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by Kevan Youde

The field stretches out in front of Lieutenant Bowden like a brazier upset across a cellar floor.

The foul weather has stopped and the sky is clear apart from a few wind-blown clouds that race as if late for school. There is a half-a-sixpence moon that gives enough light to show the largest features of tomorrow’s battlefield. Ahead, there is a dark line where a lane holding the road from Castelo Branco cuts through the knoll on which he is hiding. To his right are the pale walls of the town itself; dismissed by Captain MacDonald as “mediaeval with no place for artillery and indefensible against a modern army.” In front of him, on the other side of the lane, are the staves and baskets of stones that mark the perimeter of the gun emplacements that are the target for the desperate, surprise attack that he will lead. Six cannon stand in parade-ground order with their limbers twenty yards to the rear.

All these things are revealed by the light of the moon but the main sight before him needs no natural illumination. The field is dotted with hundreds — perhaps thousands — of points of orange light as the French army makes camp for the night and prepares for the battle tomorrow. In the distance, a second constellation of fiery dots shows where the British and Portuguese soldiers are gathered. The river is a broad, dark line that divides the two shimmering clouds.

The sight is impressive and Bowden wonders how many men are in front of him and from how many different places they have come. He imagines a map tracing their journeys. Lines stretch out from England, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, France — all snaking their way across Europe, over mountains, rivers, oceans to meet here at Castelo Branco. He wonders how many of those lines will end here; how many men have made their journey across the continent only to die here, fighting to cross a river so that they can go from one side of an unremarkable town to another?

The thought disturbs him and he shakes his head to free himself of it — like a dog shedding water. He can only keep the panic at bay if he concentrates on the practicalities of his task. The likely end is too frightening for him to think about. He knows the general’s plan for the battle and he has considered every detail of his own, small contribution. When he and his men have taken and spiked the guns, however, they will be the only allied troops on this side of the river — the French side. After that, he can foresee nothing, all is darkness. For now, he has the lights ahead of him and he settles down to spend the rest of the night in quiet contemplation of the two star-fields that stand out from the blackness before him — the one above cold silver, the one below fiery orange.

Kevan Youde was born in Derbyshire. He works as a scientist and publishes non-fiction and fiction. His fiction is mainly historical/military in theme. He has had short fiction accepted for publication in Spelk, Bunbury and Dream Catcher among others.