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"Christ up a Tree, I need a drink!" Ash turned and began to pace the floorboards, beating her hands together for circulation. "And where the h.e.l.l is de la Marche? Let's get this 'envoy' c.r.a.p over with!"
There were no pages to serve out rations: all the baggage-train brats down in the hall below, by the sound of it - shrieks and yells echoed up the spiral stairwell, not subdued by the ragged hangings blocking the doorway. Cold wind found its way between the window shutters.
Tension kept Ash pacing. Florian squatted by the fire with her cloak held out open around her, to trap the heat: a campaigner's trick she obviously remembered from half a dozen winters with the company. Fernando del Guiz folded his arms and stood watching both women, smiling wryly.
Ash strode to the stairwell and yelled, "Rickard!"
A longer s.p.a.ce of time elapsed than she was used to before he called up, panting, "Yes, boss?"
"Where the f.u.c.k's de la Marche and Oxford and the civilians?"
"Don't know, boss. No messenger!"
"What are you doing?"
Rickard's flushed face appeared in the dim light of the well, a dozen steps below. "We're going to do the mumming, boss. I'm in it! Are you coming down?"
"There's no word from Oxford?"
"Captain Anselm sent another man up to the palace just now."
"h.e.l.l. What are they doing?" Ash glanced back over her shoulder. "It's a d.a.m.n sight warmer down there than up here, isn't it? And there's food. Okay: we'll wait for my lords of England and Burgundy downstairs! And get me a drink before you start pratting around."
A great burst of sound came as she stepped off the bottom stair and into the main hall: nothing to do with her or, as she first thought, the presence of Fernando del Guiz, but a carol being bellowed by two hundred l.u.s.ty male throats: "The Boar's Head in hand bear I, With garlands gay and rosemary, I pray you all sing merrily, Qui estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino."
Floria took a place beside Ash against the wall, in the small stir of men-at-arms and archers acknowledging their commander's presence. Ash signalled them back to their singing. Floria murmured under her breath, "We could do with a boar's head . . ."
"I don't think we've even got the rosemary to cook with it!" Ash felt a wooden bowl and horn spoon shoved into her hand, yelled thanks to one of the pages, and realised that she had settled back against the stone wall shoulder-to- shoulder with Fernando del Guiz.
She had to look up to meet his eyes.
The shrill sound of Carracci's recorder rose above the voices of men and women. She heard Angelotti playing descant. It was not possible to speak over the volume of sound.
I'd forgotten he's so tall. And so young.
There being no tables on which to set the trenchers, the woman doing the cooking and the other baggage women were rus.h.i.+ng about the hall, from group to group, ladling out pottage. Ash held out her bowl, caught for a second in the rush of conviviality; and spooned the hot broth into her mouth. The carol thundered to a close.
"The mummers!" someone yelled. "Bring on the mummers!"
A roof-shaking cheer.
Beside her, Fernando del Guiz, his hood still raised, studied the contents of his bowl and tentatively began to eat. What could be seen of him was anonymous, priestly; he drew no glances from armed men. Ash kept her eyes on the men shoving a s.p.a.ce clear in the centre of the hall.
There was no Christmas kissing-bush hanging from the rafters: someone had strung up a pair of old hose - being at least green in colour, she supposed - and John Burren and Adriaen Campin were drunkenly pretending to kiss each other underneath it. She attended a.n.a.lytically to the cheers and cat-calls - a little shrill, not all the men joining in. She glanced towards the guards on the great door. No runners; no messages yet.
What is keeping them?
Fernando del Guiz chewed at some unrelenting piece of gristle, and swallowed. On the other side of Ash, Floria had stopped eating to talk enthusiastically to Baldina. The men-at-arms around them were watching the centre of the hall.
There was a certain amount of relief on the young man's face as he turned his head to gaze down at her. He nodded, as if to himself. "Can we speak privately?"
"If I take you into a corner somewhere, everyone will be watching. Let's talk here."
To her own surprise, there was no malice in her tone.
Fernando took another spoonful of the pottage, frowned, put back the spoon, tapped the shoulder of the man in front, and handed the bowl forward. When he looked back at Ash, his face in the hood's shadow was drawn, wry, and uncertain. "I came to make a peace with you."
She stared at him for a long moment. "I didn't even bother to find out if you were alive or dead. After Carthage. I suppose it was easier to think I had other matters to worry about."
He studied her face. "Maybe."
About to question that, Ash was interrupted by a loud and ringing cheer. The mummers' procession wound around the centre of the hall, between men and women packed back to the walls. A rhythmic clapping bounced off the walls, together with inebriated yells.
"What's this?" Fernando shouted.
Two large men-at-arms in mail hauberks, in front of him, turned around and shushed Fernando.
"It's the mumming," Ash said, only loud enough for him to hear.
