Winter, IC 2403-4
South of the river Tarano, near the Bridge of Pontremola
“How are the works coming on?” asked Chimento Gagliardi, Lord Alessio’s chief clerk.
The siege master Guccio de Ieroldis looked up from the little book he had been studying, in which his predecessor had recorded all sorts of useful advice concerning the construction of a fortified camp. He had been so deep in thought he had not even noticed the clerk’s approach.
“Ahh, Master Chimento,” he said. “Well enough, although more labourers would speed the process.”
“I have it on good authority you already have every available soldier,” said the clerk. “Those not here are busy guarding or scouting, as entirely necessary. Or resting, again a necessity. We must have a substantial force in perpetual readiness in case of an attack.”
The clerk wore a sleeveless fur lined gown, with paned sleeves on his doublet, all dyed in fashionably rich reds and purples. Only his velvet cap was in the quartered blue and white of Portomaggiore – his one concession to his current role. He was several inches shorter than Guccio, a fact exaggerated by the siege-master’s tall hat.
“Could we not have placed our earthworks closer to the river?” inquired Guccio. “For then we might have employed the water as a ready-made moat, improving our defences considerably? And we would have completed much sooner with a natural barrier already in place.”
“It was discussed in the council of war, but Lord Black thought it to be a foolish notion – that it might allow the undead to advance under cover of the water and so draw very close to our works before our bullets and bolts could thin their numbers.”
“I didn’t think of that,” admitted Guccio.
“Few did. Luckily we have Lord Black.”
“Aye, we do,” agreed Guggio. “Did no one in the council point out that should the river continue to flow so strongly, as to be expected in winter, that a good proportion of the undead so immersed would be washed away and thus never reach our walls?”
Master Chimento gave no immediate answer. Indeed, outwardly he seemed entirely unperturbed by the notion. Perhaps, thought Guccio, this is one of the reasons he has risen in Lord Alessio’s service? Finally, he did speak.
“I believe if we ensure they cannot pass over the bridge then they will indeed have to cross the river. Perhaps then, as you say, a good number will be washed away. Whatever force does emerge upon our side, we can then shoot.”
“I heard the city of Ebino is moated,” said Guccio, hoping to move the conversation on from the uncomfortable place he had taken it.
“Yes, it has both a deep moat and substantial walls. Not at all an easy prospect for assault. Lord Black saw it for himself and believes there was something stirring in the moat.”
“And thus Lord Black’s concern?”
“Yes.” There was the faintest trace of irritation in the clerk’s answer. “I was sent to ask what more needs to be done, and how long exactly until completion?”
“As you can see, the towers are finished, which is a good thing considering there’s no more suitable timber left. We are almost done here with the last of the earthworks. There’s a few stretches of earthworks yet to be dug, and quite a bit of palisading yet to be done, as you can see, but the stakes are cut and ready to be placed. I’d say sometime the day after tomorrow. Unless, of course, the general orders a modification or extension.”
“He might,” said the clerk, peremptorily.
“Oh. Is this not satisfactory?”
“There may well be more armies on their way to join us. Attacking the duchess and her foul legions is not something to be undertaken lightly, or when ill-prepared. Too many have come close to victory only to fail because the enemy escaped. We had a much greater force in Norochia Valley, and inflicted a great slaughter upon them, as did our riders to the north, yet still too many of them got away.”
Guccio nodded gravely. “They say that in the arch-lector’s battle not far from here, despite hundreds being cut down by the first charge, they simply got back onto their feet to fight on.”
“‘It is the nature of the foe to do so,” warned the clerk. “This time we must prevent their escape. Not one vampire can be allowed to leave the field. We must overwhelm them; destroy them entirely. Only then will our further advance northwards be bearable.”
Meanwhile, Another Conversation
“You reckon this is almost the last of it then?” said Fede, as he leaned upon his spade.
“I do,” said Berto, still shovelling soil. “We turned a corner yesterday. There’s nowhere else to go. As soon as the palisade’s up along the full length, it has to be done.”
“Good, ‘cos my back’s aching like never before and the blisters on my hands burn something rotten.”
“Better than the alternative,” Berto said.
Fede wiped his furrowed brow. “What?” he asked, bemused. “Better than marching about a bit or sitting by the fire warming our feet?”
Berto laughed. “No, better than going up ladders to face living corpses harbouring deadly intent.”
“Well, true,” admitted Fede. “Except now that we’ve built this and the corpses know we’re not going to attack the city, won’t they come to us anyway?”
Berto rolled his eyes. “Don’t ask me. I don’t know. Chances are, they don’t know either. In which case, nobody knows.”
“Funny,” said Fede. “D’you at least know where Cola and Bandino are, ‘cos by my reckoning it’s their turn to do some shovelling.”
“Cola went off to fetch more stakes, but Bandino’s over there by the wagon”.
Berto stopped work for a moment and pointed behind Fede. “See that boy you laughed at on the way over?”
Fede turned his head. “The skinny lad with the painted helm and the ill-fitting plackart.”
“And no other armour?” added Berto. “Yes, him.”
Fede snorted, as he had done when he first laid eyes on the boy. “I seriously doubt anyone in this world is less well equipped to strike fear into the undead foe than that boy.”
“Not gonna argue,” said Berto, recommencing his shovelling. “Look to the boy’s right.”
“Oh yes, there he is. What’s he doing?
“Call of nature!”
“He’s taking his time over it.”
“Well, it’s like he says, if a job’s worth doing …”
Fede laughed again. “I’d agree with him, if he was over here doing the job he’s meant to be doing.”
Berto paused again, this time with a serious look writ upon his face.
“D’you think they’ll come?” he asked.
“Aye, they will. It’s what they do. They can’t help themselves.”
“Hopefully, after we’ve finished.”