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"Yeah." She grinned, invisible in the black night. Grabbing for arms and hands at random, she found herself pulled back on to her feet. The cold was bitter enough now to make her body shake, and she beat her hands against her arms - seeing neither, in the darkness. A flurry of rain made her duck her head, and then turn her wet face in the direction of the un.o.bstructed wind.
"We're on the wood's edge?" she said. "Lucky you found us, Sergeant."
Price muttered something in a northern dialect, in which 'making enough noise for six pair of yoked oxen' was the only phrase Ash clearly overheard.
"We're further along here, on top of the bluff," the man added. "Rain's been easing this last hour. Reckon you'll get sight of the city from here, soon, boss."
"Where's the rag-heads now?"
A movement in the black night, which might have been a waving arm. "Down there, some place."
Green Christ! If I could just ask the machina rei militaris: Dijon, southern border of the Duchy of Burgundy: strength and disposition of siege camp. Ask the Stone Golem: name of battle commander, tactical plans for the next week- A shudder went through her skin that was nothing to do with the bone-chilling rain. For a moment, the darkness was not the mulch-odoured, bitter-cold, open night blackness of a Frankish forest, but the s.h.i.+t-smelling, stomach-turning darkness under the Citadel of Carthage, kneeling with a dead man's body in the sewers, and hearing voices louder than G.o.d blast through her head, in that solitude where she is used to hearing only the machina rei militaris.
And for a heart-stopping moment she whipped her head around, glaring into the darkness, afraid of seeing the same celestial light that burned in the desert outside Carthage, nine weeks before. The aurora mat glimmers above the red silt-brick pyramids . . .
Nothing but wet night.
Don't be stupid, girl. The Wild Machines want you dead - but they can't know where you are.
Not unless I tell the Stone Golem.
If I can live nine weeks without asking tactical advice, Ash thought grimly - if I could manage the road from Ma.r.s.eilles to Lyons, Christus Viridia.n.u.s!, without' advice - I don't need to ask now. I don't need to.
Faint rustles in the undergrowth made her suppose Price's men and their lost guide had come up to join them. Other than the lighter darkness in front of her, and the solid darkness behind, there was no way to distinguish anything in the blackness in which they stood. The infinite, invisible, random dropping of water on her was a continuous soaking presence.
"The moon will have risen by now, madonna," Angelotti's soft voice said, beside her. "A first quarter, by my calculations. If we see it."
"I trust your celestial mechanics," Ash murmured, groping blindly with a cold-numbed hand to check her sword-hilt and scabbard again. "Got any predictions about this f.u.c.king rain?"
"If it has rained for eighteen days solid, madonna, why should it stop now!"
"Ah, well done, Angeli. I only keep you on the company books for your morale value, you know."
One of Price's men rumbled a chuckle. By common consent, they moved back into the underbrush, squatting down in any sc.r.a.p of cover: she heard their movement without seeing them. Ash, hand up to keep invisible briars out of her eyes, rested a knee in the sodden, puddled gra.s.s. After a while, she felt the heat of her flesh warm it; and then, the cold begin to suck the heat from her body. The pattering of the rain on the leafless trees faded into the background.
Filthy weather, enemy pickets: this could be any campaign I've been on these last ten years. Treat it that way. Forget anything else.
"There." She reached out blindly, at last, eyes on the sky, and touched a shoulder. "A star."
"Cloud's breaking up," Price's voice said.
His shoulder had been visible, Ash realised, as she lowered her head; a darker silhouette against the sky. She quickly glanced backwards and forwards, seeing the black swaying branches of trees, and two or three other silhouettes distinguishably human: nothing else in nature is head-and-shoulder shaped.
"We all secure here?"
"We're on the bluff above the Suzon river, west of the Auxonne road." Price grunted. "Not skylined. Wood's behind us; no one could see us up here without they were on top of us."
"Okay; make sure all helmets are covered by hoods. If we do get any moonlight, I don't want us flas.h.i.+ng away like heliographs."
John Price turned away to mutter orders. Ash realised she was seeing his breath, white in the cold air. She stripped off her wet sheepskin mittens and, with numb fingers, unbuckled her sallet. Rickard received it, concealing it under a fold of his sodden cloak. Clean, bitter-cold air bit at her ears, cheeks and chin.
