He was in a heavy fever now, moaning with delirium. As much as she hated seeing her old friend like this, tending to his needs served to distract her thoughts for minutes at a time. There were few other distractions. The barracks was quiet now the regiments had marched. She supposed Mary Amadeus was with Philip, both of them officers without a command. Ursula smiled. No doubt Mary A will get involved somewhere, to the betterment of all she meets.
The doctor entered the room and came to the bedside. He took Konrad's wrist and timed his pulse by a fat fob watch, making soft tching sounds under his breath. "What's the verdict, doctor?" Ursula asked.
The doctor tucked Konrad's arm under the blanket and looked thoughtful. "The crisis draws near, Excellency. He's a strong man, healthy too. With luck and the blessing he should pull through, but the next few ours are critical. Continue as you are doing. It's all anyone can do now." He sketched a bow to her. "For myself I must leave. I'm attached to the army and must hasten to catch up with it before battle is joined. I cannot tarry, Excellency."
"No, Konrad is but one man. If you can help many others hurt in battle then please do your duty. Thank you and good luck."
Ursula turned back to Konrad and mopped his brow. She heard the door close quietly behind her. "It's just you and I now, old friend," she said.
The dull thudding of distant gunfire sounded again and the windows rattled.
* * *"Bother!" Mary Amadeus exclaimed looking at the horse brought to her in the courtyard. "Do I have to ride?"
"It's best that you do so, dear Mary," Philip said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. "The roads north of here are not really suitable for carriages."
"I've only just recovered from the last mad ride I had to make," she grumbled, giving him a scathing look before stepping up onto the mounting block. "My body won't forgive me this, I'm sure."
"We only have to ride some ten miles," Philip replied, mounting his own steed, a snapping black stallion.
"Only, he says!" Mary sighed and straddled the horse, thankful she was wearing britches. He attire had drawn more than one scandalized stare but she quickly grew used to them. With all the grace of a bale of hay she took control of the docile little mare and they rode out together.
Their escort was provided by the Bishop of Guggenheim's Regiment of Horse, the troopers falling back into their customary duty with apparent relief. The town was alive with people thronging the streets, of companies of green-clad militia marching hither and yon. Philip and Mary were cheered as they passed by, and Mary smiled and waved.
"Do we know where the Gravies are yet?" she asked.
"According to the latest intelligence they have but three regiments of foot across the river, with perhaps two squadrons of hussars and a gun battery." He smiled grimly. "Apparently our friend in the riverine flotilla has succeeded in striking the Gravies' line of communication. They will receive no further reinforcement, so they must do or die from where they are."
"And what shall we do when we reach the army?"
"I have no regiment to command as yet, but I'll be hanged if I stay safe at headquarters!" Philip shook his head. "No, I'll attach myself to our guns. It's where I'm happiest."
He grinned and reached over to squeeze her arm. "War can be a grim business, but with you alongside me I'm sure it'll go well."
They passed through the town gates and headed out on the road to battle. Mary rode alongside Philip, her heart soaring at the prospect of striking back at those who'd captured her.
* * *Horatio dashed a cupful of water from the scuttlebutt into his face and wiped away the sweat and grime. The sting of powder smoke receded from his eyes. He blinked them clear and looked around.
The river was full of debris. Bodies and the shattered hulks of pontoons drifted with the current or lay grounded in the shallows. Ashore a line of tents had been shredded and were burning merrily. Distant pops and crackles showed where ammunition was cooking off in discarded cartridge pouches. Occasionally some brave soul took a potshot at the surviving gunboats of the flotilla. The range was long, the bullets all but spent if they struck the boats, but it was only a matter of time before someone took a hit.
"Our job is done here," Horatio said. "Bosun, we shall retire upriver and recover the survivors from Styx. Once that's done I think we can spare a boat to run dispatches back to town. Hail Cocytus and have her standing by to do so. The rest of us will maintain our post there until nightfall. If the Gravies try to cross again, we shall drop down and interfere with their plans."
"Aye aye, sir," the bosun said, touching his cap.
Horatio thought he looked stunned at the scale of destruction they'd wrought this morning. I know how he feels, he thought.
