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A Winter Campaign

A reader says, "I need a Numinous World fix! When is the next Elza book coming out?"

Not too much longer, I hope! But to tide you over, here's a sneak peek from The Marshal's Lover, the next book with Elza. Interestingly enough, this is one of the first scenes written in the Numinous World. The original draft of this scene dates to 1992!



The next morning we broke camp at dawn, the usual chaos of moving out of an encampment we'd been in for some weeks, thousands forming up into column for the road, followed by the living monster that is the baggage train, sutlers and wives and wagons of all kinds, provisions and personal belongings and children and pets and the rest. Max rode with the medical wagons in the back. We had no wounded with us at present, as they had all been sent to hospitals in Warsaw, but we did have a number of men on sick call with one thing and another, mostly respiratory illnesses that surfaced every winter, and so his duties continued even on the march.

Michel rode to the fore with his staff, and I could hardly join him there, though I certainly did not want to confine myself to the back of the baggage train. Instead I fell in with Dery in the squadron of hussars to which he belonged.

It had cleared finally, and the rain had frozen, making a fine tracery of ice on trees and earth that melted as the morning passes.

"If this keeps up the roads will be a morass," Dery said. As though they weren't already, I thought. Days and days of rain on top of melting snow meant that in some places the mud came up to the horses' knees.

I nodded, dropping behind him. It did not look good for me to put myself forward too much, especially when we had seen no action since I came down from Warsaw. I did not want to engender resentments.

I slowed Pomme just a little, and we slipped into the first rank, riding in loose order wherever the solidity of the road surface permitted. The hussar on my left, hardly more than a boy, smiled a little shyly at me, as if uncertain whether to dare a greeting or not.. He looked vaguely ridiculous in his fierce costume and struggling moustache, as though he would be much more at home mucking out stables in Toulouse. I wondered how old he actually was.

I smiled back, not seductively, just a friendly nod as passes between companions of the road. The morning drew on with a five minute halt for water later. I took advantage of the halt to check the condition of Pomme's feet, an action that won a look of approval from Dery. He had not been Michel's aide long. It was always like that when they did not yet know me, and supposed I must be different than I am.

Pomme nickered softly and butted against my shoulder. I leaned gratefully against her, looking into one intelligent brown eye. We got on well. Before Pomme had been mine she had been Corbineau's, a strained relationship at best as each strove for mastery. I had bought her from Corbineau a year ago when it became clear that my beloved Nestor was no longer up to the rigors of a campaign at twenty three. Nestor, in turn, had been sold to Gervais Subervie and was currently enjoying his retirement at Subervie's parents' inn in Gascony, where he was teaching young Master Jean Subervie, age five and a half, to ride.

I swung back up again, trying to look easier than I felt. During the stop my muscles had frozen up a little, which was what I deserved for the months of not riding enough astride while on the Emperor's business, and I could feel the ache along the insides of my thighs. However, at least my courses had decided to absent themselves once again, as they often did on campaign. It did not bear thinking that there could be some other reason for it.

While we were mounting up Michel rode up with three or four other men, his chief of staff and an Imperial Aide-de-Camp I did not know. I made myself inconspicuous behind a tree lest he tell me to move to a position further in the rear, back in the baggage train where I ought to be under any circumstances.

Michel drew rein to talk to Dery. I only caught a few words across the distance -- Dery had sent out a fan of chasseurs ahead of the column an hour previously but they had not yet reported back.

Michel nodded. "Not time enough yet," he said to the Aide-de-Camp, and they moved on, past us toward the head of the column.

We swung back onto the road under a brightening sky. It looked as though the sun were beginning to break through the clouds, a welcome change from the days of rain, now and again peeking through scudding low veils. Somewhere ahead somebody began a bawdy song, but was hushed with the reminder that the Marshal and his staff were just ahead. I whistled under my breath, and Pomme pricked her ears, dark hairs on the tips in contrast to her silvery gray coat.

"She's a pretty one," the boy next to me said. "What is she?"

"Part Lusitano, part who knows what," I said, reaching forward and patting her flank. "She's a good horse."

The boy looked doubtful. "Bit small."

"Not for me," I said. I've never liked sheer size in a horse. I preferred intelligence and speed rather than sheer power.

Ahead, a faint flash among the trees caught my eye. Dery was coming forward along the side of the column keeping anyone from straggling and pulled up beside me. "Did you see that?"

