Well of Bones

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Chapter 27

“Evil times make for evil deeds. Evil deeds make evil places.”

Magister Simmins, Eastern Logan witch trials

Twenty-second day of Darkness, 2987

With gentle hands, Anna wrapped Jake’s calf in a clean bandage. The wound still stung with strong spirits and stunk of a thick green paste Anna had applied to aid the blood to clot. The Yan’tiok shaman had taught her as a young girl how to make it from gray clay and a local moss which had medicinal properties unknown to the developed world. Jake asked her about it.

“It works,” was all Anna said. She forced her eyes and attention back to securing the bandage. With that short answer and the lack of conversation which proceeded, Jake sensed something was vexing Anna, but he could not find the right words to ask. He remained silent for the moment and looked out over the camp.

The surgeons’ tents were set up behind the collapsed cave among the tents housing the women and children. Priests and monks from the monastery walked around blessing the refugees’ temporary homes with a mixture of holy water and sheeps’ blood splashed around the ground at each door.

On the way in, Jake noticed most of the military tents which housed ammunition, supplies, Royal Marines and colonial militia were below the cave, right behind the barricades and towers. The tents housing food and other supplies were under close guard which would suggest supplies were running low to the astute observer.

Jake lifted his eyes to the valley walls. High on a ridge above the camp, the artillery placement loomed with a clear view out to the north. The gun crews slept in tents nearby so that they could be ready to fire at any time. Artillerymen were allowed a visit to their families below once a day. When they did come down, they complained about the unceasing wind and bitter cold it brought with it. There was no respite from the elements on such an exposed ridge and winter was fast approaching.

Pairs of scouts were situated at strategic locations along the ridges of the canyon. From their keen vantage points they could see if the Spratzians would try anything special, like a flank through the rocky mountains. On a clear day, they could even see the harbor and some of the horizon beyond. They were issued spy glasses and horns to be used as a method of communication with the camp. One blast meant the enemy has been spotted scaling their part of the mountain and two blasts meant a new ship has been spotted on the horizon. Two blasts had been sounded three times in the little time they had occupied their final battlements. Each time, hopefuls assumed the Marion had arrived with dozens of Brenarian naval vessels. Each time they were disappointed to discover it was another Spratzian man-o-war, frigate or sloop bringing supplies.

No tents occupied the wooded area immediately around the collapsed cave. The timber was to be cut and used as needed for fires, but none entered without an escort and Count Varro had set up a patrolling guard of four men to mitigate any further dark incidents. The whole encampment was too close for his comfort, but they had no other choice in the matter.

Anna tied the bandage and Jake winced. She laid a hand on it gently as if to apologize. Tears welled up in her eyes and she attempted to hide them from Jake. One broke free, however, and fell onto his pant leg. The knight retrieved his boot. His finger brushed the hole the bullet had made. Sucking air through his teeth, Jake carefully slid his foot it. When his heel slipped into its place, the boot slapped the bottom of his foot and fire shot up his leg. He sat there for a moment, breathing deeply. Anna wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand and helped Jake up. He stood with some difficulty and limped out onto the grassy slope.

Jake wanted to say something to soothe Anna, but he did not know where to start. The man who had raised her had been tried and sentenced to be executed for the treason and the murder of her fiancé. He’d taken his own life before the sentence had been carried out and now her home was under siege by the foreign army her caretaker had assisted. He turned and opened his mouth and inhaled sharply.

“Jake please,” Anna stopped him. “All I need right now is time and my hands to remain occupied.”

Jake nodded with a smile.

Anna smiled back. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Miss Crane.” Jake turned and limped down the hill.

#

“I’m not going in there without my weapon,” Brooks, a colonial, said to Fergus, a Royal Marine, as they stood at the edge of a dark patch of woods.

“Your musket is on the wall, in some other unlucky sod’s hands,” Fergus said with a mocking chuckle.

“You heard what that cave did to normal folk,” said Brooks.

“You afraid of a pile of rubble? The cave’s been blown up. Besides, I’ve lived on this island for months now and I ain’t eatin’ the flesh of no infants or nothin’. If you can’t handle losin’, you shouldn’t gamble. And since you didn’t have any money—another reason to not gamble—I am obliged to find another way for you to settle your debt to me.”

