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The Hazel-scrub

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As he waited for the dark, before he decided which way to turn, away into a lifetime of hiding or back to the known discomforts of the Auxiliaries, the deserter reflected. That boy had hidden him, whether or not believing his quickly-spun tale of secret dispatches—of not in fact being a deserter from the Legion at all.

The cantonment quieted as the day wore on towards dark. Straining his ears, the deserter thought that he could hear the river making its slow rippling whispers. But it might be that he was imagining that. It was a long wait, tucked alone against the cool of the terrace wall, among the big-leaved dock and the prickly hazel bushes. The strain of keeping still was heavy on him. Moving his hand by degrees, he touched one of the lowest hazel leaves, worried it from its branch, and ran his fingers over and over the toothed edge of the leaf.

He let the leaf drop from his hand at the association of teeth. If those from the fort had tracked him with hounds, or if the snarling hound that belonged to the boy's father had scented the deserter and been sharp about defence... He was a big hound, by the sound of him then, when all that the man could overhear was magnified by the tension of hiding in the too-small space under the bench.

As time stretched, the deserter fell into what might have been daydream or near enough to the edge of sleep to be a dream. An unfolding, imagined adventure, in which he was not a deserter but a fugitive carrying genuine dispatches, needing to steal secretly away; in which the boy was just enough older to be ready to join the Legion, and the two of them slipped away together. Because two young men, the younger quick of mind and hands but unsteadily on his legs, could pass unquestioned in ways that a solitary fugitive could not.

But all of that was only imagining, and he was a deserter, entirely solitary, waiting alone. Waiting to complete his escape; or it might be that he would decide differently than continuing to flee from the Legion. The deserter could turn back to the the fort, away from the brief dream of freedom. The boy had saved him from discovery, on the strength of an unlikely story and, he thought now, a boy's longing for a story to be one of adventure rather than of cowardice. The boy had done a brave thing, hiding him, and speaking aloud the end of a dream. So many boys with vague daydreams of service that were so little like the drudgery of it.

If the boy had not needed to be taken obediently inside, if they two could have whispered in the twilight, under enough of the falling darkness to conceal the deserter but not yet so deep as to be his time to leave... Then, perhaps, he might have convinced the boy that his dreams of the Legion would never have been matched by bright truths. Or could it be, instead, that the having of dreams and the turning from them was in its own way a necessary escape.