The flotilla came about and the oars beat the water into foam as the gunboats headed upriver. A plume of smoke was rising from a spot amidst the trees on the west bank. I wonder what that is. We didn't engage any targets that side. They drew closer to the wreck of the Styx, her mast poking above the water. When this is over we shall have to do what we can to salvage her, Horatio thought. If nothing else we should save her guns.
A distant shout attracted his attention. He looked up and saw figures waving from the west bank. A glimpse through the telescope was enough. "There are our shipmates," he said, pointing. "Helm, four points to starboard. Oars, easy ahead both."
They closed with the bank and Horatio saw a large bonfire was burning there, with figures huddled around it. The weather was sunny but still cold. Most were sailors from the Styx but there were others who wore army uniforms. Captain Creighton was waiting on the shore, his uniform crumpled and stained, but an expression of fierce satisfaction lit his face.
"Well done, Lieutenant!" he exclaimed as Acheron's bows kissed the little strand. "Well done, indeed! Those beggars took a hard blow."
His German is improving! Horatio thought, as the gangplank was run out. He saluted the Captain. "Thank you, sir. I'm glad to see you safe."
Creighton waved his arm at the men huddled around the fire. "We lost a good few fellows when poor Styx went down. What was your butcher's bill?"
Horatio walked down the gangplank and shook the Captain's proffered hand. "The flotilla lost ten all told, sir, including Midshipman Kurt."
"The poor little fellow!" Creighton shook his head. "Such is war."
"Yes, sir. I have Cocytus standing by to take dispatches back to town whenever you're ready."
"If you can give me pen and paper I shall make out my report presently, Lieutenant. For now. We shall take our ease for a while. There's a fellow I'd like you to meet."
He led the way to the bonfire. A man stood up from the fire and came around to meet them. Creighton introduced them. "May I present Lieutenant Derigueur, of the Rumtopft Dragoons?"
Horatio exchanged salutes and shook hands with the soldier, noting his powder-stained face and torn clothing. "I'm pleased to meet you, lieutenant. You look as if you've had a hard fight."
"We have, sir," Derigueur said as they took a seat by the fire. Although nominally both lieutenants, Horatio as commander of a naval vessel was the equivalent of an army major and so outranked Derigueur. He accepted a mug of coffee produced by some miracle by the survivors and listened to Derigueur's tale. The man spoke German with a soft French lilt, and Horatio guessed he hailed from one of Gallia's Rheinish provinces.
"We were bivouacked for the night when we got word the Gravies were trying to cross. Our captain got us down to the shore in time to see them launch pontoons loaded with men. Of course we opened up on them with our carbines as soon as they came within range but we were bounced by a company of light infantry." Derigueur scowled. "They must've got across by small boats earlier in the night, and drove us away from the shore. After that we could only mount up and keep what contact and pressure could on the Gravies, but it was galling to see them come ashore in such numbers."
"What have they managed to get across?" Horatio asked.
"Three regiments of foot, including Babbington's Legion, a gun battery and a couple squadrons of hussars. I think they were trying to get more guns and horse across but your action put paid to that."
Horatio gestured at their surroundings with his mug. "So how do you come to be here?"
"The light infantry moved inland with the rest of the army and we slipped through the gap, hoping to get across their lines of communication." Derigueur held up his mug in toast. "Thankfully our pitiful efforts weren't required. We've established a picket line some hundred yards out. If the enemy comes this way again we shall have warning." Derigueur smiled. "For now, we can enjoy our librated coffee and take our ease."
"I'm glad to hear it," Horatio smiled back, liking the Frenchman's capacity for relaxing in the midst of war. "And where are the Gravies now?"
"They're just to the south and west of us, perhaps five miles off."
"Then they shall engage our army tomorrow," Horatio said, meeting Creighton's eye. The Captain nodded. "What are your orders, sir?"
"You have everything in hand, Lieutenant. For now, as the lieutenant says, we can take our ease." He sipped his coffee then smiled. "No doubt our services will be needed again soon."
* * * * *I've now brought our heroes to the point where battle must be joined between the forces of Hetzenberg and the Margravate. Will, you volunteered to fight the battle by proxy for me. If you can still do so, could you raise two armies of three regiments apiece, with attached light infantry, one cavalry regiment and a gun battery, and fight out the encounter sometime? I'll leave the direction of it to you to fight solo or for you to take one side with another volunteer commanding the other.