Well of Bones

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Chapter 22

“A shift in faith is a shift in foundation.”

Last words of Edmond Reeds, hung for the murder of apostates

Stealing a glance over the monastery wall, Jake saw shadowed figures swarming to the edge of the eastern clearing. The smoke and dark underbrush obscured the musketeers to the point of not having a clear shot. He gave the men the command to fire at will hoping to put pressure on the enemy and keep them at a distance. There was no way to tell if their fire was effective, but they kept shooting. It was all they could do. At least, the Spratzian attack was just as ineffective. The monastery’s high walls protected those within as long as they did not stay up for long.

The militia men popped up sporadically, fired their muskets and ducked back below the top of the wall. Jake took another look and noticed a figure running low between two thick tree trunks. He quickly leveled his rifle at the enemy and fired. The figure dropped for a moment as if hit, then got up and continued to the other tree. Jake thought he had hit him for sure. He was quickly reminded to duck when a musket ball hissed past his head and another hit the wall in front of him, throwing shards of plaster. This continued for several hours. Artillery fire thundered in the distance and Jake knew the beach was under attack as well. It would be difficult to be reinforced if that were the case. They were on their own and they must hold for as long as they could. If the monastery fell, the entire northern defense fell.

Jake scanned the inner courtyard as he reloaded, taking a hasty count of the defenders. Couldn’t be more than fifty. The fighters were swapped periodically for those on the western and southern walls to keep them fresh. Those along those walls, however, were expected to keep watch for enveloping enemy movements. No sleep to be had. Some of the clergy had returned to offer support. They fetched food, water, tended the wounded, but they would not fight.

“Master Zimmar,” a colonial on the western wall called. The man waved him over. Jake flew down the ladder and sprinted across the courtyard. Climbing the other ladder, he noticed the man wore a smile. He pointed over the wall into the western wood line. Jake cautiously peeked over the wall.

Dogwa, Margaret, and a small band of men sat crouched in the underbrush. Margaret waved, and Jake waved back. A flood of relief washed over him. A feeling he did not think was possible from such a small band of reinforcements. But how to get them in? If they lowered ladders over the wall, they were bound to draw attention and climbing ropes would take too long. The enemy could sweep around at any moment. This must happen quickly to catch them off guard.

He leaned over the wall and swung his arm along it as if to say “line up along the base.” Margaret nodded. Good. That’s the easy part. Then Jake curved his hand to signify the corner watching Margaret closely to see if she understood. She nodded and waved her hand impatiently. Jake put both hands together and opened them to signify the gate. Once she got that part, Jake pressed his hands out in front of him with his palms facing her then held one hand horizontal and flat over his head. Wait for covering fire. Margaret nodded her understanding and the group slowly crept out into the clearing and jogged to the monastery wall. Jake gripped the colonial next to him by the collar.

“Go down to the gate and tell them to watch me,” Jake spoke clearly. “When I say, they must open the gate quickly. Once you have told them that, go along the eastern wall and tell them to fire heavily into the wood line once things start popping off. Do you understand?”

The man nodded and descended into the courtyard.

Jake looked over the wall again, and Margaret smiled up at him from directly below. Jake waved his arm for them to move to the southwest corner. Jake checked the gate and the defenders along the eastern wall. They awaited the order. Jake held a hand out over the wall so the newcomers could see it and the other out over the courtyard so the defenders could see it. He looked again to Margaret. She nodded. Ready.

“Now!” Jake yelled as he dropped both hands.

The defenders all thrust their muskets over the wall and fired a solid volley. Dogwa’s and Margaret’s reinforcements rushed around the corner and to the opening gates. The group dove into the safety of the walls as bullets struck the gate behind them. One of the gatekeepers was shot in the face and killed. Several surrounding soldiers took his place and quickly closed the gates behind them.

“Get the wounded to the infirmary,” Margaret ordered. A few of their party had been hit on the way in. Marines and militiamen threw arms over their shoulders and helped them to the clergy who had set up an aid station in the chapel.

