Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Wood's Edge by Lori Benton

The Wood's Edge
WaterBrook Press (April 21, 2015)
Lori Benton

Chapter 1

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 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.


The resounding silence brought on by the cease-fire gave way to a tide of lesser noise as soldiers and civilians made ready to remove to the entrenched encampment outside the fort, hard by the road to Fort Edward. There the surviving garrison would wait out the night. Morning promised a French escort and the chance to put the horrors of William Henry behind them.

All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me—

Reginald Aubrey ducked inside the subterranean hospital, forced to step aside from the path of a surgeon spattered in gore. The balding, sweating man drew up, recognizing him. “Your wife, sir. Best wake her and judge of her condition. If she cannot be moved . . . well, pray God she can be. Those who cannot will be left under French care, but I’d not want a wife of mine so left—not with the savages sure to rush in with the officers.”

“We neither of us shall stay behind.” Reginald turned a shoulder when the surgeon’s gaze dropped to the still bundle.

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. And it was his fault. He’d known . . . God forgive him, he’d known it the day they wed. She wasn’t suited for a soldier’s wife. He ought to have left her in Wales. Insisted upon it. But thought of being an ocean away from her, likely for years . . .

Born an only child on a prosperous Breconshire estate not far from his own, Heledd had been raised sheltered, privileged. Reginald had admired her from afar since he was a lad. She’d taken notice of him by the time she was seventeen. Six months later Reginald, twenty-three and newly possessed of a captain’s commission, had proposed.

When it came time for them to part, Heledd had begged. She’d pleaded. She’d made all manner of promises. She would follow the drum as a soldier’s wife. He would see how brave she could be.

She’d barely weathered the sea voyage. The sickness, the filth, the myriad indignities of cramped quarters had eaten away at her fragile soul, leaving behind a darkness that spread like a stain, until he barely recognized the suspicious, defensive, unreasoning creature that on occasion burst from beneath her delicate surface. Nor the weeping, broken one.

But always she would rally, come back to herself, beg him not to leave her somewhere billeted apart from him, love him passionately, sweetly, until he lost all reason and caved to her pleas.

Then had come the stresses of the campaign, the journey from Albany to Fort Edward, then to Fort William Henry, Heledd scrubbing laundry for the regiment, ruining her lovely hands to earn her ration. Brittle smiles. Assurances. Clinging to stability by her broken fingernails while his dread for her deepened, a slow poison taking hold.

Then she’d told him: she was again with child. After an early loss in the first months of their marriage, she’d waited long before informing him. By then they were out of Albany, heading into wilderness, she once more refusing to be left behind. Would that the babe had waited for this promised safe passage to Fort Edward. Maybe then . . .

How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart ?

Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?

Providence had abandoned him. He alone must find the words to land what might be the final blow for Heledd, and he’d rather have stripped himself naked to face a gauntlet of Montcalm’s Indians.

Shaking now, 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. He might have overlooked her had not two ensigns been coming from thence sup- porting a third between them, dressed in bloodied linen. They muttered their sirs and shuffled toward the sunlit parade ground, leaving Reginald to peer within.

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.

How long this white woman had been a captive of the savages there was no telling. She’d no civilized speech according to a scout who had claimed to understand the few words she’d uttered. One of the Iroquois dialects. She’d been big with child when they brought her in. Reginald vaguely recalled one of the women assisting Heledd telling him she’d gone into labor shortly before his wife.

Heledd’s travail had been voluble, even with the pound and crash of mortars above their heads. But he hadn’t heard this woman cry out. Had she survived it?

He looked along the corridor. Voices rose from deeper in the case- mate, distracted with evacuating the wounded. Holding his dead son, Reginald Aubrey stepped into the alcove and bent a knee.

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.

Reginald glanced round, half expecting another woman to appear, come to claim one of the babes as her own. They couldn’t both belong to this woman. 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.


The ringing in Reginald’s head had become a roar as he bent over Heledd to wake her. His heart battered the walls of his chest like a thirty-two pounder set at point-blank range, waging internal war. Despite his mistakes with Heledd, he’d still considered himself a good man. An honorable man. For five-and-twenty years he’d had no indisputable cause to doubt it. Until now.

How could he do this thing?

With a groan, he backed from his wife. He would set this right, re- turn things as the Almighty had — for whatever inscrutable reason — caused them to be. There was time to undo what ought never to have entered his thoughts.

Only there wasn’t.

Heledd’s eyes blinked open. A slender, reddened hand felt for the infant gone from her side. With a cry she heaved up from the cot, hair flowing dark across her crumpled shift.

“Where is he? My baby!” Panic pinched her voice, twisted her fine- boned face into a sharp mask.

Reginald’s heart broke its pummeling rhythm, swelling with love, aching with shame. “He’s here. I have him here.”

With grasping hands Heledd took the swaddled babe. The child’s features were scrunching to cry, but the instant it settled in Heledd’s embrace, it calmed.

Reginald’s hands shook as his wife stared at the child in her arms. She would know. Of course she would. What mother wouldn’t? In another heartbeat she would raise those brown eyes that had claimed his heart, sear him with accusation, unleash the darkness that he knew bedeviled her, and he’d have lost more than a fort and a son and his honor this day.

Heledd’s narrow shoulders heaved. Like a mirror of the babe’s, her face calmed, softening in a manner Reginald had never seen. Not even on their wedding day when she’d looked at him as though he’d lit the moon. It was as though, in the face of the child in her arms, she’d found her sun.

“Oh . . . it is well he looks. When I saw him before I thought — was his color not a bit sickly? But do you look at him now, Reginald. Our son is beautiful.” With a bubble of laughter she raised her face to him, joy shining from her porcelain features, her beautiful eyes alight in their bruised hollows.

He couldn’t see the darkness.

For a fleeting moment Reginald was glad for the thing he had done. “He is —” The catch in his voice might have been for reasons purer than the truth. He was beautiful, Heledd. As I lay him beside the dark child, I saw he had your eyes . . . my mouth . . . and I think my father’s nose.

“Major?” a hurried voice hailed from the doorway. “Ye’ve but moments to be on the parade ground, sir.”

Reginald nodded without looking to see who spoke. Grief and guilt swallowed whole his gladness.

For mine iniquities are gone over mine head . . . neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin —

As footsteps hurried away, he tore through his soul for refuge, even the most tenuous — and found it in Heledd and what he must now do to see her safe across fifteen miles of howling wilderness. He clenched his hands to stop their shaking. “Quickly,” he told his wife. “Let me help you dress.”

Heledd wrenched her gaze from the babe to echo vaguely, “Dress?” “Aye. You must rise, and I am sorry for it, but we have lost this ground.

We’re returning to Fort Edward.”

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