Who is Nick? Where did he come from in my mind? There's an excerpt below, and some pictures that inspired me. He's like this tortured contemporary warrior, but without the modern touches. And like the one fighting the winged demon for possession of the frightened black horse. He's like the man I turned to bronze for the Hero cover. Nick is all of these, but something more.
And if you like the opening, please consider following the links above for the Scarlet Boa contest and give it a vote. It's #99. And the deadline is October 31, so hurry.
DAMNED AND DANGEROUS
July 22, 1812
It was an omen, the soldiers said. A violent thunderstorm the night before a battle always brought victory to the British Army.
Captain Nicholas Torrington had little use for omens. Battles were won by fighting. Today, the gory red sun glared through smoke and dust to blind the enemy, and the roar of cannon deafened them to the oncoming thunder of a thousand hoofbeats. The dragoons galloping up the slope toward the French were riding into glory.
Nick raced hell-for-leather at the head of his squadron, blood pounding in his veins like drums as they veered toward the fleeing enemy to cut them off. Frantic French infantry rushed to form a square. Their muskets rose in unison. They fired.
A ball hit the colonel and threw him from his saddle. In the flash of glances, Nick caught what was in the colonel's eyes. Death. He shoved down his rising bile and raced on. The colonel would have demanded it of him, as he did of himself.
A ball caught Nick in the hip, searing through him like tearing fire. The saddle disappeared from beneath him. Even before he screamed, another ball slammed into his skull. Brilliant light sheared through his head . He floated in the air with the thick dust that hung above its Mother Earth, his last thoughts oozing away like blood . The Hero's Hero. . . The Drunken Poet-Warrior. . . Fitting way to die. His father would be proud at last. . .
* * *
He hears the round shot singing, feels it whistling by him,
In the rush of battle as the horses charge the square.
Flash of steel is gleaming. Guns spew forth their grapeshot.
Screams of men and horses rip the wind and split the air.
On Azan's burning slopes. . .
God, no. He'd composed better verse roaring drunk, in the officer's mess as they celebrated a battle by getting as sotted as the ranks. He was good at it, they said. Composing verse. He never remembered, though. He could only do it when he was dead drunk. Now he was only dead. Ought to be a relationship there. Dead drunk. . . Dead. . .
What rhymes with slopes? Copes? Hopes? Mopes? God, all poets should be consigned to Hell for the pain they wreak on their victims. Which was probably where he was– in Hell. He had no form, no substance. Except dead men didn't write rhymes. Or maybe only really bad ones. He sure couldn't be in Heaven. God and all His angels knew he wasn't saint material.
He lingered in the nothingness above the battlefield, yet, no, he didn't float. He lay on the ground, trapped in his body, a prisoner waiting to be freed of the pain, trouble, strife. Yet a strangely comforting warmth washed around his neck and oozed into his hair at the base of his scalp, the copper scent oddly like. . .
Blood. His own. Nick's eyes popped open.
A ghoul stared back at him. Not a man– its skin too gray, eyes pale as sheets. Blood clung to the corners of its mouth beside great fangs tinged pink from its feast.
Nick was the feast. Bloody Hell. He really was in Hell.
The demon stiffened and blinked. "Oh. Terribly sorry, old fellow. Thought you were dead."
"What the devil?" Nick tried to push himself up from the ground, but his arms, his legs seemed boneless. His senses gathered as he breathed dense, acrid air. Moans of wounded and dying men and horses bombarded him as they never had before.
The ghoul dabbed a folded handkerchief to his lips as his ashen flesh brightened to normal. Red-rimmed white eyes brightened to gray and the fangs vanished into a mouthful of straight, gleaming teeth.
Lieutenant Harry Rankine of the 4th Dragoons! Nick willed his hand to touch the prickling skin and oozing blood on his neck. "What the devil is going on here?"
Rankine winced as he dipped his head with a self-effacing wince. "Terribly sorry, really," he said. "Awfully gauche of me. I do try to stick to the dead, I assure you. Creates all sorts of unwanted complications otherwise. And you did seem quite dead." He licked his lips. "But now I think of it, you do taste rather fresh."
"Bloody hell! You were sucking out my blood!"
"Well, yes. Didn't think you'd miss it."
Rage pumped through Nick, but as he sat up, pain clanged in his head like the inside of a bell. He clamped his head between his hands. Hell, wait a minute. He'd been shot– his entire brain had exploded. He'd felt it. He couldn't be alive, much less thinking. He forced himself to his feet, and lightning pain stabbed through his hip, sending bile rising in his throat.
"Easy there, dear fellow," said Rankine.
"I'm going to kill you, Rankine."
Rankine cocked his head. His angelic smile curled up the corners of his mouth as he pointed a finger at Nick. Lightning streaked through him. His muscles froze. He could be stone, for all his futile efforts to move.
"Not bloody likely," said Rankine with a pleasant lilt. "Actually if you'll give it some thought, you'll see I've done you a bit of a favor. You would have been dead, you know. Merely a slight miscalculation on my part. Happens now and then, although I do my best to prevent it. Makes you my responsibility, sort of like a son one didn't count on producing."