Such pretty country, to be soaked in blood.
South of the city of Desland, the valley of the River Velt flattened out into a rolling carpet of fields, gridded by neat hedgerows and punctuated by tiny, orderly hamlets, each with its tall-spired church crowned with a golden double circle. The river itself traced out a series of lazy curves, as though exhausted by its frantic descent from the highlands, and it flashed like molten silver in the warm autumn sun. Here and there, lone hills rose from the endless flat farmland like islands jutting out of the sea, crowned with gnarled, ancient trees, the last remaining strongholds of the great forests that had covered this land before the arrival of men.
Atop one of those hills, at the edge of one of those primeval woods, a man sat cross-legged atop a boulder and stared down at the plain below. He was a young man, barely out of boyhood, with nut-brown hair and a wispy mustache. Dressed in leathers and homespun, he could have been mistaken for a native, the son of a peasant farmer come to trap or gather wood in the old forest.
In fact, he was a very long way from home, and he had no interest in firewood or game. His name was Wren. In his saddlebags, carefully folded and secured inside a lockbox, he carried a velvet mask sewn with a layer of glittering, clicking obsidian. It marked him as a servant of an order out of legend, one that was supposedly a hundred years dead: the Priests of the Black, fell agents of the Elysian Church, its spies and inquisitors.
Even within the hidden fraternity who carried out the will of the Black Priests, Wren was of a special breed. He had spoken the true name of a demon, and would play host to the creature until the end of his days. When his death came, he would be condemned to eternal torment for daring to traffic with the supernatural. He had accepted this burden, and the certainty of this ultimate fate, to serve the Church and save others from suffering similar punishment. He was one of the Ignahta Sempria, the Penitent Damned.
Wren stared down at the plain, across the miles, to a place where many campfires had lately burned like fireflies. At that distance, most men would have seen nothing but the fields and the rivers, but Wren's demon was with him. He could feel it in his eyes, a tight feeling like someone twisting knotted cords around his skull, and it sharpened his vision to excruciating precision. Tiny men in blue milled and marched and formed ranks, teams of horses were harnessed to cannon, and cavalrymen checked their saddles and mounted. An army, preparing for battle.
The brush beside him rustled. With his demon’s strength wholly poured into his eyes, Wren's hearing was no better than a normal man's, and only the discipline of long training kept him from starting at the sound. Instead, he let out a long breath and forced himself to relax, letting his demon return to its resting state. Between blinks, the clarity of his vision faded, though it still would have put any hawk to shame. Sound rushed back in, every tiny rustle and animal noise of the forest now as obvious as a fanfare. He could hear the heartbeats of the two men who now stood beside him, and their breathing was as loud as the rasp of a bellows.
"The Vordanai are breaking camp," he said. He spoke in Murnskai, the native tongue of those raised in the fortress-temple of Elysium. "But not to retreat. Vhalnich will offer battle to di Pfalen."
"Bold," said the man on his left.
He was much older than Wren, well into middle age, with a bald dome of skull sticking up from a ring of black-and-gray. His name, the only one that Wren had ever heard anyone use, was the Liar. Like Wren, he was dressed in simple peasant garb, but his hands might have invited comment: his nails were each at least an inch long, and painted with gleaming white resin.
"Di Pfalen has the numbers," Wren said. "He has broken his force into three columns, to attempt to cut off Vhalnich's escape."
The Liar snorted. "I might not be so confident in his place, given Vhalnich's reputation."
Wren shrugged. The Liar liked to pass himself off as an expert in military matters, as in everything else, but the basic situation was simple enough. The revolution that had broken out after the death of King Farus VIII had shocked the civilized world, placing a sacred monarch in thrall to a mere elected parliament. With due encouragement from Elysium, the great powers of the west -- Borel, Murnsk, and the Free Cities League -- had gone to war to restore the rightful order. But declaration of war was one thing, and action another. Seafaring Borel preferred the slow weapons of blockade and economic warfare, while vast, backward Imperial Murnsk could take months to assemble her armies.
