The Standard By Which a Man Is Measured
prompt: historical fiction/a general/a walk in a forest
Please note: If you missed yesterday’s post, please note that I have altered my posting schedule to Monday/Wednesday/Friday. 🙂
The shade was welcome after the glare of the open fields. It was quiet as well, and the silence was as welcome as the cool dimness. The clash of blades, the thunder of cannon, and the harsh shouts of hundreds of men had left their ears ringing. Fighting to protect the interests of the Church from the encroaching Venetians was a holy cause, but in the blighted Umbrian fields around Terni, it sounded like the screams of Hell. Here, however, the only sounds were the muffled clomps of the horses’ hooves on the mulchy forest floor, the creak of the harnesses, and the heavy breathing of three dozen tired men. There wasn’t even birdsong since all the birds, even the collared doves, had hushed as they passed.
When they entered the woods, he had commanded his men to dismount, allowing easier movement through the trees and some small respite for the heated animals. He dared not allow the removal of armor for man or beast. The slower pace and lighter load would have to serve as their refreshment. Viterbo was well behind but there was nearly two leagues yet to travel before they reached the safety of the Castello Orsini. He thought longingly of the cold, blue water of Lake Bracciano, lightly ruffled in the breeze of a summer afternoon such as this. He knew its shores well and had enjoyed many a solitary ramble along its more remote areas. The contrast of that memory dragged him uncomfortably back to the present danger and he dropped back, moving along the group’s right flank, encouraging them to move as quietly as possible and with what haste they could manage. Giancarlo Bobini, his young second, hurried forward to join him.
“There have been reports of Venetian troops in the area, General.”
Several of the men murmured at Bobini’s use of the military address rather than the formal title to which he was entitled. He cast a stern look over his shoulder and the muttering ceased abruptly.
“We know they aren’t entrenched,” he answered. “Scouts?”
Bobini nodded. “Our own scouts have seen signs of them, but there has been no contact. They must still be nearby, though.”
“We shall be watchful.” He waved his hand, indicating the young man should drop back to his place among the men bringing up the rear. He, himself, moved forward again, resuming his position at the head of the column with his guard.
It was a jolt to consider Venetians so near Rome. Seven leagues more and the enemy could be at the city gates. They had been allowed to draw too near and now, he and his men were forced to defend. He would much rather be the aggressor, forcing the Venetians back and out of northern Italy altogether. There was precious little time to do so, however. Summer was almost a memory, as the first golden leaves around him so eloquently told. Soon, his captains and their troops, would be thinking of their homes and harvests. Ground lost now might remain lost through the winter, allowing the enemy to entrench themselves. It would require an even greater expenditure of resources in the spring, resources that were increasingly difficult to obtain.
Restless, he again dropped back along the line of soldiers. They were exhausted and no wonder. They had numbered seventy-five only two weeks ago when the fighting around Terni began in earnest. When fresh troops arrived from Perugia the previous evening to relieve his men, he hadn’t hesitated, but ordered an immediate departure. His battle-worn soldiers needed the safety of the proximity of Rome to rest. They’d been on the move ever since. He hadn’t dared allow a pause long enough even to wash the grime of battle from their faces. A mask of smoke and mud made the young soldier passing him at that moment unrecognizable. It was his young standard bearer, the great gold and white flag he carried neatly rolled around its pole and fastened along his saddle. He felt his age with a pang, looking at the boy’s childlike, filthy, haggard face.
“Come along, boy,” he said, patting the youth on the shoulder. “We shall reach Bracciano before sundown and you shall herald our entrance.” He grinned and winked, drawing a smile from the lad who stepped forward a bit more briskly.
An older, more seasoned solider followed behind the boy, giving a conspiratorial nod. A moment later, the man had caught up to the youth.
“No doubt, you’ll be the apple of the ladies’ eyes, my lad. Riding in all grand and brave with that gold standard flying above.” The soldier gave the boy friendly shove. “Just watch you don’t end up dueling over some nobleman’s daughter.” Several of the men along the line chuckled knowingly and the boy blushed.
Though their mirth subsided quickly and they resumed their silent march, the tension was noticeably lessened. A hand signal from Bobini caused him to drop further back, eyes trained on the line of his men pushing ahead.
