Below is an excerpt from The Alchemists, now available for Amazon Kindle for $1.99–50% off the standard price until March 31. Get it here.
Just after dawn, they woke to a swarm of Reiters pounding into the camp grim faced and bloody. Marie stood and hailed them for news.
“The French,” one shouted back at her. “Thick as fleas in yonder town.”
They’d gone into the town to reconnoiter and blundered into a squadron of French cavalry watering their horses in the piazza. The Germans emptied their pistols, bolted, and ran into another squadron racing toward the bridge to trap the Imperialists on the eastern side of the river. The Reiters charged and after a short, sharp skirmish, they’d broken through to safety.
There would be no marching today. The French, it seemed, had come to them.
The free mercenary companies, each four hundred strong, assembled under the Imperial eagles. The ragged formations tightened into squares under the bawled commands of their captains. Nearby gun crews strained at the limbers. Priests moved from one gun to the next to bless the great iron muzzles with dashes of holy water. Drums pounded martial rhythms to stir the blood for the killing.
The heavily armored double-pay men, the most experienced warriors in each Landsknechte company, took positions at the front of the square to lead the attack (and at its rear to keep the rest from running away). The pikemen, of course, occupied the first few ranks. The halberdiers and berserkers with their zweihanders arrayed behind them, prepared to rush out from the sides to flank the enemy if the opportunity presented itself. The schützen—arquebusiers and crossbowmen—skirmished from the flanks and middle of the formation.
The mercenaries crossed themselves, prayed, fingered their talismans, threw pinches of dust over their shoulders for luck, kissed the hems of their banners. They cracked nervous jokes. Veterans gave last-minute advice to the new recruits. Some of the regiments broke into ragged hymns, adding to the incredible din.
The captain of the company nearest The Prometheus glared at his men with his one good eye and boomed, “God be with you men! Now let’s make some coin!” His fighters replied to this inspiring speech with a boisterous roar. They stomped the ground with the butts of their pikes, staves, and guns. Someone called out, “Look out! Here we come!” Despite the anxiety typical of the hours before a battle, the men appeared to be in good spirits. The fact they’d given the French a good thrashing not far from here, four years ago at Pavia, was not lost on them.
Marie watched it all with pulse-pounding excitement.
“And now,” Prospero said, “it is time to get the hell out of here.”
“What? We can’t just leave!” she cried.
“Yes, you are right, of course,” he said, stroking his goatee. “We will need to first devise a proper ruse. Perhaps a diversion.”
“If you want to go then go. I’m staying. This is my fight.”
He frowned. “Not this again. Do you have any idea what is about to happen here?”
“I swore an oath—”
“Oh, come on! You are nothing to the Emperor! Why should he be everything to you?”
“Do you think we met by accident, Prospero?”
“I do not understand what you are asking.”
“I believe we were meant to be together on this battlefield. I believe we will win here today, and then we’ll march on Vienna to save Christendom from Turkish invasion.”
Prospero stared at her for a long time saying nothing. Finally, he turned to Myrddin and said, “You, of all people, I should be able to count on to talk some sense into these youngsters.”
Marie turned to Taddeo. “What about you? Do you believe in fate, my love?”
“Absolutely not,” he replied. The very idea made him shudder.
She frowned, taken aback. “You don’t believe we were fated to be together?”
“Listen, my dearest, if all things are fated, it would mean everything we say or do is preordained and that we have no free will as human beings. And if that’s true, then God must be the author of our actions, but then why would God punish people who sin if he predestined them to sin? Wouldn’t that make God the actual sinner, which would nullify the very idea of morality? Think about it: Why would God make people who would never enter Heaven? Or, for that matter, who die in pain in childhood or suffer a long life in endless poverty? Why are we held responsible for our actions at all if God is pulling our strings as if we were so many puppets? The idea of God not being loving and merciful but instead the cruel author of the meaningless lives of tiny beings—ignorant, suffering things who have no choice about what happens to them, like bugs in a glass jar—is too horrible to even contemplate.”
“Oh,” she said. “Um.”
