Nero was ugly. He had a face that only a very charitable, extraordinarily lonely and almost blind person could love. His fur was the colour of fresh ash and as wiry as a steel brush. His pointed snout wore a permanent expression of murderous aggression, his fangs always on show. Rumour had it that a bite from Nero felt as though a tiger cross-bred with a crocodile was chomping on you. He had spindly legs. They were dragonfly-like and stood him tall. Those legs gave him the power to run faster than a startled hare. To King George II, however, he was a much loved and loyal companion. A friend, whom he spoilt and treated better than the men who served under him.
It was May 1743, the eve of the battle of Dettingen. The allied forces are being pushed back, and their supply lines are broken. The Kings company has been forced to fall back to Hanan. Dented and more than a little worried King George and his commanders sat in council and considered their next move. The men knew that they outnumbered the French, but they had been caught napping, by some error on their side or a strategic miracle on that of the French. This defeat had bruised their morale.
A message was sent to the camp. It was relayed to all; the regulars, the Dragoons, the militia, and the battalion of Hessian mercenaries, a professional army that had taken the Kings shilling and was being paid to take the French apart. The message was for the men to assemble, the King had an announcement.
The ranks assembled, on the banks of the river Main, whose water, after days of fighting looked like wine. The men faced an ancient church. It was a grand building that had looked down paternally upon the village for centuries. They awaited the word of the King. He stood on the balcony that led out from the bell tower. He raised his arms for silence, and he spoke. Two translators stood beneath the gallery, one German and one Spanish. They would decipher his speech for those who were deaf to the Kings English. “Men. While we made our march to this village, a cowardly French cad blew the wheels from a carriage containing my possessions.” There was rumble from the crowd, a sneer and a heckle. Two ranks of the Kings guard raised up at the front of the crowd. Silence fell. The King began again, “They plundered it and took several items that are of personal value to me. I care not for the trinkets and the jewels; they are unimportant. I mourn the loss of my companion Nero. The swines have taken him. I will grant the greatest reward a man could wish in exchange for his safe return. The soldier who brings my Nero home can name his prize!” With that, the King retired into the church, and the crowd erupted with laughter.
Surely none would risk their neck for a hound, particularly such an ugly one? Between them, the men joshed and guffawed and made impressions of French commandoes stealing Nero, then ruing the day as the crazy mutt sank its razor-like, gnarly incisors into their pale backsides.
One man did not laugh. He stood up, picked up his weapon and slipped through the crowd. He passed the clowning masses unnoticed and made a line directly to the King’s tent. The King’s guards raised their hands.
“Stop there,” said the first.
“Friend of Foe?” Said the second.
“I am Tobias Hawke. I would like an audience with the King.” He said in perfect English, with the slightest hint of a German accent.
“I don’t think so,” said the first guard.
“Hessians should report to your commander, anything the King needs to know, they’ll pass on. Move along.” The second guard chimed in.
“Listen to me. I can bring back this dog. But before I do, I want to inform the King of what I will accept as my reward.”
The guards stepped forward. Hawke stepped back, put down his musket and raised his fists. “You should back down. I will hurt you both. I will not joke with you.” Hawke warned them with a look of delicious anticipation. The two men paused for a second then stepped forward. Like a viper, Hawke lunged between them and then pirouetted while bringing his hands together and smacking the two guards heads into one another. They dropped like wet sandbags. Hawke straightened his tunic and entered the tent.
King George looked shocked but not as taken aback as his consorts. “Your Majesty,” Hawke said bowing. “I will bring back Nero.” Two generals moved to arrest Hawke. The King rose from an ornate, field command chair; its rich colour smouldered like corn in the midday sun. “Unhand him, let him be. Talk sir! Talk!”
“I have seen this before your highness. It is Lucard, he is a Lieutenant, and he has a penchant for stealing the pets of his enemies. Lucard believes himself to be a humorous man, but he is long overdue a kick in his backside, I can deliver this kick and return your animal.”
“Bravo!” The King cried out aloud. “Bravo, I say! And what sir, shall I give you in return?”
“I want immortality,” Hawke replied.
The King and his Council were stunned into silence. The King’s chief of staff, a gentleman, called Braithwaite, whispered in the Kings ear and hands were shaken.
Hawke was a mile from the allied camp running cross-country to find a place to cross the river Main. Lucard had more than a penchant for kidnapping royal pets. He was known across Europe as a man of genius when it came to strategy, but also a man of unusually low morals. Another hobby of his was the ancient practice of flailing. Something he would do to any man, woman or child who gave him the slightest cause. Hawke had seen him do this, and it had left an impression on him. He knew that if he were caught in that camp, he would lose his skin by dawn.