The League, on the other hand, was not a nation but a bickering, fractious collection of semi-independent polities. Vheed, Norel, and the more distant cities had sent only token contingents or empty promises to the supposedly common cause. Only Hamvelt and its close allies had leapt at the chance to defeat their long-time rival. So it was here, to familiar plains between Essyle and Desland where the ever-shifting border between Vordan and the League ran, that the Vordanai had sent their newly minted hero. Janus bet Vhalnich. Conqueror of Khandar, vanquisher of the Last Duke, savior of Vordan. Heretic. Sorcerer.
"We will observe the result," the Liar said. "If Vhalnich falls, or is taken, our task is simplified. If not ..."
The third man grunted. He stood with his arms crossed over his massive chest, more than a head taller than either of his companions. His craggy face was made ferocious by a thick, unkempt black beard like wild thornbush, and his small dark eyes glared out ferociously from deep, sunken sockets. While he was dressed like the other two, no one would ever take him for a simple laborer. Quite aside from his enormous frame, the air of menace he projected was unmistakable. His name was Twist. Wren had rarely heard him speak more than a single word at a time, and often he was not even that voluble.
"Either way," Wren said, "we'll need to get closer." They were still a solid day's ride from the place that would soon become a battlefield.
The Liar nodded. "We will seek another vantage. Ready the horses."
Wren got to his feet, legs aching from too long spent absolutely still, and suppressed a frown. The Penitent Damned had no formal hierarchy among themselves, no ranks or chain of command apart from their shared obedience to the Pontifex of the Black. On the rare occasions when they did not work alone, their orders made it explicit who was to lead. The Liar was an agent of many years standing, and this was Wren's first mission outside of Murnsk, so it made sense that the older man was in charge. But Wren occasionally suspected the Liar of harboring a taste for idleness and worldly pleasures that was inappropriate for his position, and it led him to treat Wren like a servant instead of an equal. It was something to raise with the Pontifex on their return.
They had six horses, enough to carry their gear and provide remounts if they needed a burst of speed. Wren went through the familiar ritual of preparing saddles and tack, loading the camp supplies, and fixing each animal with his supernatural senses for a few moments, listening to their breathing and heartbeats. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he led them one by to the edge of the woods. Last in line was Twist's mount, a huge, stocky gelding matched to the big man's weight.
Twist took the reins from him with another grunt and heaved himself gracelessly into the saddle, provoking a snort of complaint from the animal. The Liar mounted more skillfully, a testament to half a lifetime spent in the saddle in the service of the order. Wren paused in front of his favorite mare, staring out to the north.
"Wren?" the Liar said. "Is something wrong?"
Wren closed his eyes and let the demon rush to his ears. The sounds that had been barely a shiver in the air a moment ago were now loud and distinct, low crumps and rumbles like distant thunder. In between, he could even hear the faint skirl of drums.
"Wren?" the Liar repeated, words booming in Wren's ears like the voice of God.
Wren opened his eyes and let the demon slither away inside his skull.
"It's begun," he said.
"Keep it up! They're giving way!" Winter Ihernglass shouted.
The air was thick with acrid smoke, slashed by the brief brilliant flares of muzzle flashes. Musketry roared around Winter, like a continuous crackling peal of thunder, and she had no way of knowing if her soldiers could hear her. Her world had contracted to this small section of the line, where a dozen young of the of the Girls' Own stood behind the shot-torn hedgerow and went through the drill of loading their muskets, ramming the ball home, priming the pan, and bringing the weapon back up to firing position.
The Hamveltai were unseen in the murk, visible only by the flash of their own muskets. But they were weakening, Winter could feel it, the return fire becoming more scattered and sporadic. Just a minute more. She walked along the line, shouting herself hoarse and slashing the air with her sword, while the constant din of the muskets rattled the teeth in her skull.
Ahead, she saw one of the casualty teams, made up of girls too young or too small to carry a musket. They worked in threes and fours, running up to the hedge whenever a soldier went down and dragging her back a few paces to assess the injury. As Winter watched, the team ahead of her abandoned a woman who'd taken a ball high in the chest and leaked a wide swathe of blood into the muddy earth, and went back to retrieve a plump, matronly woman who'd fallen on her side, clutching a shattered hand. As they got her to her feet, one of the smaller girls suddenly doubled over, clutching at her gut with both hands. One of her companions looked her over, shook her head, and left her where she fell.
