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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Sunday, November 18, 2018 16:01 EST



The borders of the duchy of Milan

    Duke Umberto’s finest men marched toward the town of Fidenza, which had so recently been taken from the Parman forces. His pennants fluttered bravely on their lances, as the troops advanced as if on a grand parade. Those cowardly mercenaries of Sforza’s kept trying to draw them out with little darts forward on the flanks of his tercios. They would caracole, fire their horse-pistols and then retreat. Ha. Sooner or later they would be unable to run. He had them pinned down, and they would have to engage like men eventually. Just as they talked of Dell’este, soon the name of Umberto Da Corregio would be hailed as one of the great commanders.

    He stopped for a stoup of wine from his steward. And then, just because things were going so well, he had a second drink.

    It saved his life.



    Carlo Sforza watched the duke of Parma’s tercios moving forward, from the shelter of the coppiced oaks on their northern flank. It was almost as if the fool was unaware of having flanks, or had not wondered why Sforza’s cuirassiers were merely firing and retreating, with no real casualties on either side. That was to keep the Parman tercios tight, and prevent the scouts from riding out. It kept them where they were supposed to be–advancing along the easy ground toward Fidenza. From his viewpoint Carlo could see the southern flank, where on the slight rise of ground in the shelter of some elms his artillery waited, men swinging their slow-matches.

    He turned to the trumpeter. “Sound the call.”

    That startled Duke Umberto, several drinks into his day, and he fell off his horse, just as a cannon fusillade began its dreadful mayhem. The 14-pounders were loaded with grapeshot, ranged on the tercios.

    Tercios of pikemen were effective against horse, and could hold their own against other pikes. But they were chaff before the cannon’s flail. And then into the chaotic melee Sforza took his own cavalry, down, onto a flank that had no pikes to defend it.

    There was, of course, still opportunity for things to go wrong. But Carlo Sforza left little to chance. There were troops waiting in the wings. Umberto’s soldiery might outnumber those of Milan. But they were scattered in several different thrusts, uncoordinated and out of touch with each other. When they met, here, Umberto was not only ambushed, out-flanked, and out-gunned, but also outnumbered.

    At grand strategy, Sforza might have a few superiors. But at battlefield tactics, none. His troops, with several dozen valuable prisoners, were not following the rout, bar the handful of light cavalry assigned to keep them running for as long as possible, harassing the rear and providing the illusion of hot pursuit by Sforza’s army. Their scattered allies would rush there to their rescue, instead of here, where the cavalry were providing a screen for the artillery to retreat, and the infantry units were already moving out.

    By the time Umberto’s rescue got back here, there would be no one to fight. The bastard culverins and falconets were being moved, the wheeled gun carriages hitched to teams of horses. That was the drawback of using artillery in the field–moving the cannons fast, because if you failed to do so, they could be lost. Carlo Sforza had settled for largely employing lighter cannon, and was thinking of moving to still lighter ones for field artillery. The drilling that his artillerymen had in rates of fire and in aiming and in moving the guns, gave them an advantage. Some of the Italian city-states did not even have trunnions on their cannons. They used the big guns largely for siege-work, and, if they moved them at all, did so by hauling them about with oxen, and used wagons rather than gun-carriages. Horses were more expensive and lacked the sheer slow-speed power of oxen, but they made up for it, as far as Carlo was concerned, with speed.

    Speed and communication won wars. Other factors might win battles, but wars were won by he who could know what was happening, and react the fastest.

    Sforza had refined that. He had a properly organized system of scouts and messengers, and worked on making his troops as mobile as possible. He had lost the battle of the Polestine Forts because, partially, he had trusted Phillipo Maria’s assurance that the forts themselves would be neutralized. He didn’t place reliance on allies–or employers–any more. And if it could not be scouted, it was to be avoided, if possible.

    Somehow, someday, he must get to talking to his son about these matters. The boy was learning strategy from the grandmaster Dell’este of Ferrara. But Sforza’s skill was different.

    Two messengers rode up. “The cannon are hitched and moving out milord, save one, where they’re trying to change a broken wheel.”

    “Which piece is it?”

    “One of the old demi-culverins, M’lord,” said the messenger.

    “Tell them to spike it and get the horses out of there.” One of the newer falconets might have been worth trying to salvage, but the demi-culverins were only there because he hadn’t yet had the spare funds to replace them.

    The next pair of messengers came in, with the report from the cavalry. It appeared Duke Umberto had gotten away in the confusion, although they had his condottieri and a selection of his nobles.

