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She wrapped herself in impenetrable authority. There could be no questions asked. There were none. To herself, she seemed asleep, or sleepwalking at best.
She woke, paradoxically, five days later, out of sheer weariness.
Ash jolted out of a doze and found herself leaning her forehead against the neck of her mare. Conscious that her hand, gripping a horse brush, moved in small circles, decreasing now. Conscious that she had just spoken - but said what?
She raised her head and looked at Rickard. The boy looked frazzled.
Lady b.u.t.ted her with a plush nose, whuffing. Ash straightened. She ran her free hand across the warm, sleek flank, pressed out by the foal within. The mare whickered, gently, and pushed up against Ash with her golden shoulder. The rushes underfoot smelled pleasantly of horse dung.
Ash glanced down. She wore her high riding boots, the tops pointed into her doublet skirt to keep them up. They were covered with mud and horse dung to the knee.
"The glorious life of a mercenary. If I'd wanted to spend my life knee-deep in s.h.i.+t, I could have been a peasant on a farm. At least you don't have to move a farm fifteen miles every c.o.c.k-crow. Why am I a.s.s-deep in c.r.a.p?"
"Don't know, boss." It was the kind of rhetorical remark that some would have taken as an invitation to wit; Rickard only looked inarticulate. But pleased, too. This was obviously not what she had been talking about before.
Encouraged, Rickard said, "She'll drop in around fifteen days."
Her body was bruised, warm, weary. Pierced iron lanterns shone yellow light on to the moving walls of the canvas stall, and the hay jutting from Lady's manger. Pleasant and restful, in these early hours.
But if I leave, I won't see dawn breaking. Only darkness.
Ash heard the voices of men-at-arms outside, talking, and the whine of dogs; she had not come through camp without an escort, then. My absence of mind doesn't go that far. She felt it as a real absence, as if someone had gone travelling and had only now returned.
"Fifteen days," she repeated. The handsome boy watched her. His s.h.i.+rt bunched up out of the gap between points at shoulder and lower back, and his face was thinning down, losing child-fat, changing to man. Ash gave him a rea.s.suring smile. "Good. Listen, Rickard, when you've taught Bertrand to be cup-bearer and page, I'll ask Roberto to take you on as squire. It's past time you trained."
He said nothing, but his face illumined, like a page from a ma.n.u.script.
After physical exertion, the body relaxes. Ash became aware of her loosened muscles; of the warmth from her demi-gown, made like a doublet with a fuller skirt and with the puffed sleeves sewn in, that was b.u.t.toned over her brigandine; of her sleepiness, that did nothing to take the edge off desire. She had an intense, sudden tactile memory: the line of Fernando del Guiz's flank from shoulder to hip, skin hot under her fingertips, and the thrust of his erect member.
Rickard startled. He ventured, "Master Angelotti wants to talk to you."
Ash's hand went to Lady's neck automatically as the mare nuzzled at her. Touch calmed her. "Where is he?"
"Right. Yes, I'll see him now. Tell everyone else I'm unavailable for the next hour."
Five days unconscious of travelling between sloping walls of bald rock, patched in the moonlight with white snow. Unconscious of the road. Cold scrub and heather and alpine weeds, and the clink of stones trickling off cliffs to either side. Moonlight on lakes, far below winding roads and scree. Now, if there was sunlight, she would be looking down into the distance, seeing unfenced green meadows and small castles on hilltops.
Moonlight showed her nothing of the surrounding country as she left the horse lines. From the camp, she could see no distance at all.
"Boss." Antonio Angelotti turned from speaking to her guards. He wore a voluminous red woollen cloak, which he should not need in August, over his brigandine and leg armour. What crackled under his boots as he walked to her was not the dry rushes, but h.o.a.r frost.
The inner and outer circles of the company's wagons bristled with guns, behind pavises big as church doors. Bonfires burned within the central camp, where men slept in their bed-rolls, and burned also beyond the perimeter, by her order, to give sight of the country beyond, and to prevent their being silhouetted against flame for any pa.s.sing bowman or hand-gunner. She could tell where the huge Visigoth camp was, a mile away, by flaring bonfires; and by men distantly singing, in drink or in battle ardour, it was not clear which.