Brass Balls of the Beast. It was a scene Winter had witnessed before, but she couldn't get over how quickly girls who'd been selling flowers in Vordan not three months earlier had adapted to the brutal necessities of the battlefield. She thrust away a pang of guilt. There wasn't time for that. No time for anything but survival.
Winter hurried past the casualty team, stepping quickly around the dying girl, and continued down the line looking for Bobby. The young woman, who'd been a corporal in Winter's company on Janus' Khandarai campaign, now sported white lieutenant's stripes on her shoulder. A knot of women were gathered behind a dense spot in the hedge, loading awkwardly while crouched and then standing to loose another shot into the thickening bank of smoke.
"Bobby!" Winter said, grabbing her arm and pulling her close enough to hear over the din. "Go to Jane, tell her to move in!"
Bobby's pale skin was already grimed with powder residue. Like Winter, she was one of the few in the Girls’ Own to have an honest-to-goodness regulation uniform; unlike Winter, hers was no longer tailored to conceal the truth of her gender from prying eyes. When Janus had created the all-female Fifth Volunteer Battalion from the ragtag group of volunteers Winter and Jane had led into battle at Midvale, Bobby had elected to discard her disguise. She had been the one who'd taken the nickname 'Girls' Own' -- a play on the name old royal regiments, the King's Own, and the Boy's Own Guide series of books for children -- and turned it from mockery into a badge of honor. Next to Winter and Jane, she was probably the most respected officer in the battalion.
She was also -- cursed, enchanted, Winter didn't know what to call it -- by the Khandarai naath that had saved her life. Winter knew that the scars of her wounds had healed, not in puckered skin, but as smooth, glittering stuff like living marble.
Bobby saluted to acknowledge the order, handed her musket to the nearest soldier, and hurried off to the right, bent double to keep her head from sticking above the hedge. For all the good that will do. A hedgerow might deflect a musket ball, but it mostly it was good for hiding behind, and that only mattered against aimed fire. Nobody was aiming now; if not for their muzzle flashes and the accompanying noise, Winter wouldn't have been able to say if the enemy were still there or not. She turned back in the other direction, keeping her eyes open for any signs of wavering or incipient panic, and was pleased to find her soldiers still firmly committed to their bloody work. The Hamveltai were laying down a hot, heavy fire, but for the moment the Girls' Own seemed to be standing up to the pressure.
As she moved towards the left, she could hear the deeper growl of artillery underneath the musketry. The hedge led to a small hamlet in that direction, no more than a dozen buildings, which was defended by a battalion of volunteers and a half a battery of guns. Something was on fire -- she could see the glow, even through the smoke -- but the noise indicated the men there will still fighting hard.
On the right side of the line, the hedge took a dog-leg forward a hundred yards before ending at a wide dirt path. Jane was waiting on the far side of that angle with another four companies, hunkered down and silent up until now, waiting to execute the trap. Winter didn't want her troops going toe-to-toe with a battalion of regulars longer than they had to.
Reaching the center of her line, Winter pressed herself against the hedge between a pair of soldiers and listened. A couple of minute for Bobby to run to Jane, a couple of minutes to get ready ...
A chorus of hoarse battle cries, identifiably feminine even through the rattle and bang musketry, rolled out of the smoke on the right. All along the line, Winter's soldiers echoed the cheer, which was followed in quick succession a blaze of new firing. More flashes stabbed through the smoke, at right angles to the Hamveltai position, as Jane led her troops in a charge with fixed bayonets that took the enemy line end-on. As Winter had guessed, that convinced them that their position was untenable, and before another minute had passed there was no more shooting to her front. Along the hedgerow, the women of the Girls' Own were cheering themselves hoarse.
"Make sure those muskets are loaded!" Winter shouted, over the celebration. "They'll be back."
"You should have seen the looks on their faces," Jane said. "Bastards were so surprised they didn't even have a chance to shoot back."
"Nicely done," Winter said. Though rumors of the infamous female regiment had no doubt spread through the enemy camps by now, the League soldiers were always startled when they came to actual face-to-face contact with the Girls' Own. Winter was happy to use their hesitation to her advantage, if it meant keeping her troops alive. "Any prisoners?"
