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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Thursday, December 13, 2018 20:20 EST



The Duchy of Milan, the eastern frontier

    Francisco rode out that afternoon, having had Kazimierz approved by Sforza, and the matter handed on to various functionaries. The man who claims the name of Kazimierz, Francisco cautioned himself. He made a mental note to ask someone familiar with the nobility of Hungary just who the man was sometime

    But that could wait. Right now, Turner had a war to deal with. Both the east and west were fragile–simply because there were two fronts and a limited number of men. If the Holy Roman Empire on the northern border or Venice in the south were drawn in, things could become very ugly very quickly.

    But at the moment, there were only four bridges across the Mincio. It was not a huge river, perhaps forty yards wide in the dry season. But now, with spring melt-water, it was wider and deeper and hard to cross, with very few fords. The bridges at Pescheria were protected by Visconti-built fortresses on the island part way over. The bridge at Borghetto, the Ponte Visconteo, was nearly half a mile long, and the obvious place for attack. Because of the braiding of the river in this area, there were several fordable places and the moraine ridges could hide the troops–but the bridge was fortified with two elderly towers. Goito had been held by the Scaligeri. That left Rivalta–but that bridge was in open country, and defended by a fortress on the Milanese side.

    From the ruins of the little village that had sprung up around the Scaliger fortress of Goito, in more peaceful times, Francisco huddled with Captain Pelta, looking at the walls. They had nothing here but light siege guns. Sforza did not wish to take the fortress in his trademark way. He wanted it to bleed the Scaligers’ capacity to do anything else, at as low a cost as possible. They had to lose expensively here, to surrender, to give over plenty of their nobles and officers to be ransomed eventually. To act as bargaining chips.

    Pelta belched, the result of drinking beer, which he plainly rarely quaffed. “Better out than in.”

    “I think they’re saying that,” said Francisco, gesturing at the fortress. “A good thing they have no idea how few men you actually have here.”

    “Judging by the shooting, they’re low enough on ammunition to be rationing it, anyway. At first they blazed away at anything that moved out here. So even if they decide to sortie, it might not be too bad.”

    There was a large camp, with cook-fires burning every night, just outside cannon-shot, but visible from the walls of the fort.

    Troops could be seen coming and going from time to time. It was unlikely the men trapped in the fortress–or those on the other side of the river–knew it was all little more than canvas. Pelta had no spare men to sit waiting for the fortress to fall. Even in the initial attack, with the blowing of the bridge, there had been only three thousand of Sforza’s men to the nearly four thousand foes who panicked and ran, some back to try and hold the fort. Some of those had fled in the initial fray, but they had nearly three thousand men in that little redoubt, doing nothing. The three eighteen pounders were aimed at the wall-tops, sending masonry flying down into their fortress, and discouraging shooting from the walls. The building had been built to withstand old-fashioned sieges, and the Scaligers had invested nothing in updating the fortress in a trusted ally’s border-land. Sforza’s heavy guns could have pounded a hole through the walls in a day or less. But instead they had left their enemy to sit with three thousand of the cream of their army inside a fort which could house five hundred, and had no vast stockpiles of food or ammunition. Water they had, but they’d be tight-packed and hot and hungry. In the panic to flee Sforza’s attack to the safety of the fort, most of the supply wagons had been abandoned or burned.

    Francisco and Pelta sat on the remains of a half-collapsed stone wall and counted the desultory shots coming from the fortress. The distance was great enough that they weren’t worried about being hit, even if the gunfire had been more vigorous.

    As was the Milanese response, which came close to a fusillade. Ammunition was not something Sforza’s harquebussiers were short of, or had been told to spare. Milan had been buying and stockpiling powder and shot for months. Pelta’s men were sitting with three harquebuses each so they could fire off an impressive volley of shots in reply. Of course, with a mere thousand men here, a real sortie could be a problem.

    “So: What’s next?” asked Francisco.

    Pelta pointed northward, in the direction of Lago di Garda. Although the lake was the biggest in Italy, it was still too far away to be seen. “They’ve been collecting boats just upstream. They’re doing their best to do it in secret, bringing them down by wagon–I would guess they plan to try and get some of the more valuable men out. My men have barrels of olive oil and floating barrels with pitch and naptha ready to push into the river. It’s tempting to let the stupid bastards get over and be heading back, but the ransom for some those in there should be handsome. They work on rebuilding the bridge again, but I think even they know all we’ll do is send another barge of explosives down.”

