All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 51

Chapter 28

The Duchy of Milan, the eastern frontier

Francisco rode out that afternoon, having had Kazimierz approved by Sforza, and the matter handed on to various functionaries. The man who claims the name of Kazimierz, Francisco cautioned himself. He made a mental note to ask someone familiar with the nobility of Hungary just who the man was sometime

But that could wait. Right now, Turner had a war to deal with. Both the east and west were fragile–simply because there were two fronts and a limited number of men. If the Holy Roman Empire on the northern border or Venice in the south were drawn in, things could become very ugly very quickly.

But at the moment, there were only four bridges across the Mincio. It was not a huge river, perhaps forty yards wide in the dry season. But now, with spring melt-water, it was wider and deeper and hard to cross, with very few fords. The bridges at Pescheria were protected by Visconti-built fortresses on the island part way over. The bridge at Borghetto, the Ponte Visconteo, was nearly half a mile long, and the obvious place for attack. Because of the braiding of the river in this area, there were several fordable places and the moraine ridges could hide the troops–but the bridge was fortified with two elderly towers. Goito had been held by the Scaligeri. That left Rivalta–but that bridge was in open country, and defended by a fortress on the Milanese side.

From the ruins of the little village that had sprung up around the Scaliger fortress of Goito, in more peaceful times, Francisco huddled with Captain Pelta, looking at the walls. They had nothing here but light siege guns. Sforza did not wish to take the fortress in his trademark way. He wanted it to bleed the Scaligers’ capacity to do anything else, at as low a cost as possible. They had to lose expensively here, to surrender, to give over plenty of their nobles and officers to be ransomed eventually. To act as bargaining chips.

Pelta belched, the result of drinking beer, which he plainly rarely quaffed. “Better out than in.”

“I think they’re saying that,” said Francisco, gesturing at the fortress. “A good thing they have no idea how few men you actually have here.”

“Judging by the shooting, they’re low enough on ammunition to be rationing it, anyway. At first they blazed away at anything that moved out here. So even if they decide to sortie, it might not be too bad.”

There was a large camp, with cook-fires burning every night, just outside cannon-shot, but visible from the walls of the fort.

Troops could be seen coming and going from time to time. It was unlikely the men trapped in the fortress–or those on the other side of the river–knew it was all little more than canvas. Pelta had no spare men to sit waiting for the fortress to fall. Even in the initial attack, with the blowing of the bridge, there had been only three thousand of Sforza’s men to the nearly four thousand foes who panicked and ran, some back to try and hold the fort. Some of those had fled in the initial fray, but they had nearly three thousand men in that little redoubt, doing nothing. The three eighteen pounders were aimed at the wall-tops, sending masonry flying down into their fortress, and discouraging shooting from the walls. The building had been built to withstand old-fashioned sieges, and the Scaligers had invested nothing in updating the fortress in a trusted ally’s border-land. Sforza’s heavy guns could have pounded a hole through the walls in a day or less. But instead they had left their enemy to sit with three thousand of the cream of their army inside a fort which could house five hundred, and had no vast stockpiles of food or ammunition. Water they had, but they’d be tight-packed and hot and hungry. In the panic to flee Sforza’s attack to the safety of the fort, most of the supply wagons had been abandoned or burned.

Francisco and Pelta sat on the remains of a half-collapsed stone wall and counted the desultory shots coming from the fortress. The distance was great enough that they weren’t worried about being hit, even if the gunfire had been more vigorous.

As was the Milanese response, which came close to a fusillade. Ammunition was not something Sforza’s harquebussiers were short of, or had been told to spare. Milan had been buying and stockpiling powder and shot for months. Pelta’s men were sitting with three harquebuses each so they could fire off an impressive volley of shots in reply. Of course, with a mere thousand men here, a real sortie could be a problem.

“So: What’s next?” asked Francisco.

Pelta pointed northward, in the direction of Lago di Garda. Although the lake was the biggest in Italy, it was still too far away to be seen. “They’ve been collecting boats just upstream. They’re doing their best to do it in secret, bringing them down by wagon–I would guess they plan to try and get some of the more valuable men out. My men have barrels of olive oil and floating barrels with pitch and naptha ready to push into the river. It’s tempting to let the stupid bastards get over and be heading back, but the ransom for some those in there should be handsome. They work on rebuilding the bridge again, but I think even they know all we’ll do is send another barge of explosives down.”

Just then a runner came to find them. “Scouts spotted something.”

They returned to the camp to find the scouts waiting. Two sets of scouts, one from the Ponte Visconteo. Carlo Sforza had men up on the ridge on the Scaliger side, well hidden, who would signal troop numbers to the scouts, so the secret movement of the soldiery was less so than the Scaliger commanders might think. Of course they might guess, but they had no reputation for it. “They’ve got around a thousand infantry and six culverins waiting in between the ridges.”

Carlo had left them with a reserve of two thousand mounted men, and two thousand five hundred infantry. Normally infantry, easier to train and cheaper to arm and equip, made up the bulk. But Sforza had kept his infantry for other purposes, and left them with a small force on each bridge, positioned to respond fast, and a well set up perimeter of scouts, observers and messengers. Given that they had to guard twenty miles, adequately stationing enough men at any possible crossing would have stretched Sforza’s men thin. But so long as those who crossed could not hold their crossing or bring large numbers without a forceful response, the river made a reasonable barrier.

The other scout was from the marshy area near Rivalta. It was his home, he’d grown up shooting ducks on the water there. “They’re building a pontoon bridge in the marsh. And there are some men on horses with a local boy marking a trail.”

The Rivalta Bridge was actually a series of smaller bridges with a causeway across the swampy ground, and one relatively deep but narrow channel crossed by a stone bridge, fortified with small towers on both sides. Getting cannon to the bridge was just not practical except straight down the causeway. The bridge itself was only six feet wide–too narrow for many carts or wagons, and not easy to get great numbers across in a hurry, if it was under fire. It had not been considered a very likely point of attack for these reasons. Sforza’s troops had small outposts and guards at the forward bridges.

“Must be cavalry,” said Pelta. “They’re keeping them out of sight. Probably a couple of miles off. I suppose this means they plan this for night or dawn.”

That was guess-work, of course–scary guesswork, because if they got it wrong, they’d all end up dead. Even if they got it partly wrong, they could end up letting their commander down, and some of their number dead. It was a measure of how much they all trusted and were loyal to Carlo Sforza, that it was the first part that seemed to worry them most.

“I’d guess the attack on Ponte Visconteo will start first and isn’t meant to succeed,” said Francisco.

Pelta nodded. “Yes, Ponte Visconteo is probably a feint. Not enough cannon, not enough men. I’ll still send some more infantry there, tonight. It’s what they’ll try at Rivalta that worries me. If they’ve half the brains of a rabbit, they’ll screen their pontoon-bridge with nets to stop us breaking it with a barge or a raft full of explosives. The oil and pitch and naphtha will work at keeping them off it for a while–but may not set fire to it.”

“And the river runs faster in the narrows. It’ll clear faster.”