The rain ceased, suddenly, within the s.p.a.ce of a minute. A constant dripping came from the trees around her, but the wind dropped. With that came a new, intense cold; and she glanced up to see the trailing ragged end of a black cloud against a grey sky, the cloud-bank running high and fast into the east.
What's it like here, now?
Cold biting to the bone, she finds her flesh remembering Dijon of the golden strip-fields and heavy vines; Dijon with blue sky and blazing sun seen over its white walls and blue-tiled roofs; the company's camp in Dijon's meadows smelling of sweat and horse-dung and the thick sweetness of cow-parsley.
Stout-walled Dijon: richest capital of southern Burgundy, stiff with merchants wealthy enough to show off and keep architects, masons, painters and embroiderers in business; Dijon thronging with the household and army and ordnance of Charles, Great Duke of the West ... A white jewel in a rich countryside.
Before we rode out to Auxonne, and got our a.s.ses kicked.
Her own breath smoked white before her face. The night became full of the noise of dripping water, gaunt bark shedding still-clinging rain. She realised that the shapes of trees were becoming more apparent. Gra.s.s and dead bracken had a visible verge, two yards in front of her.
Beyond that was a drop.
Far out across the open air in front of her, a grey pearl of cloud parted in the east and became a shatteringly bright silver semicircle.
"That river's up," she murmured, her night vision dazzled by the moon, edging forward on all fours, the cold puddles seeping through her hose.
Eyes adjusting to the half-moon's light, she could see the slope of a bluff dropping down in front of her, too steep to be easily climbed. A hundred paces below, scrub and bushes were an impenetrable darkness. Beyond them, she would not have known where to look for the road to Auxonne, but she saw it glimmering: one long sheet of puddles and water-filled ruts reflecting the moon. A black silhouette of limestone wooded hills, to the south. And we marched down that road with the Burgundian army how long ago - three months? De Vere said they were holding out, but that was nine or ten weeks ago . . .
Roberto, are you down there?
Further east, by a half mile or more, the silver light shone back from swelling waters that lapped up close to the road - the Suzon river, flooding. Squint as she might in the moonlight, Ash could not make out anything beyond it, no black obstruction that might be Dijon's city walls. Glimmers of light might be the other river, the Ouche; or the slates on roofs. A glance at the stars told her it was not long past Lauds.1 "Sergeant Price? What do the scouts report?" Ash said, switching without thought into the military camp version of English that she knew.
The first-quarter moon made white chalk of the man's face beside her. John Price, made a Sergeant of Bill in Carracci's place, after Carthage - momentarily she saw, not Price's moon-whitened features, but Carracci's face: skin blackened by fire, eyelids crisped away . . . she put the thought from her.
"The rag-heads are down there like you thought, boss."2 Price squatted, pointing; bulky in mail s.h.i.+rt and huke.3 The war-hat buckled over his coif was far too rusty to catch the moon's light and betray their position. Dirty ringlets snaked out from under the coif.
Ash followed his direction. In the mile or more of dark land between her and the town, she began to make out intermittent dots of fire. Campfires, being relit after the rain. Regularly s.p.a.ced. Two or three hundred, by guess; and there would be more, not visible from here.
"Patrols come out every hour," Price added briefly. "Got it covered, but we shouldn't stay here long."
"Right. So, we have enemy encampments on the land between the road and the river - what's down there?"
Price rubbed at a runny nose with fingers that were ingrained with dirt, his thick nails cracked and bitten; then shoved his hands back into sheepskin mittens.
"Okay, boss. In front of us now, we've got the main north-south road. From here, Dijon's on the far side of the road and the river - we're looking at the western wall, but you can't see it. There's water meadows along the river, the other side of the road - that's where they've got their main artillery. There's reports of some infantry up the road to the north, just up at the crossroads." Price shrugged, a movement entirely visible in the white light. "Could be. I know for sure there's infantry blocking the road south to Auxonne; I went down that way myself. They've got rag-'ead boats chained together across the river, so no one's going to get downriver from Dijon."
"Just siege machinery down there?" Squinting, Ash could make out nothing more than Visigoth campfires between herself and the invisible city walls. "What about golems?"