“Sir, we are approaching the spot where the Venetians most recently stopped. Our scouts reported the abandoned camp four days ago.”
“Very well. Send two men ahead and have two more follow behind,” he said.
Plentiful summer rains had resulted in fairly heavy undergrowth. They were finding it increasingly difficult to push through the stands of oak saplings, wild olives, and occasional coppice of corbezzolo. The enemy would have to be deaf and blind to miss their progress. He closed his eyes, murmuring a brief prayer, and forged ahead, doing his best to help clear and trample a path for the men behind him, all the while, darting glances in all directions, watching for any sign of attack.
A half hour later, the woods were as quiet as when they had entered. They had passed a few dirty smudges of ash tucked up against standing stones that was the abandoned camp Bobini had mentioned. There were no other signs that any man had passed through that area in weeks. Unconsciously, he began to relax, his steps matching the steady plod of his mount.
A sudden crack split the silence sending a brace of pheasants bursting out of a nearby cluster of young olives. A horse midway down the line screamed as its forelegs buckled beneath it. As the horse fell, an answering report came from the rear of his own line of men. The silence that followed couldn’t have lasted more than a second or two, yet it stretched, tight and painful. Then, chaos erupted. Men shouted, shots rang out and lead balls fell amongst them from clumps of trees about fifty paces ahead and to their left.
Bobini, quick and able, shouted orders which restored the men to fighting trim. Within moments, the men had formed up under the cover of their own armed infantrymen who were returning fire as quickly as an arquebus could be reloaded. Handing his horse to his standard bearer, the general made his way through the stand of saplings, speaking to his men as he went.
“Keep the trees between you and them,” he shouted and gestured to the slight rise before them. “They have the advantage of elevation, but we have the cover. You, make your way around to the east. Come up from behind. We shall keep our visitors occupied in the meantime.”
Men scrambled off through the brush, heads low. Grooms hurried horses out of harm’s way. He turned to his remaining troops.
“We shall come upon them head on. Keep to the undergrowth until you have my signal.”
Those men bearing halberds hurried forward, closely followed by the swordsmen. He joined them, his rapier in one hand, dagger glinting in the other. They kept behind the trees as much as possible, practically crawling so as to stay out of their gunmen’s line of sight. Their clumsy progress made his nerves hum with anxiety. There was movement in every tree and bush with only an occasional glint of armor or metal to indicate where enemy troops lay in wait.
How many men ahead? Bobini’s report lacked that critical information. He paused, searching for his second.
“General,” Bobini spoke at his elbow, nearly making him jump, “Our scouts could not get an accurate count of the enemy party. They estimated two dozen men, but there was no way to be certain.”
The screech of a gyrfalcon echoed through the trees. He stiffened, recognizing the signal that meant his men had reached their position behind the attackers. He paused, head bowed and eyes closed.
“Maria, Mater Dei et Sancte Michael, ora pro nobis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen.” Nearby, men crossed themselves.
He motioned Bobini to the other side of their group and swung his sword in a downward arc above his head. Shouting, his halberd bearers ran forward, thrusting their heavy blades into the brush. Flashes of Venetian maroon and gold trampled through the trees, their blades clashing. His swordsmen entered the fray, slashing right and left. Shouts of battle mixed with sporadic gunfire and shrieks of the injured.
He strode forward, overtaking his men, his blade raised to meet the advance of a group of angry-eyed Venetian troops. His sword swept through the melee and, finally, caught against a burly Venetian’s blade. Their grips nearly locked, they grappled with one another, daggers scraping as their armor deflected the blows. He felt the sharp sting in his elbow when his opponent’s blade found a gap in the armor. He gave a mighty shove, hoping to free his rapier, but the man was as solid as he was large. The thought of a modern-day Goliath pulled from him an unlikely snort of laughter. He stepped in under the giant’s upraised right arm, forcing his left shoulder against the man’s chest. He brought his left foot down heavily on Goliath’s right instep.
Goliath staggered, falling back slightly. He was on him in an instant, his rapier finding its mark at the unprotected bit of throat above the chest plate. He whirled, assessing their position and the state of his men. The air stank of burnt powder with the iron tang of blood. He turned and charged a writhing knot of men who resembled the violent depictions on friezes he’d seen at his uncle’s villa as a child.