"Let's go." She walked with Antonio Angelotti as far as the ma.s.sed cannon, and the hand-gunners encamped around their fires, without speaking of more than organisational matters. When the startlingly beautiful man stood aside for her to go into his small tent, she knew her silence was about to end.
"Rickard, see if you can find Father G.o.dfrey, and F-Florian. Send them to me here." She ducked through the small pavilion's flap and entered. Her eyes adjusted to the shadows. She seated herself on a wooden chest, bound with straps and iron, that contained enough powder to blow her and the hand-gunners outside to the Pit. "What have you got to say privately?"
Angelotti eased himself into leaning against the edge of his trestle table, without clipping the top edge of the cuisses that armoured his thighs. A sheaf of paper, covered with calculations, fell to the rush-strewn earth. He was incapable, Ash thought, of looking less than graceful in any situation; but he was not incapable of seeming embarra.s.sed.
"So I'm a b.a.s.t.a.r.d from North Africa, instead of a b.a.s.t.a.r.d from Flanders or England or Burgundy," she said gently. "Does it really matter to you?"
He shrugged lithely. "That depends on which n.o.ble family our Faris comes from, and whether they find you embarra.s.sing. No. In any case, you're a b.a.s.t.a.r.d for a family to be proud of. What's the matter?"
"Pr-!" Ash wheezed. Her chest burned. She slid down the side of the chest and sat, spraddle-legged, in the rushes, laughing so hard that she couldn't breathe. The plates of her brigandine creaked with the movement of her ribs. "Oh, Angel! Nothing. 'Proud'. Such a compliment! You - no, nothing."
She wiped the back of her glove under her eyes. A push with powerful legs. .h.i.tched her back up on to the wooden chest. "Master gunner, you know a lot about the Visigoths."
"North Africa is where I learned my mathematics." Angelotti was, it became apparent, studying her face. He did not look as though he knew he was doing it.
"How long were you over there?"
Oval lids lowered over his eyes. Angelotti had the face of a Byzantine icon, in this light of candles and shadows; with youth on it like the white film on the surface of a plum.
"I was twelve when I was taken." The long-lashed lids lifted. Angelotti looked her in the face. "The Turks took me off a galley near Naples. Their wars.h.i.+p was taken by Visigoths. I spent three years in Carthage."
Ash did not have the nerve to ask him more about that time than he seemed disposed to volunteer now. It was more than he had said to her in four years. She wondered if he had wished, then, that he had not been quite so beautiful.
"I learned it in bed," Angelotti said smoothly, with a humorous twist to his mouth that made it clear her thinking was transparent to him. "With one of their amirs,12 their scientist-magi. Lord-Amir Childeric. Who taught me trajectories for cannon, and navigation, and astrology."
Ash, used to seeing Angelotti always clean (if somewhat singed), and neat, itself a miracle in the mud and dust of the camp, and, above all, private - Ash thought, How badly does he think he needs to break through to me, to tell me this?
She spoke hurriedly. "Roberto could be right, this could be their twilight. . . spreading. G.o.dfrey would call it an Infernal contagion."
"He would not. He respects their amirs, as I do."
"What is it you want to say to me?"
Angelotti undid his cord cloak ties. The red wool cloth slid down his back, to the table, and bunched there. "My gunners are mutinous. They don't like it that you called off the siege of Guizburg. They're saying it's because del Guiz is your husband. That you no longer have the smile of Fortune."
"O Fortuna!" Ash grinned. "Fickle as a woman, isn't that what they're saying? All right, I'll talk to them. Pay them more. I know why they're mad. They had galleries dug in almost to the castle gate. I know they were really looking forward to blowing it sky-high. . . !"
"And so they feel cheated." Angelotti appeared extremely relieved. "If you'll talk to them . . . good."
"Is that all?"
"Are your voices the same as hers?"
The slightest tap will shatter pottery, given in the right place. Ash felt cracks crazing out from his question. She sprang to her feet in the cramped pavilion.
"You mean, is my saint nothing? Is the Lion nothing? Is it a demon speaking to me? Am I hearing a machine's voice, the way they say she does? I don't know." Breathing hard, Ash realised the fingers of her left hand had cramped around the scabbard of her sword. Knuckles whitened. "Can she do what they say she does? Can she hear some, some device, halfway across the middle sea? You've been there, you tell me!"
