Read an Excerpt
Dijon resounds to the thundering of watermills.
Afternoon's white sunlight blazed on distant yellow mustard-flowers. Rows of trimmed green grapevines hugged the ground between brown strips of earth. Peasants thronged the strip-fields. The town clock struck a quarter to five as Ash eased Godluc between a tailback of ox-wains and onto the main bridge into Dijon.
Bertrand stuffed her German fingered gauntlets into her hand, and fell back breathless beside Rickard, in the dust lifted up by the horses. Ash rode away from members of the company who had gone off scouting and now clutched at her stirrups, breathlessly reporting back, to take her place between John de Vere and her own escort.
"My lord Oxford." Ash raised her voice, and lifted up her head as they came in over the bridge to the town gate. Scents raised the hairs on the back of her neck: chaff, overheated stone, algae, horse-dung. She shoved her visor up, and bevor plate down, to get the benefit of the cool air over the river that served as a moat.
I have the latest estimate of the Visigoth forces outside Auxonne," the Earl said; "they number nearly twelve thousand."
Ash nodded a confirmation. "They were twelve thousand when I was outside Basle. I don't know the exact number of their two other main forces. The same size, or larger. One's in Venetian territory, scaring the Turks from moving; the other one's in Navarre. Neither can get here within a month, even with a forced march."
A burning smell of hard-spinning mill-wheels filled the air, together with a faint golden haze. The mail shirts of the guards on the gate, and the linen pourpoints, hose,and kirtles of the men and women bustling through it, were tinted with the finest chaff. The taste of it settled on her tongue. Dijon is golden! she thought; and tried to let the heat and smells relax the cold, hard fear in her gut.
"Here is our escort." John de Vere reined in, letting his brother George go ahead to speak with the nine or ten fully armored Burgundian knights waiting to take them to the palace.
De Vere's weathered, pale-eyed face turned to her. "Has it occurred to you, madam Captain, that his Grace the Duke of Burgundy may offer you a contract with him, now? I cannot finance this raid on Carthage."
"But we have a contract." Ash spoke quietly, her voice just audible under the grinding of mill-wheels. "Are you telling me to find some pretext for breaking my word --which I didn't give -- to an exiled, attainted English Earl, because the reigning, extremely rich, Duke of Burgundy wants my company ... ?"
John de Vere looked down from his saddle. What she could see of his face, with his close-helm's visor pinned up, was a mouth set in a firm line.
"Burgundy is wealthy," he said flatly. "I am Lancaster. Or Lancaster's only chance. But, madam, I am at the moment the leader of three brothers and forty-seven men, with enough money to feed them for six weeks. This, weighed against the employment of the Burgundian Duke, who could buy England if he chose..."
Ash, deadpan, said, "You're right, my lord, I won't consider Burgundy for a minute."
"Madam Captain, as a captain of mercenaries, the most precious goods you have to sell are your reputation, and your word."
Ash snorted. "Just don't tell my lads. I've got to sell them on the idea of Carthage . . ."
Ahead, George de Vere and the Burgundian knights seemed to be exchanging deferential greetings and arguments about precedence of riding order, in about equal measure. Dijon's cobbles felt heat-slick under Godluc's hooves. She reached forward and put a reassuring hand on his neck, where his iron-gray dapples faded to silver. He threw up his head, whickering with what, Ash realize was a desire to show off in front of the people of Dijon. Around her, the city's whitewashed walls and blue slate roofs glittered.
Ash spoke over the louder noise of grinding mills. "This place looks like something out of a Book of Hours, my lord."
'Would that you and I did, madam!"
"Damn. I knew I was going to miss my armor..
George de Vere turned in his saddle, beckoning the party forward. Ash rode beside the now smiling Earl of Oxford, into the center of the group of Burgundian knights. They moved off, their horses making slow time through the cobbled streets despite the escort in Charles's red-crossed livery; winding between throngs of apprentices outside workshops, women in tan headdresses buying from stalls in the market square, and oxcarts grinding their continual way to the mills. Ash pushed her visor up, grinning back at the cheerful waves and the comments called by the subjects of Duke Charles.
"Thomas!" she hissed.
Thomas Rochester dug his heel into his bay gelding and rapidly rejoined the party. A young woman with bright eyes watched him go from where she leaned out of an overhanging second-story window.
"Put her down, boy."
"Yes, boss!" A pause. "Any time off for R&R?"
"Not for you . . ." A touch to Godluc brought her back to the Earl of Oxford's left flank.
I think you would never break a condotta, madam. And yet you consider it, now."
"No, I -- "
"You do. Why?"
It was not the tone, or the man, to let her get away without an answer. Ash snarled in a whisper, glancing covertly at the Burgundian knights:
"Yes, I say we should raid Carthage, but that doesn't mean I'mnot afraid of it! If I remember. right from Neuss, Charles of Burgundy could have upwards of twenty thousand trained men here; and supplies, and weapons, and guns, and, if I had a choice, I'd like all twenty thousand of them between me and the King Caliph! Not just forty-seven men and your brothers! Is that a surprise?"
"Only a fool is not afraid, madam."
The rhythmic pounding of mill-wheels drowned speech for a minute. Dijon sits between two rivers, the Suzon and the Ouche, in the arrow-head spit of land where they join.Carthage Ascendant. Copyright © by Mary Gentle. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.