If he had been standing half a step to the left, the spike of the Landsknecht's halberd would have pierced him to the heart, clean through the steel of his breastplate like a newly sharpened knife through fresh cheese. As it was, the tip of the spike merely buried itself in his left shoulder, where there was no armour to block its path.
Any cry he might have made was drowned out by the nightmarish clamour of sword-strike and cannon-fire, the shouts of fighting men and the screams of wounded horses. The impact shook him to the core, and the pain all but blinded him. He staggered as his feet lost their purchase on the muddy ground, and his pikeshaft slipped from his hands as white-hot agony rose up to claim his consciousness for its own.
When he came to himself once more, he was on his back on the sodden earth, pinned beneath the dead weight of a cooling corpse. All that remained of the halberd that had stabbed him was the broken tip of its spike, a long sliver of metal driven deep into the joint and quivering with each breath he drew.
He had no interest in knowing the identities of either his assailant or the body sprawled across his own; in all likelihood, they were one and the same. The man was well and truly dead regardless, with a gaping wound in his side that could only have come from a longsword, and there was no point in giving it more thought than that. Nor, for that matter, did he particularly care about his own injury, once he had ascertained that he had sustained no grave wounds beyond the one in his shoulder. All that mattered was the result of the battle -- and he knew, with a certainty that went beyond mortal ken, that it had not gone in his favour.
A small party of his men found him soon after the last of the French guns fell silent and the worst of the smoke had cleared. They pulled him out from beneath the corpse (a Landsknecht indeed, he noted with grim satisfaction) and started to field-dress the wound, but with his good hand he waved away their attempts to move him from where he had fallen. He ordered them to tend to their other wounded first, and overrode their initial protests with a curt dismissal: dead men earn no pay.
The men were too well trained to argue with him. One did not contradict an officer's direct orders -- certainly not from this officer, who snapped out commands with such force that his voice seemed to resonate in their very bones. And the orders had a mercenary's cold logic that was difficult to dispute. It was not as if he was beyond saving, for he seemed to be in no danger of imminent death despite his terrible wound. If he was bold enough or mad enough to ignore his own injuries, then so be it. They could leave him where he was, with his dagger in hand to deal with any foolhardy scavengers -- animal or human, for both were equally brazen to take what they could from a blood-soaked battlefield -- and return for him once they had seen to those who might not recover without aid.
He allowed them to provide a few strips of linen to stanch the blood that continued to seep out around the embedded halberd spike, a folded cloak or two to raise his head and neck out of the mud, but that was all the fussing he would permit. The sun was rising in the sky, and the heat of the day would only become more brutal the longer they waited. A quarter of an hour, no more, to search for additional survivors. After that, they would join the retreat.
And until then, the Swiss Confederacy would grit his teeth against the pain, and wait.
The carrion-birds were already beginning to circle overhead, drawn by the stench of the feast spread out below them. The Swiss Confederacy watched them wheel about, assessing their flight patterns with a weary, experienced eye. Normally, the birds would settle where the casualties were thickest, but from the little he could see of the broad expanse of battlefield he knew that they were spoilt for choice on this day.
His French opponents had had the superior numbers, there was no doubt of that. The new young king had enough foresight to pad his ranks of infantry and light horse with the Holy Roman Empire's Landsknechte and a scattering of Venetians. (The latter were something of a surprising choice, for the Swiss Confederacy had it on good authority that Venetian men were as much of a pack of weak-kneed simpletons as the child who held their allegiance, but an alliance was an alliance and France doubtless had his own unsavoury reasons for seeking closer ties with the boy.) Yet the Swiss had the advantage of surprise, backed by the certitude of their position -- were they not courted by princes and popes, renowned throughout Europe as the mercenaries without whom no nation could feel secure within its skin? -- and not even the full force of the French guns had been able to keep them from the close combat at which they were so feared.
The battle had dragged on longer than anyone had anticipated at the outset. Both sides had broken their fighting only for a scant few hours of rest in the darkest part of the night, men and horses bedding down no more than a stone's throw from their enemies, and for a time it seemed as if there had never been anything else in the whole of God's creation but the din of trumpets and the press of pike and the endless echo of cannonade. But then those damned Venetians had mustered reinforcements from somewhere, and no matter how individually useless they were in battle there were simply too many of them for the decimated Swiss forces to counter. In the end, it was retreat or annihilation, and even if the Swiss Confederacy found little to love in either option the Landsknecht's strike effectively made the decision for him.
Back to Milan, then, with what remained of his men. To regroup, to tend the wounded, to consult with the leaders of the cantons. If anything was to be salvaged, it would have to be soon, before the Milanese took it into their foolish heads to seek a separate peace with the victorious --
'Why, what have we here?'
The voice was raspy with thirst and lingering gunpowder smoke, but the Swiss Confederacy knew it as well as he knew his own. Stealthily, he adjusted his grip on the dagger in his right hand, and slowly turned his head just enough to confirm by sight what his ears had told him to expect.
