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The Courtesan's War -- Hot War

It comes as something of a surprise to me, looking ahead, that I have 47,000 words done of the fourth Elza book, The Courtesan's War.

The Emperor's Agent will be out August 1 in ebook and September 15 in print, and The Marshal's Lover will be out next year in 2014. And after that? The Courtesan's War.

The story is turning, beginning to lead down into darkness. Here, caught in fatal Lammastide brightness, is the beginning of the book, August 12, 1809. I'd love to hear what you think!

I heard the sound of cannon fire long before I saw the guns. A volley of smaller caliber field guns, I thought, probably ten pounders, and not more than two batteries. There was no whiff of smoke in the still, hot sky, penned in by the terrain of broken hills, a windless, scorchingly hot day with nothing to carry the smoke.

I had hurried from Florence to Perpignan in what seemed like a moment. Days of travel blurred together in a haze of impressions as though they were nothing, as though I had simply stepped across the miles in a heartbeat like an angel or a god. At Perpignan I changed into the uniform of the Chasseurs à Cheval that I had brought with me. Thus dressed I could go where I liked -- chasseurs often carried dispatches and orders and mail, and there was nothing at all unusual about a lone chasseur making his way along our supply lines, asking after VI Corps headquarters. Michel, at least, was easy to find, even with all of the Spanish countryside before me.

While I had been in Italy things had gone from bad to worse in Spain. What was supposed to be the easy task of simply propping up an unstable but friendly régime had changed entirely when the king had fled to our protection and his son had been proclaimed in his place. The Francophile supporters of modernization had been marginalized and the Inquisition invited to return. Our campaign to restore the king had been successful in conquering Madrid, and that should have been the end of it.

Only it wasn't. All over the countryside bands of rebels had risen up, some of them promised a place in heaven by their priests if they took part in a holy crusade to rid Spain of the godless ones. There was no Spanish army. There were disorganized bands of peasants who acted like outlaws, waylaying supply trains and attacking small detachments. For all purposes Spain descended into anarchy wherever we did not have sufficient military presence. These guerillas, fighters of "the little war", attacked and simply melted away. Who could tell, looking at a band of sweaty men toiling in the fields, whether in a moment they would rush you with machetes, or whether one would suddenly be surprised by gunfire from cover? Who could tell, coming in to an apparently peaceful village, if every house hid insurgents? Who could tell when every encounter might be an ambush? We had now been at this business nearly two years and there was no end in sight.

Of course there was a real army in it too. The British were allied with the Portuguese and readily supplied the Spanish guerillas through Portugal, going as far as sending British military advisors deep into Spain to train and assist bands of rebel fighters. Were we to respect the neutrality of Portugal when they were allowing the British to use them as a staging ground for a proxy war? And so now there was a British army in the field too, commanded by a very competent general, Arthur Wellesley, who had made his name in India, extending the rule of the British East India Company over the Maratha princes. He had recently won a victory over our forces at Talavera, but was unable to follow up on it because of the instability of his own allies, who promised and then denied him food and fodder. Now Wellesley retreated into Portugal to a more secure base of operations, and Michel pursued him with VI Corps.

I presumed, hearing the thunder of our guns ahead, that Michel had managed to come upon the rearguard of Wellesley's army on the road to Valladolid, and was forcing an engagement. Therefore I set my heels to my horse's side and hurried forward, my heart beating faster.

I passed several artillery caissons likewise coming forward bringing fresh shot and powder, and demanded of the sergeant in charge, "Where is Marshal Ney?"

"Forward," he shouted back, as the din of the battery firing again, now at much closer range, made it difficult to speak in normal tones. "I heard the bugle call to form up."

To charge the British positions, I thought. I could see what the situation must be. The road to Valladolid rose sharply into a pass between two broken hills -- not mountains, as neither of them could have topped a thousand feet, but they were steep and rocky with only a few twisted evergreen trees clinging to their sides. A road barely wide enough for a single wagon and suitable for goats wound up and passed between them, overhung on one side with a rocky escarpment.

No, I thought. It was not that we had caught Wellesley's rearguard. It was that some unit had been left at the most defensible place in the road to slow our pursuit of the main body. They could buy time, even if it was only hours.

