Basque Country, Spain July 1813
Major Finlay Urquhart of the 92nd Regiment of Foot scanned the rough terrain through the eyepiece of his field telescope, his senses on full alert. ‘Got ye!’ he whispered to himself with grim satisfaction.
The French arms dump was partially concealed, set in the lee of a nearby hillock. It was obviously a large cache and therefore a strategically important discovery, especially if it could be destroyed before Wellington began his siege of the nearby fortress at San Sebastian. There were no guards present that he could discern, but they could not be far away, and might return at any time. The French army was severely stretched in the aftermath of the Battle of Vitoria, where they had sustained heavy losses, but even against their presumably depleted defences, any planned assault on the arms cache would carry significant risk, since it was located some distance behind enemy lines.
As was he, Finlay reminded himself. The light was fading fast, and with it any chance of making it back to base tonight, for his journey would take him through some treacherous and hostile terrain. It would be much more prudent to hole up for the night under cover, in the small heavily-wooded copse a couple of miles distant where he’d tethered his horse. ‘Aye, and Prudence is my middle name, right enough,’ Finlay muttered to himself. Despite the perilous nature of his situation, he couldn’t help grinning at his own joke. With any luck, he could be back in camp and feasting on a hot breakfast not long after sunrise.
He could not have said what it was that put him on the alert. A change in the quality of the silence, perhaps. Maybe the fact that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. A sense, acute and undeniable, that he was not alone. Definitely. Finlay’s hand moved automatically to the holster which held his pistol, but the failing light, and fear of the sound it would make when he primed it, made him hesitate and reach instead for his dirk, the lethal Scottish dagger he carried in his belt.
His ears pricked, Finlay listened intently. A faint scrabbling was coming from the ditch on the other side of the rough track. A rat? No, it sounded like something much larger. He waited on high alert, crouched in his own ditch, and was rewarded by the faint outline of a man’s head peering cautiously out. No cap, but it could only be a French guard, for who else would be concealed here, so close to the arms cache. He could wait it out and pray he was not discovered, but sixteen years in the army had taught Finlay the value of the pre-emptive strike. Taking the sgian-dubh, the other, shorter dagger he carried tucked into his hose, in his other hand, he launched himself at the enemy.
The Frenchman was in the act of aiming his pistol as Finlay threw himself at him, knocking his arm high and sending the gun spiralling harmlessly into the air. The man fought like a dervish despite his slight physique, but Finlay had experience and his own considerable brawn on his side. Within moments, he had him subdued, wrists yanked painfully together behind his back, the glittering blade of his dirk only a hair’s breadth from the French soldier’s throat.
‘Make one sound and, by all that is holy, I promise you it will be your last,’ Finlay growled in guttural French.
His captive strained in Finlay’s iron grasp. He tightened his grip on the man’s wrists, noting with surprise how slender and delicate they were. Now he was close up, Finlay could see he was not, in fact, wearing a French uniform. What’s more, as he struggled frantically to free himself, it became clear, astoundingly clear, that there was something much more profoundly incongruous about his captive.
‘What the devil,’ Finlay exclaimed, so surprised that he spoke the words in his native Gaelic. ‘What the hell do you think you’re playing at, woman,’ he added, lowering his voice and switching to Castilian Spanish as he turned the female round to face him, ‘creeping about in the dead of night in men’s garb. Don’t you realize I could have killed you.’
The woman threw back her head and glared at him. ‘I might ask you the same question. What the hell do you think you are doing, creeping about in the night in woman’s clothing? I could just as easily have killed you.’
The sheer audacity of her remark rendered him speechless for a moment, and then Finlay laughed. ‘This, Senorita, is a kilt, not a skirt. And you did not for a moment come close to killing me, though I don’t doubt that you’d have tried if I’d given you half a chance. Why did you point a gun at me, could you not see that I am wearing a British and not a French uniform? We are supposed to be on the same side.’
‘If you could tell that my tunic was not a a French uniform, why did you come leaping out of the darkness brandishing two blades like some savage?’ she countered.
‘Aye well, fair enough,’ Finlay said grudgingly, ‘but that doesn’t explain what you’re doing out here dressed as a man. Are you alone?’
‘I am here for the same purpose as you, I expect. To locate the position of this arms store. And yes, I am alone. You can let me go now, I won’t shoot you, I…’
Finlay pulled them both back down into the ditch as the sound of horses hooves grew louder. Three riders, and this time undoubtedly French. He turned to warn the woman at his side not to move a muscle, but there was no need, she was stock still, as silent and tense as he. She was a plucky wee thing, that much was certain.
