With Honor, epilogue

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Epilogue

Matthew Lewis sat atop his chocolate gelding, looking down on the capital city and reflecting on the past several months.  As anticipated, his field promotion had been confirmed shortly after their arrival, making him officially a lieutenant.  As word of his deeds during the ambush spread, the King’s Commander had come to speak with the young officer.  He had insisted, as had the King, that Matthew’s courageous actions be given the recognition they deserved.

He knew in his heart that anyone else would have done exactly the same as he; the label of “hero” sat uncomfortably at best.  His protestations fell uselessly aside.  There was nothing for it but to smile and accept the accolades.

In recognition of his heroic acts, Matthew Lewis was promoted once again, this time to Captain.  He was also given the “hero’s sword,” an amazing weapon issued only to those fighters the King declared heroes of the realm.  A large banquet was held in his honor, although his required attendance was blessedly brief.

Captain Harlan had seen to the necessary paperwork for Matthew to retire from the army.  Apparently his situation was not uncommon; soldiers stationed afield occasionally fell in love with young women of the country.  As a hero of the realm, Matthew’s discharge also included two horses from the cavalry stables, his yearly pay, and an additional small amount of money.  He had chosen to keep his gelding but had somehow been able to talk the stable master into allowing him to take a promising young mare as well.  This beautiful girl would make his goal that much easier to accomplish.

With the mare’s lead tied to his saddle, his fancy new sword at his waist, and his plan in mind, Captain Matthew Lewis turned from the capital and began riding, once again, toward Klais and Charlotte.

With Honor, part 12

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 12

Matthew fingered the little stone in his pocket for the untold time as he approached the cottage.  As nervous as he had been for the conversation he just completed, the next one made him nearly shake with anxiety.  Taking a breath, Lieutenant Lewis knocked on the door of the cottage.

“Matthew,” Charlotte said, seeming surprised to see him.  He hadn’t seen her in weeks, yet her eyes were as green as he remembered.  His heart pounded in his chest.  Nervously he touched the stone in his pocket again.

“Come in,” she said with a small smile, opening the door wider.

He followed her cautiously, noticing that she was fidgeting with things, moving about more than usual.  She wouldn’t quite meet his eyes.  “Sit down,” she said, gesturing to the table in the kitchen.  “I’ll make you some tea.”

Charlotte busied herself near the hearth, but continued to speak.  “What’s going to happen to all those bandits you caught?” she asked him.
Matthew thought about the best way to answer as he watched her bustle unnecessarily about the kitchen.  “Some of them were local boys who’d been swayed by the Wolf.  They are staying here, to serve out their punishment near their families.  We’re hoping that they can return to their old lives with a little help.”

“And the others?  The men who came from other places, and the Golden Wolf himself?”  She continued asking questions; it was as if she was trying to avoid something she was afraid Matthew would say.

“They are being escorted back to the capital, to be turned over to the custody of the crown.  Most of them will be put to work for the realm, but Golden Wolf and his top men will likely remain prisoners.”  He didn’t mention that they might also be executed, depending on the will of the king.

Pulling out two cups, Charlotte continued her questions.  “Will any of the army be staying in the area?”

Matthew could hear the slight hope in her voice, and spoke carefully.  “Captain Harlan sent a courier back to headquarters, at the capital.  A fresh troop will be sent, but until then Lieutenant Fisher’s troop will remain in the camp.”

She had back to him, and Matthew watched as Charlotte sagged.  She set the teapot down on the shelf next to the cups.  “So you’re leaving,” she said, her voice small.

“Yes,” he replied quietly.  In one movement he got up and rushed to her side.  A gentle hand on her shoulder was all he needed to get her to turn towards him, although she kept her eyes down.  A tear slid down her cheek.

“Charlotte, I have come to care for you deeply in the time that I’ve been here.  I want nothing more than to stay in Klais and take you as my wife.”

That made her meet his eyes, her face a mix of despair, confusion, and hope.

“I have made a promise to the army.  I cannot yet commit to you, not and have your respect.”  He rushed to get to the next part, to keep her face from falling again.  “But I spoke with your father.  I’ve asked him to give me a year to fulfill my commitment to the army; if you will have me, we can be married when I return.  He’s agreed, so long as you are also willing to wait.”

