Hoist!


Prequel to the Assault on Ebino, IC2404

Guccio had been pondering the audacity of his recent behaviour, and whether the consequences of his boldness might prove the ruin of his career prospects in Lord Alessio Falconi’s army, or indeed any army. Faced with the prospect of attacking the strongly walled and deeply moated city of Ebino, defended by an enemy that not only never slept but who had likely forgotten what sleep was, the general had turned to him, as siege master, for advice. He had immediately offered two solutions, both of which now laced his every waking moment with fearful doubt, somehow even surpassing the fear engendered by the prospect of once again facing the undead in battle.

The moat, he had said to Lord Alessio, required bridging, therefore they should fashion carriages to carry suitably long platforms up to the moat’s edge, there to drop into place. Once made busy by the necessarily hasty construction, he had become so caught up in the practicalities of wheels and axles sufficient at least to travel one, relatively short journey, as well as how to counterweight the carriage so that the large platform hanging at the fore would not cause it to topple over, that he had pushed all other concerns from his mind.

Now, however, that the former difficulties had been overcome, howsoever ingeniously, he had to face up to the several many other considerations. Would the sheer weight of both the primary load and necessary counterweight upon such a hastily built carriage simply cause it to shake itself apart as it negotiated the rough ground it would have to pass before reaching the moat? Could any number of men successfully push the thing that far, now that large boulders had been strapped to the rear to compensate for the force of the large, leaning bridge platform hanging precariously from the front? And when the timber platform was allowed to fall, would it stay in one piece as it crashed into the ground, as well as sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the many armoured men (carrying long ladders) who would then pour over the top of it in order to reach the foot of the wall?

While these were just some of his worries concerning the bridges, all paled into insignificance when compared to his worries regarding the petard.

The scouts had reported that the city’s southern gate had a stone bridge leading to it, which obviously could not be drawn up – a rather unexpected opportunity for access given the fact that the city’s builders had gone to the trouble of digging a moat. Knowing therefore that the gate could be reached relatively easily, Guccio immediately wondered how the gate itself might be broken through. Of course, there were artillery pieces that could do the job, and master gunners to tend them, but only two, and not the half a dozen they had fielded in the Valley of Death. If one or even both should shiver as had the mortar at Pontremola, then the gate might not be beaten. Furthermore, the scouts had reported that it was made of iron-bound oak, ancient and hard, reinforced by a huge iron portcullis, which of course made sense considering the lack of a drawbridge. It was clear that the army needed another string to its bow when it came to the gate. To Guccio’s mind there was no choice – breaking gate had to be attempted, if simply as an alternative mode of access should his doubts concerning his bridges prove warranted.

Thus it was, as if he were a boulder rolling downhill, entirely unable to stop, he found himself making a second proposal to the general, immediately following his first: they would need a petard, one of substantial size and great potency, and he knew where to obtain just such a thing. The mortar that had shivered at Pontremola had not blown itself entirely apart, but rather had merely cracked, rendering itself entirely unsafe for the purpose it was made to perform. Guccio said that if it were loaded with grenade and triple the weight of powder and mounted upon a carriage, then it could be rolled right up to the gate, placed against it, and exploded. It would surely blow itself apart, considering its visibly fractured state, but in so doing most likely tear the gate to pieces, dislodge the portcullis and provide a breach through which the army could pour.

That moment, as all those gathered in the army council nodded appreciatively, including the general himself, should have been a moment of great satisfaction – if he had not immediately realised how little certainty he had that any of what he had claimed was even vaguely likely to succeed.

And so, the knot in his stomach ever since!

Its carriage completed – utilising the wheels of one of the army’s better baggage wagons, much to the disgust of the proud carter who had coaxed the carriage all the way from Portomaggiore – the petard was now being rolled out of the camp, just as the rest of the army was readying itself for the challenge ahead.

Guccio watched, standing beside the sergeant of the handgunners who had been volunteered as petardiers, a fellow named Vasari. Until now the sergeant had said very little, although from his gruff attitude it was clear he was not thrilled at what he and his men had been ordered to do. A bearded veteran of several wars, which included serving with Lord Alessio in the northern Old World, he was tall and every bit the image of a soldier, albeit one dressed (as so many in the Portomaggioran marching army) in Empire style clothes.

“I was told it would be a simple task,” the sergeant suddenly declared. “Yet here we see how hard it is even just to move it. Tell me, siege master, why don’t we haul it with draft animals like the bridges?”

“We could, I suppose, at least until we drew close to the walls,” said Guccio. “If we were not using nearly every horse to haul the bridges instead. Besides, your men will learn how to push it along the way.”

“Ah, the fine and noble art of pushing,” said the sergeant, rolling his eyes.

This made Guccio smile. “Aye, well, not noble, but your men must familiarise themselves with the work, all the better to move speedily and without hindrance when they draw near.”

