Well of Bones

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Chapter 21

“Lift up your hearts and sing sweet melodies, for lo the night is long and the day is short. Let he who hath merriment in his heart share it.”

Teachings of Apollo

The morning after the Spratzian assaults were quiet. Colonial militia and marines sat in their trenches with their muskets close at hand. Count Varro paced the battlements with Salvo at his side, observing the morale of the troops as well as the condition of the fortifications.

“They have hit a dead end here,” Varro spoke softly to Salvo. “They will try something else soon. We need our centuries to be alert.”

Salvo nodded. “I will pass that down to the patrol leaders immediately.”

Before the warrior monk could leave, Varro tugged on his loose robe sleeve and pointed to some militia men who had brought instruments to the trenches. An accordion, fiddle, banjo and drum played a lively sailors melody from their homeland across the sea.

Soldiers up and down the line cheered and waved their wide brimmed or three-point hats. The music slowed down to a haunting ballad of love lost but ended in a robust anthem of hardships overcome. Count Varro took a seat close by to enjoy the music.

The improvised band played another and another until they could not think of another to play. With their instruments quiet, an old man with a patch over his eye stood. Varro could tell the old man was of the sea. His brow was wrinkled from sun and salt, his back was strong even though he moved as though it ached. His hands were rough and calloused from years of handling rigging.

The old man began to sing a sad song with his deep and husky voice.

The Diamond is a ship, me lads,

Fo’ the Pullis Strait she’s bound,

An’ the Quay it is all garnished

Wi’ bonny lasses round;

Captain Thompson gives the order

T’ sail the ocean wide,

Where the sun it never sets, me lads,

Nor darkness dims the sky.

So it’s cheer up, me lads,

Let your hearts never fail,

For the bonny ship, The Diamond,

goes a-fishin’ for the whale.

Along the quay at Aflanwake,

The lasses stand around,

Wi’ their shawls all pulled about them

An’ the salt tears runnin’ down;

Don’t you weep, me bonny lass,

Though you be left behind,

For the rose will grow on Norfulk’s ice

Before we change our mind.

So it’s cheer up, me lads,

Let your hearts never fail,

For the bonny ship, The Diamond,

goes a-fishin’ for the whale.

It’ll be bright both day and night

When the Norfulk lads come hame,

With a ship all fu’ o’ oil, my lads,

An’ money to our name;

We’ll make the cradles for to rock

An’ blankets for to tear,

An’ every lass in Aflanwake sing,

“Hushabye, my dear.”

So it’s cheer up, me lads,

Let your hearts never fail,

For the bonny ship, The Diamond,

goes a-fishin’ for the whale.

Every head was hung; not in dismay but rather, reverence. They had not forgotten their mortality. They understood well the peril they were in and somehow, that song brought comfort. Several moments passed of deep reflection before the band struck up a cheerful tune. The men kept rhythm with stomping boots and clapping hands.

“Look at them,” Varro said with a warm smile. “The difference some music makes.”

Oh, a drop of Felten’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm

Oh, a drop of Felten’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm

Oh, a drop of Felten’s blood wouldn’t do us any harm

And we’ll all hang on behind

So we’ll roll the golden chariot along

An’ we’ll roll the golden chariot along

So we’ll roll the golden chariot along

An’ we’ll all hang on behind!

“Who is Felten?” Salvo asked.

“Grog,” Varro laughed. “Felten’s blood is grog.”

#

As the music played, William Mayberry kept his gaze fixed on the beach. His gaze danced over the smoking artillery crater. Birds and crabs had been picking up the pieces of broken men all night, and they had not finished by morning.

“So many men had lost their lives yesterday,” William said to himself. “Too many.”

“Did you say something, Mayberry?” a nearby marine asked.

“It was nothing,” William replied.

“Oh, nothing, was it? I was surprised to see you at the beach yesterday. Figured you would have scurried off to somewhere safe. Did you kill any musketeers or were you too busy messin’ your drawers?”

“Leave him alone, Fergus,” another marine said.

“When they sounded the retreat, I bet you were the first one back to the village to hide and cry like you did on the Albatross.”

