Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 59)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(59)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Grey turned and ran for his life. There was a roar of voices behind him, and the loud sharp pop! of an exploding grenade. Small objects pinged hard against his back and thighs, stung his legs but failed to penetrate the leather jerkin.

They were all after him now. He could hear the thump of feet and grunts of effort as they heaved their grenades. Terror lent wings to his feet, and he zigzagged frantically through the trees, the flash-bang of explosions shaking the bushes and driving rooks and blackbirds shrieking into the clouds above.

He skidded to a halt and nearly fell. Oh, Christ.

A company of French infantry turned surprised faces toward him, then, as comprehension dawned, several of them slung the muskets from their shoulders and began hastily to load. No way past them. Beyond them…beyond them lay rank upon rank upon rank of soldiers, a serried mass of blue and white.

A tremendous boom seemed to shake the trees, and a cannonball smashed through the brush on the far side of the dyke, no more than a hundred yards from where he stood. The battle had begun.

Lord John Grey sketched a gesture of salute toward the startled infantry, turned right, and amid a belated hail of musket balls and the occasional grenade, scrambled up the bank, and jumped into the Landwehr.

He couldn’t swim. Not that it mattered. He was wearing more than a stone’s weight of equipment, and he sank like a stone, bubbles gushing up through his clothes. Hit the muddy bottom. Bent his knees in panic and jumped, to rise no more than a foot or so. Sank back and felt his boots sink deep in the silt. He struggled blind in the murky water, tried frantically to shuck his coat, realized finally that he was still gripping his sword, and dropped it. His chest burned, swelling with the vain, irresistible desire to breathe.

He got the coat half off, and churned what breath there was in his lungs up and down the column of his throat, in hopes of extracting the last vestige of air from it. Scrabbled for the buckle of his belt, couldn’t get it loose, went back to yanking at his coat. Could hold his precious breath no longer, and let it go in a blubbering, bubbling cloud of relief and regret.

He was still mindlessly trying to get the damned coat off. It was stuck, wrenched askew over his shoulders, and he thrashed about in suffocating frenzy, fighting the murk, the mud, the weight of the water, the coat, the heavy boots, his straining chest, his goddamn cartridge box, for Christ’s bloody sake, whose strap had got round his neck and was going to strangle him before he drow—bloody hell!

Something struck his hand, hard. Panicked images of sharks, fish teeth, blood—he jerked back.

Idiot, he thought, with what faint vestige of sanity remained in his darkening mind. You’re in a f**king ditch.

And with that, reached out quite calmly and took hold of the thing his hand had struck. A tree root, curving out of the bank. Waved his other hand gently around, found a bloody tangle of roots—mats and strings and woody stems, a f**king plethora of roots. Pulled the cartridge box off over his head, dropped it, took a good grip, pulled one boot from the muck, and began to climb.

His face broke the surface in a rush of air so glorious that he didn’t care whether that breath might be his last.

He clung like a snail for several minutes, limbs trembling and heart pounding from the struggle, just breathing. Then, as his mind cleared, he realized that he had come up beneath an overhanging shelf of grassy earth. If any marksmen lingered on the bank above, it was no matter; he was invisible.

There was a lot of noise near at hand, but none of it directly overhead, and from what he could make out, none of it concerned with him. Orders were being shouted in French; the infantry company above was about to depart. He put his forehead against the cool mud of the bank and closed his eyes, waiting. Breathing.

He regretted the loss of his saber. The pistol was still in his belt, God knew how—but soaked and useless. That left the dagger as his only usable weapon. Though given his position, he reflected, it probably didn’t matter.

He was on the wrong side of the Landwehr, crouched under a bush, sodden and cold, with several thousand enemy soldiers a few dozen yards away. No, it didn’t matter much.

Cautious peeping through the bushes, together with what he could hear, gave him a general notion of the shape of the battle. Most of the artillery was to his left—the French right flank. The cannon were firing sporadically from both sides, still estimating range. A good deal of noise in the distance to his right, and brief clouds of powder smoke rising white as volleys were fired. Not a lot; no real engagement there yet. The ruse had worked, then; Clermont had been taken by surprise. Drums in the distance, a brief tattoo. The cavalry was still moving.

So Ferdinand’s troops were on their way around the left flank, as planned, the French and Austrians caught in confusion, trying to turn to meet the attack. That was where he ought to be, commanding his men, in the thick of it. He glanced above him at the opposite bank in frustration—empty. God knew what was happening. Brett and Tarleton must have rushed off at once to tell someone—who? he wondered. His blood ran cold at the thought of Ewart Symington taking his command. He could only hope that the two ensigns had got to his brother first.

He didn’t bother worrying about what Hal would do to him. If he survived long enough to see his brother again, he’d think about it then.

Three choices: sit here shivering and hope no one stumbled over him; walk out and surrender to the nearest French officer, if he managed to do that without being killed first; or try to make it to the end of the Landwehr, where he could cross the canal and rejoin his own troops.

