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Ash: The Lost History Part 155

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"Because you're going to be training the men and women of Dijon. You may not have noticed, soldier, but they don't like soldiers. They think we're drunken, licentious, aggressive louts." Ash grinned at Ludmilla's expression of angelic innocence. "So. The women civilians will learn if they see women who can already do it. The men will learn because they won't have women outdoing them. Satisfied?"

"Yes, boss." Ludmilla Rostovnaya went off, grinning.

Ash's amus.e.m.e.nt faded, watching her go. Civilians do not turn into militia overnight; even militia don't function until they've had a couple of fights. They're going to get slaughtered.

Brutally honest, she thought, Better them than men and women who can fight. I need them.

"Boss?" Thomas Rochester slid in through the main door, the guards slamming it shut instantly behind the dark Englishman. A scurry of thin snow came in with him, and stayed, white and unmelted, on the flagstones. He said, "You'd better come, boss. The Turkish Janissaries are leaving the city."



"Good!" Ash said.

Chapter Two.The cold was no less bitter up on the battlements of Dijon's north-east gate. "Keep your f.u.c.king fingers crossed," Robert Anselm growled, standing beside her. He had the ends of his cloak wrapped around his arms, and the whole lot bundled across his body; his hood pulled down almost to his nose. Only his stubbled chin was visible.

The pale afternoon sun put her shadow across the ramparts. Ash shaded her eyes with her hand, gazing north at the rider and red crescent banner moving out into the no-man's-land between the city and the Visigoth lines. A second rider - on a borrowed Turkish mare - carried a yellow silk banner with the Blue Boar of the Oxfords on it.

"Well, if nothing else, this ought to convince them we're really going to surrender."

Anselm chuckled explosively at that. "f.u.c.king right. Our last allies up the Swannee."

From behind her, down in the square behind the north-east gate, Ash heard the c.h.i.n.k of tack and the creak of saddles; many hooves ringing as they s.h.i.+fted on iron-hard cobblestones. She looked down. The ochre gowns and pointed helmets of Bajezet's Janissaries dizzied her with their uniformity. The few Englishmen - de Vere's household troops, his brothers, and Viscount Beaumont - stood out by virtue of their murrey and white livery.

Apprehension paralysed her. She said, "I can't believe we're doing this. I'm going to s.h.i.+t myself. Roberto, go tell them to quit."

"b.u.g.g.e.r off, girl. This was your idea!" Robert Anselm threw his head up, s.h.i.+fting his hood back to see her, and she saw his pinched white face and red nose. He grinned at her. "Don't lose your bottle now. You said 'a bold stroke'."

With guards at the entrance to the battlements, and no one within fifty yards who could possibly hear them, Ash still spoke in a whisper.

"This isn't something to joke about. We're risking Florian. We're risking everything."

Equally softly, and with the appearance of calm rationality, Anselm said, "If it wasn't risky, the Visigoths would see it coming, wouldn't they? Thought that was your point."

"f.u.c.k you," Ash said. "s.h.i.+t. Oh, s.h.i.+t."

The sunlight cast his hood's shadow over his face, but she saw that there were beads of sweat on his forehead. She strode across and leaned on the crenellations, staring out at the riders.

A Visigoth eagle, shatteringly bright in the frosty air, left the enemy lines. Ash was not aware that she was holding her breath until she let it out, with a choking sound. No more than twenty men, Visigoth foot soldiers and hors.e.m.e.n, were leaving the camp; and they rode into the empty ground at the walk.

"Told you they wouldn't fire on the Turks."

"Yet," Anselm said.

"Christ up a Tree, will you shut up!"

Anselm said companionably, "Helps to have someone to yell at," and then leaned out over the merlon beside her, straining to see the riders meet. "That's it. Take it easy. Don't f.u.c.k up now."

Plainly, he was talking to the Turkish and English envoys. Ash shaded her eyes again. The frost lay white and heavy on the ground. Two hundred yards beyond the gate, the red crescent banner halted, and the Blue Boar; and one Visigoth rider came forward from beneath the eagle. The armed figures on horseback blurred in her vision.