    Just then a runner came to find them. “Scouts spotted something.”

    They returned to the camp to find the scouts waiting. Two sets of scouts, one from the Ponte Visconteo. Carlo Sforza had men up on the ridge on the Scaliger side, well hidden, who would signal troop numbers to the scouts, so the secret movement of the soldiery was less so than the Scaliger commanders might think. Of course they might guess, but they had no reputation for it. “They’ve got around a thousand infantry and six culverins waiting in between the ridges.”

    Carlo had left them with a reserve of two thousand mounted men, and two thousand five hundred infantry. Normally infantry, easier to train and cheaper to arm and equip, made up the bulk. But Sforza had kept his infantry for other purposes, and left them with a small force on each bridge, positioned to respond fast, and a well set up perimeter of scouts, observers and messengers. Given that they had to guard twenty miles, adequately stationing enough men at any possible crossing would have stretched Sforza’s men thin. But so long as those who crossed could not hold their crossing or bring large numbers without a forceful response, the river made a reasonable barrier.

    The other scout was from the marshy area near Rivalta. It was his home, he’d grown up shooting ducks on the water there. “They’re building a pontoon bridge in the marsh. And there are some men on horses with a local boy marking a trail.”

    The Rivalta Bridge was actually a series of smaller bridges with a causeway across the swampy ground, and one relatively deep but narrow channel crossed by a stone bridge, fortified with small towers on both sides. Getting cannon to the bridge was just not practical except straight down the causeway. The bridge itself was only six feet wide–too narrow for many carts or wagons, and not easy to get great numbers across in a hurry, if it was under fire. It had not been considered a very likely point of attack for these reasons. Sforza’s troops had small outposts and guards at the forward bridges.

    “Must be cavalry,” said Pelta. “They’re keeping them out of sight. Probably a couple of miles off. I suppose this means they plan this for night or dawn.”

    That was guess-work, of course–scary guesswork, because if they got it wrong, they’d all end up dead. Even if they got it partly wrong, they could end up letting their commander down, and some of their number dead. It was a measure of how much they all trusted and were loyal to Carlo Sforza, that it was the first part that seemed to worry them most.

    “I’d guess the attack on Ponte Visconteo will start first and isn’t meant to succeed,” said Francisco.

    Pelta nodded. “Yes, Ponte Visconteo is probably a feint. Not enough cannon, not enough men. I’ll still send some more infantry there, tonight. It’s what they’ll try at Rivalta that worries me. If they’ve half the brains of a rabbit, they’ll screen their pontoon-bridge with nets to stop us breaking it with a barge or a raft full of explosives. The oil and pitch and naphtha will work at keeping them off it for a while–but may not set fire to it.”

    “And the river runs faster in the narrows. It’ll clear faster.”



    “I suspect they’ll try to get men on this side, to attack the bridge from the flanks, and hit the outposts hard with the cavalry, and hope that in the retreat there’ll be enough chaos on the bridge to take the towers. They’re not worth much, defensively.”

    “Well, barring a cannon-shot down the causeway.”

    “They’re hundred year-old relics,” said Pelta. “As likely to blow up and kill the users as do anything useful. And they probably know that. That’s why Carlo changed the guards here–they seemed very cosy with the Scaligers. The defensive cannon in Pescharia and Ponte Viscoteo have at least been supplemented, but the only field pieces I have are those here at Goito. Moving anything down there fast enough is just too much. It’s going to have to be cavalry and infantry, Francisco.”

    “Then I think we’ll mine the causeway. Let the bastards gallop through mud.”

    “Well, partly practical. I’ve got tarred kegs full of powder in place under all the bridges. But the causeway… that’ll take too much time and powder. I can’t do it. It would be easier to blow up the final bridge.”

    Turner started tugging at his beard, as he was wont to do when pondering a problem. But he left off after a few seconds. He made it a point to keep his beard very closely trimmed in time of war–that was more in the way of superstition, he’d admit, that anything really needful–and the exercise of beard-tugging was more frustrating than helpful.

