Dawn broke over the mercenary camp to reveal a large number of very wet and cold men.
The soldiers set to breaking camp with customary efficiency, grumbling but getting on with their jobs with the minimum of fuss. In contrast, Alonso felt thoroughly miserable and apathetic. It was true that he had been living a life of poverty in the monastery, but at least he had had a roof over his head and been comparatively warm and dry.
“Come on, shake a leg and look lively, you slug a beds. The time is a wasting, and there will be soft beds aplenty when we get to Mestre, I promise you”
Fletcher was in an ebullient mood, disguising the considerable misgivings that he was feeling inside. He walked through the camp, chivvying where it was needed, sharing a few words of encouragement with younger men who looked like they were suffering, joking and laughing with the horseplay of those in high spirits. He had the gift of command - being able to empathise with his men, making them feel that he understood their fears and doubts but also possessing an aura of invulnerability.
“We've got a tough march today, but we should have a better idea of what we are going to do once we get in sight of Mestre. We move out in ten minutes, leaving the baggage here. Take only what you can carry comfortably at double time.”
If the truth were told, he did not know precisely what he intended to do at the end of the journey, but he had the feeling that this job had changed from a straight forward contract into something a hell of a lot more dangerous and tricky. When the crunch came, he would trade the safety of the men in his command for any amount of gold and to hell with anything his superiors in the Black Company might say about it.
It was time to march.
It was the single hardest single day's work that Alonso had ever done. The soldiers set a punishing pace, marching at double time which was about as fast as it was possible to move without breaking out into a run. He was struggling to keep up and he was not carrying any gear, unlike the soldiers who had packs as well as their armour and weaponry. They marched for an hour and then rested for five minutes before picking up the pace again, and Alonso found a rhythm that pushed him through the fatigue that turned his legs to lead weights.
Antonio again was riding on Fletcher's horse, although he did have the good grace to start each stage of the march to show some degree of solidarity with his younger, more able bodied companions. He offered words of encouragement and the soldiers that he was travelling alongside responded in kind.
They made good time, despite the weather, and by mid day they had reached their objective. The land around Mestre was largely flat apart from one small hill in an open area near to the main gates. The hill offered the only vantage point from which to observe the gates without being dangerously exposed. Fletcher ordered his men to take up position in the lee of the slope whilst he went ahead to look at the task that they were potentially facing.
The gates were flanked on either side by guard towers which offered a perfect position from which to enfilade any assaulting force with withering fire from crossbows and arquebus balls. A glacis slope offered additional protection to the gates - all but the most accurate cannon fire would be deflected up and away from the gates and over the walls. It was as well designed as any defensive fortification he had faced, although he noted that it had seen action before. A section of wall to the right of the gate was a noticeably different colour where the stone had been breached and repaired in an earlier battle. Mestre was not as impregnable as his first impression had suggested.
He returned to where his men were waiting and spoke to them.
“It's tough, but we've seen worse in our time, all of us. We still don't know what the overall plan of attack is going to be, but with a well defended target like that, a siege is the only way that the defences will be worn down. That will mean earth works, piquet patrols to keep the defenders inside the walls and we will play a waiting game until the artillery is in position and lobbing cannon balls into the gates. Now, get dug in, and we'll see what happens next.”
As things transpired, they did not have to wait long. Their approach had not gone unnoticed by the Venetian defenders on the walls by the gate, and soon a defender came out of a side door carrying a flag of truce. Fletcher walked forward to meet him, striding forward so that they met in the middle of the open area between the gates and the bluff that Fletcher's men were busy fortifying.
Fletcher extended his hand in greeting and introduced himself.
“Sir John Fletcher of the Black Company, at your service signor!”
His opposite number responded in kind and shook the proffered hand warmly.
“Lucio Patrese of the Venetian City Guard, likewise. I think that we might have fought on the same side against the French ten years or so ago?”
“Indeed. That was a damn good scrap, if I recall correctly. The frogs broke and ran inside half an hour. That's the sort of fight that I like.”
“Yes - would that all of our wars could be so easily concluded. Now, may I ask what your company is doing digging in in range of the gates? This is an overtly hostile action, as you must be well aware.”
“We have been ordered to this position by our employer - the Holy Roman Church. We have not been ordered to initiate an attack, so I trust that we can all rest easy for the time being?”
“There has been no formal declaration of hostility, Signor. Perhaps you are not aware that our beloved Doge died recently, so any pre-emptive attack at this time would be a particularly dishonourable act. Is this really the sort of action that you wish your company to be associated with?”
“My condolences on your loss. Grimani was a fine leader from what I have heard of him. I can assure you again that we will not be making any overtly hostile attack at this point, and it is my sincerest hope that this matter will be resolved by the politicians and diplomats before any blood is spilt.”
Fletcher extended his hand again.
“I trust that we will meet again soon. The best of luck to you”
“And to you, signor”
The Venetian doffed his feathered cap and bowed, and then turned smartly around and returned to the safety of his city wall. Fletcher returned to his men, feeling even more unease at the situation his company had found itself in. There was a hidden agenda at work here, and he wished he knew what it was.