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"No. I'm not mad. Yes: we had a defeat at Carthage. Yes: I needed to think. Yes: I am going to do something." Half teasing, she added, "Once my banner goes up in Dijon, the Faris will know I'm alive anyway."
"So don't raise it!" Exasperated, unguarded, Floria waved her hands in the air. "Come off it, Ash. Forget chivalry. Keep your banner rolled up. Sneak out when we do leave Dijon! But don't tell me you're going out there to try and talk to her!"
"I could tell you a lot of good reasons why I should talk to a Visigoth army commander." Ash wiped her muddy hands together, took her sheepskin mittens from her belt, and put them on: still damp and uncomfortable. "We're mercenaries. I'm expected to do this. I've got to look for the best deal. She might just give us a condotta."
Florian looked appalled. "I know you're joking. After Basle? After Carthage? The minute you show your face, they'll s.h.i.+p you back across the Med! They'll string you up for the raid! And then Leofric will poke around in what's left!"
Ash stretched her arms, feeling the ache in her muscles from the night's exertions; watching the camp beginning to pack up. "I'd take any help I can get, including Visigoth, if it means getting the company out of here before whatever the Wild Machines have planned for Burgundy starts happening."
"You're nuts," Floria said flatly.
"No. I'm not. And I agree about what sort of a reception I'm likely to get. But it's like you said - I can't hide from this for ever."
Florian's dirty face scowled.
"This is the craziest thing I've ever heard you say. You can't put yourself in that much danger!"
"Even if we get into Dijon okay, we're only hiding. Temporarily." Ash paused. "Florian - she's the only other person on G.o.d's earth who hears the Stone Golem."
In the silence, Ash turned back to find Florian looking at her.
"So I need to know ... if she hears the Wild Machines, too." Ash held up her hands. "Or if it's just in my head. I need to know, Florian. You all saw the Tombs of the Caliphs. You all believe me. But she's the only other person on G.o.d's earth who knows. Who will have heard what I heard!"
"And if she didn't?"
After a pause, the surgeon asked, "And ... if she did?"
Ash shrugged again.
"You think she knows something about this that you don't?"
"She's the real one. I'm just the mistake. Who knows what's different about her?" Ash heard bitterness in her own voice. She c.o.c.ked a silver brow at the woman surgeon, and deliberately grinned. "And she's the only one who can tell me I'm not nuts."
Shrugging sardonically, Florian muttered, "You've been nuts for years!"
There was nothing unfamiliar in the woman's affection. Or unfamiliar about her complicit, unverbalised consent. Ash found herself smiling at the dirty, tall woman. "You're a doctor, you'd know!"
A sharp thock! made Ash turn her head: she caught sight of Rickard and his slingshot - and tree-bark scarred down to raw, white wood thirty yards away, from his practice shot.
"If you show yourself," Florian said, "the Faris won't be the only one who'll find out where you are. Carthage; the King-Caliph; the Ferae Natura Machinae."
"Yes," Ash said. "I know. But I have to do it. It's like Roberto always says - I could be wrong. What use am I, if I'm not sane?"
At dusk of that day - it came early, from a frozen sky empty of clouds; under which her officers complained lengthily after the announcement of her decision - Ash gave penultimate orders.
"A first-quarter moon rises about Compline.11 We move then, after ma.s.s. If there's messages from Anselm, send them to me. Call me if it clouds over. Otherwise - I'm getting a couple of hours' sleep first!"
A last tallow candle, unearthed from the bottom of a pack, stank and flickered in the command tent as she entered. Rickard stood up, a book in his hands.
"You want me to read to you, boss?"
She has two books remaining, they live in Rickard's pack: Vegetius and Christine de Pisan.12 Ash walked to the box-bed and flopped down on the cold pallia.s.se and goatskins.
"Yeah. Read me de Pisan on sieges."
The black-haired young man muttered under his breath, reading the chapter headings to himself, holding the book up close to the taper. His breath whitened the air. He wore all his clothes: two s.h.i.+rts, two pairs of hose, a pourpoint, a doublet, and a ragged cloak belted over the top of them. His nose showed red under the rim of his hood.
Ash rolled over on to her back on her pallet. Damp chill draughts crept in, no matter how tightly the tent-flap was laced down. "At least we didn't have to eat the mules yet. . ."