“The roving guard will surely catch me.”

“Needn’t worry ’bout them. I’ve promised them a portion of your findings in exchange for your passage. Only on the third shift. You shall trap me food and gather mushrooms and berries. I’m here to show you which ones are all right to eat and how to set basic snares so that next time I can stay all cozy in my tent while you work off your debt. Clear?”

“I can’t go in there alone,” Brooks said with dread.

Fergus cleared his throat and scolded Brooks.

“Clear,” Brooks said hesitantly and followed Fergus into the shady underbrush. After several minutes of searching for various edibles, the pair heard a noise. The clatter of stones and a low mumbling. They followed the sound to a stream bed. They looked down into the trench and found a man in an emerald cloak crouched over the collapsed mouth of the cave. It was the professor, Sir Uric Valencia. Fergus recognized him from when he came ashore some time before. He was moving stones one by one and mumbling under his breath. The men crept closer to listen to what he was saying.

“I will free you. I must free you. I shall taste your power. It shall fill me with unending knowledge...”

“We must stop him,” Brooks said in a frantic whisper. “He’ll reopen the cave.”

“Shut up,” Fergus replied in a matching hushed voice. “You know how much rock he has to go through? Let’s just watch him for a minute.”

Brooks ignored Fergus and slid down into the stream bed. He called to the professor twice as he walked up behind him. Valencia seemed not to notice him. He continued moving rock with bleeding hands, still murmuring.

“Hey, didn’t you hear me? Stop,” Brooks ordered as he pulled on the professor’s shoulder. Suddenly, Uric turned and lunged with a single motion. He pounced on Brooks like a predator on prey. The professor slammed Brooks to his back. Fergus looked on in horror as Valencia sunk his teeth into the screaming man’s neck. Valencia yanked his head back, tearing away a chunk of Brooks’ windpipe.

The colonial writhed on his back, his heart quickly pumping his blood out through the wound as the professor returned to his task of moving stones. Fergus bit his lip, struggling to hold his terror in as he moved to the wounded man and tried to drag him away as quietly as possible. Brooks gurgled as his sporadic movements grew weaker. His eyes rolled back and the bubbles stopped erupting from his throat. He had stopped breathing. His face was frozen in a hideous grimace.

Fergus dropped the young man into the shallow stream. He had the boy’s blood all over his hands. His face had been spattered. He could feel the warm liquid clinging to his stubble. Disgusted, he wiped his cheek, smearing the blood he was trying to remove.

He stepped back to the bank, and a rock slipped, splashing into the water. Fergus turned and ran, not looking back.

#

Count Varro and Master Salvo discussed their diminishing supplies in hushed tones in front of the Count’s tent when Salvo’s attention was drawn over the Count’s shoulder. Varro noticed and turned to see what had drawn Salvo’s attention. A marine ran out of the wooded area with terror in his eyes and blood splashed over his entire person. The two went to meet the man as he drew a crowd. They pushed their way through the onlookers until they reached the marine. He groped at Varro’s uniform with bloody hands and gasped for air as if he had just remembered to breath.

The terrified man rambled as Salvo attempted to disperse the crowd. Less eyes and ears were better in this trying time. The Count listened closely, trying to piece together what had happened from the unintelligible garble of words which spewed from Fergus’ mouth.

“Just snapped. Turned on ’im,” Fergus spat as he threw together as much as he could, broken by poorly pronounced exclamations which Varro assumed were expletives. “Ripped his throat out!”

Varro understood. He checked the pans of two pistols and tucked them in his belt again. Then the Count drew his sword.

“Where?” Salvo demanded. “Show us.”

“Please, sir,” the terrified man objected.

“No need,” Varro said sharply as he waved to Margaret and Jake who were passing by. “We know the way.”

Margaret and Jake hustled to Count Varro’s side and checked their pistols.

“What is it?” Margaret asked.

“Chimera,” Salvo muttered.

“Let’s hope not,” Varro said.

“Who?” Fergus asked.

Margaret narrowed her eyes and tightened her lips.

“Not who,” she said. “Monsters of the cave.”

“But the cave collapsed,” Jake said.

