Well of Bones

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Chapter 20

“To teach an enemy with a bullet is to avoid a lesson at the end of a bayonet.”

Douglas Vanderhall

A Marksman’s Prayer, 3304

Just north of the bayside village, the beach bustled with last-minute preparations for the impending enemy assault. Shouts and calls filled the air as marines and colonial militia filled the trenches and posted themselves behind timber bunkers. The battlements were spread evenly across the soft sand at the top of the beach and every man-at-arms knew where he would report before the fighting started. The air was cold with a layer of fog that was constantly rolling in thicker and thicker. The sea lay silent, with barely a ripple lapping upon the wet, compact sand closest to the bay.

The moist air clung to his clothes, making Jake’s uniform feel twice as heavy, soaked all the way though, but he was not cold. He was too anxious, almost eager for the action to start, to be cold. Jake didn’t notice any birds flying, but rather, the absence of birds. He understood why. If he had wings, he wouldn’t be anywhere near this place. Not that his fleeing would be out of cowardice, Jake thought. Conflicts between those with their feet on the ground were beneath those with wings.

As if the thought of cowardice conjured him, Jake noticed William Mayberry trudging through the sand with shovels and picks cradled in his arms. Two marines passed him and one stuck his foot out, tripping William.

“Yer yella and gutless,” the marine spat and walked on as the other laughed.

Suddenly Jake felt guilty for thinking of cowardice upon seeing William. They were gone by the time Jake had walked over. He helped William pick up his tools and dusted him off.

“Don’t let them speak to you that way,” Jake said without meeting the young sailor’s eye.

“And what should I do?” William asked abrasively. “Challenge ’em with a face-full of sand?”

“No,” Jake replied. “I just meant—”

“It’s easy for you,” William interrupted. “You still got your friends.”

Jake didn’t have another chance to speak before William had turned and walked away. He didn’t know what he would say to that anyway. Jake turned to the knights further up the beach and began his short walk back to them.

Sergeant Amir slipped his solid cuirass over his head. The steel breastplate was scarred and notched from past battles but had been polished to a fine shine despite the blemishes. Several colonial cavalrymen wore a similar piece of armor, most likely from prior military service. Theirs were not kept as well. They had begun to rust around the edges and the shine had faded long ago.

Sergeant Fane fit his death mask onto the front of his helm before donning the assembly. Brutus’ enormous size in combination with the mask’s ominous expression, horns, teeth, and Skrull’s coarse hair made those who did not know the man behind it nervous. Conversation and laughter ceased as he drew near.

Margaret ran a whetstone down the curved edge of her scimitar as Jake watched. Her brow wrinkled as if she were deep in thought. She sat on a rather large piece of driftwood she had tied her horse to. Her feet were bare in the soft sand with her boots close by. Did she think of the battle at hand or was she concentrating on keeping her mind far from it? She had proven herself in combat many times. Whatever her method, Jake hoped she was repeating what had been working for her.

Dogwa had tied his horse alongside Margaret’s. His tomahawk spun in his hand while his eyes fixed on the thick fog over the bay. Jake thought the face tattoo made him look as menacing as a warrior should before combat, and he was glad the frowning red man was an ally.

Lieutenant Jorn Fitzand had just finished loading three blunderbusses and leaned them against a tree next to his trident. Jake watched him look at the leaning weapons and inspect each to make sure no part of the loading process was forgotten. He then turned his attention to sharpening one of his six knives he had tucked away in his uniform.

Watching Jorn check his weapons so diligently made Jake examine the flint lock on his own rifle. He checked the entire fighting load. Rifle, pistols, sword, dagger, and bayonet. His horn was full of powder and his satchel full of shot, wadding and a skin of water. Jake adjusted his horse’s tether when a white hide speckled with gray caught his eye. A marine led Brom’s horse up the beach toward him and he felt a twinge of something he could not label. Jealousy, perhaps, but that would not be completely accurate. Whatever it was, it was sharp and felt dreadful. Maybe the preparations had taken Jake’s mind off the loss of his dear friend, but the sight of Brom’s mare brought them back.

He longed for Brom to be there with him but would not wish the ugliness that lay ahead on his friend. The battle would surely get ugly. Jake had seen enough of it to know. Master Salvo had told Jake that Brom was in a place of honor, feasting with Apollo, but Jake was not sure if he believed that. His only solace came from the thought of Brom not feeling any more pain, even if that meant he felt nothing at all. Shaking his head, Jake pulled himself out of that thought path and put his mind on the task at hand.

“Have you engaged in combat from horseback before, marine?”

