Well of Bones

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Chapter 25

“Kill an enemy, and you have taken one out of the fight. Take off an enemy’s legs and you have removed three from the battle. One wounded and two to carry him.”

Silas One-Eye, Gentlemen Win Wars, but Dregs Win Battles, Reaping 3202

A week had passed since the Marion had set sail for the mainland. The Knights of Apollo and their militia were exhausted, bruised and bloody. Supplies dwindled. Morale weakened.

Amir stood tall in his foxhole, watching for the next attack with halberd in hand. His cuirass had lost its elegant shimmer, scared with scrapes and lead from reflected musket shot.

Jorn sat low in the same foxhole. He just finished cleaning his blunderbuss. After priming the pan, he propped it next to him and produced a whetstone from a bag at his feet. He spit on the stone and began sharpening one of his many knives.

Almost in a trance, Dogwa stared into the distant enemy camp. Sitting on the back wall of the trench, he held his tomahawk near the head with one hand and pulled his thumb across the blade with the other, testing its sharpness.

With gritty hands, Margaret put her hair into a long braid and then flipped it over her shoulder so it hung down her back. She then checked that her rifle was primed and ready to go. Almost nervously, she pulled her scimitar halfway out of its scabbard then put it back three times.

Jake pulled his whetstone along the edge of his rapier in long smooth strokes. The swelling in his face had gone down and the cut in his forehead had begun to heal but the cut on his cheek was still ragged and ugly.

Something caught Jake’s attention on the muddy slope and he stopped gliding the stone along his blade. A man limped across no-man’s-land as if lost. His body was mangled and contorted. He turned to look up the hill, and Jake recognized him, though his head was smashed. William Mayberry locked eyes with Jake and let out a painful scream. Jake jolted backward.

“May I use your whetstone, when you’re done?” Margaret asked as if she had not heard that terrible scream. None of the knights reacted.

Jake nodded without taking his eyes off the muddy slope. William had vanished. Evaporated. Jake’s stomach bubbled.

Salvo blessed the soldiers he passed with a touch on their shoulder on his way to the knights. The colonial militia and Royal Marines stood and bowed when he passed. Arriving at the knights’ foxhole, Salvo picked up one of Amir’s spears, juggling and twirling it with skill between his hand and hook.

“How is the Count getting along, my lord?” Jorn asked, pausing from his sharpening for a moment.

“He would not dare show that he is vexed,” Salvo replied. “Losing so many in a difficult campaign will do this to many great leaders. The trained eye of someone who has known him for a long time may see it plainly.”

“We are doing well, considering the circumstances,” Amir said. “We have not given any ground since our retreat from the monastery and village. Between the constant hammering of our artillery and the diligence and discipline of our shooters we are untouchable as of now.”

“True, the rate of our casualties has slowed and theirs has increased, but we are still receiving them,” Salvo said. “With every attack they push up the hill we lose more troops. We have limited forces as it is and we must hold this position for at least another week. The Spratzians are constantly being reinforced. This is what worries the Count.”

“Food reserves are not bottomless either,” Jake said grimly.

They all nodded but wouldn’t say anything about it if it couldn’t be helped.

“It is well that we have those doing what they can to even the odds,” Amir said, pointing down the hill with his chin. Argot DeRothe and a small group of colonials were burying more booby traps.

The dynamite had been effective in the past few engagements but the supply was running low as well as grenades. So Argot had been using less explosive and supplementing the need for booby traps with small, knee-deep spike traps and spring-loaded animal traps under leaves and clumps of sod. The enemy could plainly see Argot and his men setting the traps. All the better. When walking in formation, they could either hit the traps or break ranks. In a way, the enemy having knowledge of where the traps were was even more valuable than a truly hidden trap. A hidden trap would take one of two enemies out of the fight, but a broken rank could cause a panic and a possible retreat.

#

Suddenly the men downhill were alerted of approaching troops and hastily covered up what traps they could and ran for the defensive line. Argot ducked into a trench where the fuses for the dynamite traps led. He watched the approaching enemy formations. A burning fuse was slow and would have to reach the explosives just as the Spratzian musketeers did. The timing must be precise.

The explosives were located further down the hill in a hope to hit the formation when it was at its densest. Once a charge was called, the troops would thin out as they sprinted up the hill. The other traps were located in that area. The troops would be more worried about who was shooting at them from up the hill rather than where they were stepping or what they were stepping in.