    “It seems odd that they wouldn’t anticipate that,” he said to Pelta. “What got them at Goito is that they got caught by surprise, hit hard, and were trapped without much ammunition or food, and they lost a lot of their horses. This time… They’re not going to be surprised, and they’re not going to be un-horsed or out of ammunition.”

    “To be honest, Francisco,” said the young commander, earning him serious respect from his somewhat older fellow captain, “I don’t know what best to do. Carlo told me to hold the Mincio, to not try and put a perimeter on every inch, to keep troops in reserve, and to respond hard and fast to any attempt to gain a beachhead–which I will do. But if they press hard on Rivalta, cross in several places, with enough men, it’ll cost them dear, but I think they can take the crossing. There are at least seven places the river can be forded down there, let alone their pontoon bridge and whatever men they land by boat. They’ll try that tonight, for sure.”

    Francisco shook his head. The gesture was not one of disagreement so much as it was an effort to concentrate his thoughts. “I’m not Carlo Sforza. But I’ve fought beside him for nearly ten years. I’d say what he’d do would be to respond hard and fast to this attempt, before they gain a foothold. Turn their attack plan against them… Moonrise tonight, if you give me three hundred horse, what I suggest is I’ll hit their outposts off the end of the causeway. They’re expecting to invade us, and believe that we are on the back foot, and being attacked on several fronts, trying to hold our own territory. From what Carlo said, they have no substantive defenses their side of the river.”

    Pelta grinned sharkishly. “Why you? I’ll do that. You can deal with the logistics of watching this side.”

    “Because the commander put you in charge of it. He sent me to support you. And he gave you the hard task because he knew you could do it. He just sent me here to be out of the way, because he knew I would try to stop him doing too much.”

    Francisco noted Pelta, who had been looking strained, straighten his shoulders a bit at that. “How is he? I have never seen him show signs of being tired before.”

    “He hasn’t either. He’s not handling having to rest well. I am sure he will recover from whatever it was,” said Francisco, carefully not saying what he thought it was, or that he thought someone had got to Sforza again, somehow.

    “Good to know. Well, you need to get on with this so you can get back to keeping him resting a bit. I like the idea, because they’ll be devoting more men to guarding their frontier than invading us. But in the long term it may cause problems when we want to invade their territory. There’s going to be quite a reckoning for this, and they’ll be paying for it.”

    “You’ve got a point, but we’ll let Carlo worry about it. Now what have you got in the way of details, maps and locals for guides? And how many men can you let me have?”

    Over the next few minutes, Francisco saw why Carlo Sforza trusted the young man. He was, in terms of his staff-work, very, very good. He had two men from the area–one of them the scout who had grown up shooting ducks in the marshy area across from Rivalta, and the other a run-away from an apprenticeship in Marimolo. The woodland between Marimolo and the little town of Soave di Manovano, on the border of Scaliger territory, and the land they had lost to Venice and Ferrara around Mantova was the most likely place for the Scaliger army to be massing. The forest would make them invisible to the watch at Rivalta.

    It was three miles into Scaliger territory–too close, Francisco reckoned, for them to be comfortable and relaxed about the chance of an attack. But it would overset their plans somewhat, no matter what they planned. Pelta had a reasonable map of the tracks and roads, and he, Francisco, and the two scouts and the three lieutenants that would be going along discussed them.

    By sundown they were ready, and rode out in the twilight, slowly passing over the narrow Rivalta Bridge, and waiting for moon-rise to storm the guard-post on the far side of the last small bridge on the causeway. The duck-hunting scout had taken a boat and twenty pike-men, to flank the outpost. Shooting was to be avoided, unless need drove them hard.

    They were waiting, when the duck-hunter came out of the dark. “The men are waiting, M’lord,” he said to Francisco. “But it seems like there’s more than just the usual men there. A pack train of horses with panniers are there, and there’s a lot of men moaning they can’t light fires and the mosquitos are biting them, in the field just past the outpost. It’s wet, and they are cold.”

    “What is a ‘lot’ of men, Mario? Are they mounted?”

    “No, foot soldiers, M’lord. Harquebussiers. Maybe a hundred men. They are complaining that the pike-men are late.”