"Don't you wish you were a fly on that horse?" she murmured. "I know what Bajezet's Voynik is saying. 'Burgundy is about to fall. My master the Sultan has no confidence in the d.u.c.h.ess. It is time that we returned to our own land.'"

Robert Anselm nodded slowly. "I don't reckon Gelimer wants a war with the Turk. Not this winter."

The shouting on the distant ground went on. A horse neighed once, in the square behind and below them. Ash s.h.i.+vered in the wind. She wiped her nose on her cloak; skin abraded by the wet wool.

The Visigoth rider approached the banners more closely, until Ash could not tell one man from another, only the coloured silks clear against the sky. The Visigoth troop of foot soldiers waited stolidly under their eagle.

"Know what my lord Oxford's saying, too," Robert Anselm said. He spoke without looking at Ash, all his attention on the meeting going on. "'I'm an exiled English Earl, Burgundy's none of my business. I'm going to find Lancastrian support with the Turk.'"

"It isn't unreasonable."

"Let's hope my lord Gelimer thinks so, too."

Ash put her left hand down, resting it on the grip of her sword. "Whatever he thinks, what's happening is that five hundred reasonably fresh troops are abandoning this city. Leaving Burgundy to twist in the wind."

Anselm peered at the riders. "They haven't killed them yet."

"Like you said, Gelimer doesn't want Mehmet's armies arriving over the border right now." Her hand tightened on the leather-bound wooden grip. "The best way to keep the Turks from challenging him is to flatten Dijon. He thinks he's going to do that anyway, but he'd sooner do it without flattening some of the Sultan's men in the process. I don't suppose he'll mind if the great English soldier-Earl leaves the vicinity with Bajezet . . ."

"Please G.o.d," Anselm said devoutly.

"I can't believe I'm doing something this risky. I must be out of my mind."

"All right. You are. Now shut up about it," Robert Anselm said.

Ash abruptly turned her back on the meeting going on in no-man's-land, and walked across to the other crenellations. She looked down into the square. No pigs rootled in the now-frozen mud, no dogs barked; there was no flutter of white wings from dovecotes.

Five hundred mounted Turkish archers sat their horses, in neat formation.

Close to the gate, almost under the battlements, Viscount Beaumont stood with the Earl of Oxford's brothers, by their war-horses. His laugh came up clearly through the chill air. Ash was conscious of an unreasoning urge to go down into the square and hit him. John de Vere's forty-seven men-at-arms stood a short distance off, with pack-ponies; the little remaining household kit packed on them. The Oxford brothers, as well as Beaumont, were in full plate. The two middle brothers, George and Tom, appeared to be having some debate over a broken fauld-strap on the youngest brother, d.i.c.kon's, armour.

Ash looked down at the third brother, a young man in polished steel plate, sword and dagger belted over his livery jacket. The winter sun gleamed on silver metal, on scarlet and yellow and white heraldry; and on the fair corn-coloured hair that fell to his shoulders. He carried his helmet under his arm, and was gazing down at the heads of Tom and George, where they bent over, examining the lower lame of his fauld: the skirt of his cuira.s.s.

"Put the f.u.c.king helmet on," Ash whispered.

She could not be heard, sixty feet above the cobbled square. d.i.c.kon de Vere cuffed his brothers to one side, took a few long testing strides up and down the treacherous ground, banged a gauntlet against the offending laminated plate, plainly protesting that it was only an irritation, not a problem. Viscount Beaumont said something. The Earl of Oxford's youngest brother laughed ruefully, glancing up at the gate, and Ash was looking into Floria del Guiz's face.

Robert Anselm, quieter than a mouse's footfall, said, "She pa.s.sed as a man, in a mercenary company, for five years. No one's going to spot her, girl."

Having been tall for a woman, Floria was - Ash thought - no more than a boy's height in her armour. She moved easily, the armour fitting well. High riding-boots, pointed to her doublet, disguised the fact that Richard de Vere's greaves would not fit her: two men's calf-muscles are rarely alike, and there is no room for error in the close fit of the plate.

Floria's gaze pa.s.sed quickly back to Tom de Vere. She said something, obviously a joke: the men laughed. Ash could not tell whether the woman had seen her or not.

