'What must I do next, Your Grace?' he wondered.

'Await orders,' answered Marlborough. 'Since we've been prevented from piercing French defences along the Moselle, we'll attack them elsewhere.'

And where will that be?'

'The Lines of Brabant.'

Daniel was surprised. 'But they're virtually impregnable.'

'Are they?' asked Marlborough, and there was a twinkle in his eye.

Chapter Two

The friendship between Captain Daniel Rawson and Sergeant Henry Welbeck was an example of the attraction of opposites. Apart from the fact that they served in the same British regiment, the two men had nothing whatsoever in common. While Daniel was an eternal optimist who could pluck hope out of the direst circumstances, Welbeck was so deeply sunk into melancholy that he foresaw nothing but disaster. In appearance, too, the contrast between them was stark. While one was tall, strikingly handsome and debonair, the other was stocky, round- shouldered and decidedly ugly, the long scar down one cheek turning an already unprepossessing face into an almost hideous one. Daniel loved women yet Welbeck hated them. Son of a soldier, the captain was a devout Protestant, keen to fight a Roman Catholic enemy. The sergeant, on the other hand, was an unrepentant atheist, wondering what he was doing in the army and incessantly bemoaning his fate.

Notwithstanding their differences, the two men were very close. Daniel appreciated his friend's ability to turn raw recruits into efficient soldiers by cowing them into submission and making them fear their sergeant's wrath far more than the enemy.

For his part, Welbeck had a sneaking admiration for Daniel's daredevil streak, even though it sometimes threatened to bring a distinguished military career to a sudden end. He was also grateful to find one officer with whom he could talk on equal terms instead of having to adopt a deferential tone. When the two men were alone together, no rank existed between them. It was one of the few consolations in Welbeck's army career.

They were standing outside Daniel's tent on a warm July evening amid the routine clamour of camp life. When he heard the orders for the next day, Welbeck was contemptuous.

'We're attacking the Lines at Brabant?' he asked, eyes bulging.

'That's right, Henry.'

'Why doesn't the Duke simply issue us with razors so that we can all cut our throats? That's a much easier way to commit suicide than trying to storm well-defended French positions. They'll pick us off like so many rabbits.'

'The whole of the Lines are not fortified,' Daniel pointed out.

'That doesn't matter, Dan. As soon as we attack any part of it, Villeroi will rush troops to that particular spot and repel us.'

'They didn't repel us at Blenheim.'

'We had luck on our side that day.'

'I didn't think you believed in luck.'

'I don't believe in anything,' said Welbeck, gloomily. 'And I certainly don't believe in walking to certain death by leading my men against the Lines of Brabant.'

'You've led them into fierce skirmishes before now.'

'That was different. There was always a faint chance I'd come out alive, give or take a few nasty wounds.'

'You've certainly had your share of those, Henry.'

Whenever they'd bathed together in a river, Daniel had seen the injuries that Welbeck had collected over the years. Fearless in battle and driving his men on in the teeth of enemy fire, he had acquired many grotesque mementoes, including the marks on his thigh where a French musket ball had passed clean through and miraculously missed the bone. The slash of an enemy sword had been responsible for the gash on his cheek and the missing finger on one hand. His chest, back and shoulders were crisscrossed with other souvenirs of enemy blades. Only a strong man with a capacity to tolerate intense pain could have survived the battering taken by Henry Welbeck. He was a walking portrait of the perils of warfare.

'The Duke has finally taken leave of his senses,' he declared.

'He has a plan,' Daniel told him.

Welbeck sneered. 'Oh, yes, he always has a plan. He had a plan to strike into the heart of France through the Moselle valley but it came to nothing. All we did was to shiver in the cold and eat short rations because there wasn't enough food for us or the horses — so much for that brilliant fucking plan!'

'Have faith in him. As a soldier, he has no peer.'

'He's getting old, Dan. His judgement is starting to falter.'

'I disagree.'

'That's because you're so loyal to the Duke, you won't admit that he makes a wrong decision. I know he likes to give the impression that he's one of us and enjoys being called Corporal John, but we in the ranks pay for his mistakes. He gets off without a scratch.'

'His Grace is always ready to share our privations.'

'Yes — from the comfort of his coach.'

'You're being unfair, Henry.'

'I speak as I find,' said Welbeck, stoutly. 'You weren't there when we had to leave the Moselle in a hurry and charge all the way back up here to rescue the mutton-headed Dutch yet again. You went gallivanting off somewhere.'

'I was gathering intelligence on French soil.'

'Between the thighs of some trull, I daresay.'

Daniel chuckled. 'Well, yes,' he admitted. 'Except that she was no trull. Marie was a gorgeous young woman with a fondness for someone in a French uniform. Though, as it turned out, she was very reluctant to let me put it on.'

Welbeck raised a palm. 'Spare me the details, Dan. You know my view of females — they should be strangled at birth.'

'In that case, the human race would die out.'

'That's the best bloody thing that could possibly happen to it.'

He was about to launch into one of his tirades when he caught sight of a youth, walking briskly towards them with a regimental drum hanging at his side. Welbeck was irritated.

'Here's my latest affliction!' he said through clenched teeth.

'The drummer boy?'

'He's more than that, Dan. He's my nephew and he's got some lunatic idea that being a soldier is something to do with honour.'

'What's the lad's name?'

'Tom Hillier — he's my sister's boy.'

'You never told me that you had a sister.'

'It's something I try to forget.'

Daniel studied the approaching youth. Tom Hillier was tall, skinny and fair-haired with pleasant features yet to shake off all the signs of boyhood. His slender torso was emphasised by the fact that his uniform was too tight for him. From the look in his eyes, it was clear that he held his uncle in high regard.

Welbeck, however, stared at him with a mixture of distaste and resignation.

'What do you want?' he asked, gruffly.

'I just wanted to speak to you, Uncle Henry,' replied Hillier.

'This is an army engaged in a war, not a tavern where you can pass the day in idle chat.'

'I know that, Uncle.'

'Of course, you do,' said Daniel, looking him up and down. 'So you're Tom Hillier, are you?'

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