The third squadron, Guard Horse Grenadiers filled the view in the telescope. They were fresh: Grand Duke Karl could tell from the swift way they maneuvered. Each squadron took turn and turn-about to fulfill their duties, keeping the heavy troopers and mounts fit for longer.
For the past week the regiment had assisted in pressing the retreating remnants of the Margraf’s blocking force back from the border with Hetzenberg. Although never profligate with the lives of men, Karl regretted the necessity of preserving his meager cavalry resources. It made the task of pressing the enemy that much harder and meant fewer resources elsewhere.
Their immediate opponents wore the green uniform of Dummebettler's Regiment of Dragoons. All that day had been a case of advance and retreat, advance and retreat, both sides’ cavalry matching the moves of the other with precision. Now the enemy had their backs to the town of Randstadt. Here they could no longer stand, so they must by necessity withdraw into the town or ride away, refusing battle. It was that or face annihilation at the hands of superior forces.
He lifted the instrument to gaze at the distant town, ignoring the charming spires and towers to focus on the gray line of the ramparts stretched around its circumference. Men moved there, and cannon showed in embrasures sited at intervals. He gauged the distance between the leading troop of his cavalry to the edge of the defense works.
“There goes their cavalry,” Count Ostenberg murmured as the line of enemy dragoons peeled away into column of twos and rode fast for the nearest town gate. “Any moment now…”
Karl glanced at the Chancellor, gazing through his own instrument with rapt attention. “That’s the Neuburg battery, is it not?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Karl nodded thoughtfully. “If I recall correctly, that young scamp Ursula reported six eighteen-pounders there.”
“Just so. Ah!”
Karl saw it at the same moment, a big puff of dirty white smoke erupting from one of the dark dots that marked the enemy guns. He counted the seconds under his breath. At the count of six a gush of earth sprang from the ground about a hundred yards in front of the Horse Grenadiers. Two of the men hurriedly guided their mounts to one side before the heavy ball bounded between them. The signal was plain: thus far and no further.
“It didn’t bounce far,” Ostenberg commented, closing his telescope with a snap. “The soil is damp from the thaw.”
“It’s just as well. It’ll be easier to entrench.” Karl watched the captain commanding the troop ride toward the town, leaving his men behind. With an elegant sweep of his tricorn he saluted the distant enemy gunners. A few seconds later the flag above the battery dipped in acknowledgement.
“Easier to entrench, but we must beware of the miasma that can rise from wet ground. Disease has carried off more soldiers in a siege than ever cannon did.”
“You’re quite correct.” Karl refused to dwell upon such practical but gloomy thoughts. Instead he directed his attention to the rest of his army.
In accordance with orders they proceeded to shake out of column of march into column of divisions, colors flying at the head of each regiment. Every step of the process passed in measured and stately fashion until the army marched parallel to the defenses of Randstadt. Karl admired the maneuver even as he nodded approval of the way his officers directed their commands. All that remains now is for us to seal off the town. Everything else will follow in due order.
Almost as if following a cue Colonel Wilhelm Schmutzgräber walked up to the command party. He carried a yardstick under his left arm and the end of a measuring tape poked out of a coat pocket. Drawing his lanky form up to its full height, he saluted. “My boys are ready to proceed on your command, Your Grace.”
Karl returned the salute and cast a glance back at where the army was deploying off the Kimmelsbrücke road. Sure enough the engineering train was parking in a field alongside the road. The lumbering flat-bed wagons were laden with tools, and enough duckboards, gabions and fascines to make a start on siege works.
Beyond those lay the pride of the siege train. “Ah!” Karl said, turning his horse and galloping over to view the passing guns. Oxen lowed mournfully as their drivers goaded them onwards, following directions from a harassed-looking major. Standing close by him was a young woman in the crimson coat of the new Guard artillery. Karl checked his mount by the side of the road and regarded her thoughtfully. “Good morning Major Thom, Lieutenant Amadeus.”
The pair saluted. “Good morning, Your Grace.”
“Please continue with your work.”
Karl watched for a while as they guided the guns through a gate and into a broad field that would serve as the artillery park for the siege. In truth, he was still uncomfortable in the presence of Lieutenant Amadeus. So was Major Thom, judging by the stiffness in his bearing. Had he known what his son proposed, Karl would’ve forbidden the granting of her commission. Now the act was a fait accompli and he could not rescind the order without making Philip look foolish. The only saving grace in the whole affair lay in the young woman’s competence. Her work on the wedding fireworks for Grafin Ursula had been the talk of Europe. She bore watching – especially if, as some sources had it, there was something else in the relationship between Graf Philip and his protégé.
Karl found a genuine distraction in the shape of his guns, shiny new twenty-four pounder castings from the ironworks at Wöhl. Each bore the legend Ultima Ratio Regum, Latin for ‘The Last Argument (literally ‘reason’) of Kings.’
Once the town is encircled and all threat of interference removed, we shall begin the siege, he thought. Those little beauties will have their say in the matter. He gave the new lieutenant a courteous nod. And give this young lady her due; she’s more than competent to direct their fire. We shall prevail here at Randstadt, and the Eisenwasser Valley will be ours!