The marine paused and patted the horse’s neck. “I have. Earlier this year my squad was surrounded by Spratzian grenadiers. We wrangled horses that we found wandering the battlefield. Their riders had been killed. Most were Spratzian horses, in fact. We mounted up and were able to punch through the enemy lines. Fighting from horseback is not my favorite way to wage war, but I understand you and yours could use all the help you could get today.”

“Then we are happy to have you,” Jake said, patting the hindquarters of Brom’s mare. “She belonged to a dear friend of mine, marine. Take care of her and she will surely take care of you.”

“I will, sir,” the marine said graciously, bowing slightly.

A young boy ran down from the cliffs and stood at attention before Count Varro. “They are beginning their approach,” the runner exclaimed between frantic breaths.

“Losing the Marion lit a fire under them,” Varro said with a grin. “Pray it makes them sloppy.”

#

Slicing through the waves, dozens of landing craft powered forward with long oars. The craft was stoutly built with high sides, flat bottoms and a square bow. Sixteen men rowed on each side through little holes for each oar. Countless Spratzian musketeers slowly approached the beach. Varro squinted through his spyglass and Jake watched him grimace. The Count had tried to hide it but Jake could tell he did not like what he saw.

“How many in each?” Jorn asked.

“It’s hard to say,” Varro replied without lowering the glass. “It’s difficult to see through the fog. Dozens in each landing craft and dozens of more longboats following. Each landing craft is equipped with two swivel guns on the corners of the bow. Those who aren’t rowing have their muskets leveled over the sides.”

Still a long way off, Jake imagined the artillery would open fire on them any moment. Just then, Jake saw flashes of light on the clifftops well before he heard the booming reports. Mortars, howitzers and field guns rained ordinance over the bay, speckling the surface of the gray water. Several shells impacted landing craft directly, splintering them into little bits. The rest of the volley impacted the water around the boats, splashing their crews. The lead boat waved a blue flag to either side and the rest spread out, attempting to make themselves scarce targets.

#

On the cliff, Amir barked new coordinates and each crew made an adjustment to elevation and windage before loading to fire again. Swabbed for embers, powdered, wadding and shot rammed down the barrel, locks were swiftly primed and they were ready to fire again. Covering one ear with his palm, Amir gave the order and the guns erupted, recoiling on their placements. The volley whistled over the boats. Their crews ducked under the high sides of timber as the shells exploded around them, throwing white water into the air. This volley scored several more hits. Explosions, sea foam, splinters, screams, blood. One shell punched through the bottom of a vessel before it had a chance to explode and the craft started sinking immediately. They were still too far out to swim ashore wearing their fighting load, even if they could swim. The artillery crews cheered.

By the time the craft neared the shore, the artillery had sunk ten of them. With the Spratzians beginning to land troops, Amir directed the crews to reposition the artillery at the top of the hill overlooking the village. Then the knight mounted his horse and galloped down the hill to regroup with the cavalry.

#

Watching the boats get closer and closer to the beach, the marines and militia fixed their bayonets. Salvo stood on a center battlement and raised his pike above his head.

“Aim,” Salvo ordered. The men acquired their targets. “Steady.”

As the first landing craft touched down and Spratzian troops jumped out into knee-deep water, Salvo gave the order to open fire. The volley of musket balls ripped into the advancing enemy musketeers. The Spratzian swivel gunners fired, raining grapeshot on the bunkers, shredding any militia man unlucky enough to be there. Some musketeers took a knee and fired their weapons while their comrades charged up the beach.

A shot hissed past Salvo’s ear. He jumped down into a trench and motivated his troops to keep firing. Colonial militia fell all around him. A marine fell violently to the ground when a musket ball tore through his torso. Enemy troops poured into the trenches, stabbing and slashing with their bayonets. Salvo urged his troops to repel the attack as he swept and slashed with his pike.

Several bloody moments and many casualties later, the trenches were once again clear of living, enemy musketeers. The first wave had been repelled. Those that survived took cover by their beached landing craft and reloaded, waiting for more musketeers to land to push again. During the lull, Salvo ordered his men to reload, called forward some reserves and told the wounded to make their way to the aid station.

#

“They will not survive another wave down there,” Varro said in a solemn tone. “Be prepared men. Our time is nearing.”

Jake’s horse swayed and jumped with every explosion. The cavalrymen around him appeared calm. They had to be for their horses. The knights sat tall in their saddles at the front of the line.

“Lieutenant Fitzand,” Varro said. He did not turn his head so Jorn leaned in to listen. “It goes without saying that you understand your duties as Lieutenant, but I must ask you to lead the battle should I fall.”

Varro kept his eyes forward and his chin high. Jorn wrinkled his brow and nodded his affirmation. Varro knew Jorn would do his duty. His doubt of survival must be more real than Jake had thought.

