Sherrilyn Maddox’s perplexity regarding Thomas North’s strange reactions to her was magnified when he avoided detailing the apparent falling-out he had with his co-commander of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion, Liam Donovan. It took a while for the circumstances—both those of their adventure and their interaction—to be suitable for the truth of the matter to emerge, but ultimately it did.
Which, due to the need to excise the Thomas/Sherrilyn subplot from 1635: The Papal Stakes, was lost along with all their other significant exchanges. Here’s the tale that was lost from the greater story:
When the last of the group had filed out, Sherrilyn rose and took a seat next to Thomas North, who was still staring at the far wall. She sat quietly for a while, waited until she was sure that he was aware of her, at least peripherally. “So, are you going to tell me now?”
Thomas swallowed, glanced at her. “Tell you? Tell you what?”
Sherrilyn sighed. “Thomas, I know you’ve been under a lot of pressure. You’ve drawn a thankless job as Harry’s intelligence officer and it’s got to feel damned odd for you—a colonel with years and years of real field experience—to be taking orders from him. So I figured you had enough trouble on your plate and didn’t need any more from me. Which meant not following up on the conversation we never finished the night we linked up with the embassy in Lombardy.
“But now, after watching your reaction to Miro’s announcement that he might bring Liam down here, I’ve gotta ask again: what happened between you and Donovan? You guys used to be like brothers who couldn’t decide whether they couldn’t live without each other, or whether you had to beat the crap out of each other. So you wound up doing both. You were funnier, then; non-stop jokes was the Thomas North trademark. Although half of them were groaners of the worst kind.”
Thomas did not look at her. “Then I would expect you’d find my ostensible change to be an improvement.”
“Damn it, Thomas: do you have to make this any harder than it already is? You don’t talk to anyone. I know; I’ve watched. And this thing with Liam is eating you alive, from the inside out. Either a little bit every day, or in huge gulps, like right now. So, I’ll ask you one more time, Colonel North: what did you mean when you said that Liam went through hell alone? And how does that involve you, since you were in jail, at the time?”
North resumed staring at the far wall. “There’s no way to ease into this topic. So I’ll just stick with the facts. As they are known. There aren’t many.”
Sherrilyn felt the invisible hairs on her forearms rise slightly. Thomas’ altered tone and facial expression were unnervingly familiar to her. It was the detached delivery of the police reporting a driving death, or an FAA flack announcing a plane crash. “Go on,” she said. “I won’t interrupt.”
“Thank you. Two months into my incarceration in the Grantville jail, Liam had the whole company in the field. There had been some late winter banditry. It was not uncommon, before you up-timers arrived in that part of Germany: food stores run low, and the region was hunted out by all the foraging armies. Liam didn’t need all the Hibernians, but the ‘company’ had grown to the size of a rump battalion. He felt that some tough winter maneuvers were just what was needed to shake out the growing pains and ensure unit cohesiveness. So, leaving a few injured fellows behind, off he went.”
“His wife Desdemona—I’m not sure he ever learned her real name—was at home with their little boy. She was, frankly, a striking beauty of the highest hidalgo strain, clearly a nobleman’s daughter. But when we found her with the rest of the camp-followers of a mercenary company that tried cases with us, she was hugely pregnant, and showed no desire to return to whatever Castilian castle she had come from.
“I always took the piss out of Liam by asserting that the only reason she stayed with him was desperation. And maybe a bit of pity. But after all, at the beginning, it could hardly have been love: she didn’t speak a word of English, and he not a bit of Spanish. So that did make me wonder why she stayed those first weeks. Perhaps it was the dishonor of her pregnancy; your average aristocratic Spanish papa is not a very indulgent parent in such regards. ‘Better death than disgrace,’ is, I think, their loving axiom in such matters. Maybe she knew that would be her fate if she tried to return.
“Of course, there was the question of why she was in Austria to begin with. I’ve contemplated the possibilities often enough: a captured daughter of a general sent to assist the Austrian branch of the Hapsburgs? A willful hellion who ran away to follow a dashing young officer? A girl who changed her mind about entering a foreign convent and got caught in the currents of war?” North sighed and his head dropped. “War has so many faces and stories: anything is possible. Indeed, when you’ve seen enough of it, there’s almost nothing left that can surprise you. No coincidence, no barbarity, no idiocy, no tragedy can do more than confirm what you have come to know: that war, regardless of its other properties, is always a ghastly carnival of the surreal.”
