Ash: A Secret History
by Mary Gentle
Chapter One"Gentlemen, Said Ash, "shut your faces!"The clatter of helmet visors shutting sounded all along the line of horsemen.Beside her, Robert Anselm paused with his hand to his throat, about to thrust the laminated plate of his steel bevor up into its locking position over his mouth and chin. "Boss, our lord hasn't told us we can attack them . . ."Ash pointed. "Who gives a fuck? That's a chance down there and we're taking it!"Ash's sub-captain Anselm was the only rider apart from herself in full armor. The rest of the eighty-one mounted knights wore helmets, bevors, good leg armor -- the legs of a man on horseback being very vulnerable -- and cheap body armor, the small overlapping metal plates sewn into a jacket called a brigandine.""Form up!"Ash's voice sounded muffled in her own ears by the silver hair she wore braided up as an arming-cap, padding the inside of her steel sallet. Her voice was not as deep as Anselm's. It came resonant from her small, deep chest cavity; piercing; it sounds an octave above any noise of battle except cannon. Ash's men can always hear Ash.Ash pushed her own bevor up and locked, protecting mouth and chin. For the moment, she left the visor of her sallet up so that she could see better. The horsemen jostled around her in a packed mass on the churned earth of the slope. Her men, in her company's livery: on geldings of mostly medium to good quality.Down the slope in front of her, a vast makeshift town littered the river valley. Bright under noon sunlight, walled with wagons chained together, and crammed with pennon-flying pavilions and thirty thousand men, women and baggage animals inside it -- the Burgundian army. Their camp big enough (confirmed rumorhad it) to have "two of its own markets ...You could hardly see the little battered walled town of Neuss inside the enclosing army.Neuss: a tenth the size of the attacking forces camped around it. The besieged town rested precariously within its gates -- rubble, now -- and behind its moats and the wide protecting Rhine river. Beyond the Rhine valley, pine-knotted German hills glowed gray-green in the June heat.Ash tilted her visor down to shade her eyes from the sunlight. A group of about fifty riders moved on the open ground between the Burgundian camp that besieged Neuss and her own Imperial camp that (theoretically) was here to relieve the town. Even at this distance Ash could see the men's Burgundian livery: two red criss-cross slashes, the Cross of St. Andrew.Robert Anselm brought his bay around in a neat circle. His free hand gripped the company's standard: the azure Lion Passant Guardant on a field Or. "They could be trying to sucker us down, boss."Deep in the pit of her stomach, expectation and fear churned. The big iron-gray gelding, Godluc, shifted under her, responding. As always in chance ambushes, the suddenness, the sense of moments slipping away and a decision to be made --"No. Not a trick. They're overconfident. Fifty mounted men -- that's someone out with just an escort. He thinks he's safe. They think we're not going to attack them, because we haven't struck a blow since us and Emperor-bleeding-Frederick got here three weeks ago." She hit the high front of the war saddle with the heel of her gauntleted hand, turned to Anselm, grinning. "Robert, tell me what you "don't see.""Fifty mounted men, most in full harness, don't see any infantry, no crossbowmen, don't see anyhackbutters, don't see any archers -- "don't see any archers!"Ash couldn't stop grinning; she thought her teeth might be all that was visible under the shadow of her visor, and you could probably see them all the way across the occupied plain to Neuss. ""Now you get it. When do we "ever get to do the pure knightly cavalry-against-cavalry charge in real war?""-- Without being shot out of the saddle." His brows, visible under his visor, furrowed. "You sure?""If we don't sit here with our thumbs up our arses, we can catch them out on the field -- they can't get back to their camp in time. Now let's shift!"Anselm nodded decisive compliance.She squinted up at the dark blue sky. Her armor, and the padded arming doublet and hose under it, burned as if she stood in front of an armorer's furnace. Godluc's foam soaked his blue caparisons. The world smelled of horse, dung, oil on metal, and the downwind stench of Neuss where they had been eating rats and cats for six weeks now."I'm going to boil if I don't get out of this lot soon, so let's "go!" She raised her plate-covered arm and jerked it down.Robert Anselm's thick-necked horse clipped its hind-quarters and then sprang forward. The company standard lifted, gripped high in Anselm's armored gauntlet. Ash spurred Godluc into the thicket of raised lances and through, ahead of her men, Anselm at her shoulder now, half a pace behind her trotting mount. She tapped the long spurs back again. Godluc went from trot to canter The jolting shook her teeth to her bones and rattled the plates of her Milanese armor, and the wind whipped into her sallet and snatched the breath out of her nostrils.Percussive concussion shook the world. The hundreds of steelhorseshoes striking hard earth threw up showers of clods. The noise went unheard, felt in her chest and bones rather than heard with her ears; and the line of riders -- "her line, "her men, sweet Christ dont let me get this wrong! -- gathered speed down the slope and out onto clear ground.