"A few dozen," Jane said. "Plenty of wounded out there, but we didn't take any that couldn't walk."
They were squatting in the muddy dirt, a few yards back from the hedge. With the lull in the fighting, some of the Girls' Own were helping the casualty teams, carrying the wounded to a temporary station in the rear and dragging corpses clear of the firing line. Winter had cautioned them not to go too far. It was too easy to get caught up helping a wounded comrade and forget that the battle wasn't over yet.
To the left, artillery still growled, but the musketry had died away, indicating that the attack on the hamlet had tapered off while the League cannoneers continued the argument with their Vordanai counterparts at long range. The smoke was beginning to drift apart, torn into scraps by the late morning breeze. Looking at the sun, Winter thought it was still at least an hour before noon; she already felt like they'd been here for days. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and returned her mind to the matter at hand.
"See if any of the men you took speak Vordanai. I'd love to know what else they've got out there."
"You think they'll try it again?"
"I think they've got to. They want to push through here to take Janus from behind." It felt odd to her to casually refer to the general of the army -- much less a count of Vordan -- by his first name, but it had become a universal practice among the troops he commanded, as a demonstration of their affection for their strange commander. "They tried a narrow swing around the hamlet, and ran into us. So what's next?"
Jane shrugged. "You're the soldier."
Winter grimaced, but it was true, in a sense. While there were times when she still felt like a fraud -- it was hard not to, when everyone but a select few thought she was a man -- it was hard to deny that she had more military experience than anyone else in the Girls' Own, with the possible exception of her ex-corporals Graff and Folsom. For that matter, she had more combat experience than almost anyone in Janus' Army of the East, which was an awkward conglomeration of old Royal Army troops and scratch battalions of revolutionary volunteers.
Jane's experience was of a different sort. They'd been lovers, long ago, at Mrs. Wilmore's Prison for Young Ladies, before Jane had been dragged away into involuntary marriage to a brutal farmer and Winter had escaped to join the army. While Winter had spent three years in Khandar, lying low, Jane had escaped from servitude, freed the rest of the girls from the Prison, and brought them to Vordan City. There they'd fought criminal, tax farmers, and anyone else who got in their way, forming the core of the Leatherbacks and striving to provide a rough justice to the Docks. When Winter and Jane had been reunited in the chaos of the revolution -- with a helping hand, Winter guessed, from Janus bet Vhalnich -- Jane's girls had joined the fight to save the city from Orlanko.
Now they made up almost half the Girls' Own, and Jane herself had accepted an officer's rank, but she didn't pretend to know anything much about tactics. Winter scratched a rough line in the earth with the toe of her boot. "If I were them, I'd feel us out to the right. If they've got another couple of battalions, they could throw one against us here and push another one down the road to get behind us."
"And if we run for it, they can surround the town," Jane said. She looked to the south, where only the occasional hedge broke the endless, open country. A lone wood-topped hill, miles distant, loomed like a distant gray monolith. "If they get us with horsemen in the open..."
Winter nodded. Jane might not had a military education, but she had good instincts. The Girls' Own were brave, dedicated troops, but they didn't have the training to form square and stand off cavalry in the open. The volunteers that made up most of the rest of the force Janus had left to blunt the League advance were the same. They had only one regiment of "royals" -- professional soldiers of the old Royal Army -- and a retreat under those circumstances could easily become a rout.
"I'll send Bobby to Colonel de Ferre," Winter said. "If he brings up the reserve before they get here, we can give them another nasty surprise. They've got to get sick of banging their heads against this wall eventually."
Jane nodded and got to her feet. "I'll get some of the girls out past the smoke to give us a bit of warning."
Winter stood a bit more slowly, her legs already aching. Her throat felt suddenly thick, in a way that had nothing to do with having spent the morning shouting at the top of her lungs.
"Be careful," she said.
Jane smiled, her familiar, mischievous smile, and gave a slapdash salute. Winter fought a sudden impulse to wrap her arms around her. Instead she nodded, stiffly, and watched Jane stride back toward the front line.
