As the armies gathered around the Spitzbruck, most sensible travellers detoured north or south to avoid the combatants, and the ferry to the south did excellent business for a while – barely even disrupted by the Luftberg hussars that set up an observation post in the adjacent woods overlooking the crossing, as well as the farmhouse a short walk to the south, across the ponds and marshes near the river.
One evening, an unremarkable figure crossed the ferry to the east bank, a traveller much like any other down-at-heel gentleman on his way. When the hussars checked his papers he was under a false name, but his real name had reputation beyond many others. This was the Baron Von Rache, known throughout Central Europe as ‘The Mad Baron’ and reputedly the most dangerous man in all of Germany. He had recently been cajoled by the Prinzessin Emily von Krumper into joining her brother’s army, in a strictly non-official basis. Knowing of his hair-trigger temper and tendency towards duelling with anyone who attracted his displeasure, the baron had quickly been turned loose with a commission to ‘take whatever measures are deemed necessary by you to ensure events develop in a manner propitious to the interests of the Aschenbach state.’ It was effectively a license to run riot over the continent, and the Baron gladly accepted it.
Emptying Aschenbach’s prisons for some of the most dangerous and unscrupulous individuals he could find, whose talents could prove of use, he had quickly formed a small band of daredevils to execute his plans. He travelled incognito with the Aschenbach army, following in it’s train until called upon. Now the need had brought him here – to secure a crossing over the Spitzwasser.
Travelling on in the darkness beyond the scouts, he left the road into the undergrowth and met his men, who were secreted into their agreed meeting-place and busy readying their weapons. The baron cast an eye over them all and politely cleared his throat. ‘Would you all please be so kind as to take the flints out of your muskets? We’re using only pistols and cold steel this evening, my boys. I am sorry if this inconveniences any of you.’
The men obeyed wordlessly. When they had been first yanked from prison by this strange, polite young man, they had thought themselves in the hands of an ineffectual fop. They had initially defied him, but the more they learned of the baron the faster they rushed to obey. The men had given up exchanging stories of the baron’s antics by now – they had simply grown too scared.
The baron sketched out the plan, which called for a rush on the farmhouse in the dead of night to neutralise the enemy Hussars based there, and subsequently clearing out the observation posts in the woods immediately at the crossing. The men listened, nodded understanding, and set off after their leader.
Hours later, with the card games well underway and the supplies of local wine diminishing, the sounds of raucous shouting and singing could be heard from the main farm building. Sentries tramped round the walled outbuildings, tended to the horses, and joined in the drinking at a distance, swigging from a bottle brought from the house.
Silently, a dark figure emerged from the shadows behind one lone sentry and closed on him. A hand closed over his mouth and a swift thrust with a dagger into the back was accompanied only by a slight scuffle as the dying hussar was quickly dragged back into the murk. A few seconds later, when it was clear no attention had been drawn, several black forms slipped into the farm buildings. The horses were led away and the remaining sentries picked off, while the sounds of shouting and laughter continued from the main building.
Von Rache reached the door and cautiously looked through the leaded windowpane. Revellers inside were in the middle of a card and drinking game on the large kitchen table, next to the roaring fireplace. Von Rache looked round at his men gathered around him, nodded warning, then kicked the door open.
As he ran in to a room of startled faces, he fired his pistol square at the largest man he saw and slashed right with his sword at an unfortunate who had stood too near. He heard a scream, hurled his empty pistol wholesale at another man and shoulder-barged another to the ground, all the while slashing wildly in every direction. His men charged after him and quickly swarmed through the room, cutting down some of the faster enemy and backing the rest into corners.
Von Rache climbed up onto the tabletop. All his men were still alive, although some were injured. Whether it was from the enemy or from his own frenzied efforts, he neither knew nor cared. His men knew better than to complain.
He addressed his captives. ‘My apologies, my friends, but,’ he delicately kicked some scattered cards off the table. ‘I am afraid I must express my distaste for gambling in the strongest manner. Most particularly, card games to which I have not been invited.’
The hussar scouts in the woods heard the firing, sharp and distinct over the background rumble and thump of the guns north at the Spitzbruck, which seemed set on a constant bombardment. They had been about to go to the farm to see what had happened, when they suddenly spotted the masses of Aschenbach troops working on the far side of the river, and beginning to cross it in strength. Realising the enemy move was underway, the hussars sent a young and fast messenger back to report to their regimental headquarters. The hussar galloped north and rushed into the commandeered village. The gruff major met him, and he breathlessly explained.
‘The enemy are building a pontoon bridge at the ferry crossing, and seem to be preparing a crossing in strength.’
The major blinked, unimpressed. ‘Any news from the main post, in the nearby farmhouse? It’s their job to watch the ferry – you should have reported direct to them.’
‘But sir, we heard shots coming from there, and then no word at all.’
The major was even less impressed now. In mock-horror, he said ‘Hussars drinking, and you heard shots fired? Dear god, what should we do?’ He paused, then added ‘Do you mean musketry? Volleys?’
‘No sir, just some pistol shots.’
‘well then lad, don’t worry yourself. Those bluecoats are in the north by the bridge, for certain. Why you can even hear them.’ He nodded towards the thump of cannon.
‘But sir, we saw figures in the dark, and they were trying to cross over.’
‘Did you stay to observe?’
The young hussar hesitated. ‘No sir, we rode here at once.’
The major’s tone was gentler with the inexperienced young trooper. ‘So, you saw some figures in the dark, at a ferry crossing, and the main post assigned to watch it hasn’t bothered to send any warning, or even go out to investigate.’
‘Yes, sir.’ The hussar felt deflated and foolish.
‘And you want to go to Feldmarschall von Hentsch – Graf Von Hentsch, mind you – and tell him to move the army south?’
This was something that the hussar had not thought of before. Von Hentsch was not a man to take a mistake in good spirits. ‘Well, sir, I …’
The major saved the hussar from any more struggling with the problem. ‘We’ll send word to the main post straight away, then take a look in the morning ourselves, lad. That’ll confirm everything. Get some sleep yourself in the meantime – everybody’s still tired after that damn forced march up from Blinzburg.’
‘Thank you sir.’ True enough, the hussar thought. He was tired, and the others would deal with it.
At the ferry, the infantry column streamed over the first pontoon in column of approach, with the cavalry joined them once the second heavier pontoon was complete. Now lit by the first light of dawn, Baron von Rache watched it all in satisfaction. The farm had been turned over to the army and was now being converted into a fortress, with cannon dug in on the far bank, to protect the bridges. They’d been lucky recently, he reflected, what with von Zaub’s stunt in Spitzburg and now this river crossing. Still, it all hung now on what was about to unfold. Von Rache wondered if he had merely gained Von Krumper a chance to send his army into a disaster. No matter – he wasn’t paid enough to care that much. He led his men down to the bridge and they recrossed west, drawing curious looks from the infantry on the bridge as the only men not joining the tide of bluecoats flowing eastwards.