Their starting point was roughly a kilometre from the stronghold. The march went well for the first roughly two hundred metres. Everyone knew they were still safe. They inched closer and closer to the defences at Rosley's whistled pace.
Claude stood at the very center. The men advanced in lock step with him and marched into the cannons' range. Claude felt like he would pass out at any moment from the stress and fear. The two sensations gnawed at him like a thousand cockroaches.
He wasn't alone. All the men were being eaten by cockroaches of similar kinds. Only their long months of training kept them moving forward in lock step with the whistle. Marching into battle was inevitable as a soldier, but Claude regretted that it had to be done this way despite his suggested alternative. Rosley's stubbornness was the only reason they were marching into inevitable massacre.
The lieutenant-colonel had received the order by the time he arrived, so he could not argue. Getting into a fight with the man would not win him anything either. With a great battle ahead, nobody would care about the opinion of a puny sergeant-major. Rosley was more than happy to ignore him and send him to the battlefield too.
Nobody fired when they crossed either the 700-metre or the 600-metre marks. The atmosphere was no better for it, however. Claude's forehead drowned in sweat. Each step took an eternity, and the whistle blew like a gale with each footfall.
Another infinite moment passed and four thunderclaps rang in Claude's ears. White smoke puffed into existence in four places on the walls ahead. For a moment he thought he saw the ghosts of black dots, the fainted artist's suggestions of something coming his way, then they were gone with a whoosh unlike anything he'd heard before, and an earth-shattering crash of metal, wood, clotch, flesh, and bone burst into his ears from behind, a moment of infinite silence followed, then the panic, screams of agony, and barks of orders followed.
The enemy had fired.
Claude felt none of the panic that soaked the surrounding air. His feet returned to him slowly, like a figure fading into view out of the fog, followed by the strength needed to use them. The whistle blew again, much more strained than it had before, and he continued his march.
About a minute passed, though it could just as easily have been thirty seconds or thirty minutes for all he knew, and the thunderclaps sounded again. For a moment he saw the four ghosts again, then the same hell burst into existence behind him.
Several men on either side of him wavered, a couple even started turning around to run--
"Deserters will be killed!"
--the shout stopped them in their tracks, and they returned to the march.
The defenders on Wilf fired just six volleys before they ran out of ammunition. The battle had been running for six days now, after all, but the damage six four-cannon volleys could do to such a tight formation was beyond reckoning.
Claude thought of swearing to never forget what he lived through this day, if he actually did live through it, but he didn't think he'd need the oath. Even if he wanted to, this day would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life.
The last volley very nearly made that no concern for him. One of the ghosts came straight at him, and time seemed to stop entirely for several way too long moments. It stretched on for so long that he even had time to make out the little dents and scratches the barrel had made on the cannonball on its way out. He tried to dump himself on the ground, but his body had been too well-trained, and it stubbornly refused to do anything but march to the beat.
Luckily, the ball hadn't been headed quite as straight at him as he'd thought. It whistled by about a foot to his left, at shoulder height, tearing through the man to his left and the next seven men behind him before plunging into the ground and bouncing back up to scythe through the next formation behind that.
They were just 300 metres away now. The march continued as inexorably as before, the whistle still bleating away the pace, though it was now less a whistle and more of a shrill shriek, urging them all onwards in the name of all that was good and lovely in the world.
They now had to climb the slope for the last couple hundred metres, and staring down at them, quite literally down the barrel, were the gunners of the same four cannons that had tormented them thus far, finishing the last of the reloads.
Claude thought about the standard artillery doctrine. They would continue to face cannonballs for about the next two hundred metres, then the cannoneers would switch to grapeshot. Much like the buckshot canisters fired by shotguns from Earth, just, much bigger and far more terrifying. If he found himself in the middle of one of those cannons' firing cones, he wouldn't even leave a wet splotch behind. He'd be turned into a soft red mist, and blown away by the wind.
"When we are a hundred metres away, drop down and shoot at the cannon crews. I don't care what any of the bigshots yell, if you don't do it, I'll kill you myself!"
The whistle had died down now, becoming fainter, like a drowning child's screams. Rosley was thinning out the line to maximise their volley strength. He'd kept to the outer edges of the formation, where cannons were not likely to be aimed.
