SOUTHERN GERMANY FEBRUARY 1526
Thomas Devilstone heard the roar of angry voices and looked over battlements. In the fading light, he could see a rising tide of men running up the steep hill towards The Hornberg and the sight produced a murmur of unease from the other men on the castle’s ramparts. Their fortress boasted high walls, tall towers and strong gates but the attackers carried siege ladders and a battering ram fashioned from the trunk of a tree. They also outnumbered the defenders by ten to one.
Though he stood shoulder to shoulder with the landsknecht mercenaries preparing to defend The Hornberg, Thomas wasn’t dressed in the slashed doublet, colourful breeches and striped hose favoured by German soldiers of fortune. In complete contrast to the other men on the wall, the Englishman wore the black woollen habit of a Benedictine friar and, though he was no priest, many of the defenders looked to him for guidance. In answer to their unspoken prayers Thomas drew his sword and pointed its tip at their enemies.
“The bull doesn't fear the ants, however plentiful they may be, so light your matches, draw your blades and put your trust in The Devil!” Thomas cried and he’d good reason to be confident.
The mutinous peasants advancing on The Hornberg, though numerous, were armed with nothing more lethal than sharpened farm tools and ancient hunting crossbows but the battle scarred veterans defending the castle were equipped with the latest handguns and they were led by the shameless adventurer Goetz von Berlichingen. Though he was short, fat and nearly fifty years old, with a beard as white as a Templar's tunic, the Lord of The Hornberg lived for the thrill of battle and when he spoke his voice echoed around his castle’s walls like the seventh trumpet of Doomsday.
“Listen to me, you miserable spawn of Satan! Your sins are so many and so heinous not even God can forgive them. I'm your only hope of salvation, so serve me well and live, but if any man amongst you allows just one of these ungrateful swineherds to set foot on my walls I’ll cut off his balls and stuff them up his arse!” Goetz bellowed and he called for his squire to fetch his favourite blade. Moments later a trembling youth appeared on the battlements, he was carrying an enormous Swiss longsword but instead of girding the heavy weapon around Goetz's waist, he began to fasten its hilt to his master’s false hand.
The Lord of The Hornberg's original right arm had been carried off by a cannon ball twenty years earlier but its steel replacement boasted an ingenious array of gears and levers that allowed the mechanical fingers to grip anything from a hand of cards to a lance. With his sword fixed firmly in his metal fist, ‘Goetz of the Iron Hand’ resumed hurling threats at his men, and insults at his enemies, but as soon as the charging peasants were in range he ordered his landsknechts to open fire.
Half a hundred muzzles flashed and the horde of battle crazed farmers and herdsmen disappeared behind a choking fog of gunsmoke. A heartbeat later, a ragged chorus of agonised shrieks declared that the defenders’ aim had been true but, once the acrid clouds had cleared, there was no sign of a crushing victory. Only a dozen ploughboys lay motionless on the slopes below The Hornberg's walls and their comrades were too numerous to abandon their reckless charge. Under his breath, Thomas cursed Goetz’s lack of heavy cannon but, out loud, he mocked the rebels’ unimaginative siege craft.
“Take a castle? these goat-shaggers couldn't take a crap if you fed them on nothing but rancid figs,” he cried but, as he said the words, the peasant army suddenly divided itself into two unequal groups.
The larger force, which carried the battering ram, continued their rapid advance towards the castle’s bailey but the smaller column wheeled right and ran towards The Hornberg's keep, which Goetz had always considered to be impregnable. The castle’s citadel stood on a low cliff, which added extra height to its surrounding walls and made mining impossible, so Goetz had left the defence of this upper ward to his servants and placed his professional landsknechts in the more vulnerable bailey. This was a miscalculation because the peasants’ ‘forlorn hope’ scaled the rocky slope with ease and once they’d reached the base of the upper ward’s walls, they began raising their ladders.
“Thomas, take a score of men and knock over those ninepins,” Goetz bellowed angrily but before his captain could obey, a shower of iron tipped crossbow bolts forced all the defenders to duck behind the battlements. The bolts clattered harmlessly off the stone walls but the ragged volley allowed the rebels with the battering ram to reach a small postern gate in the bailey’s curtain wall. The sudden rhythmic thumping of the tree trunk against the little gate’s oak planks sounded like the muffled drums at an execution but Goetz ignored the new danger and repeated his order.
“What are you waiting for you English jackanapes? I’ll deal with these dogs scratching to be let in, you crush those fleas who want to bite my arse!” Goetz barked and he waved his good arm at the three siege ladders being erected against the walls of the upper ward.
“I'm yours to command My Lord!” Thomas replied and he ordered twenty of the castle’s best arquebusiers and swordsmen to follow him.
The detachment reached the walls of the upper ward quickly and though there was no sign of the cowardly servants who were supposed to be defending the keep, the braziers used to kindle the gunners' slow matches had been lit. Thomas barked an order and as his men primed the touch holes of their arquebuses, the tops of siege ladders appeared between the battlements. Shouting their defiance, the landsknechts prepared to repel the expected assault but, instead of attacking, the rebels called for the defenders to throw their English captain off the walls.
