CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Clash of Arms

Ash awoke to the ground pounding against his ear, and recognized the sound in an instant.

The old Roshun leapt up with his sheathed sword in hand and scanned the perimeter of wagons. Riders, tearing in through the night. Shouts of alarm rising in their wake.

A zel vaulted the yoke of a drawn wagon, threw up clods of snow from its hooves as it landed and regained its footing. Its rider yanked hard on the reins and Ash saw something in his hand with a smoking fuse trailing from it. The man tossed the jar into the wagon, which instantly burst into flames.

Someone screamed through the night. More riders were charging into the baggage camp, throwing firebombs at every wagon they could see. People yelled and ran for cover. The riders cut them down as they ran.

This is my chance.

Ash glanced to the north, where the tents of the Matriarch’s encampment stood glowing with inner light.

He started to jog.

It was a damned foolish time to be flying. The air up here was frigid enough to cover everything on the little skyboat with ice. The silk envelop overhead, the sweeping control vanes along its flanks, all shone with a stark whiteness, while frozen diamonds of moisture covered the frozen tiq spars and rigging that fixed the wooden hull to the gas bag. Even worse, the light could not be relied upon, for the snow-covered valley floor below them kept fading into blackness each time a cloud obscured the waning moons, reducing their visibility to almost nothing. For Halahan, it only made the experience more thrilling.

‘A cold night for it!’ he said to his staff sergeant over the sound of the thrusters.

The man was huddling amongst the men at the very centre of the narrow deck, as far from the rails as he could be. Staff Sergeant Jay, a fellow Nathalese veteran, only smiled miserably and closed his eyes again, and continued to chant a prayer beneath his breath.

Halahan casually chewed on his unlit pipe and surveyed his fellow Greyjackets. They held their longrifles upright in their arms and shivered beneath their coats, eyes flashing white in the gloom. A few passed around flasks of spirits, though none of them spoke beyond the odd whisper. Good fighters, all of them, he knew. Men he could rely upon, each one an exile from a conquered land.

Past their heads he spied the distant lights of the imperial army, and he chewed his pipe a little harder.

His own homeland of Nathal had fallen years ago, after he’d spent half his life as a preacher of Eres teaching the oneness of all. Now, Nathal was nothing more than another colony of Mann, the people exploited and oppressed worse than they ever had been by their own Nathalese nobility.

Halahan massaged his bad leg where it was throbbing from the chill – or perhaps it was from nothing more than old memories. He had gained the wound after the Imperial Fourth Army had invaded his homeland, a calamity that had caused him to set aside his preaching, and in the greatest of ironies to fight alongside Queen Hano and her forces. In the penultimate battle of the war along the banks of the Toin, his leg had been crushed by a skipping cannon shot, and he’d been left for dead when the army had been routed. Dragging himself away in the darkness, only the kindness of a local forest woman had saved him.

In the aftermath that followed, with the country set upon by the full force of the Mannian occupation, his faith had been the very last thing he had lost.

Halahan shifted his leg, blinking from the pain of it.

He looked to the pilot behind the wheel, wrapped in leathers and a scarf and ordinary flight goggles. The man pulled on levers next to the wheel to fire short bursts of the thrusters along the sides of the hull, while another crewman clambered through the icy rigging overhead, and struggled to open a frozen valve cap on the envelope itself, needing to release air from one of the ballast bladders to keep their nose low. Two more crewmen worked on this little skyboat commonly known as a skud. One sat behind the swivel-cannon as immobile as stone. Next to him perched the lookout, a woman wearing a pair of Owls, guiding the pilot on his course with silent gestures of loosehand.

The colonel watched her glove glow a ghostly blue in the dimness, impregnated as it was with a dye derived from the lakeweed of Simmer Lake. Each fresh signal was answered with another short puff of the thrusters, or a creak of ropes as one of the manoeuvring sculls was adjusted.

He patted Sergeant Jay on the shoulder and made his way forwards through the press of men. Neither of the two crewmen at the prow acknowledged his presence; both peered over the forward rail with utter attention. They stank of sweat, but then everyone on board did, including Halahan. Worse was the wind from all their loosening bowels.

They’ll smell us before they see us, he thought wryly.

Ahead of the skyboat, the lights of the imperial encampment grew ever closer. Shouts came to his ears, men bawling in surprise or panic. A low rumble announced the Khosian cavalry charging through their camp.

The skud was shedding height fast as it approached the enemy positions, picking up speed in its descent. Halahan shifted around in his crouch to look back along the deck over the heads of his men. Following the skyboat, he could see the odd flush of light against the night sky as one of the other skuds fired a brief burst, manoeuvring itself to stay on course in their wake. Seven squads of men in all, ten Greyjackets in each one. He hoped it would be enough to take the ridge and hold it.

