Muffled Drum

Published July 2011 by Carina Press.

Bohemia 1866

It’s the morning of the battle of Gitschin and Rudolph von Ratzlaff and Mathias Hofmann are planning to run away together–somewhere they can live together discreetly, for in Prussia their reputations would be utterly destroyed, and staying in the army would be impossible–someone would find out that they were in a relationship–and then they’d be ruined.

But a fall from a horse happens to foil their plans, and Mathias finds ohimself accompanying Rudolph back to Berlin, a Rudolph who doesn’t remember who he is. Mathias has to decide what to do, whether to stay and hope that Rudolph’s memory returns, or to cut his losses and make his own way in the world, without the man he loves.

Chapter One

“And no more of that disgusting pomade.” Rudolph’s mouth grazed Mathias’ ear. The dark curls, artfully arranged beside it, tickled his nose.

He spoke quietly so only Mathias could hear, well aware that his batman and an entire army was on the other side of their canvas walls. “I promise I shall dispose of every jar you purchase. And no more early mornings—ever—I swear it. We shall pay someone to stand guard outside our door and not rise until we have to.” There was warmth between them, everywhere they touched, skin and cloth. A moment stolen from days of marching and madness, a centre of heat between them, in sharp contrast to the chill morning wind which whuffed the canvas of the tent around them.

Mathias stirred, his arms locking more firmly behind Rudolph’s back. “Tomorrow. Even now I can’t quite believe it…”

“Believe it, and no more talk of it. Fate won’t be tempted.” Rudolph silenced any further discussion by kissing Mathias, deeply and thoroughly, rubbing his yet unshaven cheek against Mathias’ smooth, morning-ready skin. A man in full uniform is not an easy armful. The scent of sweat and horse rose up in the warmth they generated. Concentrating on the unique taste and feel of Mathias’ mouth, Rudolph swore to remember this moment throughout the day to come. When I’m cold from the death around me, or blazing with the thunder of the charge, I will remember this—this moment. It is this that men fight for—Mathias is my returning haven, my reason to fight. My home.

Outside the tent the sound of hooves and the jingle of harness could be heard.

“Sir?” Goertz’s voice sounded low and urgent from his guard site.

“I must go, anyway.” Mathias pulled away, straightened his dolman and picked up his shako. “But—”

Voices engaged in conversation from outside the tent. Rudolph blocked them, savouring these last moments. Moments which very well may be the last.

“No.” Rudolph kissed him again, swiftly and quietly. “No buts. Just fight. Then we resign. Then meet here. Then leave. No matter what.” Rudolph watched Mathias pull the control over his features and take a deep breath. Fierce with pride at the deeply brave man his young friend had become, he smiled, catching Mathias’ eye. “Say ‘Yes, Rudolph.'”

Mathias looked down once then up, sharply, executing a knife-sharp salute with a click of his polished heels. “Yes, Rudolph!” Then he swung around, and pushed his way through the tent flap.

It took Rudolph a moment or two to recover himself, then suppressing his fond smile he strode to the tent flap and looked out into the misty dawn. “What is it, Goertz?” Sound subsumed the space where it had seemed absent before: sergeants shouting as sergeants were born to do, the ever-present jingle of harness, the rumble of wheels. Goertz, Rudolph’s batman, jumped up from a chair he was occupying, polishing the links of Rudolph’s sabretache.

“Sir!” Goertz’s moustache fairly bristled with pride. Rudolph himself was still half-dressed and unshaven, but Goertz could step onto any parade ground and do justice to his regiment. Rudolph wondered if the man ever slept. “Generalleutnant von Tümpling sent his equerry over, sir. I told him you was not to be disturbed. There’s a meeting at Rumpy Tumpy’s tent, sir. Big wigs only. You are required. His nibs didn’t much like being sent away like a beggar.” Goertz gave a private grin, obviously celebrating the enlisted man’s victory over a man he considered a jumped up nothing landed in a fortunate—and safe—position as von Tümpling’s equerry.

“I’ll bet he didn’t,” Rudolph said, backing into the tent. “Come on, get me big-wigged up then.”

Goertz grabbed the pot of hot water from the fire and followed Rudolph into the tent. Rudolph sat, and forced himself to concentrate on the day ahead as Goertz warmed cloths, whipped up foam, and stropped the razor. However, by the time the shave began, Rudolph’s thoughts had slipped from his regiment, and the day to come, to the irrevocable damage he was planning to do to his own—and to Mathias’ reputation. Resigning their commissions in the midst of an active campaign was social suicide. They both knew it, but the longer they remained in the Prussian army, the more they both knew there was no choice. Someone would eventually see Rudolph’s partiality. They would see something, say something—or resort to blackmail. Whichever way you looked at it, they’d be ruined. Cashiered, or worse. Shot in disgrace. Or blackmailed for the rest of their lives. No. This was the only way—get away from this stupid muddle of a war and run as far away as possible. The Far East—plenty of opportunities there. Or America. Once Rudolph would have given everything to his country. Now, he’d give everything to Mathias.

