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In an unremembered past of savagery, magic, and miracles, one figure blazed like a fiery comet across the blood-soaked fields of Europe and North Africa?a fierce combatant and brilliant strategist named Ash, unequalled in battle, who vanished into the mists of a history long forgotten, until now.
The armies of the Visigoth Empire have smashed the might of Europe, plunging the conquered lands into ...
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In an unremembered past of savagery, magic, and miracles, one figure blazed like a fiery comet across the blood-soaked fields of Europe and North Africa—a fierce combatant and brilliant strategist named Ash, unequalled in battle, who vanished into the mists of a history long forgotten, until now.
The armies of the Visigoth Empire have smashed the might of Europe, plunging the conquered lands into unnatural night. Only Burgundy fights on, battered but unbeaten, still warm in the embrace of the sun. It is the heart of the continent, supreme in culture and force of arms. But the beleaguered Duchy's ultimate fate lies in the hands of its rightful ruler, Duke Charles, trapped behind the walls of Dijon—a city under siege by the brutal soldiers of the Faris, Ash's dark twin. Like Ash, the Faris hears the words of the dread machinery that seeks the extermination of all humankind. Unlike Ash, she heeds them.
Fresh from the horrors of Carthage—and the apocalyptic seductions of the Wild Machines—Ash must decide whether to lead an army to near-certain doom, in an attempt to lift the siege of Dijon. For if the great city falls, and Charles dies, the sun will rise on the world no more...and humanity will descend into a darkness without end.
Rain streamed off the raised visor of her helmet, streamed off the sodden demi-gown and brigandine that she wore, and soaked her hose inside her high boots. Ash could feel it, but not see it -- the sound of falling water and the unobstructed blisteringly cold air told her she must be close to the tree line, but she could see nothing in the pitch-darkness of the forest.
Someone -- Rickard? -- blundered into her shoulder, throwing her forward into the slick, hard bark of a tree trunk. It gazed her mittened hand. An unseen spray of soaked autumn leaves slapped her across the face, dashing cold water into her eyes and mouth."Shit!""Sorry, boss."
Ash waved the boy Rickard to silence, realized he couldn't see her, and groped until she caught his sodden wool shoulder, and pulled his ear down level with her mouth:
"There are umpteen thousand Visigoths out there: would you mind keeping quiet!"
Cold rain soaked through her belted demi-gown, and through the velvet-and-steel plates of the brigandine, making the arming doublet against her warm flesh uncomfortably cold and damp. The constant rattle of rain in the darkness, and the whispering creak of trees swaying in the night wind, prevented her hearing anything more than a few paces away. She took another cautious step, arms outstretched, and simultaneously hooked her scabbard into a low-hanging branch, and skidded her heel into a mud rut six inches deep.
"Shit on a fucking stick! Where's John Price? Where are the fucking scouts!"
She heard something suspiciously like a chuckle, under the noise of the failing rain. Rickard's shoulder, against hers, juddered.
"Madonna," a quiet voice said, to her leftand below her, "light the lamp. There's a great deal of forest between here and Dijon; how much of it would you like us to cover?"
"Ah, shit -- okay. Rickard. . "
Several minutes passed. Occasionally the boy's arm or elbow jogged her, as he wrestled with a pierced iron lantern, a candle, and presumably the lit slow match he had brought with him. Ash smelled smoldering powder. The velvet blackness pressed against her face. Cold drops of rain spattered her head as she turned her face up, letting her night vision attempt to distinguish between the crowns of trees and the invisible sky.
She flinched, repeatedly, as rain struck her on the cheeks and eyes and mouth. Sheltering her face with one soaked sheepskin mitten, she thought she distinguished a faint alteration of darkness and blackness.
"Angelotti? You think this rain's stopping?"
Rickard's dark lantern finally glimmered, a weak yellow light in the surrounding pitch-darkness. Ash caught a glimpse of another figure shrouded in heavy woollen hood and cloak, seemingly kneeling at her side -- a sucking sound made her startle. The kneeling figure stood up.
"Fucking mud," Master Gunner Angelotti said.
The light from the lantern failed, serving only to illuminate the silver streaks of falling water droplets. Before that, Ash had one glimpse of Angelotti, his cloak tom and his boots clotted with mud to his upper thighs. She grinned briefly to herself.
"Look on the bright side," she said. "This is a whole lot better than the conditions we've just come through to get here -- it's warmer! And, any raghead patrols are going to stay really close to home in this murk."
"But we won't see anything!" Rickard's face above the lantern, in his hood, was a chiaroscuro demon-mask. "Boss, maybe we should go back to the camp."
"John Price said he saw broken cloud. I'm betting the rain's going to ease up before long. Green Christ! Does anybody know where we are?"
"In a dark wood," her Italian master gunner said, with sardonic satisfaction. "Madonna, the guide from Price's lance is lost, I think."
"Don't go yelling for him..."
Ash faced away from the lantern's tiny glow. She let the dark into her eyes again, gazing blindly into blackness and rain. The sleeting drops found the gap between sleeve and mitten at her wrist; eased cold rivulets of water down between sallet-tail and gown collar. The cold water made her hot flesh shudder and begin to chill.
"This way," she decided.
Reaching out a hand, she grasped Rickard's arm and Angelotti's gloved hand. Stumbling and lurching through the mud and duck leaf mold underfoot, she banged against branches, shook down water from trees, unwilling to take her eyes from the faintest of silhouettes in front of her -- the waving twigs of hornbeam trees against the open night sky beyond the wood.
"Maybe around -- whuff!" Her numbed, cold hand slid off Rickard's arm. Angelotti's strong fingers gripped, tightly; she slid down onto one knee and hung from his grasp, momentarily unable to get her feet under her. Boot soles skidded in the mud. Her leg went out from under her and she sat down heavily and unguardedly in a mass of wet leaves, sharp twigs, and cold mud.
"Son of a bitch!" She hauled her twisted sword belt back round, feeling sightlessly down the hilt to the scabbard -- trapped under her leg -- for breaks in the thin wood. "Shit!"
"Keep that fucking noise down!" A voice whispered. "Put that fucking lantern out! Do you want an entire fucking Visigoth legion up here? The old battle-ax will have Your fucking arse!"
Ash, in English, said, "Too damn right she will, Master Price."
"Yeah." She grinned, invisible in the black night. Grabbing for arms and hands at random, she found henelf pulled back onto her feet. The cold was bitter enough to make her body shake, and she beat her hands against her arms -- seeing neither, in the darkness. A flurry of rain made her duck her head, then turn her wet face in the direction of the unobstructed wind.
"We're on the wood's edge?" she said. "Lucky you found us, Sergeant."
Price muttered something in a northern dialect, in which "m aking enough noise for six pair of yoked oxen" was the only phrase Ash clearly overheard...