Four Days On The Danube – Snippet 14
So, he shifted the issue. “What happened?”
“I don’t kn –”
“Of course you don’t know! I specifically assigned you to find out what happened and here you are, back again almost immediately with no explanation. You won’t find out anything here, Captain. Attend to your duty.”
After von Haslang left, the general went back to glaring at the airship. There would be no way to capture it now, of course. Or even destroy it. The craft was already at least a thousand feet high, beyond the range of any gun except cannons — and no cannon was designed to fire almost straight up.
That was something that would have to be attended to, as soon as possible. Realistically, there was no way Bavaria would be able to match their enemy’s capabilities in the air in the foreseeable future. That would have been true even if they’d succeeded in taking the airship. Von Lintelo would urge the duke to devote resources to developing guns which could strike down aircraft instead. Such guns were quite possible, he’d been told.
The general’s foul mood didn’t last for long. Every campaign has its shortcomings. Taken as a whole, however, this campaign had succeeded splendidly. Ingolstadt was theirs again.
When Captain von Haslang finally found Captain Andreas von der Felt, he still had no answers. The captain’s body was cold — ice cold, as you’d expect in the middle of clear night in January — and the first signs of rigor mortis were setting in. He’d been dead for hours. His body was half-sprawled against the wall of a shop that had been broken into. A general store, from the looks, which sold foodstuffs and other items. Von Haslang was pretty sure the captain had been dragged there from somewhere else, though, judging from the trail of blood leading out into the street. That was where he’d probably been struck down.
The cause of death needed no explanation. There was a big hole in his forehead and the back of his skull was missing. A gunshot had caused that, obviously. From the huge size of the entry wound, von Haslang would normally have assumed the captain had been struck by a canister ball. But that was most unlikely. Who would be firing a cannon in this vicinity? It was almost all the way across the city from the artillery barracks.
At a guess, the captain — damned idiot — had been breaking into the shop when someone inside fired on him with an antique arquebus, the type of huge gun designed to be fired from wagons or with a forkrest. They were often called by the French term arquebus à croc. The weapons weren’t much use on a modern battlefield but, passed down generation to generation, they’d serve a shop-keeper well enough.
Drawing his wheel-lock pistol, von Haslang climbed into the shop through the smashed window. The shop itself was dark, but there was a gleam of light coming from somewhere in the back. He headed that way.
Before he got more than ten feet, he tripped over something on the floor and barely managed to keep from falling. Squatting down and investigating in the darkness with his free hand, he discovered another dead body. He’d stumbled over one of the man’s legs.
After a few more seconds of groping, he found a big arquebus lying next to the man. That confirmed his guess as to what had happened. The captain — damned idiot — had led his men into a plundering expedition instead of attending to his duty; he’d been shot dead by the shop’s owner; his men had fired back and killed the owner. Then they’d dragged their commander’s body out of the street and placed him against the wall of the shop.
And then what?
He rose and resumed his slow progress toward the light. As he got near, he saw that the light was spilling from the floor above. What he’d seen from a distance was the crack in the door that led to the stairwell.
Slowly and carefully, making no sound, he opened the door enough to pass through. Then, waited for a few seconds, listening for any noise coming from above.
Nothing. That he could detect, anyway. There was quite a bit of noise filtering into the shop from the street outside. A city being sacked is anything but quiet. Whatever noise might be coming from above was drowned out.
But von Haslang didn’t think there was any. He had a sense for such things, from his years of war. Whatever had happened in this shop was over. The whole place had a dead feel to it.
He went up the stairs, still moving slowly and carefully. Once on the landing, he spent another few seconds listening.
Still nothing. He started moving from room to room. As was often the case with small shops, these were the personal living quarters of the shopkeeper and his family.
The family was all dead, too. A wife, at a guess; two sons of teenage years; a girl perhaps eight years old. The boys had been killed immediately, shot dead. The woman and her daughter would have died later, after much torment. They’d both had their throats cut.
Several empty bottles of liquor were lying about. Those would have been looted from the shop below. The few possessions of the family had also been ransacked, not that there would have been much to steal.
Despite the empty bottles, the killers hadn’t been completely drunk. Soldiers sacking a city didn’t usually murder the women they raped. Their men, yes, as a rule; but they’d keep the women for concubines. This had been done to eliminate witnesses.
Not witnesses to the atrocity itself. Duke Maximilian and General von Lintelo would be quite indifferent to that matter, and any of their soldiers would know it. But they wouldn’t be indifferent to gross dereliction of duty — and these men had been given an important mission. At which they’d failed completely, because of their own lust and greed.
For that, they’d hang — if they were found out.
But would they be? Did anyone besides Captain Andreas von der Felt know which soldiers he’d taken with him? Anyone, at least, whose word could be taken as good coin.
Probably… not. Von der Felt was well-known for committing atrocities, and such officers transmitted their attitudes to their men. Captain von Haslang strongly disapproved, and his reasons were military as well as moral. Units which behaved in that manner invariably became coarsened, and the coarseness spread over time into all areas of their conduct. Who in their right mind would take the word of a murderer, rapist, arsonist and torturer for anything?
Not he, for sure. Not even General von Lintelo would.
So, the guilty men would probably go undetected and unpunished. And an important mission had failed in the process.
The colonel sighed, slid the pistol back in his belt, and headed back down the stairs. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this whole campaign — and he was a man who trusted his instincts.