The next few moments of silence were the longest of Matthew’s life.  He held his breath as the young woman in front of him considered her answer.  He knew all the possibilities she was thinking of; he had contemplated them himself when Captain Harlan had suggested this compromise.  As a smile came to her face, he knew what her choice would be.

“Yes, Matthew, I will wait for you.  I, too, want nothing more than for you to stay in Klais and be my husband.”

Both overcome with emotions, they embraced for the first time.  Knowing that he must leave soon, it was difficult for Matthew to pull away.  As he finally did, he reached for the little stone in his pocket.

“I have this for you, as a promise,” he said as held his hand towards her.  In it sat a little stone horse pendant, suspended from a leather string.  “A year is a long time to wait, and I may not be able to send you word.  When it is hard to remember, when it is difficult to be alone, this little horse can remind you of your cavalry soldier and my promise to return.”

Charlotte’s eyes filled with tears once again as she lifted the necklace from his hand and placed it over her head.  Looking down at it, she fingered the little horse.  Her eyes met his, both knowing that it was time for him to go. “Come back to me safely,” she said softly.

He hugged her to his chest one more time.  “I will,” he replied.  “I will come back.  For you.”

With Honor, part 11

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 11

Matthew sat atop his horse, watching the darkening sky.  He had spent two full weeks at the White family farm before Captain Harlan had sent a wagon to bring him back to camp.  The second week had been pleasantly busy, his hands occupied with the work of mending tack and his thoughts increasingly filled with Charlotte.  Even now, the remembered image of her green eyes lighting up with a smile distracted him from his duty.

Irritated with himself, Lieutenant Lewis turned back to his watch.  In the month that followed his return to camp, as his leg completed its healing, the company tried and failed to catch Golden Wolf.  It was easy for the scouts to track him.  The man made little effort to hide as he moved about the foothills, but every time a unit would surround him the bandit leader would somehow slip their net.   While Captain Harlan had been convinced they would have to chase the Wolf halfway across the country before they captured him, their target seemed content to remain in the area.

A few days ago, one of the officers had discovered why.

During a questioning session with the captives, Lieutenant Fisher had identified the bandit’s second in command.  The man, referred to by the others only as Numbers, had loosely filled the role of quartermaster and finance man for the Wolf Pack.  It had fallen to him to make sure the supplies, food, and looted goods were dispersed fairly among the bandits; this was one way that Golden Wolf guaranteed the loyalty of his subordinates.  One of the duties Numbers had claimed as part of this task was hiding the bulk of the bandits’ stolen valuables.  Once the army officers had realized that Golden Wolf had been remaining in the area with the hope of freeing Numbers, it had been easy to create a plan to capture the Wolf.

Matthew blinked a few times to help his eyes adjust as the sun slipped below the horizon.  A torch flared to the south, accompanied by a spoken command passed quietly through the ranks.  At the edge of the caravan, Matthew urged his horse into a slow walk.  The handful of recently-wounded fighters had been placed strategically as decoys.  It was their job to fall behind, leaving a gap in the perimeter to allow Golden Wolf to slip through.

Unsure if the bandit would take the bait, Lieutenant Lewis kept his eyes on the fighters around him, trying to maintain the appropriate distance to create the hole.  After a few minutes, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.  A dark shape passed through the gap, the legs of the horses in front of him shadowed for a brief moment before it was gone.

It was not Matthew’s task to spot the Wolf, or to fill the hole.  Their opening was merely the first part of a series of tempting situations; the trap lay in the middle, where Numbers and the other bandits were walking, shackled together, surrounded by guards.  Matthew kept his eyes on the horses near him, looking for the tell-tale darkening that would signal more individuals than just Golden Wolf.  It was quite possible that the man had gathered the remains of his scattered pack in the past month.

Matthew was still watching for others when the signal was sounded and torches lit throughout the company.  Tightening up their perimeter, the fighters near Matthew turned outward.  Although the horns meant Golden Wolf had been captured, they couldn’t risk a last-minute attack from other bandits.  After a few moments to secure the captive, the company turned back toward their camp.  With a watchful eye to the darkness on his left, Matthew followed, looking forward to seeing Golden Wolf finally in their custody and brought to justice.

