All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 53

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All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 53

The officers were not talking–not while they were together. But their troopers were much less reticent, and quite happy to spill. There were five thousand men en route, nearly two thousand of them cavalry, some from the Carreressi of Padua as well as the Viscount di Scala’s forces. The attack was for tonight, the men would be crossing in boats to attack Rivalta, so that it was taken and held. Shots had been heard and reported, and they’d been sent to investigate. And the troops were already on the road.

A frontal meeting, with three hundred odd men against the full Scaliger relief force could only end badly. And flight now would end up with them jammed on the bridge, with Pelta unable to blow his mines without killing Francisco and his men, as the tail fought the overwhelming numbers. “Back to that track, about a hundred yards back on the right,” said Francisco. “Pass it back down the line.”

They retreated to the track. Francisco sent an escort of ten with the prisoners and the information gained. They would be, he suspected, the lucky ones.

“Have you any idea where we are?” asked Francisco of their two guides.

“I think this track leads to the Casera farm, just north of Soave di Mantovano,” said the one.

“It’s in for a very bad night,” said Francisco, grimly. “How far to it?”

“A quarter of mile or so, M’lord.”

Francisco recreated the map in his mind’s eye. “There’s that ford you talked about on the big bend, with the oxbow lake beyond it. Could you find your way there?”

“The track leads through the farm. And then we take the right fork nearly a mile from there, and then when we get the Baridi farm, we take the track to the water. That’s a bit tricky we have to cross a stream…”

“How wide? And how deep?”

The man threw up his hands. “There was a bridge, M’lord. Just a log over the water. I never got into the water. The ford’s fifty yards wide, maybe sixty. The water hits the stones there, spreads out. The other side will be hard going, swampy ground.”

“If we get to the other side, that’ll be a good thing.”

They rode to the farm. There they caught every person in the place asleep. They were tied up, while the scouts returned to the main road from Rivalta, with enough stakes to make something of an abatis at the junction. Francisco briefed his men.

“The mist is getting thicker. We’re going to hit their mid-tail end and run.” He picked on three of the men. “You’re lucky. Or unlucky. You’re going to ride close to the village. When you hear us shooting, start fires. I want part of Soave di Mantovano burning. And then ride like hell back down this track, and then back to the ford. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there before us, and if you’re unlucky, after. There are some of Captain Pelta’s infantry on the other side, so be sure you yell ‘Sforza’ or they might shoot you.”

He turned in his saddle to face the main body of his troops. “The rest of us are going to cut a hole in the middle of their column in the mist, fire our horse-pistols, and ride back along this track. Now, I’ll want the lieutenants and the two sergeants.”

The plan was worked through, hastily, and soon they were riding back, having made sure that those who might follow would hit a slowing blockade at the farmhouse.

His stomach in that familiar before-combat knot, Francisco edged forward with his men in the wreathing mist. The moon broke through, showing a stark black-and-white tableaux of men checking their priming, loosening blades in their sheaths, and patting their horses, who, inevitably, were catching the nervous stress from the riders. Then the mist closed in again and a little later they could hear the sound of the Scaliger army moving past, not more than a hundred yards off.

Francisco waited for the moment to tell the trumpeter to sound the call. And then, in the distance came the sound of massed harquebus fire. He tapped his trumpeter. “Sound it.”

The man gave the bright sharp shrill call. “Sforza!” yelled Francisco, and the cry echoed from the better part of three hundred voices as they plunged forward. It was impossible to have everyone on the muddy track so they were in the field on either side–barely able to see ahead. The thirty men on the track reached the road first, and Francisco could hear the clash of steel, more yells of Sforza! and in the distance yet another volley from the harquebuses. Then the flankers started to reach the road. Those on the left scrambled across the ditch and fired back toward the tail end of the Scaliger column, and headed right to the lanterns the scouts had now put to mark the track, and those on the right did the opposite. In theory, at least, because the wings of Francisco’s attack had been well back and had further to go, they would not shoot each other.

Of course in the chaos, screaming, shouting and gunfire, anything could happen. Francisco felt a burn across his shoulder. It could have been one of the panicked Scaligers, or a latecomer from his own side. He managed to cling to his saddle, as his horse suddenly jumped and scrambled over another horse. And there were the lanterns, and, dizzy with the shock, he joined the other horsemen streaming down the track. He was glad to leave the process to the horse. It saw better and heard better in the dark than he did. He heard the grenades they had left at the entry to the track explode. The scout had been instructed to light the fuse when Francisco’s trumpeter sounded the second call. Francisco could not recall hearing it.

The rest of the ride was something of a blur, which only became somewhat clearer as they hit the icy water of the Mincio ford. As an invasion route it would have been a failure, as the water was deep enough to wet them from head to boots and force them to swim a little, and then struggle out and through a series of shallow lagoons and glutinous mud… but there were some of Pelta’s men, waiting.

****

It was some hours later, back at the camp outside Goito, when Francisco suffered the indignity of having to have his own wound treated, that he was finally able to get some idea of how well they done. One of the two lieutenants who had been with him reported gleefully. “We only lost fifteen men in all. Well, men who have not returned. Twenty-two wounded, yourself included, Captain. Three more seriously than you, but mostly they are minor wounds. The Scaligers did not succeed in crossing the Mincio. When Captain Pelta got the captives we sent them–he got more detail out of them, sent a tercio of harbquebus and pike forward, along the road to meet them, and to conduct a slow retreat onto the bridge. It’s been a busy night. They tried to sortie out of Goito fortress when they heard the shooting. That didn’t end well for them. They got a ball from the cannon right in the middle of their mass, and then got blown up by the mine that Captain Pelta had us dig. I thought he was wasting the men’s time making them dig that tunnel. I thought it was heading for the fortress. I didn’t realize it was under the road out, and that Pelta had had the sappers fill it with explosives.”

While what losses the Scaligers had suffered on the other side of the river was not something they could know, it appeared that the men trapped in the fortress of Goito had had enough. They had used what little reserve they had in their attempted sortie. They asked for terms, later that day.

And that night six more of the troop that had taken part in Francisco’s raid made it back across the Mincio, bringing news of mayhem on the opposite bank. It appeared that the rear had been made up of troops from Padua, and, when the Scaliger troops were attacked in the mist, the Scaliger commander concluded they had been betrayed by the allies behind him. The fight had been raging on for most of the next day, apparently. The surviving Carreressi troops had fled back to Padua, and the men, who had hidden in Scaliger territory, had heard distant shooting, further east.

 

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