"I don't believe we're doing this."

"You want, I'll shut you in a garderobe till it's all over," Anselm offered, exasperatedly.

"That might be best." Ash rubbed at her face. The straps of her gauntlets rubbed her skin, tender in the bitter cold air. She sighed, deliberately turned her back, and walked across to the outside edge of the wall again. The Turkish flag, English banner, and Visigoth eagle still occupied the middle of the open ground.

"People see what they expect to see," she said steadily. "I'd be happier if her London-English was better."

"Look," Robert Anselm said. "Like you said to me, Dijon's going to fall now. It's going to happen. We attack them, they come in and flatten us; doesn't matter. Either way, we're f.u.c.ked. And we're talking days, maybe hours."

"I told you that."

"Like I need telling," Anselm said, with a deep and caustic sarcasm. "Girl, if she stays here, she's dead. This way, she's out there in the middle of five hundred s.h.i.+t-hot troops that n.o.body wants to f.u.c.k with. For a whole mult.i.tude of reasons. You looking for 'safe'? There ain't no 'safe'. Having Gelimer think she's here when she isn't, that's as safe as it gets."

"Roberto, you're so f.u.c.king rea.s.suring it ain't true."

In all the fuss of dressing her, swapping them; in all the high security, Ash thought, I never got to say goodbye. f.u.c.king son of a b.i.t.c.h.

"How far did you tell them to go?" Anselm asked.

"De Vere will use his own judgement. If it's safe to camp a day's ride away, he will. The Visigoths won't be too surprised if they see the Sultan's troops hanging around to see how the siege turns out, so they can report home. If it looks dodgy, he'll keep them moving gradually east, for the border."

"And if it's really dodgy?"

Ash grinned at Anselm. "We won't be around to worry about it. If I was Oxford, in that case, I'd ride like s.h.i.+t off a shovel for the border, and hope I could get as far as the Turkish garrisons there." Her grin faded. "There'll still be a d.u.c.h.ess."

Out in the empty ground, the Visigoth rider wheeled away and galloped back towards the trenches. The Turkish interpreter and John de Vere moved - but were only walking their horses in the cold, Ash saw. The banners unrolled on the air, streaming and dropping as the wind dropped. White breath snorted from the horses' nostrils.

"Here he comes again."

She stood shoulder by shoulder with Robert Anselm, in the bitter cold of St Stephen's feast day, on the battlements of Dijon. One crow winged across the empty ground, calling, and dropped to pick and tear at something - red and mud-coloured - that flopped on the frost-bitten earth.

The Voynik interpreter and the Earl of Oxford rode back, picking their way between the bodies of the fallen, to the north gate. Trained, the horses did not shy; although Oxford's mount nickered at the stink.

Ash's hands knotted into fists.

It seemed seconds, not minutes, before the gates of Dijon opened, and the Turkish riders began to file out into the open. Cold s.h.i.+vers ran down her back, from neck to kidney, under her arming doublet; and she shuddered, once, before she made herself be calm. Tom and Viscount Beaumont rode out to join the Earl of Oxford, the youngest brother following with George de Vere and the household troops.

The crash echoed through gatehouse and gate alike, but Ash hardly registered the slam of the portcullis being lowered.

Under a clear sky, in the winter suns.h.i.+ne and cold, in borrowed armour, Floria del Guiz rode among the Janissaries of Sultan Mehmet II, away from Dijon.

She carried her helmet under her arm, as they all did; riding visibly bareheaded between Visigoth legions. Nothing at all female about her exposed face.

Ash strained to follow her, to watch her, one among many; and lost sight of her before they vanished among the Visigoth troops, on the path to the intact eastern bridge. A bridge over ice, now.

"Dear G.o.d," Ash said. "Dear G.o.d."

She turned, striding to the steps, and clattered down into the square below. Besides the Burgundian guards, a dozen or more of her own lance-leaders cl.u.s.tered there together, talking in low tones.