“Knowing now the history of the area,” Salvo said ominously, “the well’s power may not be limited to the cave’s hollow.”

“Master Salvo,” Count Varro said, “I need you to look after this man. See that he gets cleaned up and does not cause a disturbance. Alert the other knights that if we do not return, they must burn down the grove.”

Salvo bowed and led the crazed colonial away. The three knights entered the wood line cautiously with weapons at the ready.

#

Clawing the rubble aside, Valencia panted heavily between his insane rantings. His emerald hood was soiled with dust and grime as it hung from his shoulders. Brooks’ blood stained his lips, shreds of his flesh still lingered in the crevasses of the professor’s evil grin. The flesh on Uric’s fingers had been stripped away. He showed no sign of pain as he moved stone with shredded skin. If he continued at that rate, he would soon be excavating with bare bone.

“Valencia,” Count Varro called from some distance to the rear, next to Brooks’ corpse. There was no answer. He called again, still no answer. Varro picked up a small rock and lobbed it at the incoherent professor. It bounced off his back with a deep thud. He finally stopped digging and stood. Slowly, Uric turned around to face the Count.

Jake and Margaret slowly crept up on Valencia’s right and left flank, seemingly undetected. The professor slowly turned around with a crazed grin stretching from cheek to cheek. Perhaps the professor just went mad, Jake thought. His curiosity of the well had been left unsatisfied. Perhaps he was there to quench his curiosity. This was hopeful thinking, Jake knew. It would take much for a man to strip the flesh from his fingers moving rock.

“Why wouldn’t you answer me, Uric?” Varro asked.

Valencia wagged his bleeding finger.

“The professor is busy now, Dante. Can you not see that?” When Valencia spoke, his voice sounded as if it were accompanied by another: a hissing whisper that clung to every word. “He must not be disturbed. You would not want another unfortunate event.”

Uric cast his gaze on to the dead man at Varro’s feet. Jake and Margaret continued to creep through the underbrush, just behind the professor’s peripheral vision.

“This is no concern of yours or the mighty Knights of Apollo.” Uric spat into the stream. “You may call off your dogs. We must return to our work.”

As he turned to continue digging, Count Varro slowly moved forward with a firm grasp on his sword.

“You must know I cannot allow you to continue what you are doing. Some things must remain buried.”

“Do not try to restrain us. You will not enjoy the results of such action.”

#

Margaret crawled on her belly to the edge of the bank. Uric spotted her and smiled. He’s finally cracked, she thought. She cocked the hammer of her pistol and aimed at the professor’s head. Uric seemed unfazed and returned to moving stone. Something wet dripped on the back of Margaret’s neck. Behind her came a wheezing, gurgling sound. She had not heard it approach her as if it had just started breathing.

#

Varro turned around to find Brooks’ body was gone.

#

Margaret turned over quickly and tried to draw her scimitar. Brooks dove on her and they wrestled for control of the blade. It was obvious that Brooks was dead. His eyes were murky; his skin pale. Her skin prickled as if thousands of tiny spiders crawled all over her. The remainder of his blood spilled out onto Margaret’s uniform through his bubbling throat wound. He had been reanimated. The professor had not gone mad on his own. The well truly did have domain outside the cave’s walls.

#

Jake dropped to a knee and took aim at the creature from the opposite bank, but he was too late. Brooks had pulled her to her feet with sheer, unnatural strength and held her in front of him as a shield. With one hand he grasped a fistful of her hair and the other pressing the scimitar’s blade to her throat.

“It appears you will be leaving us to our work after all. Do not worry about your pretty little Margaret. She will keep us company,” Uric said.

Varro’s expression went from worry to burning anger. Count Varro raised his pistol and fired. The ball penetrated Brooks’ right eye, barely avoiding Margaret’s cheek.

The dead man dropped but still squirmed as a snake would after its head had been removed. Margaret retook her scimitar and brought it down on the writhing corpse again and again.

In a fit of rage, Uric charged the Count, screeching and spitting. Varro drew his sword and lunged. The point struck between the professor’s left shoulder and collarbone. The forward momentum of the crazed man brought him all the way to the hilt of Varro’s sword. The strike was so clean there was hardly any blood and Uric flailed and screeched, clawing for Count Varro’s face.

