Authors: David Michael
“General Tendring asked that I accompany your daughters to see you,” Rose said.
“Sir,” said the major who had until then said nothing. “You will say ‘sir’ when you speak to the colonel.”
Rose looked at the major, but said nothing. He furrowed his brow when her eyes met his, and he pressed his lips into a thin line. Rose raised one eyebrow.
“Where is Margaret?” Colonel Laxton asked. “Did you leave her at Fort Gunter?”
“No,” Rose said, still looking at the major, whose face had turned a dark shade of red. “Margaret was taken when we were ambushed.”
“Is she–?” The colonel’s voice, the sound of a human emotion, brought Rose’s attention back to him. She had never seen concern touch the lines of his face nor heard it in the timbre of his voice. For a few seconds, before he mastered himself again, he looked like a father, not a colonel, not an officer in the King’s army, not the officer in charge of the King’s Coven.
“I have every reason to believe that Margaret is still alive and unharmed. For the moment.”
“Tell me,” the colonel said. “Tell me everything.”
* * *
“I hold you personally responsible for the life of my daughter.” The colonel stood at his full height. He did not look down at Rose but still managed to convey that he was looming over her.
Rose stood her ground and looked up at him. “
hold me personally responsible for Margaret.”
“Colonel, sir, Rose–Miss Bainbridge,” Major Haley said, stumbling over her name yet again, “did everything in her power to keep us all safe and get us here. Sir. She even attempted to infiltrate the–the enemy camp to rescue Margaret–”
“And she failed,” the colonel said.
“She nearly got herself killed–”
“And if she had been killed,” the colonel said, overriding the major, “I would have lost yet another daughter. This is why I sent word to Tendring at Fort Gunter, to hold my girls–
my girls–there until I sent further word. Or to send them back to England.”
“Ducoed must have intercepted your communication,” Rose said.
“I refuse to believe that Leftenant Ducoed behaved in the manner you have described,” Major James Eason said. Colonel Laxton had only introduced the major, his adjutant at Fort Russell, when Major Haley made a point of asking his name. Rose had been content to not know the major’s name.
“Why?” Rose asked. “Because he’s an
?” She spat.
“Leftenant Ducoed’s service record is exemplary–”
“You have never met the man,” Rose said.
“That is not true,” Major Eason said. “Leftenant Ducoed was here at Fort Russell less than six weeks ago–”
” That changed everything. If Ducoed had been at the fort, then he had been planning his betrayal for a long time.
“I found him charming and competent,” the major went on, as if she had said nothing. “Not at all like most of the Witches Crew one encounters.”
The epithet pulled Rose’s attention back to the major. “Don’t you mean the 101st Pistoleers, major?” she asked, her voice flat.
“Of course. It is a pity the Leftenant left before the start of the current engagement. His talents would have been of great use.”
Rose gave up on Major Eason. She looked at Colonel Laxton. “I assure you, Colonel, Thomas Ducoed holds no love or respect in his heart for you. You held the whip when disciplining him. More than once, colonel. Or did you think that because he was made an officer that he had changed? You probably told Ducoed yourself that your daughters were coming–”
“That is enough, Miss Bainbridge. That is–” The colonel paused and regained control of himself. “Quite enough. Major Eason, Major Haley, Miss Bainbridge, please calm yourselves.”
Chal, who had said nothing since being brought into the colonel’s office and now leaned against the wall in the corner behind where Janett sat, met Rose’s eyes, then rolled her eyes. Janett met her eyes too. Janett looked as if she was about to start crying again. Or maybe as if she was trying not to start crying again. Janett had not said anything in the last ten minutes. She had just sat in her chair looking back and forth between Rose, Major Haley and her father. Colonel Laxton had told her to go into his quarters, but she had refused. Her refusal had surprised both the colonel and Rose.
No one spoke for a long minute.
“Now, if we are all rational again,” the colonel said, “I suggest we turn our attention to more pressing matters.”
