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A Midsummer Tempest

by Poul Anderson

To Karen with thanks for twenty years of love

I

A midsummer tempest. Thunder and lightning. A heath about to be blasted.

Throughout that sullen day, cannon had spoken from time to time between the confronting armies.

Otherwise there was no move of war. First Rupert waited for the Yorkshiremen; afterward he waited for morning, aware that meanwhile hunger, and memory of the defeats he had already dealt them, would gnaw his enemies for him.

But as evening drew in, clouds massed blue-black across heaven. A wind hooted bleak beneath, snickering in the whins. The gloom flared and banged. Now God lets loose His own artillery, went through Rupert. Across its noise came a sound nearly as deep and more harsh. The drumfire of a Roundhead hymn replies. They seem to think the storm’s a sign to them.

He touched spurs to horse and trotted along the ranks of his cavalry and musketeers till he found the man he wanted. “This breeze is full of battle smells. Hoy, chaplain!” he called; the wind fretted his words. “Let prayers be said.” On the way back, he added wryly, “We’ve done what else we can.”

As he took station again, his dog snuffed his boot and offered him a somehow forlorn tail-wagging. He leaned over to rumple the great white head. “So, Boye,” he murmured, “so, so, be easy, good old friend.

Three years of strife have not yet seen us beaten.” An inner pain touched him. Although at Aylesbury I dared not attack, and in withdrawing lost four hundred men to snow and flood—foul weather, then and now.

The service began. He rested helmet on saddlebow. Its white plume, his emblem, fluttered dimly in murk, vivid when lightning spurted. He barely made out the text of the brief sermon. the Lord God of gods, He knoweth and Israel shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord, save us not this day.”—words from the book of warrior Joshua. Most of his mind prowled the field of coming combat.

He personally headed the Life-Guards on the far left, his flank warded by hedges and a ditch. Goring’s riders poised on his right. Breastplates gleamed in a fitful glow, manes tossed, lances and muskets lifted stark. Beyond, cannon crouched like long beasts, slow-matches whipped well-nigh to torches in the hands of their masters. Further on, the white garb of the Yorkshire Lambs made a cloudy-faint mass beneath their pikes. Byron’s and the Irish horse, and reserves to rearward, were formless bulks. Rupert’s gaze sought from them to his foes. They occupied a gently rising hill, planted in rye that had been almost ready for the sickle when Englishman came trampling to make war on Englishman. Along with rebel rode Covenanting Scot; Rupert himself faced the Presbyterian cavalry. To their left were Fairfax’s foot, and left of those the Independent horse. Spies had reported that there the anchor of the Puritan line was a troop led by one Oliver Cromwell… Rupert could see little through the murk. That fewer rebels than Royalists owned armor made them doubly hard to number. Against what sunset glimmer remained, the roofs of Marston village were limned more clear than they.

He shivered. “This waiting ought to suit the Roundhead well,” he muttered unthinkingly: “cold game for colder soul.”

“You’ll dwarm’em up,” drawled a South country voice.

Turning, Rupert recognized the scarecrow figure hunched on an equally lank steed. “Hush, Will, attend the service,” he warned. All at once he realized: “No,’tis done.”

The dragoon chuckled. “Zo now you can heat tha shot at pleasure, my loard—theirs, I mean, for thoase ball-pates’ull glow red from tha breath o’ Hot Rupert, tha Dragon Prince, as I hear their scribblers ha’ named ye in their landlubbers’ broadzides.” In both armies cannon flashed and boomed, muskets winked and cracked. Through the whistling chill Rupert caught drifts of bitter smoke, shouts of officers, oaths of men, sometimes a jagged scream out of a wounded animal. “Thou talkest overmuch,” he said. “I know not why I tolerate thee near me, save that thou’rt good with my pets.”

The soldier shrugged. “Tha guns talk moare an’ louder, my loard. How they do argue, an’ what a harsh logic they chop! I dwould I could zay, instead, they’re ballin’ each other; but no, that’d bring forth pieces on earth’gainst men like good Will, an’ mesim we been a-pistoled enough.” He un-slung a leather bottle from his belt and reached it over. “If you do want dwarmth, your Highness, heare, stoke yourzelf from a Puritan househoald where lately zoroe of us made requisition. Fear not,’tis indeed a hellfiere preachment, but zafely decanted; for we’d hard ridin’ ahead of us, an’ thought that whilst tha spirits war for swillin’, tha flasks war weak.”

“No,” Rupert said. “To thy post, clown.” A moment longer the commoner leaned toward his general, as if to memorize those features before too late.

Though tall, he must look upward, for Rupert stood six feet four in height, with breadth in an athlete’s proportion. Bared, the prince’s black locks fell past a weather-beaten face to the shoulders. He did not also follow the Cavalier fashion in beards but went clean-shaven. That made him look older than he was, the sternness became so clear to see. Otherwise his countenance was brown eyes beneath level brows, straight high-bridged nose, full mouth, cleft chin. A tinge of Dutch accent rough-ened his speech.

Impatiently, he lifted his helmet and coif and buckled them back on. The soldier withdrew into the dusk.

Rupert glanced down at his dog. “See well to Boye,” he called.

Heaven opened bombardment. For minutes rain cataracted, hail rattled on iron and skittered across ground, lightning etched the armies in molten white and thunder roared damnations on drowned guns.

The squall passed. It had ripped the clouds apart.

A weird greenish half-light seeped from sky and horizon. And the men were moving.

Rupert’s saber flew free. He raised his chosen war cry, “For God and for the King!” and heard it echoed many thousandfold. In a surf of shouts and hoofbeats, he and the Life-Guards charged.

Through rye that flowed like water—up the hill—at the rain-wet riders ahead! As he galloped, he flickered an eye to the right. He saw a dash paralleling his, and the enemy’s lumbering trot downward to meet it.

Dismay flashed: Byron, that fool, has left our strongest point and gone to call upon a willing host—

—He shocked against the Scots. Pistols spat. He paid no heed, nor did his followers. Swords sparked on armor, ripped flesh and half-seen tartans. Mass shoved at him, around him; braced in the stirrups, he crammed on into it. Steel dinned, men yelled, beasts snorted and neighed, now and then a trumpet rang.

Bloody swayed the pennons of King and Parliament.

Here Rupert could not oversee the action. Yet between helmets and maddened faces he glimpsed signs he knew how to read. To rightward, Goring’s men thrust on like mine. At times like this, that lame and boastful scoundrel shines forth in such a way that I could love him as if he were my brother… O Maurice, are you alike at war this very night?

Through and through the Covenanters scorched the Royalists. For an instant, as they met the reserves beyond, they paused.

A white shape bounded baying past Rupert’s left foot, “Boye!” he shouted. “Thou’st’scaped the grooms?

Come here, Boye, Boye!” From the dour array before him, little fire-tongues uttered spite. His dog leaped once, writhed in falling, struck trampled mire, and lay still. The attack passed over the body.

     

 

2011 - 2018