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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Eight

       Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2003 13:55 EDT



    On the slopes of Mount Pantocrator, two bored mercenary cavalrymen were preparing a late dinner of a skinny fowl that some peasant was going to be very upset about in the morning. Spatchcocked and grilling over the flames, it had more of their attention than the sea-watch their not very impressed Capi had ordered them to keep. They had every intent of finishing their chicken and some young wine, and sleeping beside the embers of the olive-wood fire. Gurnošec was a Slovene, and his companion from Lombardy. Their loyalty to the Venetian Republic was purely financial.

    Still, when the one got up from the fire and wandered into the dark a bit to relieve himself of some of that young wine... he did glance at the moonlit sea. He nearly wet his boots.

    "Chicken looks about done, Gurni," said his companion, from the fireside.

    "Forget the sodding chicken! We'd better get to our horses." His tone of voice told his Lombard companion that this was no joke. The man stood up and came away from the fire.

    "What is it?"

    The Slovene pointed at the sea. "This wasn't the stupidest idea that Commander Leopoldo ever had after all."



    The chicken, untended, burned. The cavalrymen riding through the dark olives had other things on their minds. Was a real war worth what they were being paid? And would it be possible to go somewhere healthier? Both of them now saw, with crystal clarity, the folly of taking service which involved being posted on an island.



    The bells were ringing in Kérkira three hours later. The sound carried a long way. Up in the hills, other church bells took up the chime. The sound carried across the water.

    Count Ladislas ground his teeth. "Well, so much for surprise," he said grimly.

    His second in command patted his horse's flank. "They'll be expecting attack from the sea. If we can cross the causeway-bridge we'll still be in. We'll take them."

    Count Ladislas said nothing. But that in itself was a condemnation.

    They landed at a fishing harbor on the western coast—nothing more than a beach with a few boats pulled up. The island hills loomed dark beyond. The moon was down, and ripping a local or two out of their beds ought to have been easy. But Count Ladislas soon realized that they'd been watched. The doors were still swinging in some of the little whitewashed houses as they rode past. Finding a guide was not going to be that easy, after all.

    However, there was a track leading inland. And it was a distance of not more than two or three leagues to the Venetian fortress on the other side of the island. The Magyar cavalry rode off on the heavy horses, up through the olive groves, vineyards and fields. It was very dark, and the track—for it could hardly be called a road—was quite indistinct.



    Two or three leagues can be a very long way in the dark. Especially when She who watched over the island did not love invaders.

    The hills and Mediterranean scrub on them were a good enough grazing place for goats. They'd found the goats, but not the goat-herd. Just a dead-end valley. In the darkness, the scrub oak and myrtle bushes were sweet scented. Pleasant for a ramble, the place was hell for an officer in a hurry. They found two peasant farms and huts, but no peasants. Dawn eventually found them on a hill-top a good league from the eastern shore, and a league too far to the north.

    By the smoke puffs, the Croats had already entered the town of Kérkira and were now attempting to assault the fortified Citadel. The Citadel was most definitely closed up and was most definitely returning fire on the Croats. The Venetian fortress, as Ladislas could now see, was going to be no pushover. It was on an islet just to seaward of the town. The wooden causeway he and his men had been intended to take by speed was reduced to a few smoking piles on the far shore.

    So much for rushing it. The burning houses in the town, outside the walls, showed the Croats had been busy. It was unlikely they'd done much to the fortified Citadel though. All they'd achieved was to get shot at.

    Count Ladislas sighed. King Emeric was not going to be pleased. He never was when his plans went awry, which they frequently did because he was inclined to excessively complex ones. The failure of his plans was always blamed on the errors of his officers when they went wrong, and attributed to his genius when they went right—despite the fact that success, as often as not, meant that some officer had disobeyed.

    Still, they'd better get down there.



    Taki leaned back against the big granite boulder and looked at the Hungarian Cavalrymen. St. Spirodon! Those horses were big! He and old Georgio had had quite a night up here with the devils. Of course they hadn't really been chasing after them or even Georgio's goats—as they discovered when they abandoned the goats. It had just seemed as if they were being followed.

    They'd choose a place no sane man would go—if he wasn't chasing you—and the horsemen would come around the bend. They'd covered a good three leagues in the last few hours and these crazy soldiers must have ridden a lot more.

    He watched in relief as the three hundred horsemen set off for the Viros road. Kérkira was burning down there. He looked gloomily at the scene, at the backs of the Hungarians, then at the black smoke from what had been a sweet taverna once. He wasn't surprised to see other Corfiote heads popping up from the underbrush of another hillside. They wouldn't be able to stay up here forever, but until the worst excess were over, a lot of the peasantry would stay in the hills. It was still not summer, still cold at night, but at least it wasn't winter. And maybe She would provide. You never knew.