“Yet such an enemy will not shoot at us. Not once have I seen them so much as lob a stone, never mind span and shoot a crossbow nor load and fire a piece,” said the sergeant. “We could haul it up all leisurely, take a breather now and then, have a little repast as and when we like, and still it would be delivered.”

“The enemy might not shoot, but who knows what might sally forth from the city if we approach so slowly as to allow them to get the measure of us? Who knows what magical incantations their foul masters might conjure against us? And we needs must time our arrival as best we can with the arrival of the bridges and the ladder assault on the walls, so that the enemy cannot concentrate its strength against us.”

“I doubt the bridges will be moving fast at all”

“That’s as may be,” agreed Guccio. “But if we are to coordinate the arrival perfectly, we must light the fuse as we draw near, after which your men cannot afford to slip or stall, otherwise the fuse will have to be pulled out and replaced and re-lit, allowing the enemy even more time to thwart us.”

“My men,” mused the sergeant. “You mean my men and I.”

Guccio fell silent, for what could he say? Every veteran knew the dangerous reputation of petards.

“When the arch-lector was considering attacking Ebino,” said the sergeant, “they say the maestro Angelo da Leoni built him a huge ramp, hauled by his steam engine, up which the army could stroll right up and over the walls into the city.”

Except the maestro failed, thought Guccio. “Would that we could, sergeant” was what he said. “But we have no such engine.”

The construction of a ramp for Da Leoni’s steam engine had taken so long that the vampire Duchess had sallied forth from the city and defeated the living army in the field. The maestro’s engine, stripped bare of its armaments, had sputtered forwards and ground to a halt when swarmed by ghostly monsters. The thought made Guccio’s stomach knot the more. If a genius like Da Leoni had failed, with his unique marvel of an engine, how could his own ‘grenado in a hand cart’ hope to work? Or his clackety timber bridges?

Just now four men were pushing the petard, as indeed his design intended. But when it approached the city, Sergeant Vasari’s whole company would accompany it, to guard it should that prove necessary, and more importantly to assist if it were to get stuck, or one or more of the pushers should fall from whatever harm the enemy inflicted.

“You’ve tested the fuse, I take it?” asked Sergeant Vasari.

The fuse hung from the touchhole at the rear, a particularly potent, hempen matchcord boiled in a concentrated saltpetre solution, that would spit spluttering sparks when lit, the flame burning up at a speed much faster than that of any handgunner’s ‘slowmatch’.

“That I have. I made four, all exactly the same. Two I tested and timed, the third you see there, the fourth I will have with me should we need to replace that one.”

“You will be with us?” said the sergeant, with evident surprise.

It had not occurred to Guccio that the sergeant did not know he was to stay with the petard. “I will, although I might be of little use should it come to fighting, for my skills with a blade are somewhat rusty.”

“Well, siege-master,” said the sergeant, his tone lightening. “We’ll do any fighting that’s needed, you just make sure that thing goes off when it is supposed to go off, and not a moment before.”

That’s the trick, thought Guccio. And that is what every soldier in Vasari’s company had on his mind. Now that the sergeant knew the petard’s maker was to be with them, he seemed less anxious. Knowing the man responsible for building it was to risk his own life also had to make anyone feel a bit better about the prospect of success, for why would a man make a petard with which to hoist his very own self?

Except Guccio was the maker and knew full well what a man might do when he allows ambition and pride to take the reins of his own voice. It was a good thing that the sergeant could not feel how dry Guccio’s throat was or sense the ever-present knot inside his belly.

Behind them several companies of soldiers had already mustered and begun their march. An Estalian mercenary commanded one band of handgunners …

… while a swaggering youth with an oversized panache strode with bared blade ahead of another company.

Elsewhere in this part of the camp, soldiers rushed to arm themselves and collect whatever they might need for the short march and the battle ahead. A number were drawing fortified wine from a cart, for it was the custom for every soldier to drink a deep draft before an assault, not just to calm their nerves but to embolden them. It was a practice made all the more appropriate when the enemy consisted of those who had already died!

Behind the petard trundled Guccio’s three large bridges, made slow by the huge, counterweight rocks he had ordered lashed to the platforms.

These were to be pulled by beasts to within sight of the walls, and then distributed to three of the larger regiments to be pushed the remainder of the way. To ask soldiers to push them was impractical but entirely necessary, for if the draught animals were to be alarmed by the enemy, startled in such a way as to buck or rear, then the bridges could topple before they reached the moat.

Still, thought Guccio, I will be so busy with the petard I might not even notice such a disaster!

May blessed Myrmidia, he prayed, protect me in the battle to come. And should I die in the blast, then may the goddess take my life as a sacrificial offering in return for breaking the gate, so that my life may not be wasted and that our army, dedicated to her, may gain victory against this the foulest of foes.

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