Helena gasped as together, they tumbled onto the road, with Bayle’s full weight on top of the soldier, who had no chance to cry out.
In the instant it took for his companion to register what was happening, without thinking, Helena leapt down from the cart and swept the second musket from the ground.
The soldier froze, both hands held up in surrender, his eyes going from her face to the gun and back again.
Aware she could never work out how to fire the weapon in time, even if it was loaded, anger and desperation gave her strength as she swung it in a wide arc, catching the butt on the side of his head.
The soldier hit the ground with a dull thump, and stayed there.
With no hand on the rein, the startled horses crabbed sideways, the rear wheels threatening to crush Bayle and the soldier beneath him.
Dropping the musket, Helena ran to the front of the cart and grabbed the reins, stilling the horses.
Bayle’s superior weight pinned the officer to the road, though he flailed uselessly with both arms. Bayle scrambled to his knees, pulled his arm back and punched the man squarely in the face. The flailing stopped as the man lost consciousness.
Torn between trying to help and keeping the cart still, Helena could only watch with growing horror as the soldier she had hit stumbled to his feet and pulled a knife from his belt. He must have still been stunned as he swayed, and staggered towards Helena.
She opened her mouth to shout, but just then Bayle yelled, “Helena, Move!”
Instinctively, she threw herself sideways away from the cart, hit the ground and lay still just as a shot echoed across the fields, sending up a flock of crows in a nearby tree, dying away quickly into the afternoon quiet.
She rolled over, in time to see the soldier’s eyes widen in shock. He crumpled to his knees as a crimson bloom spread over the front of his shirt. The knife fell from his hand and with a final grunt, he fell forwards onto the road.
Shaking, Helena scrambled to her feet and staggered toward the cart, grabbing at the reins just as the wheels began to turn again. A groan came from the man on the ground behind them. Helena was about to call out in warning, but in two strides, Bayle raised the musket he had just fired and brought the wooden butt down on the man’s temple with a sickening crack.
Helena thrust her fist into her mouth to muffle a scream, transfixed by the unnatural dent in the man’s skull. She looked down at her skirt, where spots of blood soaked into the fabric.
The metallic tang of blood filled the air. The horses snorted in panic and strained against the reins, taking all Helena’s strength to keep them from bolting. When she could bring herself to look, Bayle was dragging the shot soldier toward a deep ditch at the side of the road.
“There should have been six of them,” Bayle grunted as with a final heave, the body rolled into the ditch, flattening the long grass on the incline.
“Help me,” Bayle instructed, indicating the second man.
Her chest heaved and she widened her eyes in shock, but bracing herself, she gripped the end of the soldier’s long buff coat and with Bayle bearing most of the weight, they inched toward the ditch.
Helena closed her eyes as the body disappeared over the side, though it made no sound.
“They are visible if one stands here,” Bayle said, “Though I doubt they can be spotted by a casual observer from the road.
“How long before they find them, do you think?” Helena asked.
“The others, if there are any, could be back at any time.” Bayle jerked his head toward the road ahead. “They are always in packs, like dogs.” He collected the other musket and threw both guns in after them.
“What about their horses?” Helena nodded toward the docile animals grazing a few feet away.
“We’ll get rid of anything which marks them out as soldiers” mounts, then turn them out in that field over there.” Bayle nodded to a meadow beyond the hedge.
While Bayle removed the saddles, Helena grabbed the trooper’s hats, knapsacks and cooking utensils, which joined the bodies in the ditch.
By the time she had finished, her chest burned with the effort and the emotional toll of what they had done. What she had done.
The soldier’s knife lay where he had dropped it, but she couldn’t bring herself to return to the ditch, and instead, tucked it into the pocket of her skirt. A skirt with blood on it, which she intended to burn at her first opportunity.
Bayle helped her back onto her seat and climbed in beside her. ‘Now let’s go home.’
Helena nodded, her hands thrust between her knees to stop their shaking, her bottom lip gripped between her teeth, but she could not get the image of the dead soldier’s battered skull out of her head.
“We-we killed two men, Bayle.”
He flicked the reins against the flank of the nearest horse, his gaze straight ahead. “Forget them, and tell no one what happened today. Ever.”