Captain Creighton heard General Rauppen-Schlepper’s proposal with polite interest, but when the General had outlined his plan Creighton shook his head. “I’m afraid it won’t be possible for my flotilla to convey many troops, General. We can take perhaps two companies, distributed among our three boats. They would serve very well in a Marine capacity, but more than that and it would interfere with the operation of the vessels.”
“So small a number?” General Rauppen-Schlepper was disappointed.
“I’m afraid so. Had we more civilian barges to commandeer it would not be difficult to conduct an operation such as you propose, but otherwise,” Creighton shook his head again, “It will not answer.”
“Hmm.” Rauppen-Schlepper studied the map again, and traced the course of the river with his fingertip. It came to rest on the small town of Wentwitz. “Perhaps two companies would serve to secure the bridge at Wentwitz before the Gravies arrive. Backed by the guns of your flotilla our fellows will be a tough proposition for the enemy to tackle. That would force the Gravies to either attempt to seize the bridge by coup de main and risk heavy casualties, or perforce head for the next crossing, the ferry at Dizzendorf.”
“We can certainly give them a pounding if they approach within range of the river,” Creighton said with enthusiasm. “And we can secure the ferry long before they arrive if they move further downriver.”
Rauppen-Schlepper pursed his lips. “No,” he said softly. “If they move there, I would prefer them to leave our soil unmolested. It never serves to give an enemy absolutely no escape. It breeds desperation, and I would rather not have a desperate and well-armed enemy loose in Hetzenberg.” He bent over the map again. “His Grace will be marching into the Margravate at the head of his army within a day or so, bound for Randstadt. My aim is to delay the Margraf’s army here by at least another two days. That will prevent them from crossing the river and coming onto His Grace’s left flank before it can be secured.”
“Orders, sir?” Captain Scharfe asked quietly.
Rauppen-Schlepper nodded. “Orders to Colonel Brabenachel. I require you to detach the two most intact companies of your command under a capable officer, they to report aboard the Riverine Flotilla for temporary marine duties. Their mission is to secure and hold the bridge at Wentwitz against the Margraf’s army, such defense to be supported by the flotilla. They are to hold the position for as long as possible but not to the point of destruction. Fieldworks may be constructed if time permits.”
Scharfe wrote the last words and gestured to a galloper. As the man sped away Captain Creighton saluted Rauppen-Schlepper. “With your permission, General, I shall see to the preparations aboard my command. I shall await the infantry at a point on the shore adjacent to the army. That way it’ll speed the process of boarding.”
“Thank you, Captain. I do appreciate your co-operation.”
“A pleasure, sir, I do assure you.”
Creighton walked away, rubbing his hands with the eager anticipation of placing his command in the path of danger once more. Behind him another crackle of musketry sounded, and the army moved forward a little more.
Horatio met the Captain halfway along the road to the headquarters party. Creighton seemed in a good mood and clapped him on the shoulder. “We have good work ahead of us, my boy!” he grinned.
“I’m glad to hear it, sir!” Horatio grinned back, relieved that Creighton was not going to raise awkward questions about his tardiness. “Where, and when?”
Creigthon wrinkled his nose as Horatio fell into step alongside him on the road back to Viehdorf. They had to travel to one side to allow passage for the many troops and supply wagons that passed on their way to the front. “Wentwitz. We shall be taking a brace of companies aboard from Brabenachel’s Regiment in order to secure the bridge. The General wants us to prevent the Gravies from crossing there. If they attack, we shall serve ‘em out like we did last week. If they move on to the ferry at Dizzendorf, well, we’re not to interfere.”
“That would give his Grace time to march on Randstadt and secure his lines of communication, sir.”
“Just so. Once we reach the flotilla we shall get to work.” He cocked an eye at Horatio. “I’m afraid we will be rather pressed for space, so Her Excellency will have to remain behind for this trip.”
Horatio felt his face grow warm with embarrassment. Creighton’s eyes twinkled but he said no more.
To Mary Amadeus, Ursula’s breezy confession to a liaison with Horatio was not unexpected but it was also rather disturbing. It raised questions about her own relationship with Graf Philip. She sat in a commandeered cottage and worked steadily at the paperwork the new battery would require, but her mind strayed ever and anon to her situation. Not that Philip would advocate anything so… intimate as Ursula and Horatio’s relationship. And I’m not sure how I’d react if he did! Would he be permitted anything more than a warm friendship with me, anyway? I know the Kings of Gallia have their Official Mistresses, but I’m sure I wouldn’t want such a tawdry arrangement with Philip.
Happy little thoughts of marriage to Philip had tried to dance a quadrille in her mind for days, only to be tripped up and squashed by sudden moments of doubt. She sighed and bent to her work.
Ursula kept herself gainfully employed in helping the wounded to board the barges. The skills picked up in the Order’s infirmary in Randstadt and her recent ministrations of Konrad Beckenbaur made her more qualified than most to tend to their needs. It was with a sense of real accomplishment that she stood upon the levee and waved as the last of the barges slipped its moorings and headed out into the flow, bound for Kimmelsbrücke. The river was rising high with meltwater coming off the mountains of the south, and the waters were lapping close to the foot of the pilings that protected the houses from severe floods. Ursula walked along the riverside and wondered how Konrad was doing, hoping he too would make the river journey to the spa at Bolschen soon. If any man had suffered in his country’s service, it was he.
Her stomach rumbled and she rubbed it. I’d better go find Mary A and some lunch; it’s been hours since I last ate.
She turned and walked up the main street of the village, thinking of food, Horatio, Mary A, Horatio, marriage, Horatio…
A party of the Bishop’s Horse appeared on the road leading up to the village just as she neared the cottage where Mary A was working. She shaded her eyes, noting in an instant that these troopers looked fresher than the weary fellows who had filled the makeshift infirmaries so recently. And in their midst rode her father. His eyes were fixed upon her and his expression was thunderous. He’d obviously penetrated her guise in spite of the mannish clothes she still wore. “Ah, crap..!” she sighed, and braced herself.
“What is the situation to the east of town?” Grand Duke Karl inquired. “Have the enemy made any attempts upon the defenses?”
“None, beyond a few feints and skirmishes, Your Grace,” Colonel Kranke replied. “All of which were repulsed easily.”
They stood upon the hill before the great palace, looking out over the river and the valley. Kranke pointed to a distant huddle of buildings that marked the nearest village in Margravate territory. “That is the hamlet of Kuntsheim. It was cleared of civilian inhabitants soon after the Gravies arrived.”
Kranke coughed. “A colloquialism coined by our troops for the Margravate army, Your Grace.”
Karl smiled. “Ah, I see. Thank you. Pray do continue, Colonel.”
“The enemy threw up an outwork to provide protection to a battery of light guns before Kuntsheim, Your Grace. They were careful to locate it out of range of our own guns in the battery built by Colonel Schmutzgraber. They patrol regularly every day, mostly infantry but we have seen their gendarmerie on occasion.” He sniffed. “From reports given by refugees that have crossed here, those fellows are only good for browbeating the peasantry.”
Karl frowned. “It’s a brutish regime that requires such treatment to cow its own people. We shall rectify that, at least, once we have secured the valley for Hetzenberg.”
“God send that day will come soon, Your Grace.”
Karl clapped him on the shoulder. “It will come, Colonel. We shall march at dawn, take that village and permit its denizens to return to their homes within the week.” His handsome visage took on a ferocious mien. “Then we shall see about Randstadt!”