"Sergeant-Major, why are we camping here instead of that hill?" Myjack asked as he poked his straw-hatted head out of the ditch.
"We're behind enemy lines. Thanks to our assaults, the enemy have wisened up and no longer travel in small groups. The hill is the only high ground in the area so they'll definitely go there if they're here.
"I've noticed lately that the enemy usually split up into four groups to check hills. While we will have a good vantage point if we camp on it, we won't have the strength to fight an enemy attacking us from all sides. Muskets can only fire so fast. Even if we can take out a side or two, the rest will still get in close and kill us.
"I've heard that the people who always make a point of camping on hills have been dropping like flies. Whatever else they may be, the enemy are no idiots. They treat every hill like an assault, so we can't get them while they're going up. Once they've cleared the hill, however, they let their guard down and that's when we'll wipe them out."
Claude explained his plan patiently. The kid was still young, being just barely seventeen. He wasn't very smart, but he had a good head on his shoulders. If not for the difference in their ranks, the two might just have called each other brothers.
The 5th-month sunlight made everyone it hit lazy. Gum was already fast asleep, even snoring lightly. All he did was eat and sleep. He was the simplest of Claude's men. He didn't ask for much, just enough food, and was willing to do anything for it.
"They're here," Myjack announced, his ear on the ground. "I'd say about a tent's worth."
Claude kicked Gum.
"Get ready, they're here."
Gum quickly rubbed his face and checked the straw mat covering the trench. After making sure nothing was amiss, he lay down beside Claude and glared at the hill through the mat's slits.
The hill was about seventy metres away. Berklin and two men had camped some sixteen metres behind Claude on his left flank while Moriad was camped on the right flank with three men. They had also covered their trenches with straw mats and wore straw hats.
One strong-looking horse after another trotted up the hill a couple minutes later. They were mounted by Canas' blue-uniforms. The rider's tension could be seen on the horses, which cantered stiffly. Their relaxation was just as obvious, as the horses neighed and shat once their riders relaxed. The men huddled up and started chatting, dismounted and setting about settling in.
Claude aimed at a soldier looking around with a monocular. He should be the tentsman, probably a second lieutenant.
The musket popped and the man fell off the horse like a sack of potatoes. He was dead before he'd even hit the ground. His men reacted almost without thinking. Their bodies moved even as their heads started panicking as they realised what was happening. The men still on their horses rolled their heads in every direction to find the puff of smoke that had sent the round in their direction. The shot's sound told them more or less in what direction to look, but only the puff could betray the exact location. It took them only a couple moments to discover the puff, and their mounts darted off as their legs strangled their middles.
Bang! Claude fired another shot. Another cavalryman ate dirt.
The remaining ten fumed. They drew their riding scimitars and shouted curses as they charged. The frontmost three riders were less than thirty metres away. Claude picked up his third loaded musket and aimed. Myjack was reloading the first and Gum held two javelins, unfazed by the incoming enemy.
When they were less than 20 metres away, the first three riders collapsed all of a sudden. The worst off was flung in the air and fell on his neck, snapping it and dying instantly.
"Trip rope!" cried the next man along as he yanked on his horse's reins.
Claude's third musket popped and the man collapsed before he could find the rope.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Four more muskets popped in quick succession and three of the seven remaining riders collapsed, some fell off their horses while others just slumped in the saddle.
Damn, two shots hit the same guy. They're only less than thirty metres away, so it couldn't have been a miss. One must've been shot twice, Claude thought.
The four remaining riders craned wildly to find the puffs to their left and right where Claude's flank positions had opened fire. The puffs discovered, two changed direction and charged at them instead while the remaining two continued to try and find a way around the wire.
Claude had fired all three of his preloaded muskets. Myjack was still reloading the first. He didn't worry for Berklin and Moriad as they still had two loaded muskets each. They should have no problem dealing with their chargers. As for him, he could only rely on Gum now.
