As if on cue the Neuburg battery fired, blossoms of yellow fire erupting all along the distant embrasures. Lieutenant Mary Amadeus ducked low in the trench as the shot howled overhead. A gabion shuddered and slipped under the impact of a shrewdly-aimed shot. Before the shriek and howl of the salvo faded sappers were already pushing the huge earth-filled basket back into place.
Schmutzgräber slapped his tricorn against his arm to rid it of dust and dirt. He jammed the battered hat back on his head and regarded Mary with calm detachment. “How’re you bearing up, girl?” he asked, pitching his voice low so only she could hear it.
“Well enough, Colonel.” Even though their acquaintance only measured days, she already liked the lanky engineering officer, and could tolerate his use of the word girl in addressing her. “How long will it be before the battery is ready, sir?”
“You don’t like being under fire without the chance to pay the enemy back for his favors.” Schmutzgräber nodded with a glint on his eye. “A day, no more.”
He rubbed his jaw. “You’ll command the new battery, I collect?”
“And what of His Excellency, the Graf?”
“Philip will – uh, he’ll be in overall command of the siege guns.”
Schmutzgräber nodded again. “Good. Between the two of you they’ll be in safe hands.”
Mary felt her face grow warm as she blushed at the compliment. “Thank you, sir.”
The Neuburg battery fired again. They ducked lower in the trench as the shot hummed and whistled overhead. A sound like a butcher’s cleaver crunching into a joint came from close by. Mary clapped her hand to her hat and stared around. The clumsy young sapper now lay on the reverse face of the trench, minus his head. Bile rose in her throat and she turned aside and retched.
A firm hand took her by the shoulder and she felt herself being led along the communication trench, away from the first parallel. “Go back to the artillery park, lieutenant,” Schmutzgräber said kindly. “We’ll call you when we’re ready for your guns.”
Mary felt a mixture of shame and relief. The shame began to burn hotter when she saw the pity and even contempt in the eyes and faces of the men she passed. I know what you’re thinking, she thought as she headed for the park. Warfare is no place for a woman. Well, I’ll show you!
Philip was standing outside the tent he’d had erected for his use when visiting the artillery park. His place was properly with the headquarters, but he spent an inordinate amount of time around the new siege guns. Mary’s heart gave a pleasant lurch in her breast as she saw him. The smile he gave her filled her world.
That smile slipped somewhat when he looked closely at her. “What’s wrong, my dear?”
“A casualty. In the trench. A young man lost his life.” She closed her eyes and the image of his corpse rose again in her mind’s eye.
“Come inside, please.” His voice sounded so gentle.
She preceded him into the tent. The aroma of canvas, coffee and a plate of fried bacon and potatoes filled the space. Oddly, the combination of scents contrived to settle her queasy stomach.
Philip dropped the canvas fly and took her into his arms. “You’re worried about how you’ll appear to the men.”
“You know me so well,” she said, pressing her hand to his chest.
“I like to think that. I’d like to know much more about you, dearest Mary.”
She managed a smile. “One day.”
“One day.” His smile returned but his expression took on a serious mien. “You’re a capable officer of my uncle’s army. You’re the first of what I’m sure will be many women who’ll follow a military calling. It’s easy to say be strong, but much harder to do.” A tear trickled down her cheek. Philip wiped it away tenderly with his thumb. “It’s a certainty that the vast majority of the men in the siege lines are terrified. Death lies around every corner of every trench, and here in the camps. It lies in wait for us all after our allotted span. The trick is not to show your fear.”
“Are you afraid, Philip?” she asked. “You seem so calm.”
“I’m petrified!” He chuckled ruefully. “Bullet or cannonball or disease cares not for rank or title. As I said, the trick is not to show your fear.”
“Then I shall be calm, too.” I do feel so much better!
“That’s the spirit.” He took her face between the palms of his hand and kissed her. “You’ll be fine. Do your duty and all will be well.”
“Have you heard from Ursula?” he asked, turning to the camp table and pouring two tankards of coffee.
Thankful for the chance to think of more pleasant things Mary sat on one of the folding stools. “I had a letter last night. She and Horatio reached Lehmangraz three days ago. He’s to oversee the repairs to the flotilla and the construction of a new vessel to replace the Styx.”
Philip handed her a tankard. “I hope it won’t take too long. The gunboats will be needed to threaten Randstadt from the river.”
“The new boat will be larger, and broader in the beam. She’s to carry two twenty-four pounders in the bows.”
“Will she carry a mortar?”
Mary sipped her coffee, savoring the brew as it overcame the lingering taste of bile in her mouth and throat. “I think there’s provision for a howitzer.”
Philip shook his head. “A howitzer won’t answer in a siege. The ten inch mortars the other boats carry would be far more effective.”
“I agree. Perhaps we could do something with rockets…”
She let the thought hang in the air. Philip stared into space, his tankard halfway to his lips. “Hmm!”
A polite cough sounded beyond the tent fly. “Your Excellency?”
Philip glanced in the direction of the voice. “Yes, Gideon?”
“A communication has arrived from the Grand Duke, sir. He requires the presence of yourself and Lieutenant Amadeus at once.”
With a puzzled look Philip opened the fly. His aide clicked his heels and came to attention, presenting the message with clean aplomb. Philip read it and looked blank. “It seems we’re wanted at headquarters, my… ah, lieutenant. My father is particularly insistent you should accompany me.”
Mary stood and tugged the hem of her coat straight. Her heart began to pound as a nameless dread stole through her. This can’t be good news…
Headquarters had been set up in an inn back along the road to Kimmelsbrücke. They rode there together and were shown up to the Ducal suite. Grand Duke Karl waited for them, his Chancellor Count Ostenberg by his side. The Duke turned from gazing out the window at the passing scene as they entered. “Good morning, Philip, Lieutenant Amadeus.” They responded. Mary took care not to stare questioningly at her sovereign.
“We have received word that Dr. Knappenburger, guest Professor of International Law at the University of Bearstein, has died.”
“I remember Dr. Knappenburger,” Philip said, sounding puzzled. “He was a most erudite gentleman.”
“It appears the Professor suffered an apoplexy. We do not know for sure. His servant decamped with a sum of money and a number of the Professor’s personal effects. That, however, is beside the point.” Duke Karl’s expression was cold but Mary sensed he was fuming inside. “Apart from being an expert in international law, Dr. Knappenburger also served the Grand Duchy as a legal advisor.”
He crossed to the table and picket up a document. “This was found among the late Professor’s effects. It appears he was working on the case just before he died. I’d like both of you to give an explanation for it.” He set the document on the table where they could read it.
Philip stooped to examine it. Mary followed suit and felt the blood drain from her face as the words sprang out at her. “Oh no!”
With reference to your inquiry as to the validity of a marriage between your cousin Graf Philip von Hetzenberg and a woman of common birth, to whit, one Mary Amadeus.
I’m afraid it is entirely out of the question. Laws on the statute books governing Ducal marriages dating back over two hundred years clearly forbid such a formal union. Matters of breeding and bloodline have to be preserved for the sake of stability in the realm. However, there is no legality preventing the relationship developing along more, shall we say, informal lines.
I remain, Grafin, your humble, obedient servant, I. Knappenburger.
Karl gestured at the document. “It seems my niece is meddling in affairs that do not properly concern her. Even so, Professor Knappenburger’s response to her question is quite clear.” His gaze bored into them. “You are not permitted to marry!”
* * *
As an aside, a friend of mine in England has asked for my help in gathering uniform and organization info connected to the Revolutionary War/War of Independence. There seems to be a dearth of such in the UK. Can anyone point me in the direction of some useful material on the war?