Squinting through the fog, Jake watched the second wave of landing craft nearing the beach, barely moments after the first had been defeated. Salvo and his men opened fire just before they touched down, killing rowers before they had a chance to pick up their weapons.

The battle raged below. These men were fighting on their home soil, Jake thought. They fought for their families in the most literal and direct way. What would that motivation do to a fighting man? There would be no quarter for any musketeer who set foot on this island. Then Jake noticed the next wave of boats. They were landing right after the second, in the heat of the fighting. Salvo had begun his retreat, moving his troops to the village. It was time.

“No shouts and no calls,” Varro said, fitting his helm on his head, the long white horsehair flair fell down his back.

He pulled his lance from where it was stuck in the ground and the men did the same. Raising his weapon above his head, the line began moving forward at a slow trot.

#

On the beach, the Spratzians celebrated their small victory as the Brenarian colonials retreated into Adeline. Keep pace, Jake thought. He squeezed his heels into his mount’s flanks. Faster. The fog grew thicker around them, concealing them. Jake could hardly see Varro at the front. Picking up speed. Faster. Varro pumped his lance into the air twice and the two columns split. The rear of the columns shifted wide to the right and the left, forming an arrow with Count Varro at its tip. Keep on line. Faster. Jake dug his heels into the animal until they had reached a full gallop. The roar of thundering hooves and rushing air surrounded him. Surely they made enough noise to alert the musketeers.

Then, they burst out of the thick fog into the open. The musketeers were spread out, disorganized and some held their guns low without a fixed bayonet. They were not ready. Jake fixed his eyes on a young musketeer and pointed his lance to him. The Spratzian fumbled with his bayonet.

“Death to interlopers!” cried a colonial cavalryman.

The rest of the cavalrymen roared their agreement until they made contact. The sounds of breaking lances, screaming horses and breaking bones echoed down the line. Jake drove his lance through the young musketeer’s heart. The weapon broke on impact and Jake threw the remaining shaft to the ground and drew his sword. The cavalry plowed through the enemy infantry on the beach, stabbing with lances and slashing with sabers. Their momentum slowed as more and more Musketeers moved to meet their assault.

A colonial’s horse screamed as several bayonets stabbed it. The rider was pulled from his panicking horse and stabbed again and again by the enemy troops. Another soldier to Jake’s left was shot and instantly killed, tumbling off his horse. His foot hung up in a stirrup and the horse dragged him away from the battle.

As the cavalry line exited the thick body of troops, Count Varro swung them wide and charged them back into the fray. Jake ran several men over with his horse and stabbed many more with his sword. Amir’s horse was killed from under him at a full gallop. The knight tumbled out of the way as the horse rolled past him. He quickly picked up his halberd and began slashing and lunging with the long weapon.

Amir’s steel cuirass deflected several musket balls and his weapon swept wide enough to keep enemies away long enough for Jorn to ride by and pick him up. Fully armored, Amir struggled to pull his body up onto the horse, even with Jorn’s help. Brutus had also dismounted, but on purpose. The giant felt more comfortable fighting on his own feet. On the ground, with a war hammer in one hand and a broadsword in the other, Brutus was in his element. On foot, Brutus killed more enemies in an instant than he could in a mounted pass. He was shot several times and stabbed twice but that didn’t seem to faze him. When Varro finally ordered the cavalry to the village, Brutus stopped a stray horse by grasping its reins. He pulled the reluctant horse to him and swung his leg over to join the fighting retreat.

Jake turned his horse and swung his sword wildly over his head. Braking to a halt, Jake surveyed the carnage. They had killed so many, and yet more were landing every second. Two musketeers knelt and leveled their guns.

“Come on!” Jake yelled to them. Intense heat rushed over his cheeks and into his ears. The strain in his throat stung. The ferocity of the words surprised him.

Two musket balls flew past him and his horse reared. Jake settled the beast and lingered a moment longer. He stared at the musketeers and they stared back. Why had he done this? They could have killed him.

He spurred his horse and kicked up sand as they galloped to the village.

#

As the Spratzians regrouped on the beach, the Knights of Apollo tied their horses with the rest of the cavalry and joined the militia in the fortified town. Young boys shuttled powder and shot into each fighting position. Women and young girls brought buckets of water and helped the wounded back up the hill to the blockhouse. Jake shuffled along the defenses, crouched low. He passed men he had trained, shoulder to shoulder with Royal Marines and his fellow knights. The experienced marines were spread out along the line to offer encouragement and guidance to the inexperienced militiamen, though Jake could still find fear in their body language, in their faces.