    Pikes, well-ordered, could stop a cavalry charge. A bunch of harquebussiers, likely with their weapons not ready, would not. Francisco sent messengers back to Pelta, and then ordered the signal lantern flashed, as the moon rose above the trees. The causeway spread into a road here, but the fields were still a few inches deep in water on either side of them–there was no choice but for the mounted men to charge down the causeway. They started at a walk, then accelerated to a trot, and then a gallop.

    There was a startled yell ahead of them, and then a single shot fired and they were onto the small fortified building. There should have been an abatis across the road, and they’d been prepared to sweep into the field to get around it, but it was not there. They charged down onto the desperate scatter of harquebussiers with their officer screaming orders, too late and too slow. Francisco’s cavalrymen simply cut them to pieces. There were, despite all of it, several shots fired. In the chaos and darkness many men fled. What failed to flee was the pack-train. Francisco sent ten men back with the string of horses, still loaded with their panniers and saddlebags, and the unfortunate lieutenant who had been supposed to be commanding the harquebussiers.

    Horns sounded in the distance. Francisco and his men did not wait to find out what it was about, but instead regrouped and headed deeper in Scaliger lands, leaving the pike-men to deal with the clean-up and retreat. Trotting down the road, scouts out, Francisco soon discovered the flaw in his plan: moonlight or not, a mist was forming in the hollows, spreading across the low-lying fields. You could lose the tail end of the horse in front of you, in this, let alone keep the troop in sight.

    And into their midst in that, at a brisk trot, came half-a dozen men–and not Francisco’s scouts either.

    It was hard to say who was more surprised, but on balance the two Scaliger officers and the troopers they had with them to act as messengers were far less prepared for meeting the three hundred in the mist. Although one of them did manage to flee, he ran straight into the sword of the scout who had been chasing them.



    The officers were not talking–not while they were together. But their troopers were much less reticent, and quite happy to spill. There were five thousand men en route, nearly two thousand of them cavalry, some from the Carreressi of Padua as well as the Viscount di Scala’s forces. The attack was for tonight, the men would be crossing in boats to attack Rivalta, so that it was taken and held. Shots had been heard and reported, and they’d been sent to investigate. And the troops were already on the road.

    A frontal meeting, with three hundred odd men against the full Scaliger relief force could only end badly. And flight now would end up with them jammed on the bridge, with Pelta unable to blow his mines without killing Francisco and his men, as the tail fought the overwhelming numbers. “Back to that track, about a hundred yards back on the right,” said Francisco. “Pass it back down the line.”

    They retreated to the track. Francisco sent an escort of ten with the prisoners and the information gained. They would be, he suspected, the lucky ones.

    “Have you any idea where we are?” asked Francisco of their two guides.

    “I think this track leads to the Casera farm, just north of Soave di Mantovano,” said the one.

    “It’s in for a very bad night,” said Francisco, grimly. “How far to it?”

    “A quarter of mile or so, M’lord.”

    Francisco recreated the map in his mind’s eye. “There’s that ford you talked about on the big bend, with the oxbow lake beyond it. Could you find your way there?”

    “The track leads through the farm. And then we take the right fork nearly a mile from there, and then when we get the Baridi farm, we take the track to the water. That’s a bit tricky we have to cross a stream…”

    “How wide? And how deep?”

    The man threw up his hands. “There was a bridge, M’lord. Just a log over the water. I never got into the water. The ford’s fifty yards wide, maybe sixty. The water hits the stones there, spreads out. The other side will be hard going, swampy ground.”

    “If we get to the other side, that’ll be a good thing.”

    They rode to the farm. There they caught every person in the place asleep. They were tied up, while the scouts returned to the main road from Rivalta, with enough stakes to make something of an abatis at the junction. Francisco briefed his men.

    “The mist is getting thicker. We’re going to hit their mid-tail end and run.” He picked on three of the men. “You’re lucky. Or unlucky. You’re going to ride close to the village. When you hear us shooting, start fires. I want part of Soave di Mantovano burning. And then ride like hell back down this track, and then back to the ford. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there before us, and if you’re unlucky, after. There are some of Captain Pelta’s infantry on the other side, so be sure you yell ‘Sforza’ or they might shoot you.”

