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Come on, Pieter! Two more minutes and I'm going to have to attack, we're being slaughtered down here!
Acrid air rasped her throat.
The skyline above burst into flame.
Ash coughed. She wiped streaming eyes, and looked up at the cliff-top. One minute a wisp of black smoke, the air s.h.i.+mmering hard enough to make seeing anyone up on the cliff-top impossible. The next - red fire spouted from branches, from brush, from the deadfalls of old, dry pine branches. A resin-impregnated roar blasted the air.
She had an instant's vision of a man with his recurved bow raised, a hundred black-fletched arrows whistling between the trees - one magnificent roll of smoke and super-heated air- Red flames roared up, obliterating the tree-line at the top of the cliffs.
Up there on the cliff-top, from further back, came the terrified screeching of horses.
Her eyes streaming, she prayed, Thank you, Christ, I don't have to try to send people up that slope!
"Okay, let's go!" Her voice was hard, loud, and shrill. It carried over the squeals of mules, the shrieks of mutilated men, the last two shots from an arquebus.
She seized the arm of the standard-bearer, pus.h.i.+ng him and the twelve-foot Blue Lion flag on up the valley path ahead.
"Mount up! Ride! GO!"
The world was a chaos of men on horses, men running for horses, the thrum of arrows, a piercing long shrill scream that brought her gut up into her throat, the creaking whine of mules, and men she knows yelling orders: Robert Anselm with the men-at-arms mounted up and moving under the Lion standard, Euen Huw cursing the archers in Welsh and fluent Italian; the pack-beasts moving, Father G.o.dfrey Maximillian hauling them, with one body slumped over the front of a framework packed eight foot high with bundles; Henri Brant with two arrows jutting out from his ribs under his right arm.
A scream broke her concentration. Two men in black livery broke cover on the skyline. They tumbled down the slope towards her banner and her. Ash yelled "Shoot!" even as a dozen clothyard arrows with bodkin heads punched through mail s.h.i.+rts and into their bodies; one man cartwheeling, the other sliding down on his back in a rumble of clods of earth, one leg in front, one trailing behind under his body, broken and dead before he stopped moving- Ash whipped around, seized the rein of a roan that Philibert thrust at her, and hoisted herself into the saddle. One slap sent the boys' mounts ahead, on up the valley. She dug in spurs, aware of her banner-bearer running for his horse; then the pack train moved, the mounted archers shot past her in a thunder of hooves, Euen whooping, and the men-at-arms at full gallop, twenty or more of them riding double with wounded or dead men over the front of their saddles. The women and G.o.dfrey and Floria del Guiz ran past, more wounded men over the backs of mules, abandoned stores spilling halfway down the valley back to the Genoese moors.
"What the f.u.c.k are you doing here?" Ash bawled at Florian. "I thought you stayed in Cologne!"
The surgeon, one of her arms over the back of a blood-soaked man on a mule, grinned up at Ash from a filthy face. "Someone has to keep an eye on you!"
The main body of men-at-arms galloped past, a hundred and fifty men shouting; Ash reined in for a second for her banner-bearer and half a dozen knights to catch up. Her eyes poured water. She wiped her face on her leather gauntlets. The top of the cliff swam. Fire licked out, catching the tops of the pines lower down the slope, nearer to her; the pines that grew tall out of the valley, reaching up for the light.
A man on fire ran off the steep edge of the cliff, cartwheeling down, arms and legs and body blazing. His corpse slid to a halt three yards away from her, blackened skin still bubbling.
Behind her, a trail of broken stores, thras.h.i.+ng horses and dead and wounded men's bodies lay strewn back down the valley. Heat from the fire brought sweat to her face. She wiped her mouth, and took her glove away black.
"GO!" she yelled, and the roan danced in a circle before she could bring it up and spur in the wake of two hundred men riding up the bed of the dry chine. Smoke stank.
A stag broke cover further up the line, springing straight through the line of galloping archers; and the air above the tree tops shrieked full of kestrels, owls, buzzards.
She coughed. Her eyes cleared.
A hundred yards: a quarter of a mile: the path rising- A faint wind from the north freshened her face.
In the forest above - and behind her, now - the fire roared.
