Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

Page 47

“Ah…something of the sort,” Grey replied warily. “Why?”

She produced an inkhorn, a quill, and a copybook from the folds of her apron, set these on the table beside him, and opened the book to a blank page.

“I am to write down, you see, a page.” She sighed at the enormity of the prospect, and turned her huge blue eyes reproachfully upon him, as though this drudgery were somehow his fault. “A page about some foreign country. But I do not remember what the schoolmaster said about France or Holland. Herr Thomas, though, says that you have been to Schottland and know everything about it. So, you see—” She flipped open the inkwell on the table and picked up her quill, very matter-of-fact. “You can tell me what you know, and I will write.”

“How efficient,” he said, smiling despite himself. “Very well. Let me think how to begin…. Perhaps we should say first where Scotland is? Yes, that seems right. ‘Scotland lies to the north of England.’”

“It is cold there?” the girl inquired, writing carefully.

“Very cold. And it rains incessantly. Let me spell ‘incessantly’ for you….”

A pleasant half hour spent in Scotland with Agnes-Maria left him, if not calmer, at least distracted, and he went to bed and fell asleep, to dream of cold, high mountains and the smoke of a fire in the Carryarick Pass.

Chapter 29

Dawn of Battle

He woke suddenly from a place beyond dreams, Tarleton’s excited face an inch from his own.

“Sir! We’ve found them! It’s starting!”

It was. All around him, officers were rolling from their beds, pulling curling papers from their hair, cursing and stumbling barefooted, calling for servants, ale, and chamber pots.

Tom was already there, jerking Grey’s nightshirt unceremoniously off over his head and pulling his shirt over it in almost the same motion.

“Where?” he demanded of Tarleton, his head popping out of the neck. He jerked the garment into place, Tom already stooping with his breeches.

“Behind the dyke thing, the Land-ware.” Tarleton was dancing on his toes with impatience. “We saw them—me and another scout who was in the church spire. The sky started to get light and there they were, creeping along the back of the dyke like skulking cowards!” His face shone under a sprinkling of soft, fair whiskers.

“Well done, Mr. Tarleton.” Grey smiled, tucking his shirt into his breeches. “Go and shave. Then fetch Mr. Brett, see to my horse, and eat something. Both of you eat something. I’ll join you—ouch!” Tom’s hands paused in their hurry to untangle the snag of hair his brush had just encountered. “I’ll join you at the stable. Go!” He made a shooing motion and Tarleton shot out of the room like a flushed hare.

“Speak of shaving, me lord…” Tom’s deft hands set by the hairbrush, and reached for the pot of shaving soap, the badger-bristle brush stirring up the foam with a scent of lavender.

Sitting on the bed as Tom shaved him, briskly plaited his hair, and bound it up, Grey wondered where young Agnes-Maria was. Probably moving hastily behind the English lines with her family. If Clermont’s main body was indeed skulking behind the Landwehr, the French artillery was very likely within range of Hückelsmay—and the French were no respecters of private property.

“Here, me lord.” Tom thrust a pistol into his hands, then bent to fasten his sword belt. “It’s not loaded yet. D’ye want your cartridge box, or will one of your boys take it?”

“I’ll have it. Shot bag, powder…” He touched the items attached to his belt, checking, then thrust his arms back into the leather jerkin Tom was holding for him, the one he wore in lieu of the usual waistcoat on battlefields.

He was aware that some of the English junior officers considered this garment mildly contemptible, but then, relatively few of them had been shot at yet. Grey had, repeatedly. It wouldn’t save him from close fire, but the fact was that most of the French muskets had a very short range, and thus a good many musket balls were near spent by the time they reached a target. You could see them, sometimes, sailing almost lazily through the air, like bumblebees.

Coat, epaulets, gorget, laced hat…roll. Tom, always prepared, had thrust a crusty German roll into his hand, thickly buttered. Grey crammed the last of it into his mouth, shook crumbs from his lapels, and washed it down with coffee—one of the other orderlies had brewed some over a spirit lamp, the smell of it bracing.