    He turned in his saddle to face the main body of his troops. “The rest of us are going to cut a hole in the middle of their column in the mist, fire our horse-pistols, and ride back along this track. Now, I’ll want the lieutenants and the two sergeants.”

    The plan was worked through, hastily, and soon they were riding back, having made sure that those who might follow would hit a slowing blockade at the farmhouse.

    His stomach in that familiar before-combat knot, Francisco edged forward with his men in the wreathing mist. The moon broke through, showing a stark black-and-white tableaux of men checking their priming, loosening blades in their sheaths, and patting their horses, who, inevitably, were catching the nervous stress from the riders. Then the mist closed in again and a little later they could hear the sound of the Scaliger army moving past, not more than a hundred yards off.

    Francisco waited for the moment to tell the trumpeter to sound the call. And then, in the distance came the sound of massed harquebus fire. He tapped his trumpeter. “Sound it.”

    The man gave the bright sharp shrill call. “Sforza!” yelled Francisco, and the cry echoed from the better part of three hundred voices as they plunged forward. It was impossible to have everyone on the muddy track so they were in the field on either side–barely able to see ahead. The thirty men on the track reached the road first, and Francisco could hear the clash of steel, more yells of Sforza! and in the distance yet another volley from the harquebuses. Then the flankers started to reach the road. Those on the left scrambled across the ditch and fired back toward the tail end of the Scaliger column, and headed right to the lanterns the scouts had now put to mark the track, and those on the right did the opposite. In theory, at least, because the wings of Francisco’s attack had been well back and had further to go, they would not shoot each other.

    Of course in the chaos, screaming, shouting and gunfire, anything could happen. Francisco felt a burn across his shoulder. It could have been one of the panicked Scaligers, or a latecomer from his own side. He managed to cling to his saddle, as his horse suddenly jumped and scrambled over another horse. And there were the lanterns, and, dizzy with the shock, he joined the other horsemen streaming down the track. He was glad to leave the process to the horse. It saw better and heard better in the dark than he did. He heard the grenades they had left at the entry to the track explode. The scout had been instructed to light the fuse when Francisco’s trumpeter sounded the second call. Francisco could not recall hearing it.

    The rest of the ride was something of a blur, which only became somewhat clearer as they hit the icy water of the Mincio ford. As an invasion route it would have been a failure, as the water was deep enough to wet them from head to boots and force them to swim a little, and then struggle out and through a series of shallow lagoons and glutinous mud… but there were some of Pelta’s men, waiting.



    It was some hours later, back at the camp outside Goito, when Francisco suffered the indignity of having to have his own wound treated, that he was finally able to get some idea of how well they done. One of the two lieutenants who had been with him reported gleefully. “We only lost fifteen men in all. Well, men who have not returned. Twenty-two wounded, yourself included, Captain. Three more seriously than you, but mostly they are minor wounds. The Scaligers did not succeed in crossing the Mincio. When Captain Pelta got the captives we sent them–he got more detail out of them, sent a tercio of harbquebus and pike forward, along the road to meet them, and to conduct a slow retreat onto the bridge. It’s been a busy night. They tried to sortie out of Goito fortress when they heard the shooting. That didn’t end well for them. They got a ball from the cannon right in the middle of their mass, and then got blown up by the mine that Captain Pelta had us dig. I thought he was wasting the men’s time making them dig that tunnel. I thought it was heading for the fortress. I didn’t realize it was under the road out, and that Pelta had had the sappers fill it with explosives.”

    While what losses the Scaligers had suffered on the other side of the river was not something they could know, it appeared that the men trapped in the fortress of Goito had had enough. They had used what little reserve they had in their attempted sortie. They asked for terms, later that day.

    And that night six more of the troop that had taken part in Francisco’s raid made it back across the Mincio, bringing news of mayhem on the opposite bank. It appeared that the rear had been made up of troops from Padua, and, when the Scaliger troops were attacked in the mist, the Scaliger commander concluded they had been betrayed by the allies behind him. The fight had been raging on for most of the next day, apparently. The surviving Carreressi troops had fled back to Padua, and the men, who had hidden in Scaliger territory, had heard distant shooting, further east.

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