A passionate embrace between the commander of a battalion and his chief subordinate might have been a bit unorthodox, by old army standards, but Winter wasn't sure it would have made a difference if she'd given in to the temptation. Caution was an old, ingrained habit, though, and she tried to impress the importance of it on Jane. They lived in a weird fog of half-truths and lies -- the fact that Captain Ihernglass was sleeping with Lieutenant "Mad Jane" Verity was an open secret, at least among the Girls' Own, who gossiped as badly as the old Colonials had. But only a small cadre among them, Jane's former Leatherback girls, knew the secret of Winter's gender. So far, they'd kept her confidence -- Jane's girls were nothing if not loyal -- but having that knowledge so widely spread made Winter intensely nervous.
Bobby hurried over and snapped a crisp salute. One of her sleeves was red with blood.
"Jane said you wanted to see me, sir?" she said.
"Are you all right?" A foolish question, Winter thought. Bobby was the one soldier on the field who was virtually guaranteed to live through the day's fighting, thanks to the ongoing legacy of her experience in Khandar.
"What?" Bobby caught sight of the blood and shook her head. "Oh, it's nothing. I was helping with the wounded."
Winter nodded. "I need you to ride to Colonel de Ferre. Tell him we need reinforcements here, at least a battalion, to extend the line on the right. We haven't got the strength to stretch that far, and if they get around us this whole position could come unstuck."
Bobby saluted again and hurried rearward. There was a small aid post there, where the battalion cutters did what they could for the casualties until they could be taken for proper care. Beside it was a string of horses, kept ready for couriers and other emergencies. Winter watched her mount up, then turned back to the front.
The corpses of the fallen had been removed from the line, and the injured helped to the rear. Now small parties vaulted the hedgerow, cautiously, and searched among the dissipating smoke for enemy wounded. Any who seemed likely to survive were taken prisoner and sent through the line for treatment.
The enemy were Hamveltai regulars, called yellowjackets for their lemon-colored coats, striped with black and worn over black trousers. They wore tall black shakos with gold devices on the front and long red plumes fluttering from the peak, the very image of professional soldiers. The contrast with the Vordanai, whose only uniform was a loose blue jacket worn over whatever each soldier had brought along, could not have been greater. But neat uniforms did not seem to provide any special protection from musket balls.
They were treated gently -- orders on that subject had come down from Janus himself. The reasoning was not humanitarian, but brutally practical. The League commanders had made noises about treating Vordanai volunteers as partisans or bandits rather than soldiers due honorable captivity if captured, and the best defense against any abuses was for the Vordanai army to gather its own stock of prisoners against whom it could threaten retaliation, if necessary. That went double for the Girls' Own, who had no idea what to expect if they fell into enemy hands. Winter knew there was a quiet trend among her soldiers to carry small daggers in the inner pockets of their uniforms, to be used for self-destruction in the last resort. It wasn't something she encouraged, but she couldn't blame them for wanting the reassurance.
A certain amount of looting went along with the gathering of captives. Officially, they were only supposed to scavenge ammunition, food, and other military supplies, but Winter noted quite a few of the search parties returning with insignia, plumes, and other trophies. Another practice to which she felt she had to turn a blind eye. She didn't want her troops turning into ghouls, cutting off fingers to get at the rings, but pride in a hard-fought victory was something to encourage.
An outburst of laughter caught her attention. Over on the left, a knot of young women surrounded the stocky figure of Lieutenant Drake Graff, who was attempting to demonstrate the proper way to level a musket. It was hard to be sure under his thick beard, but Winter thought he was blushing. Another woman in a makeshift lieutenant's uniform was looking on, and Winter walked over to stand beside her.
"Sir," Cyte said, her salute almost as crisp as Bobby's.
Winter nodded her acknowledgement. "How is it?"
"We missed the worst on this side," Cyte said. "Anna got nicked by a splinter and bled a fair bit, but she'll be all right. No casualties in our company otherwise."
No wonder they're in the mood for laughing, Winter thought, as another round of giggles came from the cluster around Graff. Cyte, following Winter's gaze, heaved a sigh.
"They like to tease him," she said. "I've tried to get them to stop, but ..."