“Eat and drink quickly, then relieve these men on the wall,” Margaret continued. “Let them rest.”

Dogwa met Jake in the center of the courtyard and shook his hand firmly.

“The boy made it to the blockhouse with your message just before the beach was attacked,” Dogwa said without expression. “I am happy to see that you have made it here safely, my friend.”

“I barely made it without any new holes,” Jake chuckled. “I’m glad to see you too. We definitely could use the shooters you brought. I almost gave up hope with the beach under attack. Any word on artillery support?”

“Count Varro told me he would watch the assault on the beach and determine whether or not they can spare the big guns. We started our push out to you before the assault even began on the beach but if it is like it was yesterday, we should have some support at least.”

Jake nodded, hopeful. The two climbed onto the eastern wall and rejoined the fight. The small group of reinforcements swapped places with those on the walls and joined the fight with eager energy. The fresh troops fired and reloaded quickly, keeping the enemy suppressed.

“Runner coming in. Open the gate,” a soldier on the wall called to the gatekeepers below. As soon as the gates opened wide enough, a heaving horse charged through with its rider lying flat on its back. The messenger was a young royal marine. He immediately dismounted and asked a colonial for Mister Zimmar. The militiaman pointed to the top of the wall where Jake and Dogwa crouched. The two knights dismounted the wall and met the marine in the courtyard. The boy was bleeding from his side but showed no indication of pain or discomfort.

“Mister Zimmar,” the marine addressed Jake at attention and stiffly held out an envelope with the Eye of Apollo stamped into red wax. Jake opened the letter and read aloud so Dogwa could hear.

“Mister Zimmar, sadly I must decline your request of artillery support. The village has fallen under a heavy assault moments after the monastery had been hit. Our bombardments are spread too thinly. Do not forget, you hold a key position on the island, and I must urge you to do all you can to hold it as long as possible with the forces provided. Be prepared. You may be required to make a hasty retreat if and when the village falls. Good luck and know that our thoughts are with you. Your commander, Count Dante Varro.” Jake closed a tight fist around the paper.

“Well,” Dogwa said with a smirk. “We were not surprised.”

“You have my musket, sir.” The messenger said with a bow. “I’m a crack shot. If I’m here, I should fight.”

“First”—Jake pointed to the marine’s side—“have someone take a look at that, then get up on that wall and into the fight.”

“Aye, sir,” the boy said, bowing again before turning to the chapel.

“On our way in,” Dogwa said, “it looked as if the musketeers were amassing in the woods south of here. They may try to cut us off from the road.”

“We must keep the road clear. I have a feeling we will be needing it before long.”

#

Pounding the beach in front of the Brenarian defensive line, artillery shells exploded as waves of musketeers advanced in their strategically spaced formations. The Spratzians were spaced beyond their normal intervals to reduce the effectiveness of the artillery bombardment. Wave after wave of enemy infantry crashed against the timber and earthen battlements. Royal marines and colonial militia fell all around. The defense was breaking.

Amir’s thoughts strayed from maintaining their position in the village to the impending retreat up the hill. Jorn studied Amir with cool determination. Amir must have had his face twisted in worry because Jorn’s expression betrayed a twinge of fear. Amir knew his mind in an instant. Jorn moved to where Amir was crouched and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Go to the Count,” Jorn spoke into Amir’s ear so that he could be heard over the thunder of battle. “Tell him the time to fall back is nearer than we had hoped. He needs to pass the word to the monastery. We must fall back to the blockhouse.”

Amir nodded and quickly made his way to the interior of the village. His horse was tied up at the inn, shielded from enemy fire by the building. As he approached the terrified animal, it reared up. He spoke softly as he tried to calm the beast, patting its neck. Once the horse was calmed, Amir threw his leg over its back and spurred it onward. Galloping up the hill, the animal breathed loudly and kicked up dark chunks of mud. Amir drew back on the reins, bringing the horse to a skidding halt in front of the blockhouse.

