The bombardment from the heavy cannons ceased, precisely at the appointed hour.
Soldiers could be seen looking nervously over the parapet of the city wall to see what the unexpected silence presaged. Fletcher scanned the walls looking for one face in particular and saw it. Good, they might yet have a chance. A slim chance at long odds, but a chance none the less. He called his men to attention and shook them into ranks.
“It is nearly time. They'll be expecting us, and if they have any discipline they won't fire until we are within range – well within. Keep your weapons sheathed and concentrate on moving – don't run, just keep a steady pace and stick with the men by your side. Whatever you do, keep moving and don't stop. Listen for my voice too. If I give an order then follow it, however crazy it might seem at the time.”
He stopped and took a moment to look at his men. They were ragged, dirty and cold from being stuck on a muddy exposed hill side in the rain for days, but they still managed to stand tall. He was proud of them, proud of the brotherhood and comradeship that they represented, proud of who they were. They had fought together, some of them for many years, and seen some dreadful sights over the years. They had all lost many good friends along the way and yet they were still willing to march into hell if he asked them to do so. They believed in him and trusted his judgement, having faith in his ability to get them out of trouble.
Fletcher hoped that their faith wouldn't be misplaced. He had one chance to extricate them from this situation but he wasn't convinced that it would work. If he failed then they would more than likely all be killed – caught between the hammer of the Papal army behind them and the anvil of the city walls of Mestre in front.
He spoke again.
“If any man wishes to leave now and surrender to the custody of the Papal army, I won't think any less of him. I can't promise that they will treat you kindly, but you will not be killed.”
Not a single one of the men lined up in front of him moved.
“Well done lads. I'm proud of you. Now we wait for the order, then we march as one”
He looked into the ranks and saw Alonso and Antonio. Neither of them were carrying weapons, but then again he didn't think that they would need them. Across the battlefield a messenger from the Papal army approached and signalled to Fletcher using his sword which he pointed towards the breach and then swept down in a theatrical flourish.
Fletcher nodded to his sergeant at arms in the front rank of men. The sergeant, a huge Scot from the highlands, took a deep breath and bellowed the order.
“By the left! Quick march!”
o o o o o
Alonso stood in the ranks, listening to Fletcher's speech. He reflected on the path his life had taken over the last few days, and again he thought about how far he had come. He knew that he was more than likely going to face death in the very near future. At one time he would have been expecting to be giving an account of his sins to his maker, and feeling pathetic and inadequate in the face of celestial perfection and purity. Now, when death was imminent he felt calmer and more ready than he ever would have expected. He knew that his actions in his life were his own responsibility and no one else's. Life truly is what you make it.
Now. It was time to march again.
o o o o o
On the walls of Mestre Captain Lucio Patrese of the Venetian city guard watched the advancing men. He recognised Fletcher's company and felt a sick horror that they would soon be fighting. Fletcher and his men would be wiped out, but then the next wave would come and the city would be over run. He had one final card to play in the defence of the city but it was a true last resort that had hoped never to use.
The men approached, and the colour sergeant unfurled a banner from a leather case. Patrese saw to his surprise that it was not the expected symbol of the Black Company but instead he saw a large yellow fleur de lys on a blue background. It was the one of the colour flags of a French company and he had seen it before, many years previously. Fletcher was sending him a message, he was sure of it. He shouted an order to the men in breach.
“Hold your fire! Do not shoot unless I give you an order. I repeat – hold your fire!”
He had an inkling of what was about to happen, but God help them all if he was wrong
o o o o o
Fletcher and his men were nearly at the base of the rubble slope now. A Venetian gunner discharged his arquebus ahead of time through a combination of nervousness and impatience. A single shot rang out from the walls and struck one of the men in the front rank in the left arm, causing him to cry out in pain.
“Steady lads. Keep moving. Don't stop.” Fletcher shouted to his men, and then to the colour sergeant “The second flag now, please Mr Cartwright!”
The sergeant dropped the blue and yellow French banner and unfurled another from a second flag case on his back. This one was a plain white square of linen cloth, and it was a clear and unambiguous signal. The French flag had been to remind Patrese of the French company that had downed their arms in the battle that had fought together all of those many years before, and the white flag was to confirm their surrender and signal a parlay.
“Hands on your heads boys – we are going to join the Venetian army!”
It took a moment for the import of Fletcher's words to sink in, and then a laugh and a ragged cheer ran through the company, swiftly joined by the defenders on the walls. In the madness of war such moments rarely occur, but both sides found a common humanity and realised that the moment to fight had been postponed, if only briefly.
Fletcher ran the last few yards up the rubble and jumped into the breach. Captain Patrese was there to greet him and grasped his hand with both of his own to pull him on to the walls.
“Fletcher, you mad bastard! What are you playing at now?” he said with a laugh.
“Realised we were on the wrong bloody side, didn't I? Reckoned you could do with another hundred and odd defenders to hold off the Papists a bit longer, too.”
“It's appreciated, my old friend, but I don't think it will buy us much more time. There are thousands of them and only a handful of us left. Most of the civilian population has escaped to Venice now. We can hold them off for while but no longer. We have a mine built into the wall from the last time it was breached, but that is not going to kill them all.”
Patrese was referring to the previous breach in the wall. When the wall was rebuilt a void space had been left which was now filled with a large number of barrels of black powder. The mine could be detonated when an attacking force was about to overrun the city, but it was only a desperate weapon of last resort. It would completely wipe out one wave of the attacking forces, but at the cost of laying the city wall wide open for the next wave.
“We'll think about that when the time comes. Now, let's look lively and get inside the walls before the Papists realise what is going on and start shelling us again.”
Fletcher hurried his men inside the walls, and they took up positions along the parapets, completely accepting of their change of allegiance. Fletcher knew that violating a contract in such an egregious fashion as changing sides in the middle of a battle would mean the end of his career as a mercenary. No one would ever trust him, or his company again, but by this time he truly did not care. All he wanted was to survive this battle and get as many of his men home to safety as he could.
o o o o o
On the hill side the commander of the Papal army watched Fletcher's betrayal with a cold fury building inside him.
“That English dog will pay for this. We will scour that city until we find him, hang, draw and quarter him and then stick his head on a spike on the walls of the Vatican city! Now, restart the bombardment and prepare for another assault on the breach at my order!”
After their temporary silence, the guns spoke again.