The aeronauts windlass, p.15
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.15

           Jim Butcher

  “There is a masonry wall around a little garden between the vattery and the house, Captain. It’s been chewed up by gauntlet fire, but they’re using it for cover.”

  Grimm nodded once. “Creedy, take two squads and flank them from the far-side rear, if you please. I’ll take the rest and make sure that the enemy is too busy looking at the near-side front to notice you. Don’t dawdle now.”

  The XO nodded, pointed to two other officers, and beckoned. He started away at a run, and the others followed.

  Grimm turned to the rest of the crew and said, “These boys are better at this kind of fighting than us, but there are a hell of a lot more of us than there are of them. So we treat this exactly like a boarding action. Aggression, aggression, aggression, and stay together. God in Heaven be with you.”

  He led his crew to circle the house and enter the field opposite from where Creedy’s team would appear. When Creedy got there, he and his men would be behind the Aurorans’ cover, blasting away at invaders trapped against a stone wall. They would wreak havoc on the foe.

  Of course, it also meant that the Aurorans would have a very strong defensive position against Grimm and his men, but there was no helping that. The howl of gauntlet fire filled the air, the light flashing swift and bright in a thick, deadly curtain of energy.

  Grimm drew his sword, lifted it, and cried, “Albion!”

  The crew’s weapons leapt into their hands, and they roared, “Albion!” in furious unison.

  Grimm rounded the last corner, followed by seventy howling aeronauts, and sprinted toward the Auroran position.

  Chapter Fifteen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Lancaster Vattery

  Two seconds.

  Grimm and his crew had two whole seconds of surprise and confusion in which to advance on the enemy. Two seconds was a great deal of time when measured in units of life and death. They had covered perhaps half of the open ground before the Aurorans managed to gather their wits and an officer began barking orders, redirecting their aim.

  The glow of a couple of dozen weapon crystals lit the dimness, shining like spotlights, and they began to pour fire into Grimm’s crew— mostly from gauntlets, but also from several long guns. Grimm’s men returned fire as they ran—wildly inaccurate, for the most part, but anything that helped make the Aurorans flinch or seek cover was desirable. Then it was horrible sound and blinding light and the feel of spirestone beneath his boots as he ran, sword aloft.

  Two seconds more.

  By the end of it, twenty of his men were down, most of them screaming, some horribly still. Others had been hit in their ethersilk tunics, and though they staggered as they ran, they kept going.

  Grimm saw the blast that hit him, slamming home into his ribs.

  For an instant he faltered, looking down—but the suit the old etherealist had lent him was evidently lined with ethersilk of the highest quality. The blast had felt like little more than a stiff punch, unpleasant but hardly deadly, and though it had burnt and torn the outer layer of the suit’s coat, the silk beneath was unmarred.

  And then Grimm had reached the blast-pocked walled garden. The wall was more decorative than functional, being only about as high as his stomach, except where gauntlet blasts had lowered it in gaps to only a couple of feet high. Grimm stomped his boot down onto one such gap and leapt into the garden and past the rank of men defending the wall, making room for the men coming behind him.

  He saw a pale face before him and whipped his sword in a quick strike, felt it hit. Then there was a flicker of steel, and he ducked beneath one of the inward-curving talonlike blades of the Auroran Marines, and parried a second blade of the same kind.

  Then Kettle bounded through the gap in the wall, sweeping one large boot into the teeth of the man defending the opening as he did. The helmsman landed, his gauntlet hand stretched out behind him, and put a blast into the head of another defender.

  And after that it was frantic motion, reflex, and terror. Steel flashed, gauntlets screamed, and his crew fought to press into the garden, to put enough men through the wall to make the weight of numbers decide the matter.

  The Auroran Marines disagreed.

  These were hardbitten men, professionals who were trained to excel in the mayhem of battle. They recognized the danger of losing the wall, of being surrounded by a numerically superior force, and they fought savagely, viciously. Grimm found himself driven back, Kettle by his side, while the crew kept trying to follow the pair of them in—only to be cut down, mercilessly and precisely, by the Auroran long gunners or the blades of the enemy Marines.