    It was time to move on. The entire conflict had lasted less than thirty minutes, the retreat and regroup would be over in an hour. Carlo yawned. He wasn’t bored, just tired. That was unusual enough for him to notice. He’d better not tell Francisco, or he’d probably make his commander swallow muck and do exercises. Carlo Sforza was very fond of his physician. But the laconic Turner was far too fussy about a few extra pounds on the waistline of a fighting man. It could keep you alive in a siege or even a case of the flux.

    And the fighting would slow down now, anyway, with Umberto out of the fray and their foes given a good bloody nose. They would be back to condottieri sparring for position, laying siege to profitable towns, and looting what they could from the countryside. Given the scale of the duchy of Milan, Carlo he could be back in the city before morning if he wished to be.

    Their western attackers had to face crossing the Po or the Ticino Rivers, both now in flood with the snow-melt, to get to Milan. Attacks from the east could be a little more problematic as Milan’s enemies held a crossing of the Mincio River. Of course, the inverse was true as well. There were what had been Visconti lands on the far bank, although two of these had rebelled. Still, Goito, a relatively small town on the Milanese bank, had been held for some generations by Scaliger allies. It was a planned beachhead, Carlo’s spies told him. That was borne out by scouts counting the stream of men crossing the bridge and being billeted in the town, and encamped around the fortress there. The strength of the town lay in the bridge, and that the fortress on the Milanese side and the second, smaller fortification on the other bank made it a safe crossing point. The slight elevation of the fort gave a good covering field of fire, and made the bridge relatively safe to cross, even under fire.

    The river could be forced elsewhere, boats or pontoons could be used, but right now it was full and fast flowing, lipping its banks.

    “Nearly four thousand men, and not a lot of food, or ammunition yet,” said the messenger. “Here are the tallies, M’lord. Some of what is in the wagons is hard to guess.”

    Carlo Sforza had personally seen to the supplying of his troops. He didn’t need to look hard at the figures: men, especially on horse, moved faster than wagons on muddy roads. A quick calculation… he rubbed his eyes, fighting off a brief spell of dizziness. At this rate he would have to consult Francisco. However, even if his body was letting him down, his will was still hard enough to make it focus on the words. At best they had three days’ worth of food–barely what the men were carrying in their own kit. The little town would never have enough food for a tenth of the number. It was time to strike again, and strike hard and fast.

    That would take an all-night ride. But that too was no novelty to Carlo Sforza. What he’d done once he could do again. And again, if need be.




    But by the time he arrived at the hamlet of Cerlongo, some miles from Goito, and just inside the lands held by his troops, to meet his sappers and siege cannon, he was so exhausted he merely gave the orders and went to bed.

    He wasn’t that surprised to find that his officers had sent for Francisco Turner, who was there on his waking.

    “If that explosion didn’t wake you, you’re sick,” said his physician grimly, taking his pulse.

    “Did it work?” he asked.

    “Took out the center-span, the one next to it, partially, and damaged the middle piling. They failed to think of a barge full of kegs of black powder, and a cross-strut too wide for their bridge,” said Francisco, with the ghost of a smile. “The barge jammed under the bridge for a solid couple of minutes before the fuse burned enough to blow the powder-kegs. We had sharpshooters keeping them from jumping down onto the barge. Anyway, the siege guns will be in place in the next hour, and the fortress must be bulging at the seams. We’ve got the infantry in the village, and the encampment has been burned.”

    “Good. What is wrong with me?”

    “Besides doing what two men half your age would be exhausted by, I don’t know yet,” said the physician.

    “I don’t get tired, Francisco.”

    “You don’t admit you do. I’ve seen you grey with exhaustion and still in the saddle.”

    “Yes, but that was after three days solid, and we’d had no food, and I had the flux.”

    “I know. I was there, remember? Now lie down, I need to examine you.”

    He did, leaving few bits un-poked or un-prodded, and, as usual, asked too many questions.

    “When did you last eat?”

    “I don’t remember. Oh, yes. The boys and I stopped before dawn and changed horses and I had some sausage and bread.”

    “And before that?”

    “I had some food at an inn somewhere. It was typical peasant pottage. Too many pease, too little meat, plenty of onions. Bound to give you gas, but I was not feeling too good before we left Fidenza, to be honest.”

    “It’s my opinion that you have been poisoned. Your eyes are yellow, or at least the whites of them are,” said Francisco.