No wonder the bastard always made it, he knew exactly where to plop himself to have the best chance of survival, and he'd put Claude right in the middle of the enemy's big, fat target. He was a very typical commander in that sense. He marched in front where everyone could see him until it came time to be shot at, then he quietly and surreptitiously shifted himself to the safest spot. All the glory and the minimal danger. Claude desperately wished he was within stabbing distance of his commanding officer at that moment.
Claude noticed another appearance as they closed in. A fence of muskets had appeared in the gaps between the cannons, all aimed at him and his comrades. His steps continued without abating, however, driven onward by that same damned whistle, his paces didn't even shrink, and so, by the time they were within firing distance of the muskets, he was a good two paces ahead of the rest of the line.
"Fire!" he heard the enemy officers shout.
The enemy lines vanished into a fog of white smoke, and moments later hundreds of whistles blew past Claude's head. The closest three men to Claude's left, and the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth men to Claude's right collapsed. The man on his immediate right continued marching, but he suddenly had a limp and Claude could see the pain etched on his face. He didn't yell, though.
The second rankers behind the fallen rushed up with the next couple of steps to fill the holes and the formation continued on like nothing had happened. Claude knew none of them wanted to do any of it, but their bodies, drilled for months, weren't listening to reason. And so they continued on.
The enemy finished reloading ten seconds later. Claude heard the new man to his left pray to return to his hometown safely, or at least to be spared a pained death. Claude stole a glance at him as they marched. He was in his thirties at most, but he already had several grey hairs in his hairline, and his face was a kind of gaunt Claude had only seen in veterans.
The man's prayer started again, but it vanished into the next volley a few words in. The man survived the next volley, but half of the line wasn't as lucky, and among them was the man directly to Claude's right.
The whistle bleated again.
The enemy reloaded with full haste. Claude's side could fire back effectively in a couple more paces, but that was far from winning the battle. In fact, reaching the hundred-metre mark merely meant they could officially start the battle, everything before was just a massacre.
Claude shouted at himself silently. He could have done this so much better if he'd just been given the freedom to. And so many lives could have been spared. That damn Rosley had killed so many with his own stubborness, with his jealousy of Claude. He had to die, even if Claude had to do it himself, he had to die.
The march slowed, and finally stopped, despite the whistle's incessant bleating. Rosley charged into the formation, sword unsheathed.
"March! March, damn you, or I'll cut you down myself!"
Corpses covered the slope like a healthy sprinkling of seeds on a field, even those from the previous five days' fighting. The oldest were bloated and flies buzzed around them even in the midst of battle.
Claude stared at them for a moment, then his eyes came to rest on the lieutenant-colonel's detestable face.
"Troops at the back, form a line around me! Quick!"
Claude's musket settled in his left hand, and he traced a spell formation with his right. Rosley was still marching between the ranks, shouting at the men, while careful to stay behind someone at all times.
The men followed Claude's orders despite being completely foreign to him.
"Follow me! Forward!"
Rosley stared at the group, his jaw dropping, letting the whistle fall to the ground.
A transparent bubble popped into existence around Rosley. It glinted like a rainbow in the sunlight.
The next volley came without announcement. The moment the first round whistled by, the bubble quavered and popped. Rounds scythed into the lieutenant-colonel, turning him into what had lovingly been called 'swiss cheese' back on Earth.
"Get down!" Claude yelled.
He didn't know how many people in his band were still alive. While the rangers might understand his order, the ones from different units might continue forwards foolishly and only get on the ground after they were hit.
There were two corpses where Claude chose to get down to serve as his cover. Some 120 metres away, Claude steadied his musket on the corpse. He aimed at the nearest cannon crew and pulled the trigger.
With the sound of his musket firing, Claude heard ten or so other shots coming from behind. A good number of soldiers around the cannons fell as the rest cried in panic. One cannon managed to fire a scatter shot, but nobody was harmed as they were not yet in range.
Gunshots continued to ring out behind him. Claude looked behind him and saw the first prince's guards firing volleys in neat lines at the enemies in the stronghold from three hundred metres away. However, they didn't reap much gains and only downed some five or six foes.