“Then there are the social ramifications! If you are born rich, does that mean God likes you since he fated you to be born that way? And just the opposite—if you are a poor, wretched peasant, does God hate you? It reinforces a cruel social order based on divine right, which is more than just the right of kings to rule. It’s the right of a whole social order based on legitimized oppression. It’s the moral justification for a small minority of people lucky to be born rich to forever exploit and dominate the great unwashed. Do you know what I mean, my shining star?”
Marie didn’t know how to respond. It had all sounded so much better in her head.
“Well,” she said. “I—”
“On the other hand, I do believe our fates, so to speak, are now joined. So if you stay and fight then I must stay and fight too.”
Marie smiled, her chest filling with heat. “I so can’t wait to marry you.”
“Though I’m completely terrified by the idea of having to fight again,” he added.
Prospero’s face reddened. “Taddeo, I am warning you, if you persist in attaching yourself to this suicide attempt, I am going to tell your father that you are an unruly boy!”
“If you do that, he’ll make us come home and end my apprenticeship,” Taddeo shot back. “And you’ll be out of a job, Doctor.”
The Imperialists filled the air with a full-throated roar. The enemy had entered the field, rank after rank of cavalry, infantry, and artillery advancing under the blue and gold banners of the Kingdom of France.
They took up positions on the gentle slope of the opposite hill.
“Fools,” Prospero muttered at the impressive sight. “All right, Taddeo. If we must stay and fight a battle, we may as well try to win it. I see the Prince. Let us aid him with a strategy.”
“At once, Doctor.”
Marie buckled on her cuirass and followed.
A group of ruffians waved at her. “Brunhild, Brunhild!” She recognized Rupert, the giant she’d felled, now grinning with a shiny purple egg on his forehead, and some of the other Landsknechte she’d befriended over pints of bitter ale. They’d started calling her Brunhild, a German name meaning, armored warrior woman.
She waited for them to approach as Prospero and Taddeo strode on without her. “Hail, brothers.”
“Come join our company and kill the grape-stompers with us today!”
Marie clapped them on the shoulders. “I will fight with you.” After the oafs had a chance to nudge each other and grin happily, she added, “In fact, tell your captains I will join the Blood Flag today.”
“No!” they cried. “Please do not do this!”
“Tell the captains of the companies I want them to create a Blood Flag made up of men from every company, assembled here by the steam wagon. Trust me when I say I will not only fight with you today, I will lead you all to certain victory.”
They watched her go with awe-stricken expressions before running to find their captain. She caught up to Prospero and Taddeo as they came upon Philibert of Châlon breakfasting at a buffet set up in a colorful open-air tent, surrounded by his usual entourage of toadies and servants. Several mercenary colonels were just leaving, wearing broad grins.
The Prince of Orange fumed. “Damned mercenaries! Demanding double pay just before the battle joins! They do this to me every time! I’m not a general, I’m a banker!”
“I’m not getting paid at all,” Prospero muttered.
“Ah, heer dokter!” the Prince cried. “Look, everyone, and mark him well, for here is a true patriot and friend of the Crown. So tell me, dokter, you are from these parts. What is the name of yonder town?”
“That would be Landriano, Your Imperial Highness,” the scientist said with a courtly bow. “How may I be of service?”
“You could tell me if there’s a church there.”
“A church, Your Imperial Highness? I should think so.”
“The imperatives of state, you know…”
“I am afraid I do not follow.”
The Prince of Orange sighed. “We’re running a little short on funds. We’re going to have to melt down the church plate if we’re going to pay the men a single real after this.”
“I understand. But first, we must win the battle, is that not so? For that purpose, I have come to aid you again in your hour of need.” He paused to pluck a handful of grapes from a bowl on the buffet table. “May I? Ah, delicious.” Munching with his mouth full, he continued, “First, we must discover how our foe is arrayed. I suggest probing the French line with light cavalry and plotting the size and disposition of their forces on a map.”
Outside the tent, an artillery battery fired with a massive BOOM, hurling round shot and canister at the opposite slope. The French guns replied like distant thunder.
“This is most interesting,” Philibert said. “Do go on.”