    “‘S wounds, Francisco! If anyone poisoned me, they’d have to have poisoned half my men. It was the same sausage, the same pottage. I ate with the men before we gave Umberto a hiding. You know I always do that, and they like it.”

    “So do you. But, as Petro Dorma could tell you, not all poisons are administered by food, and not all are quick-acting.”

    “So what are you going to do to me?” asked Carlo slightly peevishly. Of all the things he was suspicious about, and disliked most, cupping was very high on the list.

    “Restrict your diet. Make sure you use a taster, even for your wine. Shuffle your bodyguards, and order you to take a week’s bed-rest. A bed back in Milan so you don’t get out of bed to shout at your siege-masters. We know our trade too,” said Francisco.

    “A week! Are you mad?” said Carlo, sitting up, and feeling giddy.

    “If I order a week I might get two days,” said Francisco. “And now is the best time for it. The Piedmontese troops are not in the field yet, Parma and the Genovese are reeling, and the Scaligers will be too busy trying to relieve this lot.”

    “You make a good point,” admitted Sforza.

    “I do my best. I’ll go and arrange a carriage.”

    “I can’t be seen in a damned carriage! They’ll be saying I’m nearly dead.”

    Francisco shrugged. “We’ll let you ride out of town.”

    “I’ll inspect the siege first. They expect it of me, and that’ll quash any rumors.”

    “No, you won’t,” said Francisco.

    “Are you telling me what to do? Again? After last time?” demanded Carlo.

    “Yes. Because you look like pallid shadow of yourself, and you’d fall over, and then you’d have worse than rumors. Trust me, I’ll go and tell some lies for you. Tell them your new wife is panting for you, and the first night left you exhausted. They’ll like that, and believe it too.”

    “Humph. You should have entered politics. I had no idea physicians were so dishonest,” said Carlo, attempting a bit of banter, and sensing his man’s concern under the joke.

    “Doctors have to tell people that they’ll recover,” said Francisco with a wry smile. “I’ll go across to the siege-works. The Scaligers won’t last too long, I don’t think, as long as we hold the other bridges.”

    Carlo Sforza was left trying to think how he could have been poisoned. By whom was harder. It was more of a case of which one of his foes would not prefer him dead. Still, he’d planned to go back to Milan in another day or two. Anyway, there was a great deal of planning and co-ordination that needed doing, and realistically Milan was far more central and had better resources than some border village did. He’d get reports from the spies he had employed before–a very small select group–and from his predecessors’ large and somewhat less select group. Some of them, Carlo suspected, had survived by telling Phillipo Maria what he wanted to hear. Those would have to go soon.

    He wondered, briefly, how his new wife would take to the news that he had been poisoned. It had seemed very important to her that her child would one day rule Milan. Unless she’d been lucky on their wedding night, that would have to take a lot more wine than Francisco was going to let him have.



    Lucia was not surprised to see him brought back to the palace, sickly. She feigned concern, of course. And he told her to stop it, because their enemies would be given courage by his obviously being ill, and dismay by his being seen not to be.

    Nothing could be easier.

    And while he suspected he’d been poisoned, he had no idea that she, or rather the asp, had done it while he slept. It had seemed fitting revenge, and after all she had no further use for him, after that. He was not to die… not until it was closer to the time of her confinement. So she continued building up her networks of power. She’d paid back those who had slighted her in full already, except for the few who she was making suffer as long as possible. She’d even made one of them a lady-in-waiting. That was going to be a sweet form of slow torture.

    Lucia had also singled out those who had given her suitable deference, too, for advancement. But this gave her a new opportunity. “I think I ought to have my own guards and a taster,” she said.

    “Certainly. I’ll have Francisco Turner choose a few suitable…”

    “l shall choose them myself,” she said firmly. “I am far more acquainted with the nobility of the court than you are.”

    Sforza shrugged. “As you wish. But I warn you–most of them could not defend themselves against a man armed with a dried sausage.”

    He was dismissive of the aristocracy of Milan in private with her, although he avoided it in public. She made sure they knew of his opinions, though, and that she did not share them. She would need some of them. And it was quite pleasant to have them fawn on her. It filled an old need.

    “He’s quite healthy looking,” she said to the asp, disapprovingly.

    He is stronger than we knew, said the asp-voice

    “Well, do something. I can’t have him dead yet. But I want him weaker so he does not come back to my bed. I do not wish to go through that again.”

    When darkness falls. In the quiet hours I will prick him again. Just a tiny scratch on the skin. It is much easier just to kill.

    “I don’t need you to do things the easy way.”

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