Varro held his lunge extended, arm outstretched so the impaled professor was not able to reach his neck or face with his groping bloody fingers. Jake swept up beside them and struck the professor over the back of his head with his pistol. Sir Uric Valencia fell limp to the forest floor.

A few moments of relative silence passed. Margaret stopped panting long enough to thank Count Varro. The Count remained silent and bowed before wiping the blood off his blade on Uric’s emerald hood. Without a word, Varro began his brisk walk back to the battlements.

Margaret and Jake bound the professor’s hands and heaved him to his unsteady legs.

#

Weeks had passed since the colonials had retreated to their final stronghold with no word from the mainland and no sight of Brenarian ships on the horizon. The siege had been brutal for both sides. Disease and starvation swept over the camp causing fits of panic among the colonials and each assault meant death to more and more Spratzian musketeers. Their numbers were replenished with each arriving vessel, but the cost to their morale was showing.

Cook fires depleted the wood reserves and the woods that surrounded the cave were dwindling. Some of the battlements had been cannibalized to keep the fires warming the cold colonial militia and their families. Wet snow had fallen several times but never seemed to stick. The precipitation just kept the slope muddy and miserable.

Attacks were repelled daily. Powder and shot reserves were running low. With no more grapeshot for the swivel guns, colonials had been collecting whatever they could to keep the rather effective guns loaded. Buttons, buckles, eating utensils and any other sort of scrap metal was used. Count Varro only used the artillery and mortars on specifically strong attacks to preserve what munitions they had left. This often meant more casualties at the walls without artillery support, but it also kept the Spratzians guessing when they would be bombarded. The uncertainty was enough to cause disarray in the enemy ranks.

Jake stood next to Jorn and Brutus in one of the towers. A thick fog rolled in from the sea that morning and made everything even colder and wetter. The defenders could hardly see a hundred yards down the slope. Brutus loaded the swivel gun with the scavenged shot while Jake and Jorn cleaned their weapons. In the distance they could hear snare drums sound the attack.

“To arms,” a colonial called out over the battlements.

Jake looked where he was pointing. Shapeless masses in rows marched through the fog. The sight had become an everyday occurrence but it never failed to fill Jake with dread. He hoped for just one day without death.

The call to arms was passed along and the militia grasped their weapons and poured out of their tents. They took up their fighting positions on the wall, loaded and primed their muskets. Varro stood tall next to the flag bearer.

“Signal the artillery to stand by,” Varro ordered.

The young boy waved a yellow flag at the clifftop where Amir and his men were perched. A yellow flag waved in response. Count Varro watched the shadowy formations draw closer though his brass spyglass.

“Prepare the red flag,” Varro said without taking his eye off the enemy troops.

Jake marveled at the Count’s cool stoicism. On the slope lay several whitewashed stones at fifty, seventy-five, one hundred and one hundred-fifty yards. The two furthest were hidden from Jake’s view under the veil of mist but the fog shifted enough to see the Spratzians had just passed the furthest marker.

“Fire,” Varro ordered. The flag bearer waved his red flag.

Mortars and artillery boomed, shaking the mountains so that stones toppled from higher up the cliff. Shells whistled over the battlements and hammered into the hillside. Orange flashes shone through the fog. Deafening explosions thumped and the terrible screams followed. Still, the enemy advanced.

At one hundred yards, they marched into view. The field guns behind the battlements erupted with sparks and thick clouds of white smoke. The solid cannonballs skipped across the ground, sweeping musketeers off their feet and still the enemy advanced.

Jake cocked his weapon and took aim down its barrel. The first rank was barely out of musket range when they stopped. They did not take another step.

Why? Jake thought. A parley perhaps, or maybe they were hoping the colonials would fire their volley prematurely. The whole formation was not still, however. Jake noticed some movement to the rear. He put a spyglass to his eye and squinted through the fog. Some musketeers were laying planks across the soft soil right up the center of their formation. Then, from the rear, Jake noticed musketeers rolling field guns up the road of planks.

“My lord,” Jake called to Count Varro, “they’re bringing field guns up their middle!”