William stood up and squared himself with Fergus.

“What? You gonna hit me?” Fergus met William’s eyes. “You finally going to man up?”

William said nothing, but anger still burned behind his eyes.

“You don’t deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of us, Mayberry.” Fergus spat on William’s jacket then turned away. Fergus joined in the merriment further down the battlements. Once he was out of sight, William sunk back into his trench and slipped his arms out of the jacket with tears in his eyes. He scrubbed the saliva with his sleeve.

“I’ll see that he’s reprimanded,” a voice from behind said.

William turned to find Jake standing there. He lowered his eyes, continuing to scrub. Jake just stood there. He didn’t walk away even though William ignored him.

“I don’t have all my friends,” Jake finally said.

What was he talking about? Then William remembered what he had said earlier. Something about things being easier when you still have your friends.

“The Knights of Apollo have lost several men since our arrival here, in fact. Roy and Duncan.” Jake paused and hung his head. “Brom.”

William slipped his jacket back on. He crossed his arms and turned away from Jake. Why wouldn’t he go away?

“Brom was my best friend. We grew up together. He was engaged to be married.”

Jake sat.

“They kicked in our door and shot him right in front of me. I was there when his life slipped away. Everything he is—was—went away. Any chance he had at a future was gone in that instant.”

“Why are you telling me this?” William asked abrasively.

“Because I think we are feeling something similar. Like it could have been us very easily, but it wasn’t. Sometimes it feels like everything is wrong. Like if it was me instead, everything would be different.”

“That’s not what I feel,” William lied.

They sat in silence for some time. The salt air rushing inland carried the stench of rot and choking smoke from the beach. Williams’ nose wrinkled. The smell didn’t seem to bother the night, though. He just sat here in the same foul air until Master Salvo approached.

“It’s time to get to your post, Mister Zimmar,” Salvo said quickly before continuing down the line.

Jake stood and brushed himself off. He began to walk away.

“Do you think it might be easier if it had been you?” William asked quickly. “If you were the one who was dead?”

Jake inhaled sharply and let the breath out slowly before answering.

“Yes.”

Jake walked away leaving William in that trench with that word.

“Yes,” William repeated.

Tears welled in his eyes again and he inhaled through his nose to try and hold them back. He stood up and let the breath out through pursed lips as he surveyed the battlefield again.

“Yes.”

#

Finding himself once again in the thick undergrowth of the dark swamps, Jake waded through knee-deep water and slime. He swatted mosquitos as they landed on his neck and cursed the little creatures. To his right, a young member of the colonial militia trudged through the same muck on their way to patrol the northeastern swamps along the coast.

“How long do we have to stay out here?” the young man whined.

“Just for the night. In the morning we will do one more sweep and then our relief should be here.”

The colonial grunted. “I’m gonna be soggy all night. Probably get trench foot.”

“We’ll set up camp here for the night,” Jake said as they arrived on a small dry plot, overlooking some of the coast. “I’ll make a platform to sleep on and build a fire. You sweep the surrounding area. Remember, if you see anything, fire a shot.”

The young man nodded and trudged off into the swamp.

Jake chopped down some nearby saplings with a hatchet and lashed them to three strong trees, constructing a triangular frame roughly two shoulder widths across and two feet up off the swampy ground. He laid small logs across the frame creating a platform. The purpose being, to keep the sleeping men out of reach of venomous snakes and most biting insects along the ground. A fire should help keep mosquitoes away as well as pumas and alligators. However, Jake anticipated a rather sleepless night.

Jake laid two thick logs parallel on the damp ground and placed smaller sticks across them to form another small platform. On top, Jake used the driest sticks he could find to build a square structure with a hollow in the middle. Then he stuffed the hollow with fluff from foxtails, dead leaves, and small twigs. It all felt damp in his fingers. Too damp to ignite easily. Then an idea flashed through his mind. He almost snapped his fingers. It was so obvious.

He poured some powder from his horn over the kindling and struck his flint with the hilt of his dagger. The spark ignited the powder and fluff into a strong flame and the rest of the square structure caught fire shortly thereafter. Satisfied, Jake fetched more firewood from the surrounding area. Just as he laid two thick and damp logs by the fire to dry out, the young soldier returned.

