Extracts from Into the Valley of Death

 Into the Valley of Death is written more conventionally in the third person, but still presenting the point of view of several different characters.

 

The third of these extracts is seen through the eyes of Sally Jarvis, but the others are all from the viewpoint of our hero, Harry Ryder.

The evening of 19th September, 1854

‘You have to earn things like these, Ryder. You have to give yourself to the army if you want her to give anything back.’

     Sod the army, he’d given it enough. ‘If you say so, Sar’nt-major.’

     Jarvis thrust the chevrons in his pocket. ‘You don’t care what I say, do you? You think you’re above the whole lot of us.’

    Ryder leaned back against the blackened wall, and felt the warmth of it through his coat. ‘If you say so, Sar’nt-major.’

    Jarvis was very still. A haze of smoke floated from the ruins and drifted between them like grey breath. ‘I know so. I’ve known it since you first showed up at the Depot. But it won’t do you a bit of good now. You’ll do what you’re told now. And if you don’t I’ll have the skin off your back before we throw you out in the gutter. You got that?’

    ‘If you say so, Sar’nt –’

    The crop shot out to smack against his jaw. The pain of it throbbed like toothache, but Jarvis kept the whip there to hold his face steady and lowered his own to speak right into it. ‘And there’ll be no more of that, do you understand?’

 

 

The morning of 20th September, 1854

Reveille was silent that morning. Men shook their sleeping neighbours and dragged themselves to horse without the aid of either drum or trumpet. It was black dark and two hours before dawn.

    The troop groomed their horses in eerie quiet. Ryder listened to the swish of brushes and jingling of bits and felt the sensuousness of ordinary actions performed perhaps for the last time. It was there in the warm velvet of Wanderer’s flank under his hand, the slippery smoothness of a buckle, his own quickened heartbeat and the sense of something coming.

    It was in the village too, when they went to complete forage. The wind was up, an empty bucket rolling and clattering over the farmyard cobbles, and a dog in the corner barking at nothing. Lamps were lit in the Post House and staff officers passing in and out with a banging of doors, while from out toward the sea came the distant sound of trumpets. ‘Oh damn and blast the French,’ said a harassed quartermaster, clutching his hat against the wind. ‘Do they want everyone to know?’ He caught Ryder’s eye and scowled.

    The sky was lightening behind them as they took their beasts to drink. It made dark silhouettes of the long line of motionless horsemen, and spread colour over the muddy Bulganek until the whole river seemed to gleam deep red.

 

The morning of 25th October, 1854

The Russian hussars were encouraged, they were speeding up to the gallop. They could go right through, take the gorge, open the road to the harbour, then they were finished, all of them, stranded in this stinking country with no way to the ships, stranded to be picked off at leisure. She dropped her suddenly useless haversack and waited to watch the end.

    And the hill changed. A rim of black then bright crimson fringed the brow, and suddenly there were men there, a long line of red-coated Highlanders standing on the crest to face the oncoming enemy. The sun burned on their coats and glittered on their bayonets like a jagged crown. ‘Square,’ thought Sally, army wife as she was. ‘They’ll have to form square to face cavalry.’ But the line still grew and settled, long and straight, a slender barrier two men deep, standing as they were to meet the onslaught of the charge.

    Tears spilled hot down her face, blurring her vision till the Highlanders were no more than a thin red streak in the distance. She was on the strength of the 13th Light Dragoons, but at that moment she was of the whole army, and that frail line of resistance embodied everything she loved and was part of. Oh God, let them hold, let them somehow do the impossible and stand up to that charge, oh God and dear God, let them hold.

 

The afternoon of 25th October, 1854

They were riding into blackness now, smoke from the front battery swirling and blinding them. Even the muzzles of the facing guns were visible only in thick streaks of flame as one by one they bellowed into hellish life. No more volleys now, the shots were banging in succession as the gunners fired at will, but the black spray that flew out at them was deadlier than the balls had been. The bastards were firing canister, a thousand fragments of shot scything through their close-packed ranks. Screams lost meaning, mere high notes in the boom and roar, all that was real were the reins in his left hand, the hilt in his right, and the flanks of his horse between his thighs. The air was full of iron.

 


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