The Danube River Valley, Northwest of Belgrade, late October, 1763.
“YOU can’t do it,” Captain Roderick Whythe scoffed.
“Will you lay money on that?” I asked. I wanted more from him than just money. Hard to tell if he would be more horrified that I, a mercenary soldier, lusted after him, or that I, a mercenary soldier, was truly a woman.
Behind me, twenty mercenaries roared with laughter.
“Time limit!” one of them yelled over the top of the noise.
“A full minute by my timepiece,” another answered, drawing out his gold pocket piece, loot from some battle.
“Will you stake me with that gold bauble?” I asked my comrade.
He pulled the timepiece close to his chest and shook his head.
Whythe eyed me with skepticism. Almost reluctantly, he drew his wallet out of his scarlet uniform coat. He laid a single golden guinea on the table between us.
I reached to possess the coin.
His hand landed atop mine. “When you have won the bet.” His deep brown eyes twinkled with surety that I could not perform the feat he commanded.
“Very well,” I sighed as I stood and unsheathed my saber. My breast band was too tight and itched. I dared not adjust it in this company.
Three men stood up and exited toward the privy. I cursed inwardly. My bladder was as full of ale as theirs. But I couldn’t seek privacy while others were out there pissing against the wall.
I shrugged my shoulders and eased some of the tension in my back. Once more I had to prove to an Englishman that rules, even the rules of nature, meant little to me.
I would defy gravity as I defied life and death on a daily basis.
Whythe’s eyes grew wide at sight of my finely balanced Polish saber, a straight blade with a sweet spot well down the forte for more strength in the steel and better balance in my hand. Or on my fingertip.
I took three deep breaths, centering myself. Then I placed the tip of the saber on the index finger of my right hand. The weapon stood straight in the air, balanced as if stuck in stone.
“Geor-gie! Geor-gie! Geor-gie!” my mercenary companions chanted while pounding the crude tables in the smoky tavern.
I breathed in time to their chant, using the rhythm to maintain my center. The tip of my saber had yet to draw my blood. The blade fought me, wanting to return to Mother Earth. I tricked it, shifting and sidling to keep it in place.
“Geor-gie! Geor-gie! Geor-gie!”
“Where’d you learn to do that, Major George Kirkwood?” the Englishman, Captain Roderick Whythe, asked. He, alone of the troops, wore a clean uniform. A red coat over white breeches, waistcoat, and shirt. Shining black boots and powdered hair. At least he did not drip lace like so many of his foppish comrades.
My company showed the wear and tear of a mercenary camp on the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in this troubled year of 1763. Mud splotched our green coats and brown breeches. None of us powdered our hair or bothered to maintain a wig. Shining boots was a task for batmen, but we had few enough of those left and employed them better. Otherwise we occupied snowy winter nights, when even the Turks would not mount a raid, with the mundane chores of mending and polishing.
The Englishman was an outsider in more than dress. He had come to recruit light cavalry for some political favor between the English king and a German princeling. I’d been in Saxony a month ago acting as courier to my colonel’s banker, and had just returned to the front. I needed to stay away from the Germanies for a while. Just as I needed to stay away from England.
A summons to return home to Kirkenwood in the north of England weighed heavily in my pocket. I could replenish myself at Kirkenwood. My family could imprison me there as well.
I needed to win this bet to remind Whythe that he was not one of us; had not lived cheek by jowl with us, fought side by side with us, buried friends with us.
I also needed that guinea. Travel to and escape from Dresden had proved expensive. Travel home would cost me more than the guineas I did not have.
“I learned balance and concentration from my sword master, Captain Whythe,” I replied to his question. The saber wiggled a fraction, I corrected with a slight shift of my hand and arm.
“I heard that Giovanni Giacomo Casanova only passed on his art to his mistresses,” one of the Portuguese shouted above the noise of the rest of our company.
“Would you care to accuse me to my face of being Casanova’s ‘mistress’?” I asked. I snaked out my dagger with my left hand and held it level with the scrawny Portuguese’s nose.
He gulped but kept his countenance even.
A loud guffaw from the younger son of a Venetian doge masked any reply the Portuguese cared to make to my riposte. A round of laughter and backslapping followed.
The Earth thrummed through the soft soles of my boots. The vibrations set the hair on my arms and my nape a-tingle and hummed in my teeth disharmoniously
“Turks!” I called. I went cold. Everything I had worked for these last three years depended upon keeping the Turks away from Vienna. As long as they kept Belgrade as their frontier, I had no problem with them. The moment they crept into Austrian territory, they threatened all of Europe. All of England.
With a flick of my finger the saber spun upward. I caught the grip and sheathed the weapon before the men had a chance to react.
My comrades scrambled to their feet.
I snatched the guinea coin out from under Whythe’s nose and pelted out of the crude tavern ahead of them into noon sunshine. No time to relish the warmth on my back or blink away dazzle blindness. No time to think.