Varro quickly signaled Amir himself. The slope was too steep and the soil was too soft to be threatened by enemy cannon so they had not devised a contingency for such an attack. He swirled the red flag and then waved in a wide arc toward the enemy cannon.

#

Amir saw the signal but did not understand. He scooped up his spyglass and looked down over the enemy formation. Vaguely, he could see movement at the center. Then, the fog shifted and the glint of several brass cannons shone in his lens. He quickly tried to coordinate the crews to target the cannon’s path but by the time they were locked in, the enemy guns were spread out on a line in front of their infantry. Amir sent a dense bombardment, but it was too late.

#

Amir’s artillery barrage rained down on the Spratzians but, to Jake’s horror, only one cannon was hit. The crew members that were hit were quickly replaced by nearby infantry. Jake inhaled sharply as the enemy cannon fired. Puffs of smoke proceeded a series of loud reports.

“Get down! Everybody drop,” Jake ordered but it was too late. The barrage of ordinance struck the battlements up and down the line.

One round struck the top of the mound on which the wall was built. The tree trunks splintered and soil was thrown into the air in clumps as the shell passed through. The shattered timber turned immediately into deadly shrapnel, tearing into the scrambling troops behind the wall. Once it lodged in the ground in the midst of several colonial militia, the shell exploded.

Another struck the front of the wall, just at the walkway along the top. It exploded on impact, splintering wood and men, showering pieces of both on the surrounding area. One skipped off the mound in front of the wall and spiraled into the air, exploding over one of the swivel gun crews, killing four of them with the blast.

In that same instant, a shell passed right below Jake, severing one of the tower’s supporting legs. The tower teetered and creaked for a moment. Jake, Jorn, and Brutus locked eyes. They held their hands out to their sides to keep their balance as the tower swayed. Then, the tower toppled over the wall and plummeted to the ground. The whole structure crashed into the slope with a thunderous clatter. Dazed, Jake tried to gain his bearings. His brow was bleeding and the wind was knocked from his lungs. Gasping, he struggled to draw in air. He looked around and realized they had fallen outside the wall. Panic set in as he looked for Brutus and Jorn.

The enemy cannons fired a second volley. Shells exploded against the battlements all around Jake. Ringing in his ears and swaying vision caused him to stumble through the smoking wreckage.

A groan sounded up from under the dismantled tower. Jake frantically threw loose pieces of lumber aside until he caught a glimpse of Jorn, caught under the downed rubble. Jake unburied him but a large piece of the tower’s framework lay across his comrade’s legs. Jorn regained consciousness and a look of panic washed over him. He tried to squirm out from under the heavy timber, but his legs were pinned tightly to the ground. Thick strands of saliva flung from his mouth as Jorn roared, pulling on his legs.

With all the might he could muster, Jake tried to lift the lumber off Jorn. Behind him, the enemy cannons fired their third volley. Jake dove onto his fellow knight, shielding him with his body. Shells exploded all around them. Chunks of soil and splinters of wood showered them. Jake waited a moment for the bombardment to cease then resumed his struggle with the rubble.

Beads of sweat streaked the soot on his face. Turning to desperation, Jake exerted the remainder of his energy with guttural grunts and shaking muscles. Jorn pushed on the logs with every ounce of strength he had. They both called out loudly with their exertion. Frustration. Anger. Pain. Jake did not know what exactly it was. Perhaps, all of those things. The rubble did not give and both men were left exhausted and out of options. The enemy field guns were almost loaded and ready for another bombardment.

“Leave me,” Jorn said after he caught his breath. Jake did not listen and kept trying to free him with less strength than before but still, everything he had to give.

“Go,” Jorn demanded and swung at Jake with a closed fist.

Jake was able to dodge the hook. He paused, panting vigorously. A tear rolled down his cheek. It dripped off his chin and he turned to face the enemy. The Spratzian musketeers had begun their advance again.

“Go now or they will kill us both in the first charge,” Jorn said with an unnatural calmness. He seemed at peace, but Jake was not. He turned back to the fallen knight, his brow low. How dare he ask this of me, Jake thought.

“Do not make me do this,” he forcefully said. “I will not. I cannot leave you here.” He returned to lifting, this time with a loud roar as his legs burned. The veins on his neck bulged and a strand of spittle hung from his lip.