  Grimm felt the momentum shift, felt the gathering determination of the Aurorans as they realized that they outclassed their opposition. In a few seconds more, he judged, the attack would be repulsed—leaving himself and Mister Kettle subject to the attentions of enemy gauntlets.

  And then Creedy’s squad arrived.

  They didn’t shout. They ran in relative silence, their footsteps masked by gauntlet fire, by howls and screams, and took up position along the opposite wall of the garden. Creedy made it happen with excellent discipline. He made sure every man was at the wall, gauntlet lifted, arm braced, aimed and ready to fire before he gave the order.

  The Aurorans, fully focused on repelling Grimm’s assault, suspected nothing until the moment Creedy’s first salvo felled nearly half of them. Grimm lunged forward, driving his sword into the breast of an officer whose silk had absorbed the blast that struck him. Kettle, at his side, intercepted a wild swing from another foe with his own blade, bellowing, “Albion!”

  As he did, his fellow aeronauts surged forward with a roar, copperclad blades in hand, vaulting the low wall or leaping through the gaps, swamping the stunned invaders in their numbers.

  The surviving Aurorans lasted rather less than two seconds.

  “C reedy,” Grimm said a few moments later. “Report.”

  “Eleven dead,” Creedy said in a subdued, solemn voice. “Two more who won’t last long. Seventeen incapacitated by their injuries and as many walking wounded, sir. I’ve sent those wounded who can move back to Predator, with word to send Doctor Bagen at once.” Grimm grunted. “The Aurorans?”

  “Three live. They might not survive their injuries.”

  “Have Bagen see to them the moment he’s finished with our own. I should think that the powers that be will want to speak to them, eh?”

  “No doubt, sir,” Creedy said. “I’ve put some of the older, calmer hands to guard them.”

  “Good man,” Grimm said. “Send someone to the vattery and let them know that we’re not trying to murder them.”

  “I thought there might be nervous men with gauntlets inside, so I went myself, sir,” Creedy said.

  Grimm felt his lips quirk. “I see that they didn’t blast you,” he noted. “No, sir,” Creedy said, his tone serious. “Armed retainers of Lancaster, sir, former Marines, very good discipline. They’re staying at their post, and their commander has gone to secure the household.” From outside the garden, where the wounded had been laid out together, there was a low, groaning scream of pain. Grimm looked up wearily from where he sat on a bench in the garden itself. There was a small burbling brook and a pool there, along with several dwarf trees and abundant green ferns, quite beautiful but for all the blood and corpses. The dead men stank of offal and excrement, the way they always did. It seemed undignified for a man’s last remnants to be so foul, but that was the way of it. Grimm tried to ignore the smell and the motionless forms alike. There were always unpleasant consequences to a battle. He rose wearily, straightened his back, cleared his throat, and looked into the middle distance. “That was work well-done, Mister Creedy. In the battle and after. I’ve known men who didn’t have half as much composure or sense in their first close-quarters action.”

  Creedy hesitated awkwardly before replying. Captains did not say such things to their junior officers in Fleet. Creedy frowned at nothing in particular, which also happened to be in the middle
distance. “Sir,” he said.

  “Yes, I don’t like it either,” Grimm replied. “But as I cannot put you in for a combat ribbon or a commendation for unusual competence under fire, we must make do.”

  “I. . . . Yes, sir.”

  Grimm nodded. “When time serves, I shall buy you a drink and we’ll not speak of it again.”

  “I . . .” Creedy nodded. “I should think that perfectly acceptable, Captain Grimm.”

  “Good,” Grimm said. “That’s done. As soon as Bagen gets here, gather the men and get ready to move. There are a great many more Aurorans out there somewhere, and we’ll need to be ready to respond.”

  “We captured four of their long guns intact, sir. Shall I issue them to the men?”

  Grimm nodded once. “Excellent notion. Give one to Mister Stern.

  He’s a fine shot. Have him pick a squad to use the rest.”

  “Aye, sir,” Creedy said, and left to see to it.

  “Captain,” Kettle said from where he’d been standing, silent and discreet, a long step away. His tone was a warning.