“You men on the ramparts are low born like us so there’s no need for you to die in the service of the arrogant lords and dishonest bishops who hold your brethren in bondage, for we’re all one in Jesus Christ!” Cried one of the peasants, who seemed to know his New Testament better than most, but Thomas urged his men to ignore St Paul’s siren song to the Galatians.
“Don’t believe these murderous bastards, remember they've all sworn to avenge their defeats at Frankenhausen and Wurzburg by killing every landsknecht in the Holy Roman Empire so let’s blow these helots back to their pigsties!” Thomas cried but his men held their fire. Sensing that the notoriously fickle mercenaries were about to turn their coats, the peasants pressed their advantage by proclaiming that the defenders’ misfortunes were all the fault of the foreign necromancer in their midst.
“If you’re true, God fearing Germans, give us the English sorcerer and all will be well,” a rebel yelled.
“Once the vile witch is burned the Odenwald will be cleansed of evil and you’ll be free of your oaths to obey Satan,” shouted another and some of the landsknechts began to look at their English captain with deep suspicion. Dressed in his monk’s habit, Thomas looked as sinister as Savonarola but the look in his men’s eyes told him that he’d need more than fear to retain their loyalty. Cursing their inconstancy, Thomas reminded those on the wall that he’d been with Frundsberg at Pavia and had helped the Father of Landsknechts crush the gilded lilies of French chivalry under his steel shod foot.
“I led the Devil’s Band through that glorious slaughter to victory and my men followed me because they knew that I can’t be killed by a bullet, a blade or even the hangman's noose!” Thomas cried and he tore the monk’s cowl off his head to reveal the livid rope burn around his throat.
The sight of the cruel scar around Thomas’ neck reminded the superstitious landsknechts that their immortal souls would be damned for all eternity if they disobeyed a man who’d cheated death so they blew on their matches and touched the glowing ends to their guns’ breaches. The priming powder in the touch-holes fizzed and twenty arquebuses spoke with one voice. The peasants crowded around the foot of the ladders were packed together so tightly every shot found its mark but though a score of swineherds and ditch diggers fell to the ground, clutching their bloodied faces and punctured guts, there were plenty of other men eager to be the first over the wall.
Before the defenders could push the ladders away, the rungs were filled with angry peasants, so Thomas ordered half his men to reload and half to cut down any farm boy who reached the battlements. Ten of his landsknechts dutifully drew their short katzbalger swords and when the first rustic faces appeared at the top of the ladders, Thomas found himself facing a man armed with a sickle tied to a long pole. This man also had a zeal for Luther’s new religion and as he brandished his makeshift poleaxe, he screamed verses from the bible at the diabolical sorcerer in front of him.
“In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I command ye, be ye repentant, and be ye converted, that your sins be done away!” The preacher shouted but his opponent was in no mood to be saved.
“And in the name of Lucifer I command you to kiss your arse goodbye!” Thomas replied and he launched a brutal, two handed stroke that whistled through the air like an Irish banshee. The preacher tried to parry the blow with his extended sickle, but the long handle became entangled in the ladder’s top and before the man could call on God to protect him, his skull was cloven in two.
The preacher’s corpse tumbled to the ground accompanied by a great gouts of blood and slices of butchered brain. The other peasants howled with outrage but before they could avenge their holy man’s death, the defenders’ arquebuses roared again. Like ripe apples blown off a tree, more rebels fell from the ladders and as their screams split the air a large woman, with a red face and arms like hams, appeared on the walkway behind Thomas. The woman crossed herself when the hooded figure turned to face her and, lowering her head, she announced that Goetz had sent a gift.
“Lord Goetz trusts you’ll use it wisely,” said the woman and she pointed to half a dozen serving girls who were struggling to carry three large barrels up the flight of stone steps.
The kegs were filled with olive oil and, though there was no time to heat the liquid, Thomas understood. Taking his sword, he quickly broached each of the casks and told the sweating scullery maids to tip the vats of oleaginous liquid over the rebels climbing up the ladders. The attackers were quickly drenched in oil but this did nothing to slow their ascent so Thomas ordered his men to empty the braziers of glowing coals over the wall. The red hot embers ignited the peasants’ oil soaked cloth and every man on the ladders was instantly transformed into a blazing pillar of fire.
Shrieking with the pain of unimaginable suffering, the burning men fell off the ladders and tumbled through the air like human fireflies. The horrific sight finally weakened their comrades’ resolve and a steady stream of defeated peasants began to flee down the hill but it was a different story at the postern. Before Goetz could empty his kegs of oil over the rebels with the battering ram, the gate burst open and the attackers flooded into The Hornberg. The landsknechts defending the bailey ran for their lives but they were barely halfway along the ramp to the upper ward when Goetz stumbled...