The valley steepened at the end of the chine, and she caught up with Robert Anselm and Euen Huw, under their respective pennants, hurrying the column on and up the earthy cliffs.
"Stick to the dry river bed," she yelled over the thump of hooves, exultant. "Don't stop for anything. If the wind changes, we're f.u.c.ked!"
Anselm jerked a thumb at the slope in front of him, and a dead man. "We're not the first through here. Looks like your husband had the same idea."
Something about the fallen body made her check her horse. Ash leaned to peer down between s.h.i.+fting hooves. A dead man - lying back over the low fork of a pine tree, spine snapped. With his face bashed in, there was no telling what colour his hair or skin had been, under the red and black clots. His clothing had been white. Tunic and trousers, under mail. She recognised the livery.
"That's Asturio Lebrija." Ash, oddly moved, s.h.i.+fted her weight, steadying the roan. Foam flew back as the horse lifted and shook his head.
"Maybe young del Guiz didn't make it." Anselm's grim pleasure was evident in his voice. "There could be Visigoth patrols all over. They won't want news of the invasion getting out."
Her roan jerked at the crackling of the fire. Ash reined back, letting the last of van Mander's two lances pa.s.s her. The men's mounts scrambled, hooves sliding on the thick coat of needles on the sloping forest floor. The air stank of pitch and resin.
I've done it, I've got them out, I can't let it slip now!
We can be caught before we reach the mountains. We can find the pa.s.ses closed, even in summer. Or that f.u.c.king wind can change, and we can fry.
"Get up front, see they don't bog down! Keep them going up into the hills. I want to get above the tree-line, fast."
Robert Anselm was gone almost before she finished speaking.
Ash gazed down now. Between the thin tops of pine trees below her on the slope, oddly undramatic from here: coils of black smoke, drifting up to smudge the sky, and the occasional flicker of red. This fire will burn the hills black. It is unstoppable, and she knows it. There will be peasants who own olive groves, vineyards, sick or weak families, who will curse her name. Huntsmen, charcoal-burners, goat-herds . . .
She ached in every muscle. Her brigandine and boots stank with her dead horse's blood. She strained her vision, trying to see if, on the coast, more of the golems were moving with their unceasing, mechanical tread.
In the far distance, metal eagle standards winked in the sun. The smoke from Genoa hid anything else.
A rider pa.s.sed her, a mounted archer with blood running out from under the wrist of his padded jack. No one behind him. The last man out.
"Jan-Jacob!" Ash steered the roan in beside the archer and caught his reins as he sagged forward. She bent low to avoid jagged pine branches, and rode on up at the back of her column, leading the horse and the semi-conscious man.
Behind her, the North African invasion of Europe began.
Chapter Four.Seven days later, Ash stood slightly in advance of her lance-leaders, master gunner, surgeon and priest on the open ground directly in front of a tournament stand at Cologne. The Emperor's household guard surrounded her.
Imperial banners cracked in the wind.
She could smell the scent of the raw wood nailed together into box seating, under Frederick's yellow and black silk canopies. The scent of pine resin made her momentarily s.h.i.+ver. A sound of steel on steel came clas.h.i.+ng from the tournament barriers. Play-combat - enough to maim a man, but play-combat all the same.
Her eyes sought the Imperial box, travelled along the rows of faces. All the n.o.bles of the Germanic court and their guests. No amba.s.sadors from Milan or Savoy. No one from any kingdom south of the Alps. A few men from the League of Constance. Some French, some Burgundians . . .
No Fernando del Guiz.
Floria del Guiz's voice, barely loud enough to carry to Ash, murmured, "Seats up the back. On the left. My step-mother. Constanza."
Ash's eyes s.h.i.+fted. Among the hennins and veils of the ladies, she caught a glimpse of Constanza del Guiz. But not her son. The old woman sat alone. "Right. Let's get this over with. I want a word with her . . ."
Swords clashed a way off, in the wattle enclosure. Coldness lives in her belly, now. Antic.i.p.ation.
The wind swept over Ash, over the green hills, down towards the white walls of Cologne, containing its tiled blue roofs and the double spires of its churches. There were horses on the high road, and in the distance a few peasants in their s.h.i.+fts with hose rolled up were visible, wearing wide straw hats against the heat, and cutting a small copse of ten-year-old chestnut trees for fencing.