Approaching him, one hand resting on the pommel of a well-wrought sword, was the victorious France himself.
Though he kept his outward expression flat and guarded, the Swiss Confederacy allowed himself an inward flicker of spiteful pleasure when he saw how dearly France had paid for that victory. France's fine clothes and splendid armour were bedraggled and spattered with blackish-brown stains of mud and dried blood. Further brownish stains had seeped through a white handkerchief that had been bound around the wrist of his sword hand, and he walked with a slow, careful gait, favouring his right leg. Nevertheless, France was still every inch the proud popinjay in spite of his drooping plumage, and it did not help that the marks of fatigue and exhaustion on his face seemed to melt away as he came to a halt a few paces from where the Swiss Confederacy lay.
'What have we here?' he said again, his eyes widening with feigned surprise. 'Surely this cannot be the Swiss Confederacy -- the peerless mercenary who has never known the taste of defeat?'
The Swiss Confederacy bristled, half at France's mockery and half at the fact that France was standing too far away for him to take his dagger and deliver the literal riposte that such mockery deserved. Immobile as he was, he had to settle for a cold glare and an even colder reply.
'Why do you not try to finish me where I have fallen, France?' he said, trying to match the other's sneering tone. 'Surely you have strength enough left in you for that.'
'And risk your Schweizerdolch in my throat for my pains?' France bestowed a contemptuous glance at the long dagger that the Swiss Confederacy held in his right hand, half-hidden by a fold of torn and filthy cloak. 'Ah, I know your little tricks, little Swiss. No quarter for those you take as prisoners, no mercy for the poor souls who surrender to you, hoping to spare their homes and lives. I have no interest in mimicking your savage ways, however well they may have served you over the years.'
The Swiss Confederacy showed a flash of teeth in a sharp, vicious smile. 'My people and I have had many opportunities to refine them, after all.'
France sniffed disdainfully. 'Indeed, yes...by hiring yourselves out to whichever master will pay your asking price.' The manner in which he drew out the word hiring suggested that he had an altogether different word in mind.
'We hear very few complaints about either our prices or the services we render in exchange,' the Swiss Confederacy declared, choosing to ignore the insult. 'No man or nation may say that the Swiss do not uphold our end of the bargain.'
'For as long as the money lasts, of course. Point d'argent, point de Suisse: it is a well-known saying, is it not?' France smirked, as if amused by some private joke. 'No money, no Swiss -- which was why I was astonished to hear that no fewer than three of your cantons found my lord's argent to be sufficient incentive to withdraw from this mad campaign of yours.'
It was the Swiss Confederacy's turn to make a derisive noise. 'Do you imagine that I would begrudge any of my cantons their decisions in such affairs? An offer was made, they considered the terms and conditions reasonable, and they took it. And even without their presence, your lord still found it necessary to resort to the services of others for assistance against those of us who chose to remain.' Another smile formed on his lips, this one equal parts pitying and cruel. 'Tell me, France, did Italia Veneziano and the Holy Roman Empire cry and cling to your skirts as your lord gave the command to send their men to the slaughter?'
France's smirk vanished as abruptly if it had been slapped off his face. His hand tightened on the pommel of his sword, and for a heartbeat it seemed as if he would indeed unsheathe his blade and deliver a finishing blow to his fallen adversary. But the tense moment passed, and he merely turned his head to one side and spat out a mouthful of blood-flecked saliva.
'Such brave words,' he said softly, with a voice like the first whisper of snowfall that calls down an avalanche. 'I should have expected that you would not concede defeat graciously. But you forget your place here, little Swiss -- such arrogance is far better suited to the victor than the vanquished.'
'You have not vanquished me!' Trembling with rage, the Swiss Confederacy strained to lift himself from the ground, but his left arm could not support his weight and his only remaining weapon required the full use of his right arm. All he could do was angle his wrist to bring the blade of his dagger closer to his thigh, prepared to lash out if France gave him a clear opportunity to strike. 'This is a retreat in good order, nothing more! Call it a defeat if it pleases you, but I refuse to concede to any nation craven enough to back down from the final confrontation!'
'It is not cowardice that stays my hand.' Still in that same soft voice, as gentle and patient as a mother rebuking a wayward child. 'My lord may have need of your services again one day, and for that reason alone your existence is worth preserving. But really, you must admit that I have won the day here, and you are in no condition to exact any sort of revenge for it.'
'Revenge is for those who have more conceit than sense, and more love for their wounded pride than their wounded men,' the Swiss Confederacy snarled. 'I do not intend to exact revenge, France. But I assure you that I have every intention of repaying that which you have given to me today -- with interest.'
'By all means, continue to entertain your lunatic dreams of glory.' France sounded almost bored. 'You are a pathetic handful of squabbling peasants and money-grubbing lordlings, held together only by a mutual hatred of those around you, with nothing better to offer this world than your children as cannon fodder.'
'And yet you and your lord clearly have need of my children all the same,' the Swiss Confederacy shot back, undaunted. 'Does that make the both of you more or less pathetic than you believe me to be?'
