Grey grabbed the man by the shoulder, pushed him half round, and kneed him in the buttocks, shouting. There was blood in his mouth; he choked and spat, kicked at the loader, who was fumbling halfheartedly at the pile of cartridges beneath a canvas sheet. The sponger had already fled; he could see the man’s blue coat bobbing up and down as he ran.
Grey lunged in that direction by instinct, but realized that he could not pursue the deserter and turned instead ferociously on the remnant crew.
“Load!” he barked, and snatched the linstock from the bombardier, motioning the soldier to replace the man who had fled. Sponger and rammer fell to their work at once, with no more than a hasty glance at Grey, blood-soaked and vicious. The erstwhile bombardier was clumsy, but willing. Grey barked them through the maneuver, once, again, forcing them, guiding them, and then felt them begin to drop back into the accustomed rhythm of the work and pick up speed, gradually losing their terror in the encompassing labor of serving the gun.
His throat was raw. The wind whipped away half his words and what was left was barely intelligible—but he saw the crew respond to the lash of his voice, and kept shouting.
Cannon were firing close at hand but he couldn’t tell whether they were friend or foe; clouds of black powder smoke rolled over them, obscuring everything.
His soaked clothes had gone cold again, and it was raining. He had taken the coil of smoking slow-match from the bombardier and tied it in its bag to his own belt. His fingers were stiff, clumsy; he had difficulty forcing the lighted fuse into the linstock, but forced himself to keep the rhythm, shouting orders in a voice that cracked like broken iron. Sponge. Vent. Load cartridge. Ram. Load wadding. Ram. Check vent. Powder. Fall back! And the hissing small flame at the end of the linstock coming down toward the touchhole, sure and graceful, with no sense at all that his own hand guided it.
That moment of suspended animation and the crash and buck of the gun. The first one left him deafened; he knew he was still shouting only because his throat hurt. He snatched a lump of damp wadding from the ground and hastily crammed some of it into his ears. It didn’t help much.
The rain grew momentarily heavier, cutting through the smoke and taste of blood with a freshness that eased his aching chest. The powder, was it covered? Yes, yes, the powder monkey was still at his post, a scorched-looking boy wide-eyed with fright but holding the canvas tight over the powder kegs, against the pull of the wind.
“Sponge piece!” he shouted, and heard the word muffled inside his skull as though it came from some vast distance, far away. “Load piece! Ram!”
He spared a moment to look before touching off the next shot—so far, he had been firing with not the slightest thought for attitude or effect—and forced himself not to blink as the gun went off with a jump like a live thing and the thunder that made you feel as though the ground shook, though in fact it was your own flesh shaking.
The shot soared high, came down a dozen yards short of a patch of French artillery—smoke sucked suddenly away by the wind, he saw the red of their uniforms and the belch of black smoke from the French gun’s barrel. The shot came wide of his own position and he made a hasty calculation of wind, already shouting orders to adjust the trunnions, lower the barrel…one degree? Two?
Now he saw the milling blur of white, green, and blue, infantry massing behind the French cannon.
Dare he try for that interesting maneuver whereby a cannonball was fired deliberately low, with the intent of bouncing repeatedly through an enemy phalanx? There was a seething mass of French and Austrian uniforms beyond the gun, perfect…. He would think the ground too soft with damp, save that he’d just seen the same technique employed successfully upon it. He gritted his teeth, but could not help but glance at the fallen lieutenant, noticing only now that the body had fallen at the foot of one of the stones marking the Stations of the Cross. “IX,” it said, but he had no time to try to make out the picture on it.
“Five!” he shouted, an eye on the moving French line, “and one degree west!” The rammer at once jammed his rod in the barrel and the powder monkey ran to lend his strength, as the loaders jerked out the trunnions and put them in again, then threw themselves against the cannon’s limber, turning the barrel just enough…
The rain came and went in gusty squalls; it had stopped for a moment and he wiped his face again on his sleeve, feeling some liquid—water, sweat, blood—drip down inside his coat from his queued hair.
By God, it worked, and a cheer went up from his crew as they saw the ball hop murderously across the field, knocking Frenchmen down like ninepins as it went.
“Again, again!” he bellowed, striking his fist on the breech. The sponger was sponging like a maniac, not waiting for the order, and the loaders were already passing the next cartridge to the mouth.
“Down!” he shouted, and fell flat along with the crew as a shot in reply thudded into the ground six feet away. They rose up again, yelling like demons and shaking their fists. The French gun crew was hopping up and down like fleas, gleeful at the effect of their shot. Grey was obliged to bellow and slap one man across the back with the flat of his sword again to bring his own crew to their senses.
“Swivel! Swivel to bear on them! Hurry, damn you!”
Suddenly realizing their precarious position of opportunity and peril, his crew fell to like fiends, swinging the barrel to bear directly upon the French cannon. The French abruptly stopped cheering and began hastily to serve their own gun.