Hawke studied the river. One section was fast flowing but shallow. It was almost a ford. He waded across it and fired himself up and over the riverbank. On the brow of the bank, he could see a burning glow tinting the night sky, the hew from the French fires. The camp was only a few hundred yards away. Hawke crouched and spied on it. The cogs of his mind began to turn, the way they always did when he needed a plan. Rubbing a few days growth on his chin, he meditated for a spell and then he made his move.
The riverbank ran for a mile down past the French camp, very close to Dettingen. Hawke stayed near to the bank and was low on his approach. When he was level to a gap in the line, he removed his tunic. He touched his head, no tricorn. He lay down his tunic, and his weapon, he laid his waistcoat over the top of them and began to muddy up what was a crisp ivory shirt and trousers. He did his best to appear as a peasant. He kept on him only his satchel and his bayonet. He then scoured the undergrowth, rooting around like a pig looking for truffles. He found what he was looking for, a thick branch. He held it down by his side and made his way into the camp.
There were several perimeter guard patrols, making regular rounds. Hawke got close and crouched on a knoll surrounded by gorse bushes not ten meters from the camp. He dropped to the ground, and as a pair of guards past him, and he began to count. He had reached 130 seconds when the pressure of the air changed, a smell danced around his nostrils and a twig snapped. The scent was man, Hawke had been in-country for months now, and his urban sensitivities had reverted to their primitive state. The man was about two feet from Hawke. Hawke fixed eyes on him. The guard had wandered from the camp and was about to relieve himself all over Hawke. Hawke tightened his core and in one move sprung out of the brush. He swung the branch in an arc and caught the guard on the jaw. The thick click told Hawke that the guard’s jaw had broken. He brought the club down sharp onto the back of the guard’s head. Unspectacularly the guard just folded in half and dropped his knees. Hawke kicked him over and strafed towards the camp.
Keeping the hefty lump of wood by his side, Hawke quickly, but calmly walked among the tents. Once within the French boundary, Hawke looked just like them, desperate and dirty.
Hawke scouted the camp. He knew Lucard’s banner and kept his eyes keen. Some of the soldiers were sat lazily around fires. They had been celebrating. The rest must have been abed. None of them paid Hawke any attention as he audited the camp, diligently looking for the sign of Lucard. The night was moving on; it would be dawn in two hours; Hawke did not want to have to drag that savage animal away from the camp in daylight. He had to move quickly.
Lucard’s tent was almost to the inch at the centre of the field. There were no guards but tied up outside, was a snarling, wiry, dusky apparition of aggression, Nero. With his club by his side, Hawke strode towards the dog. Nero looked up, he turned his head slightly to the side and bared his teeth. “Nero, easy,” Hawke said. Nero sprung forward and almost removed Hawke’s left hand. If the animal hadn’t been tethered, he would have taken it from him. Hawke reacted quickly and swung the club as though it were a racket and caught Nero behind his left ear. The dog moaned a deflated grizzle and slumped onto the grass at the entrance of the tent. Great, thought Hawke. Now I shall have to carry this creature.
Hawke looked about. His best option for discretion would be to put the Dog in a sack and take him away. This thought collided with one of mischief. Hawke took a breath and cautiously peered into Lucard’s tent. What greeted Hawke was pure opulence. The tent was furnished like that of an Arabic Sheik. Lucard was asleep below a mountain of blankets and furs. Hawke slipped inside.
At the north end of the tent, he could see a sack; it was piled on top of something, Hawke couldn’t quite see what. A quick scan of the tent revealed another item that interested Hawke. Lucard’s wig. Sat proudly atop a carved wooden head, it was a long mess of woven hair and as clean as alabaster. Hawke took it from its perch and slipped it into his satchel. Then he jumped. Something startled him. It was the sack. His senses told him that it moved. His eyes said otherwise. Hawke always trusted his senses.
Hawke crept over to it and looked closer. Beneath it was liquid or matter, it oozed and was swarthy and thick. It was as dark as the ocean at night. Hawke gently took the edges and peeled the sack away. He almost vomited. Below the sack was a cadaver, raw, oily and fibrous. The muscle tissue exposed like fresh meat on the slab of a butcher. Hawke gawped at this installation of horror. The head was petrified and violent in its expression. The eyes rolled back into its skull like shelled eggs. As Hawke examined this perverted specimen, he noticed that this body was not that of a man.