“Colonel, sir.” I burst into Heinrich der Reusse’s cabin with only the most cursory of knocks. The sight of Mathilde, the village barmaid and whore, naked and kneeling between my colonel’s equally naked knees with her face buried in his crotch brought me to a skidding halt. I turned my back on the intimate scene, jealous of the whore.
“Sir, the Turks are coming,” I blurted out my message before the man could curse me, or the woman could finish her ministrations.
“How many? Where from? When? By land, or up the river?” the colonel barked. The rustle of righted clothing and untangled limbs came after his questions.
“Five hundred cavalry, sir.” I sneaked a peek beneath my arm, admiring the colonel’s lusty proportions.
“Get yourself atop that hill, Major. I do not know how you do what you do, but you have never failed me yet. I need to know every detail of their raid to the fourth intention before they even think it.”
“Yes, sir!” I turned on my heel to face him and snap a salute.
The barmaid postured to emphasize her ample bosom. I spared her only the slightest glace. My gaze lingered a little too long and a little too low on the colonel.
“Out, brat,” he admonished me on a laugh.
I fled, blushing to my ears. Prince Heinrich from the Sovereign States of Reusse knew more of my history than any man. Only from him would I tolerate the semi-affectionate abuse.
Estovan, my batman, and as female (if not feminine) as I beneath her uniform, met me atop the knoll southeast of camp with my horse fully saddled and ready to ride. The big dun stallion pawed the ground and snorted, eager for battle. I paused long enough to check pistol and musket, though I knew Estovan would have primed and loaded them. I also checked the extra powder and shot in my kit.
Then I double-checked my French dagger-pistol, a custom-made blade with a tiny gun hidden in the hilt. This little treasure had come to me from my sword master, Casanova. It shot truer than most firearms and doubled as a blade. It rested comfortably in its scabbard, as much a part of me as my saber and rapier.
Then I donned my light armor: cuirass belted across my chest, gorget slung around my neck, greaves along my shins, gauntlets on my forearms, and a helmet.
With no more reason to delay, I took a deep breath and faced the approach the Turks must take. With feet planted firmly upon Mother Earth, I took a deep breath. On the exhale, I emptied myself of worry, of stray thoughts, of everything but the vibrations in my feet. My hands came up, palms out, fingers slightly curled, letting the wind off the Danube whisper information to my exposed skin.
Colonel der Reusse hovered behind my left shoulder, waiting for me to learn what I could. I breathed in the scent of his skin, still perfumed with male musk, his warmth, and his reassuring authority.
“One hundred toprakli—the irregulars—with muskets held in reserve on our left flank. Two hundred fifty miriaskerus—short-term levies—with pistols and scimitars for the main charge down the center. One hundred kapikulu—the salaried regulars—on our right flank, between us and the Danube, to come in a second wave behind the primary charge. They will come around that hill, hidden from our view until they are directly upon us. Those are the ones we need fear most. They will not surrender and they take no prisoners.”
“We only have two hundred men left!” Heinrich followed up with several colorful curses. Our trip to Saxony had been cut short before we could recruit new men.
“Sir, the cavalry is a ruse. To keep us from watching the river. Another five hundred on barges. They aim to push through all the way to Vienna!”
“Not while I guard this sector.” The colonel turned and shouted to his messengers. Post riders vaulted into their saddles and galloped away. Time to alert the Austrian regulars. They needed to get off their lazy arses and man the big guns on the bluffs above the Danube. Heinrich followed up with orders deploying his few men and resources.
“We’ve faced worse odds, sir,” I reminded him.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this one, Georgie. Tell me, can you see far enough into the future to know if I survive this day?” We all knew that if he survived, at least some of us would as well. Heinrich was a true prince. He would die defending his men.
“My gift for seeing the future is imperfect at best. I know for certain only what the Earth Mother tells me. I know troop movement and placement. What we do with that information determines our future.”
“That’s what I needed to know, Georgie.” He squeezed my shoulder with affection. “Get to your horse. Take thirty men and keep the reserves on our right from coming to the aid of our enemies.”
Thirty men to hold off one hundred.
“Yes, sir.” I knew and trusted every one of my men. I considered the odds about even. The Turks fought with formidable courage and skill. We were better. We had to be. “Good luck, sir. I’ll join you for a drink one hour after sunset.” The stability of Europe, and therefore of England, depended upon keeping the Turks out of Austria.
“Thank you, Georgie. Oh, and take the pesky Englishman with you. Time he earned his keep.”
“He’s not one of us, sir,” I reminded him.
“Then let him see you and your men in action. If any of us survive this battle, Whythe is welcome to take us back to some safe uprising in the Germanies, or whatever. Closer to home anyway. From the Germanies I could check in on the wife and her herd of offspring.” He marched back down the hill to his own waiting horse. Orders streamed from his mouth with brisk efficiency.
“Major?” Estovan asked, always careful to observe protocol though we were, in truth, best of friends.
“I’ll not see the colonel after this. One of us will die this day.” A tear crept into my eye.