Somewhere from within the darkness of my mind I hear again. I feel something cool on my forehead and although it radiates with pain it feels good. At least I am alive. For the most part. A groan escapes my lips and I peel my eyelids apart slowly. One is swollen and it makes it hard but the other is serviceable so I make due. Sitting next to me, with a cloth pressed to my forehead is Gaspard, dirty and tired but him all the same and I have never been more happy to see anyone in my life.
"Where am I?"
Gaspard removes the cloth and puts it down in a basin I suspect is on the ground. "Temporary hospital in one of the warehouses in Oporto."
That would explain the lack of sunshine and smell of straw.
"How long have I been here?"
"Several days. You have been in and out of consciousness."
"What happened?" I ask, blinking slowly.
"You were caught near a shell at it penetrated the city wall. Any closer and you would be dead." Gaspard tells me, looking at me sorrowfully. "You had a few broken ribs and your right leg was dislocated but other than a few scars and bruises you will be alright. You contracted a fever from your wounds and were quite delirious but Eduardo brought herbs from a villager which set you right again."
Thank you Eduardo, that was kind of you my friend.
"How bad is it?" I ask. I glance at the screen around my bed. I hear the sound of patients and doctors beyond but it's all hard to tell.
"Close to three thousand." Gaspard replies quietly.
"What of our friends?" I ask then.
"Minor wounds only. They will all be fine. Mr. Cox is back at the encampment, he did not come."
I breath a sigh of relief. Good. I look across at Gaspard and I can tell he wants to say something. But before I do I reach up and feel for my uniform... I cut my eyes quickly to Gaspard and he shakes his head.
"Your uniform had to be cut off. It was still early when you were carried in, the doctors handed you over to me when they saw you were not in critical condition. It seems that was providence's hand for what I found."
Gaspard looks down at me with a difficult expression to read but I just stare and wait. So now you know. Do you think less of me for it? Gaspard lets out a small sigh and smiles at me lightly, his hand suddenly over mine and it feels good.
"You do not need to worry... I was as gentle." He tells me.
"Was anyone else..." Was anyone else here to see me?
"No. I was the only one here."
I stare up at him and although it was purely to save my life and care for me did he see me in my nature state I am glad it was him. I give him hand a little squeeze and give him a tired but grateful smile.
"Thank you. For taking care of me and for not giving me away."
"No. You are safe." He nods. "We can talk more later, you should rest now."
I close my eyes again but he doesn't let go of my hand and neither do I let go of his. No, I wont let go. I fall into a deep dreamless sleep in minutes, holding tight to his hand, warmed by his attention and the contact of his skin on mine. I do not sleep for long though because a commotion wakes me not too long after. I open my one good eye and find Gaspard standing, his back to me, speaking to another battle smeared solider.
"Gaspard?" I croak.
Gaspard turns and looks down at me, his jaw is clenched, but behind him stands Richard Allen looking very much the same. I sigh. Men.
"It's alright. You can let him come."
"You should rest." Gaspard cautions me.
"It's alright." I whisper. "He won't excite me."
Richard just smirks but I ignore him, far too tired to care for his bravado.
"Dos he..?" Gaspard questions.
"Know she isn't a he?" Allen questions with a smirk. "I've known much longer than you."
Gaspard frowns darkly at Richard but he can't say a word about it, not yet at least. Richard comes by my side and looks me over, the horrid broken and bruised thing that I am but that doesn't stop him from bending over and planting a kiss right on my broken lip. I groan and push him back but he doesn't mind.
"You're quite the talk you know Princess?" He says, sitting himself on the edge of my cot and leaning over me. "The first one through into the city. You basically led the charge today. Everyone's talking."
"It was my horse's idea. She's the stupidly brave one, not me."
"That's not how the stories are told." he smirks and traces the purple bruise on my eye. "I thought I told you to dodge the beast of war and save that skin for me."
I smirk but don't answer, no not while Gaspard is silently seething from the end of the cot I now lay. It's actually the first time I have seen him angry. He had been resentful of Captain Henson but with Richard it's different. Is that jealousy you feel Gaspard?
"What happens now?"
"Now, you heal up nice and the second you can see and move I'm going to pick you up and-"
"Not that you idiot." I growl. "The army."
"We will fortify the city and await orders here. We won't be moving any time soon." Gaspard tells me, still frowning at Richard. "Now you should get some rest."