Our cannon spoke again, targeting positions above along the road, in the trees, among the boulders. Presumably they were sighted on places our spotters had seen movement, but I saw nothing. If there were anyone there they had either gotten under cover or they were dead.

And there was Michel. My heart jumped in my chest. His tall bicorn was ornamented with a white plume so that he could be easily identified in battle, but it was in his hand this moment, the hot sun glancing off copper hair, his face red with sunburn and exertion, caught in motion as he turned his horse to speak with the bugler, his white pants gleaming through the lingering powder smoke. There was Michel, whole and terrible and familiar. I saw him lean in the saddle to tell the bugler something, and I spurred forward among the massing hussars, their ranks serrated and spaced, only a few horses prancing with impatience, scarlet wool and dark fur pelisses in the Spanish sun. A regiment of Polish lancers were behind them in green and gold, steel breastplates and long moustaches. It was to be cavalry to ride them down and overrun them.

I had only a moment. The Poles were still forming up. They let me through the ranks, a chasseur carrying dispatches. My hand was on the hilt of my epée.

He saw me. An expression of utter disbelief crossed his face and he shook his head as though he could scarcely credit what he saw.

"Good afternoon, Michel," I said. I thought I was probably grinning in a decidedly unmilitary fashion. "Busy day?"

"Just a bit," he said. His eyes ran over my face and he shook his head again. "I've got some business I have to attend to right now. Are you going or staying?"

"Staying," I said.

At that he couldn't help but break a smile. "Since you've got a taste to have an arm or leg less, to horse and come on!" He wheeled about, his big brown horse neat on its feet as an Andalusian, putting his hat back on his head. He drew saber with one hand and raised the other to the bugler.

The guns fell silent. They'd softened up the positions for us. Now it was our turn.

There was the clattering of steel as the hussars drew in unison, sabers flashing free of scabbards. It rang eerily in the sudden silence.

And then the bugle call cut across all, high pure notes like the cry of a stooping falcon. Charge.

The Poles answered with a roar. The entire line got into motion, the center stepping out more quickly and the sides following a few paces behind, then at a walk as the center broke into a trot, Michel and the color bearer and its guardians to the fore and myself just behind. Guidon pennants flashed on the lances as the Poles couched them, the proper distance between fore and after ranks reached.

Eight hundred strong, the massive wedge accelerated. I put my heels to my horse and lifted my head, feeling again the beautiful poison in my veins, the elongation of time, heart beating to the thunder of the hooves, every movement alive with the vital joy of destruction. Over the dusty ground we flew, my eyes on the colors ahead, on Michel's white plume, on the fire flashing from his upraised saber, the flying wedge just as it had been done from Alexander's day.

There were shots ahead. Not all the men among the rocks were dead. They fired singly, not in volley, white puffs of smoke standing out here and there. The road narrowed and we funneled into the closer space, the front ranks of hussars overtaking the colors and clawing their way up the road. Now some shots told. A horse went down shrieking and I coaxed mine up, jumping cleanly over the rider who had fallen clear, lying with his arms over his head to protect it.

I didn’t see what happened to him because then we were among them, not British regulars in their red coats, but Spanish peasants with new muskets, caught in the middle of reloading. One man swung his like a club and I ducked it. I couldn't get my epée across in time, and the momentum of my horse took me past him, among the rocks and scrub pines. One couldn't turn about, not with the press of horsemen behind, carried forward as though on a mighty wave surging up over the sand. Michel and the colors and turned another way, onto one of the paths that led to the overhang, though one of the color guard tried to slow in front of me, separated from his charge. The firing was sporadic behind us. Instead I could hear the screams and the shouts of men, the frightened calls of wounded horses, and above all the shouts of the Lancers yelling something I couldn’t quite understand, some name or invocation as they plowed into the fray.

I was carried clean through the pass like a piece of flotsam on the front of the wave is borne far up on the beach. We came clear out the other side, looking down across the valley beyond. If Wellesley's rear guard had been waiting for us it would have been a disaster, but there was no one there. Ahead of us was only empty road. There was not even the telltale dust cloud in the distance, proof of a marching column.

