Gemma Bristow, writer

New Model Army

The sun sank over the village of Naseby. In the camp, reports had been sifted and had finally settled into truth. They knew now that the King's army had held its position for the night. That meant that they would fight tomorrow: fight for the nation.

All around, men prepared for battle. Sharpening pikes, cleaning muskets, joking, praying. Among them, Musketeer Denham made a final equipment check and tried to wear the same expressions as everyone else. Stoicism, with an edge of recklessness and just a hint of fear. It wouldn't do to show too much fear. It wouldn't do to show any weakness in front of the men. After so much preparation, a slip-up was unlikely, but there was no sense in being careless now.

Denham looked for James — Ensign Fletcher — and found him near the middle of the field. James sat on the trampled grass, his pack by his side and his long hands clasped around his knees. He caught the eye seeking him. Looking up, the sunset shifting in his hair, he winked.

Denham hastily turned away. Trust James! It certainly wouldn't do to start blushing.

The captain was moving through the camp now. His brow was furrowed, but still he stopped to talk with the soldiers, giving each to feel that they had a share of his attention. That was the nature of Mr Cromwell's army. It was one of the reasons why Denham believed in it. This army gave every person, finally, the chance to become equal.

'Musketeer,' the captain said. 'Good man. Let's have a look at you.'

Saluting, with a motion practised scores of times before a glass, Denham stood square-shouldered for his inspection.

Red coat, meticulously brushed. Buff-coloured breeches. Bandolier from which hung the twelve vital containers of powder and shot. No one could see the tremor of the heart inside.

'You'll do.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'Remember that these are our people. Misguided though they are to uphold tyranny, they are our people. We want no more bloodshed than there needs to be.'

'No, sir.'

'Trust in God.' He touched Denham's shoulder. 'And keep your powder dry.'

Suddenly the battle was very near. Above the village, the sun showed a bare curve. When it rose again they would be marching.

The camp began to break up. Men doused fires and headed for their bedrolls, some in the barn nearby, others on the grass. Denham looked one last time for James.

Tears prickled, as well as laughter, because at last they were going to fight together. Back home, both devoted to the Cause, they'd talked of how it might be. Liberating towns, singing as they marched, standing shoulder to shoulder against the Cavaliers. James had laughed at the very idea. He'd thought it was impossible. But nothing was impossible, not if you believed in it.

They should talk now, in case tomorrow was too late. But there was no way to speak without being overheard. And there was no time.

Denham could only return his wink and say an extra prayer for him.

Before retiring, Denham wandered from the camp, supposedly for a call of nature. If you went far enough into the trees, the noise of the camp faded. There, surrounded by night, you could be alone and unobserved, just for a moment.

The tense body relaxed. Fingers raked through close-cropped hair. A wry grin was allowed to show itself.

She wished she could loosen the stays that bound her chest so flat. They made it hard to take a deep breath, especially when she was afraid, and in haste, as she would be soon. But the garment could be borne. Every soldier has to make some sacrifice.

Published in Vintage Script, 2013. Reproduced by permission of Emma Louise Oram.