I manage what I can of a nod and pull the blanket up tighter to my neck. My whole body is still quite sore and my chest is tightly coiled in bandages but it feels good to know I don't have to go anywhere. Richard stands and looks over me.
"I'll sit with her."
"No." Gaspard replies. "The doctors handed him over to my care. If you are not careful you will cause... him... harm."
"I'll do as I like Spaniard. I am your superior and I tell you I will sit with... him." Richard retorts strongly.
"Pleeease." I groan scrunching my eyes closed. I want to sleep! "Both of you, leave. No, I don't want to hear it. Just go NOW."
Both men leave, grumbling and cursing at each other. Luckily Richard is not familiar with Spanish and Gaspard with some of the choicer English phrases for their would surely be a brawl but I am and I can't help but smile wickedly as I close my eyes to sleep. I do love it when I am fought over... I really do.
. . .
This morning, some days after I awoke in the hospital tent, I am well enough to be moved and I am glad of it. Dying was all around me in that hospital and I am glad to be moved to one of the homes that have been given to the soldiers. It is crowded but somehow I was given a small room above the front doorway. These homes being only for officers and recovering patients I suppose I got lucky. Richard has been sent on some task outside of Oporto for a few days so the quarrelling between him and my Spanish friend has been put on hold, which I am glad for. It's touching actually to see them fight as they do, jealousy I suppose, I try not to encourage it but what girl doesn't love something like that? Not too long ago is was Jared and Jaimy who fought over me. ...Jaimy. Where are you now my love? How do you fair? And Jared... my handsome rogue. I hope you're safe, snugged up in some port with some lucky girl.
Gaspard takes me to the house and shows me my new quarters for the foreseeable future. It is charming actually. Very quaint but somehow it reminds me a little of my room in Paris and I am glad of it. I gaze about the room and smile but then my eyes fall on a cot set up in the corner by the door. I hadn't given it a second look when I had entered but now I see that it is made up too, just like the small bed that it to be mine on the right side of the window. I turn to Gaspard.
"Is someone else staying here?" I ask.
Gaspard nods. "I thought it might be best..."
I smile, catching his meaning. "Looking out to protect a little girl's virtue or pursue it as many others do?"
Gaspard can't help but smirk. "I am here for protection, nothing more."
I throw on a pout for amusement and gaze up at him. "You don't find me worthy of chasing? Who would, bruised and cut, shorn and skinny as I am."
"No. No." Gaspard replies urgently, reaching out for me but dropping his hand just as quickly but suddenly I ain't kiddin' no more. He looks down at me with those deep brown eyes and I feel lost in them. "You are an amazing woman, you have great courage and that makes you very beautiful..." he smiles now but keeps staring at me intently. "...even despite the scars and bruises."
I smile, my heart warmed by his kindness. He didn't need to say any of that but he did and I like him all the more so for saying it. I turn away and look around at the room, still a little shaken by him. I love it. I notice my things, all the worldly belongs I had at the camp, have been brought and put at the end of my bed. I carefully tae a mental inventory then smile, seeing as everything is accounted for, and then turn back to Gaspard.
"Have you explored yet? No? Then come, we will do it now."
Gaspard meekly follows me out and acts very much the charming guide as we tour the city. Because of keeping up appearances that I am the young Lieutenant Jack Read I cannot use Gaspard's arm as support as I wish to but instead use the cane I have been provided by Doctor Murray. I hobble along quite well, but it doesn't stop Gaspard from dropping his normal confident strides to adopt a slower pace for my sake. I don't object, knowing my friend knows my secret makes me feel easy and more apt to notice the way he looks at me. No longer am I his superior and friend, I am a young woman in his eyes and although I know he looks at me quite differently, I don't mind, I enjoy teasing him in my normal manner. I batt my lashes when I can and act a shameful flirt but we both enjoy it. What man doesn't?
After we walk a while and see much of this side of the city Gaspard directs us to a low stone wall by some kind of well, in a quite spot away from much of the goings on. I sit and rest my cane against the wall next to me and Gaspard sits down on the other side of me.
"Tomorrow I will take you to see Lord Wellesley." Gaspard says shortly after we sit. "He's asked to speak with you as soon as you regained your health."