With Honor, part 10

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 10

Lieutenant Lewis sat basking in the sun.  A small, startlingly green lizard was doing the same on a fence post nearby.  Sarah White, Charlotte’s mother, had made Matthew sit on the bench in the garden every day, insisting that sunshine helped a body heal.  Not that he minded; he rather enjoyed the time to simply sit and watch the ever-present chickens as they scratched the ground and foraged for bugs.  Matthew hoped that the little lizard managed to avoid the chickens.

From the open kitchen window he could hear Charlotte humming to herself as she went about her household tasks.  He grimaced slightly to himself.  As much as he was enjoying this moment, he couldn’t get past the feeling of guilt that nibbled at the back of his mind.  He had been laid up here, recovering, for nearly a week now.  The stab wound in his leg had been a clean cut, and the army surgeon had come by a few days ago to see how it was healing.  The man had sewn it up well in the field, and the muscle and skin were closing up neatly with no signs of infection.  Unfortunately, the location of the injury precluded him from standing much, let alone walking or lifting, before the pain would set in.  Although he wanted to contribute to the White’s farm, there was nothing he could do at the moment to help. 

Lost in his thoughts, a gentle hand on his shoulder surprised him.  He looked up to see Charlotte standing nearby.  “I’m sorry,” she said as she slowly withdrew her hand, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

He smiled at her and slid to one end of the bench.  “It’s fine, I was just thinking.  Would you like to sit down?”

“What were you thinking about?” she asked as she carefully sat down next to him.  Adjusting her skirts a bit, she grinned back at him.

Suddenly finding himself a bit shy, Matthew paused to scratch the back of his head.  He looked away from Charlotte, focusing on the field nearby.  “I was just wondering if there was any way I could maybe help out while I’m staying here,” he replied.  “I’m afraid that with my leg the way it is, the things I would normally offer to do are a bit beyond me. “

Charlotte was quiet as she considered his words.  The silence stretched comfortably between them, the peace of the afternoon preventing any rush.  Matthew glanced back at Charlotte, taking the opportunity while she looked off to study her.  He was finding that the person behind those entrancing green eyes was just as lovely as the face that held them.

He could tell she’d thought of something when her face lit and she turned to him with a smile.  Matthew blushed a little to be caught staring, but Charlotte was excited enough by her ideas that she didn’t seem to notice.

“There are some things that could be a great help around the farm, if you’d be willing to do them.  You couldn’t lift the pails, but a second set of hands at milking is always appreciated.  The walking to the barn and back would be good for your leg, too.  And some of the tack could use mending.  It’s usually something Poppa does in the winter, but by then some of the things get fairly ragged.”  She paused before adding, “You do know how to mend tack?  You’re a cavalry soldier, so I assumed, but maybe…”

“I would be happy to mend tack,” he replied quickly, realizing that she was a little embarrassed by her excited speech.  He made a bold move, to distract her, and put his hand over hers where it rested on the bench.  “It’s a wonderful suggestion.  I’d also be willing to help with milking, although you’ll have to teach me how.”

Her eyes were wide and she seemed a little nervous, but her small smile and her hand still resting below his told him that his response was exactly the right one.

With Honor, part 9

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 9

His world felt muddled as he struggled through the fog that filled his mind.  Groping for consciousness, a sharp stab of pain filled his head and was echoed by a second in his thigh.  He paused for a moment to breathe before both flares subsided to a manageable ache.  Awareness grew slowly, his eyes opening a bit to see sunshine gently filling the room.  The unfamiliar surroundings made his mind come fully awake in an instant. 

Matthew remembered the fight, and his injury, but nothing past the moment when he saw blood dripping from his boot.  He could feel a tiny grain of panic growing; he carefully raised his hands to confirm that he wasn’t confined.  The sound of the door opening made him jolt.  Suddenly fully aware of the pain in his head, Matthew blinked a few times and brought his hand to his temple.

“Oh, you’re awake!”

He looked up to see green, green eyes looking down at his.  His earlier panic faded to nothing; he knew where he was.  He tried to nod in response to her statement, but it only brought the pain back again.  “My head…”

Charlotte reached for something as she spoke.  “Here, I have some willow bark tea that should help with the pain.  I’ve also brought you some water; you’ve been asleep for over a day now, so you’re probably thirsty.”