The pilot burned the thrusters for another second, but then the lookout raised her hand and made a fist.

The pilot cut the thrusters and they drifted downwards in silence.

They were sailing over a fringe of the camp now. To the left, Halahan could see the road exposed beneath churned snow, and the distant travellers’ lodge and cottages around it, their windows all lit, and the countless glimmers of the camp covering the surrounding plain. Shadows were flitting across the open ground. Specials, running towards the enemy lines in their four-man squads.

A cloud was moving clear of the moons, lighting up the scene below once more. The struts creaked as the gunner scanned the skies ahead, searching for Mannian birds-of-war. Ice cracked on tensing ropes. The high breeze was pushing them slightly sideways as they went, and the pilot peered through the gloom at the luminous glove of the lookout, but she held it held it there, still clenched in a fist, not moving.

There it was. A ridge of high ground running along the southern flank of the imperial camp, its slopes dotted with sparse, scrawny trees. The skud was approaching on a diagonal course that would take them past the westernmost point of the ridge, where it rose in a steep and treeless bluff. Soldiers were moving on the ground directly beneath them, rousing themselves and gathering arms, though it looked as if their attentions were fixed on the attacks in the main camp.

The skud was coming in low now. A treetop brushed against the bottom of the hull. Halahan peered over the side with anticipation surging in his veins.

One minute, the lookout signalled.

Halahan’s Greyjackets gathered by the rails next to the furled rope-ladders. The nose levelled off and the skud began to slow. Still the breeze carried them sideways. Halahan spotted a few faces looking up at him, but their shouts of alarm were lost in all the confusion. The skyboat passed over a frozen stream, and then the snow on the ground became broken and uneven, and white pools of ice stood amongst fronds of marshgrass that ran all the way to the base of the bluff. The area here was clear of men.

Something flashed on top of the bluff. A shot skittered against the hull, then another.

The lookout turned back to the men on the deck, her eyes hidden by the Owls. She jabbed downwards with her thumb.

At once the Greyjackets cast the rope-ladders over the sides and began to clamber down them. Sergeant Jay was first off the boat. Halahan adjusted his hat and climbed down after him, the ladder swaying beneath his boots.

He landed ankle-deep in water as his feet broke through a thin crust of ice.

Wonderful, he thought. Now I’ll have wet feet all night.

It was darker here with the moons hidden by the rise of ground. Shots were slapping into the water all around them. Halahan crouched down amongst the marshgrasses as his men spread out into a skirmishing line and began to return fire.

The skud rose sharply as it shed the weight of its load. A few Greyjackets had to jump from the ends of the ladders. A second boat was coming in now, more Greyjackets climbing down from the ladders. Halahan saw the third skyboat crossing the stream. Shots were racing towards the drifting skuds from the top of the bluff, the odd one leaving a brief fiery trail like an afterimage in the eye.

‘Riflemen!’ Sergeant Jay shouted with a hand on his helm. ‘I was hoping they’d all be archers!’

The first skuds had ignited their thrusters on full and were climbing away to the right, their swivel-cannons spitting flames and grapeshot through the defenders on the ridge. Halahan saw pieces of wood flying; a scraggly yellowpine on the slope topple in half. He waited until the third skyboat had unloaded, knowing there was no time to wait for the others, and signalled for the second and third squad to advance on the bluff, while the first maintained fire to cover their approach.

He glanced back across the stream. Imperials were gathering and moving on their position. The remaining skyboats were coming in hot, with their thrusters trailing fire, the Greyjackets on board shooting down from the rails at the approaching men.

Sergeant Jay looked to Halahan as the assault squads jingled past them, their rifles on their backs and their shortswords naked in their hands, a few armed with pistols or miniature crossbows. Under gunfire they splashed forwards towards the slope.

Jay nodded to him. ‘I’ll see you at the top,’ he said, and the man drew his sword and set off after them.

Halahan wished him luck.

‘Hurry up, man,’ snarled Sparus as his aide rushed from the Archgeneral’s tent with two slaves dashing after him, each one bearing pieces of his armour.

Sparus stood in his underclothing, barely noticing the cold as he studied the chaos unfolding in the camp below.

The Khosian cavalry was rampaging through the baggage train now. Moments earlier they had rolled in out of the night like a ghostly host, while most of the men of the Expeditionary Force slept in their pup tents or climbed to their feet too stunned to act. If they’d stopped there it would have been bad enough. But instead they raised hell as they carried on through the camp that stretched long and thin between the lake and the far ridgeline, so that now, in the exposed circle of the baggage train, flames were rising from blazing wagons.

Khosian skirmishers had followed in the wake of the cavalry, fighting within the camp itself. They were good, whoever they were, and Sparus watched groups of figures fighting amongst his surprised troops, avoiding those islands of order where his officers bellowed at their men and roused them into some kind of formation.