Tom was circling him, eyes narrowed in concentration, lest he miss some vital detail of appearance. His round freckled face was anxious, but he said nothing. Grey touched him gently on the shoulder, making him look up.

“Me lord?”

“Thank you, Tom. I’ll go now.” The jumble had almost sorted itself out. Officers were thundering down the wooden staircase, shouting to one another, calling for their ensigns, and the air was filled with the scents of coffee, powder, heel black, hot hair, pipe clay, and a strong odor of fresh piss, both from the chamber pots and from the urine-soaked lumps of stale bread the orderlies used to bring up the shine on gold lace.

Tom swallowed, and stood awkwardly back.

“I’ll have your supper for you, me lord.”

“Thank you,” Grey repeated, and turned to go. He’d reached the door when he heard Tom cry out behind him.

“Me lord! Your dagger!”

He slapped at his waist in reflex, and found the place empty. He whirled on his heel to find Tom there, dagger in hand. He took it with a nod of thanks, and turning, ran down the stairs, tucking the knife into its sheath as he went.

His heart was thumping. In part from the natural atmosphere of excitement that attends a looming battle, in part from the thought that he might have found himself on the field without his dagger. He’d carried it since he was sixteen, and would have felt unarmed without it, pistol and sword notwithstanding.

The fact that he’d forgotten it, he thought, was not a good sign, and he touched the wire-wrapped hilt in an attempt to reassure himself.

Outside, the pigs were still snoring, both river and ditch invisible in a shroud of mist so thick that Grey wondered how the lookouts had ever seen the French troops. The air was fresh, though, with a spattering rain that came and went, and the weather did nothing to allay the spirits of the men.

He rode slowly through the forming columns, Brett and Tarleton foaming with excitement behind him. He felt the same excitement pulse through his own limbs—felt it in waves, coming off the men as they hurtled into position, clanking and cursing.

How does it work? his father had written in his campaign journal, after Sheriffmuir. How do emotions transmit themselves between men, with no gesture, no slightest word spoken? Whether it be confidence and joy, despair, or the fury of attack, there is no evidence of its spread. It is just suddenly there. What can be the mechanism of this instantaneous communication? Grey didn’t know, but he felt it.

“Hoy!” he shouted at the retreating back of a bareheaded soldier. “Hoy, Andrews! Lose something?”

He unhooked the calvary saber he carried and leaned down, neatly catching up the battered tricorn on its point before the hat could be trampled. It clinked; Andrews, like many of the infantry, had crisscrossed the inside of his hat with iron strips, the better to turn a blow.

Nudging Karolus through the throng, Grey deposited the hat neatly on Andrews’s startled head, provoking gales of laughter from the man’s companions. Grey bowed nonchalantly, accepting their salutes, and making no effort to hide his own amusement. It was like wine, the air before a battle, and they were all drunk with anticipation.

They looked well, he thought with approval. Rough, by comparison to the burnished Prussians, but brimming with uncouth spirits and an open desire for the fight.

“Corporal Collet!” he bellowed, and thirty heads snapped round in his direction. The largest—and best—of the companies under his command, he had managed to keep Collet’s company together for more than two years, drilled and brought on with such skill as essentially to act as a single entity. A sight to delight a commander’s heart.

“Sir!” Collet barked, bounding up beside him.

“Take your company to the front, Corporal. Form on the left; you’re the pivot. Wheel on Captain Wilmot’s signal.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Collet’s seamed face beamed at the honor, and he bounded back to his men, barking orders. The men cheered, and went off at the trot, shoulder to shoulder, like a flock of particularly bloodthirsty sheep.

Noise. Complete confusion, but an orderly confusion. Corporals shouting their companies into order, lieutenants and captains roving to and fro on horseback, minding their divisions. And the hussars who served as messengers, darting swiftly through the throng like minnows through the slow-moving shoals of reddish fish.

A pig burst suddenly out of the shredding mist and galloped in panic through a distant company, causing whoops and shrieks. One of the German officers shot it, and a small band of harpies rushed through the forming ranks to fall upon it with their knives, making the soldiers step round them. Grey sighed, knowing he would at some point be presented with a bill for that pig.