I nod. My face is back to it's normal size, although slightly discoloured it's more agreeable than it was. The rest of me is fairly mended, except for my limp and sore guts but I'm told that will all heal with a little more time. I am glad. I spent many a night in the hospital worrying about the sight I would present to Jaimy if I ever see him again and I am happy to know I should be much as I always was.
"I don't want to disappoint his Lordship." I reply, thinking back to before the battle. "He was very kind to me before we rode into battle. I hope he was not injured."
"I believe he was but only minor wounds. Battle rarely leaves each combatant untouched."
"And you?" I ask, looking across at him with normal female concern.
Gaspard smiles lightly. "A saber slash here and there, nothing that has not been mended. It was you that seemed to be touched by the battle most of all."
"Aye. Funny thing was I thought I heard someone call me before the shell exploded and threw me. I thought it was you."
"Someone did, but it wasn't me." Gaspard replies with a funny look in his eye.
"Alberto. He was with one of the Cavalry regiments and followed you in as you lead the charge." Gaspard explains.
"I thought he was in Rafael's regiment?" I reply. He in the tenth regiment, I was in the first. How did he..?
"I told him to look out for you." Gaspard replies, brining his eyes back to mine.
"But why?" How?
"Because of something you said some time ago." Gaspard replies.
I don't get it.
He smiles lightly. "Do you remember the night I woke you, when you had been dreaming?"
"The nightmare?" I murmur then it hits me. Oh no. "Gaspard. What did I say?"
"You mentioned someone repeatedly, praying to God that he would save you. You did not sound like a battle hardened young man." He takes a breath and looks out over the common.
"...was his name Jaimy?" I breath quietly.
Gaspard thinks for a moment then nods reluctantly. I smile sympathetically for him. Oh you are so handsome when you are upset, do you know that?
"He is my intended...or he was some time ago."
"Is he a good man?"
"The best." I whisper with a sad smile and look down at the ground. Oh Jaimy. I do love you. I hope you can love me back after everything I've done to you. I am so hard on my friends.
"When you dreamt you betrayed your secret." Gaspard says then, looking back to me unabashed.
"You said I didn't say anything." I defend. "Why?"
"I thought you must have a good reason for impersonating a Lieutenant in Lord Wellesley's army."
I nod. "But I can't say. I hope you understand."
"I do. I have full trust in you." he says, looking at me in such a way that makes me want to tell him all my secrets. I don't know how he does it but instantly I feel vulnerable and I ain't even sittin' in his lap. "...are you allowed to tell me your real name at least?"
"Mary." I say. Just to be safe, it's true at any rate.
I smile. I like it. Spoken with his heavily accented tongue it makes me feel very fine, just like Jean-Paul's Jaqui. Oh how I miss that girl and her handsome Frenchman. I wonder how you are my friend, no doubt married to a fine french woman who shares your good looks and kind heart.
"A beautiful name." Gaspard says then, looking at me kindly. "You are quite a woman Maria."
I blush and drop my eyes to my feet. I'm not used to this. It's been a long time since a handsome man has been so charming. I have been close with Richard of late, when we were lookin' for Jaimy back in England but that was different, we had history. This is someone new. Someone very different than the rogue Allen. When I look back up Gaspard is smiling down at me, and I can feel it strongly.
"You are sweet but I am nothin' but a common coward. Really."
"I do not believe that."
"Please don't say I am some type of hero because of what Dancer did when we charged Oporto. I was only clingin' on for dear life."
"Then I will not, although I do admire your bravery. Alberto told me of the Frenchman who was prepared to kill you. You acted bravely."
I don't say anything about that. I only remember being terrified. I don't remember being brave at all.
"...although that is not what I was thinking of. I was thinking of your leaving your home and the man you loved to come to this foreign place, join an army as a male officer and go into battle willingly. I have never heard of a woman quite like that before in my lifetime Maria." he continues.
"What about Agustina de Aragon?" I ask with a smile.
Gaspard smiles, chuckling lightly and I am glad to hear it. I like his laugh. "You are both amazing women."
"Amazing women are not usually accepted in society with open arms... I'm actually surprised you've been so accepting of all of this. Especially since you seen so... traditional."
"Traditional? ...Yes. I suppose I am."
Gaspard chuckles again, looking off towards a few officers now entering the common. My eyes follow his and I frown, a little sad our day has ended but accepting. I pick up my cane and rise to my feet. Gaspard stands as well and we cross the common without another word.