The Heretic – Snippet 40
Abel looked at her a moment, shook his head. “Where is your husband? What does he have to say about this?”
“He’s with me,” answered Flem Stopes, the miller, cracking the faintest of smiles. “And he says that he’s tried for six months to break this mount –” He turned toward Mahaut and bowed “– pardon me, ma’am.” Mahaut nodded her assent for him to go on. “– and he can’t do it. He says he figures no man can if he cannot, but that maybe a fight will finally do his job for him, break her, I mean. Make her a little more pliable.”
Mahaut smiled, shook her head. “I’m pliable enough for what he wants,” she said. “This is different. I have friends in that village. Lots of us women do. And we don’t want to leave it all to the men, getting rid of the Blaskoye.”
Mims accent, though Abel. It was a larger town, almost a city — although only Lindron would truly qualify for that distinction given what he’d been shown by Center and his projections — and the women were given more leeway there than elsewhere in the Land, at least anywhere Abel had been. They might hold professions other than teacher or whore in Mims, for instance.
“I want you in the rear,” Abel said. “You and the other women.”
“We want to fight, lieutenant,” she said. Being the daughter of DeArmanville, she would know his official rank. “Lots of us are armed with muskets, older ones, true, and all of us have had practice with bow and even spear. I’ve seen to it for months, ever since they elected me.”
She’s right about one thing. A woman can pull a trigger just as easily as can a man, Raj said. And she looks to be capable with that bow, or at least she wears it well.
Abel looked at Mahaut, blinked once. They had met several times at officer’s family get-togethers, but she, being a year his senior — an enormous gap at fourteen — had barely given him the time of day. For his part, he hadn’t thought her particularly comely. Her diaphanous robes were the best one could get from the linen works of Fyrpahatet, the seaside town where a leaf-eating creature that produced the fiber thrived, but she’d worn them indifferently. Although she was pretty enough, she’d also worn hardly a smudge of makeup back then, and he’d believed her skin was on the darker side of bronze, until he’d noticed a tan-line near her shoulder.
Exactly the lighter strip that a quiver strap might create, he now realized.
Most of the girls of Hestinga worked hard to stay out of the sun and light-toned, even those who were black and brown by ancestry. The idea, Abel supposed, being that un-tanned skin signaled less work in the sun, and hence a higher social status. Obviously, this did not matter to Mahaut Jacobson, and if it mattered to her husband, he hadn’t been able to persuade her of the matter.
“Listen,” he said to her. “We’re circling that knoll to the west — he pointed to the rise to the northwest, beyond which lay Lilleheim — and forming up half way down the beginnings of the Escarpment slope. If you’re in the rear, you’ll be above the main body of Militia. You’ll have a clear sightline to the Blaskoye if they make a run for us, which I’m guessing they will.”
“But, I –”
“You’ll get your chance to prove all that target practice was worth it,” Abel said.
“Why not put us up front and closer to start with,” she quickly replied, “let us fire a volley, then the men come up and absorb us into the lines?”
She isn’t going to let this go, Abel thought. She’s got a vision of how she wants it to be, and, like many soldiers, himself included before he’d gained more experience, isn’t willing to let that vision of glory go, even under changing circumstances.
“I could order you away entirely if you keep questioning my judgment. I believe I could get Fleming here to back me up, couldn’t I?”
“Damn right,” said Hornburg. “There’s no place for women in any of this. They’re just going to be a nuisance and probably get more of us killed than had to be.”
Abel turned back to Mahaut. “See?” he said. “That’s what you’re contending with here. I’m your friend.” He motioned over his shoulder. “The enemy is that way.”
“I know that,” she answered, “lieutenant.”
“Then listen to me,” Abel continued, trying to strike a conciliatory tone. “This is Militia, not Regulars, Mahaut. You, of all people, should know what that means. The chance that we would be able to advance in an orderly fashion around you is next to nothing. What will actually happen is utter confusion. People dying as a result. Trampling. And the loss of any respect you have gained so for your women.”
Mahaut looked thoughtful, and then chagrinned. Maybe he was getting through to her.
“So take your position and rain some fire down on those bastards when the time comes,” he said.
Mahaut nodded, and snapped to attention. “Yes, sir,” she said. “That we will do.”
“Good,” Abel said, and then he turned to the disposition of his remaining troops.
He formed them into an obtuse angle along the contours of the knoll and the rising Valley floor to the northwest. Stopes, the miller’s men, who were mostly made up of town merchant, manufacturers, and guildsmen, he put on the knoll, with Fleming Hornburg’s farmers, serfs and sharecroppers along the Escarpment rise. His idea was to cut off the Redlanders to the northeast and force them west as they fought, back up the Escarpment trail that led down into Lilleheim — up toward the supposedly waiting Scouts.