Winter shook her head. "Don't bother. You won't be able to." Soldiers would have their fun, regardless of what their officers wanted. "Just make sure it doesn't get out of hand."
"What's out of hand?" Cyte said. "Last week a gang of them found out where he was having a bath in the river and jumped in with him. They like to see him blush."
Winter had to work to stifle a giggle of her own, picturing the gruff, hard-bitten Graff frantically averting his eyes and muttering through his beard. When Janus had offered her the services of her former corporals to fill out her new regiment, Winter had tried to make it clear to them what they were getting into. Folsom had fitted right in, his quiet assurance off the battlefield and foul-mouthed tirades on it provoking something like awe among his troops. Bobby, of course, had not been a problem. Graff had taken the longest to decide, grumbling about the impropriety of it all before finally agreeing on the grounds that someone had to take care of things. For an old soldier, he was surprisingly straightlaced, a fact which his women had discovered and exploited with gusto.
Cyte was another matter altogether. Winter had been surprised to find the University student among her early volunteers. She'd been among the revolutionaries who the speeches of Danton Aurenne had mobilized, and she and Winter had fought together to free the prisoners of the Vendre. After the victory of the revolution and the ascent of the Deputies-General to power, Winter had expected Cyte to take up a marginally safer life in politics. Instead she'd turned up not long after the declaration of war, with a copy of the Regulations and Drill of the Royal Army of Vordan under one arm and a quiet determination to master the military life that Winter found strangely familiar. Winter had quickly made her a staff lieutenant -- recruited as it was mostly from the young women of the South Bank, the Girls' Own was desperately short of people with the basic education to perform an officer's duties.
"Someone's coming," Cyte said.
She pointed out across the field, where a lone figure was indeed sprinting through the remaining haze of smoke, headed for the hedgerow. Winter recognized Chris, one of Jane's Leatherback leaders, now wearing a sergeant's pips. Chris saw her at the same time, and headed in her direction, coming up hard against the hedge.
"Winter!" she said, without even an attempt at a salute. Military niceties were not the strong point of Jane's old cadre. "The yellowjackets are back."
"Hell," Winter said, looking over her shoulder. No sign yet of Bobby, much less of troops marching to their relief. "How many?"
"Looks like two groups," Chris said. "They're lining up just that way, on the other side of that little rise."
Two battalions, Winter translated, deploying into line for the attack. "One of them out by the road?"
Chris nodded, gulping air.
Winter grimaced. "Where's Jane?"
Chris pointed, and Winter hurried back along the line. Jane was helping hoist the returning scouts over the hedgerow, and Winter grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her aside.
"You've heard?" Jane said.
Winter nodded. "Bobby's not back yet. De Ferre must be balking."
"Bastard." Jane smacked a fist against her palm. "Want me to go talk some sense into him?"
"I'll send Folsom," Winter said. "I need you here."
"You want to try and hold them off?"
Winter grit her teeth. If we fall back, the whole line could come unstuck. But to stand and fight, against these odds, would mean serious losses even if the line held. And if it breaks, they might run us all down.
"I don't think we have a choice," she said.
Jane looked at her, an odd light in her green eyes. "You're in charge here," she said. "What's the plan?"
A few minutes later, the four companies Jane had led out of the angle onto the Hamveltai flank were forming up across the dirt road, a double line two hundred yards long. Jane and the other officers were still pushing the formation into shape -- like most of the volunteer soldiers, the Girls' Own was more used to skirmishing than stand-up fighting. But someone had to block the yellowjackets' advance up the road, and until de Ferre brought up regulars from the reserve these four companies were all Winter had.
Lieutenant James Folsom was tall and heavily muscled, with a long brown mustache and a quiet disposition that became animated only in the heat of battle. He listened carefully to Winter's orders, and shook his head.
"I should be here," he said, in a quiet voice. "With my company."
"I know." The idea of leaving one's soldiers right as they were going into combat would grate on any officer. "But this is important. We can't hold this position if de Ferre doesn't bring up fresh troops. You're Royal Army, that'll carry some weight." And you're a man, she added silently. The tall, intimidating Folsom was more likely to impress an old aristocrat like de Ferre.
