Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 74

Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 74

PART III

September, 1540 A.D.

Chapter 40

Vlad looked despairingly at his recruits attempts to hit targets with their new arquebuses. He himself carried two of the Smerek pistols. And he could hit a target with them, while on horseback. This lot, it would appear, could not have hit a barn door from the inside. Wreathed in smoke, they fired at targets fifty paces off . . . and missed.

“Don’t worry, Drac,” said Sergeant Emil, when he commented on it. “They’re as good as King Emeric’s arquebuses. Maybe better. The guns are better. And it’s not about accuracy, really. It’s about massed fire. They’re not shooting at targets. They’re just shooting at the charging mass.”

“But will they even get that right?” asked Vlad.

The Sergeant nodded. “We don’t tell them so, but they’re better than most levies. They’ll get there, Sire. It’s whether they can do so when they’ve got a regiment of Magyar charging down on them that you have to worry about. And if they don’t, well, at least we won’t have to worry about it.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’ll all be dead,” said the sergeant with macabre humor. “If they break and run, we’ll be run down and spitted. It’ll be like a pack of wolves among newborn lambs.”

* * *

“It’s a small garrison, Sire. And we need to blood the troops somehow. And we need food and a victory,” said Emil.

Vlad considered the rough map. So far every action had been a rearguard and defensive one . . . no matter how successful they’d been, he knew that sooner or later they would have to go on the offensive. “How well can we scout the area? We don’t want to put our heads into a trap. We need to be able to get in, and get out. We still can’t dream of holding a town.”

The sergeant beamed. “That’s why it is such a good target, Sire. We’ve sent scouts right to the walls. And there is one road in from Gara. It’s a good two leagues off. There is only a garrison there at all because of the silver-mine.”

“Ah. Silver mine,” said Vlad, keeping his voice even.

The Sergeant looked uncomfortable. “Well, yes Sire. It’s a wealthy little place, because of that. And it is your silver, Sire.”

Vlad had had no idea how much war or an army cost, and of the influence of money, back when he had been a prince locked in a tower in Buda. He was better informed today. Plainly, so was his Sergeant. “I will need to accompany the scouts,” he said, thoughtfully.

Vlad was surprised how the knowledge that an attack was imminent galvanized his troops. They weren’t supposed to know. Somehow they did. “You always do,” said the quartermaster, when he commented on it. “Of course you get the place and time wrong, sometimes, Sire. But even the lowliest trooper has his ear to the rumor mill.”

It made spies and the extracting of information from captives a lot more of a threat. He’d have to do something about that. Soon. After taking Gara.

Vlad was quite pleased with his plan. They made a night-march and then waited in the pease-fields just outside the town. There were scouts on the Lesu road, in case they somehow came to the relief of Gara’s garrison. All the plans were made, the men instructed, primed and ready. At first light, a cart, heavily laden with hay, arrived at the gates. Demanded entry. On being admitted . . .

As the guard came down to demand to know just who they were, the two men took action. They were supposed to light the fuse that would set off the charge that would break the axle, and leave the cart stuck in the gate-arch. The Smerek brothers assured him it would be no more than a sharp crack, as if the axle had merely collapsed under the weight. Then with the gate open, Vlad’s men would charge into the town.

The cart rolled forward and Vlad watched . . . as it all went awry.

Firstly, the guard was not prepared to let the men stop in the gateway. He belted the ox with his spear-shaft. The charge of explosive went off . . . A lot louder than a mere cracking axle. The guard started fighting the two men on the cart, and the gate . . . swung ponderously closed as they raced towards it. Someone on the wall above the gate fired on them. Vlad saw it go all wrong as an explosion roared and a column of flames leapt above the gate.

“Haycart caught fire” said Sergeant Emil. There had been a powder charge in the bottom in case the guard had stopped the cart outside the gate. More shots rang out over their heads. Vlad realized with gloomy certainty that they could not take the gate. And he’d lost two men. “Sound the retreat.”

“Yes Sire.” The man winded his horn.

“Well, back to the mountains. We’ll need to move camp,” said Vlad, determined not show any sign of the fury and embarrassment he felt.

The Sergeant cleared his throat. “The boys will be over the back wall by now, Sire. No point in our going too far.”

“What?”

The Sergeant looked distinctly nervous. “Well, Sire. We’re veterans of King Emeric’s campaigns, Mirko and me. And the king makes these complicated plans. They go wrong nine times out of ten, and . . . well, we get punished for failing. So we got used to making a second plan or two. Just in case. The king usually isn’t near at hand to know that the officers . . . um, modified things a bit. And that if they get a chance, the sergeants and men do it too. But you’re here, sire, so you have to know. We had some of the men make ladders and wait for the commotion on this side.”

Vlad was silent. Then he sighed. “I have learned three things from this, Emil.” The first is that in war, things will go wrong. The second is that I need to have thought of a second plan.”

“And the third, Sire?”

“To choose my officers carefully, and to listen when they wish to tell me about their experiences.” Vlad could hear the shooting now, from the far side of the small walled town. “Do we ride to join them or wait here?

“They’ll open the gate for us, Sire.”

* * *

Very rapidly, riding into the small town, Vlad realized that it was not only how to assault towns and conduct wars that he still had to learn about, but that the attack itself was only a small part of what he should have planned. He had won, yes. The small garrison had been outnumbered . . . and the survivors surrendered. And had been murdered out of hand, to Vlad’s anger and embarrassment. And now his men seemed to have scattered into the houses and shops in an orgy of looting and mayhem. Vlad tried to round his men up, with limited success. He wanted silver, and he wanted food for his men. There was going to be precious little of either, at this rate.

The woman in the torn dress was screaming in terror as she ran, head down, not looking where she was going. She almost ran headlong into Vlad’s horse. And behind her came . . . not the horrors of hell, but three of Vlad’s own. “What do you think you are doing?” he asked them, icily.

The men were already drunk enough for one to try and answer the question. “Victor’s rights . . .” he said, his voice surly, doubt and shame making him angry both with himself and his Prince.

She clung to his stirrup. “Lord, they killed my man. Save me.”

“He’s not dead. Jus’ knocked him down . . .” A sense of shame now seemed to be returning to the men, the third one was sidling backwards, desperate to be away from what might have seemed acceptable, and a good idea, moments earlier.

“Hell’s teeth, are you a pack of ravening animals?” Vlad felt the fury that had been building in him start to rise. “This is my land. My town too. Yours too, damn you.” He turned to the Sergeant. “Sound that horn. Sound the retreat. We ride through the streets in one circuit. Any man who does not answer the call, I’ll leave to get hung by the locals or Emeric, whoever gets them first.”

“Sire . . . the silver.”

“Devil take it, man. I’ll have my due, brought to me. Not taken at knife-point over the raped bodies of my people’s daughters. She could have been your sister, you animals. Sound that horn, Emil. And you three,” he pointed at the would-be rapists. “Be happy that she got to me in time, or I’d make an example of you with the butcher’s knife. Fall in.”

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