Before he had measured three steps, something struck his helmet with a clang. The blow dropped him to his knees, his head exploding with pain, ears bursting with the force of the noise. He slashed blindly behind him at what he imagined would be about knee-high on grown man and felt his blade strike armor. Tucking his head, he rolled to his right, came up on his right knee and hand, and thrust his dagger into the back of his attacker’s knee, twisting and yanking the blade in a vicious sideways movement. The man fell and was promptly run through by a Swiss-made halberd. He looked up and acknowledged his own soldier with a nod and rose unsteadily.
“God’s blessing and my thanks,” he said.
The pain in his head had subsided to a sickening ache but the noise in his ears was unabated. He could hear nothing of what raged around him. Men struggled and cursed but he heard only the relentless ring, as of a giant, ill-resonant gong. Nevertheless, he reentered the fray, engaging this time a clearly inexperienced boy wielding a long spear. He had only to push the heavy point upward in a rush to throw the boy off balance and end him with a neat stroke of the blade.
Bobini reappeared at his side, shouting information but he could make out only an occasional fragment.
“… outflanked… full retreat… orders, sir.”
He shook his head, waving at his ears in what was likely a meaningless gesture. He faced away from Bobini just in time to see a young boy in Italian uniform fall at the feet of a Venetian bearing both a halberd and a stiletto. The face of his standard bearer, blood sprayed over the grime he’d noted earlier, was frozen in open-mouthed terror. He leaped forward, hurling himself between the two, his own dagger deflecting the downward strike of that razor point. Another blade slashed above him as the Venetian’s halberd drove forward.
Two men fell over him and the prone boy. The Venetian’s eye was pierced through, a blow that surely entered the brain. The other man, the one who had teased the boy about noblemen’s daughters, lay barely breathing. The halberd lodged in his shoulder, having severed the great artery in that joint. Blood pumped out sluggishly as the man’s heart beat its last.
He got to his feet, hauling the boy with him and looked around to see an odd stillness. The ringing in his ears continued but at a lesser volume. He could make out the sounds of men calling to one another, taking stock of who remained standing. Again, Bobini appeared at his side.
“We had them outflanked, sir. Their captain tried to call them into full retreat but it was too late. What are your new orders, sir?”
He pulled the helmet gingerly from his head, noting the fist-sized dent it sported in the crown. He watched as his men laid out the dead and carried the wounded back down to the path where the horses waited.
“How many have we lost?”
“Six, sir,” Bobini replied. “Four more are wounded.”
“We can be at the castello by sunset. Let our fallen be brought along for proper burial. Such of the wounded as can mount a horse must ride. The others must be tied to their horses,” he said. “Get them ready to move out as quickly as possible.”
As the sun sank toward the western horizon, the trees ahead of them began to thin. An open meadow spread before them and up a hill toward an imposing stone keep. He halted his men with a gesture and Bobini approached, carrying a white bundle.
The bundle was unfurled and revealed its elaborate gold-wrought patterns sewn about the entire border of the huge cape. This was draped over the general’s shoulders and Bobini added a matching white skull cap. The boy, the standard bearer, stood scrubbing at the worst of the filth on his face with his sleeve, but abandoned the effort when Bobini clapped and pointed to the wrapped banner still strapped to the horse. The boy drew the banner and pole free, mounted, and set the foot of the pole in the leather cup on his stirrup. The evening breeze caught the white and gold silk. It billowed and shone in the last rays of the sun, the gold and silver threads of the huge papal crest glinting.
The general mounted his horse and, with his standard bearer in the lead and guard at his flank, rode out into the open field. His Holiness, Pope Julius had arrived at the Castello Orsini.
Author’s Note: I figured I owed you all a more substantial story today. 😉 While this particular skirmish is fictional, Julius was known as the Warrior Pope and his time in Rome was a significant part of the Italian Wars. However, he was also known for his extensive patronage of the arts. Today’s St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Julius. Julius is also responsible for commissioning, and reportedly, coercing Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If you ever get the chance to see it (I think it’s available on Netflix), you might enjoy “The Agony and the Ecstasy” with Rex Harrison as Pope Julius and Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo. Fun film. 🙂