    There really was nothing worth destroying out here. The town of Kérkira town outside the walls of the Venetian fortress was ruined or burning. Out of range of the arquebusiers on the walls, the Croats and Hungarians milled about ineffectually. By the screams, some of them had managed to find a woman. Or maybe not; a man with his privates blown off screamed like a woman, sometimes. Riderless horses roamed, wild eyed. The air was full of gunpowder, smoke and shouts. Occasional cannon-fire from the walls increased the carnage, and the invaders, without cannon, were unable to even return fire.

    Count Ladislas knew by then that it was a complete fiasco. The fort and its cannon could defend the harbor very effectively. The buildings the Croats had been firing indiscriminately belonged not to the Venetians, but to the locals. They provided at least some rudimentary cover from the cannon fire... So the Croats were burning them. Wonderful.

    True, the fortress was in reality designed to defend from attack by sea. The larger cannon would be there. But, no doubt, they could be moved. Ladislas couldn't really see how the situation could get any worse.

    And then, looking back down the slope he realized it could—at least on a personal scale. That was one of the King's messengers. And by the way he was riding, his Majesty wanted someone in hurry. With a terrible, sinking feeling in his gut, Count Ladislas realized that Emeric's messenger was looking for him.



    Emeric of Hungary believed in personal comfort. He'd come close to the fighting, but not close enough to risk actual combat. Still, he'd been close enough on his hillside, outside his hastily erected palatial tent, to have seen Count Ladislas and his precious Magyar cavalry arrive too late. He watched them discharge their wheel-lock pistols ineffectually at the fortress wall across the empty kill-zone.

    The narrow streets of Kérkira were no place for a cavalry charge. Emeric, instead of watching the victory he'd expected, had seen his plan totally unravel.

    As Count Ladislas had known, someone was going to suffer for this and he had a feeling it would be himself. The King stood outside the tent. Count Ladislas dismounted and gave his great warhorse, seven hands at the shoulder and his pride and joy, a last pat. He hoped they'd find a good master for him.

    He knelt before the King. There were little livid spots of fury on Emeric's sallow cheeks.

    "You incompetent, bungling fool!" A quirt slashed at the Count's face. He did his best not to flinch, as the blood began trickling down his cheek. "Where have your men been? Why did you come after the attack? Are you a coward, Ladislas? I don't tolerate cowards. Or incompetents!"

    Count Ladislas knew the truth would serve him badly. "Sire. The peasant we took as a guide was there simply to betray us. He led us into an ambush the Venetian scum had prepared for us. Your heavy cavalry flattened them, Sire. But they knew we were coming. Someone must have betrayed us!"

    The Count played on the King's passion for heavy cavalry and his belief that they could ride anything down. It was not a hard belief to feed. The count believed in it himself. He also played on Emeric's belief that treachery lay everywhere.

    For a brief moment, Count Ladislas thought it had been enough. Emeric's cruel eyes narrowed. Then he shook his head. "The peasant you found just happened to lead you into an ambush? Ha." The quirt lashed at the other cheek viciously. "Where is this peasant?"

    No use looking to see how many of your troops the cannon were taking down when you charged. Straight ahead and devil take the hindmost. Scarred cheeks were a small price to pay for your life. "Sire. I ran him through myself. The village was deserted, except for this one man. He was hiding, but not well. He ran out of a building my men entered. He claimed he'd come down secretly after the others had left to steal some wine."

    Emeric stared at him. Then shook his head. "Truth or not, I'll have to make an example. You love that horse, don't you?"

    The Count had held back the cold sweat with difficulty. Now he felt the sweat pouring out. "Sire..." he croaked. "That horse is great bloodstock. Some of the finest bloodstock we've bred. Don't kill him, Sire. Kill me."

    Emeric reached out his hands and put them on the Count's shoulders. "I'm not going to kill your horse. It is far too valuable. You, on the other hand, Count Ladislas, are not. Your horse is going to kill you."

    The King's brows flared satanically. "You've heard I am a manwitch? You've heard that I derive my strength from the pain of my victims?"

    That wasn't all the count had heard. "S-sire, please."

    The king smiled, like a kill-mad weasel. Agony washed through the Count, flowing from those hands. "It is true. All of it."



    The Magyar officers stood in a silent circle. The corral that had been hastily knocked together contained their former commanding officer. And a horse he'd trained to follow him like a dog.