“I saw more ships headed for the blockade, but other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary for this wretched swamp.”

Jake laughed. “What ordinary things did you find in the swamp?”

“Well first of all, creepers of all sorts. Spiders, cockroaches, and centipedes.” The boy sat on the platform. He removed his boots and propped them by the fire to dry. Then he reached into his ammo pouch and continued speaking. “Then I came face to face with this evil-looking serpent. I smashed his head in with a rock.”

The boy pulled the snake from his pouch. Its body still squirmed and waved though it had no head.

“Ah,” Jake smiled. “A cottonmouth.”

“Is that kind good eating?”

“Sure,” Jake answered. “They taste a little like the swamp but nothing out here can beat fresh snake.” Jake cleaned the serpent, dropping its guts into the water and skewered it on a sharpened stick. He held the flesh to the coals checking it with his fingers every minute or so. Once he had it roasted thoroughly, they ate. Jake entertained himself by watching the boy pry the snake meat from between the many bones with his teeth. Once they were finished, Jake placed a very green pine branch over the fire to smoke away the insects and went to bed.

#

A twig snapping in the night shook Jake from his slumber. He sat up and listened for a moment. The fire had died down to glowing embers and the assault of mosquitoes had resumed. Swatting one on his neck, Jake’s ears picked up a distant clatter in the swamp. A puma would never make such a ruckus moving through the bush.

Jake shook his partner, waking him with a hand over his mouth. When Jake was sure he would not cry out he removed his hand and told him to put his boots on and load his musket.

They moved cautiously into the darkness toward the commotion. As they drew closer, Jake heard men speaking in low voices. Jake flattened himself against a tree and the young soldier did the same against another trunk nearby. They remained motionless for a moment and listened. The men spoke Spratzian. Jake slowly peeked around the trunk and watched dozens of enemy infantry wading through the swamp toward the monastery to the southwest.

The young soldier had terror in his eyes. He made a jerking movement with his head asking Jake to run with him away from there. Jake shook his head no. His eyes pleaded the boy not to run. He wished he could explain that it would mean near-certain death.

The silent warning was not heeded, and the boy darted from cover. A musketeer spotted him and threw a knife in an attempt to remain quiet. The knife stuck in the young boy’s leg. The boy screamed in pain as he fell into the water. Jake grabbed his musket before it was soaked and shot it from the hip, scoring a hit directly in the nearest musketeer’s chest. In the confusion, Jake slung his rifle, grabbed the boy’s collar with one hand and gripped his musket in the other and tried to drag him to cover. The deep water, submerged roots, and the screaming boy made this difficult.

“Shut up,” Jake demanded, but the boy continued.

They reached a thick fallen tree on a muddy bank and ducked behind it. The boy still called out in pain. Jake shook him and thrust the spent musket in his hands.

“Shut up and reload this,” Jake hissed.

The boy dug into his soaked pouch and fumbled with a paper cartridge with shaky hands and tears in his eyes. He dropped the cartridge and bent to pick it up, exposing himself. Several shots rang out. One ball struck the boy in the head, killing him instantly.

Jake gripped the boy’s musket by the barrel and ran into the darkness as ten enemy soldiers opened fire. Bullets struck trees and logs all around him. After the volley, Jake ducked behind a wide trunk and waited a moment. He could hear them pursuing him, but they did not see where he hid. One musketeer moved up right beside Jake. The knight swung the spent musket as hard as he could. The stock splintered in half as it smashed into the unaware musketeer’s face.

Moving again, Jake unslung his rifle and posted himself against a tree some distance off. He took aim at a musketeer officer’s medallion gleaming in the darkness. He fired and the gleaming disappeared as the officer fell into the mud. Jake ran again, now out of range for any accurate shots from his enemies. He made a wide turn toward the monastery and moved quickly and silently as Dogwa had shown him.

#

Light filtered through the overcast morning sky as marines and colonial militia peered out over the marshlands from within the monastery. They had built platforms six feet high so they could peer over the brick and plaster walls. They had also cut the surrounding forest back fifty yards to open clear lines of sight as well as depriving any attacking forces of cover.