The head of the procession walked into the central clear s.p.a.ce. It was Adriaen Campin, she realised; the big Fleming wrapped in a horse-blanket and wearing a bridle over his head. Rags of cloth, for ribbons, fluttered at his knees and ankles. Campin, his blanket sliding down, put his fists on his hips and bawled: "I am the hobby horse, with St George I ride, It's f.u.c.king cold out, so we've come inside!
Give us room to act our play, Then by G.o.d's Grace we'll go away!"
Ash put her hands over her face as the men-at-arms cheered and the hobby horse began to dance. Beside her, she heard Floria whimper. On her other side, Fernando del Guiz quaked; she felt his arm, pressed against her in the crowd, shaking with amus.e.m.e.nt.
"Not used to seeing this one at Christ's Ma.s.s," he said. "We always did it at Epiphany Feast, at Guizburg ... do I take it you think this city won't hold out until Twelfth Night?"
"That what you're going to tell Gelimer?"
He grinned boyishly. "Gelimer will hate this. The King-Caliph hopes you're all cutting your own throats, not making merry."
Ash looked away from Campin's high-kicking horse-dance. She thought one or two of the men around her caught the King-Caliph's name. She shook her head warningly at Fernando. The warmth of the hall brought the smell of his body to her: male sweat, and the own particular smell that was just his.
Obscene, brutal and blackly humorous comments drifted her way. Ash caught the eye of those of her men who obviously did recognise the fair-haired priest as the German knight who had briefly been their feudal lord. The comment moved to where she would not hear it.
Why am I sparing his feelings?
"You're going to have to tell me," she said, surrendering to the impulse. "Fernando, how did you get to be a priest!"
For answer, he extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up a little. A comparatively new scar was still red and swollen across his right wrist, although to a professional eye mostly healed.
"Hauling Abbot m.u.t.h.ari out of the palace when it collapsed," he explained.
"I'd have left him!"
"I was looking for a patron," Fernando remarked sourly. "I'd just spoken up for you, remember? In the palace? I knew Gelimer was going to dump me faster than a dog can s.h.i.+t. I would have hauled anyone with jewellery or fine clothes out of the wreckage - it happened to be m.u.t.h.ari."
"And he was dumb enough to let you take vows?"
"You don't know what it was like in Carthage then." The man frowned, his expression distant. "At first, they thought the King-Caliph was dead, and the empire going to dissolve in factions - then word came down that he was alive and it was a miracle. Then those spooky lights showed up in the desert - where we rode out? With those tombs? And that was supposed to be a curse ..."
Seeing him so far away in his mind, Ash said nothing to disturb his chain of memories.
"I still think it is," Fernando said, after a second. "I rode out there when we recovered Lord Leofric. There were serfs and sheep and goats out there that had . . . they were dead. They were melted, like wax, they were in the gates of the tombs - half in and half out of the bronze metal. And the light - curtains of light, in the sky. Now they're calling it the Fire of G.o.d's Blessing."14 Seeing it with his eyes: the painted walls of pyramids where she had ridden out into the silence imposed by the Wild Machines, Ash felt the cold hairs p.r.i.c.kle at the nape of her neck.
Fernando shrugged, in the tight-sleeved robe; one hand reaching up to close around his oak pendant. "I call it djinn."
"It isn't djinn, or devils. It's the Wild Machines." She pointed at the sky beyond the round stone arch of the window. "They're sucking the light out of the world. I don't want to think what that's like when you're right up close to them."
"I'm not going to think about it." Fernando shrugged.
"Ah, that's my husband . . . ex-husband," she corrected herself.
Whether Adriaen Campin had finished his dance or whether the hobby horse had merely fallen over was unclear. Half a dozen men dragged him off. Baldina and several more women threw clean rushes down on to the floor, and Ash saw Henri Brant walking out over them into the empty s.p.a.ce. He wore a full-length looted velvet robe that had been red, before grease spattered it mostly black. A metal circlet sat on his white curls, spikes jutting up from it; cold-hammered from the forge. More horse-harness had been cannibalised to make a neck-chain out of bits.
Anselm's done good, Ash reflected, trying to spot her second in command in the hall and failing. We needed this.
Henri Brant, with a great deal of authority, held up his hands for quiet and declaimed: "I'm England's true king And I boldly appear, Seeking my son for whom I fear -Is Prince George here?"
One of the English archers bellowed, "You a Lancastrian or a Yorkist English King?"
Henri Brant jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the mummer playing St George. "What d'you think!"
"It's Anselm!" Floria exclaimed, straining up on her toes to see. She turned a s.h.i.+ning face to Ash. "It's Roberto!"
"Guess that'll be a Lancastrian King, then ..."
There was a great deal of noise from those company men who did not come from England, but were entirely happy to wind up those who did. Ash was caught between chuckling at them, and the sheer contentment of watching their high spirits; and the intent expression on Fernando's face.
"I half expect you to offer me a contract with the Caliph," she said.