To the right, the line of howitzers, mortars and field guns fired as fast as their crews could operate them. Amir covered his ears and watched for a moment, his horse dancing under him. He felt pride in the speed and efficiency of the crews he had trained. His men scrambled around the guns like bees around a hive.

“Where is the Count?” he asked a passing gunman fetching more powder from the blockhouse. The gunman pulled a wad of cotton from his ear and gave an asking look to Amir, so he repeated the question. The man pointed to some high cliffs which overlooked the battle below.

Amir thanked the man and spurred his horse north. A few moments later, he brought his horse to another skidding halt and dismounted before his horse was completely stopped. Varro stood near the edge of a steep decline with his eye to a brass spyglass. From where he stood, Varro had the entire eastern defense under his observation. Nearby, a wobbly wooden table had maps and defense plans sprawled out on its surface. Amir stood at attention in front of his Count.

“We must pull out of the Adeline soon,” the knight announced with a tone of great urgency. “The village may be falling as we speak.”

“I know. I had hoped for more time,” Varro said with a slight frown. “A fool’s hope I suppose. Very well. Do all you can to hold off for one more hour. I know that is asking much.”

He glanced at his pocket watch. “At half past noon, pull your men back to the defenses at the blockhouse. This will give me time to get our men out of the monastery.”

Amir nodded. “We will hold.”

Andrew Crane galloped to the observation point. The dark, native boy dismounted and snapped to attention with a stiff salute. A sloppy salute but the enthusiasm was there.

“Ah, young Mister Crane, it is my understanding that you have extensive knowledge of the monastery.”

Andrew nodded.

“They gave you a so-called civilized name hoping to rescue members of your people from their heathen ways. I disagree with this concept. I feel a people’s culture and heritage should be expressed through their means of name-giving. If the gods are angered by this then they are no longer my gods.”

Andrew smiled.

“Your name is Jumping Stag. It is the name your father gave you as a boy and it is the only name you will go by henceforth. Understood?”

Jumping Stag smiled wider and nodded again graciously.

“What I need to know is: can you live up to your given name?” Varro asked.

#

Occasional loud cracks and puffs of smoke blended together in Jake’s mind, forming a thick haze of visible, tangible, and audible chaos hanging over the monastery. The battle had lulled, but the feeling had remained. Irregular shots and screams perpetuated the haze. This was perhaps Jake’s least favorite part of a drawn out battle. No pattern. No way to prepare for the report of a gunshot or a cry of agony. Jake inspected the defenders from his seat on the wall. Some cooked up a quick meal, others wrote letters or shouted curses at the enemy. Jake noticed several praying and hoped their prayers brought them some comfort. We need more than those, I’m afraid.

A hand on his shoulder made him jump. He turned sharply and found Father Generosity standing there. The old man wore a smile under his gray beard but he stood completely upright.

“Father, get down,” Jake insisted, pulling on his wrist. “Please. You’ll get yourself shot.”

The monk groaned and lowered his tired body to sit by Jake. They sat there for several moments without speaking. Jake wondered why the old man had come. Maybe he just needed to be near someone, but why him?

“You know,” Generosity said, “morals make a man.”

Jake scrunched his brow at the old man and chuckled. “You picked a horrible time to disapprove of my methods, Father.”

“I am not here to preach. I am not here to point out your wicked ways. We all have wicked ways, even monks.” The old man smiled again and leaned his head back, resting it on the wall behind him. He looked straight up into the overcast sky, and Jake noticed tears welling up in his eyes.

Without bringing his gaze down again, the monk spoke. “Long ago, men killed the gods.”

He looked out the corner of his eye to Jake. “Not physically, I mean. I don’t believe the gods were ever physical how the ancients believed. I do believe we killed them, however, by simply ceasing our love for them.”

“This is not the time or place for a theological conversation, Father.”

“Stop,” the monk snapped. “I need to say this and you need to hear it.”

“Alright,” Jake said. “Then why do you worship a dead god?”