John Price grunted. "My lads did good enough to get in close and tell it was an engineers' camp. You want to know what the rag-heads had for supper as well?"
Ash gave him a look that the bright moonlight did nothing to hide. "I'd be surprised if your lot couldn't tell me!"
Price unexpectedly grinned. "You won't get any chivalric nonsense out of billmen. We're better at sneaking around than those d.a.m.n knights in their tin cans. You know knights, boss - 'death before dismount'!"
"Oh, quite," Ash said dryly. "That'll be why de Vere took you lot to Carthage, and left the heavy armoured guys behind here . . ."
"Sure, boss. Half my lads are poachers."
"And the other half thieves," she observed, with rather more accuracy than tact. "Okay, what about north of Dijon? And what about on the east side, over the Ouche?"
"We've scouted all round. Dijon's just north of where the two rivers join." Price's fingers sketched a s.h.i.+eld-shape in the moonlit air. "The city takes up all the ground in between, right down to the junction. Over this side, the Suzon comes right up close to the walls - acts as a moat. Over the east side, there's broken ground between the city walls and the river Ouche, and broken ground on the far bank, too. Scrub, cliffs, swampy ground. Bad ground. Some of my lads ran into rag-head patrols there, earlier tonight."
"And they'll be missed." Price's teeth showed bright. "G.o.d rot us, boss, we had little enough choice in the matter."
"So a.s.sume that, by now, the Visigoths know there are enemy forces around. Bit of luck, they'll think we're some gang of peasants, or burghers from a burned town; they must be getting a lot of that." Ash squinted. "Okay, there's a road comes in from the east, to Dijon's north-east gate, I remember that . . ."
"They've got men and guns sitting on the hills above the eastern bridge. Looks like there's been artillery used from inside the town. That area's churned up pretty bad." John Price blew into his sheepskin mittens for warmth. "Twenty culverins and serpentines and a bombard4 up on the hill, we think. You won't get in from the east."
Antonio Angelotti's voice startled Ash, coming from her shoulder, where he had crawled up to peer out from the top of the bluff. "Give me twenty guns and I could keep that eastern gate of Dijon impa.s.sable. I looked round, when we were here before."
"So they got artillery over there, and here?"
"Moats work two ways, madonna. If the Visigoth amirs cannot order an infantry attack over the Suzon at Dijon's west wall, then neither can the defenders sally out and attack the siege-engines. The amirs can bombard Dijon with impunity from here."
And they will have done. How close is this city to falling?
s.h.i.+t, we've taken too long to get here!
Ash grunted. "What about the country to the north? What have they got up there?"
John Price answered, "Better part of a legion and a half. 'S true, boss. Saw the XIV Utica and the VI Leptis Parva."5 There was a second's silence.
Absently, whimsically, Ash murmured, "So much for Plan B . . ."
Been bad enough on the road here, avoiding their forces, skirmis.h.i.+ng if we had to - s.h.i.+t, I was hoping we wouldn't find anything like this concentration of forces here!
But it was an even chance we were going to ...
"Where, exactly?" Ash asked.
"See the crossroads, where the road comes in from the west?"
Trying to see a mile and more in moonlight, Ash could glimpse nothing more than an obstruction to the glint of the river, which might be a bridge across it, and which might argue a road coming in. "Can't see it, but I remember it; goes out towards the French border. And?"
"They got guns covering the north-west gate of the city, same as they got guns covering the north-east gate." Price shrugged. The movement released a musty, damp smell from his clothing. "They got a lot of people up beyond there, boss. All their main battles are camped up from the water meadows, where we were in the summer. They got troops dug in all across the open ground in front of the woods, right over to the east river."
Ash, trying to squint in the silver darkness, had a brief memory of the Lion standard hanging listless in the heated air, by the Suzon river; and the chapel and the nunnery nestled under the eaves of the wildwood, a little to the north.
"What's Dijon's northern defence?"
"Speaking from memory, madonna, a moat dug between the Suzon and the Ouche, and stout city walls. Otherwise, the land north of the city is flat meadowland, until the forest. Do I remember well, Sergeant?"
"That's the weakest spot, then. That's why the rag-heads have got their main force there." More than six thousand men. Maybe seven. Christus Viridia.n.u.s! "Hang on, what about the south gate?"