"No. I'm not that stupid." After a second Fernando del Guiz touched her arm and pointed at the mummers, face alight with momentary unguarded enjoyment. Her gut thumped. She was struck by the lean grace of him, and his wide shoulders, and the thought that - if war had not come to trouble him - he might have continued winning tournaments and gambling; might have married some Bavarian heiress and sired babies and never dipped deeper into himself than necessary; certainly never found himself taking religious vows.
"What do you want with me?" she said.
A cheer drowned out whatever he said. She looked and saw Robert Anselm, lance in hand, stomp into the cleared s.p.a.ce between the company men-at-arms and baggage women.
"My G.o.d. You won't see armour like that again!" Floria yelled.
Her brother gaped. "G.o.d willing, no, we won't!"
More pauldrons, spaulders, guard-braces and rere-braces had been buckled and pinned on to Anselm's wide shoulders than it seemed possible for any man to support. He rattled as he walked. The leg-harness was his own, but the German cuira.s.s had plainly been made for a much larger man - Ash suspected Roberto had borrowed it off one of the Burgundian commanders. The fluted breastplate caught the light from the slit windows and s.h.i.+mmered, silver, where it was not covered by an old tawny livery jacket with a white mullet device. The lance he carried bore a drooping white flag - a woman's chemise - with a red rose scrawled on it.
Anselm shoved the visor of his sallet up, displaying his grinning, stubbled face. He rapped the lance shaft on the flagstones, and threw out his free arm in a wide gesture.
"I am Prince George, a worthy knight, I'll spend my blood in England's right!"
He punched his fist in the air, mimed awaiting a cheer, and when it came, cupped his hand to where his ear would have been, if he hadn't been wearing a helmet. "I can't hear you! Louder!"
Sound slammed back from the tower's stone walls. Ash felt it through her chest as well as her ears. Anselm went on: "There is no knight as brave as me - I'll kick your a.r.s.e if you don't agree!"
Fernando del Guiz groaned, delicately. "I don't remember mumming being like this at Frederick's court!"
"You have to be with mercenaries to see real cla.s.s ..."
There was something still boyish in his face when he laughed; it vanished when he stopped. Strain had etched lines in that had not been there in Carthage. Three months, she thought. Only that. The sun in Virgo then, the sun just into Capricorn now. So short a time.
She saw him stiffen as a raucous jeer greeted the entrance of another of the mummers.
Euen Huw strode unsteadily forward in a mail hauberk with a woman's square-necked chemise worn over it. The yellow linen flapped around his knees. The men-at-arms and archers cheered; one of the women - Blanche, Ash thought - gave a shrill whistle. Ash frowned, not able to stop herself laughing, still puzzled. Not until the Welshman, wincing at his scalp-st.i.tches, put on a looted Visigoth helm with a black rag tied around it, did she recognise the parody of robes over mail.
Euen Huw mimed sneaking into the open s.p.a.ce, clutching a looted Carthaginian spear. He declaimed: "I am the Saracen champion, see, Come from Carthage to Burgundy.
I'll slay Prince George and when he's gone I'll kill all you others, one by one."
"Take you a f.u.c.king long time!" someone shouted.
"I can do it," Euen Huw protested. "Watch me."
"Watch you s.h.a.g a sheep, more like!"
"I 'eard that, Burren!"
Ash did not meet Fernando's eye. On her other side, Floria del Guiz made a loud, rude noise, and began to wheeze. Ash clamped her arms across her breastplate, aching under the ribs, and attempted to look suitably commander-like and unimpressed.
"You'll have to forgive them being topical," she said, keeping her face straight with an immense effort.
Euen Huw s.n.a.t.c.hed a wooden cup of drink from one of the archers, drained it, and swung back to face Robert Anselm.
"I challenge you, Prince George the brave, I say you are an arrant knave.
I can stand by my every word - Because you wear a wooden sword!
"And besides, you're English c.r.a.p," the Welsh lance-leader added. Robert Anselm shoved his lance and makes.h.i.+ft banner aloft and struck an att.i.tude: "By my right hand, and by this blade, I'll send you to your earthly grave-"
"Ouch," Floria said gravely.
Antonio Angelotti appeared at her side, and murmured, "I did tell him. Terza rima, I offered ..."
Ash saw the fair-haired gunner clasp Floria's arm, as he might have done with any man, or the company surgeon, but not the d.u.c.h.ess of Burgundy. Ash smiled; and as she glanced back caught something like wistfulness on Fernando's face.
Anselm lowered his lance and pointed it at Euen Huw's breast; the Welshman taking an automatic step back. Anselm proclaimed: "I'll send your soul to G.o.d on high, So prepare yourself to fly or die!"
Ash saw the lance and spear tossed aside, both men drawing whalebone practice swords from their belts. The shouts, cheers and jeering rose to a pitch as the fight began; half the English archers near her chanting, "Come on, St George!" and banging their feet on the stone floor.