"It could be just a rumour. A complete lie."
"I don't know!" Ash unclamped her fingers, slowly. Mutinous or not, she could hear the gunners celebrating one of their obscure saint's days feasts outside;13 someone was singing something very loud and coa.r.s.e about a bull being taken to a cow. She realised that the song was calling the bull Fernando. One of her dark brows went up. Maybe not so far from mutiny after all.
"The Faris's men have been building brick observation posts all down the roads, on the march." Angelotti spoke loudly over the embarra.s.sing chorus.
"They're nailing this country down." Ash had a moment's sheer panic thinking But where are we? Fear vanished as the memories of the last few days welled up obediently in her mind. "I guess that's why they want to crown this Visigoth 'Viceroy' of theirs in Aachen."14 "The weather's bad. You said they'd have to settle for somewhere closer, and you were right, madonna."
In the moment's silence, Ash heard dogs bark, and friendly greetings from the guards; and G.o.dfrey Maximillian walked in, stripping off sheepskin mittens, with Floria behind him. The surgeon pointed, and the boy Bertrand, with a brazier, cleared a s.p.a.ce in the tent to put it down, and heaped on more hot coals. At a nod from Angelotti, he clumsily served small beer, and b.u.t.ter and two-day-old bread, before leaving.
"I hate bad preaching." G.o.dfrey sat on another wooden chest. "I've just been giving them Exodus chapter ten, verse twenty-two, where Moses calls down a thick darkness from heaven over Egypt. Someone who knows is bound to ask why that only lasted three days, and this has gone on for three weeks."
The priest drank, and wiped his beard. Ash carefully checked the distance between the various chests and flasks of powder and the brazier's burning coals. Probably okay, she thought, having no great faith in Angelotti's good sense about gunpowder.
Floria warmed her hands at the brazier. "Robert's on his way here."
This is a meeting convened without my consent, Ash realised. And my bet is that they've been waiting five days to do it. She took a thoughtful bite out of the bread, and chewed.
Anselm's voice barked outside. He ducked hurriedly in through the tent-flap. "Can't stay, got to go and sort out the gate-guards for tonight - for today." He hauled his velvet bonnet off, seeing Ash. Candlelight shone on his shaven skull, and on the pewter Lion livery badge fixed to his hat. "You're back, then."
The odd thing, perhaps, was that no one questioned his choice of words. They turned their faces to her, Angelotti's altar-painting features, G.o.dfrey's crumb-strewn beard, Floria with her expression utterly closed.
"Where's Agnes?" Ash demanded suddenly. "Where's Lamb?"
"Half a mile to the north-east of us, camped, with fifty lances." Robert Anselm hitched his scabbard out of the way and stood beside Floria at the iron brazier. He would move entirely differently, Ash suddenly thought, if he realised Florian wasn't a man.
"Lamb knew," Ash snarled. "Motherf.u.c.ker! He must have known, as soon as he saw her - their general. And he let me walk into that without a word of warning!"
"He let their general walk into it, too," G.o.dfrey pointed out.
"And she hasn't hanged him yet?"
"I'm told he claims he never realised how close the resemblance was. Apparently the Faris believes him."
"b.l.o.o.d.y h.e.l.l." Ash seated herself on the edge of the trestle table, beside Angelotti. "I'll send Rickard over with a challenge to a personal duel."
"Not many people know what he did, if indeed he did, and it wasn't just a sin of omission." G.o.dfrey licked b.u.t.ter from his white fingertips, his dark eyes keenly on her. "You have no public need."
"I might just fight him anyway," Ash grumbled. She folded her arms across her brigandine, looking down at the gilded rivet-heads and blue velvet. "Look. She's not my fetch. I'm not her devil. I'm just some amir family's by-blow, that's all. Christ knows the Griffin-in-Gold went across the Mediterranean often enough, twenty years ago. I'll be a b.a.s.t.a.r.d second cousin or something."
She raised her head, catching Anselm and Angelotti exchanging a look that she couldn't read. Floria poked the red coals. G.o.dfrey drank from a leather mug.