High in the bell tower, a sharpshooter Jake had trained and armed with a rifle sat, surveying the area. The morning was quiet, and the air reeked of the swamp. Rotting wood, damp, and something else the sharpshooter couldn’t identify, though the stink was familiar. Like a bad egg, but not quite. The soldier wrinkled his nose. Perhaps a bad egg in a latrine. A faint popping noise reached his ears. The sharpshooter stood and craned his head forward. Distant shots and shouts.

“To arms! To arms!” he called down to the garrison. The soldiers below scurried to fighting positions. Then, Jake, covered in mud and slime, emerged from the forest at a wary jog. A nervous marine took a shot at him from the top of the wall. The shot had passed within inches of Jake and splashed in a stagnant pool behind him.

“Hold fire! Don’t shoot, you imbecile!” the sharpshooter called down, “It’s Master Zimmar. Open the gate.”

#

Jake entered the walled perimeter and instantly collapsed.

“They’re coming,” Jake wheezed. “Musketeers.”

“How many?” asked a nervous militiaman.

“Hundreds,” Jake answered. The garrison grew quiet for a moment. Jake looked around to the troops. He waved his hands in frustrated exhaustion. “Make ready.”

The monastery erupted into motion. Soldiers hustled back to their battle stations and checked their weapons. Jake moved to a boarded up window and peered through the wall to the trees. A wave of birds flew out from beneath the drooping boughs of evergreens and oaks. As the birds flew over the monastery, Jake heard distant orders given in the Spratzian language. Jake pulled two young soldiers aside and led them to where a few horses were tied up.

“Can you ride well?” The boys nodded nervously. “Good, I need you to get word out that we are under attack. Let Count Varro know that we need to be reinforced. Can you handle that?”

The boys nodded again. Their eyes were wide. They were terrified. They mounted the horses and Jake motioned for the gates to be opened again. The gatekeepers removed the locking beam and swung the heavy timber doors inward.

“Ride fast and do not stop until you reach the blockhouse,” Jake instructed. “If you are fired upon, do not return fire. Just lay flat on your horse, lean away from the attack and keep riding.”

The young soldiers gripped their reins with white knuckles as they peered out the open gates. Spurring their horses, the riders exploded from the gate at a full gallop. The unseen enemy fired several shots from the forest. One grazed the first riders back and another scraped his horse’s neck. The second rider was struck in the side, punching into his ribs. He fell to the ground and tumbled over and over on the road. The rider-less horse passed the first messenger, blood splattered across the saddle and the horse’s blond fur. The boy did as he was told. He flattened himself and leaned away from the wood line spurring his horse frantically. A few more shots were taken at the courier but missed. The rider was gone on his way to get help. Jake exhaled. He did not realize he had been holding his breath.

Climbing to the rickety rampart, Jake turned his attention to the wood line. Dark shapes moved in the shadows toward them. The Spratzian commander gave the order and the tree line erupted into thick clouds of smoke.

All along the wall, Brenarian colonials and Royal Marines ducked as bullets struck the plaster and brick in front of them. A few unlucky ones thought to duck too late and fell backward into the courtyard, dead or dying. Jake gave the command to return fire. He swung his rifle over the wall and fired with the rest of the monastery garrison. Nothing more than flashes of motion and silhouettes in the smoky underbrush showed enemy positions. He was not sure their volley had been effective.

#

The battlements in the village were alive with music. The band had been playing all morning to lift the spirits of the combatants and it had worked. Women were bringing food and water to the soldiers. Children visited their fathers. Some had even struck up a ball game. Some colonial militia joined in kicking the rough hide ball around. A wide grin stretched across Jorn’s face as he watched.

Suddenly, distant popping echoed over the hills. Jorn’s smile disappeared with the sound. Musket fire. Amir ran down the hill shouting for everyone to retake their battle stations.

“Women and children get back behind the blockhouse,” he yelled. Jorn met him as the men returned to fighting positions and their wives and children scurried passed them up the hill.

“Has the monastery been hit?” Jorn asked frantically.

