1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 52
In the end, all of Captain Lovrenc Bravnicar’s efforts to protect the Elector of Saxony proved to be pointless. A massive explosion erupted just as John George and his wife and son passed through a narrow defile in the mountains.
The sound was almost deafening. Bravnicar, riding at the front of the column, twisted around in his saddle. The little gorge was filled with gunsmoke. He could hear the sounds of shrieking men and horses. Several riderless horses were already racing away from the disaster. He could see two bodies — presumably their former riders — lying still on the ground. Another horse was dragging a cavalryman whose boot had gotten stuck in a stirrup. His head smashed against a rock and he lost his helmet. Blood spilled out to cover his face.
Lovrenc thought the man was already unconscious. He hoped so. There was no way he was going to survive, the way his horse was dragging him down the rock-strewn incline. You couldn’t even call this a road. It was simply a trail created by men and animals passing through the mountains for centuries.
“Gott mit uns,” he whispered. Slovenia was now a Catholic land, but Bravnicar’s family were Protestants who’d been driven out at the turn of the century.
Men were starting to stumble out of the smoky gorge. All of them were cavalrymen. The infantry marching behind must have been spared. One of the cavalrymen seemed to have a broken arm, and another’s leg was bloody. A third just seemed dazed.
Bravnicar drew his sword and swept it in a half-circle. “Stand guard! We’re under attack!”
Immediately, his Slovene veterans began forming a perimeter, drawing out their wheel-lock pistols. For his part, Lovrenc trotted his horse toward the defile. The smoke was beginning to clear away.
On the wooded slopes above, lying hidden on their stomachs, Georg Kresse and Wilhelm Kuefer studied the scene.
“What do you want to do about the Slovenes?” asked Kuefer softly.
“I don’t know yet. It depends on whether the Elector survived or not.”
“Survived that? I don’t think so.” Wilhelm had overseen the laying of the charges himself. They had many former miners in their ranks, who’d done an excellent job of drilling the holes that held the powder. Once they’d covered everything up, the huge mines had been all but invisible, even though each charge had at least ten pounds of iron scrap lying on top to serve as shrapnel.
Wilhelm Kuefer had never heard the term “Claymore mine.” But what he had created in that tight and narrow gorge was a line of them on either side. The shrapnel those blasts sent flying would not cover every square inch of the ground, but they would probably cover every square foot. Wilhelm didn’t think a rabbit could have survived, not even an armored one.
“He’s probably dead,” agreed Georg. “But we need to be sure. If he is…” The leader of the Vogtland rebels made as much of a shrugging motion as a man can manage while lying down. “We’ve got no personal quarrel with the Slovenes, and I’d just as soon avoid unneeded casualties. If they leave, we’ll let them go.”
Kuefer grunted softly. That seemed reasonable. That was probably Captain Lovrenc Bravnicar’s company down there. Wilhelm thought he’d recognized him. If so, just as Georg had said, they had no great quarrel with him or his. The Slovenes had refrained from committing the sort of atrocities that Holk’s men were guilty of.
“What about the infantry?”
Kresse’s expression hardened. “That’s a different story. Not one of those pigs leaves these mountains alive.”
That also seemed reasonable.
Bravnicar found the Elector soon enough. Most of him, anyway. It took a while longer to find the missing leg, and he never did find the missing hand. Given the incredible force of the explosion, such a small item might well have been blown out of the gorge altogether.
The Elector’s wife had been scattered more widely, but Lovrenc didn’t try to find all the pieces. There was no doubt about her identity. She’d been the only woman in the group and her face was almost unblemished, allowing for the oddly flat shape. It had been blown completely off her head and was plastered onto the hindquarters of a dead horse.
Oddly enough — explosions could be freakish — their sixteen-year-old son Moritz was almost untouched. Only one projectile seemed to have struck him. Unfortunately, that one had come in through one temple and out the other, passing under the helmet.
He heard a volley of gunfire coming from the northern end of the little gorge, followed by more scattered shots. Then, the blast of a cannon. A five-pound saker loaded with canister, by the sound of it.
Lovrenc had dismounted to examine the bodies. Now, he ran toward the noise in a crouch, leaving his steed behind. The stallion was a well-trained warhorse and wouldn’t run off unless he was directly attacked.
As he neared the end of the defile, Lovrenc moved more slowly. After half a minute or so, he was able to peek his head around a boulder and see what was happening.
His infantry force — what was left of it; there were at least twenty bodies scattered not far from the gorge entrance — was in full retreat. Rout, rather. No, even “rout” didn’t do justice to it. They were racing off like so many mice, discarding their weapons and even their armor as they ran.
Thereby displaying the intelligence of rodents, as well. Disarmed and scattered, in these mountains, they’d never survive the pursuit that Kresse’s men were sure to set underway.
Had already set underway, rather. The sounds of gunfire were continuing. Those were all rifles, too. Hunters’ weapons.
There was nothing Bravnicar could do about it. All that was left now was to get his Slovenes out of the disaster, if possible.
He had no great hopes.