The French had the range already, were sure to beat them—Grey snatched the useless pistol from his belt and charged the French position, shrieking like a madman and waving both pistol and sword. The ground seemed to pitch and sway beneath his feet, a blur of grass and mud.
It was perhaps two hundred yards between the English and the French cannons. He was close enough to see the Frenchmen’s mouths hanging open when their officer suddenly realized what Grey was about and groped madly for his own pistol. Grey promptly turned and ran like a hare back toward his own crew, leaping low bushes and zigzagging, seeking cover in the drifting rags of powder smoke. He couldn’t tell whether the Frenchman was firing at him or no; the air cracked with random fire and the sound of bugles. Goddamned cavalry, he thought. Always in the bloody way—
“Duck!” came a faint cry, and he threw himself headlong in the sopping grass just as his own gun spoke near at hand. Without looking to see the possible effect of the shot, he scrambled up into a crouch and scuttled the rest of the way, arriving winded and wheezing to the cheers of his men.
“Once more,” he panted. “Give it them again!”
The men were already at it; the linstock was thrust into his hand and he fumbled for the fuse, but his hand was shaking too badly to manage. The powder monkey seized the wobbling end of the slow-match and thrust it through the hole, slashing off the bit of fuse so hastily that the knife tip scratched Grey’s hand, though he didn’t feel it.
“Fall back!” he gasped, and lowered the hissing match to the touchhole.
There was an instant of breathless expectancy, and then the world disappeared in a blast of fire and darkness.
He woke to a sensation of drowning and gasped for air, then froze, gripped by a pain so intense that he actually saw it, as a physical entity separate from himself. A red thing, shot with black, pulsing and whirling like a pinwheel. Sharp—he felt his lungs bursting and had to breathe, would have screamed if he’d had any breath, the knife edge of the spinning thing slicing through his flesh like butter. It cut straight through his chest and pressed him to the ground with a crushing weight.
Someone touched him, and he flung out a hand, blind, grappling for help, God, help, he couldn’t breathe…
Something smaller than the pain pushed him, hard, and he was suddenly on his side, doubled up, coughing, jerking in agony with each involuntary cough, but had to, couldn’t not, couldn’t stop, and spikes of air stabbed his chest coming in, as though he’d breathed in a mass of drawing pins, went out in a blinding sheet of white-hot pain and black smoke.
“Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit!” someone said nearby.
He was in complete agreement with this, but couldn’t say so. He was still coughing, but not as much; saliva was running from his mouth, making runnels in the soot, and he seemed to be making a whimpering noise with each jerked breath.
Hands on him, he felt them, frantic thumps and grabs, pulling at his coat, his limbs. He made a frenzied noise of protest and felt bone ends grate—Christ, he heard them grate—and a mass of green and brown and blue and red spun past, and he realized dimly that his eyes were open.
He blinked, tears streaming, saw the black spikes of his clotted lashes and cold gray stone by his face.
Jesus Falls the Third Time, he thought. Poor bastard.
Someone was bellowing overhead, meaningless sounds. Cannon was thumping somewhere near; he felt the ground shake, felt his heart stop with each crash, and wished it would stop once and for all, it hurt so when it started again….
“Jesus! Look at the blood of him! He’ll never last!”
“His arm, let me bind his arm—”
“No use, no use, it’s blown clean off!”
“It’s not, I saw his fingers move, back off—back off, I said, God damn your eyes!”
The voices seemed to come through a fog of noise, something rushing, like a waterfall that filled his ears. He still felt the thump of the guns, but that, too, had faded somehow, seemed safely distant. The pain had drawn in upon itself, and sat sullen in his chest, glowing like a lump of metal flung from a blacksmith’s forge, molten and heavy.
He hoped his heart would not come too close to it. He could see his heart, too, a pulsing dark-red thing, almost black by contrast with the brilliant crimson of the pain.
They were saying something now about the gun—were they fighting the gun?—but he couldn’t focus on the words; they all rushed past, part of a waterfall, loud in his ears. Water…warm water. It was rushing over him, his clothes felt sodden, he could feel the trickle of it down his neck, over his ribs, the feel of wet cloth stuck to his belly.
“Oh, Jesus,” said a voice above, despairing. “So much blood.”
He was in a room somewhere, filled with light. Wounded, he’d been wounded. By reflex, he grabbed for his balls. Their reassuring presence compensated in some measure for the rending pain that shot through his body with the movement, but it was still enough to make him gasp.
Something moved across the light, and someone bent over him.
“Me lord!” Tom Byrd’s voice came loud in his ear, halfway between fright and hope. “Quick, quick! Get the earl—he’s awake!”
“Earl?” Grey croaked. “What…Hal?”
“Your brother, aye. He’ll be right here, me lord, don’t you trouble yourself. D’ye want water, me lord?”
He wanted water somewhat more than heaven, earth, or the riches of the fabled East. He was dimly aware of someone arguing about whether he should be allowed to have any, but his precious Tom snarled like a badger and elbowed whoever it was away.