles, quick. Find paddles. Padraig, you’re the sailor. Rig a sail on this thing, goddamn it.”

“Jamie, hold my horse.” Padraig passed his reins to Jamie Begley and balanced on the rolling deck as he hurried to the mast. A moment later he called out, “Someone cut the halyards, Lieutenant. Bloody idiot.”

Sabotage? But that was impossible; surely there was another explanation.

“No paddles either, sir.” Sergeant Major Wagner’s round face was ashen. Samuel had never seen the Prussian pale, not even when facing a horde of Burmese irregulars, but there on the savage sea, he was lost.

“Maxwell. It was Maxwell. The rat threw out the paddles and sabotaged the rigging.” Padraig spoke rapid Spanish, hiding his suspicions from the others.

Samuel didn’t have time to dwell on Maxwell. Besides, Padraig was wrong about him. The man was a viscount.

He ducked as a wave crashed over the gunwale, and the icy cold water instantly had him shivering. The horses were kicking and throwing their heads up in the makeshift stalls, their eyes rolling white as the raft careened through the sheeting rain. “Calm the horses and break off the seats; we’ll use them as paddles.” He kicked at the plank that served as a seat beside him.

“Right, sir, I’ve a paddle now.” Adam Price waved a broken seat in the air like a prize. He was a rough type from Liverpool, with lumps on his prominent forehead and a misshapen nose that had been broken too many times. “But which way do I paddle?”

Before Samuel could answer, another wave slammed over the raft, spinning it like a cork in a drain and blinding the men. Samuel sagged onto the seat he’d failed to kick free as the twinkling lanterns of the fleet disappeared in the curtain of rain. It was hopeless. They could no more steer the raft than they could swim for shore. “Leave it, Price. Just hang on tight and keep the horses calm.”

Padraig had his knife out and was cutting up a sail.

“What are you doing, Padraig? We’ll need that when the storm dies down.”

“We won’t survive the storm unless we steady the boat.” Padraig’s voice was barely audible above the screams of the horses and the creak of the timbers as waves pounded the raft. “I’m making a drogue to steady the raft.”

Samuel hadn’t a clue what a drogue was, but Padraig had helped on the fishing boats back in West Cork before taking the Queen’s shilling. He’d also read every book in Springbough Manor’s library. If the corporal had a plan, it was probably a good one.

Pitching and plunging, the raft spun through rain and darkness with the horses screaming and the men praying or cursing. A towering structure loomed out of nowhere, and the raft bounced off the ship. Samuel held his breath as the raft scraped along the hull with a harrowing screech. Kiely, a young trooper from Kerry, tried to fend off the hull, and razor-sharp barnacles slashed his hand. Faint shouts sounded from the deck of the towering ship, and a row of indistinct, peering faces far above flashed briefly before disappearing into the dusk.

Two waves slammed together beneath the raft, and her flat bottom creaked as she rose high on the swell and shot clear of the ship.

Samuel braced, holding tight as the raft yawed and sawed into the spray-lashed darkness.

“There you go, my beauty.” Padraig heaved a bundle of sail and rope over the stern. Seconds later the rope twanged taut, and the raft shuddered, throwing Samuel off balance. The raft steadied, still tossing, but no longer spinning and yawing.

“’Tis my drogue,” Padraig shouted. “My sea anchor. It’s holding us steady. Now all we do is ride out the storm.”

“Ride it out, he says,” Price grumbled. “All the way across the Black Sea, or worse, we’ll end up back in fucking Varna, a hole that stinks worse than an Irish village.”

“Well, it never stank as bad as the tarts you galloped back in Liverpool,” Padraig said with a grin.

After buttoning down the lapels of his field service jacket against the cold, Samuel drew his cloak tight, all the while pretending not to hear the bickering. Soldiers griped and joked to keep their spirits up, and in that desperate plight, they needed all the lift they could get. “Do what you can to keep your powder dry lads and try to get some rest.” He sagged against Goldie, and his hands fell at his sides. Get some rest? He was fooling nobody. They’d drown at sea or drift into the arms of the Russians.

It didn’t help when the rain stopped late that night, because the raft bucked and heaved without pause, soaked by an ocean of green that chilled Samuel to the bone and hammered the lancers into shivering silence.

They’d need the luck of the angels to survive the night. Samuel looked at his haversack on the deck. His mother’s old Bible was in there, but it was too wet and dark to take it out to read. He pulled out his compass and squinted, but he couldn’t see the needle. He’d no idea where they were headed. His lips moved unbidden. “God the Father in heaven, have mercy on us. God the S . . .”


About the author

I was born in Ireland and lived in the USA before moving to Costa Rica. My adventures as an international yacht racer and professional deep-sea diver provided the hair-rising experiences that allow me to share the raw emotions of fear and conflict with readers. view profile

Published on November 27, 2020

40000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

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