Something was decidedly not right.

I pulled to the side, getting off the road and out of the way of those behind me where the path widened out, letting the momentum of the charge go past me.

"Look!" a hussar shouted. There were figures silhouetted against the sky, men with muskets hurrying along the hilltop, now pausing to look back or fire. They were withdrawing to the west along the ridge line on terrain too steep for our horses. If we had sharpshooters we might have made something of it, but not with a bunch of hussars. I looked doubtfully at the slope, as did half the men about me. Not unless I were riding a mountain goat, I thought. Or possibly a balloon. The gondola of a balloon would be an ideal platform, but short of a way to carry the battle into the air, I was at a loss.

There were still shots behind, sporadic and occasional. I heard the bugle call again: form up.

I turned about, retracing my path through the pass, the road littered here and there with one of our men giving succor to one of his fellows. The ambulances had not yet come up, but the aid men had and here one knelt beside a trooper gushing blood from a leg wound, telling a Lancer to keep the pressure on, his hands slick with blood, while the other got a tourniquet on it. The enemy dead lay where they had fallen.

I found Michel on the overhang. Away to the west thunderclouds were building, though here there was not a breath of wind. The bodies lay in pitiful bundles, not a one in uniform, all tattered breeches and peasant shirts, lying in the dirt and gore.

"What about the British?" I said.

Michel shook his head grimly. "Wilson," he said, as though it were an epithet. "This is Wilson's doing."

I looked at the nearest aide. "Who?"

"He's a British military advisor," Michel said. "Sent in to help the Spaniards. And he's helped them all right -- to their deaths. They stayed to put up an ambush so that Wellesley could make Ciudad Rodrigo safely. But after all, they're only native allies. Who gives a damn what happens to a bunch of filthy peasants?" He took his hat off and wiped his forehead again where the sweat ran down in his eyes.

A Lancer officer came up and saluted sharply. "Sir."

"What are our losses?" Michel asked, turning about on his heel.

"Forty-eight dead," the Pole said in good French. "Somewhere close to a hundred and ninety wounded. Dr. Duplessis says that most aren't life threatening, but he can't give you anything better now."

:"Of course not," Michel said quietly. "He’ll need several hours." He put his hat back on his head. "Get me a body count." He glanced at me. "It's the only way to measure success against insurgents."

"Yes, sir," the Lancer said, and saluted again.

Michel lifted his head and looked about for the aide. "Bring up the infantry and have them pass through Puerto de Banos to the other side and wait. Dr. Duplessis may second whoever he needs for ambulance detail. When he says he's ready we'll move on to Valladolid."

The aide swallowed nervously. "Aren't we going to press on after Wellesley?"

"Oh he's long gone," Michel said bitterly. "These men have been set up here for several days. Wellesley's in Ciudad Rodrigo by now. I'll catch him one day, but it won't be today." He let out a long breath. "As soon as our wounded can travel we'll move to Valladolid and hold there." He looked at me. "It's a different war," he said.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 18th, 2013 06:39 am (UTC)

But it's going to very strange to be reading about this time and place from the 'opposite' side. I had a serious disconnect while reading the excerpt because I was flashing back to the Richard Sharpe books!
Jun. 18th, 2013 02:08 pm (UTC)
It's exactly the other side of Sharpe! And I see that's a disconnect, yes.
Jun. 18th, 2013 08:04 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad we get so many Elza books. And this looks great.
Jun. 19th, 2013 01:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I think there will be six in all.
Jul. 2nd, 2013 01:53 pm (UTC)
They are fighting against guerillas, and a regular army rarely wins against guerilla tactics. Makes me think of the British & French fighting with / against the First Nations - different tactics getting all muddled, confusion of allies & enemies...

How many Elza books do you think there might be, in the end? That there will be four is already an unexpected pleasure!
Jul. 2nd, 2013 05:15 pm (UTC)
And this is the war where the word "guerilla" comes from. It's not going to go well, no. Nothing about this will be good. And in a lot of ways we've been fighting this war ever since.

I just posted about how many! :)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )