“What ho the navy!” he cried, saluting Captain Creighton with a beaming smile. “All ready to bring my fellows aboard, sir?”
“Ready, aye, ready Colonel,” Creighton growled, eyeing the foppish fellow with a tolerant eye. “We’ll push out the brows and you can bring your lads aboard when you please. Each boat can take eighty men, Colonel, no more.”
The crews of the three gunboats bent to their tasks as Colonel Brabenachel turned to shout orders to the waiting officers. Trumpets sounded a brief flourish and the first platoons began to file down in an irregular mass, chivvied by their NCO’s. Cries of baaaa! and moooo! filled the air.
“What on earth?” Horatio exclaimed, grinning in surprise.
“Oh, don’t mind them,” Brabenachel called, swishing his marching stick insouciantly. “It’s just high spirits.”
“What a band of jokers!” Creighton sighed as outraged NCO’s pushed and shoved the men in an attempt to restore discipline. Their efforts were not helped by the fact they were failing to conceal their own grins. “I’d heard Brabenachel was sucking hind tit when it came to recruitment. I can see where the rumors began, now.”
“I dare say they’ll fight hard enough when called on to do so, sir,” Horatio said, smiling. “They did very well at Viehdorf.”
“Indeed.” As the first soldiers clumped aboard Acheron Captain Creighton doffed his hat to them. “Welcome aboard, the Jokers!”
* * *Mary Amadeus sat on the gun carriage of one of the captured artillery pieces, eating a ham roll and speculating on the virtues of a russet color scheme for the ordinance. The guns were due to be taken to Kimmelsbrücke, there to be paraded through the town as a sign of the recent victory. After that, a new lick of paint will do very well. Then it’ll be on to Randstadt!
“My dear! How are you?”
Mary looked up to see Graf Philip approaching. He wore a broad smile and a fine crimson uniform, and two of his aides stood in the background, watching tolerantly. She knew Philip well enough now to detect an air of suppressed glee about him, which made her mildly suspicious. “I’m well, Philip, dear,” she said, getting up and shyly exchanging kisses on the cheek. “I’ve not seen you for a while. What have you been doing?”
“Oh, I’ve been busy with correspondence. One letter in particular got the most delightful response.”
“Which was?” she asked, wondering.
For answer he turned and made a beckoning gesture. An aide in turn gestured to someone who was standing the other side of a caisson, and that person shambled forward into view.
“Father!” Mary exclaimed. She stared for all of a second before rushing into his arms.
“Oh, my dear Mary!” Irwin Amadeus blinked and snuffled, his little round glasses knocked askew by the impact. “It’s so good to see you, child!”
Mary hugged him then turned to Philip. “You tease! You didn’t tell me you had sent for my father!”
Philip shrugged and smiled. “I wanted it to be a surprise. You were pining for a visit home, which isn’t possible under the circumstances; but there was nothing to stop your father coming here. It’s only a hop, skip and jump from Wohl, after all.”
Irwin Amadeus was blinking from his daughter to the fine young nobleman. “Am I to collect, sir, that you and my daughter are, um, close?” he asked diffidently.
“Your daughter is a fine woman and a first-class expert in explosives, sir,” Philip replied, smiling at Mary. “It’s a pleasure to be acquainted with her.”
“She was an apt pupil,” Irwin said, gazing fondly at Mary’s shining visage even as he missed the emphasis in Philip’s voice.
“And you must have been a most diligent tutor, sir. I look forward to hearing more about her from you over dinner.” He took Mary’s hand. “Your father has agreed to accompany us to Kimmelsbrücke for the parade. We shall have the pleasure of his company for three days, at least.”
“Philip, thank you!” She beamed up at him. “Your kindness is wonderful!”
“You deserve it, my dear. I confess I have another motive also for asking your father to come here.” When she made to speak he placed a fingertip on her lips. “Hush now! I shall tell all later.”
* * *Acheron, Cocytus and Phlegethon headed downriver. The steady southerly wind of the last few days had changed to a fitful, gusty westerly breeze that required close attention to the big lateen sails. Packed as they were with soldiery the vessels’ crews were pushed to work as efficiently as they would normally. There was many a cry of ‘by your leave, mate,’ as they pushed some hapless soldier out of the way of sheet and halyard.
“Your fellows don’t seem to mind a river trip, sir,” Horatio said to Colonel Brabenachel.