"Yes."

The boy looked bewildered as Dery nodded abruptly and touched his heels to his horse's flank, spurring up towards the front of the column, maneuvering around the ranks carefully spread out to take advantage of wherever the road's surface was most solid. Before he reached the first rank and the staff ahead the woods erupted with gunfire, powder smoke rolling forward in a cloud as the reports startled birds from the trees.

Beside me the boy sank slowly in the saddle, blood streaming from his mouth and shattered jaw as he fell towards me, his eyes wide with disbelief.

Pomme shied at the falling body, nearly going up on her hind legs, and I pulled her hard to the right toward the trees that verged the road. The reins were in my right hand and beneath me Pomme danced to avoid the corpse beneath her feet. I touched my heels to her and she pushed toward the trees that lined the road to the right, their interlaced branches bare with winter.

They were beyond the trees. I could see them now, men kneeling in line to reload, the rank behind standing, and I knew I was marked. I hauled on Pomme hard, putting the trunk of a big tree between me and the ones I could see.

And not a moment too soon. The next volley crashed into us, the screams of a wounded horse mingling with the cries of men. Dery was shouting orders and in the woods I heard answering shouts, words I didn't understand. Whether they were orders to reload or fall back I could not tell.

Suddenly Pomme reared, backing frantically. In our cut toward the trees we almost stumbled over one of their men reloading, the wadding gripped in his teeth. With a cry he threw the gun down, reaching for the long knife in his belt.

I wasn't certain how my saber came to be in my left hand, as I didn't remember drawing it at all, though of course I must have. As Pomme came down I struck him across the face, leaving a bloody ruin and a sickening grating on bone that almost tore the hilt out of my hand. I jerked it to free it, propelled forwards by Pomme's momentum.

Behind me I heard Michel shouting, "Get off the road!" his voice carrying over every melee. In any case, the firing was sporadic, one or two shots here and there as men had reloaded, punctuated with the different report of one of our officer's pistols.

I wheeled about, raising the saber to guard, the blood running down the channels of the blade and soaking my glove, looking about the wood. The underbrush was sparse, bare and broken branches and drifts of last year's leaves, little enough cover. I could see that they were pulling back, pale sunlight glancing off fixed bayonets as they backed away. There were two on foot ahead fighting with a mounted hussar who had broken through, his scarlet pelisse bright as blood in the wood. I ducked under a branch and rode at them, taking the first from behind, his arm going slack as I severed the tendons in his shoulder with the first downward swipe while the blood from the severed artery fountained in the air.

Then I was past him, stirrup to stirrup with the other hussar, a man whose face I knew but whose name I did not remember.

The firing was sporadic, and there were no others near except the dead and dying, so we turned back toward the road. Michel rode up at a canter, bared saber in hand, and for a moment I did not think he recognized me, so intent was his face, stern and serene at once, incongruous amid the carnage. Without a word he rode past and with a shrug the veteran and I wheeled to follow. My left wrist hurt. I must have twisted it on the recovery to guard.

The firing had stopped. There were eight of us together now, other troopers forming up. Dery and Michel had spurred up the bank further along, where it was steeper, pursuing them into the woods with the rest of the troop. On the road there were six red jacketed bodies in the mud, one struggling while his horse stood over him, head down and stirrups empty. The veteran dismounted, squelching toward him. Behind me I could hear the frantic whinny of an injured horse. As quickly as it began it was over. The acrid powder smoke was blowing away rapidly to the east, leaving the road bathed in winter sunshine. I let Pomme pick her own way up the bank.

"Russians." Dery was dismounted, speaking to Michel, prodding at one of the bodies with one toe. Michel had not dismounted. "A foraging party, I should say, not a movement en masse."

Eleazar was used to the smell of blood and stood perfectly calmly though mud and gore coated his white socks. "I expect," Michel said. He raised his head, the pale winter light glancing off his hair. "They've the same problems with food and fodder that we do."

"My thought is they mistook us for a supply train and then got a nasty surprise," Dery said.

Michel nodded. "No doubt. Have someone ride after Lieutenant Montreux and his men and tell them to come back here. There's no point in chasing a few stragglers all over the countryside." Then he turned Eleazar and rode toward the back of the column, where the bodies were.

Comments

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jo_graham
Oct. 16th, 2014 01:15 pm (UTC)
Exactly! She's lucky. And she's good. Both things together.
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