Right. One choice. He hesitated for a moment, wondering whether to discard his sodden red coat, but in the end, kept it. Coatless, he’d likely be shot for a deserter by either side, and it was possible that someone on the English side would spot him and lend aid.

His scalp was tender and still oozing—his fingers came away red when he prodded it—but at least blood wasn’t pouring down his face anymore. With a last reconnaissance, he left the shelter of his bush, crawling through the thin screen of foliage.

He wanted desperately to go right, to find his own men. But they were nearly a mile away by now, and already fighting, if all was well. To the left, it was no more than two hundred yards to the near end of the Landwehr, and from what he could hear, the fighting there was mostly artillery. Much safer for a single man, moving on foot; if he didn’t get close enough to a French gun crew for them to shoot him with their pistols, the odds of being struck by a random cannonball were reasonably low.

All went well, bar minor alarms, until he came in sight of the footbridge that crossed the canal at the end of the Landwehr. A group of women was sitting on it, watching the battle with avid attention.

Camp followers by their dress, and speaking German—but he couldn’t distinguish their accents as Prussian or Austrian, God damn it. If they were Prussian, they likely wouldn’t molest a British officer. Austrian, though—he remembered that pig, and the women’s sharp knives. Only a couple of hours since the pig had died; it seemed much longer.

He tightened his face into a forbidding glower, put a hand on his useless pistol, and walked toward the women. They fell silent, and five pairs of eyes fixed on him, sharp and bright with calculation. One of them smiled and curtsied to him—but her eyes never left him, and he felt the ripple of anticipation run through the others.

“Guten Tag, mein Herr,” she said. “You have been swimming?”

They all cackled, in a show of bad teeth and worse breath.

He nodded coolly to them, but didn’t speak.

“What are you doing here, English pig?” another asked in German, smiling so hard that her cheeks bunched. “You are a coward, that you run from the fight?”

He stared blankly at her, nodded again. Two of them moved suddenly, as though to give him room to pass. Their hands were out of sight, buried in their skirts, and he could feel the excitement shivering in the air between them, a sort of fever that passed among them.

He smiled pleasantly at one as he passed, then took his hand off the pistol, bunched his fist, and punched her just under the jaw. The women all shrieked, save the one he’d hit, who simply fell backward over the low wall of the bridge. He ran, seeing from the corner of his eye the woman’s skirt, belled like a flower, floating in the water.

Something went thunk! behind him, and he glanced back over his shoulder. A large piece of ordnance had struck the bridge dead center—half the bridge was gone, and so were most of the women. One was left, staring at him from the far side, the water rushing past beneath her feet, her eyes and mouth round with shock.

He ran for the gun that had destroyed the bridge, trusting that his uniform would keep him from being shot. His lungs were laboring, the wet clothes weighing him down, but at least he was near his own lines.

It was a small battery, three cannon, one of the gun crews English—he saw the distinctive blue of the uniforms. No one was shooting at him, but active guns on the French side were keeping them busy; a cannonball hurtled past him, low and deadly, before crashing through a small tree, leaving the butchered stump quivering.

He was stumbling, barely able to breathe, but near enough. Near enough. He staggered to a halt and bent over, hands on his knees as he gasped for air. Men were shouting nearby, the rhythmic bark of a Prussian commander punctuated by an English voice, shrill with passion, screaming. He wasn’t sure whether the screams were directed at the enemy or the English gun crew, and looked to see.

The crew. Something had happened to demoralize them—a heavy ball dropped within ten feet of him, sinking into the earth, and his flesh shook with the impact. Their lieutenant was shrieking at them, trying to rally them…. Grey wiped a sleeve across his face, and turned to look back across the river. The woman on the shattered bridge was gone.

A voice spoke suddenly behind him in a tone of absolute amazement, and he turned toward the lieutenant who had been screaming an instant before.

A cannonball came skipping across the ground like a stone across a pond, struck a buried rock, hopped high, and smashed through the lieutenant’s head, removing it.

Blood fountained from the still-standing body, spraying several feet into the air. Ropes of blood lashed Grey’s face and chest, blinding him, shocking hot through his wet clothes. Gasping, he dashed a sleeve across his eyes, clearing them in time to see the lieutenant’s body fall, arms thrown wide in boneless grace. The sword he had been holding rolled from his grasp, silver in the grass.

Grey seized it in reflex, and whirled on the gun crew, who had begun to edge away from the smoking cannon. The bombardier with the linstock was nearest; Grey fetched the man a blow across the side of the head with the flat of his blade that sent him reeling back across the gun’s barrel, then bounded at the rammer, who stared at him as though seeing Satan sprung from hell, eyes white and terrified in a sooty face.

“Pick it up!” Grey roared, stabbing the sword at the ramrod that lay fallen on the grass. “Do it, damn your eyes! You—back to your duty, God damn you—go back, I say!” One of the loaders had tried to slip past him. The man stopped, frozen, eyes rolling to and fro in panic, seeking escape.