"Someone's thrown that bridge down. No one's getting in or out of Dijon's south gate."
"That was probably the idea ..." Ash tapped her fingers together, then laid them cold against her lips. "Okay, that's a lot of troops. Not just your ordinary siege. Something is going on here . . ."
Antonio Angelotti touched her shoulder. "You could ask your voice, madonna."
"And hear what?"
It has been weeks, but the overwhelming fear of the Ferae Natura Machinae, the Wild Machines, is still with her. Squat stone pyramids in the desert south of Carthage, sullenly bright under the Eternal Twilight; their nature hidden for so many aeons . . .
She kept her voice low with an effort.
"If I did ask the machina rei militaris questions, the rag-heads could just ask it what I'd wanted to know. Then they'd work out where the company is - right here on their doorstep, just handy for their six thousand troops!" She drew a breath. "I'm willing to bet Lord-Amir Leofric asks it daily: 'is the b.a.s.t.a.r.d Ash alive, does she speak to you? If she has asked questions, what do they tell us about where she is, the strength of her force, her intentions?' . . . a.s.suming Leofric's still alive. He may be dead. But I can't ask!"
"Unless they have heard the Wild Machines, madonna, some amir will be using the machina, even if Lord-Amir Leofric is dead. We know it was not destroyed." Momentarily, there was a ragged note in Angelotti's whisper. "If you were to ask the machina rei militaris what orders are being pa.s.sed between Carthage and the Faris-general, you could tell us how this war goes. I see that you can't ask. But you could . . . listen?"
A shudder that was not the bitter cold of the night, not the cold of the rain-soaked underbrush, went through her body.
"I listened, in Carthage. An earthquake flattened the city. I can't listen to the Stone Golem without the Wild Machines knowing, Angeli. And we've left them behind in North Africa, they don't know where we are, and I'm f.u.c.ked if I'll ever have anything to do with that again! The Wild Machines want Burgundy? That isn't my problem!"
Except that I've made it my problem, by coming back here.
John Price, rumbling his deep voice on the other side of her, said, "Didn't like the look of them pyramids, in Carthage. Didn't like the look of the rag-heads, neither. Bunch of f.u.c.king nutters. Better they don't find out where we are. Don't you go telling 'em, boss."
If anything could have warmed the stone coldness inside her, it would have been the Englishman's stolid humour. She remained numb at a level deeper than camaraderie could reach.
Ash forced herself to smile at the straggle-haired billman, knowing her expression to be visible in the moonlight. "What, you think they won't be pleased to see us? I guess not. After the state we left Carthage in, I don't think we'll be winning any popularity contests with the King-Caliph . . . That's if his mighty highness King-Caliph Gelimer is still with us, of course."
Rickard unexpectedly said, "Would the amirs still have a crusade in Christendom if Gelimer were dead?"
"Of course they will. The machina rei militaris will be telling whoever's King-Caliph to push the campaign for all they're worth. Because that's what the Wild Machines are saying, through it. Rickard, that's nothing to do with the Company of the Lion." Ash saw moonlit disbelief on his face. She shrugged and turned back to the Sergeant of Bill. John Price looked at her, as if for orders; she saw fear and trust in his expression.
"This gives us an answer. I'll bet on it." Ash reached down and rubbed her booted thighs, easing her cold and sodden legs back into life. "Numbers like this . . . First, even if he was wounded at Auxonne, Duke Charles is still alive. Second: he hasn't escaped into northern Burgundy. The Visigoths wouldn't have this much force sitting outside one town in the south if Charles Temeraire was dead or in Flanders. They'd be up there trying to finish this."
"You think he's in Dijon, boss?"
"I think so. Can't see any other reason for all this." Ash put her hand on Price's mailed shoulder. "But let's get to the important bit. Have the scouts seen Lion liveries on the city walls?"
Evident, from his expression, what crucial hope rides on this.
"It's our lot in there! We saw the Lion Pa.s.sant Guardant okay, boss! Burren's lads saw a standard before it got dark. I'd trust his boys to know the Blue Lion, boss."
Rickard, as abrupt as young men are, demanded, "Can we attack the Visigoths? Raise the siege and get Master Anselm out?"
If Robert's there, and alive . . . Ash snorted under her breath. "Optimist! Do it on your own, Rickard, will you?"