“It’s a first for most of them. They’re nearly all recruited from the towns.” He smiled fondly. “The only contact most of them had with water was splashing through a puddle. Dear Lord, the lengths we had to go through to ensure they followed some basic hygiene!”
“Enemy army in sight!” The cry came from the mast-head. Horatio looked up to see the lookout pointing to the west. Here the river entered the great curve that took it close to the hills, and the two-mile wide gap between river and the first rising slopes was busy with the black coats of the Margraf’s army. The gusty breeze brought with it the occasional popping of musketry, sounding like firecrackers in some distant celebration. But men are fighting and dying over there.
“Commander, I think we shall draw closer to the bank and see what we can do with our guns,” Captain Creighton said. “The land is level for the most part here.”
“Your guns can reach, sir?” Colonel Brabenachel inquired.
“Most easily, sir.” Creighton smiled. “Our twenty-four pounders can send a shot clear across to those hills. A few rounds from them will serve to dissuade the Gravies from making a stand in this narrow gap.”
Horatio barked orders, thankful that the big mortar had been struck down into the hold to allow more space for the soldiers. Had it remained in place it would’ve been nearly impossible to work the main gun.
With shouted orders and signals the three gunboats swept into line abreast, their bows pointing at the distant enemy. Horatio studied them through his spyglass. “It seems we’re attracting some attention, sir.”
“They have no artillery to bother us, Commander.” Creighton grinned. “Your young female friend saw to that.” He glanced through his telescope and pointed. “Our target is that regiment of red-coated infantry.”
Horatio followed his line of sight and saw the mercenary regiment of Babbington’s Legion drawn up at the edge of a field some nine hundred yards away. They appeared to be ready to contest passage of a narrow country lane that led to the main highway a half mile distant. Some distance away from the mercenaries he could also see the colors of Infantry Regiment Sleibnitz waving above a hedgerow as they approached the position.
“Clear to fire, sir!” Midshipman Steiner called from his place by the gun. Creighton glanced up and down the short line of his command and saw the pennants rising to indicate the other boats were ready. “Oars up! Fire!”
The great guns belched flame. All the assembled soldiers swayed and laughed as the deck recoiled under their feet. A great gust of dun-colored smoke filled the air, temporarily forming a dense obscuring cloud before being blown back over the deck by the breeze. Horatio coughed and brought his spyglass up to his eye. He was in time to see great gouts of earth spring up around and in front of the redcoats, to no visible effect.
Steiner saw to the gun. Out of habit Horatio drew his fob watch and timed the exercise, nodding when Steiner raised his hand to indicate readiness to fire. “Another salvo, I think,” Creighton said. “It’ll be a more concentrated shock that way.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The guns belched again, and Horatio saw a fleeting glimpse of a black streak leaving the barrel before the smoke rolled over the deck. When he raised his glass this time he saw the effect the mass of metal had on the target. Bodies – and bits of body -- hurled into the air, once, twice, thrice as a great ball bounded through the closed ranks of the mercenaries. The regiment shuddered. “Hit ‘em again and they’ll break,” Creighton growled.
“I think so too, sir,” Horatio replied, feeling sickened.
But Babbington’s Legion was made up of old soldiers with experienced commanders. They began to withdraw before the great guns were ready to inflict their murderous fire upon them again. “Fire!” Creighton shouted. The guns roared and a few seconds later the earth flew again, but the enemy had withdrawn into the cover of a sunken lane and the execution was minimal.
“Oh well, there goes that fatuous ass Sleibnitz,” Creighton said, examining the scene. “He's moving to take that ground. I fancy we saved him a peck of casualties this day.”
“It appears the Gravies are in no mood to make a stand, sir.” Horatio pointed. “I had hoped to turn our attentions upon that other regiment alongside the road, but that too is withdrawing.”
“I think we’ve done enough for now. They know if they stand we’ll destroy them.” Creighton looked up and around. “There’s a squall coming down from the hills. I think we’ll make our way down to Wentwitz when it hits. The rain should obscure our movements.”
Acheron, Cocytus and Phlegethon swung their bows to point downriver and got under way as the first drops of rain fell. Soon it sheeted down, hiding all movement beyond a hundred yards. Horatio pulled the collar of his boat cloak up around his neck and glanced around. Another few days and our operation will be finished. Then it’s me for the heady delights of Kimmelsbrücke and marriage to Ursula! He rested his hands upon the rail and looked back upriver, thinking of the night he’d spent in her arms. How did I get to be so lucky?