Argot narrowed his eyes, judging the distance an enemy officer was to the explosives. He picked up his candle as they steadily marched into the trap.

“Wait for it,” Argot spoke to himself, “patience.”

Then, he lit the fuses.

#

Marching up the hill, the musketeers pressed on, in step and in tight formation. A young Spratzian watched the officer to his right keeping cadence with the drummer next to him. Then the musketeer saw four fizzing flames racing down the hill toward the attacking line. The young man stopped marching. He froze. His squad leader yelled curses at him as troops bunched up behind him. He watched one of the flames disappear underground just as the officer stepped on that exact spot.

The officer exploded in a column of dirt, flaring sparks and chunks of flesh. Several more explosions went off right after, forcing the musketeer to the ground. When the smoke cleared and the soldier regained his bearings, only a smoking crater existed where the officer and drummer once stood. The formation was in disarray.

#

From up the hill, Jake and the rest of the knights watched the explosives go off. Several musketeers were thrown into the air, some were missing one or both legs. The rest in the surrounding areas were thrown to the ground. Some were shredded by shrapnel created by their fellow soldiers’ weapons and gear. Others’ insides were scrambled so badly by the explosion that they could not get back up. They just laid on the ground and those who could yell, screamed out in agony. Those who couldn’t scream just gurgled.

The colonials cheered, their morale boosted. Soon after the explosions, the artillery bombardment commenced. Both sides fired their cannons then rushed to reload and fire again. The Spratzian commanders ordered the charge and hundreds of roaring musketeers powered through the smoke and decay.

The scattered spring and spike traps began claiming victims. The colonials equipped with rifles took advantage of their extended range and fired into the massing enemy. A musketeer stepped into a spike trap. He fell knee deep and Jake knew what awaited the musketeer’s leg. The spikes at the bottom punctured the sole of his boot and went through his foot. The spikes on the walls of the pit faced downward, prevented him from pulling his punctured foot out. Grizzly work, Jake thought. Better them than us.

The musketeer cried out in pain and another musketeer stopped to help him. Jake took aim and shot the musketeer attempting to pull him out. Blood showered the trapped musketeer and he continued to scream. No one else would stop to help him. Good, Jake thought.

#

Down the line, Dogwa saw a lieutenant get caught in a bear trap. Two soldiers stopped to get their commanding officer out. Margaret took a knee next to Dogwa, and they both shot the soldiers trying to pry him free. The traps were working as planned.

When the Spratzians were in range, both sides opened fire with their muskets. By this time the colonials were better at getting as low in the dirt as they possibly could and therefore the casualties on their side were minimal.

Several minutes into the fight, a runner sprinted down the hill and dove into the knight’s foxhole, in between Jake and Salvo. Out of breath, the boy attempted to deliver his message.

“Master Salvo,” the boy gasped for air. “The Count needs knights to reinforce the flank defense to the west.”

“I will go,” Jake volunteered along with Dogwa and Margaret.

“Very well,” Salvo agreed. “Get moving and stay low. Make sure you announce yourself before approaching the ambush.”

The knights agreed and moved along the trench in a low crouch as musket balls flew overhead.

#

Soon after the three left, the charge reached the trenches. Salvo thrust his spear into the nearby on-comers sequentially. None of the enemy had expected such ferocity from a man of the cloth. Jorn discharged his blunderbuss, taking a musketeer off his feet completely. Then after clubbing another with the butt of the gun, drew two knives, parrying and slashing. Amir thrusted his halberd, preventing a musketeer’s bayonet from coming into range. Then, pulling the spike from the impaled enemy, Amir swung the ax-head and hook sweeping musketeers off their feet. Blood spattered on Brutus’ death mask as he swung his hammer into foe after foe. His broadsword cleaved flesh and bone, severing limbs with ease.

#

The sounds of the ongoing battle slowly faded away as Jake, Margaret, and Dogwa moved further west. The flank guard ambush was set up in the grove of trees to their front.

“Ho,” Jake called out. “Knights of Apollo approaching from the rear.”

“Proceed,” a voice called out from the underbrush in the tree line.

Ducking under low branches, the knights entered the grove very cautiously, with weapons at the ready. In the shadows, six colonials and two marines sat. Jake found it odd that their weapons were leaning against trees a distance from where they were sitting.

“Is there no one keeping watch?” Jake asked. “You should have known Knights of Apollo approached the ambush.”