She carefully helped him to sit up, the ache in his head making him groan.  He drained the whole cup of the tea, realizing when he did that she was right, he was incredibly thirsty.  The big clay mug she passed to him was cool to the touch and the water soothed his throat as he emptied it too. 

“What happened?” Matthew asked, groggily, as Charlotte helped him to lie down once more. 

She fussed with a collection of items on a small table near the bed.  “You were injured in the big attack on the bandit camp.  They needed someplace to let you recover, and my father told the captain that we had an extra room, now that Granny passed on.  They brought you here, unconscious, and I’ve been tending to you ever since.”

The pain in his head and its twin in his leg were beginning to fade as the willow bark took effect.  He could feel himself sliding back into sleep, but he needed to know more.  “What happened… attack…  anyone lost?  Wolf caught?”

He heard Charlotte cluck her tongue at him.  “You need to sleep some more.  This time it should be good, healing sleep.  I can tell you more when you waken again.”

The slide into darkness was gradual this time.

** 

The next time Matthew awoke, the process was gentler on his body.  The pain in his head had subsided, though the throb in his leg hadn’t decreased.  Before his eyes opened, he remembered where he was.  The sunlight was different this time, the sun outside at a different angle, but the room was unchanged.  When Charlotte came in and smiled at him, he was ready with more coherent questions.

“What happened with my company?  Was anyone lost?  Did they capture the Golden Wolf?”

Charlotte grinned at him as she helped him sit up and replied, “You’re clearly feeling better!  Here, drink this broth and I’ll get the note Captain Harlan left for you.”

Matthew greedily drained the bowl, his body craving both the liquid and the nourishment to help him heal.  He was pleased that he could sit on his own; other than the wound in his leg and lingering exhaustion, his body was healthy and whole.  Charlotte sat patiently on a stool near the bed.  When he finished the broth, she traded him a piece of paper for the bowl.

Lieutenant Lewis scanned the note.  It was characteristically brief. 

Campaign was mostly successful, thanks to you.  Most of the bandits were captured, injured, or killed, and the camp was scattered. None of our soldiers were killed, although several were injured.  Golden Wolf is being tracked – will discuss plan for capture when you return.  Take some time to recover.  You are a hero, and you deserve it.  

Relief flooded him.  None of his fighters had been killed, and Golden Wolf, while still free, was being tracked by their scouts.  With a sigh, Matthew sank back to the pillows.

“Good news, Lieutenant Lewis?” Charlotte asked.

Matthew smiled at her.  “Excellent news,” he said, before adding, “and please, call me Matthew.”

The grin on her face lit her green eyes beautifully.  “Matthew, then,” she said.

With Honor, part 8

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 8

Quelling his momentary panic, Lieutenant Lewis took advantage of the brief breathing space he had gained to assess the situation.   Chaos reigned, with bandits swinging branches, horses bellowing, and soldiers doing their best to stay a-horse.  While the bandits outnumbered them at least three to one, none were mounted.  This gave the army company an advantage.

Matthew quickly noticed another advantage as he watched the melee.  The brigands knew the value of the horses, and were taking great pains to keep them alive and intact.  It seemed their two main goals, wounding or killing soldiers and preserving the lives of the animals, were making it difficult for the bandits to fight effectively.

Unfortunately, although the cavalry soldiers and their mounts were well-trained, the surprise of the ambush and the panic born of separation into tiny groups had many of the fighters forgetting their training completely.  Here and there Matthew could see members of his troop using their fighting horses to an advantage, but most of them were simply sitting on their mounts, swinging swords and dodging logs.  He knew this was an effective technique on the part of their enemy, and without a change it was only a matter of time before soldiers were killed.

Toward the camp, where some of the front line had ended up in the battle, he could see two or three soldiers on the ground fighting furiously for their lives.  An idea suddenly came to him, a way to swing the balance back in their favor and allow the company to utilize their two advantages.