“From the sound of things, yes. But I’m more concerned with that.” Amir pointed out into the bay. More landing craft had been launched from the blockade.

Jorn hurried to a tall building they had been using as a watchtower. He hurried up the stairs and pushed open the window overlooking the bay. As he pressed a spyglass to his eye, his mouth fell open.

“Many more than last time,” he gasped. Dozens of landing craft speckled the gray water and dozens more were being loaded. Most were much larger than the ones they faced during the first assault. Jorn returned to the battlements and oversaw the preparations. None had strayed too far from their posts so they had returned quickly. They waited in silence with eyes glued on the approaching boats.

When the first boats finally landed, enemy musketeers jumped out into the knee-deep water and the ridge near the blockhouse erupted with artillery fire. The shells struck the sand and shallows with solid thuds before exploding. Some of the boats were splintered and many of the musketeers were cut down by shrapnel. On the Brenarian line, soldiers prepared themselves as the enemy organized themselves into formations. The musketeers seemed more fearless than last time. Or, at least, determined. Was it confidence in their greater numbers? Jorn couldn’t figure out why until one tried to make a run back to the boats. His lieutenant shot him in the back. There would be no retreat unpunished this time.

The artillery bombardment caused the enemy troops to get into formation quickly and begin their advance immediately. They were almost jogging toward the Brenarian defenses trying to get close enough to make the shelling stop. When it did, they slowed again, regrouped and fell into step. Blue uniforms and blackened craters decorated the sand behind them.

Once in range, both sides opened fire. The Spratzians sustained many casualties, but they could well afford them. The Brenarians lost fewer but they needed every man. Each volley rendered more and more casualties but the Spratzian troops still advanced. The musketeers fixed bayonets to prepare for a charge.

“Fix bayonets!” Jorn called down the line. “Prepare to repel.”

The first two enemy ranks sprinted forward as one roaring mass. Royal Marines lit grenades with torches and threw them into the wall of musketeers. The explosions thinned the ranks before they dove into the first layer of trenches, stabbing and slashing with their bayonets.

Jorn discharged his blunderbuss, killing two musketeers before drawing two of his many knives. Spinning and slashing, he hooked bayonets away from his body and drew closer to each kill.

#

On the second row of battlements, William watched the first row get hammered with enemy troops. The blond knight slashed with knives and wore a malicious grimace.

The dark-skinned knight, Amir, used his halberd to keep any nearby enemy out of bayonet range. One musketeer had a loaded musket, however. He fired and the ball skipped off Amir’s breast plate. Enraged, Amir parried the musketeer’s bayonet and slashed him across the throat on the back swing.

William shot his musket and went right into another reload. He had dropped two soldiers as they advanced and three more in the confusion of hand-to-hand combat with the first row. Then he looked up at the beach. Boats carrying more infantry kept landing, but some larger craft caught his eye.

The boats were almost as big as a cutter with a flat bottom, thirty oars on either side and a drop gate on the front. The sides of the boat were high and didn’t allow him to see what they carried. All four had reached the beach at the same time and dropped their gates. To his horror, William watched an armored carriage drawn by four horses emerge from each. The terrifying machines stormed the beach.

“War wagons,” William shouted. The vehicles were armed with two field guns, one pointed out each side, and a swivel gun pointed out the back. The driver was shielded on his left and right by iron plates. Each, a rolling fortress. They looked impenetrable. The Brenarians gawked in terrified wonder.

“Do not fear,” Jorn called out. “We will get through this just as we have before.”

But they had not faced war wagons before. They could circle the beach and fire their field guns over and over, battering the Brenarian defenses. They were always mobile, invulnerable to artillery. Something different must be done, William thought. He gritted his teeth and stuffed three grenades in his ammo pouch. In his right hand he held a pistol, and in his left, he scooped up a torch. Without warning, he leapt from his bunker. That despicable marine. Fergus ducked as William hurdled over the front trench and ran out onto the beach, headed straight for one of the charging wagons.

“Cover him, lads,” Fergus called as they fired their muskets into the enemy line.