“After we reconnoiter the enemy forces, we shall seize the initiative and launch our assault at the weak point in their line, like Alexander of Macedon, with the objective of breaking it. Like so.” He arranged the grapes on the tablecloth, green for French, red for Imperial. “A feint will draw the enemy’s reserves to the opposite flank while our artillery softens the line where we intend to break through. Our objective is to deliver overwhelming force at this one point. The infantry will advance, testing, testing, then WHAM!” He slammed his fist against the table, sending the grapes flying. “At the critical moment, heavy cavalry emerges on their flank, crushing them via an enveloping maneuver!”
The Imperial batteries shook the tent with their barrage. The French artillery responded with distant booms and local concussions followed by screams. A wave of acrid gun smoke rolled across the buffet, sending the Prince’s toadies into a coughing fit.
They’d wasted enough time here. Marie tugged at the scientist’s sleeve. “Prospero…”
Philibert nodded. “It’s an excellent plan, heer dokter.”
“Thank you, Your Imperial Highness.”
“You may lead the attack.”
The blood drained from Prospero’s face. “You want me to lead the attack? As in personally?”
“Someone give this man a sash befitting his rank.”
“But Your Imperial—”
“May God grant us victory today, General Buonarroti!”
“—Highness, I am hardly worthy—”
Marie gripped the back of his doublet and pulled him out of the tent.
“This is no way to treat your commanding officer!” he yelled.
“We have to get back to the steam wagon now.”
They jogged along the ranks. The soldiers let up a warlike shout as they passed. Trumpets blasted across the line.
“I feel like Caesar,” Prospero said, pausing to acknowledge the men’s homage with a wave.
“Hurry up, arschloch!” one of them shouted. “The line is about to advance!”
Marie grabbed him by the scruff again and forced him to run.
“Taddeo, you will be my second in command,” Prospero huffed. “Your first task will be to find some signal flags and figure out how to use them. Then I can issue my orders.”
“The battle’s already started,” Marie said. “The strategy is we hit them first, and we hit them hard. As for orders, there is only one. Take your steam wagon, drive it straight at the enemy line, and fire your cannon at it. Give them the grape with all three barrels. Do you think you can do that?”
Taddeo nodded. “Consider it done, Marie.”
She wanted to kiss him again, but there was no time. They exchanged a quick smile instead. She prayed they would live long enough to exchange their vows as they’d promised.
“And where will you be?” Prospero asked as he fixed his new red sash across his chest.
“Right behind you,” she said. “Leading the Blood Flag.”
“Well, whatever that is, it sounds very safe,” he said with grating sarcasm. “I will see you in Dante’s Inferno, I suppose. In the middle ring of the seventh circle, the one reserved for suicides.”
The new Blood Flag, four hundred strong and bristling with a riot of bright red banners, cheered at the sight of their Brunhild. Typically, the Blood Flag consisted of a special suicide squad within each company, chosen by dice and tasked with charging tough enemy positions. They died like flies. Marie had asked for a company-strength Blood Flag to use as shock troops and had gotten one entirely from volunteers. Being the darling of the Landsknechte had its advantages. A bigger bunch of murderers, arsonists, and thieves you never saw, true, but they could be extremely chivalrous.
Marie scanned the battlefield. A little valley separated the two hills along which the armies sprawled, populated by a few farms and a large flock of bleating sheep that appeared oblivious to the screaming shot being lobbed over their heads. She fixed her gaze on a block of French soldiers forming under a copse of olive trees.
There. That is where we’ll break them. Rupert handed her a small shield, which she fitted on her arm before addressing the men: “My brave brothers, do you see the arschloch in yonder wagon?” She pointed at Prospero standing in front of the tiller. He saw her pointing and saluted. “We are going to follow the wagon to the enemy line. After it fires its cannon, we will charge, kill any French left standing, and break the line. Understood?” As they roared, she drew Artemis and held it gleaming over her head. “Then follow me to victory! Marsch, marsch!”
The Prometheus rolled toward the French line, breathing gusts of steam. Taddeo scrambled across the gun emplacement on the roof, loading the bronze barrels with grapeshot. The company tramped down the hill after it to the rhythmic pulse of fife and drum, the men already chanting, “Look! Out! Here we come!”