“Check your powder,” Jake called out as he passed behind them. “Fingers off your triggers until you have a target. Wait for the order. You can do this. We can make this happen. We can get out of this.”

Jake jumped down into a foxhole with Argot DeRothe to his left and Dogwa to his right. He laid his belly on the front berm, facing the enemy and squirmed into the soft earth to stable himself.

“That was good, lad. They needed t’ hear it from ye.” Argot chuckled nervously, “I needed t’ hear it. I’d be messin’ m’self if I did no’ have you tough buggers by me side.”

“We are all afraid, Mister DeRothe,” Dogwa said in a low tone. “If you are to die today, this is the most important time in your whole life. How will you choose to live your last moments?”

“Honorably,” Jake said as he checked his lock once more before laying the long barrel of his rifle over the top of the berm.

On the beach, he could see the Spratzians organizing into formations. He counted twenty across the front of each formation and four deep. There were four formations to the front and two in reserve. Then there were two smaller formations of light infantry skirmishers to each flank. The force they faced was over five hundred strong, a small force in the grand scheme of the ongoing war, but the knights, marines and colonial militia were barely three hundred. Most of whom were young boys still in school or old men. Jake wondered if the artillery would be ready to fire before the next attack. Then, with a command passed along the Spratzian formations, Jake had his answer.

The Spratzian infantry advanced in their formations to rolling drums and shouted commands. They drew closer and closer and the Brenarians writhed in their foxholes, but they did not fire prematurely. Within minutes, the musketeers were too close to the village for artillery to engage them. At one hundred yards out, they were well within their effective range, and yet they advanced. Count Varro called to his left and his right for the men to hold fire. Jake could reach out with his rifle but he feared that if he fired, the militia would too. Then, at seventy-five yards, the Spratzian commanders halted their musketeers. The first rank took a knee and leveled their weapons while the second rank took a standing firing position over the kneeling troops.

“Heads down,” Varro called. The Brenarian troops laid low in their defenses as the first volley of enemy fire sped over their heads. The first two ranks of musketeers stepped to their left as the second two ranks marched in between them to the front and continued their advance. Just as they reached fifty yards, their commanders halted the formations again.

“Fire at will,” the Count ordered, and the command was passed down the line. Just as the musketeers were preparing to fire again, the colonials fired. Choking white smoke filled the trenches. All along the enemy line, musketeers fell. Some discharged their weapons without the order, resulting in a rather sloppy volley striking the earthen mounds. Jake fired his rifle and struck a lieutenant in the chest. As a man hunched over to help the fallen officer, Dogwa shot him in the side. As the first two ranks fell to disarray, the next two advanced through the carnage with weapons reloaded and bayonets fixed.

Jake reloaded as Argot pick off another soldier with his musket. Jake popped up again and fired. His shot hit the drummer in the neck, spraying his blood on the musketeers nearby. The rhythm of march died with him and fear swept over the enemy line. At least they were not alone in fear.

When the enemy line drew closer, Argot lit the fuses of two grenades with a candle and threw them. The metal balls rolled into the advancing line and exploded. Several Spratzian musketeers were cut down by shrapnel while others were disoriented by the blast.

Jake and Dogwa threw several more grenades yielding similar results. After several grenade volleys in combination with the exchange of musket fire, the Spratzian line lost its integrity completely. The younger soldiers broke ranks and moved to the back of the formation, triggering a panicked retreat.

Spratzian officers struggled to keep order, swinging their swords over their heads and shouting curses at their men. The officers in reserve saw the mayhem and began their advance to offer support, when the artillery on the hill opened fire. Explosions, shrapnel and general chaos made regrouping even more difficult. Enemy officers resorted to shouting threats at their men as shells exploded within their ranks. The reserve officers urged their men to retain formation and advanced through the chaos so they would be too close to the Brenarian line for the artillery strikes to be effective.

Filthy, bloody, the Spratzians tried another assault, this time, with a single volley followed by a bayonet charge. Once again, the colonials ducked under the musket fire, then cut the enemy down with another effective volley at close range and grenade throws. They repelled the few who had broken through when they were bogged down in the muddy moat.

This time, the officers sounded the retreat. Varro ordered a ceasefire as the musketeers dragged their shrieking wounded off the field. By then, the sun was getting too low for the Spratzians to try another assault before nightfall. Jake doubted they could get their men to form up for another push anyway. Up and down the colonial line, men whooped and cheered. Argot climbed out of the trench and walked briskly to Count Varro.

“Congratulations ’re in order,” Argot said heartily, shaking Varro’s hand.

“This is not over in the least, Mister DeRothe. They still outnumber us. I fear they will find another way onto the island and if they get past us, there will be no victory for Delwhick.”

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