He finds her at the bottom of the ridge, the scrubby brush around her stained the rusted scarlet that he has known as death for far too long.
Her hair fans out behind her in a wave of liquid ink, her dark, quick eyes staring blindly at the sky.
The blade, which he will find later discarded in the scrub, had gone straight to her heart, her lifeblood staining the white lawn of her bodice.
My dearest, truest Miranda.
The romantic part of his heart cannot bear it. The romantic part that had sat listening to Harris jokingly quote the Tempest, a play that a gutter snipe like him has never seen and will never see, cannot understand it. It screams and rages, cursing the French, the Spanish, cursing Keily and his black-eyed, black hearted spy Dona Juanita and that French bastard Loupe and lets the hot, fierce tears that burn at his eyelids fall.
Her name is a broken sob caught in the back of his throat as he kneels by her side, slowly lifting her into his lap, her face blurred with tears that he does not have the strength to brush away.
‘Come- Come back. Come back to me. Please?’ The words are choked and broken, lost in her hair as he buries his face against the coolness of her skin, wanting nothing more than to rip her from Death’s grasp and knowing that it is hopeless.
Her skin should not be cold.
It should be warm and vibrant, as her fingers had been when they had brushed his soaped up cheek, taken the razor and slowly stropped away the suds, each stroke firm and tender and full of love.
They should be playful, dancing in the still Spanish air in the shade of a thorn tree as she had bandaged his burnt arm after the night attack and kissed him until the world stood still and all was complete and utter bliss.
He should be able to feel her pulse; their skins united as he had held her in the darkness of their sleeping corner, gently supporting her as she thrashed through her nightmares.
‘It’s all right, Miranda. It’s all right, my darling. I’m here. You’re safe. You’re safe now. They can’t hurt you.’
Her nightmares had become his own.
They were always the same. Always back in the barn with the high, metallic stench of blood and a baby’s terrified cries as it pawed the air in Harper’s arms, frantic for a mother who was no longer there.
Back watching Loupe’s soldiers advanced, bayonets ready and being powerless, unable to do anything but cling to her and wait and hope that the end would not come yet.
He had tried to soothe her in the still, hot Spanish night, telling her stories of his long-forgotten childhood in the slums of Bristol where his Mam had been abandoned by a soldier and he and his siblings had turned to thievery to try and keep her from starving.
She had died when he was twelve, body broken with consumption from the damp, dark room that she had found for them. He remembers sitting by the heap of thin blankets that had made her bed; the fingers that had slipped in and and out of his grip feeling as fragile as if they were the bones of birds.
Remembers the pale flush of her cheeks set in high, thin cheekbones in the snub of a guttering candle, her heart broken from taking money from men to use her as they pleased, begging him in her dying breaths to look after the little ones.
He never knew what happened to them.
Most likely his brothers slipped into the alleys as he did- dark, waif like shadows darting out to pick a gentleman’s pocket or run a message, a knife always tucked into their shirts.
Or else, they might have found a place on one of the ships sailing out of Bristol harbour. They’d be gunner’s boys or mess servants, he’d reckon, and might be out there still, their lives told by the slap of the sea against a ship’s hull, the song of the wind in the rigging, the give of strange sands from foreign shores.
He would always stop there, the words blocked in his throat, unable to give voice to the memories of those long and lonely years on the streets, reliant on nothing but his wits to survive before he’d seen the red wool coat and white stripes of a recruiting sergeant and found a family in the Rifles.
‘You have- You have a family now though,’ Miranda would murmur in her broken English that he and Harris had been teaching her, reaching out a hand to touch his cheek in comfort.
Her dark eyes would blaze with a fierce, true love as she had said this and he had known in his heart, regardless of what Harper said about the Irish Company, that she would never leave him.
‘Yes,’ he had replied quietly, listening to the scuffle and scrape of the men as they had slept beside him. Men who were more his fathers, his brothers, his uncles and cousins than any of his blood.
‘Yes,’ he had repeated, turning to face her in the flickering half darkness.
I have you.
And she had told him of her life before that hot and dusty day in the barn, living with her parents and younger siblings on a small holding up in the hills, with figs and olive trees, a pig and a couple of sheep for meat and milk.
How her Father had worked the land, coaxing fig and olive trees out of the dry, parched earth to press for olive oil and sell the figs when they were dusky pink and plump at the town market in a wooden mule cart with a painted sign.
How her Mother had taught her how to sew and bake and cook and clean. How, until she was eleven, she had walked the five miles down the hill, holding her siblings’ hands tightly in case they slipped, to the local school, where she’d learnt her letters in the dust under the shade of a thorn tree.
‘And did they ever?’ He’d asked, a small smile playing at the corners of his lips at the thought of her, her dark hair spilling loose down her back as she ran.
‘Slip?’ She’d replied derisively, the English word sounding strange and beautiful in her mouth, her eyes twinkling in the dark.
He had nodded and she had shaken her head, tossing her hair back in a look of pure contempt that had made him smile.
‘They were as sure-footed as the- As the-‘, she had faltered for the word, gesturing wildly and he had kissed her gently on the forehead.
The words had been caught around another kiss and she had taken his face in his hands and replied in kind, saying everything that words could not.
A choked, sobbing howl now erupts into the still, afternoon sun at the memories, startling a murder of crows in a cawing flurry of black wings into the blue and cloudless sky.
He ignores them, his shoulders heaving, his breath coming in thick, wet sobs as he bends his head to press his lips against her cheek. He loses them in the mass of her hair, her requiem a sobbing, keening cry that comes from the very base of his soul.
He is still there when Harris and Dan Hagman find him for piquet duty that evening, the sun a low, blazing line as it sinks against the horizon.
They sit for a long time with their backs and rifles against the thorn tree, not speaking, while Miranda’s weight grows cold and heavy in his arms.
Dan’s arm is around his shoulders, Harris a comforting presence that does not need words.
They have known each other too long and have seen too much together for words to be needed now.
Slowly, he rests his head in the crook of Dan’s shoulder, his heart feeling cold and wet and splintered like broken glass.
‘She was a good lass, lad. A brave and bonny lass. We’ll remember her as such.’
Dan’s voice is a low comfort and he chokes back another sob.
‘And mine,’ he whispers finally, the words lost in the older man’s jacket.
‘And yours, Ben,’ Harris replies, his dark eyes filled with pain as they search the dead girls’ face. ‘She loved you. You loved her. That’s all that matters now.’