All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 52

“I suspect they’ll try to get men on this side, to attack the bridge from the flanks, and hit the outposts hard with the cavalry, and hope that in the retreat there’ll be enough chaos on the bridge to take the towers. They’re not worth much, defensively.”

“Well, barring a cannon-shot down the causeway.”

“They’re hundred year-old relics,” said Pelta. “As likely to blow up and kill the users as do anything useful. And they probably know that. That’s why Carlo changed the guards here–they seemed very cosy with the Scaligers. The defensive cannon in Pescharia and Ponte Viscoteo have at least been supplemented, but the only field pieces I have are those here at Goito. Moving anything down there fast enough is just too much. It’s going to have to be cavalry and infantry, Francisco.”

“Then I think we’ll mine the causeway. Let the bastards gallop through mud.”

“Well, partly practical. I’ve got tarred kegs full of powder in place under all the bridges. But the causeway… that’ll take too much time and powder. I can’t do it. It would be easier to blow up the final bridge.”

Turner started tugging at his beard, as he was wont to do when pondering a problem. But he left off after a few seconds. He made it a point to keep his beard very closely trimmed in time of war–that was more in the way of superstition, he’d admit, that anything really needful–and the exercise of beard-tugging was more frustrating than helpful.

“It seems odd that they wouldn’t anticipate that,” he said to Pelta. “What got them at Goito is that they got caught by surprise, hit hard, and were trapped without much ammunition or food, and they lost a lot of their horses. This time… They’re not going to be surprised, and they’re not going to be un-horsed or out of ammunition.”

“To be honest, Francisco,” said the young commander, earning him serious respect from his somewhat older fellow captain, “I don’t know what best to do. Carlo told me to hold the Mincio, to not try and put a perimeter on every inch, to keep troops in reserve, and to respond hard and fast to any attempt to gain a beachhead–which I will do. But if they press hard on Rivalta, cross in several places, with enough men, it’ll cost them dear, but I think they can take the crossing. There are at least seven places the river can be forded down there, let alone their pontoon bridge and whatever men they land by boat. They’ll try that tonight, for sure.”

Francisco shook his head. The gesture was not one of disagreement so much as it was an effort to concentrate his thoughts. “I’m not Carlo Sforza. But I’ve fought beside him for nearly ten years. I’d say what he’d do would be to respond hard and fast to this attempt, before they gain a foothold. Turn their attack plan against them… Moonrise tonight, if you give me three hundred horse, what I suggest is I’ll hit their outposts off the end of the causeway. They’re expecting to invade us, and believe that we are on the back foot, and being attacked on several fronts, trying to hold our own territory. From what Carlo said, they have no substantive defenses their side of the river.”

Pelta grinned sharkishly. “Why you? I’ll do that. You can deal with the logistics of watching this side.”

“Because the commander put you in charge of it. He sent me to support you. And he gave you the hard task because he knew you could do it. He just sent me here to be out of the way, because he knew I would try to stop him doing too much.”

Francisco noted Pelta, who had been looking strained, straighten his shoulders a bit at that. “How is he? I have never seen him show signs of being tired before.”

“He hasn’t either. He’s not handling having to rest well. I am sure he will recover from whatever it was,” said Francisco, carefully not saying what he thought it was, or that he thought someone had got to Sforza again, somehow.

“Good to know. Well, you need to get on with this so you can get back to keeping him resting a bit. I like the idea, because they’ll be devoting more men to guarding their frontier than invading us. But in the long term it may cause problems when we want to invade their territory. There’s going to be quite a reckoning for this, and they’ll be paying for it.”

“You’ve got a point, but we’ll let Carlo worry about it. Now what have you got in the way of details, maps and locals for guides? And how many men can you let me have?”

Over the next few minutes, Francisco saw why Carlo Sforza trusted the young man. He was, in terms of his staff-work, very, very good. He had two men from the area–one of them the scout who had grown up shooting ducks in the marshy area across from Rivalta, and the other a run-away from an apprenticeship in Marimolo. The woodland between Marimolo and the little town of Soave di Manovano, on the border of Scaliger territory, and the land they had lost to Venice and Ferrara around Mantova was the most likely place for the Scaliger army to be massing. The forest would make them invisible to the watch at Rivalta.

It was three miles into Scaliger territory–too close, Francisco reckoned, for them to be comfortable and relaxed about the chance of an attack. But it would overset their plans somewhat, no matter what they planned. Pelta had a reasonable map of the tracks and roads, and he, Francisco, and the two scouts and the three lieutenants that would be going along discussed them.

By sundown they were ready, and rode out in the twilight, slowly passing over the narrow Rivalta Bridge, and waiting for moon-rise to storm the guard-post on the far side of the last small bridge on the causeway. The duck-hunting scout had taken a boat and twenty pike-men, to flank the outpost. Shooting was to be avoided, unless need drove them hard.

They were waiting, when the duck-hunter came out of the dark. “The men are waiting, M’lord,” he said to Francisco. “But it seems like there’s more than just the usual men there. A pack train of horses with panniers are there, and there’s a lot of men moaning they can’t light fires and the mosquitos are biting them, in the field just past the outpost. It’s wet, and they are cold.”

“What is a ‘lot’ of men, Mario? Are they mounted?”

“No, foot soldiers, M’lord. Harquebussiers. Maybe a hundred men. They are complaining that the pike-men are late.”

Pikes, well-ordered, could stop a cavalry charge. A bunch of harquebussiers, likely with their weapons not ready, would not. Francisco sent messengers back to Pelta, and then ordered the signal lantern flashed, as the moon rose above the trees. The causeway spread into a road here, but the fields were still a few inches deep in water on either side of them–there was no choice but for the mounted men to charge down the causeway. They started at a walk, then accelerated to a trot, and then a gallop.

There was a startled yell ahead of them, and then a single shot fired and they were onto the small fortified building. There should have been an abatis across the road, and they’d been prepared to sweep into the field to get around it, but it was not there. They charged down onto the desperate scatter of harquebussiers with their officer screaming orders, too late and too slow. Francisco’s cavalrymen simply cut them to pieces. There were, despite all of it, several shots fired. In the chaos and darkness many men fled. What failed to flee was the pack-train. Francisco sent ten men back with the string of horses, still loaded with their panniers and saddlebags, and the unfortunate lieutenant who had been supposed to be commanding the harquebussiers.

Horns sounded in the distance. Francisco and his men did not wait to find out what it was about, but instead regrouped and headed deeper in Scaliger lands, leaving the pike-men to deal with the clean-up and retreat. Trotting down the road, scouts out, Francisco soon discovered the flaw in his plan: moonlight or not, a mist was forming in the hollows, spreading across the low-lying fields. You could lose the tail end of the horse in front of you, in this, let alone keep the troop in sight.

And into their midst in that, at a brisk trot, came half-a dozen men–and not Francisco’s scouts either.

It was hard to say who was more surprised, but on balance the two Scaliger officers and the troopers they had with them to act as messengers were far less prepared for meeting the three hundred in the mist. Although one of them did manage to flee, he ran straight into the sword of the scout who had been chasing them.