"Okay." Ash grinned at them: all confidence. She ignored and hid the churning in her guts. "Now. This is where we get our a.s.ses in gear, guys. Where's Master de la Marche? We'll give it an hour - and then send an envoy out to tell King-Caliph Gelimer exactly what he expects to hear.

Robert Anselm, on the heels of her remark, said, "Yeah? Who?"

Chapter Three."If we don't send Fernando del Guiz back out to negotiate the surrender," Ash said regretfully, to Olivier de la Marche, "Gelimer's going to think that's suspicious."

The sun of Stephen's day set in a wine-red blaze. Snow fell with the dusk, small flakes plunging into the black emptiness. Ash closed the shutters of the window in the ducal chambers. She momentarily leaned her forehead against the cold wood, listening inside herself.

'. . . LITTLE SHADOW, SOON TO BECOME AS OTHER SHADOWS. A GHOST; A THING THAT NEVER WAS. NOT EVEN A DREAM . . .'.

Their power sucked at her, like a current in a swift river. Her forehead grew warm and damp with the effort of resisting. A smile curled at her mouth as she straightened up. "You don't give up, do you?"

'FEEL OUR POWERS, GROWING-'

'SOON, NOW. SOON.'.

She ignored the fear, walking back across the bare chamber.

"Not if someone of sufficiently high rank goes instead," Olivier de la Marche said, from beside the hearth. "It is my duty to go. I am of Burgundy, Captain-General."

"True. But Gelimer will be quite capable of torturing a herald to double-check they're telling the truth. I know that, personally." Ash gave the Burgundian champion a level look. "There are people who know too much, now, about what we plan to do. You're one of them: so am I. We don't go. It would make sense to send Fernando."

Except that he'll want to speak to his sister the d.u.c.h.ess before he does this.

The thought was plainly in de la Marche's mind as well as her own, and Anselm's. Even here, none of them voiced it. Ash looked across the ducal chamber at the figure in padded headdress, veil, and brocade robes. Her mouth twitched.

"I don't think Fernando had better talk to the d.u.c.h.ess."

By the remaining unshuttered window, d.i.c.kon de Vere gazed down into the darkness that hid the roofs of Dijon with the same expression he had been wearing since he had said - in an appalled tone, to John de Vere - You want me to wear a what?

"Put the lamp out, or close the shutter!" Robert Anselm growled at the young Englishman; and when d.i.c.kon turned a look of disbelief on him, added, "You want to give them a nice bright light to aim at, boy - your Grace?"

d.i.c.kon de Vere looked around for servants, found that there were none, and awkwardly reached out to fasten the shutter closed. Anselm slapped him on his velvet shoulder, companionably, as he walked back to the fire.

"Look, boss." Anselm glanced at Ash. "Gelimer knows you've got a grudge against your husband. String Fernando up. Send someone else out - with the body. Tell the King-Caliph you've settled a family matter. If Fernando's dead, he can't go shooting his mouth off about anything else. And whoever you send out can negotiate the surrender."

"I don't want him dead."

It came out before she thought about it. Anselm gave her a very deadpan look. De la Marche, not noticing, only nodded, and said, "He is our Grace the d.u.c.h.ess's brother; I am reluctant to put him to death without her word."

I suppose that's one way of looking at it.

"If we imprisoned him," she began.

Anselm interrupted. "If you shove 'Brother' Fernando del Guiz in a dungeon, there'll be talk. Likely as not, we'll have an informer find their way down there, and hear him say he ain't seen his sister recently. s.h.i.+t hits the fan, then." He stabbed his finger at Ash. "Never mind what the doc would say. Have him killed."

The chill bit through the hearth's meagre warmth. Ash stretched stiffening limbs, and moved to walk a little on the bare floorboards, their creak the only sound.

"No."

"But, boss-"

"Bring me his priestly robes," Ash said. "We're not short of dead men. Are we, Roberto? Find a body about his size, and put the robes on it. Stick it in a cage. Hang it off the city walls - I want it to look like a man starving to death. Whoever we send out as herald can point out to Gelimer that I've settled matters with my ex-husband ..." Her eyes narrowed. "You'd better mess the face up a bit. I wouldn't put it past them to have some golem-device that can see a face four hundred yards away."

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