Start Reading Now! Lori Benton's New Release: The Wood's Edge
August 9, 1757
A white flag flew over Fort William Henry. The guns were silent now, yet the echo of cannon-fire thumped and roared in the ears of Reginald Aubrey, officer of His Majesty’s Royal Americans.
Emerging from the hospital casemate with a bundle in his arms, Reginald squinted at the splintered bastion where the white flag hung, wilted and still in the humid air. Lieutenant Colonel Monro, the fort’s commanding officer, had ordered it raised at dawn—to the mingled relief and dread of the dazed British regulars and colonials trapped within the fort.
Though he’d come through six days of siege bearing no worse than a scratch—and the new field rank of major—beneath Reginald’s scuffed red coat, his shirt clung sweat-soaked to his skin. Straggles of hair lay plastered to his temples in the midday heat. Yet his bones ached as though it was winter, and he a man three times his five-and-twenty years.
Earlier an officer had gone forth to hash out the particulars of the fort’s surrender with the French general, the Marquis de Montcalm. Standing outside the hospital with his bundle, Reginald had the news of Montcalm’s terms from Lieutenant Jones, one of the few fellow Welshmen in his battalion.
“No prisoners, sir. That’s the word come down.” Jones’s eyes were bloodshot, his haggard face soot-blackened. “Every soul what can walk will be escorted safe under guard to Fort Edward, under parole…”
Jones went on detailing the articles of capitulation, but Reginald’s mind latched on to the mention of Fort Edward, letting the rest stream past. Fort Edward, some fifteen miles by wilderness road, where General Webb commanded a garrison two thousand strong, troops he’d not seen fit to send to their defense, despite Colonel Monro’s repeated pleas for aid—as it seemed the Almighty Himself had turned his back these past six days on the entreaties of the English. And those of Reginald Aubrey.
Why standest thou afar off, O LORD?
Ringing silence lengthened before Reginald realized Jones had ceased speaking. The lieutenant eyed the bundle Reginald cradled, speculation in his gaze. Hoarse from bellowing commands through the din of mortar and musket fire, Reginald’s voice rasped like a saw through wood. “It might have gone worse for us, Lieutenant. Worse by far.”
“He’s letting us walk out of here with our heads high,” Jones agreed, grudgingly. “I’ll say that for Montcalm.”
Overhead the white flag stirred in a sudden fit of breeze that threatened to clear the battle smoke but brought no relief from the heat.
I am feeble and sore and broken. I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart—
Reginald said, “Do you go and form up your men, Jones. Make ready to march.”
“Aye, sir.” Jones saluted, gaze still fixed on Reginald’s cradling arms. “Am I to be congratulating you, Capt—Major, sir? Is it a son?”
Reginald looked down at what he carried. A corner of its wrappings had shifted. He freed a hand to settle it back in place. “That it is.”
All my desire is before thee; and my groaning is not hid from thee—
“Ah, that’s good then. And your wife? She’s well?”
“She is alive, God be thanked.” The words all but choked him.
The lieutenant’s mouth flattened. “For myself, I’d be more inclined toward thanking Providence had it seen fit to prod Webb off his backside.”
It occurred to Reginald he ought to have reprimanded Jones for that remark, but not before the lieutenant had trudged off through the mill of bloodied, filthy soldier-flesh to gather the men of his company in preparation for surrender.
Aye. It might have gone much worse. At least his men weren’t fated to rot in some fetid French prison, awaiting ransom or exchange. Or, worst of terrors, given over to their Indians.
My heart panteth, my strength faileth me—
As for Major Reginald Aubrey of His Majesty’s Royal Americans…he and his wife were condemned to live, and to grieve. Turning to carry out the sentence, he descended back into the casemate, in his arms the body of his infant son, born as the last French cannon thundered, dead but half an hour past.
He’d been alone with his son when it happened. Spent after twenty hours of wrenching labor, Heledd had barely glimpsed the child before succumbing to exhaustion. She’d slept since on the narrow cot, the babe she’d fought so long to birth nested in the curve of her arm. Craving the light his son had shed in that dark place, Reginald had returned to them, had come in softly, had bent to admire his offspring’s tiny pinched face, only to find the precious light had flickered and gone out.
A hatchet to his chest could not have struck a deeper blow. He’d clapped a hand to his mouth, expecting his life’s blood to gush forth from the wound. When it hadn’t, he’d taken up the tiny body, still pliable in its wrappings, and left his sleeping wife to wander the shadowed casemate, gutted behind a mask of pleasantry as those he passed offered weary felicitations, until he’d met Lieutenant Jones outside.
How was he to tell Heledd? To speak words that would surely crush what remained of her will to go on? These last days, trapped inside a smoking, burning hell, had all but undone her…
Reginald started for the stuffy timbered room where his wife had given birth—but was soon again halted, this time by sight of a woman. She lay in an alcove off the casemate’s main passage…
The alcove was dimly lantern-lit. Disheveled, malodorous pallets lined the walls, all vacated except for the one upon which the woman lay. A trade-cloth tunic and deerskin skirt edged with tattered fringe covered her slender frame. Her fair sleeping face was young, the thick braid fallen across her shoulder blond. No bandages or blood marked any injury. Reginald wondered at her presence until he saw beside her on the pallet a bundle much like the one he carried, save that it emitted soft kittenish mewls. Sounds his son would never make again.
He remembered the woman then. She’d been brought in by scouts just before Montcalm’s forces descended and the siege began, liberated from a band of Indians a mile from the fort. For weeks such bands had streamed in from the west, tribes from the mountains and the lake country beyond, joining Montcalm’s forces at Fort Carillon…
The woman’s chest rose with breath, though her skin was ashen. A heap of blood-soaked linen shoved against the log wall attested to the cause. He started to wake her, thinking to see if she knew the fort had fallen—could he make himself understood. That was when he realized. The bundle beside her contained not a baby, but babies. One had just kicked aside the covering to bare two small faces, two pairs of shoulders…
They were as different as two newborns could be except—a peek beneath the blanket told him—both were male.
That was where resemblance ended, at least in that dimness. For while the infant on the left had a head of black hair and skin that foretold a tawny shade, the one on the right, capped in wisps of blond, was as fair and pink as Reginald’s dead son.