Marie had heard that war carts had been used at the Battle of Ravenna about twenty years earlier during another episode in the neverending Italian Wars. The two-wheeled carts, pushed by a man behind, carried up to three swivel-mounted heavy arquebuses. Apparently, they’d failed miserably as a weapon—the French won the battle in the end—but The Prometheus was no cart. Mantlets, of course, were nothing new; large shields, mounted on wheeled carriages, had long been used in siege warfare. The Prometheus combined the defense of the mantlet with the firepower of the carts and independent mobility. She believed the steam wagon would give the assault a much-needed edge. They might all die in the attempt, but if they broke the line, the rest of the army could expand the breach, perhaps allow cavalry to pour through.
The battle would be won, and those who died for this victory would become legend.
The valley was fast becoming a very dangerous place. Little puffs of smoke sprouted along the ridge as distant artillery pounded. Shot whistled through the air. The sky darkened from smoke clouds drifting across the Sun. On her left, French gendarmes charged into the withering massed volley fire of Spanish matchlocks and scattered, leaving the field strewn with dead and dying. A riderless horse, wild eyed and snorting, flew out of the chaos at Marie; Rupert pulled her out of the way with a chuckle. She saw a farmhouse burning.
The Germans waded into the flock of bleating sheep at the bottom of the hill, swatting at them with the flats of their swords to push them aside. They began to climb the slope toward the French line, the rest of the Landsknechte toiling at their heels, still chanting. The French infantry waited on the high ground, shouting taunts and insults.
Round shot ripped through the air over The Prometheus, plunging into a mass of infantry behind. The vehicle shuddered as another shot tore into its side with a spray of splinters.
“I’m just curious if this was what you wanted,” Myrddin said.
Marie took a sharp breath. “Taddeo’s right. You do sneak up on people.”
“You were happy the battle was coming. I was just wondering if you’re still happy now that it’s here and everyone’s dying.”
“I’m not happy about it,” she replied. The truth was her very blood sang.
On the right of her Blood Flag, French infantry charged downhill toward the Imperial line. Guns popped. Pikes cracked as the two dense masses of men plowed into each other.
“Fire at will!” an officer screamed before a wave of black smoke covered them all.
“Is this cause of yours really worth dying?” Myrddin wondered.
“If I must,” she said bravely.
“What about Taddeo? I suppose it’s worth him dying too?”
Her heart galloped with alarm. The Prometheus had taken another hit and was burning and listing. The wood frame enclosure on the roof had been blown away. Prospero was nowhere to be seen. Taddeo stood crouched behind the gun, hatless, his hair flying. He rested a quadrant on the barrel as he lined up his first shot. She breathed a sigh of relief.
The truth was it wasn’t worth him dying. None of it was. Let Francis have Italy, let the Turk crush Germany with its yoke. None of it mattered. Just let him live.
She felt her legs weaken and struggled with the urge to get Taddeo and make a run for it.
“You know,” Myrddin said, “I could say a simple abracadabra and whisk all of us far away from here in an instant.”
Marie grit her teeth. For better or worse, they were committed now. They had to see this through. “Myrddin, go back to where you came from and let me work. Please.”
“Back to Prospero’s driving machine? Impossible. A man could get killed over there.”
“I hear Mecca is nice this time of—”
“On the other hand,” the wizard said as he opened a parasol and raised it over his head, “things are about to get very dicey right here.”
The air hissed. Marie raised her shield as a cloud of crossbow bolts fell out of the sky and cut down the men around her. Rupert collapsed at her side, pierced through his thick skull. Two of the bolts thudded against her shield. Several bounced off Myrddin’s ridiculous parasol.
The officers bellowed at the men to tighten up, tighten up. Stepping over their screaming comrades, the mercenaries closed the gaps in the line.
Another rain of bolts fell into the mercenaries. Every Frenchman at the top appeared to be firing at them. Dozens of her comrades howled in horror and pain as they fell. The air appeared to be alive with a withering rain of death.
Ahead, the steam wagon, afire and billowing black smoke, had almost reached the top. A French ball punched through the sideboards with a burst of smoke and splinters. Taddeo stood tall on the gun deck, ignoring the whistling shot and humming crossbow bolts while Leo raced barking around his feet.