“I don’t. I strive to spread the ideas of the gods. Hera is merely a symbol of charity and love. She was never a physical being, at least in the sense that many thought. The ancients took whatever power the gods had away when they stopped believing. They were tired of loving the gods who did not love them. Too many prayers have gone unanswered. Many have tried to resurrect the gods in relatively recent times. They rebuilt temples. Others dedicate their lives as seers, oracles, priests, priestesses or monks, like myself. Some even travel as missionaries to spread the teachings of the gods. Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Artemis, Hephaestus and Ares have all been resurrected this way, though Ares’ cultists refer to him as Mars, he is the same god with the same teachings of violence and revenge.

“Men will always need someone to follow, worship or love. Someone to blame for their own actions when things are darkest. The gods provide this outlet for many and I believe this is why the gods existed in the first place. The ideas of the gods are their purpose. Man was not created by gods. Man created gods for their own purposes.”

Jake did not speak for several moments. He was not sure what to think. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I am telling you this because I could be wrong.”

Suddenly, a break in the white smoke framed a rider on the horizon. The Spratzians had seen him too and began shifting forces to the road.

“To the road,” Jake shouted. “Keep the road clear and prepare to open the gates.”

Jake scooped up his rifle and the old monk was gone. He searched for him and caught a glimpse of his back as he walked away, lost in the swarm of troops hurrying to the defenses.

Laying low in the saddle, Jumping Stag spurred his horse forward. Ahead of him Spratzian musketeers attempted to cut him off, the defenders doing their best to thwart their efforts. Jake shot one of the musketeers in the back, dropping him limply in an instant.

As Jumping Stag neared the wall, the gate burst open and Brenarian colonials spilled out onto the shoulders of the road, firing left and right. Andrew charged through the thick of it.

Once he was safely inside, the troops dragged the wounded back into the courtyard and closed the gate behind them. Jake approached the boy who handed him a letter from horseback. Jake opened and read it.

He checked his pocket watch then turned to his squad leaders. “We have twenty minutes to prepare for a full retreat to the defenses at the blockhouse. Put the wounded in wagons or on horseback. Leave the dead. The rest of us will conduct a fighting retreat. One group fires while the other pulls back to a short distance then prepares to fire to cover the other group. We must alternate as such all the way back. We will reload on the move as best we can.”

Jumping Stag dismounted and began loading what kegs of powder they had left onto a wagon when Dogwa tapped his shoulder from behind.

“You will not be able to hear well out of that anymore.” Dogwa pointed to the boy’s left ear. Jumping Stag felt it with his fingertips then cringed and yanked his hand away in pain. He was missing a large portion of the top of his ear. A musket ball had torn it from his head.

“Go and get bandaged,” Jake said pointing to the chapel. “Then help the wounded.”

#

Behind the monastery gates, the Brenarians stood poised to burst through in a full retreat. The only soldiers still on the wall were directly over the gate, trying to keep the road clear. Three wagons were loaded with supplies and wounded colonials. Margaret sat by the driver on the lead wagon with several loaded muskets by her side. The monks who drove the wagons gripped the reins with white knuckles and held their shoulders high and stiffly.

Jake stood amongst the men on the ramparts. He had given his horse to a young wounded marine. The men fired at the musketeers below while Jake raised a hand toward the Brenarians behind them. He closed it into a fist in a snappy motion and the retreat began. The gates flew open and the horses were spurred forward. A hail of musket fire fell on the colonials. Wounded were shot through the wagon walls. Horses were shot from under their riders. Margaret and the other fighters on the wagons returned fire quite effectively, dropping many enemies as they drove onward.

Led by Dogwa, the first wave of infantry fanned out to the east to face the bulk of the attack. They fired sending a wall of lead into the wood line.

Immediately after Dogwa’s muskets were discharged, the second wave, led by Jake, burst through the gate and sprinted up the road behind Dogwa’s men. Colonials and marines fell left and right. Dogwa’s men followed Jake’s as they hastily reloaded under constant fire.