He would have to hope village fire drill practice had been thorough enough. He knew the Regulars would be massed three lines deep, with each group engaged in a separate part of reloading of muskets. He could count on no such orderly engagement from the Militia, or really, any order at all. They would therefore form a single line.
At least they have the high ground, Abel thought. Although I doubt a single one of them has practiced firing downhill.
It was going to be interesting.
And, with a shout, a crackle, and a rising cloud of black powder exhaust, the attack of the Regulars began.
Abel sprang onto his dont. He was occupying the salient in his lines, the crook of the angle, which gave him a fairly unobstructed view of his entire force.
The thrice-dammed farmers were charging.
What was Hornburg thinking? Abel had given explicit orders to hold position, wait for the Blaskoye to appear as they were driven toward Abel’s Militia. And even then, wait for Abel’s command.
Obviously this had meant nothing to the Hornburg idiot. Without another thought, Abel kicked his dont into motion and charged down the hill. It took him a moment to get in front of the charging line, but he was on dontback and they, except for a small cavalry unit, were on foot, and he outpaced them. Then he turned along the lines, riding in front of them.
“Halt! Halt!” he called. “Wait for them! Halt, I say!”
And most of them did. All except Hornburg and his “cavalry” unit. The sixteen donts and riders charged forth down the slope and toward the village. They reached the edge, aiming their short barreled carbines ahead of them. Plumes flew back from their saddle, and one carried a regimental standard, blue and white, that streamed behind.
They did look glorious. Brave. Gallant.
Abel stopped up short near the end of the line, which had now halted its advance, entered again with the troops.
“Come on, boys,” he said. “I hope you give it to them.”
But they rode right into a fusillade of lead, just as he’d feared they would. The invisible scythe cut through them, taking man from saddle and felling donts with flowering wounds to the head or legs. The charge seemed to hesitate, lose steam. And then, as if by signal, the donts broke and parted, some to one side, some to another, as if the unseen clump of those riflemen who opposed them were a literal wedge. There was more fire from along the edge of the village, and the donts turned entirely about and were scrambling back toward Abel and the lines. Quite a few of them were merely obeying the herd instinct to follow the group, and were riderless now.
“Thrice damn him,” Abel said. He turned to a nearby solider. “Find me Captain Hornburg. Do you see him?”
“He rides the spot-faced doe yonder,” said the other, pointing to a dont. Its rider was still in the saddle, but was slumped over, holding to an arm.
Up rode Fleming Hornburg. There was fire in his eyes for Abel. “You Scout scum, you Zentrum-damned sellout! You cut off my support! I’ll see your command taken for that! I’ll see you hanged for a coward, that’s what!”
Hornburg turned his dont, grazed the flank against Abel’s own animal, and Abel’s leg. A childish attempt to embarrass him, as even Hornburg must know he would be able to quickly slip the foot free and avoid injury.
“You’re wounded, sir,” Abel said.
“A scratch, you stupid fool,” Hornburg shouted back. He raised his carbine and pointed it at Abel. Abel stood his ground, still in the saddle of his dont Spet — a beast which had faced open muzzles before, and did not shy.
“Lower that rifle, Captain,” Abel said.
“I should shoot you down where you stand.”
Abel did not move. His own carbine remained in its saddle holster and his dragon blunderbuss tucked in his waist band.
Hornburg pulled the trigger.
Of course nothing, Abel thought. You haven’t had time to reload. The only chance was that you hadn’t gotten a shot off in the first place.
Even as he thought this, Abel moved forward. Using his momentum, he snatched the rifle from the hands of an amazed Hornburg, then wheeled about, rejoined the line and, in full sight of the men, carefully and quickly reloaded — a task he knew he could do in better than half the time of all but a few who might be watching. He took a cap from his cartridge box, half-cocked the trigger and then held the rifle, butt-first — in an outstretched hand toward Hornburg.
“Here, Captain,” he calmly said. “Now it’s ready to use again. At my command.”
Hornburg sat staring hatred at him for a moment. Then he reached out and snatched the gun from Abel, wheeled and rejoined his other Scouts who were back in the lines once again a short distance away.
Abel pushed through and rode along the rear of his line back to his previous position at the salient. There was more crackling and war cries from the village, but the lines held firm, waiting. It seemed to Abel, gazing down it, that the line itself was trembling in anticipation.
Then the waiting was over.