He doesn’t care about the Emperor or who owns Italy or even the Turks. He’s doing this for me. The thought filled her with pride, love, worry. And terror.
“Now, my love!” she cried. “Fire!”
Taddeo did nothing.
He can’t hear me, she realized. He’s waiting for the signal and can’t hear me.
She took a deep breath and emitted a high-pitched shriek piercing enough to break glass. The mercenaries around her winced. Taddeo turned and gave her a thumbs up.
Taddeo shouted the battle cry of the Venetian Republic, “Marco! Marco!”
And lowered the botefeux.
The cannon discharged with a deafening BANG that made her teeth vibrate. Smoke cascaded over the mass of French infantry. The cannon lurched against the springs and settled back into position. Taddeo frantically rotated the next barrel into place then sighted and fired another blast of grapeshot.
Then she lost sight of the wagon in the smoke.
Myrddin tossed the parasol. “Well, I guess I’ll leave you to it. Good luck!”
She turned to bid him farewell, but he’d already disappeared.
Taddeo’s cannon fired a third time and fell silent.
He’s done his part. Well done, my love. Now it’s my turn.
“Brothers, follow me!” she screamed. “To glory!” She flung aside her shield and raced toward the enemy line while ululating a blood-chilling cry. “To victory!”
The Germans raised their zweihanders and surged after her.
“HERE WE COME!”
The Imperial army cheered as they saw the red banners of the Blood Flag mount the hill.
Marie halted at the top. It was horrible.
The mercenaries paused as they realized there were few opponents still on their feet and willing to fight. Taddeo’s three blasts of grapeshot, fired at point black range, had torn the French apart. Men rolled screaming in the bloody grass. Others lay dead in heaps. Scores fled toward the rear.
The ground shook as an endless column of howling Reiters and Stradioti thundered into the breach. The horsemen enfiladed the disintegrating French line on either side.
The Germans looked at each other and shrugged. “Did we win?”
Marie looked across the field of dying men. “TADDEO!”
More companies of Landsknechte arrived and rolled up the line. Imperial cavalry emptied their pistols into the hapless French before darting away like wasps. The French flank collapsed. The center followed. Marie watched as a company of Spaniards, having overrun a nearby artillery battery, turned the pieces around and opened fire on the approaching French reserve and put it to flight. Disordered retreat turned into rout. The entire army was on the run.
The Imperial infantry planted their standards at the top of the hill. The battle was won. Over the cheering, she heard the steady chug of the steam engine. Battered and charred, The Prometheus limped through the drifting clouds of smoke.
Marie wiped her eyes with gladness.
Please be okay, she prayed. Be okay, and I’ll never ask you to do that again, I swear it.
Around her, the Germans mumbled in confusion. They looked up at the sky.
She did too. And saw it.
Something was falling.
The object trembled in flight, trailing tongues of flame and little bursts of smoke that thickened into a wide billowing tail.
Marie and the Germans followed its descent in awe.
When the rebel angels fell from Heaven, it must have looked like this.
“Look out, lads!” someone cried.
The mercenaries scattered as the thing struck the hillside. The earth trembled. A geyser of dirt soared into the air and fell like rain.
The impact left a smoking crater.
The mercenaries gathered around in a state of wonder.
The Prometheus continued its approach. Still no sign of Taddeo. Marie’s heart pounded hard against her ribs, torn between the spectacle and her hope to see her love safe and sound.
One of the soldiers peered into the hole. “Herr crazy man?”
Marie saw a flash of green that devoured the man in a single gulp before returning to the smoking pit. The mercenaries crossed themselves. Marie caught the strong briny smell of newly caught fish.
“Dämon,” they muttered.
They backed away from the hole slowly, quietly.
“Galia est pacata!” Prospero called to them from the tiller of the battered wagon, looking smart in his red sash as he quoted Julius Caesar: Gaul is subdued. “Veni, vidi, vici.” I came, I saw, I conquered.
Taddeo stood at his side, grinning with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. Marie’s heart flooded with relief.
Then the monster, drawn to the sound of the scientist’s voice, emerged hissing from the hole.