"There is something I thought we would say?" G.o.dfrey wiped his mouth and looked diffidently around the tent, at its shadowed folds and faces profiled in candlelight. "About our complete confidence in our captain?"
Robert Anselm muttered, "f.u.c.king h.e.l.l, clerk, get on with it, then!"
There was an antic.i.p.atory silence.
Into it, the last two lines of the hand-gunners' ballad echoed, having the failed bull Fernando being serviced by the cow.
Ash caught Anselm's eye, and, poised between absolute rage and laughter, was precipitated into helpless giggles by what must be an exactly similar expression on Robert's face.
"I didn't hear that," she decided, cheerfully.
Angelotti looked up from scribbling with a quill, leaning across his trestle table. "That's all right, madonna, I've written it down in case you forget!"
G.o.dfrey Maximillian sprayed bread-crumbs across the tent, whatever he would have said lost or superseded.
"I'm getting a new company," Ash announced, with a deadpan humour; and was disconcerted when Floria, who had remained silent, said flatly, "Yes - if you don't trust us."
Ash saw the absence of five days written into Floria's expression. She nodded, slowly. "I do. I trust all of you."
"I wish I thought that you did."
Ash jabbed a finger at Floria. "You're coming with me. G.o.dfrey, so are you. And Angelotti."
"Where?" Florian demanded.
Ash rattled her fingertips against her scabbard, keeping arrhythmic time to her calculations. "The Visigoth general can't crown her Viceroy in Aachen, it's too far to travel. We're turning west. That means she's going for the nearest city here, which is Basle-"
G.o.dfrey said excitedly, "That would be a useful first move! It fixes the League and the south Germanies under their government. Aachen can come later. Sorry. Go on, child."
"I'm going into Basle. You'll see why in a minute. Robert, I'm giving you temporary command of the company. I want you to make a fortified camp about three miles outside the city, on the western side. You can put my war-pavilion up, tables, carpets, silver plate, the whole works. In case you get visitors."
Anselm's high forehead wrinkled as he frowned. "We're used to being sent off while you negotiate a contract. This one is already signed."
"I know. I know. I'm not changing that."
"It isn't the way we've done it before."
"It's the way we're doing it now."
Ash unfolded her arms and stood up. She glanced around at their faces, in the candlelit tent, fixing her gaze briefly on Floria. There is a lot of history here. Some of it not known to everyone. She put the problem aside for later.
"I want to talk to the general." Ash hesitated. Then she went on, speaking to each of them in turn.
"G.o.dfrey, I want you to talk to your monastic contacts. And F-Florian, you talk to the Visigoth physicians. Angelotti, you know mathematicians and gunners in their camp, go get drunk with them. I want to know everything about this woman! - I want to know what she has to break her fast, what she wants her army to do in Christendom, who her family are, and whether she does hear voices. I want to know if she knows what's happened to the sun."
Outside, the setting crescent moon argues the arrival of another lightless day.
"Roberto. While I'm inside the walls of Basle," Ash said, "I can do with all the implicit threat that I can get, sitting there outside."
Going into the city of Basle, Ash could think of nothing else except She has my face. I don't have father or mother, there's no one in the world who looks like me, but she has my face. I have to talk to her.
Sweet Christ, I wish it would get light!
In the daytime darkness, between its mountains, Basle echoed with the hooves of war-horses and the shouts of soldiers. Citizens leaped out of her way, scurried indoors; or never left their houses, shouted from upper-storey windows as she rode by. Wh.o.r.e, b.i.t.c.h, and traitor were most common.
"n.o.body loves a mercenary," Ash mock-sighed. Rickard laughed. The company's men-at-arms swaggered.
Crosses marked most doors. The churches were packed. Ash rode through processional flagellations, finding the civic buildings all shut up except for one guild house. That had black pennants outside.
Ash negotiated climbing the narrow crooked stairs in armour, her escort behind her. Bare oak support beams protruded from the white plastered walls. The lack of s.p.a.ce made any weapon a liability. A rising noise came from the upstairs chambers: men's voices speaking Schweizerdeutsch, Flemish, Italian, and the Latin of North Africa. The Faris's council of occupation: somewhere she might be found.