“More pressing?” Rose asked. “If you’re done blaming me for Margaret, I will be off. I will leave Janett in your protection and go back with Chal to find Margaret and rescue her.”
“I want to go too,” Janett said, surprising Rose again. When everyone turned to look at her, Janett looked down at her hands in her lap. “Margaret is my sister.”
“No,” Rose said. She respected the urge, but did
want the baggage.
“That is enough, Janett,” the colonel said. “Do not be foolish.”
“She is not being foolish, colonel,” Rose said.
“I will ask you to stay out of my family business, Miss Bainbridge.”
“She is being loyal,” Rose added. “But, no, Janett, this is not something you can do.” She spoke to the colonel again. “I only ask for provisions and powder. Then Chal and I can be on our way and you can get on with your little war.”
“That is out of the question, Miss Bainbridge,” Colonel Laxton said. He held up a gloved hand to forestall Rose’s protest. “If we were indeed betrayed, Miss Bainbridge, then I have little hope for the safe return of my little–” He paused, his jaw clenched. “For Margaret,” he went on. “I will grieve her loss.” He paused again and Rose saw muscles twitching in his neck. “But if what you say is true, then we face an even greater threat than we knew. Is it your considered opinion, Major Haley, that the force you encountered was attempting to interdict the fort and attack the reinforcements sent from Fort Gunter?”
“It is, sir.”
“Then we can assume that the reinforcements, if they reach us at all, will be significantly reduced in strength. It is also possible that we will have to rescue them.”
“But the fort is already under attack, sir,” Major Eason said.
“I have not forgotten that fact, major,” Colonel Laxton said.
Major Eason bit his lower lip and said nothing else.
“Is there any chance of a truce?” Major Haley asked.
“We do not know, Major Haley, if the force you saw is acting on its own or is allied with our current set of problems.”
“We saw no sign of either Swedish or Italian forces, sir.”
“From what you’ve told me, you saw very little of any of the attackers. Just monsters in the dark.”
“They had grunzers of a type I’ve not seen before, Colonel,” Rose said. “And the only European soldiers I saw, besides Ducoed, were walking dead.”
“Be that as it may,” the colonel said, “until we know otherwise, we cannot assume that our situation has improved. It may very well have become even worse than we know. However,” the colonel went on after a second’s pause, “there is one part of our situation that has improved.” His eyes met Rose’s. “As Major Eason pointed out, if Leftenant Ducoed were here, we would have a significant advantage. That he is not here, and with the additional prospect that he might be assisting our enemies, makes our situation more severe. With Miss Bainbridge’s assistance, though, we might be able to upset the balance of this siege, maybe even end it.”
“I hardly see,” Major Eason said, “what the addition of a scout–a woman scout, no less–even one in trousers, does to improve our situation. Unless you plan to send a new message to General Tendring at Fort Gunter?”
The colonel did not take his eyes from Rose. “Miss Bainbridge, the former Sergeant Bainbridge of the 101st Pistoleers, has more talents than the simple ability to put on trousers.”
“If I understand you, colonel,” Rose said, “then I must point out that I am no longer in your army. My loyalty is not to you, it is to Margaret. And it is Margaret that I’m going to find. For you. For myself. And because I won’t let Ducoed have her. So are you going to let Chal and I have some provisions before we go? Or not?”
“You mean she’s a witch?” Major Eason asked. “A gunwitch? Really, sir, I must protest that I was not told of this sooner.”
Colonel Laxton and Rose both ignored the major, their eyes locked. “My orders, Miss Bainbridge, are to hold this fort. To that end, I am willing–I am
–to use any all resources at my disposal. Or that may come to my disposal.”
“I am not at your disposal, Colonel Laxton.”
“Private,” the colonel said, his voice raised, his tone hard.
The door to the office opened, and a private stood there at attention.
“Ask the Officer of the Watch to step in here again.”
The private saluted, and the door closed. A minute later, the door opened again and Captain Keele came in. Behind him were the same six men-at-arms as before.