Hawke glanced over his shoulder. Lucard had not moved. His breathing deep and steady, his mountain of covers gently rising and falling with each cursed breath. Hawke rolled up the sack and walked over to Lucard. He took his bayonet from his belt. It was like a steel icicle with a point sharper than any pin. Hawke peeled back the blankets to reveal Lucard’s face. He was perfectly serene. His head bald strewn with thin wisps of smoky coloured hair, not unlike Nero’s. The sudden cold on his face made Lucard twitch. His eyes began to flicker. Hawke’s hand was already over his mouth. As Lucard’seyes opened, they enlarged with recognition. It was not that he knew Hawke, no, he knew death when he saw it. Hawke pushed the bayonet into his flesh, under his chin at the top of his throat. He pushed hard all the way up into Lucard’s brain cavity. Lucard made no sound. His eyes spasmed, his body shook, and then he was gone. Hawke left the tent. He untied Nero and folded the limp, matted body into the sack. He shouldered the bag and left the camp, the same way he had entered it.
Hawke stood before the King’s council. With Lucard’s wig in one hand and Nero sat at his heel, looking obediently up at his temporary master. The King entered the tent and could not contain a gasp as he saw his beloved animal. He called the dog, Nero looked up at Hawke. Hawke nodded and with his tail between his legs Nero slowly ambled over to the King to receive over-enthusiastic adulation. The King did not say a word to Hawke. He left the tent with Nero trailing behind him.
Hawke stepped to the King. Two guards intercepted him, and Hawke raised a hand. Braithwaite intervened. “Hawke, I am to deliver the King’s reward.” He said.
“Well, deliver it then, this war will not fight itself, I have work to do.”
“The King has decreed that you shall be entitled to bequeath not only your estate but also your name and certificate of birth. If you wish, you can do this at a time that suits you before your death.” Hawke looked at Braithwaite with a flush of curiosity. Braithwaite continued, “Should you choose to bestow what for all intent and purpose is your identity to a person before your demise; the British Government will give you an identity with which you can live out your days, you will also receive accommodation and a generous allowance until your death. Your beneficiary will be Tobias Hawke, and he will be a soldier, a mercenary, a servant of the King. After a generation or two he will be a legend, and if he is as good as you, he will also be very wealthy. You, Mr. Hawke, will live forever.”
Hawke paused and thought for a moment. Braithwaite’s smiling face teased his bloodlust. Hawke began to count the guards and then to assess their abilities. Braithwaite spoke again. “There are conditions of course. Your heir must be as good as you in the business of war. As this immortal soldier, you will be at the beck and call of His Majesty and all future British Monarchs. When they summon Tobias Hawke, Tobias Hawke will attend. There will be many special privileges attached to this reward, and I will have a full account drafted for your approval. In the meantime, as you so rightly said, wars do not fight themselves. So I suggest that you get back to your duties.”
Hawke felt a swirl of acute conflict within his gut. While he knew he could never honestly have been given his requested reward, he had somehow hoped that immortality would be interpreted by his Highness as a considerable fortune. He was angry. His conflict was tempered by admiration. This reward was the gift of immortality. A warrior carrying his identity would stalk battlefields for as long as there were wars. Intriguing. “I wanted immortality, that was the deal.” He said. “This is as close as you’ll get sir. Now good day to you.” Braithwaite said looking Hawke dead in his eyes. The guards drew in on Hawke. It was their way of telling him that the meeting was over. Hawke tossed Lucard’s wig into the centre of a map of Denttingen, he nodded at Braithwaite, then turned about and made his way back to his quarters.
Without the strategic brain of Lucard, the French fell. The allies were victorious. The battle of Dettingen would be known throughout history as the last time a British Monarch would lead men on the battlefield. Tom Brown of the Bland’s Dragoons would be knighted after this battle. Against all the odds, he saved the companies colours and lost his nose in the process. Battered and torn he returned the standard to the allied lines. King George II knighted him there and then amongst the blood and the carnage. Tobias Hawke rescued a dog and became immortal, but his story cannot be told, because, like war itself, it will never end.
To be continued, we shall be seeing more of Tobias Hawke in 2018.
This is a short story by Nick Mann, if you liked it, you can find more of the buggers here. Otherwise, if you have enjoyed it please consider sharing it – Karma and my badself will thank you for it. The buttons are on the right, thank you kindly.