1635: THE CANNON LAW – snippet 93:






The countryside, near Rome


            The heat of the Lazio countryside in late May was, after Naples and the never-sufficiently-damned ships he'd ridden here on, actually quite congenial. Captain Don Vincente Jose-Maria Castro y Papas was entirely used to hot summers, being from Andalusia.


            He was still glad of the cool breeze and the thin cloud that granted a little shade, though it was small enough compensation for what was probably the most insane military operation of his life.


            Insane, in its overall dimensions, he suspected—and certainly so, in the specific one to which he’d been assigned. No sooner had he and his men gotten ashore at Ostia, than an agent working for Cardinal Borja had accosted him. Quevedo, his name was. Don Vincente was not acquainted with the man personally, but he knew of him. More to the point, he knew that Quevedo spoke for the Cardinal—and that this whole operation was being done at Borja’s instigation and under his orders.


            So, when Quevedo told him that there was special work for a small company—and, alas, his had been chosen—Don Vincente had not been able to refuse.  He tried to find what little consolation there was in Quevedo’s assurance that the work would bring an extra stipend, and first chance at the loot. Whatever “loot” might mean, in this case, which was probably very little.


            Quevedo had also assured Don Vincente, with an air of great self-satisfaction, that there would be no questions asked or answered. As if the agent's attempts at secrecy meant anything! The real business they were about—twenty shiploads of mercenaries, no less—was an open secret. Cardinal Borja had been seen about Ostia throughout the day, once the fort had fallen, or been sold, depending on the version you preferred.


            Not having any choice in the matter, Don Vincente and his company had pressed through the night on horses the Cardinal’s agent had had waiting for them when they got off the boat. There was a list of churchmen who had to be captured or killed. Preferably captured, but killed if it looked like they might escape. There was a party of men assigned to each name on the list and Quevedo had added a pair of local guides to each party.


            Guides, Don Vincente thought, who might be able to guide a fellow to a dockside whorehouse but that was about it. Paid killers, every one, and not the genteel kind, either. The kind of men you sent along to make sure of the result after a platoon of soldiers had done the hard work.


            These prelates, though, Quevedo was chasing personally: two of the pope’s own relatives, Cardinals Francesco and Antonio Barberini. He'd shared the hard night's ride from Ostia. He'd had informants with fresh horses for Don Vincente’s troops ready to let them know that the target was heading out of Rome already.


            They'd missed Francesco, apparently, by less than an hour. Antonio, the younger Cardinal Barberini, had stayed behind for some unknown reason. The cardinal’s agent thought about it for maybe half a minute, and led most of Don Vincente's troop in hot pursuit.


            Hence Don Vincente being glad of the breeze. Somehow the heat was harder to bear, the sweat stickier and the saddle made a man's ass sorer when he hadn't had enough sleep. His mouth tasted foul, his clothes clung everywhere it was uncomfortable for them to cling and his teeth itched, of all things. And he was missing the first pick at the plunder he'd been promised for this fool chase across Rome's hinterland.


            Now they could see another group of refugees on the road ahead. The first few they'd overtaken had been commoners, minor merchants and the like. No cardinals with them. Besides, unless Barberini was dawdling, he was likely further along the road than this. But not too much further. He surely wasn't simply riding down anyone who got in his way, as Quevedo was ordering. Twice, now, Don Vincente had been ordered to have his men clear the road with leveled carbines. Delays, but not as bad as if they'd detoured into the fields or tried to get through the parties of refugees without moving them aside. Four carts they'd driven into the roadside ditches were behind them now. Ahead, a plume of dust maybe a mile away. Don Vincente thought again of the loot he was missing back in Rome for this escapade. The extra pay had better be worth it.


            They were in luck. Or so Don Vincente hoped. No-one not seriously important had guards who were watching the back trail and who dismounted for a rearguard action.


            "Loot in those carts," Quevedo growled. The man was middle-aged to old and carried himself like nobility, for all he reeked of strong drink. The weapons were expensive, even if the clothes were nondescript campaigning gear.


            "Good," Don Vincente said, and rose in his stirrups to turn and address his men. "Hear that? This one's rich. He'll have his strongbox with him. Good pickings."


            There was a growl of assent from the men. They, too, had been brooding on the plunder they were missing. There would be fortunes won this day in Rome, and every hour they were on the road outside the city the slimmer their chances were of getting their slice.


            Don Vincente tried to get a count of the men facing them as they rode closer. A dozen, no more. Good. They'd brought forty-five, and these poor bastards ahead had had no time to manage even the hastiest of fortifications. Some of them had muskets, the old heavy kind, and were dismounted, taking aim over their saddles. Four muskets wouldn't matter worth a damn. The rest were still mounted and drawing swords.


            "They'll not stand!" he yelled, "Horse-holders, sergeant." Don Vincente himself could fight mounted, but he was probably the only one who could do so reliably. The rest of his men were musketeers, and only dragoons when need be. Fortunately, the new short muskets—carbines, they were called, a French innovation—were going down well, and getting them off their horses and shooting was the best option.