Unprepared for such a foolhardy attack, the musketeers took rushed shots at the sprinting man. William ran parallel to the enemy line, drawing their fire as he made his way to the flank. One musketeer attempted to run him through with a bayonet, but William shot him at point blank range with his pistol. Another stepped out to cut him off and William threw the spent pistol as hard as he could. It struck the musketeer on the bridge of his nose, sending him down clutching his face and weeping into the sand.

William pulled a grenade from his pouch and ran into the wagon’s path. The driver took a shot at him with his pistol as the wagon turned. The pistol round struck the sand at William’s feet, but he still charged forward. The field gun on the right side fired as the village came into view. The shell struck the battlements, splintering them.

The field gun recoiled into the wagon as it fired leaving an empty port in the wall of armor. William lit the first grenade and slammed it into the hole as the wagon passed. Inside, shouting and panic rose up before the entire wagon exploded into a brilliant orange flash. The grenade ignited the powder kegs inside, vaporizing the carriage. William heard cheers from the village as he looked for another wagon.

William charged forward again. The wagon was approaching on its attack run, and William would meet it. The driver, however, was aware of his intent and drove the wagon directly toward him. The driver shot him with a pistol. The bullet struck William in the chest staggering him. Blood dripped from his mouth and he wheezed as he dropped the torch in the sand and pulled the other two grenades from his pouch. William lit the grenades and planted his feet.

William spat blood as he roared at the charging wagon, the fuses burning fast in his hands. The driver yanked on the reins attempting to turn the wagon, but it was too late. The lead horse struck William, forcing him to his back before hooves trampled him into the sand.

#

Just as the wagon passed over his mangled body, the grenades exploded. The back half of the wagon splintered and the rear axle blew off. Horrified, the horses turned up the beach and into the trees. The hobbled carriage became lodged between two large trunks but the horses still pulled until their rigging snapped. The driver stood, attempting to escape, but a heavy cable whipped around a tree and slashed a deep gash in the man’s belly, spilling his insides before he toppled to the ground.

Those who witnessed the event from the village, cheered. Not for the death of a comrade, but for his sacrifice. William Mayberry had redeemed himself, Jorn thought. The knight regretted his harsh words to the boy in the cove.

He snapped back into reality as a shell from the third wagon tore through a bunker near the rear, showering him with dirt and splintered timber.

While the wagon’s crew was reloading the field gun, Jorn picked up a musket from the arms of a fallen soldier and killed the driver. Without motivation, the horses slowed to a stop. While the wagon was stationary, the artillery on the hill targeted it. A new driver crawled out of the back and pulled the dead man from his seat scrambling to take his place. The new driver whipped the reins just as an artillery salvo carpeted the area. The armored carriage was shredded in an instant, raining iron, timber and pieces of horse flesh onto the sand around it.

With three wagons down and enemy infantry regrouping in the distance, Argot took William’s lead and grabbed two more grenades. He sprinted out to destroy the final war wagon just as it circled around for an attack.

“Covering fire,” Jorn ordered to the men. “Protect Mister DeRothe.”

Argot threw one grenade from a distance. It fell short. The explosion thumped Jorn’s chest and threw sand into the air. The horses reared up. As the driver struggled to regain control of the team, Argot threw the second. The explosion killed two of the horses and caused the others to spook. They dragged the dead horses and pulled the wagon into the surf. They could pull no further.

Once the crew realized they were stuck and stationary, vulnerable to howitzer fire, they abandoned their wagon. Two of the gunners were able to dive into the waves just as an artillery round destroyed the wagon, igniting the powder kegs.

Jorn let out a long breath as he peered through the smoke. The reprieve was short-lived as thunderous marching and the sound of commands swept over the beach to the colonial defenses.

The Spratzian musketeers had begun another march on the village. Several enemy soldiers fell to one knee to take a shot at Argot as he fled back to the defenses. Musket balls speckled the mound as Argot dove into the trench behind it. Amir was there to help the large man up.

“Tha—” Argot wheezed, “That’ll be the-the last o’ those.”

“We can only hope,” Amir said with a warm smile.

“Right,” Argot said, brushing himself off. “We are still a might outnumbered.”

Jorn looked out at the advancing troops. “Indeed we are.”

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