"What if he won't do it?"
"If he stalls, don't wait around for an answer. Come right back here and let me know, and we'll do our best to pull out." That would be quite a trick, with the enemy already on top of them, but Winter tried not to think about it.
Folsom nodded dolefully. "I'll be back soon, then." He turned and loped toward the aid station in the rear with long, easy strides.
With the line approximately formed, Winter took her place behind the center. On her right, Jane and Abby waited with their respective companies. The two left-hand companies were commanded by Chris and another of Jane's old Leatherback leaders, a short, pale girl named Becca with an alarming fondness for knives. She had one out now, tossing it to whirl dangerously through the air before catching it smoothly in her off hand.
The women in the ranks were steady, Winter was pleased to see. They jostled and bumped each other somewhat while they loaded their weapons, but that was inevitable. Here and there, a ranker looked back over her shoulder, making sure the road behind them was open, but Winter didn't think they'd really run. Not right away, at least. Every band of soldiers, however brave, had a breaking point; there was only so much flesh and blood could stand. She hoped very much that today wasn't the day she found out hers.
"Here they come!" someone shouted.
With the ground wet, there was no dust cloud to mark the advance, only a yellow line coming over the hill, sunlight flashing here and there on polished steel or silver. A moment later, the sound of the yellowjackets' drums reached them, the steady beat of the march pace. They were already deployed into their line, extending for some distance to either side of the road.
Time stretched like taffy. The Hamveltai troops seemed at once impossibly close and enormously distant, as though they were both right on top of Winter and her men and so far away they would never arrive. Each beat of the drum, accompanied by the synchronized tramp of a thousand boots, closed the gap further. When it was close enough, some of the women standing in front of Winter were going to die. Some of the men over there were, too. Winter wondered if they felt the same horrible anticipation --
The range closed to a hundred yards, and the yellowjackets showed no signs of stopping to fire. Winter raised her voice.
Muskets came off of shoulders, rattling up and down the line.
Four hundred barrels swung up into line. Winter gave them a heartbeat to steady.
The volley crashed out with a roar. At a distance of perhaps eighty yards, it wasn't the most effective shooting -- it was easy to over- or under-shoot a target at that distance, even without the inherent inaccuracy of a smoothbore musket -- but the smoke that puffed out over the Girls' Own was what Winter really wanted. They couldn't afford to let the Hamveltai get a really good look at what was in front of them; if they realized they outnumbered the defenders by better than two to one, they might charge at once, and Winter didn't think her troops would hold in the face of a thousand bayonets. Baiting the yellowjackets into a firefight would buy time.
Men dropped, all along the advancing line, and were swallowed by the formation as it closed up. The Hamveltai continued their march while the Girls' Own frantically reloaded, each woman ripping the top off a paper cartridge with her teeth and pouring the pre-measured powder down her barrel, then spitting the ball in after. The fastest of them were just firing their second shot when the drums beat a new command, and the yellowjackets halted. Their first two ranks raised their weapons. Winter stared at the line of muskets, standing out like quills on a porcupine, and fought the instinct to curl into a fetal position. She was close enough to hear the officers on the other side scream in Hamveltai.
The Hamveltai line lit up like a flash of lightning, swallowed immediately by a roil of smoke. Once again, Winter was surrounded by the whirr of balls passing overhead and the pock of impacts on the dirt, accompanied by the wetter-sounding thwack of lead meeting flesh. Women toppled forward, or sagged against their neighbors, or stumbled back out of the line with screams and curses.
"Close up!" Winter shouted. She had to gasp for air; she'd been holding her breath. "Close up! Hold the line!"
Jane, Abby, and the other lieutenants took up the call, and the sergeants -- chosen from volunteers Winter had hoped wouldn't panic under pressure -- echoed them. The line contracted, rankers shuffling sideways to fill in gaps, pushing the fallen aside or stepping over them. More muskets banged, with the irregular rhythm of rain drumming on a window, each soldier firing as soon as she was ready. The second Hamveltai volley, when it came, was nearly as neat as the first, and another chorus of screams was added to the familiar sound of battle.