    Count Ladislas had been a brutally efficient officer, but he'd loved that horse. Now, his eyes, fixed on the once beloved steed, were full of terror. The King reached out his hands and touched the horse. The animal screamed like a woman, reared and backed away. The king stepped out through the gate.

    The horse was... shivering. Its eyes rolled, and its lips peeled back. It turned, then, its mad eyes suddenly fixed on the Count. He tried to climb the corral, but the Magyar flung him back at the King's command. He scrambled to his feet in front of the advancing horse.

    The horse lunged forward to bite and lash out with his iron-clad hooves. Ladislas dived, but the warhorse was faster. A hoof caught him and flung him into the rails. Blood flew. The Count was a tough and a strong man, though. He grabbed at his horse's mane and vaulted onto its back

    The great horse went berserk. It dropped and rolled; kicking epileptically.



    It took a while to kill the Count. But eventually the horse stood, head hung low. And in a bloody ruin lay the remains of the Magyar commanding officer.

    Emeric walked into the corral. The horse backed off. Emeric spat on the corpse and turned to the silent audience of Magyar cavalrymen. "Learn. If I order you to be at a place at a certain time—you will be there."



    Towards mid-day King Emeric gathered his commanders on the hill-top overlooking Kérkira. Smoke and ruins surrounded the island fortress called the Citadel, but it was undamaged. "We have a handful of four-pounders. Not enough to make a dent on their walls. We have, however, an effective sea blockade in place. We have, even if the Greeks fail to stop the returning convoys, some months to reduce their defenses."

    He pointed to a savagely scarred man. "You, General Krovoko, are going to remain here. You're in charge of the assault on the Citadel. You'll have cannon shortly, even if I have to go back to the Narenta mouth myself to find Dragorvich, the rest of troops, and the rest of my cannon. In which case, heads will roll."

    He pointed to the Greek admiral and the chieftain who headed the fleet of Narenta pirate galliots. "You will arrange the blockade. I will have one ship captain's head for any vessel that escapes. On the other hand, the loot is yours—except for one fifth, which is mine. You will arrange how it is divided, Admiral. I leave it in your hands. Make me satisfied with the arrangements."

    He turned to the second-in-command of the three hundred Magyar cavalry. "You are promoted into Count Ladislas' shoes. See that you fill them better than he did, Commander Hegedes. The cavalry will be of little use in this siege phase. See the locals are suitably cowed. Strip the Venetian estates. One fifth for Hungary. Two fifths for the besiegers... on success. Two fifths for the cavalry. When you've done that, let these Corfiotes know who their new masters are."

    "Sire, it will be done to perfection," Hegedes stated crisply. "You'll be proud of us. "

    "I'd better be," said Emeric. "You've seen what happens to those who fail me."



    As she held Alessia close, Maria listened to the thunder of the cannon. A pall of smoke hung over the city outside the walls, the fresh morning breeze bringing the smell of gunpowder and burning. War might sometimes be the stuff of song and full of dreams of glory for men. But a part of her knew without any telling that for women and children, wars were hell.

    And sieges were usually worse.

    She looked through opened shutters at the small walled courtyard. The goat-kid was eating the grass that straggled through the paving stones, ignoring the patch of grass further back. The chickens were pecking about. Cannon fire hadn't put them off laying. It was still a pitifully small extra ration towards the siege she knew would come. It might be five or six months before some relief came to the fortress. Maybe longer.

    The raiders had timed this well: The Venetian convoys were gone until autumn. Occasional vessels would have come past, little tarettes trading up the coast. But it could easily take two or three weeks before the news even got to Venice—if the invaders weren't sinking every vessel they could find. If they were, then it would take longer. Except... there were the vessels that Prince Manfred, Erik and the Knights were traveling to Holy Land in. Great galleys, if she remembered rightly. They should get away, surely?

    The though of these vessels brought Svanhild to mind. Lord! She was out there somewhere, in an unprotected villa. Maria bit her lip. What could she do about it? A prayer maybe.

    Smelling the smoke, Maria's thoughts turned to the peasants she'd been with only yesterday. Would they have managed to hide from the raiders?



    A mangy, vicious-looking yellow dog hanging around the edges of the crowd snarled at a cavalryman who had made a move to kick it. The cavalryman picked up a stone and the dog slunk off into a gully. But the shaman had heard and seen enough. He walked away toward the water's edge to assume his other form. The sea attack on his Master's adversary needed orchestration. He was becoming quite casual about following the adversary-mage now. The mage did not seem to be able to detect him. That was very odd, but quite welcome. And foolish.

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