He was quiet for a long time. “So no one ever knew who she was, or how she had come to be enslaved among those camp-followers, or who had fathered her child. And because of that, no one ever learned anything about the small group that evidently slipped into our unit’s almost-deserted compound on New Year’s Eve. No one knows who killed the old pensioner standing—well, sitting—guard at the gate house. No one knows who broke in Desdemona’s door. No one knows who first stabbed her in the heart, then gutted her like a fresh-killed deer. No one knows who dashed her infant’s brains out against the wall. Repeatedly. Or so I was told. And no one knows who left the door swinging in the winter wind, inviting those who dared to go inside to see the form that auld lang syne had taken in Liam Donovan’s house, while he was away.”
Sherrilyn’s arm hairs were now fully, almost painfully erect. It was a warm, sultry morning, but she rubbed her biceps and hugged herself against the sudden chill.
“So of course, no one ever found the faintest clue as to whom the murderers were. Of course the smart money is on the woman’s family, who could’ve learned of her location easily enough. She kept pretty much to the compound, at first: I guess we understand why, now. But as time wore on she occasionally did some shopping in town. And just before Christmas, she reportedly went to Mass. It would have only taken one person who knew her, and who knew that a few words in the right ear would be worth many coins. Maybe it went down the Hapsburg rumor mill, from Austria to Iberia. Help in a blood matter earns a blood debt, in the way they count their honor.
“At any rate, Liam and the company returned to barracks that same day. They found the pensioner dead in the guard house, and the unit started searching the camp, the perimeter, and the surrounding fields. I don’t know how or why it happened this way, but Liam arrived at his house alone. He was the first to see what was waiting for him there. By the time his men thought to look for him, he’d already covered the bodies. He was wiping up the blood with old bed sheets. He heard their reports as he worked. Nodded, said “Dismissed.” They remember that so specifically because it was the last word he spoke for almost three days.
“When some of the married officers of the unit came, along with their wives, he wished them a Happy New Year and quietly closed the door in their faces. They watched him, on and off, for the next three days: cleaning up the blood, finding the missing pieces of her, scrubbing the wall over and over and over again. All night long. He never slept, ate, shat. If he pissed, they missed seeing it. The second night, he didn’t even think to light a candle. He worked in the dark: they watched him through the window.
“Since Liam was their employer—and if anything, too kind a one—they tried to honor his obvious desire for privacy. But early the third day, they decided to inform the authorities, so a delegation of sorts was sent to shuffle into Sheriff Frost’s office. Who went out with a deputy to see the situation himself. I really don’t know what happened after that.”
“And is that why Frost stopped passing your messages to Liam?”
“I imagine so. I never have asked. I simply stewed in my cell and became utterly incensed. And when I finally did get out—well, you probably heard what happened then.”
“I’ve heard a few different versions. I suspect yours is the one that matters.”
“Hmm. Not sure that I agree. But at any rate, I stormed out of the jail, a free man. But I was determined to get locked up again for lambasting the name of Liam Donovan with the most outrageous and inventive slanders ever devised by a human being. After I had finished that set of pronouncements—while smoking two cigars at the same time—I proceeded to continue my diatribe at the Thuringian Gardens, where a variety of alcoholic beverages lent even richer poetry to my invective.”
He stopped and looked at the far wall again. “You know, as inebriated as I was, I find it hard to believe, to this day, that I didn’t realize that no one was laughing, no one was shocked, no one was insulted. They just kept looking at me like I was some cross between a mad dog, a village idiot, and a roadside turd. And worst of all, no one stopped me.”
He was silent, swallowed, and resumed. “That’s what, in retrospect, puzzles me the most: that no one sidled up to me and whispered, ‘might want to lay off asking God to smite Liam dead, because the poor blighter’d probably welcome it’. And of course I worked his wife and child into the act, professing perplexity why she would tolerate his scrofulous self, and praying that the boy would distinguish himself by claiming the right to justifiable patricide. Yes, I was in particularly fine form, that day.
