‘Sir’ John Fletcher was a soldier and a bloody good one by all accounts.
He was the wrong side of forty with grey in his hair and his beard, an old man in his chosen profession, but age had given him a wily cunning and an instinctive understanding of the tactics of the battlefield that had seen him through more than twenty years of fighting across the countries of Europe. He had fought in his fair share of skirmishes and a couple of large set piece engagements, not to mention the prolonged city and castle sieges that were a necessary pre-cursor to most of the battles. Most importantly of all, he had one quality that had kept him alive in the grimmest of corners, that had caused sword points to turn aside and arrows to skitter off his helmet, and guns aimed in his direction to splutter and misfire – he was what is colloquially known as a lucky bastard.
He had earned the honorific of ‘Sir’, not through an accident of noble birth or patronage, but through the acclamation of the men that he had fought with over the years. He had earned a reputation as somebody who was calm and unflappable in the heat of battle, and it was well known that those men who stuck close to him were more likely to survive than those who panicked and ran, or decided to play heroes on their own.
He was originally from a small village outside of Northampton. He had never enjoyed the farm work that was the assumed occupation of most of his peers, and his formal education had been patchy at best. When a recruiting company had marched through the village on a hot, late summer’s day he had willingly thrown down his threshing flail and exchanged it for a broadsword and a coat of mail, and elected for a life of following the drum.
Originally he had been so naïve that he didn’t even realize that he was joining an independent mercenary company and assumed he was signing up with a regular army brigade. They had soon set him straight though, and he rapidly found out that as an independent he would be better armed, better provisioned, better trained, less likely to lose his life in a vain glorious charge ordered by some ignorant foppish noble, and at the end of it, assuming he survived, he would be a great deal wealthier.
He had been mulling over the possibility of retirement, and he had saved enough money to set himself up comfortably back in England. He had a plan to buy a tavern in a small village somewhere, and name it in honour of the company that he was a member of – to whit, The Black Company, styled after the famous White company of two hundred years previously, led by another English called John Hawkwood who had carved himself a place in the troubled history of Italy in the fourteenth century.
The company had been sitting idle for a while after finishing a contract defending a city in Lombardy and the talk had been of disbanding for the winter months when campaigning usually came to a halt. In the summer, all of the advantages lay with the attacker when laying a siege - good weather, plentiful food to be had, and long days. In the winter, the situation was reversed. The defenders would be snug and dry behind their city walls whilst the poor sods in the trenches outside got soaked to the skin, starved and probably died of the ague as well.
The word had come that a patron was willing to pay a hefty sum for a company to march to the gates of Venice and threaten the city for a while. No actual fighting was expected, unless something went seriously wrong - it was more of a show of strength to intimidate the Doge - the ruler of Venice - and the council that elected him. All of the men had been happy to sign up for such a sweet deal, even if they didn't understand the machinations behind it, which was how they had come to be pitched up not far from the city, gathering supplies and preparing to march.
One of Fletcher's duties was to ensure that the company had everything it needed, and also to see that everything was paid for at a fair rate. Other armies let their troops run wild and live off the land, but that was a sure way to get yourself a reputation as a band of cut throats and brigands. It was much better to ask for your patron to foot the bill and have everything square and above board. Looting was never tolerated in any circumstances, and he had seen a few n'er do wells hung for petty theft in his time. His job today was to scout around some of the local farms and see what fodder might be available to buy, and also to get an idea of the lay of the land.
His route had taken him past a monastery building recovering from a kitchen fire or some such the previous night, and then he had followed the road down. From his vantage point he had a seen a prosperous looking farm with what appeared to be a generously stocked barn close by, so he went to investigate.
He tied his horse to a hitching post near a trough and she began to absent mindedly crop the grass nearby. He made his way to the barn, and had a feeling that he was being watched - he thought he had seen somebody duck inside as he approached. It was more than likely the farmer hiding from view, but it always paid to be cautious.
"Ho there? Anybody at home?" he shouted, keeping a hand close to his sword to be on the safe side. He came up to the open side of the barn and shouted again. "I'm not here to loot - we'll pay a good price, at least 10 ducats a load more than you'd get at market. You can’t afford to pass up a sweet deal like that, surely?"
He went further in, and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dusty gloom within. He saw two people hiding at the far end of the barn behind some straw bales, but to his surprise they turned out not to be the farmers that he was expecting, but rather a pair of rather disheveled looking monks.
“I think that you pair of scruffs had better come with me and no funny business” he said, drawing his sword.