Something pulled Mary Amadeus from a deep sleep. As she lay in the darkness of the tent she gazed up at the pale light seeping through the canvas and tried to identify what had woken her. Then a cockerel crowed, the harsh noise echoing across the fields. Dawn at last.
All around she could hear the sounds of life beginning to stir as the men of the artillery battery woke to the new day – a day that would see battle and perhaps the death of some or many of those now waking. Mary sat up and rubbed her face. Such morbid thoughts so early in the morning! But it had been difficult to get to sleep last night in spite of the tiring ride. Those same morbid thoughts had been haunting her mind. Army life didn’t seem such an adventure with the prospect of violent action now at hand.
A trumpet began to peal; the notes of the reveille rang loud and clear. Somewhere a dog began barking furiously. A man laughed. Another cursed. Mary had heard worse words uttered by Ursula when she was feeling out of sorts. She smiled at the memory and wondered where her friend was now.
A polite cough sounded beyond the canvas flap. “Are you awake, Lieutenant?”
“Just a moment!” she called.
Rolling out of bed she pulled on her new uniform coat, shivering at the cold touch of morning air. She’d slept in her clothes last night. It had been too cold to sleep with just a couple of blankets over her. As she pulled a brush through her hair she noticed how long it had grown; the nuns’ crop was all but gone now. “You’re in the army now, you’ve left behind your vows…” she sang softly. Satisfied that she was at least presentable, she called “come in!”
Someone untied the door tapes and a camp servant entered, carrying a pewter tray before her as the sentry held the flaps open for her to pass. A sentry: That was another thing, Mary thought. Colonel Sechs-Meilen-Scharfschütze had ensured that any woman guest would not be molested while in his care. Not all soldiers were gentlemen.
“I’ve brought you a mug of coffee, Ma’am, compliments of His Excellency. He desires you to join him for breakfast at your convenience.”
“Thank you,” she said to the woman as the heavenly scent of fresh coffee filled the tent. Mary could feel her brain beginning to fire on all cylinders thanks to the scent alone. “Do thank him for me,” Mary said, reaching eagerly for the steaming mug. The servant curtseyed again and departed. So Philip couldn’t sleep well either, Mary thought as she sipped and listened to the camp coming to life. I can’t blame him. That action on the river after our rescue happened so quickly we didn’t really have time to think. Is it the anticipation of battle that drags at the spirits so?
* * *
Half a mile away General Rauppen-Schlepper had been awake and moving since an hour before dawn. He sat upon his horse now, surrounded by his staff and junior commanders and gazed out at the scene revealed by the growing daylight. The sky was partially cloudy but he could see everything clearly enough. A post mill stood upon a low hillock a quarter mile away. It was a modest elevation but it dominated the low-lying flood plain. Small woods dotted the plain here and there, along with small fields surrounded by low hedgerows. It was cattle country, the beasts feeding upon the lush grass that covered the plain in the summer months. For now all was sere and brown after the winter die-off. In the distance he could see a small village squatting upon the levee that bordered the Eisenwasser at this point.
“What is that village?” he inquired.
Captain Scharfe, his chief of staff consulted a map. “Viehdorf, sir. Our scouts report it to be occupied by the enemy.”
“Hmm.” He directed his telescope upon the village. The huddle of buildings appeared in the roundel, their thatched roofs lit by the rising sun. Someone was stirring there. He saw flashes of red coats among the cottages. “Quite correct. It is occupied by Babbington’s Legion.”
Scharfe made a note of this. Rauppen-Schlepper swept the field with the telescope, pausing here and there to scan other points of interest until he settled upon the distant tents of the Margraf’s camp, the counterpart to his own army’s. The Dunkeldorf-Pfuhlians were stirring and he could see enemy cavalry pickets replacing their infantry counterparts now daylight was growing fast. They would guard against a surprise attack: Not that I will oblige them there…
Closing the tubes of the instrument with a decisive snap he turned to face his commanders. “Gentlemen, we shall fight here this day. The Gravies are in a bind. Their line of communication across the river has been cut, thanks to those stalwart fellows of the riverine flotilla. They must either attack us or follow the river to the bridge at Wentwitz, which is some thirty miles north of here as the crow flies. Should they do so, they will be forced to fight a continual rearguard action, for we shall harass them all the way.
“I propose, therefore, to fight a defensive battle along this line.” He gestured to a small field to the left that lay a short distance south of the mill then across an area encompassing a wood, another field and thence to the river bank. “We shall anchor our battle line on the river. Infantry Regiment Sleibnitz shall hold the place of honor, as is its right. I shall require all our cavalry to assemble on our left.”
