The Savior – Snippet 31

They’re dumbfounded from the march. Get them moving, man. Give them something to do.

“You heard the colonel,” Abel screamed out. “Get those orders to companies and stop hanging around here like a bunch of flitterdonts looking for dead meat!”

He began shouting precise assignment.

The couriers and command staff seemed to start back into the present with Abel’s words. They had trained for this. They knew their stuff.

They’d better, thought Abel. We went over and over this in drills the past couple of months.

Those who were messengers reined their donts to attention, kicked them to speed with their heels, and rode away to their assigned companies at once.

Master Sergeant Groelsh, dismounted nearby beside his dont, nodded up to Abel. “That’s the way to tell them, Major. I’ll tend to the lines hereabouts.”

The men began to line up by company and march off the Road toward the River, several fieldmarches to the west. Another round of shots smashed into the ground nearby, not striking any men, but kicking up stones.

“Better move ourselves,” von Hoff said. Abel issued the order for the remaining staff to move west a fieldmarch. He was happy to see they did this in good order. No one was panicking yet.

The company commanders formed their men into ranks, and turned them west. Within a few steps from the raised bed which held the Road — a dirt causeway through the marsh — there quickly was no ground, only bog. It grew deeper and wetter the closer they moved to the River. The men began to sink in up to their knees in the mire.

Another massive exploding rock fell, but the troops were out of range. It caused no casualties, only noise and spectacle.

His couriers returned and Abel fired off more directives. “Move to the north, through the muck. Tell them to stay out of range!”

He and von Hoff did the same, They kept their donts on the road, but on the far side, away from the mountain. After a few harrowing moments, they were outside of musket of range, or at least shot ceased raining down near to them.

When they reached position that seemed safe, von Hoff turned and stared up at the mountain. “Did you notice the way that fusillade came in all at once, Dashian, like a slap across the face?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“And those rocks. Ballistas, arbalests. Powerful ones, to get that kind of range. Using nishterlaub methods, I’ll wager.”

“Must have about the same range as their muskets.”

“I’m not so sure those are all muskets, either. Who the cold hell can get off volleys that well timed? It’s sure not any of those shabby militiamen we’ve been picking off along the way.”

“If they have those nishterlaub extreme-range catapults, there could be other new weapons, sir,” Abel said. “These people are known heretics. They’re liable to try anything.”

Von Hoff nodded. “Yes, we need reconnaissance. Saxe will see that. The cavalry can work their way up that hill from the side, come in on their flank or even above them. They probably don’t even have to engage. We need information and then — ”

Abel was listening, but he was staring up the hillside as well. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, Colonel.”

“What the cold hell do you mean, Dashian?”

“Look up ahead. The mounteds are charging. Looks like half the regiment.”

“Curse it! No, they can’t be — ”

But then von Hoff saw what Abel was pointing to. Donts streamed up the hill, looking like small nutterdaks at this distance, leaving a cloud of dust behind them. Yet the attack was no more than three or four fieldmarches away, and the mountainside was sparsely vegetated. Abel and von Hoff had a good view of the action.

“What are they thinking?” von Hoff shouted plaintively. “What cursed idiot sent them?”

Abel knew when a commanding officer was asking a rhetorical question.

He did not reply.

Up the hill the donts charged. Although the donts the mounted regiments rode were of good stock — all Guardian animals were the cream of the crop — this was not the terrain they’d been bred for, and it showed.

The movement upward started as a two-legged sprint, with forehooves in the air, sharp end out and held at about the height of a man’s head. This was the classic mounted charge, terrifying to an infantryman. But as they struggled up the mountain, the leading wedge dropped to four hooves, and then the mass behind them dropped in droves. Soon the donts were trudging up the hill little faster than a man could walk. Another massive volley from the stronghold above reaped men from saddles and felled donts, but the bulk of cavalry continued upward, upward.

“Brave,” said von Hoff matter-of-factly. “So brave and stupid.”