And what chance of them bringing in this year's wheat harvest?
Ash returned her gaze to Frederick of Hapsburg, Holy Roman Emperor, leaning in his throne to listen to his councillor. He scowled as the advisor concluded.
"Mistress Ash, you ought to have defeated them!" his dry voice raged, loud enough to be heard by all present. "These are just serf-troops from the land of stone and twilight!"
"If you can't defeat a scout force of Visigoths, for the Green Christ's sake, what are you doing calling yourself a mercenary battle leader?"
"I had thought better of you. But no wise man trusts a woman! Your husband will answer for this!"
"But - Oh, f.u.c.k it! You mean you think I've made you look bad." Ash rested one steel-plated arm on top of the other and met Frederick's faded blue gaze. She could feel Robert Anselm bristle, without looking at him. Even Joscelyn van Mander's intense florid face scowled - but that might have been pain from his bandaged leg.
"Forgive me if I'm not impressed. I've just come from calling my muster-roll. Fourteen men wounded, who're here in the city hospice, and two so badly mutilated I'll have to give them pensions. Ten men dead. One of them Ned Aston." She halted, at a loss, knowing as she spoke that she was making a c.o.c.k of it: "I've been in the field since I was a child, this isn't ordinary war. It isn't even bad war. This is-"
"Excuses!" Frederick spat.
"No." Ash took a step forward, registering Frederick's household guard s.h.i.+ft their stances. "This isn't the way Visigoths fight!" She gestured at Frederick's captains. "Ask anyone who's campaigned down south. My guess is they had cavalry squadrons out ready, patrolling for ten or twenty miles inland, all down the coast. They let us ride in. They let Lamb in. So they could keep news from getting out until it's too late to do anything about it! They antic.i.p.ated everything we did. That's way too disciplined for Visigoth slaves and peasant-troops!"
Ash dropped her left hand to grip her scabbard, for comfort. "I heard news, coming back through the Gotthard monastery. They're supposed to have a new commander. No one knows anything. It's chaos down south! It's taken us seven days to get back here. Have you had post-riders back yet? Has any news come north of the Alps?"
The Emperor Frederick held up his goblet for wine and ignored her.
He sat in his gilded chair, among a dazzle of men in fur-trimmed velvet doublets, and women in brocade gowns; those furthest away watching the tournament avidly, those nearest ready to smile or frown as the Emperor might require. There were great papier-mache models of black Eagles ornamenting the tourney stand above him: the Empire's heraldic Beast.
Under cover of the Imperial servants fussing, just loud enough for her to hear, Robert Anselm murmured, "How can he be holding a f.u.c.king tournament, for Christ's sake? There's a f.u.c.king army on his doorstep!"
"If they haven't crossed the Alps, he thinks he's safe."
Florian del Guiz returned from a brief foray into the crowd. She put her hand on Ash's armoured shoulder. "I don't see Fernando here, and n.o.body will talk to me about him. They all clam up solid."
"f.u.c.k." Ash privately glanced at Fernando's sister. With her face washed, you could see the surgeon had her brother's sprinkle of freckles across the nose, although her cheeks had lost the roundness of youth. Ash thought, If anyone in this company looks like a woman disguised, it's Angelotti - Antonio's too beautiful to live. Not Florian.
"Can you find anyone to tell you if my husband's come back to Cologne?" Ash looked questioningly back at G.o.dfrey Maximillian.
The priest pursed his lips. "I can't find anyone who spoke to him after his men left the St Bernard Pa.s.s hospice."
"What the h.e.l.l is he doing? Don't tell me: he ran into some more Visigoth aforeriders and decided it was a great idea to defeat the invading army on his own . . ."
Anselm grunted agreement. "Rash."
"He's not dead. I couldn't be that lucky. At least I've got command again."
"De facto,"8G.o.dfrey murmured.
Ash s.h.i.+fted from one foot to the other. The Imperial serving of food and drink was obviously designed to keep her standing and waiting. Probably until Frederick devised some suitable penalty for losing a skirmish. "This is just playing games!"
Antonio Angelotti muttered, "Holy Christ, madonna, doesn't this man know what's going on?"