Then Jake was cloaked in shadow. What little sunlight that filtered through the fog was blocked all around him. Brutus stood at Jake’s side. The silent giant lifted the heavy logs with some strain. Jorn called out in agony but he was free. Brutus lifted Jorn onto his shoulders and ran for the gate with the exhausted Jake trailing. The musketeers fired, targeting the three. Musket balls hissed all around and thumped into the soft earthen mound.

“Return fire!” Jake heard from above on the wall. “Cover them!”

The gates opened. Margaret and Dogwa ran out and fired their rifles into two enemy officers who led the advance. The second line of musketeers took a knee and fired just as the gates were closing behind Jake. A bullet ricocheted off one of the doors and struck a marine in the knee within the stronghold.

Jake looked around, astonished at how drastically the camp had changed in just a few minutes. Crumbled defenses. Collapsed tents. The smell of gunpowder and the sound of excruciating horror enveloped him. Bloodstained canvas stretchers between two sweating porters were rushing to the wall unburdened and heading back up the hill carrying wounded soldiers.

One colonial caught Jake’s eye. A boy no older than fourteen was grasping a bloody stump where his leg once was. His screech seemed amplified in Jake’s ears, echoing around his weary mind.

On the wall, the militia and the few marines who remained returned fire to the enemy troops below. Struck by enemy musket balls, several fell backwards off the rampart to the slope below. Some wailed and writhed after they hit the ground. Some were silent.

#

From his vantage point up the canyon, Salvo watched the horrors below unfold before his eyes. The musketeers had charged and attempted to climb the mound and timber wall in several places where it had been damaged. The colonials had resorted to repelling them from these holes with bayonets, pistols, sharpened poles and even stones, but they were succeeding at great cost. The Spratzians pulled back but did not leave the slope.

Count Varro walked up the slope to Master Salvo with heavy steps. He ran his handkerchief down his sword’s blade, removing the blood before he placed it back in its scabbard. The man, himself, was covered in blood. The blood of his enemy, the blood of his men, and perhaps his own blood. As he approached, Salvo said nothing and held the spyglass to him. The Count turned and lifted the glass to his eye.

“The first wave is spent and retreating to the main force, yet the second does not advance,” Salvo said.

Then the Count took the glass down as if he had seen something that upset him. He held the spyglass back to Salvo. The monk took the glass from him and brought it to his eye.

“A white flag,” he said. “They will offer terms.”

“Terms for our surrender,” Varro said. “This puts me in an even worse position than before. If I accept the terms, our knights and countless others have died for nothing. And if I don’t—”

Varro frowned.

When I don’t, the colonists would be devastated. They may even turn on us.”

“My lord, if I may,” Salvo said as Varro turned away. “If there exists any time for surrender, now would be that time. No one would blame you. We have done all we can. We have been driven into a corner and beaten.”

“We cannot allow the evil of this island to fall into the hands of our enemy,” Varro snapped. He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. “We must believe reinforcements are on the way and we must hold out.”

“We cannot go on assuming the distress call was even received. The ships may never arrive.”

“Do you not think I know that?” Varro said. “We must believe.”

#

In the center of the empty expanse between the conflicting forces sat the Spratzian general atop a clean white horse in a sea of mud. To his right stood a young captain to serve as his hostage. Varro strode out on foot to meet him with Amir by his side to serve the same purpose. They exchanged hollow, yet polite pleasantries while the general rudely remained mounted as if he were better than Varro. Superior and untouched by the filth of this conflict.

The Spratzian captain and Sergeant Amir walked to the opposite enemy lines. Amir was brought into their fold. Jake, Margaret, and Brutus met the captain in front of the gates but Varro had instructed to not allow him inside. He should not be allowed to see the mess within.

“I am General Miguel Gerard,” the mounted man said with a snide grin. “Shall we discuss the terms of your surrender, Count Varro?”

“You know me,” Varro said. “But I have never heard of you, General Gerard.”

Gerard’s bushy white mustache twitched.

“This must be your first campaign,” Varro added. “I suspected as much.”

Gerard made a clicking noise with his mouth and wagged his finger. “No need for insults, monsieur. We must discuss this as civilized men, you and I. If not, we are no better than the imbeciles we lead. We may as well let them come to terms.”