“A sound move, sir,” Brigadier-General Küster rumbled. “We are outnumbered by a significant margin. Colonel Rumtopft’s dragoons fought an excellent delaying action these last two days but it has left his regiment sorely depleted.”
Rauppen-Schlepper gave him a keen look. “Are they still willing to fight?”
“Very willing, sir.” Küster smiled, showing stained teeth. “They have a real desire to kick the Gravies out of our lands.”
“Excellent. That’s the spirit. Rumtopft and the Bishop’s Horse shall take post between that field and the wood. Infantry regiments Wohl and Brabenachel shall occupy the ground north of the wood and south of that other field, with the artillery between them. I think a slow advance coupled with a peppering from our guns shall convince the Gravies they’ve found a fight. Our cavalry will guard our left flank and deter any moves by the enemy cavalry to outflank us.”
“Do you think they’ll attempt that, sir?” Brigadier-General Schmaltz asked.
“I think they will.” Rauppen-Schlepper surveyed the terrain. “This is excellent cavalry country. I hear good things about their cuirassiers but that new-fangled hussar regiment is an unknown quantity.”
“We shall try their mettle,” Küster growled.
Rauppen-Schlepper smiled. “If anyone can do that, it’s you, my dear fellow.” As the assembled officers grinned at the sentiment he cocked an eye at Scharfe. “Is that all clear?”
Scharfe read back the battle plan verbatim, and Rauppen-Schlepper signed his approval. Scharfe disappeared in the direction of the headquarters pavilion to copy and distribute orders, and the general regarded his commanders. He pointed at the distant river. “Consider our situation analogous to that levee. If a leak were to appear there it would be vital to plug it at once before the levee gives way and the whole plain is flooded. So is it vital that we must plug this breach and prevent the Margraf from taking our whole country. We shall beat the Gravies here, gentlemen, or die trying.”
* * *
Mary Amadeus found Philip sitting at a folding table set up before the Colonel’s command tent. The table was covered with crockery bearing food and drink, and her stomach rumbled as her keen nose detected the smell of bacon. Philip looked cheerful enough, although a certain shadowing under his eyes spoke of an uncomfortable night. He rose to his feet when he saw her and she saluted.
“Good morning, my dear… um, Lieutenant!” he said, and gave her a keen look. “Now I see you in the context of a military camp, I can say that uniform suits you all the more.”
“Thank you,” she said, feeling shy at his obvious fervor.
“Do sit and take a morsel of food.”
“We'll have to endure the rigors of campaign, I see,” she said, sitting on a folding chair. Without waiting for further invitation she attacked the food.
“So I gather. War may be a beastly business, but there’s no reason at all to make it uncivilized.” He scanned the sky. “A touch cloudy but no rain due, I think.”
“A good day for battle,” she said, not meeting his eye. Even my appetite seems to wane a little at that prospect, she thought.
“Yes. Let us not dwell upon that just yet, my dear,” he said softly.
They sat and ate, and watched as the camp busied itself for the coming conflict. Gunners worked on their pieces, the bulky cannon taking on the appearance of bronze idols with a bevy of supplicants tending to their needs. All along the encampment men were busy and the air rang as armorers put a keener edge to swords and bayonets.
Colonel Sechs-Meilen-Scharfschütze came up, and doffed his hat to Philip. “I trust I see you well, Excellency, Lieutenant?”
“You do indeed, Colonel,” Philip said cheerfully. “Won’t you join us?”
“Thank you.” The Colonel sat and a servant came forward to pour him coffee. When the man stepped back the Colonel sipped at the brew then set down the cup. “I must raise a delicate matter with you, Excellency,” he said, including Mary in the discussion with a glance. “I would appreciate it if you and Lieutenant Amadeus stayed well back during the battle. It would be most grievous to me should anything happen to either of you.”
Mary and Philip exchanged glances. “I appreciate your candor, Colonel,” Philip said. “As we are not part of your command, we shall reluctantly bow to your wishes.”
“May I at least help with the ammunition?” Mary asked, trying to keep a plaintive note out of her voice. “I have the expertise. I know it may seem silly for a mere woman to wish to fight in this battle, but it’s my country too. I was there when it all began and I wish to see it through.”
Sechs-Meilen-Scharfschütze considered the matter then nodded. “I’ll agree to at least that much, Lieutenant. It’s a responsible task and I’d rather have competent souls in charge of it.”
Mary smiled. “Thank you.”
Just then an aide came galloping into the artillery camp and the three became aware of the sound of trumpets stirring the air. “Here we go,” the Colonel said, rising to greet the aide.