Thursday, 20 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Two

In the trench outside Mestre, Fletcher's company was in a sombre mood.

The bombardment had continued relentlessly all day, and now they barely noticed the cannonballs screaming over head every minute or so. The breach in the city wall that had started as a few cracked and dislodged stones was now a gaping rift with a slew of debris piled up underneath it.

Fletcher judged it with an eye honed by many campaigns – he didn’t think it would be long before the engineers would judge the breach a practical proposition for an assault. Usually in situations like this the bombardment and assault would have been preceded by weeks of blockade and siege, and by the time the attack was finally pressed the defenders would be starving, sick and cowed, low on ammunition and men to replace casualties of war, and more than ready to cave in without putting up too much of a fight.

Today would be very different.

The defenders were fresh, well supplied and willing to defend their city to the utmost of their abilities. The first wave of attackers into the breach would be ripped to pieces by enfilading fire from both sides, from arquebuses and crossbow bolts, and probably canon fire from within the walls if a suitable artillery piece could be brought to bear. More than likely the second, third and forth waves would suffer a similar fate, but by the sheer, crushing weight of numbers of attackers pouring into the city through its weakened defences, the defenders would eventually be overwhelmed.

However you looked at it though, it was almost certain death for the first men into the breach. It truly was a forlorn hope of survival.

A runner arrived with a packet of sealed orders. Fletcher tore them open in the vain hope that the situation would have changed, but he quickly saw that it had not. They were still to assault the breach at the signal of the commander of the Papal army, and the orders were countersigned by Sir Roger de Montfort with his personal seal. Fletcher saw that he had appended a personal note in his characteristically precise script.

“John, I am truly sorry. I pray that you and your men will survive this day, and I will have a chance to explain these orders. My hands are tied by circumstances. – Roger de Montfort”

Fletcher folded the orders and tucked them inside his pack. He could not see a way out of this situation, and feared that this was truly the end. He decided to face it with his usual bluff dignity, and walked over to talk to Alonso who was sitting on his own by a small camp fire.

“Well Alonso, it looks like we've got one hell of a tough fight on our hands. You don't have to come with us – you can hide by the tree line until night falls and then try to slip past the Papal forces.”

“No John. I have made my decision. You trusted me when you found me on the road, and I will try to repay that trust”

“I fear it will more than likely lead you to your grave then.”

Fletcher paused for a moment, and then continued.

“What does the good book have to say on the subject? Any advice for those about to face their final battle?”

Alonso considered this question carefully before answering

“Our Lord Jesus Christ in his sermon on the mount said this 'Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'”

“So, you are saying that we shouldn't fight at all. We should just lay down our swords?”

“That is what the Bible says. You should make your own judgement as to what it means for you, though.”

“I may just do that, Alonso”. Fletcher reached inside his pocket for his flask and took a sip of the strong liquor it held. The familiar taste and its associated memories offered him some measure of solace. Once more he read the roll call of honour engraved on the side of the flask and called to mind his fallen brethren. Unless a miracle occurred this day, then he would soon be joining them in whatever elysian fields they now inhabited.

“If your religion does not forbid it, would you care to join me in a drink for luck?” Fletcher offered the flask to Alonso with an outstretched hand.

“All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” he took the proffered flask with a smile.

“I suppose that means yes, eh?”, Fletcher grinned.

“Indeed it does, Fletcher, indeed it does” Alonso drank from the flask and returned it.

“Now, I have business to attend to, please excuse me. If I don't talk to you again before the assault, then I would just like to say that it has been a pleasure to know you. The luck of the day to you!” Fletcher shook Alonso's hand and took his leave.

He stood up and had taken a few paces when something that Alonso had said struck him forcefully.

“Lay down our swords, eh” muttered Sir John Fletcher, walking across the camp toward the quartermaster. He had an idea that might just save them all yet.

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