The soldiers said nothing. Their eyes darted around, nervously.

“Where are the rest of you?” Margaret asked.

Dogwa stepped forward boldly. “The others were killed when the Nashtinook overtook them.”

Jake and Margaret lifted their rifles and went back to back. Dogwa stood in the open, arms wide with his tomahawk in hand.

“Show yourself,” Dogwa demanded. “I know you are there.”

Seven Nashtinook braves stepped out from their hiding places. Some were camouflaged with leaves and branches along with the usual body paint. Each one had their muskets trained on either the ambush party or the knights. Then one more stepped out from behind a tree. The one who had challenged Dogwa earlier.

“Will you face me, little one?” he asked Dogwa in their native tongue. This brave stood a full head taller than the knight.

“I will and you must know, I cannot allow you to win.”

“I am Nug-taw, the Angry Bull, and I shall add your scalp to my club.” The tall native thrust his club over his head and whooped.

“I am Dogwa of the Modrak nation. Our peoples are sworn enemies and therefore I may not allow you to stand victorious and take my scalp. My knife will taste your blood.”

The braves released their captives but did not restore their weapons to them. Then the natives cleared a space in the grove for the two to fight. Dogwa turned to Jake and spoke in hushed tones.

“By the law, a challenger is met in single combat to the death. I must ask you, no matter what, to not get involved.”

Jake nodded, gravely. Dogwa grounded all his gear save his knife and tomahawk. He removed his jacket and shirt. No barrier to his flesh. Nug-taw juggled his club and flared his nostrils. He had been waiting for this.

#

The colonials had successfully repelled the first wave of the day. Scattered around them were the mangled corpses of their enemies and fallen allies, contorted and frozen in their final moments of life.

Brutus noticed an enemy musketeer attempt to conceal himself under the body of a fallen comrade. The giant gripped his war hammer in his right hand and his broadsword in his left. He hooked the dead musketeer with the spike on the back of the hammer and flung him aside with a strong swoop.

The musketeer was overcome with fear as he saw the giant looming overhead with his terrifying death mask. The soldier lunged at Brutus’ belly with a detached bayonet in hand. Just as the bayonet pierced his side, the giant parried with his sword, slashing deep into the soldier’s forearm. The desperate man fell back into the trench grasping his arm. The flesh was cut clean through and the bone had been broken. His arm dangled limply as he cradled it and sobbed.

The Spratzian closed his eyes as he awaited the killing blow. Brutus valued bravery in the face of certain death. The musketeer could have pleaded, but he did not. No matter, however. The colonials were not in the position of taking prisoners. Brutus raised his hammer over his head, spun it in his palm so the spike faced downward and let the weapon fall. The musketeer was dead in an instant and his suffering was over.

Jorn approached just as Brutus pulled the bayonet from his side. The knight examined the gaping wound in the giant’s side.

“Are you alright my friend? You should see the surgeon.”

Brutus shook his head sharply as he tore a long strip of fabric from the cleanest Spratzian uniform within his reach and tied it tightly over the gash.

“You should at least splash some spirits in there,” Jorn said as he directed the mute giant up the hill. He did not give the large man an instant to resist him.

#

Amir and Salvo stood on the battlements gazing out over the smoky battlefield. Jorn joined them, after attending to Brutus’ injury. A larger force massed at the bottom of the hill.

“More this time,” Amir spoke, almost to himself.

“I can see,” Salvo said with a glint of fear on his face. He called for a runner then realized one was already looking for him. A young boy with the soot and filth of battle smeared on his face rushed to the monk’s side.

“Master Salvo, the Count says plant your feet, stop the enemy momentum, then conduct a fighting retreat to the battlements at the cave.”

Salvo nodded and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Go tell the west flank ambush the same.”

The runner hurried off as Lieutenant Jorn Fitzand called for the attention of the colonial line. Standing on a wide stump he addressed the troops.

“We have been ordered to stand fast here,” he projected. “We must make them break on us like water on stone. Kill their momentum. Stop them. Then, before they may regroup, we will make a fighting retreat up the hill to the cave. We will alternate three ranks. The front line will fire and move on my command. The second and third lines will follow in turn. We will not give this ground easily. Make them pay for every inch with blood and pain. Make them wish to go home, then deny them that wish. They belong to the island now.”

A roar swept through the lines as the soldiers raised their weapons overhead.

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