Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Eight

The walls of Mestre were a lonely place to stand.

Fletcher was looking out over the serried ranks of the papal forces whose guns had not yet started their bombardment for the day. He could see smoke from numerous cook fires dotted around the battlefield and men making preparations for the day’s fighting - honing weapons, cleaning armour or just sitting in quiet prayer and contemplation. Something was different though, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what had changed. Was it just his new perspective looking out from the city walls as a defender, rather than when he had been on the opposing side?

“Why aren’t the bastards attacking?” he asked himself rhetorically, not expecting an answer.

“Perhaps they are afraid of your reputation, Fletcher?” replied a voice behind him.

Fletcher had been joined at his vantage point by Caption Lucio Patrese of the Venetian city guard, the nominal commander of all of the forces besieged within the city walls.

“More likely they are waiting for something, but what though? They were happy enough to throw me and my men into the breach yesterday, so why not follow it up with another attack?”, Fletcher asked.

“Look out over the camps again, Fletcher. Can you not see anything different from yesterday?”

Fletcher looked again, and was struck by what he didn’t see rather than what he did see. The mercenary units that had been attached to the Papal Army had marched during the night and now were no longer to be seen on the battlefield. Fully two thirds of the forces facing Mestre had disappeared overnight.

“Obviously your little stunt yesterday had an effect.” Said Patrese. “Perhaps they were renegotiating their contracts to ask for more money if the Papal commanders were going to put them in the front rank?”

“Either that or they haven’t been paid at all” replied Fletcher, with a chuckle. “I hear that the Pope may be finding himself unexpectedly short of gold today”

Lucio Patrese laughed as well. In the midst of war and horror, any release of the tension was more than welcome. The moment was short lived, however.

Dispatch riders were busy delivering messages through the enemy camp, and ranks of men were beginning to form up.

“They’ll be on their way soon enough”, said Fletcher and the guns of the Papal army erupted with fire, beginning their bombardment for the day. Even with their substantially reduced numbers the Papal army was more than capable of over running Mestre and the handful of defenders left within.

o o o o o

The attack did not begin until well after the middle of the day.

The sun was dipping toward the western horizon casting long shadows from the advancing attackers, and the late afternoon winter light was dazzling the eyes of those on the walls. The Papal army had waited until this time so that they could march out of the sun and make it difficult for the defenders to discern their movements and manoeuvres.

Patrese spoke to the defenders of the breach.

“They will come in waves. Hold your fire until they are well within range and make every shot count. Each crossbow man will have at least one other man behind him loading a bow and passing it forward so you can keep up the maximum rate of fire. Arbusqiers will do the same. Remember to aim low - a shot to the belly or the legs will stop somebody more effectively that a shot that bounces off a breastplate or helmet. When they get within the walls we have two cannons loaded with canister shot that will hit them from both sides. After that we will be fighting hand to hand."

He looked along the line of men waiting and spoke again.

"At some point, they will get sufficient numbers into the breach to force us back. At that point you will retreat and use the boats to get across the lagoon to Venice and into the city. We can't hold them back forever, but like the Spartans at Thermopylae we can make them pay a bloody price. When I give the order to leave, head for the boats and don't look back."

He raised his sword high into the air and raised his voice to its highest pitch.

"Now, get to your posts and make those bastards pay in blood for every inch of ground they take!"

o o o o o

The first wave of attackers marched out of the setting sun and into the breach.

The Venetian defenders lining the walls to either side of the ragged hole in the city's defences kept up a withering cross fire of cross bow bolts and lead shot, and the attackers started to falter. The next wave followed them closely, and sergeants armed with pikes pushed the stragglers forward until the were inside the breach itself.

From his position inside the wall Fletcher could see the fear etched into the faces of the soldiers who were now lined up in the sights of a gunner waiting by the side of his cannon.

"Dear god, that would have been me" thought Fletcher as the gunner touched a burning match to the touch hole of the cannon and a blast of canister shot ripped through the attackers in the breach. The canister shot was simply a collection of lead balls inside a tin container which ripped apart as it left the muzzle of the cannon. The hail of metal spread out in a lethal cone shape as it flew through the air. The effect was like a monstrous shot gun or blunderbuss and it turned the poor wretches caught in its blast into bloody, unrecognisable ruin in an instant.

The next wave appeared and the second cannon fired, repeating the horror and filling the air with choking powder smoke.

Fletcher knew that is was now time for his men to join the fight.

Another wave of attackers appeared through the smoke through the mouth of the breach and into the space immediately inside the wall. Fletcher drew his heavy sword and led the charge, abandoning any attempt at finesse and chopping wildly from left to right, clearing a path through the ranks of men in front of him. The rest of the Black Company were no less savage and the sheer fury of their counter attack drove the papal soldiers back from whence they had came. This was war at its most primal, bloody and brutal.

There was a brief lull and they quickly regrouped and reformed their position, waiting for the next assault. Patrese, was atop the wall and could see a large column of men marching towards the breach. They had calculated that the sacrifice of the first men through the breach would have spent the efforts of the defending forces and broken their will. Patrese now knew what he had to do, and he shouted a general order.

"There are too many of them coming. Retreat! Flee for the boats! I order you - go now!"

Fletcher's men looked at him for confirmation, and he nodded assent. He knew with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach exactly what Patrese was planning, but there was nothing that he could do to dissuade him from his chosen course of action.

"Do as the man says, boys. Lively now, before the Papal army gets up the nerve to chance the breach again!"

They didn't need any more encouragement, and made their way quickly, but in a calm and orderly fashion to the boats and boarded a pair of barges that were standing ready. They manned the oars and pushed off into the waters of the lagoon.

Fletcher looked back into the city and heard an eerie silence that seemed to stretch for an age. He imagined the soldiers of the Papal army climbing the rubble slope into the mouth of the breach and finding it empty of defenders, save for a single man. Their moment of triumph would be short lived.

Fletcher saw - felt - an explosion that ripped through what was left of the city wall, eviscerating the heart of the Papal army. His ears rang with a high pitched tone and it sounded as if he were listening to the world from a long way under the surface of the water. Patrese had stayed behind to fire the gunpowder mine concealed within the city wall, and he had timed it to perfection. His sacrifice had not been in vain.

Fragments of smoking stone rained down on to the sea and the men in the barges, and a large cloud of black smoke rose into the air above the ruined city. The silence that followed the explosion was swiftly filled by the screams of the wounded and dying, and then the spitting crackly of the fires that took hold in the wooden houses nearest to the wall.

"Now, pull boys, get those oars moving! We're going to Venice!”

o o o o o

The regular units of the Papal army were shattered and demoralised, and they retreated to regroup. Even though their casualties in the breach and by the wall had numbered no more than a few hundred the sudden and shocking violence had been like the knock out blow to the head that leaves a prize fighter reeling on the canvas.

Meanwhile in the shadows and dark places of the city another, more insidious, army lurked. This army had been watching and waiting for the moment at which to strike, and now came their opportunity. Plans were laid, weapons readied and soon blood would be spilt on the streets of Venice.

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