The Black Company was on the march.
Usually when the company was on the move in the normal summer campaign season they could easily be spotted by the large cloud of dust that the combination of men, horses and carts would kick up from the dry and dusty roads. Now, however, the roads were wet from the recent rains and they rapidly became churned into a quagmire of mud and worse.
“Remind me again why we took this damned contract” muttered Fletcher as he put his shoulder to the wheel of a cart that had got stuck in the sucking morass and now needed to be set free by brute force. The combined efforts of the team succeeded in shoving the cart forward a few feet, splattering them all with foul smelling mud. However, the triumph was short lived when the cart immediately ground to a halt again at the next rut in the road.
“Any money they are paying us had better be damn good, sir” replied one of the men in response to Fletcher's caustic comment.
“Keep up the good work lads, I'm just going to check on the front of the column – I'll be back soon.”
Fletcher made his way ahead of the column and talked to one of the scouts who had been ahead. They had at least another ten miles to travel, and night was falling rapidly in the winter gloom.
They had a secondary problem to consider as well. Venice was a city entirely surrounded by water, so it could not be besieged directly as they would usually do. The solution however was straight forward. As well as the sea which was its life blood, Venice relied on supplies from the mainland passing through the small port town of Mestre. If they could control Mestre, then they could put considerable pressure on Venice itself, which was presumably what their employers intended.
He made a decision, and called the leaders of the various squads to his side.
“Right, this is what we are going to do. We are going to leave the baggage train here with a squad of men to keep an eye on it. The rest of us are going to push on to Mestre and set up camp there, and we'll bring the supplies up as and when we need them, or when the roads clear. We are not expecting to fight a long campaign, and if we do get into a prolonged scrap then we are in big trouble whatever happens. Get the wagons off the road and secure, and we'll all take a rest for a bit. Any objections?”
“No sir” came a chorus of replies.
“Get to it then”.
The men went about their duties with gusto, clearly anticipating a break from the slog of travelling on the muddy road. Fletcher turned to Alonso and Antonio who had been waiting patiently near by.
“What do you think of life with the Black Company, eh? Bit of a change from the monastery, I imagine.”
“That's certainly true.”
“Ah, it looks as though the boys have got some food on the go – let's go and get something to eat and get warmed up a bit.”
They made their way over to a fire which had been lit with customary efficiency by one of the squads. A large pot of stew was already bubbling and all three helped themselves to a bowl full, accompanied by a hunk of crusty fresh bread. They reflected in their own ways on the strange turns that life had taken for each of them. Fletcher had found himself leading a campaign at the behest of a capricious employer when he had planned to be taking life easy back in England. Antonio had expected an easy business deal and instead had found himself a prisoner facing torture. Alonso had taken the biggest leap of all, from a life of faith and certainty to a place where he was questioning everything and finding very few answers in return.
They watched the storm clouds gather on the horizon and prepared for war.