"Your Imperial Majesty!" Ash waited until Frederick glanced down at her. "The Visigoths sent messengers out. I saw clay walkers going west to Ma.r.s.eilles, and south-east towards Florence. I would have sent a raiding party after them, but by then we were in their ambush. Do you really imagine they'll stop with Genoa and Ma.r.s.eilles and Savoy?"
Her bluntness stung him; Frederick blinked. "It's true, Lady del Guiz, there is very little word coming back over the Alps since they closed the Gotthard pa.s.s. Even my bankers can tell me nothing. Nor my bishops. You would think they owned no paid watchers . . . And you: how can you come back and be able to tell me so little?" He pointed a testy finger at her. "You should have stayed! You ought to have observed for a longer period of time!"
"If I had, the only way you could reach me now would be through prayer!"
It's about ten heartbeats before she's arrested and thrown out, by her own estimation, but Ash's head is full of Pieter Tyrrell, in a Cologne inn-room with thirty gold louis and half his left hand cleaved off: little and ring and middle fingers gone. With Philibert, missing since one s...o...b..und night on the Gotthard; Ned Aston dead; and Isobel, without even a body for a funeral.
Ash chose her moment and spoke measuredly.
"Your Majesty, I've visited the bishop today, here in the city." She watched the puzzled expression on Frederick's face. "Ask your priests and lawyers, Your Majesty. My husband has deserted me - without consummating our marriage."
Floria made a stifled noise.
The Emperor switched his attention to Floria del Guiz. "Is this true, master surgeon?"
Floria said, immediately and without apparent qualm, "As true as I am a man standing here before you, Your Majesty."
"Therefore, I've applied to have the marriage annulled," Ash said rapidly, "I owe you no feudal obligation, Your Imperial Majesty. And the company's contract with you expired when the Burgundian troops withdrew from Neuss."
Bishop Stephen inclined from his seat to speak into the Emperor's ear. Ash watched the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick's lined, dry face harden.
"Well, hey," Ash said, as casual as it is possible to be with eight hundred armed men at one's disposal. "Make me an offer and I'll put it before the men. But I think the Company of the Lion can get work anywhere we want, now. And at a good price."
Anselm, very quietly, groaned, "s.h.i.+-it..."
It is a piece of unwise bravado and she knows it. Political trickery, hard riding and bad food, and the unnecessary fighting; the unnecessary deaths; none of the last month can be paid for by talking back like an unmannerly servant. But some tension leaves her, all the same, with the malice in her tone.
Antonio Angelotti chuckled. Van Mander slapped her backplate. She ignored the two men, her attention on Frederick, relis.h.i.+ng how taken aback he looked. She heard G.o.dfrey Maximillian sigh. Jubilant, she smiled at the Emperor. She did not quite dare to say You forget - we're not yours. We're mercenaries, but she let her expression say it for her.
"Green Christ!" G.o.dfrey muttered. "It's not enough for you to have Sigismund of the Tyrol as an enemy, you want the Holy Emperor, too!"
Ash moved her hands to cup her elbows: the palms of her gauntlets feeling the cold steel of elbow-couters. "We weren't getting another German contract, whichever way you look at it. I've told Geraint to get the camp dismount started. We'll go into France, maybe. We're not going to be short of business now."
Casual, ruthless; there is a brutal tone to her voice. Some of it is rough grief for men she knows who are killed or maimed now. Most of it is gut-deep, savage joy that she is still alive.
Ash looked up into G.o.dfrey's bearded face, and linked her armoured arm with his. "Come on, G.o.dfrey. This is what we do, remember?"
"This is what we do if you're not in a dungeon in Cologne-" G.o.dfrey Maximillian abruptly stopped talking.
A cl.u.s.ter of priests pushed through the crowd. Among the brown cowls, Ash glimpsed one bare head. Something wrong about it ...
Men jostled, Frederick's Captain of the Guard shouting a challenge; then a s.p.a.ce cleared before the stands, and six priests from the St Bernard hospice knelt before the Emperor.
It was a moment before Ash recognised the bruised, dishevelled man with them.
"That's de Quesada." She frowned. "Our Visigoth amba.s.sador. Daniel de Quesada."
G.o.dfrey sounded unusually perturbed. "What's he doing back here?"