It was what Winter had wanted -- a firefight, instead of a charge -- but it was worse than she'd imagined. The yellowjackets were good troops, well-trained, and their volleys were as regular as the tolling of a clock. At every blast, more soldiers fell, the survivors pushing into the gaps, or being hit in their turn and collapsing atop dead or dying comrades. The banging of their own musketry started to sound pathetic by comparison, ragged and useless against the unwavering will of the Hamveltai elites.
"Close up!" Jane shouted on the right. "Hold the line!"
"Close up, you shit-stinking daughters of fucking goats!" Becca screamed, voice hoarse with excitement or terror. "Hold the fucking line!"
"Close u--" Chris said, then cut off. Winter glanced to her left, squinting against the smoke, and saw that a ball had gone right through her throat, producing a spectacular arterial spray. The big woman slapped a hand against the wound, bright red pulsing through her fingers, then crumpled in place.
They're going to break. They had to, there was no other way out. Stubborn pride and the unwillingness to show fear in front of their fellow soldiers would keep the rankers in the patently unequal firefight for a while, but it could have only one outcome. The Hamveltai certainly weren't going to give up, not with the return fire visibly slackening. When it had faded enough, they would fix bayonets and charge.
We have to fall back. But that would be as bad as a rout. Maybe if we run for the village, some of us will make it. They could barricade a building, hold out for a while. Until de Ferre gets his head out of his ass. Unless, of course, the colonel decided the day was lost and ordered a retreat. Then, cut off and surrounded, there would be no option but to surrender or fight to the death. Winter wasn't sure she was capable of giving either order. She felt paralyzed, watching her soldiers cut down by measured volleys, like the ticks of a funereal clock, unable to do anything to get them out of it --
Someone grabbed her arm, shouted in her ear. It took her a moment to parse the words over the blasts of musketry, and a moment longer to recognize Bobby.
"--coming up the road!" she was saying.
Winter blinked. She looked over her shoulder and saw a mass of men and horses in the behind them, working energetically around the low, deadly shapes of cannon. An officer was frantically clearing the teams and caissons out of the way, and artillerymen were already ramming home the first loads.
Bobby was still talking, but her words were distant and indistinct to Winter's abused ears. The sense behind them, though, was obvious.
"Fall back!" Winter shouted. "Back! Form behind the guns!"
Other voices took up the cry. She heard Jane's -- thank God, thank God -- and Folsom's bass roar. He must have come back with Bobby. The line had been leaking troops to the rear for some time, walking wounded making their escape, probably including some who weren't actually wounded at all. The shouts of their officers snapped the bonds of pride and duty that held the women of the Girls' Own in place, and they turned away from the firefight as one body, as though a mechanism had been suddenly tripped. Winter had to backpedal frantically to keep from being trampled by the mass of rankers; not screaming or throwing away their weapons, but shoving forward with a silent, earnest determination not to be the last in line.
One more volley stabbed out from the Hamveltai line, cutting down the rear-most stragglers and those whose wounds had made them slow to retreat. Winter heard the yellowjackets cheering, and their officers shouting orders. The drums thrilled faster, to the charge pace.
She turned away, running along with the rest. In a few moments she was among the guns, passing between the big, many-spoked wheels, and then into the clear space beyond. It took an effort of will to stop running, with the image of all those bayonets following close on her heels fresh in her mind, but Winter was pleased to see that most of her soldiers had managed it. They pulled up short, doubled over and breathing hard, fell to their knees or flopped to the ground. One girl caught Winter's eye, hands clasped in front of her face as she repeated a frantic prayer of thanks, over and over.
Behind them, the cannoneers were getting ready. Most of the Girls' Own were past, and only a few limping wounded were still on the road in front of the guns. As these last stragglers lurched past the muzzles of the artillery, the pall of smoke rippled, and the massed ranks of the yellowjackets emerged, still marching in step. A ripple ran through their line at the sight of the guns, but it was too late to stop. They gave a hoarse cheer and broke into a charge.
A young lieutenant of artillery brought his hand down, a dismissive, peremptory gesture. Gunners brought their burning brands to the touchholes of their weapons. Winter had time to slam her hands over her ears, and a moment later a blaze of light and a crashing roar seemed to fill the world.