German camp followers. These women—some prostitutes, some wives, and half of them vicious slatterns, regardless of legal status—clung like cockleburs to the army’s arse, following closely even into battle, ready to loot and plunder at the slightest opportunity. God help anyone who fell in their path, Grey thought, watching the butchery.

The sound of bugling cut through the thick air, and Karolus flung back his head with a snort. Grey felt a sudden sharp pang; he would so much have wished to share this with Percy. But there was no time for regret. The army was on the move.

There was no question of stealth. Duke Ferdinand’s combined forces numbered something in excess of thirty-two thousand troops, the French and Austrians forty-seven thousand. It was a straightforward matter, insofar as anything done by an army could be so described, of speed, force, tactics—and will.

A young hussar dashed up to Grey, brimming with excitement and self-importance, delivering a note.

Luck, it said.

Grey smiled and stuffed the note in his pocket. He had sent his own, identical note to Hal a few minutes before. It was their habit, when possible, to wish each other luck before a battle. He valued Hal’s wishing him luck the more, because he knew Hal did not believe in it.

Duke Ferdinand’s plan was novel, and daring: infantry to swing out and encompass the French left flank, the Prussian cavalry to press the advantage, artillery advancing into position to pin the divisions on the right. And the 46th to be in the van of the flanking maneuver.

He chose to carry a cavalry saber, rather than the customary officer’s hanger, both because he liked the weight and because it was more visible. He raised it now and bellowed, “Advance by company! Quick…March!”

Brett and Tarleton took up the cry, which spread to the sergeants and through the lines, and the columns began to move with amazing speed, churning the ground to black mud.

The fog drifted in patches over the marshy ground, but did not clear. In spite of the intermittent rain—repeated bellows of “Keep your powder dry, God damn your eyes!” rang from every quarter of the field in various languages—it was not a cold day, and the men, while damp, were cheerful.

Near the Landwehr, he pulled Karolus a little to the side, watching his men stream by, listening to the noises becoming audible from the French and Austrian lines forming on the other side of the dyke. The Landwehr itself was a formidable barrier—two water-filled ditches, each some ten feet wide, with a massive central bank, fifteen feet in width, between them—but not a very wide one. A thick growth of trees and bushes edged the dyke here; he couldn’t see the enemy through mist and leaves, but he could hear them easily—French, he thought.

Shouts, cheers, the distant creak of caisson wheels as artillery wheeled into position…then these were drowned in the boom of drums, as Ferdinand’s Prussian cavalry came within earshot on Grey’s side of the Landwehr, led by their drum horse. Dragon-Riders, they called themselves, with that typical German inclination for drama. They looked it, though. Tall men all, straight in the saddle and beautiful in their glory, and his heart was stirred, despite himself.

Karolus was stirred, too; he jerked, snorted, and made as though to join them. He had once been a cavalry horse—loved drums and adored parades. Grey reined him in, but the stallion continued to dance and toss his head.

Karolus was stirring up the ensigns’ horses, too, and Grey was not sure that Brett and Tarleton could keep their own mounts under control. Clicking his tongue, he pulled Karolus’s head round, and rode a little way into the trees along the Landwehr, trailed by his ensigns.

He could still hear the cavalry drums, but the horses had quieted a little, with the others out of sight. Brett’s horse bobbed his head, wanting to drink from the ditch, and Grey nodded at Brett to allow it.

“Not too much,” he said automatically, his attention divided between the sounds behind them and those to his left, where the other British regiments were massing to attack the French right flank. The double ditches of the Landwehr were full to the banks, swelled by the recent rains, and the water ran muddy and quick below him, grass trailing in the current.

“What’s that?” he heard Brett say, startled, and looked where his ensign was pointing. Several tall, pointed shapes were dimly visible among the trees on the other side of the dyke. He blinked, and made sense of what he was seeing just as one of the shapes flung back its arm and hurled something in his direction.

“Grenades!” he roared. “Get clear, get clear!”

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