The Savior – Snippet 34
Rousing the Third before dawn and having them on their way was the hardest part of the morning, but finding the Third was in itself a very difficult task. The battle had devolved into separate pockets of fighting throughout the course of the previous day, with some tiny landmarks — a mound of dirt here, a low embankment there, even a clump of thick swamp grass — becoming focal points, landmarks the men would long remember as places of glory, shame, and terror. Names that would call up memories for the rest of their lives, for those who had more life to live.
Bodies lay strewn about at dawn. No one had yet had the time or strength to move them. The wounded who could, dragged themselves toward the rear. The severely wounded remained, mixed with the dead, especially those within musket range of either side. The only way to tell the two apart was by the faint movement. It was terrible to see the mounds of men that twitched here and there and be able to do nothing about it.
There were some slain donts on the field as well, but most had been lost on the charge up the mountain and they lay there on the slopes. Those that remained had been held in reserve.
Most of the fighting was musket and bow and arrow. In only a few places had the forces gone at one another hand to hand, but those taken down by bayonet wounds were the slowest to die, and many of them moaned and cried out for water, cursed the world, or begged for their mothers, throughout the night.
Many had been dragged to relative safety by a brave foray into the darkness, only to die quickly once they were back behind the line. The huge Escarpment flitterdonts wheeled in the pink-black air above.
Some brave ones were already on the ground feasting. The smell of spent gunpowder and carnage hung in the marshy air. It was only a matter of time before the odor of decay would mingle with it, bringing more.
Groelsh and Abel’s company sergeants seemed to have a special sense of direction when it came to their units, and Abel was surprised by how quickly and silently the muster was accomplished. The Third Brigade withdrew in relatively good order, and assembled a dozen fieldmarches behind the front line. Von Hoff had even given Abel the few specialized mounted who possessed donts, and artillery transports. Abel knew how difficult assembling for march was even in ideal circumstances. That the assembly took less than a watch impressed him.
Abel figured he had gotten about four hours of sleep. He sensed himself sagging, and nearly slid off his dont — and would have, if Nettle hadn’t been a sensitive creature that moved to keep him on. But the sight of the brigade assembling drew him back to full alertness.
Groelsh and his sergeants banged them into rough company order and had them marching south just as the sun rose over the eastern Rim. Abel ordered them to double-time it past the guns of what everyone was now calling Fort Sentinel, the redoubt on the mountain.
They were spotted and fired upon. But it was as if the enemy had acquired a coldblooded sluggishness in the night, and they managed to get off only a few strafing fusillades from the volley guns, and one badly aimed rock throw, before the entire brigade had made the passage and was out of range.
Abel asked Center to make an interpolated tally of casualties. He learned he’d lost ten so far.
Then it was a matter of threading their way through the pinned-down Second Brigade, which had retreated south along the road until they were just out of musket range from Fort Sentinel. The Second did not want to give an inch of the Road, and there were some minor tussles between Guardians that threatened to turn deadly. Fortunately, tiredness overcame anger, and most decided the easiest course was the course of least resistance. The Second took a look at the beat-up state of the Third and knew that they soon would be ordered forward to join the same fight.
A watch and a half later, the head of Abel’s columns arrived at the ferry crossing. Here Abel called his company commanders to him. His newly appointed adjutant and executive officer looked them over with a cold eye.
He’d appointed Timon Athanaskew to the position.
Timon rolled out a map and went over the first part of Abel’s plan. “We will divide into company-sized units and head down the Ferry Road, circling east of Sentinel Mountain. We’ll run the gauntlet one company at a time at quarter-watch intervals, more or less. These may be divided into units as you see fit — but must be well on the way before the next are sent.”
Abel continued, “Each captain will be responsible for getting his company to the rendezvous point: the base of the saddle ridge connecting the two southernmost of the Three Sisters.” Abel pointed to the papyrus map. They were gathered around a large flat boulder and Timon had the map laid out over its top, which served as a makeshift table. “Don’t want to be too regular about it. Major Athanaskew will keep time.”
Abel looked up at his captains. “Do you understand?”
A chorus of “yes, sirs.” He hoped they meant it.
“What if we come under fire at the assembly point?” asked the Sunday Company commander, Wilton. “There’s another fort on the next mountain over, sir, if I’m reading the map correctly.”
“There is,” Abel answered. “But we demonstrate. In other words, be out of rifle range at the rally point. When you get there, I want you to make a racket. I want anybody on Tamarak Peak to know we’re down there, understand?”
“Any more questions?”
This time there were none.
It was midmorning when they set out, Abel and his command staff on donts, a few auxiliary scouts and skirmishers on animals, and all others, including company captains, on foot with their men. It did not take the eastern lookouts of Fort Sentinel long to spot them, and a rattle of fire began from the fort. The sound was intimidating, but they were still well out of musket range. Let them waste shot and powder.
Yet it appeared they had a near infinite supply.
Abel sent his first company down the Valley at a trot. The musket fire from the fort’s lower trenches might be technically in range, but evidently its soldiers couldn’t shoot well enough to hit much of anything this far away.
The company — Wilton’s Sunday Company — made it past with no men killed, and only two wounded. Thursday Company was next. It made its way carefully up the Ferry Road just as the Sunday men had done, keeping as far to the eastern side of the little Valley as they could.
Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and a rising billow of smoke.
Something — something large — crashed through the midst of Thursday Company, cutting down donts, decapitating men, and splintering bones.
Cannon, said Raj. But why on this side only?
Not wheeled, probably impossible to aim. Barely classifiable as a cannon at all. It is a welded-seam device, Center replied. Inaccurate and inherently dangerous.
Inaccurate? It just cut a swath through my men!
A random shot. The probability of a strike was fairly low, but the probability of mortal injury once the projectile did strike was very high.
No shit, said Abel. Does that thing fire the clumps you were telling me cannons used to shoot out?
Grapeshot? said Raj. I don’t see why it couldn’t. But grapeshot’s for close range. They’ll stick to cannon balls if they want to touch you.
Another WHUMP, and yet another ball flew by, this one crashing into the brush on the eastern side of the road.
Abel realized he needed to lead the command staff through next to set an example. He ordered his group forward. They were mounted, and they moved at a steady clip, but by no means as fast as a dont could run. He wanted to save the donts for later. A lot was going to be asked of them today.
The cannon got off two shots as Abel was crossing under it. One struck the road just in front of his flag, kicking up dust and gravel, but harming no one.
The second took off the head of Colquehoun, a captain who had two watches before been promoted from courier to command staff proper. Blood and viscera surged in gouts from the severed neck for a moment, then ceased. Colquehoun’s body fell to the side, but a foot remained in a stirrup.
Timon took the reins of Colquehoun’s dont and led it forward, while Coulquehoun’s body dragged along beside it.
And then the command staff was by and out of range.
The next company, Ogilvy’s Friday, began its run. Abel looked up the mountainside. He could see tiny stick figures of men swabbing the cannon, getting it ready for the next shot. Then they levered it back down. Aimed.
A boom louder than any before. Abel was focused on Friday Company, so he did not see at first what happened above. A miss. They were coming through unscathed, thank the Lady. Distant shouts. Then he looked up the mountain.
Fire had broken out in the fort. Pieces of burning timber were everywhere, strewn down the side of the mountain. The cannon was hanging over the edge of the fort’s wall. For a moment, Abel didn’t recognize it. It was burst and splayed outward. It looked like a metallic chrysalis, opened by an insectoid rebirth.
Not unexpected. As I noted, cannons made with welded seams are prone to bursting, Center said. The manufacture of true cannons requires casting technology.