Don’t think of that, he mused, as the razor slid expertly over his face. Think of last night. Too much wine and not enough caution, but damn it, it was so hard to be cautious when the nights were dark, the air was warm, and Mathias was there, laughing beside him and bumping drunkenly against him as they staggered from inn to inn through the town. Plenty of dark alleys, and one they found had a handy dog-leg, shielding them from the street itself, where, hidden, they could kiss and dare to reach into each other’s breeches for swift, stolen moments, callused skin rough against a velvet-steel rod. Stifled gasps, and Mathias’ body arched back against the wall as he surrendered his most tender of possessions to Rudolph’s eager hands.

As Goertz moved away to wash the razor, Rudolph brought his hand up to his mouth, slyly licking his own palm; still imagining he could taste Mathias’ seed where it had spilled, warm and thick, onto his fingers. He often joked that he could discern Mathias’ taste over a hundred men’s’, much to Mathias’ amusement who said he would fight each of those men to the death before allowing them to take place in such an experiment.

They’d first met in Danzig; in a port-side tavern, far away from the normal regimental haunts, and Rudolph had drunk enough to sink a battleship. Rudolph had just been taught a drinking game he was enjoying hugely—a complicated card game with different instructions for each card. Obviously the more one drank, the harder it became to remember the labyrinthine rules, and the more penalties were handed out.

Rudolph treated drinking games as war, and one by one Rudolph’s adversaries slid from their chairs, or turned away to vomit violently onto the sawdust-covered floor, until there was just three of them left: Rudolph, for whom true drunkenness consisted of schnaps home-brewed by his grandfather and downed at a dizzying speed with dance and song; a blond giant from a Swedish ship whose cheeks were roundly red as apples; and an Oberleutnant Hofmann, who had walked into the disreputable place, as neat as a parade monkey and acting as formal as if he were in the officers’ mess. The sailors bet heavily on their blond giant who seemed to have a head as inured to schnaps as Rudolph’s own.

Rudolph was winning—the sizeable pile of money on the table growing slowly with every drink, and the tension in the bar was increasing with every card played. The sailors seemed to gather around the table a little closer with every hand played and bets were still passing from one to another. Rudolph watched the big sailor squinting at his cards as if he could hardly see them, let alone work out which one to play. To help maintain a façade of sobriety, Rudolph concentrated on one thing, a mole on the back of the sailor’s hand; it helped him to focus. Slowly, the sailor selected a card, gave Rudolph a smug smile and dropped the card onto the table.

Five. Shit. Five was the highest you could impose on another player – and it meant that Rudolph had to drink five shots. The glasses were filled and the sailors began the chant of “Dryck! Dryck! Dryck!” Swallowing the first with no difficulty, Rudolph reached for the second and found his fellow hussar, Oberleutnant…what was his name? Hofmann—looking at him, but not in a manner that gave the impression that he wanted his rival to fail. The young man’s face—handsome as hell, Rudolph noted, but then, anyone would seem handsome as hell after the amount of schnaps he’d drunk that night—seemed to be marked with concern.

“Don’ worry,” he murmured, in German, instead of French. “I won’t let the Regiment down.” He grinned at the young man and threw down drinks two, three and four. He was just lifting five to his lips, the demanding cries of “Dryck! Dryck! Dryck!” coming louder and louder when the blond sailor muttered ” Skall vi knulla?” and slid effortlessly and spectacularly sideways, like a great pine felled for Christmas.

Rudolph stood up, swallowed the fifth glass, and slammed the glass onto the table in triumph. Instead of playing on, Oberleutnant Hofmann threw his cards into the air with a whoop of delight and threw his arms around Rudolph, slapping him on the back with hearty congratulations. “Couldn’t play on, anyway,” he slurred. “Every card in my hand would’ve backfired at me. Fair n’ square.”

The young oberleutnant was warm and smelt delicious. Horse and sweat and alcohol, a heady mixture, and if Rudolph’s cock wasn’t numbed with schnaps Rudolph was quite sure that some interest would have been shown as the drunken embrace went on for longer than propriety expected.

“What did he say?” Rudolph said, scooping up his winnings and tucking them away. The sailors were exchanging money, seems one or two had won big by betting away from their compatriot.

“Who?”

“Him.” Rudolph indicated the blond giant, happily comatose on the floor and being ignored by his disgusted shipmates. “When he fell over. Scully nully or something…”

Hofmann laughed. “Oh. That’s one Swedish phrase I do know. You would too, if you came to these kind of places more often. It means ‘Shall we fuck?’ Although that’s probably a more polite translation.”

Rudolph’s drunkenness slid away from him a little as he processed what Hofmann had said, although—he’d already guessed as much, the bar was a known haunt for men seeking men, masquerading as a really rough bar. The absence of quayside tarts was a give-away for anyone who was looking for that kind of clue. “Really.” He looked down at the blond sailor. “That’s a shame. Although I’d have had to stand on a box.”

Hofmann roared with laughter, put his arm through Rudolph’s and they walked out together. “I’m more your height,” Hofmann said, and Rudolph reached down, grabbed a handful of firm arse before pulling the door open. The sailors were standing around their fallen comrade, singing what could only be a drinking song, as they toasted his failure. The door closed and Rudolph and Hofmann wove down the dark street, with the song’s words drifting after them for a good quarter of a mile.

Later, in an inn that asked no questions, on a creaking wooden bed that had more of a promise of a mattress than anything else, they had fucked like dogs. Then, like friends, and the third time it was like men addicted to each other, men in love. And it had remained that way ever since.