But suddenly, as if they’d emerged from the mountain itself, a line of men with rifles rose up. They were halfway down the slope from the craggy stronghold, and stood between it and the charging cavalry in a line that ringed the mountain as far as Abel could see.

There must be five hundred men up there, Abel thought.

Plus or minus fifty by immediate estimate, Center said. I am, of course, extrapolating how many may lie around the curve of the mountain at either end of their line.

The cavalry was at nearly point-blank range.

Those five hundred Progar men took aim. The sun flashed off their barrels.

The Guardian cavalry continued its charge. Some brought carbines and dragons to bear on the newly revealed enemy. But there wasn’t time.

A crackle of ragged fire down the line of Progar militia. Those in front, leading the charge, went down as if mown by an obsidian-bladed scythe. The line of men in the fortress — for it was a fortress, had to be — stepped back and began frantically reloading, while behind them another line stepped forward with rifles already at ready.

Now several of the mounted got off shots, and a few of the Progar men fell. But not many. Not enough.

The Progar line fired again. Far from perfectly together, but they didn’t have to be. They were firing into a mass of men and donts. Another swath of mounted troops crashed down, dont and man screaming, entangled, crushing one another, dying together.

“By the Bones and Blood,” von Hoff said softly. “It’s pure murder.”

A horn blew in a low, loud blast that reverberated off the mountain. A huge group of mounted separated from the mass of men on marshy Valley floor north of Abel’s position and tore up the mountain to reinforce.

“Blood and Bones! Kanagawa’s thrown his reserve in,” von Hoff said. “It may be enough to carry those trenches.”

Abel realized the trenches he was referring to must be where the men had been hiding before they’d risen up and blazed away with their muskets. They’d seemed to come from nowhere.

Wave after wave of mounted attacked, fell to the ground or were driven back. Yet they attacked again, struggling up the mountainside yet another time. The musketry from the trenches might not have been enough to stop the charge, but the rain of fire from the craggy stronghold above the trenches added to the cavalry’s misery, falling down on them from positions almost directly over their heads.

Then, from the north, another hue and cry. Men shouted. Horns blew. Donts screamed and honked. The crackle of gunfire, only a few pops at first, grew.

Von Hoff surveyed his men deployed into the marsh. “This won’t work,” he said. “We’ll be forever getting up to fight. We’ll have to take to the Road again.” He considered a moment. “Order them back to the Road, Major. In enemy range or not, we have no choice.”

“Yes, sir.”

Your colonel has made the correct decision, given the circumstances, said Center. The Road in this area is an artificially created raised causeway through these wetlands. The only higher ground is the mountain slope presently occupied by the enemy.

The colonel may be right, but your general has walked right into this one, Raj said darkly. What happens next won’t be pretty, either.

This time Abel didn’t need to send riders. He instructed Groelsh to set his specialist signalmen to their wigwag, directing the most northerly companies back onto the Road first, then the others, line by line.

Abel could imagine what the troopers were thinking:

First the thrice-damned Lieuts tell you to run. Then, when you’re winded, he orders you back to get slaughtered. If I were a grunt, I’d believe command had lost its mind, Abel thought.

But Guardian discipline showed, and fighting lines were quickly formed as men streamed back to the Road, most within range of the muskets above. Much of the musket fire was still directed at the charging mounted forces, however. Nevertheless, every few moments another catapulted rock fell on the Road and took out another few men.

Exposure couldn’t be helped or avoided. They must move forward. And they did, muskets at the ready, in four-deep, shuffle-stepping lines, exactly as they’d been drilled.

“May I suggest we split the lines into squads instead of companies, Major?” said Groelsh. “We’ll move faster and present less of a target. We must look like a line of insectoids from up there, just waiting to be crushed.”

Abel nodded. “Yes, Master Sergeant, do it the best way you can. Get the wigwag going.” Abel nodded down the Road. “I think the battle’s underway up there.”

“We’ll get them up double-quick, sir,” said Groelsh. “These are Goldies, after all.” He turned and barked at a signalman, and the directions went out in a flash of flags.