"Boss, you want me to read?"
"Yeah, read, read." Before he could open his mouth, Ash added, "We've got a moon just past first quarter; that's going to give us some light, but it's rough country out here."
"Boss . . .".
"No, sorry: read."
A minute later she spoke again, a bare few sentences into his reading, and she could not have said what he had read to her about. "Have any messages come out of Dijon yet?"
"Don't know, boss. No. Someone would've come and said."
She stared at the pavilion wheel-spokes. The cold burned her toes, through her boots and footed hose. She rolled over on to her side, curling up. "You'll have to arm me in two hours. What have they been saying about Dijon?"
Rickard's eyes sparkled. "It's great! Pieter Tyrrell's lance are blacking their faces. They're betting they can get into the city before the Italian gunners, because they'll be dragging Mistress Gunner's-"
"-Master Angelotti's swivel-guns!"
She rumbled a laugh under her breath.
"Some of them don't like it," Rickard added. "Master Geraint was complaining, over at the mule lines. Are you going to get rid of him like you got rid of Master van Mander?"
Preparations for the battle of Auxonne, when the sun was still in Leo: it seems a lifetime ago. She barely remembers the Flemish knight's florid face.
Ash curled herself tighter against the cold. Her breath left dampness on the wool of her hood, by her mouth. "No. Joscelyn van Mander came in this season, with a hundred and thirty men; he never made himself part of the company; it made sense to bounce him back out again." She sought the boy's face in the dim light, seeing his flaring brows, his unpremeditated scowl. "Most of the disaffected men around Geraint have been with me for two or three years now. I'll try to give them something of what they want."
"They don't want to be stuck in a town with a b.l.o.o.d.y big army on the outside!"
The guy-ropes creaked. The tent wall flapped.
"I'll find a compromise for Geraint and his sympathisers."
"Why don't you just order them?" Rickard demanded.
She felt her lips move in a wry smile. "Because they may say 'no'! There isn't much difference between five hundred soldiers, and five hundred refugee peasants. You've never seen a company stop being a company. You don't want to. I'll find some way of satisfying their gripes - but we're still going to Dijon." She grinned at him. "Okay; read."
The young man held the book up to the taper.
"It isn't that bad a tactical situation," she added, a moment later. "Dijon's a big city, must have ten thousand people in it, even without what's left of Charles's army; the Faris can't have her people cover every yard of the walls.
She'll be covering roads, gates. If the sergeants can get us moving and keep us moving, we'll get inside, maybe without fighting at all."
Rickard rested his finger on one illuminated page, and closed the cover of the book. The tallow candle gave hardly enough light to show his expression.
He said suddenly, "I don't want to be Anselm's squire. I want to be your squire. I've been your page. Make me your squire!"
"'Captain Anselm'," Ash corrected automatically. She reached over her shoulder, hauling goatskins and sheepskins over her fully dressed body.
"If I don't get to be your squire, they'll say it's because I'm not good enough. I've been your page again since Bertrand ran off. Since we found you in Carthage! I fought at the field at Auxonne!"
On that outraged protest, his voice slid up the scale to squeak, and down to croak. Ash flinched with embarra.s.sment. She snuggled the sides of her hood back, ears bitten with cold, so that she could hear him more clearly. He rose and banged about in the dark tent for some minutes, in silence.
"You're good enough," Ash said.
"You're not going to do it!" He sounded suspiciously close to tears.
Ash's voice, when it came, was tired. "You didn't fight Auxonne. You've seen what it's like in the line, Rickard, you just don't know what it's like."
The edges of swords and axes slice the air, in her mind: "It's a storm of razors."
"I'm going to fight. I'll go to Captain Anselm."
Ash heard no pique in his tone, only a sullen, excited determination. She s.h.i.+fted herself up on her elbow to look at Rickard.
"He'll take you," she said. "I'll tell you why. Out of every hundred men we get, ten or fifteen will know what to do in the field when the s.h.i.+t hits the fan, without being told, either by instinct or training. Seventy men or so will fight once someone else trains them, and then tells them how and where. And another ten or fifteen will run around like headless chickens no matter what you train into 'em or tell 'em."
In the line of battle, she has grabbed men by their liveries and thrown them bodily back into the fight.