“My men and the others I lead are the bravest people I know, and they are not imbeciles. If yours are, however, that would explain why they break on our defenses. Perhaps it is their leadership.”

Gerard snorted and twisted the corner of his mustache with his immaculate, calfskin-gloved fingers. “You are in no position to bargain at this point. My cannons would drive your fortifications into the dirt in a day.”

“A day maybe.” Varro stared into Gerard’s eyes, unbreaking. “Two, more likely. Then account for the time it would take to fight my men and their array of booby traps beyond the wall. You cannot break their spirit. We will fight you to the last man. They are protecting their families and fighting for the chance to reclaim their homes.”

“A fleeting chance,” Gerard added. A hint of a sneer flashed across his face, veiled by the mustache, but Varro caught it.

“What do your men fight for? They fight because you tell them to. If you choose to press the attack, it may take another week to clear all of us out of the hills completely. The whole while we will be hitting you hard and disappearing into the mist. My men know this island. They know her secrets. They know what evil lurks in that mountain. They know that Great Brenar cannot allow Spratze to have this island. You may defeat us. You may put all of us in the ground, but you will not have this island. The Brenarian fleet will arrive and decimate you. There will be no escape for you unless you strike camp now and leave. You have lost. I have not asked you to surrender because there is no question.”

Gerard sneered obviously this time. “We will see.”

With that, he turned his horse away and cantered off.

The hostages began their long walk back to their forces. Returning to the wall, Master Salvo strode out to meet Varro.

“The conclusion?” he asked. “What is to be done?”

“We will hold,” Varro replied.

“This cannot be,” Salvo spouted, disbelieving at first, then anger wrinkled his brow. “You have killed us all.”

Varro slapped him with the back of his hand.

“Hold your tongue,” the Count spoke severely through clenched teeth. “This is my campaign. I am still in command. You will follow my orders or stand down.”

#

Down range, the enemy prepared for another bombardment. The fog had cleared, and the sun came out. Its rays warmed Jake’s face and he closed his eyes. He lifted his chin and filled his lungs slowly. The warmer air seemed to expel the chill and a smile stretched across Jake’s face. Amazing what such a small thread of relief could do in times like these. He opened his eyes and exhaled. The sunlight had already burned off some of the chilling fog. He did not want to die in gloom. If my time has come, let the sun be shining, Jake thought. Then some motion on a distant hill caught his eye. He grabbed a nearby spyglass and brought it to his eye. A Spratzian soldier with two red flags. He waved them frantically.

Jake’s focus returned to the enemy force. Their drums were beating a retreat. The masses of musketeers headed back to the village. Their gun crews slipped a grenade down the barrel of each cannon and joined the retreat as their guns exploded behind them.

“My lord,” Jake called down to Varro. “They are pulling back.”

Varro disengaged Salvo and rushed up a ladder onto the rampart. He took the spyglass and looked for himself. Salvo, with blood in his teeth, joined them on the wall.

“It is a trick. They are trying to draw us out,” Salvo said in disbelief.

“No,” Varro replied. “They are too smart to think I would be stupid enough to fall into a trap like that.”

Salvo began to speak again but was hushed by Count Varro. The Count craned his head forward leading with his ear, listening. Jake turned and called for silence and the colonials obliged.

Jake listened as well but he heard nothing. Then only a small sound, so distant, it was hardly audible. Guns. Big guns. Naval guns.

The watcher on the ridge facing the bay let out a long horn blast. They waited for what seemed like an eternity for a second. The entire camp was dead silent. When the watchman blew a second blast, the silence turned to murmurs of disbelief. A runner came sprinting down the path from the ridge, excitement glowing on his countenance.

“Brenarian ships from the east! Fourteen frigates, seven man-o-war. The Crown Fiona is with them.”

The camp erupted into cheers. Hats were thrown into the air. Muskets were raised over their heads. Huzzahs all around. They were saved. Varro gripped his chest as if it burned and fell to his knees.

Jake knelt with him and put a hand on his shoulder. Varro placed his own hand on Jake’s and smiled with tears in his eyes. Jake said nothing. Nothing to be said.

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