Well of Bones

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Chapter 24

“The Knights of Apollo may only be utilized by the Brenarian Royal Army for the purpose of waging conventional war if our numbers may be replenished through recruitment directly from the army as well as our more traditional means. These are our terms.”

Alfonse Claric, Headmaster of the Order of Apollo, 3253

Artillery fire shook Jake from his shallow sleep. He felt as though he had only just slipped into slumber before he was plagued with nightmares. Those dark dreams had become all too common as of late. He had been asleep for only a couple hours, which was not nearly sufficient. The Spratzians attacked just as the sun was rising.

With bags under his eyes and chapped lips, Jake scooped up his rifle and strode downhill toward the defenses. Most of the soldiers who defended the monastery the day before looked like they had received a slight boost of energy. They must have been so exhausted that they could sleep well, despite all the goings-on.

Margaret stood with a hand on the hilt of her scimitar near the front of the battlements. To her right stood Jorn and Amir, taking turns looking through a spyglass.

“It’s difficult to see in the low light,” Jorn spoke calmly. “I cannot tell how many but they are attacking from both the north and the east. We should set up and ambush to the west in those trees in case they attempt to flank us.”

“Let me see,” Amir demanded impatiently, snatching the glass. Jake stood next to Margaret and peered into the morning mist. Artillery rounds struck the advancing enemy force hidden in mist and the low light of dawn. The flashing explosions created menacing silhouettes of approaching enemies in the fog.

Dogwa said something under his breath that caught Jake’s attention. “What did you say?” he asked.

“Nashtinook,” Dogwa said, narrowing his eyes. “My tribe’s rival from the mainland. They are here.”

“How can you tell?” Amir asked.

Dogwa said nothing more and pointed his copper-skinned arm to a silhouette that jumped up on a distant stump. Jake took the spyglass from Amir and aimed at him to get a closer look.

The native on the stump stood tall even though his legs were bowed slightly. His face was painted with vertical red streaks. His head was shaved on the right side with his hair hanging long on the other. The native’s ears and nose were pierced with large pieces of bone and antler.

He stomped his foot and let out a loud whoop that could be heard even over the chaos of the battlefield. He was calling Dogwa out in the traditional fashion. The traitor Bradford must have informed the Spratzians about the knights down to every detail. Even the tribe from which Dogwa hailed. Dogwa stood on the battlements and howled back at the native, accepting his challenge.

Through the glass, Jake saw the dark man beating on his bare chest with a war club in one hand and a knife in the other. His chest was painted as well, with red handprints on his breast and a black line down the middle to his belly.

The war club had several scalps fastened to the hilt with strips of rawhide. The buckskin tassels running down the backs of his legs shook and waved as he stomped and whooped again. Dogwa waved his tomahawk over his head and let out a long whoop. With that, the Nashtinook brave disappeared.

“We will meet in single combat before this battle is through,” Dogwa said. “I must be ready. Letting me know he is here is not only a challenge, but a courtesy as well. The last I will get from him. He will try to catch me off guard.”

Dogwa spoke in an uncompromising monotone without a trace of fear in his eyes. If Dogwa were to show fear, and then die in single combat, his soul would be forever lost in the shadow lands beyond this world. At least, that is what Jake had read. He wouldn’t ask Dogwa if that’s what he believed though. Not now.

“Prepare yourselves,” Jorn ordered sternly. “They will charge soon.”

Jake peered out into the middle ground, full of burnt grass, churned mud and broken saplings. Then a distant trumpet blasted and in an instant, hundreds of roaring Spratzian soldiers inhabited that empty space with muskets leveled and bayonets fixed.

Jorn gave the order to fire and the first volley was sent. The fallen musketeers seemed so few in perspective of the entire charging force. The colonials quickly reloaded and fired again.

The musketeers dropped to a knee and fired their weapons at fifty yards. Down the line militiamen screamed in agony as musket balls pierced their flesh but Jake’s eyes were fixed on the advancing enemy. The remainder of the charging force ran through those who had knelt to fire.

One musketeer had his eyes fixed on Jake, running at full speed with bayonet pointed at the knight’s torso. Jake threw his ramrod down, finishing his reload but had no time to bring his rifle to his eye. He fired from the hip striking the musketeer in the gut. This did not stop the charging man. Jake pulled his dagger from his belt and hooked the bayonet away at the last possible instant. The long blade plunged into the soft earth at the back of the trench.

Jake punched the musketeer in the jaw, causing him to stagger against the front of the trench. He grasped his bleeding gut wound as he dove on top of Jake. The musketeer was much larger than Jake, forcing him to the bottom of the trench. Both men were stepped on by the militiamen who occupied the battlement and the musketeers who assaulted it.

The pressure on Jake’s chest was growing as more and more people trod on top in the chaos. He couldn’t breathe. The musketeer forced his head down on Jake’s chest to protect his face. Jake stabbed up under the musketeer’s ribs and the man lifted his head to call out in pain. Forcing his palm up under the man’s chin, Jake prevented him from dropping his head again. With a grunt, Jake dislodged his dagger from the musketeer’s ribs.

Jake attempted to bring the dagger around to cut his attacker’s throat when the musketeer stopped him by grabbing his wrist. Once again, the musketeer was stronger. He spat curses in Spratzian as the two struggled for the weapon. Jake felt a bootheel skip across his forehead, dropping dirt into his eyes. Blind now, Jake whipped his head forward striking his enemy on the bridge of his nose by sheer luck. The musketeer’s eyes filled with tears and for a moment he released Jake’s wrist.