  Grimm turned to find a tall man approaching in a black suit tailored almost exactly to the lines of a Marine’s uniform. He wore a blade and a gauntlet, and his short brush cut of hair was grizzled. Even before Grimm saw his eyes, he’d pegged the man as warriorborn from his lean build and grace.

  “Captain Grimm, I presume,” the man said.

  “Aye,” Grimm replied. “You’ve the advantage of me, sir.” The tall man offered his hand and Grimm shook it. “Esterbrook,” he said. “First armsman of House Lancaster. I’m glad for your intervention, Captain. Four to one are stiff odds.”

  “The Aurorans seemed to think so,” Grimm replied. “Six of you held off two full squads of professional Marines. Impressive.”

  “Brief,” Esterbrook said, “otherwise you’d need to use words like ‘tragic’ or maybe ‘noble sacrifice.’ Thank you.”

  Grimm found himself smiling up at the man. “What can I do for you, sir?”

  “Lord and Lady Lancaster were in the residence and saw much of what just happened. They wish me to convey their thanks and their condolences for your losses, and to inform you that they have already sent for their personal physicians and that they’re preparing space in the house for your wounded. You needn’t fear that your men will lack the best care available.”

  Grimm felt something ease in his gut that he hadn’t known had been paining him. “I . . . Please, sir, convey my heartfelt thanks to the Lancasters.”

  Esterbrook nodded. “Will.” He looked around and then at Grimm again. “You’re Francis Madison Grimm? Captain of the Perilous?” Grimm felt his shoulders tighten. “Former acting captain, sir. I am he.”

  “I heard the Admiralty broke your sword. For cowardice.” Kettle made a growling sound.

  Esterbrook glanced up, arching an eyebrow at Kettle. But then he turned back to Grimm, clearly waiting for an answer.

  “They did, sir,” Grimm said.

  Esterbrook showed his teeth. “But you’ll charge a dug-in position of Marines. With one arm in a sling.”

  “It was necessary to do it,” Grimm said. “We all serve, sir. Some with more glory than others.”

  Esterbrook seemed to consider the multiple meanings in Grimm’s answer and said, “Right. The Admiralty has its head up its nethers again.”

  Grimm arched an eyebrow and said nothing. Behind him Creedy shouted out an order, and the remaining aeronauts began to gather together. Bagen had arrived, as had two other men with the distinct confidence and focus of physicians in a crisis. His men were being cared for. He felt his chest ease as if it had been suddenly cut free from tight leather bonds.

  Esterbrook looked at the gathering men and said, “You’re moving out?”

  “I can’t imagine that the crystal vattery was the enemy’s only target,”

  Grimm replied. “And I do not think the men we took down were operating alone. They seemed to be waiting for some other support to arrive.”

  Esterbrook nodded. “What I thought, too. I’d offer to send a few men with you, but . . .”

  “Others may yet attack the vattery, and your duty is to the Lancasters,” Grimm said. “Albion must not lose the vattery. I’ll leave a squad with you to help secure it until the Marines or the true Guard arrives.”

  Esterbrook ducked his head once. “I’m grateful to you, Captain. I have wounded of my own. Where are you headed next?”

  “I intend to patrol the perimeter of the atrium and—”

  With no warning whatsoever, a ginger tomcat sailed over the garden wall and sprinted toward them. Kettle let out a brief sound of surprise, his hand darting toward his sword on reflex. The cat hurtled up to Esterbrook and slid to a halt with a long, chewy-sounding burble of throaty sound.

  Esterbrook blinked down at the cat and held up a hand. “Wait, wait, slow down.”

  The cat seemed to bound back and forth in place, stiff legged, as if he could barely keep himself from breaking into another sprint. The stream of agitated feline sound continued.

  “The beastie’s gone mad, sir?” Kettle asked.

  “Not mad, I think,” Grimm said. “Mister Esterbrook, can you understand him?”

  “I only speak a bit,” Esterbrook said. “ ‘He’s . . . there,’ ‘danger.’ ‘Help.’ Those I understood.” He shook his head. “What danger? Who needs help?”

  “Wait,” Kettle said. “I know they’re clever beasts, but . . . you mean the things actually talk?”