Gum roared and rushed out of the trench, sending a javelin flying with each arm. One missed, but the other impaled the rider through his unprotected chest and he fell from his horse, gasping for air.
The remaining rider brought his scimitar down at Gum's neck, but the big guy was already flat on the ground. The blade nicked a few of his hairs on the way down, but aside from a little dust, he was untouched. The horse plowed into the trench a moment later.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Three more shots echoed from behind. Claude didn't have time to worry about Berklin and Moriad, however. He had enough to deal with himself.
Myjack scrambled to get out of the horse's way while Claude picked up the just-reloaded musket and levelled the barrel at the rider. The man was already swinging his scimitar, however, and knocked the musket aside before bringing the blade around again. Claude shoved himself out of the way, but the trench wall was right behind him. He still had a grip on the musket, however, so he shoved the thing back into the sword's way. The blade bit into the stock as metal connected with wood. The swing had enough momentum to carve into the iron barrel as well.
Claude shoved the musket forward as the rider yanked on his sword, shoving the man back. The sword came loose and the musket fell from Claude's hands. The man smiled sadistically at his unarmed opponent. He was cornered and there was nowhere for him to go. The man need only swing once again to separate head from body.
Claude instinctively raised his hand and shot off a Magic Missile. A hole opened up in the rider's chest, and he collapsed, still wearing his sadistic smile, though shock had just enough time to colour his eyes before he died, giving him an unnerving expression a chimera of sadistic pleasure and disbelieving shock.
Claude yanked the dagger from his boot and leapt at the collapsing man. He shoved his blade into the hole in the man's chest and yanked it back and forth to do as much damage as possible and hopefully make the scorch marks unrecognisable. He could know his subordinates as well as he liked, but he could not trust them with such a secret.
Claude clambered out of his trench, his hands covered in blood, and looked around. The man charging at Berklin was dead already, no losses on Berklin's team, while Moriad's opponent had decapitated one of his men. He was currently wrestling with the other and Moriad couldn't get a clear shot.
Damnit, how had the bastard gotten into their trench? Claude grabbed an undamaged musket and started reloading.
A musket popped in the trench, but the rider was still up. He shoved the man he'd been fighting away and turned his horse to the man who'd shot at him.
While cavalry were deadly in a charge, their power was based entirely on their momentum. Now that he'd come to a standing fight, his horse was more a liability than an asset.
The ten seconds it took Claude to reload took a year to pass. He was still ramming the round home when he saw the blade come down, ready to bisect the man from shoulder to belly button.
A musket popped to Claude's right and smoke covered him for a moment. When it cleared, he saw the rider already dead on the ground. His eyes darted in the direction of the shot, and he saw Myjack lowering his musket. He'd made it just in time.
Claude felt the air leave his lungs. He wondered when he was going to breathe in several moments later, when he felt the air leaving his lungs again. He'd completely missed his inhalation. He shook himself and dashed to Berklin. The men were staring at their comrade's head, which had settled about three metres from his corpse.
"How did Alije die? Berk, explain!"
Alije, the dead soldier, had been one of the mentally challenged sods. Before this fight, only three of the eight had been alive, now they were down to two.
"The rider ducked just before we shot, so we missed. Alije had closed his eyes when he shot, however, so he didn't see it and stood up when he heard the other guy fall, thinking it was ours... Right when the man was swinging his sword..."
The rider must have been quite skilled to have pulled that off. Thank goodness he'd not made it out alive. That said, it was unacceptable to have lost yet another comrade, and that was despite setting up such a good ambush.
"Pack up. Wrap Alije as well, you know the drill," Claude ordered.
"We did good this time, Chief. We took out a whole tent. We didn't lose any of the horses, either. We've got ten new mounts," Moriad smiled greedily, "There's still one more on the hill. I'll go fetch it."
Claude was just about to ask Moriad to get him the enemy's monocle when more gunshots sounded. Moriad collapsed, as did two others who'd also gotten on horses.
"Enemy attack! Get down!" Claude shouted as he fell to the ground instinctively and crawled over to Moriad.