‘Is it a raid?’ asked the young priest who stopped by his side, his eyes bleary with sleep. It was Che, Sasheen’s personal Diplomat.

‘No,’ Sparus told him, and looked to the west along the valley floor, where a bristle of spear-points glistened in the moonlight. The Diplomat followed his gaze, and stared at the sight without comment.

‘The Matriarch, is she up yet?’ Sparus asked of one of his aides as they helped fit his armour.

‘Barely,’ the harried aide replied. ‘She took a sleeping draught to help her sleep. A heavy one, they say.’

‘Romano?’

The aide was about to reply when a roar sounded from Romano’s tent, and they all turned in time to see an Acolyte being flung out into the snow with Romano emerging after him, naked and wild-eyed and gripping a shortsword in his hand. The young general staggered in the snow and righted himself. He saw Sparus strapping on his cuirass.

‘Tonight?’ he shouted across at him. ‘Tell me I’m dreaming, for pity’s sake!’

‘You are,’ drawled Sparus. ‘We all are.’

Romano rubbed at one of his eyes and swore.

‘Where is my armour?’ he hollered, stumbling back inside his tent.

General Sparus pulled tight on the last strap of his cuirass and grabbed one of his greaves from the hand of a slave. He checked the camp again, the flames bright in his eye.

They attack us, and at night, he mused silently.

Beside him, the Diplomat spoke without looking from the approaching chartassa.

‘These Khosians have balls,’ he declared, as though reading the general’s mind.

It was a desperate sight that faced Colonel Halahan as he made it to the top of the bluff. Imperial infantry and riflemen had been posted there to guard the mortar crews, and they were making a fight of it.

Out of the darkness an imperial soldier ran at him, hollering with spirit. Halahan tugged a pistol from his bandolier, pulled back the primer that would pierce the cartridge of water and blackpowder, and aimed it between the man’s eyes. He pulled the trigger and watched through a blossom of smoke as the man fell back to the ground, half his skull missing.

Absently he reloaded the pistol, breaking it open to pull out the spent cartridge, replacing it with another, closing the piece again.

He spotted another soldier running in from his left where the Greyjackets were locked in hand-to-hand melee. Halahan fired again, and didn’t miss.

The colonel took in the progress of the fight, and decided it was still too close to call. Behind him, down at the base of the slope, the rearguard squads fired at the Imperials rushing across the stream at them. Unconcerned, he gazed out over the snowy plain to the west. He could see glints of steel massed around a thin core of flickering torches, the Khosian chartassa, moving to engage the Imperials.

Again he reloaded the same pistol, though four other pieces lay snug in his bandolier. He stood there and waited, and had time enough to feel pride for these men under his command even amongst the ugliness of the fighting. Their anger could be seen in the way that they fought. This was personal to them. They had scores to settle, families to be avenged, memories to be released through the sharp end of a blade.

The tide was beginning to turn in their favour now. He saw the moment in which it happened, and it was neither relief nor surprise that occupied him while he waited for it to be over. Instead it was simple impatience.

As the remaining few Imperials were dispensed with, he strode out amongst his Greyjackets, watching the medicos move in to do their work on the wounded. A man swore and scrabbled at his blinded eyes while his comrades tried to hold him down. Another had lost a hand; he stared balefully at the severed appendage lying in the trampled snow as though it was a wife who’d left him for another.

In one spot, two Pathian brothers worked with their knives on a wounded imperial soldier. They were making sport of him, drawing sobs from his lips. Halahan didn’t stop them.

Instead he took out a match and fired up his pipe.

The ridge was theirs.

Now, all they had to do was hold it.

Soaring flames roared into the darkness of the sky. A rider bore down on Ash with a lowered lance. Without thinking, he slashed his sword up and cut the lance in two. The rider veered away, heading deeper into the circled baggage train.

Ash ran on towards the burning wagons at the perimeter, but he found his way suddenly blocked by groups of camp followers, those who had been near enough to witness his quick work with the sword. They gathered around him with their own knives and makeshift clubs, clearly decided upon staying as close to him as they could. Ash struggled to free himself from the press. He growled and swept the flat of his blade to force a way through.

‘Get back!’ he shouted at them all, for he could feel his chances of reaching Sasheen in time slipping away by the moment.

It was no good. Still they pressed tight around him.

Ash smashed a man’s noise flat across his face with a single punch, spilling him to the ground. He kicked another in the kneecap, heard the crack of it even amidst all the noise. The crowd pulled back in shock.

He panted down at the two prone men, saw the darkness of blood upon the slush of the ground. They were holding their hands up, trying to ward off any further attacks.

His anger dimmed, turning to shame.

I haven’t the time for this.

The crowd parted before him as he sprinted onwards.

Ash didn’t look back.

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