"I've watched you train," she finished, "you're a natural swordsman, and you're one of the ten or fifteen any commander picks out and goes, 'you're my sub-commander'. I want you alive the next two years, Rickard, so I can give you a lance to command when the time comes. Try not to get killed before that."
The warmth from the furs. .h.i.t some level that allowed her body to stop s.h.i.+vering. A wave of tiredness rose up, drowning her; she barely had time to register Rickard's pleased, inarticulate, aggressive surprise; then sleep took her down like a fall from a horse, no impact, only oblivion.
She was aware that she rolled on the pallet, under the blankets.
Something gave, under her body.
She heard a hollow crack, a noise like a man putting his foot through a waxed leather bottle. Close to her. She stirred, heard guards and dogs beyond the canvas walls, s.h.i.+fted one arm sideways, and felt some obstruction give under her ribs.
The solidness cracked, broke with a wet noise.
Ash slapped her hand across the pallet, down by her side. Something slick and solid impaled itself on her thumb. She felt the nail resisted by obstruction, then whatever it was split, squelchy as a ripe plum. Her hand became suddenly slimy and wet.
She smelled a familiar odour: a sweet richness, mixed with the excremental stink of battle, thought blood and opened her eyes.
A baby lay half-under her body. She had rolled over and crushed it. Its tight swaddling-bands were sopping with something dark, seeping down from the head. Its fuzz-haired scalp ran red. White bone glinted, the child's skull fractured from ear to ear, the back of it crushed where she had rolled over. Her hand rested over its face, her thumb deep in a ruined eye-socket.
The other eye blinked at her. So light a brown as to be amber, gold.
A baby, no more than a few weeks old.
The scream left her mouth before she knew she had given voice. Dizzy, blackness seething in front of her eyes, she dug her heels into the bedding and pushed herself bodily back, off the pallet, on to the mud, away.
Boots sucked out of mud, outside the tent-flap; the tent-laces gave way to a dagger-slash.
A dark figure ducked into the tent, and Ash saw that his hair was golden, although it was Rickard.
"You killed our baby," he said.
"It isn't mine." Ash tried to reach out and pull the sleeping furs over the bundled body, but she didn't have the strength to drag them to her. The baby's skin was fine, soft; the tent smelled like a hard-fought field. "Fernando! I didn't kill it! It isn't mine!"
The boy turned and left the tent. In another man's voice, he said, "You were careless. Only a moment, and you could have saved it."
"They beat me-"
Ash reached out, but the cold dead skin of the child felt hot under her fingers, as if her fingers burned. She scrabbled back across the floor of the pavilion, and abruptly sprang up and ran out of the door.
White snow shone under a blue sky.
No night sky. Noon: and a bright sun.
There were no tents.
Ash walked into an empty wood. The snow sucked at her bare feet, pulling her down. She kept slipping, landing heavily; struggling to her feet. Snow plastered every twig, every leafless winter bud, every crooked branch. She floundered, wet, bitten with the chill, her hands red and blue in the freezing whiteness.
She heard grunting.
She stopped moving. Carefully, she turned her head.
A line of wild boar rooted through the snow. Their hard snouts ploughed up the whiteness, leaving troughs of black leaf-mould exposed. They softly grunted. Ash saw their teeth. No tusks. Sows. Razorback sows, moving between the trees, in the bright suns.h.i.+ne. Their winter coats were thick and white, they smelled of pig-dung, and their long lashes shaded their limpid eyes against the light.
A dozen or more striped boarlets ran between their mothers' legs.
"They're too young!" Ash cried, crawling on hands and knees through the snow. "You shouldn't have littered them yet. It's too early. Winter's here; they'll die; you had them at the wrong time! Take them back."
Snow fell from branches on to snow on briars, white hoops against the trunks of trees. The boars moved slowly, methodically, ignoring Ash. She sat back in the snow, on her knees. The stripy little ones, about the size of a fresh-baked loaf, trotted past her with their stringy tails whipping against the snow, their chisel-hooves kicking up whiteness.
"They'll die! They'll die!"
A red-breasted bird flew down, landing beside the biggest sow's forefoot. She nosed towards the robin momentarily. Her head swung back to root under the snow. The robin's beak dipped for worms.