  The cat turned two frantic circles and then darted over to the corpse of a fallen Auroran Marine in his stolen uniform. He stopped to make sure they were all looking at it and then deliberately swiped at the dead man’s chest, hissing.

  “More of them?” Esterbrook asked. “Like that one?”

  The cat made another sound that Grimm could have sworn was an exasperated affirmative.

  “Merciful Builders,” Kettle breathed. “Is the man serious?”

  “My bosun on Perilous kept a cat aboard,” Grimm said. “The little monster was not to be underestimated.” He looked up at Esterbrook. “Is this creature known to you?”

  “Yes,” Esterbrook said at once. “He is. His name is Rowl.”

  “Then it would appear I know where I’m going next,” Grimm said calmly.

  Rowl whirled to look directly at Grimm, wide eyes intense. Then he let out another mrowling sound and darted back toward the wall of the garden. He leapt to the top and paused to look back over his shoulder. “Mister Creedy!” Grimm called. “We’re moving out!”

  “Aye, sir!” Creedy said. “Where are we headed, Captain?” Rowl leapt down and darted into the dimness, pausing thirty yards later to look back.

  Grimm started moving, Kettle at his side. “At the quick march, Mister Creedy. Follow that cat.”

  Chapter Sixteen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Ventilation Tunnels

  Bridget had never really given much thought to what it might be like to be held prisoner with her captor’s hand quite literally threatening to choke the life out of her, but she felt quite sure that she would never have imagined that the experience would primarily be tedious.

  At first she had been racked with confusion and fear, but in the standoff that came after she had been taken, she felt increasingly humiliated, insulted. What kind of fool was she to let herself be taken prisoner and used against her own Spire by its enemies? And right in front of Benedict?

  The Auroran warriorborn Marine Ciriaco held her back firmly against his chest, with one arm wrapped around her stomach and the other hand lightly holding her throat. Initially she had thought that she might be able to take him off guard and throw him, but at the slightest shift in her weight, Ciriaco’s hand would close and shut off her air entirely.

  After several minutes of tense silence, Bridget turned her head enough to see part of Ciriaco’s face. “Just so you know,” she said, “you’re holding me uncomfortably. My back is going to start cramping. When
it does, I’m not going to be able to hold still.”

  “I’m sure you’ll be missed,” the Auroran replied calmly, giving a little twitch of the fingers around her throat by way of demonstration.

  Benedict, his eyes locked on the Auroran, let out a low and utterly inhumansounding growl.

  “Careful, boy,” Ciriaco drawled. “If you let it out right now, it’s not going to end well for any of us.”

  “I’m quite serious,” Bridget said. “Sir, if my back starts to cramp and I begin to spasm and you kill me for it, my friend will most certainly come for you and matters will devolve.”

  From where she still lay on the floor, aiming her gauntlet at the explosives, Gwen said, “One might even say ‘explosively devolve.’ ”

  The Auroran grinned at that. “Damnation, but I admire women with spirit. But it’s been my experience that prisoners who do anything at all are prisoners who are trying either to escape or to kill me. So you don’t get an inch.”

  “There’s another option you haven’t considered,” Bridget said.

  “And what is that?”

  “Take me. Leave your explosives here and depart.”

  “Nonsense,” Gwen said.

  “Miss Lancaster,” Bridget said in a very cross and rather loud tone, “would you please stop helping me. Your only solution necessitates, as its linchpin, the deaths of everyone standing in this tunnel. Why not let me take a pass at finding something a bit less sweeping?”

  Ciriaco let out an almost musical chuckle Bridget could feel along her spine. “I’m listening. Why would I do such a thing?”

  “Because it salvages as much as possible from the situation,” Bridget said.

  “I need those explosives.”

  “You don’t get them,” Bridget said in a frank tone. “In very nearly every scenario that might play out here, you do not retain the explosives. If our reinforcements arrive, you do not get them. If your people arrive and someone doesn’t make a perfect shot before my associate knows it is happening, you do not get them. If no one shows up, you do not get them. If my back cramps up and the chain of events progresses as we expect, you do not get them.”