“Of course, I couldn’t let this achievement of outrage go without a crowning moment of glory. So I staggered and vomited my way out to the company compound. Walked through the guards, up to his house, came in the door cursing and accusing and abusing and happy to see that his wife had finally reacquired some measure of sense, since she had clearly left him, taking the baby with her. All of which he heard in utter silence.”
Sherrilyn realized that she had stopped breathing. When Thomas did not restart, she exhaled, “And then what?”
“Then? I left. Turned, went to the HQ, pulled out my equivalent back pay from the petty cash and hopped the train for Magdeburg. Where I stayed drunk for a very long time and sung Liam’s denigrations to any and all who would listen, not giving a damn that anyone who believed me would also spread word that the leadership of the Hibernian Mercenary Company could not be trusted: in short, putting myself out of a job. Yes, it was truly my finest hour.”
“When—when did you learn about what had happened to Liam?”
“Two months later. I made quite a whirlwind tour of the biergartens and bordellos of mid-northern Germany. Having run out of rage and money at just about the same time, I found my penniless way—slowly—back down to Grantville, ready to let bygones be bygones.”
The smile on Thomas’ face was arguably the most bitter and self-loathing she had ever seen on any human being. Sherrilyn asked, “What did you do? How did you two—work together?”
“Oh. We didn’t. Because when I made my prodigal return, no one told me what had really happened. And of course Liam wouldn’t talk to me. Which seemed most astounding, considering that I had, out of the limitless goodness of my heart, decided to forgive him for leaving me in gaol for almost half a year. The next day, he left with two squads that, according to the other officers, had volunteered to specialize in up-time close-quarters tactics. We had enough of your weapons and ammunitions, and their copies, to make a credible attempt at creating a genuine ‘spec ops’ group. He was gone by the time I got to work the second day. Being a singularly perceptive fellow, I began suspecting that something might be amiss, went in to Grantville, and heard the story.”
“And since then?”
“I mind the store. Liam remains in the field, cycling qualified volunteers through the special warfare program.”
“And you’ve never spoken to him?”
“How would I do that? And about what? And, more’s the point, why should he listen? I tried a few times: even cornered him once, when I figured he had no way to leave. He stayed there—I don’t know that he really listened—until I had to go take a piss. When I got back, he was gone. Since then, I’ve learned to leave bad enough alone.”
Sherrilyn closed her eyes and let out a long breath. “Men,” she said finally. “You are so stupid.”
“I can only speak for myself,” said Thomas. “But from the basis of that sample, I completely concur with you.”
“Oh, stop beating yourself up, Thomas. You were a jackass—a titanic, friendship-destroying jackass, perhaps—but still just that: a jackass.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“Well, sure, comparatively speaking.”
“Look: you’re an ass and you’re a mean drunk and you’re utterly insensitive at times, but you’re not evil. You had no idea what you were doing. And you thought he’d left you to rot for half a year. That’s a little bit more than ‘just a joke,’ after all.”
“True. But nothing excuses what I said, and that I never once thought to see if my assumptions about Liam letting me rot in the jail were, in fact, accurate or not.”
Sherrilyn folded her arms. “Okay, so tell me this: if you found yourself in the same situation today, would you behave the same way?”
North looked sideways at Sherrilyn, aghast. “Miss Maddox, I may be a jackass and a titanic idiot and an irremediable buffoon, but I am not stupid.”
“Meaning you’ve learned and grown as a person. Meaning you’ve changed. For the better. Which is something we humans have to do as long as we’re alive. There’s nothing more to be gained by flogging yourself this way. And it’s kind of disgusting, actually. Just suck it up and do the hard thing. The really hard thing.”
“Which is what?”
“Which is apologize. And realize that apologizing might not be good enough, and that you might have lost a friend.”
North’s face drained.
“Because that’s really what you’re afraid of, isn’t it?” Sherrilyn pursued. “That you’ve destroyed one of the few things that matters to you in this world, that makes it worth getting up every day: your friendship with Liam. When you can face that, Thomas North, then you’ll be a man. Again.”
Sherrilyn stood up, turned her back—and caught a brief glimpse of North’s thunderstruck expression as she did—and marched out of the room.