With a rallying cry of “To me!” that could be heard above the sounds of fighting, Matthew urged his horse into a gallop.  As he rode, he repeated his shout as his mount trampled the bandits in the way and Matthew swung his sword at those who were lucky enough to dodge the flying hooves.  When he reached the growing knot of bandits attacking the men on the ground, he brought the gelding into full fighting form.  Spinning, the horse’s hips shoved bandits off balance to be trampled by his heavy feet.  When the rotation brought the back legs clear of the army soldiers, Matthew cued his mount to kick, sending bandits flying.

All around him, through glimpses and changes in the sound of the battle, he could sense the arrival of other cavalry soldiers.  Their horses had also begun to kick, trample, and stomp, battle-ready mounts showing their true value.  Once a space cleared, he and two other still-mounted fighters rode in to the de-horsed men.  Each grabbed an offered arm and swung another soldier onto the backs of their horses. 

Realizing their disadvantage, the bandits began to scatter.  With a battle cry of their own, the soldiers of the army charged after them.  They broke free of the trees and began to attack the camp.  Makeshift tents were trampled.  Food stores were destroyed.  Weapons left leaning against stumps or out in the open were shattered and broken.  The bandits fled, although the army did not pursue.  Their goal had been to strike a blow to the bandits by dismantling their home and by capturing the Golden Wolf.  Without the leader in custody, the soldiers were diligent in completing their second task.

As the company gathered at the edge of the demolished camp, Matthew felt a sudden pain in his thigh.  He looked down, surprised to see the handle of a dagger protruding from the muscle.  A trickle of blood ran down his leg to drip from the toe of his boot.  The heady rush of battle suddenly wore thin and the pain became overwhelming.  Lieutenant Lewis’s world went dark as he slid sideways off his saddle.

With Honor, part 7

With Honor

by Leigh Townsend

Part 7

The chocolate gelding snuffled softly as Matthew stroked its nose.  He had paused in leading the horse on a slow walk in order to watch the last few soldiers arrive in their groups.  It was nearly time for their attack on the bandit camp.

Matthew’s group had been one of the first to make it to the gathering site, and their horses were becoming restive.  This part, when the small groups were collecting again north of the camp, was the most vulnerable moment of their plan.  If the bandits were going to spot them and realize what was happening, this would be the time.  All of the fighters were nervous.  Matthew was already feeling somewhat relieved by the arrival of the last of their soldiers, and he could tell the same was true of the other officers.

Quietly and quickly the company assembled at the southern edge of the meadow.  Lieutenant Lewis swung up and into his saddle, much like many of the other fighters who had dismounted during their wait.  At the silent signal of the captain, the mounted soldiers in the company began moving briskly toward the bandit camp.  They were still a fair distance away; they had gathered in a location far enough from the brigands to hopefully avoid detection.

Nearing the top of the hill at the very edge of the camp, Captain Harlan motioned for the company to slow.  The lines condensed behind the ridge, the front riders stopping completely.  Every soldier nocked an arrow or drew a sword.  After only two heartbeats, the captain dropped his fist and the riders silently boiled over the top of the hill.

As they came down the slope, horses gaining speed, there remained only one obstacle: a sparse stand of trees that bordered the north edge of the camp.  The trees forced the company to spread out slightly, horses leaping fallen logs and riders focused on their goal.

For a moment that stretched on to eternity, the only sounds that Matthew could hear were the creak of leather and the dull thud of horseshoes on the forest floor.  The sudden battle cry was so unexpected, several of the riders near him drew up to a stop.

From the trees all around them, bandits shrieked and yelled with ear-splitting power.  Many of the horses began to spook, while other fighters stopped their mounts and turned to face an as-yet invisible enemy.  Before anyone could speak, bandits materialized from pits beneath the leaf litter swinging thick branches while others dropped from the trees onto the backs of horses.

The company was swarmed by bandits from above and below.  Matthew ducked under one of the branches while his horse spun to avoid another man on the ground.  The sounds of battle filled the air; the army soldiers were being forced to spread out, each fighting two or three bandits.  Arrows were next to useless, since it was impossible to aim and hitting another soldier was likely.  Matthew slung his bow onto the pommel of his saddle and drew his sword.  A blow to an unprotected head felled one of the bandits near him; a sharp kick from the gelding’s hooves dropped the other.

Temporarily alone, Matthew turned to look for a retreat.  His mind panicked for a moment as he realized they had none.

The bandits had ambushed them, and now they were surrounded.

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