Witchy Winter – Snippet 15
It was medieval.
“Sergeant Olanthes,” Bill commanded. “Prepare to repel the beastkind.”
Olanthes shouted in Ophidian.
“Fire when ready!” Bill called to Uris.
The first volley of arrows launched overhead, striking in the middle of the beastkind horde. Bill took the Heron King’s horn in his hand and blew. Double-time advance. It was not a perfect summons, but it was clear.
From the woods to the east of the palisade, he heard the same short melody repeated in a coyote’s howl.
A second volley of arrows went overhead, falling into the back half of the bestial mob.
“Closer!” Bill roared. He could barely hear himself over the thunder of hoofs on the growling of beasts, but Uris nodded as if he’d understood, and shouted to his men.
The third volley fell at sixty yards, again in the middle of the pack.
Beastmen at the rear howled in pain and puzzlement. A few of them tore at each other. The late afternoon autumn sun was weak and behind his attackers, but nevertheless Bill thought he saw foaming muzzles.
The beastkind assault was not organized, it was madness.
Bill’s beastkind marched from their forest camp. Pikemen led out, long spears borrowed from Alzbieta Torias’s Firstborn warriors pointed forward and ready. Behind them came musketeers, including Jacob Hop and the coyote-headed Chikaak, marching on foot to one side of the column and holding carbines.
Not Bill’s beastfolk. Sarah’s.
The assault struck the wall with such force that the timbers shook. A sound that combined barking, snarling, baying, and guttural shouts washed over Bill. Ole and the other Firstborn stood and jammed down into the attackers with their long spears, drawing angry cries of rage in return.
“Mount up!” Bill waved to Uris. “Prepare to charge!”
Uris waved back.
Bill rose up to discharge one pistol and then the other into the attackers. He struck a crocodile with a man’s head between the eyes, and put a bullet into the chest of a cobra-headed man who was at least eight feet tall.
Suddenly, Cathy was beside him, holding a pair of pistols. She fired her guns as well into the oncoming mass.
Sarah’s beastfolk regiment was getting closer.
Bill crouched again to switch pistols, almost falling. Cathy caught him, and he gripped her fiercely. Lightning bolts of pain shot through both legs.
Uris’s men were mounted, and had longswords drawn and raised. Good — a cavalryman who impaled a foe had to drop his lance, but a mounted swordsman could chop a target in half, propelled forward by all the muscle of his mount, and keep going.
The wall shook as another wave of the beastmen slammed into it. To his left, two Firstborn men screamed as they were dragged off the wall.
The palisade shook a third time, and it felt as if the center of the shockwave was directly beneath Bill’s legs. He rose with two loaded guns, lurched forward — a man with a rhinoceros head, who was very nearly the size of a rhinoceros himself, pawed the earth with bare feet and charged the wall again, slamming into the logs and shaking them —
Bill fired. Bang! Bang!
One shot struck the rhino-man between the shoulders. The other hit him in the top of his head. He backed away two steps and threw himself at the wall again.
A hurled stone the size of Bill’s head struck him below the waist. The rock came at him from an oblique angle, and it managed to strike both his thighs. Bill screamed and collapsed to the wooden walkway, bouncing and nearly falling off, but for Cathy’s tight grip on the front of his coat.
“Bill!” she gasped.
He nodded to indicate that he was fine, which was a lie; he could feel that both his legs were broken. Putting the Heron King’s horn to his lips, he blew firing position. That would have his front row of soldiers arraying themselves into a defensive wall, bayonets forward. The wall shuddered. Then Bill blew again.
To Bill’s immediate satisfaction, the carbines fired together, at the signal. Together, they sounded much louder than they did singly. The shuddering of the palisade wall suddenly stopped.
Cathy peered over the wall, and Bill dragged her back down. “I’d rather lose both my legs than your head, my lady.”
She smiled at him through tears.
Reload, Bill blew again, and then he let the horn drop to his side and reloaded himself. He was much faster at this than any of his soldiers, so he reloaded two pistols and then dragged himself, wincing from the pain, to the edge of the palisade to look.
He got there in time to see the last of his carabineers snap his swivel ramrod back into place. That was a gratifying sight, but much better was the sight of what was happening in front of the shooters.
The pikemen were holding the line.
Their fellow beastkind threw themselves with ferocity and shocking courage into the spears, but though Sarah’s beastfolk fighters snarled and roared in response, they held their pikes in disciplined fashion, creating a bristling wall of steel that kept the other, more feral, beastkind back.
The troop’s right flank was protected by the palisade wall. One or two of the rampagers tried to creep around the left flank, but there Chikaak or Jake, each carrying a carbine and several pistols, shot them as they came.
“Ready!” Bill waved to Uris.
Uris waved back.
“Open the gate!” Bill shouted to Sergeant Olanthes. The gate began to swing.
Fire, Bill blew.
Bill with his two loaded pistols shot the rhinoceros-headed beastman, who was looking with entirely too much enthusiasm at the opening gate. Wild beastkind dropped in the carbine volley.
“Charge!” Bill waved to Uris.
Charge! he blew.
Sarah’s beastkind surged forward with a roar. The pikemen spread apart as they raced forward, creating a wider broom of mayhem with which to sweep the enemy. The musketeers raced in between them, with jaws wide or weapons swinging.
The few wild beastkind who turned to look at the palisade gate, or worse, tried to enter, were run down. Uris’s men were enthusiastic and disciplined, and if they weren’t great horsemen, they were good enough to remember that the lethal things were the weight and velocity of the horse, together with the blades of their longswords. They churned the beastmen underhoof and mowed them down like scythes cutting down dry hay.
The sound of death shrieks and squeals of pain behind them made some of the beastkind charging Sarah’s warriors hesitate, and a few even turned around. Their uncertainty and division were their doom — Chikaak and his fellows tore them to pieces.
Numerically, the beastkind attackers still outnumbered the palisade’s defenders. But they had been surprised and hurt, and they had lost their momentum. They fled now like leaderless men.
Or like wounded animals, not cornered and with no cubs to defend.
With more disciplined cavalry, he’d have wanted to pursue. With more archers, he could have launched a few more volleys into the retreating, shuddering mass of semi-bestial flesh. As it was, the Ophidians with him on the wall fired a few desultory shots at their retreating attackers. Jake, from where he stood on the ground, did the same, and then the beastkind horde was gone.
Bill slid down the ladder to the ground, bearing his weight entirely on his arms. Cathy followed, anxiety in her face. Reaching the earth, Bill collapsed before Chikaak and Jake, just as Sarah and Alzbieta Torias reached them.
“Sir William,” Sarah said, “you’re injured.”
He nodded his acknowledgement. “Jake, Chikaak,” he grunted up at his sergeants, “organize patrols. We need advance warning of any attempt to return, and especially of any indication that we are to be placed under siege.”
“We won’t be besieged,” the priestess said. “That isn’t a beastkind art. This wasn’t an organized attack or part of any plan.”
“No?” Bill asked. “What was it, then, Your Holiness?”
“It was madness,” the priestess said.
Sarah shook her head as if the answer were obvious. “This is the reign of Simon Sword. And this is only the beginning.”
For the first time, Bill found he disliked Chikaak’s lolling tongue and everpresent grin.
“Beelzebub’s bedpan,” he managed to gasp, and then he lost consciousness.