Rose looked at the men-at-arms, then back at the colonel. Her right fist clenched.
“I will of course reinstate you at your full rank of master sergeant, Miss Bainbridge.” Colonel Laxton walked around to the other side of his desk and pulled out a drawer. He reached into the drawer and took out a sheaf of parchments that he laid on the desk. “Is that acceptable?”
“No, colonel,” Rose said. “It is not. You conscripted me once before. You will not do that again.”
Chal pushed away from the wall where she had been leaning, alert. Rose shook her head to forestall Chal taking any drastic action. “If we are finished here, colonel, Chal and I will be on our way.”
“I have a daughter in danger, Miss Bainbridge. But I have an even greater duty to the King.”
“Silence, Janett. Miss Bainbridge, will you accept your duty to the King, as well?”
“The King sent me here, colonel. And not as a personal favor.”
“Then I have no choice.” The colonel stood up straight again. “Captain Keele, arrest Sergeant Bainbridge.”
“Colonel, I must protest–”
“Silence, Major Haley.”
“It’s all right, Ian,” Rose said.
Two men-at-arms came forward and grabbed Rose’s arms. She let them grab her, and signaled that Chal was not to interfere either. This fort could not hold her.
When she saw the manacles Colonel Laxton took out of the still open drawer of his desk, though, she was held too tightly to break free, and the other four men-at-arms held their rifles pointed at Chal. Chal caught Rose’s change in attitude and smiled a very unfriendly smile at the men covering her.
“No, Chal, don’t,” Rose said, her mind racing. “We’ll work this out. Get some rest. Take care of Janett.”
The men held her arms forward while the colonel locked the shackles on her wrists. The runes that traced along the metal glowed. A cold fog formed around her wrists and dripped to the floor.
“Captain Keele, take Sergeant Bainbridge to the stockade,” Colonel Laxton said.
King’s Coven North
Rosalind stood still while Corporal Edwards pulled the black felt hood over her head, then let the corporal spin her so she faced the opposite direction. The hood stank of the bad breath and rank sweat of the hundreds of nervous privates who had worn it before her. She did not know how long this particular hood had been used by His Majesty’s 101st Pistoleers, but she could easily believe that it had been one of the first. And that it had not been washed once in all those years. She tried to hold her breath. She heard sounds of a struggle further down the line, followed by a snapped, “Stand at attention, Private Ducoed.”
“Is there a problem, Corporal?” The Leftenant’s voice. Never raised. Always the omen of punishment. The still-healing scars from her most recent lashing tingled on Rosalind’s back. She tensed.
“No, Leftenant,” Corporal Edwards replied. “The private was only disoriented by the hood.”
Rosalind could visualize the Leftenant’s curt nod.
She let her breath out in a slow sigh, trying not to gag on the smell of the stale reminders of her breakfast and wishing Thomas would, for once, not make the corporal’s duties difficult. An arm’s length away to her right she heard Private Millsom mutter something unintelligible but probably expressing the same wish. In the three months she and Thomas had been in training at the King’s Coven, Thomas been under the lash over a dozen times for insubordination and refusal to follow orders. Three of those times he had taken their whole squad to the posts with him.
She put the sting of the lash out of her mind and thought that at least the hood warmed her face and blunted the cold autumn breeze. At least it was not raining today. Or had not started raining yet. At least the mud she was standing in only covered the soles of her shoes. At least her undergarments were still dry. At least they were not marching in circles around the camp, carrying packs that weighed two stone.
Three months in His Majesty’s Army had taught Rosalind to count her blessings in the negative. To list out the worst that was not happening at any given moment.
At least Thomas seemed to have cooperated sufficiently that she no longer expected to be pulled up on the post at sundown.
She heard Corporal Edwards pass behind her less than a minute later. She heard the woman snap, “Attention!”
Rosalind stood straighter than she had been, hands at her sides, right hand gripping her pistol, the barrel of her loaded pistol pointed down at the ground.