It happened so quickly that the Swiss Confederacy had no time to react, scarcely enough time to comprehend the unforeseen turn of events. Suddenly, France's sword was in his hand -- bright tempered steel flashing in the sun, bright crimson blood blossoming anew through the linen bound around his wrist -- and his stance lost all of its elegant carelessness. And then, with the speed of a fencing master demonstrating a favourite technique, he flicked his sword so that the flat of the blade struck the edge of the broken halberd spike embedded in the Swiss Confederacy's shoulder.
The jarring scrape of metal on bone was so excruciating that the Swiss Confederacy convulsed like a man taken with the falling sickness, his back arching off the ground as the breath was driven from his lungs in a strangled gasp. His right hand clawed desperately at the mud, seeking blindly for the dagger that was no longer in its grasp, and he nearly bit through his tongue in an effort to stifle the humiliating sounds he was certain were escaping from his mouth.
'Go back to your hills, little Swiss,' France's voice came to him through the red-edged mist that blurred his sight and seared his throat. 'Perhaps your womenfolk will not have forgotten what a man is for in all this time. And do not imagine yourself a corrector of princes any longer -- your days of presuming to dictate the affairs of greater nations are at an end.'
Nausea roiled through his gut, twisting itself in a sickening spiral around his chest. There were no curses he could utter that would make themselves heard over the roaring in his ears, the pounding of his heart --
(defeated defeated defeated)
-- the pounding of footsteps shaking the ground beneath him, angry voices thundering over his head in a language that was not French, and he blinked away the haze before his eyes to see the pale, worried face of one of the young soldiers who had helped him earlier. Ignoring the blaze of pain that shot up the left side of his neck, he lifted his head high enough to see three other Swiss soldiers, swords drawn, running at full speed in pursuit of a rapidly receding figure.
Somehow, he found his voice. 'Leave him!'
Like a pack of hunting dogs brought up short, the soldiers stumbled and skidded to a halt, startled by the unexpected order. Even the one who had stayed behind with him was frowning perplexedly. 'But sir -- '
'One...pox-ridden Frenchman...is not worth the chase.' The pain was subsiding to more tolerable levels; he could almost speak without fighting for breath. 'Let him...run back to his boy-king.' A final shudder, as he pulled together what scraps of his dignity he could collect, and then fixed the young man with a look that brooked no dissent. 'As for us...we will join the retreat.'
He kept them busy with questions as they pressed more bandages to his wound and helped him to stand, and clung to the sound of their voices as a drowning man clings to the rope that hauls him to safety. Pain and loss of blood had left him weak and unsteady on his legs, but he would not let them fashion a litter to carry him off the field. If he could not retreat on his own two feet, there was no point in retreating at all. It would be kinder to leave him for the ravens to pick apart.
As they made their slow, halting progression down the road that led to Milan, a heavy sense of resignation settled over the Swiss Confederacy's thoughts. For the first time in a very long while, he felt...fragile. His shoulder would heal, but he knew it would never again be quite strong enough to heft the full weight of a pike, let alone wield it properly. And even if his old strength could be brought to bear once more, how could pikes and swords truly compete with powder and shot, when even the most disciplined phalanx of his men could be felled like a field of grain beneath the reapers' scythes?
More than that -- and only now could he admit this to himself, giving voice to the deepest cry of his heart -- he was tired. Not necessarily of the battle itself, though the long months spent far from his lands tested the limits of his reserves. Not even of the politics, for there was something exhilarating in the dangerous dance of shifting alliances that seldom gave its participants pause for breath. No, he was tired of being sneered at and scorned by those who most eagerly sought to stuff his mouth with gold. To be permitted to retreat only for his people's potential usefulness to a barely-breeched French king -- as much as he could appreciate the shrewd calculation inherent in that choice, a less-than-rational part of his mind found it beyond infuriating.
Something would have to change. If his current tactics were no longer useful -- that hated word again -- then there was no choice but to explore other options. He was not like some nations, so hidebound by their ancient traditions and prejudices that their first instinct was to balk like sulky goats, stubbornly preferring familiar, grazed-over lands to fresh but unknown pastures. Neither was he a slavish imitator of whichever fashionable trend had most recently caught the fancy of his neighbours. It could not happen overnight, but he would find a new way to keep body and soul together, and he would do so on his own terms.
Even if it meant being useful to France for a little while longer.
The noonday heat was blistering, the road before them was a cloud of gritty dust, and there were still a good three or four leagues to walk before they reached the outskirts of Milan. Step by step, the little group of Swiss soldiers pressed on, supporting their wounded officer in turns. They cast surreptitious glances at him, looking for any sign of fever or faintness, but he kept a regular plodding pace and stared straight ahead. His lips were pressed tightly together, the very picture of a stout-hearted man bearing up with resolve in defiance of pain.
At least, it was better to think of his expression in those terms. Because otherwise -- and this was scarcely possible to believe, not with his shoulder a blood-crusted mess and his left arm all but torn from his body -- the officer seemed to be smiling.