The horses drew closer and then stopped almost directly in front of them. One man dismounted, and Finlay slowly slid his pistol from its holster. Before he could stop her, the woman had wriggled a few feet away to pick up her own discarded weapon, careful to make no sound. Not just plucky, but cool-headed, then. Under cover of the ditch, he could barely see her, only sense the slim, coiled figure readying herself to attack. He shook his head imperceptibly, and to his relief she nodded her understanding. There were times when patience was a virtue. No point alerting the French to the fact that the arms cache had been discovered. It would only make any future assault on it more fraught with danger as they would doubtless reinforce their defences.
After a few tense seconds, Finlay heard an unmistakable tinkling sound which was accompanied by tuneless whistling. This was followed by a long groan of satisfaction as a small cloud of steam rose into the night air. ‘Zut alors!’ he heard a disembodied, and quite literally relieved voice say, and had to bite his lip not to laugh out loud. This whole bizarre episode was going to make a fine tale for the lads in the Mess. Provided he made it safely back, that is. He himself was therefore equally relieved to see the soldier remount his horse before the trio set off in the direction of the arms cache, where presumably they would set up camp.
‘We must move now, for they will almost certainly send out a patrol once they are settled.’ The woman spoke in English. Her accent had a slight lisping quality which was undeniably charming.
One look at the sky, where a full moon was making its presence felt from behind the scudding clouds, made his mind up for him. Finlay nodded his agreement. ‘My horse is hidden in a copse just over that ridge.’
‘I know it. Let me lead the way, I know this terrain like the back of my hand.’
It went against the grain for him, but his instincts told him to trust her. They made their way along the ditch, inch by painfully silent inch, for half an hour as the moon rose higher and higher in the sky, and the stars above them hung like lanterns suspended in the sky. Finlay was struck, as he was on every single clear night like this in Spain, by how much brighter and closer to earth they seemed compared to the tiny twinkling lights in the Argyll sky, back home in Scotland.
Ahead of him, the woman stopped and looked cautiously out of the ditch before standing up. ‘We can follow this track here, it will take us over the ridge. Now that you have located the arms dump I presume the English army will destroy it?’
‘It’s a British army, with Scots and Irish and Welsh soldiers as well as English.’
‘And you, I think, with that skirt, are Scottish?’
‘Kilt. Plaid if you like, but not a skirt. Skirts are for woman.’
He saw the glint of her teeth as she smiled at him. ‘And you, Soldier, you are decidedly not a woman.’
Finlay surveyed her for the first time, in the fluorescent glow of the moon, and wondered how he could ever have thought her anything other than a woman. She was young, no more than twenty-three or four, he reckoned. Her rough woollen breeches were tucked into sturdy brown boots. Over her heavy tunic, the leather belts worn cross-wise held gunpowder, a pistol and a knife. The uniform of a partisan, a rebel fighter. But the long legs inside the breaches were shapely. The belt cinched a waist that even underneath the bulk of the tunic was slim. The hair pulled back from the face had been silky soft against his unshaven chin. And her face, the large, almond-shaped eyes under finely arched brows, the strong nose, the full lips, there could be no mistaking that for anything other than a woman, and a very attractive one at that. ‘We have established the reason for my presence. But what, may I ask, are you doing out here?’ he asked.
Her smile faded. ‘I told you, the same thing you are doing. Locating the French armaments.’
‘But alone. And you are…’
‘A woman.’ She stood straight, tossing her head and glaring at him. ‘You think a woman is any less observant than a man?’
‘Quite the contrary, but I do think sending a woman on her own on such a mission was a bloody stupid thing to do. These French soldiers would not necessarily have killed you straight away, lass,’ Finlay said gently, ‘if they had captured you.’
‘I would not let them capture me. Under any circumstances,’ she added darkly.
‘You should not have been sent – assuming that whatever guerrilla group you belong to did actually authorise your foolhardy mission?’
She glowered at him again, opened her mouth to speak, then obviously thought better of it. ‘We should not be standing here debating in the open, it is not safe.’
She had a point. She also clearly did not trust him, despite his uniform. And why should she, Finlay thought wryly as he allowed her to lead the way along the narrow track he’d followed earlier. The problem was, he needed her to trust him enough to tell him what her fellow partisans’ plans were. If they planned to liberate the French weaponry and use it against them, it would save his men a job – and he could ill spare his men for such a mission, no matter how vital. Vitoria had knocked seven colours of shite out of them, and now Wellington was champing at the bit to attack the fortress towns of Pamplona and San Sebastian, despite the fact that desertion, sickness and sheer bloody exhaustion, to say nothing of the unseasonal and relentless rain, were having a serious impact on morale. If he could spare his men even one sortie…
Finlay frowned. He could not see how it was to be done. He knew no more about this woman than she knew about him. If he could at least find out who she took her orders from, for he was pretty certain he knew all the local guerrilla groups, and those he did not know his friend Jack, Wellington’s master code-breaker, of a certainty would. If only he could get this woman to talk.
