The intricate monocle made out of gold shattered with an audible clang as it hit the ground. Prince Hansbach stared at Wilf in disbelief as one soldier after another fell.
It wasn't just him; the other attendants and soldiers in the rear stared at the scene. The tides of battle had turned in an odd direction. Initially, the attacking side was harshly under fire by the defenders and suffered incredible losses. They could clearly see the soldiers on the front wiped away one after another.
Until Rosley ordered for the men in the back to march forward and fill up the spaces, everything was still normal. But when the defenders suddenly finished loading and were preparing to fire, a large bubble appeared on Rosley, who had gone to the side to avoid fire. It looked like a rainbow under the sunlight and attracted enemy attention, causing Rosley to be turned into swiss cheese.
If there were any other officers on the field, they would take command and mount a charge while the enemy reloaded. However, a few soldiers in the very front just dropped down to the ground, and everyone else followed suit. They flattened themselves on the ground, leaving only a couple low-ranking officers behind to stare at them. A few hesitated to follow suit for a few moments, then did so.
If the prince had been on the hill, he would understand why. To remain standing when there were only a couple left, would make him the enemy's sole target. On top of that, in this kind of situation, one was more than adequately weak to following the crowd.
Only the first prince's guard thus remained standing. They levelled their muskets and opened a thunderous volley. The men that had dropped down, weren't entirely absent, however, their scattered, uncoordinated shots puffed smoke up into the air from the ground as well. The massed volleys soon covered the slope in smoke and made any kind of observation impossible.
"What's going on?" the prince roared, "Why does Rosley know magic? Why are the soldiers on the ground? Can someone give me an explanation?"
The prince had been very confident of this attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Rosley had led the charge in two prior ones and according to him, there were less than six hundred men left in the fort. Given that the earlier attacks had also drained most of their ammunition, they only needed one or two more to break through and take the place.
The prince had counted on the enemy firing at them once they closed to within 500 metres, hoping to take them out before it came to closer musketry, and to waste their ammunition at a distance where they could not be as accurate as they wished. They had done just that, and had run out of ammunition after six cannon volleys. A straight march was suicide for a large portion of the men, but that was war.
The attackers weren't the only people panicking, however. The defenders had never encountered such a situation and had no idea how to react. Panic soon settled in.
It would have been one thing if the enemy had only shoved themselves onto the ground, but they were firing back! And they were too damn accurate! This should have been completely impossible.
They'd hoped for a couple seconds to get the enemy when they had to inevitably stand back up to reload, but they didn't do that at all. They just stayed down, and then vanished in another puff. And every puff was accompanied by another comrade's death. A couple had thought of manning the cannons again and seeing what they could do with a grapeshot, but they were all cut down before they even got to them.
Claude was not the commander of his formation, despite not being the ranking officer. Rosley's death had left him the de facto commander since none of the other officers had the balls to take command, and none of them had the soldiers' trust to get them to follow their orders even if they did.
He still had a hundred rangers, though most were already wounded. Most of the faces within earshot, which was quite a limited distance in the middle of a line battle, were unfamiliar to him, though he did recognise one face. He'd once called Rosley a pisspot. He'd hoped initially to pretend to get shot and stay out of the worst of the fighting. But Claude's order had struck at the same moment he'd hoped to go down. It was a godsend, and so he'd played trumpeter and ensured everyone heard the order.
From Claude's own band around twenty were still alive. Berklin was still untouched, while Dyavid was busy bandaging his arm as best he could -- still issuing orders as he did so.
"You, go back and get me muskets like mine," Claude ordered the man still praying.
The soldier stopped and tried to get up, but Claude pulled him down.
"Do you want to die? Crawl, damn you!"
The sergeant-major behind him winced, then looked in his direction.
"Have all the men to our rear pass their muskets forward. They haven't trained to shoot from the ground so they're useless right now. And have them get ready for a charge!"
"Charge? Are you insane? We got down to be safe from enemy fire, now you want us to charge into that same fire?"
Claude gave him a light kick on the head.
"And how do you suppose we take the fort from here? We've still got men coming up from behind, if we're still here when they march up, we'll be trampled! And the only way we're going to avoid a court martial and summary execution is to take the fort now! And you're not joining. Stay behind and keep the men we'll leave behind firing!"
Back behind the lines, the prince was fuming.
"Order a retreat! Damn bastards, they've ruined the attack, now we'll have to pull back and do this all over again!"
"Wait, Your Highness. Look. The men are charging!" Captain Skri shouted, handing his still-whole monocle to the prince.
"Shooting from the ground is considered attacking now?" the prince asked mockingly.
Despite that, he halted his orderman about to blow the bugle.
"What are they doing, mounting bayonets?" the prince asked as he stared intently through the monocle.
The bayoneted muskets were passed forward to the front two ranks, fired, and passed back while they received the other loaded muskets and continued firing.
"They're reloading on the ground too?"
The prince's memory yanked a scene in front of him of a certain encounter with a young sergeant-major and his unorthodox training methods. The men who'd passed up their muskets took them back and started crawling up the slope.
He lifted his monocle to the fort's battlements, and sure enough, the enemy had vanished. They popped up only occasionally to take a pot shot but were struck down the moment their heads came up above the battlements.
"So this is how the Mark 3 should really be used..." the prince murmured, his eyes burning like stars.
He'd almost taken the rangers in completely the wrong direction and had thought only of sniping from defences. Because he hadn't even considered having his men fire while prone, the thought of using this tactic on the attack hadn't even occurred to him.
"They can't use their cannons either..." someone whispered.
The prince shifted his monocle to one of the cannons and saw nothing but a pile of corpses.
The prince started grinning uncontrollably for a moment, then he cursed again furiously.
"That damned Rosley... How did I appoint such a fool? He actually didn't report such a useful tactic to me? He deserves to die!"
He had half a mind to send a runner to the front and have the lieutenant-colonel dragged back in irons, but then remembered the man was already a corpse.
"At least he did me the courtesy of dying! Wilf Stronghold would have fallen on the first day if the bastard had revealed this to me from the beginning! I'd have been saved so many soldiers, too!"
The corpses sprinkled on the slope beneath the fort came to the prince's mind again, and he couldn't help but lament the waste of so many men.
Captain Skri was somewhat cynical of the prince. Had he not praised the lieutenant-colonel's bravery just an hour earlier? He'd even promised to promote him to colonel if this attack worked...
"Berk, Dyid, Sasri! Keep the men firing! Give me cover! And keep those bastards off the cannons!"
"Yes!" the three replied in unison.
"Charge!" Claude roared as he darted to his feet.
Only three followed him. He stopped ten paces later and turned around to see almost everyone still on the ground.
"If we don't take the fort now you're all corpses even if you make it through the battle alive! You'll be court-martialed! Charge, damn you!"
The other officers snapped awake at his warning and bellowed his orders. The prince was watching, if this tactic didn't show impeccable results, they were dead. Now was not the time for hesitation and reservations.
The enemy heard his calls as well, however, and started firing with increased urgency. Two of the three that had followed him from the start of the charge were struck and dropped, one dead, the other choking on his own blood.
"Faster! Keep your head down! The enemy is just a bunch of degenerates! They'll run when they see us coming!" Claude roared before he knelt and fired at a reloading enemy.
He raised his bayonet and charged over the battlements.
"They went up! They went up!"
The prince cheered like a child at his favourite sports team.
"Have the guard charge as well! Now!"
"Yes, Your Highness!"