Gate of the Dead

By: David Gilman

Part 1


City of Spears





1


The screams echoing down the stone walls sounded as if souls were being cast into the devil’s fire pit. Mercenaries hurled burning torches into buildings and cut down those who tried to escape. The town was aflame and its citizens had no chance of survival against the invaders who had descended from the mountains like a river of blood. The mixed force of German and Hungarian killers hurled aside the flimsy defences. Small knots of men tried to defend their homes but were overwhelmed. Some were hamstrung and forced to watch the violation and murder of their families. The horror made men beg for a quick death. None was given.

These humble townspeople had dared protest at their winter supplies being seized without payment by mercenaries returning to Milan through the mountain passes. As the column of troops made their slow progress home their commander had left men behind in Santa Marina. A lesson needed to be taught, so the slaughter began. The mercenaries took to the task as savagely as any battlefield barber-surgeon hacked off a gangrenous leg. No artisan or farmer could stand up to the might of these soldiers contracted by the Visconti, Lords of Milan, and there would be little chance for another mercenary force to oppose them. To the south of the town ran a broad river fed by the mountain snows. Cold, and in places deep, it formed a natural barrier to anyone attempting to relieve the stricken town. Men would have to traverse narrow mountain tracks into Santa Marina, and such an approach would be seen. No one would dare risk traversing goat paths by night.

Except Thomas Blackstone and a hundred of his handpicked men.


*


Five captains each had twenty men behind them; each group was led by a scout who trailed a hemp rope held by every man to guide them along different paths through the darkness. When daylight came they slept hidden among the boulders and scrub from which they could spy out where their route would take them that night. Step by stumbling step – tripping and cursing beneath their breath, ignoring the cuts and wounds to hands and legs – they finally reached the near bank of the river that skirted Santa Marina’s southern edge on the third night, guided by the campfires of the thirty or more tents encamped between river and town. Beyond these mercenary billets the town still smouldered, and the dull crimson glow of deep-seated fires tinged the night sky. Shrieks still reverberated down the streets. There could be no more than about seventy men left in the town. The odds favoured Blackstone.

‘Bollocks,’ said John Jacob, Blackstone’s English captain, as he lay in the grass peering across the river. ‘Wet feet.’

‘And arse,’ said Sir Gilbert Killbere, who was at Blackstone’s other shoulder. ‘Sweet Jesus, Thomas, did you have to bring us this way? That’s a hundred paces across if it’s a yard.’ He rolled onto his back and pulled his helmet free. The going had been hard enough up until now. He dragged a grubby paw over his grizzled stubble.

Blackstone lay watching for shadows moving between the tents. There were few to be seen and he guessed that most of the killers would be in the town. The campfires burned brightly enough to cast their glow across the river. His attack would be exposed to anyone who came out of a tent and looked the wrong way. No matter how quickly his lightly armed men could move, a boulder-strewn river would take time to cross.

‘The river won’t flood for months. It’ll be waist-deep at worst. Where’s Will?’ he said.

There was a scuffle of movement behind them in the reeds that grew on the shore.

‘Here,’ answered Will Longdon. He belly-crawled closer and peered over the low bank. ‘Ball-ache time, Sir Gilbert. That mountain water will be bloody cold,’ he said.

‘Aye, for short-arsed archers like you,’ said the veteran knight.

‘The fires will guide us in,’ said Blackstone. ‘Deploy your archers, Will. Three hundred yards downstream. That’s the shallowest part and those who escape us will run for it come first light. Half the men there, half here. Snap shut like a wolf trap.’

He looked down the line of men who lay on the embankment. Gaunt from lack of sleep, dirt-engrained faces, fists clutching sword, axe or mace ready for the slaughter. The firelight’s glow caught their eyes. They looked frightening enough to scare the scales off a devil’s imp. Without another word Blackstone clambered to his feet and, as one, the men followed. He waded into the shallows, finding what footing he could among the stones underfoot. The near-darkness made the crossing even more difficult but Blackstone and his men had forded more dangerous rivers in the past – times when French crossbowmen had loosed a sky full of quarrels down onto them – but still they had gone on and beaten their enemy. No man who had ever made that journey would think this to be anything more than an inconvenient, cold soaking. They would warm soon enough when they started to kill.

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