Abel rode up and down the line and watched his men form fighting ranks. He tidied up their edges here and there, but for the most part, they were in good order.

Amazing, considering they were withstanding barrage after barrage of musket fire, not to mention giant boulders raining from the sky. Although the musket men in the trench were engaged with the mounted attack, the guns on the crag above had now been turned on the Third. Most of the fire flew over their heads or impacted on the ground to the side of the road. But a few fusillades found their mark — some of it arriving in almost perfect sequences, perhaps eight or ten shots at a time.

Suddenly a portion of the ranks would find themselves hit and a group of men would go down at the same time, clutching shoulder wounds, neck wounds, legs shot out from under them. And some suffered the worse wound of all, a minié ball that tore into the side or gut, that hit the rib cage or pelvis and bounced through the organs in a ragged path of destruction. Their fellows lifted the lightly wounded, in some cases throwing them into shoulder carriers. The dead and seriously wounded were left behind for the time being.

Despite this, the ranks held.

Von Hoff, who had gone up front to get a better view of the situation, came charging back on his huge dont — Big Green.

He picked out Abel and rode up to him. “We’re going to be here a while. It’s chaos up there. Let’s have ranks return fire at that thrice-damned sentinel fortress while we wait.” He spun Big Green around, spotted Groelsh. “Think you can pirouette us without shooting ourselves, Master Sergeant?”

“Absolutely, Colonel, you just watch us!”

Groelsh shouted the movement order down the line, and his other sergeants took up the cry. When all was ready, he turned to Abel. “Major, would you like to give the signal now, please?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” Abel raised a hand, lowered it. The ranks, four thousand men in all, spread up and down the Road, turned on his command.

“Front line up!” screamed the master sergeant. The cry was passed down the line. While the line was aiming, another flight of bullets took down several of them. The ones that remained standing did not flinch.

“Fire!” shouted Groelsh.

An ear-rattling din of firing cap pop then musket boom as each gun went off and sent its missile flying toward the crags above.

“Line back, second up!” shouted Groelsh. “Fire!”

This time Abel watched where the shots were hitting. He could barely make out several of the puffs of rock dust in the stone just above the flat spot on the crag — the place he assumed the attackers occupied.

“Third up!”

“Bring it down three or four elbs, Master Sergeant,” Abel called out.

“Yes, sir,” answered Groelsh, and shouted the instruction.

This time the Goldie fusillade was rewarded with a man rising from behind what must have been a barrier atop the crag, grabbing his stomach, and pitching forward to fall twenty elbs onto the rocks below.

Got one, at least.

I imagine you’ve given the others something to think about, Raj said.

But what the cold hell weapon are they firing?

Analysis in process, but estimate to seventy percent plus or minus three is that they possess volley guns in the upper portion of the fortress.

Volley guns?

Multiple musket barrels probably secured to a wood base with removable breech pieces and a common charge. Crude but effective.

And nishterlaub, Abel thought. Absolute heresy to make something like that. How many do they have?

Enough to keep up a near continuous fire on a good portion of your line, even while the muskets are taking on the mounted charge, Raj said. Those fusillades have come in groups of eight, so these are most likely eight-barreled weapons.

My estimate is that there are a total of one hundred and five guns with seven that have gone out of commission, judging by the decrease in the rate of fire. The operators are firing in three stages, so there are no more than forty volley guns brought to bear at a time. But volley guns have inherent limitations, most obviously the need to reload each barrel separately. That indicates at least two or three hundred men on that crag above the trenches.

I’m amazed it can hold them all.

They are most likely dug back into the mountainside, or perhaps they are making use of a cavern. This is a formidable redoubt they have constructed.

Almost impossible to take in a head-on charge, even with Guardians, said Raj. Look at those fields of fire it covers! It’s designed to make this Road a slaughterhouse.

So we don’t take it from below, Abel thought.

That’s right, man. What we need is to find the back door.