They were climbing steeply now, pebbles from the narrow rocky path skittering down behind them. The moon was high enough in the sky to cast ghostly shadows. The woman moved lithely, her long legs in their tight boots seemingly tireless as she set a pace that would have left some of Finlay’s men gasping for breath. Raised in the Highlands, a childhood spent roaming the narrow sheep tracks on lower but equally rugged terrain, Finlay followed, his kilt swinging out behind him, his eyes alternating between his booted feet and the beguiling curve of his companion’s shapely behind. There was a lot to be said for women in trousers.
There was a lot to be said for men wearing kilts too. As an officer, he’d the right to trews, but Finlay had always preferred the freedom of his plaid. Other officers from other regiments, especially those up-their-own-arse cavalry, saw Finlay’s loyalty to the kilt as one more piece of evidence of his barbarity. The Jock Upstart, Wellington had christened him when he had first, against all the odds and much against the duke’s inclination, clambered out of the ranks. Finlay, smiling through very gritted teeth, had sworn to be forever true to this moniker. His plaid was just one of the many ways he maintained his rebellious streak. Sometimes subtly and subversively. Frequently, less so.
He wondered what this woman’s family thought of her wandering about the countryside armed to the teeth. Perhaps they didn’t know. Perhaps she was married to a rebel warrior herself. It struck him, as it had often recently, how very different it was for the Spanish who fought alongside them, or who fought as this woman did, in their own underground guerrilla groups. Finlay was a soldier, doing the job he’d been trained to do, had been doing, man and boy. His cause was whatever his country and his commanding officer decreed it to be, his enemy whoever they nominated his enemy to be, and for the last few years it had been the French. He loathed the barbarities they had been responsible for, but he equally loathed the atrocities his own side, drunk on blood lust and wine, had committed in the aftermath of Cuidad Rodrigo. But he did not hate the French indiscriminately. He admired their soldiers, they were worthy adversaries, and he would be a fool to do anything other than respect Napoleon’s military genius.
Napoleon, however, had not invaded Finlay’s homeland. The French army were not living off his own family’s croft, eating their oats and butchering their cattle. This woman, still striding out tirelessly as they crested the hill, was fighting for her country, her family, her village. And he, Finlay, may not be the enemy, but his men were still laying waste to the countryside in battle, laying siege to their ancient fortress towns, and eating their hard-earned grain, even if they were paying a fair price for it. No wonder she had taken up arms. He’d bet his own sisters would do the same.
‘What do you find amusing?’
They had come to a halt on the ridge. The copse where Finlay’s horse was tethered was in the valley, about a hundred feet below. He hadn’t realised he was smiling. ‘I was trying to imagine my mother’s reaction if she caught my sisters playing the soldier, as you are.’
The woman bristled. ‘This is no game. Our sovereignty, or very existence is at stake.’
‘I did not mean to trivialise the actions of you and your comrades, Lass – Senorita. In fact I was thinking just then how much I admire what you are doing. And thinking my sisters would likely do the same, if our lands were invaded as yours have been.’
‘You have many sisters?’
Finlay laughed. ‘It feels like it at times, though there’s only three of them.’
‘Just the one. What about you?’
‘Just the one,’ she said, with a twisted smile. ‘He is with our army, fighting alongside you English – British. I don’t know where he is exactly.’
‘You must worry about his safety.’
She shrugged. ‘Of course, though if he was close at hand I would not have the opportunity to be so…’ She indicated her tunic, her gun. ‘Involved. And so it is perhaps for the best, since we can both fight for our country in our own way.’
‘Your family don’t object to your active participation?’
‘My mother is dead. My father is – he is sympathetic. He turns the closed eye, I think that is what you say?’
‘Blind eye. Your English is a lot better than my Spanish.’
Another shrug greeted this remark. ‘I have been fortunate in my education. Papa – my father – he is not one of those men who thinks that girls should learn only to cook and sew. Unlike my brother. Without Papa’s support and encouragement I would not be here, and we would not have known about that cache of arms.’
‘So your partisan group do intend to do something about it?’
The question was out before he could stop it. The result, he could have predicted if he’d given himself a chance to think. She folded her arms and turned away. ‘As a soldier yourself, you cannot expect me to disclose sensitive military information like that to a complete stranger. I will accompany you to the copse down there, and then we must go our separate ways.’
Cursing under his breath in the Gaelic, Finlay followed her, determined more than ever now that he’d made it even harder for himself, to find a way of making her trust him, realising that if he was to do so, he’d need to stop her leaving. Which meant abandoning his plans to be back at camp by dawn, bidding farewell to the prospect of anything more appetising than the hard biscuits he had in his knapsack. On the other hand, it was not as if a few hours in the company of such a bonny and intriguing lass would be any great hardship. Even if their situation was fraught with danger. Maybe precisely because their situation was fraught with danger.
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