Jake pushed his men off the shoulder of the road into some soft, marshy sod. They took a knee and leveled their muskets back toward the pursuing musketeers and fired just as Dogwa’s men passed them. Musketeers dropped as they gave chase. One at a time the Spratzians would drop to a knee and take a shot. Luckily they did not have a chance to organize an effective answer to the retreating Brenarians.

Dogwa’s men reloaded as they moved. They turned and were ready to fire without a moment to spare. Several Spratzians dropped to their knee. Dogwa gave the order and his squad fired, dropping many of the pursuing enemies. When they turned to run again, the Spratzians opened fire.

Several militiamen were hit. An elder colonial was struck in the small of his back and was having trouble running. Dogwa fell behind and threw an arm over the man’s shoulders and helped him along, but the man protested.

“Go,” he said. “Don’t you die for an old man.”

Dogwa did not listen. He continued helping the man until he threw Dogwa’s hand off and fell to the ground. Dogwa knelt next to the man and urged him to get up. The colonial drew Dogwa’s pistol from his belt and shoved the knight away.

Finally Dogwa stood and ran to catch up with the retreat. As he was passing the second wave, he turned once again to the old man. Several musketeers drew close to him. The old man lay face down as if dead. Then, in an instant, he rolled over and discharged two pistols. Two musketeers fell to the ground with fatal bullet wounds in their guts. The other musketeers fired their weapons at the old man, striking him in the neck, chest and belly. The man was well beyond dead when they began stabbing him with their bayonets.

Jake’s men fired another volley as soon as they were reloaded. With the crack of the shots, Dogwa’s group took a knee to cover their comrades’ retreat. Jake looked to his left and right. His men were growing more and more tired by the second. A musket ball struck a young marine in the thigh. The marine’s cries for help were silenced by a second shot penetrating his back.

The casualty rate lessened as the colonials pulled away from the enemy. As they entered the battlements surrounding the blockhouse some time later, the men were exhausted. The sun was going down, casting evil shadows on the landscape behind them. Jake counted his men. So few had made it back.

Varro approached Jake and Dogwa with a forced smile. “I am glad to see you two again. Tell your men to get some rest, they have earned it.”

Dogwa and Jake bowed and turned away when Varro caught Jake’s arm. “You need to get some sleep also. Understood?”

Jake nodded and again turned away. The soldiers dragged their bodies to the tents further up the hill. Their eyes were sunken, their skin pale and their breath shallow and weak. It was as if they were already dead men, going to lay themselves in the grave.

Amir and Jorn both wore wide grins when they saw Jake, Margaret and Dogwa alive.

“Did William Mayberry make it?” Jake asked, looking around.

“No,” Amir said. “He killed himself.”

The words struck Jake like a kick to the belly. Killed himself.

“He sacrificed himself to take out an armored war wagon,” Jorn corrected.

“Seemed to me he was wanting to go anyhow,” Amir said.

“Well it seemed to me, he was seeking redemption and he got it in my eyes,” Jorn said.

Saying nothing, Jake turned again uphill and let his feet carry him away. Had what he said driven him to take his own life? A sharp twinge of regret struck Jake in the belly. A young life ended. Not an abnormality in war, but Jake definitely blamed this one on himself. Who else?

He ran his hand along the canvas tent then propped his rifle at the door. Crawling on all fours, he laid himself down on flat wool bedding. Jake tried to close his eyes but whenever he did, the events of the day played themselves over and over on the inside of his eyelids. William too. That poor young man did not find any comfort from me.

Amir poked his head in. “Are you alright?”

Jake ignored him, pretending to be asleep. This, of course, did not fool Amir; he had only just crawled into bed. Although Jake was certain he could clearly see the bluff, Amir said nothing and went away.

Jake’s mind raced. The voice in his head spoke so loudly, he feared others could hear it. William was looking for a way out and you gave it to him. No. You have done your best. There was nothing more you could do. In the morning they will attack again. The blockhouse must not fall. If it does, you and the rest of the knights are doomed. The battlements up the valley at the cave are in no way capable of repelling the attacks you have already faced. The blockhouse must not fall.

Shuddering, Jake spoke softly, “The blockhouse must not fall.”

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