A moment was all that was needed. Jake plunged his blade into the side of the musketeer’s head. He rolled the large man off him and a young militiaman helped him up. Jake wiped the dirt from his eyes just as a bullet tore through the man who had helped him. Quickly, Jake put a hand on his sword and attempted to draw just as he was struck on the back of his head with the butt of a pistol.

Dazed and fuzzy, Jake could feel himself being pulled to the ground again. Someone had slammed Jake onto the dead musketeer below. The new enemy threw his leg over Jake and sat on his chest hard so he couldn’t move. Jake put his hands up to protect his face. The musketeer on top kept hammering Jake with the butt of his pistol. Jake could not protect himself by blocking with his hands so he reached for his enemy’s face. Clawing and gouging, Jake was able to hook a hand behind the man’s neck and put a thumb in his eye with the other. The musketeer reared up in pain and Jake was able to roll him over. Jake put his left thumb in the musketeer’s cheek and pushed to the ground, turning his head to the side.

Jake could feel elbows and knees slamming into his legs, back and the side of his ribs as the battle raged around him. With his right hand, he punched the pinned enemy over and over in the side of his head.

The musketeer struggled with hands grasping at Jake’s throat, but he could not stop the beating. The musketeer’s struggles calmed as he lay in the trench, bloodied and battered. Jake found his dagger in the mud and thrust it downward into his enemy.

Jake stood tall over the dying man with his eyes darting around, his vision swimming. The first charge had been repelled. Musket balls flew all around as militiamen were rolling the dead and dying musketeers out the front of the trenches to provide more cover. Jake’s right eye was swollen shut. Blood flowed from a gash on his forehead and another on his cheek. He had gritty mud and the metallic, sweet taste of blood in his mouth. His nose was most likely broken, and he had a large goose egg growing from the crown of his skull.

Amir ducked below gunfire and crawled over the dead to Jake, pulling him down out of danger by his belt. Jake hadn’t realized he was standing upright among a hail of musket fire.

“Are you alright?” Amir asked.

Jake said nothing but nodded his head.

“The wounded are being taken to the blockhouse.”

“Who is wounded?” Jake asked through swollen lips.

“You are,” Amir called over the sound of combat. “Varro is sending replacements for the wounded from the eastern line. They were not hit as hard as we were. Now go. And stay low for the love of Apollo.”

#

Stumbling uphill, Jake watched boys rushing ammo from the blockhouse to the front lines. Several tents had been set up around the fortified building. The surgeons and all their assistants had their hands full with dozens and dozens of wailing men. So many soldiers needed help more than he did. Jake watched for a moment. The surgeons were so busy.

I should just go back, Jake thought. I’m fine. They need me at the front. Suddenly a Royal Marine brushed past him. The world swayed and Jake moved his feet to keep up. He would have fallen if a young woman had not caught him. She threw an arm around his back and under his arm to support him against her hip.

“Everything is going to be alright. We will get you bandaged up.”

Jake choked on a coagulated hunk of blood in his throat. He attempted to apologize to the woman but hacked again. Through blurred vision, Jake looked at the young woman. Then for a moment, she came into focus.

“Anna.”

“Jake?” Anna said. She wrinkled her brow and the corners of her lips turned down in astonishment and worry.

His uniform was covered in blood, soot as well as any other type of battlefield filth and his face was pulverized.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. See to the others first. I just need a bandage. Maybe some water.”

“You are concussed and need stitches at the very least, Jake.”

Without wasting time, Anna rushed Jake to an area on the other side of the blockhouse which was less busy. She sat Jake down with his back against a crate and began cleaning him up. Once the blood was cleared away, Anna could see the wounds directly and stitched the gaping gash on his cheek. The wound on his forehead was next. Anna made quick work of it without saying a word. Jake was silent too, save the occasional groan when the needle pierced his tender flesh.

When a surgeon finally had time to examine Jake, he wiped the blood of his previous patient from his hands as best he could with an already soiled rag. After a quick inspection, he nodded in approval of Anna’s stitching.

“You are going to be alright,” he said. “You got walloped pretty good and that cheek is going to scar but other than that you are going to be fine. I’m surprised you haven’t lost any teeth. Just take it easy. That concussion could still kill you if you are not careful.”

“That’s too much to ask, Doc. I must get back out there.”

“I figured you would say something like that. Just be careful and don’t get hit on the head again.”

Jake nodded as if that was a promise he could keep, and the surgeon moved to his next patient. Anna bandaged Jake’s head gently. When she was done, Jake scooped up his rifle and began walking back to his post at the northern front when Anna called after him.

“Be careful,” she said.

Jake turned to face her. Anna stood in front of the tents with shoulders tense and a strange expression. A combination of hopeful optimism and dreadful realism. He waved and continued walking.

His tongue brushed against a loose tooth. He paused and reached in with his grimy fingers. Tasting gunpowder and dirt, he pulled the molar from his lower jaw. Jake inspected the bloody tooth for a moment, thinking about what the doctor had said about losing teeth. He tongued the bleeding socket and dropped the tooth. Placing his boot on it, he pressed it into the sod and continued walking to the front.

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