"We've got to retreat now," Claude said to the officers beside him.
"Can't we continue to defend this place a few more days?" Mazik looked rather apologetic. It was his mistake that morning that allowed the tens of enemies to even reach their defence line. He hadn't grasped the firing tempo of the two cannons properly as he was too nervous and let them both fire scattershot at the same time, giving the enemies at the rear a chance to push forward. The fastest a cannon could be reloaded was two minutes and that small window was time enough for the enemy to rush to the line and engage the defenders in a melee. That cost them around twenty casualties.
Currently, Claude only had around eighty men still capable of fighting as well as the members of the three cannoneer squads, himself, and Gum and Myjack. They totalled up to around a hundred. While the nobles of the two duchies suffered heavy casualties for their attacks during the morning, they had around three thousand men remaining. If they continued attacking during the afternoon, Claude couldn't be certain their defence line wouldn't be overwhelmed. The disparity was still overwhelming.
Additionally, the soldiers would be worn out from defending the line the whole day. Fortunately, the ones who were sent to charge at the line were mostly conscripted peasants instead of trained veterans. Mazik's reloaded cannons managed to cut off any other reinforcement from the rear, giving Claude and the rest the time to exterminate the enemies who had made it to their line.
Claude shook his head. "Let's see whether the enemy will launch another attack during the afternoon like they did in the morning. Our goal here is not to stop the enemy from advancing at all costs. We're only taking advantage of the terrain while we can to shave away at their numbers. If the enemy presses their attack, we will have to conserve our strength and avoid all casualties wherever possible. If we can't hold them off, we must retreat. There's no sense in meeting them in battle head on."
While Claude could only see how terrifying the numbers of the enemy was, he wasn't aware that the casualties suffered during the first three attacks had greatly shocked the nobles. Of 1500 men who were involved in those three attacks, only around six hundred managed to return, all terrified and broken. The defenders of the line were uniformed soldiers armed with muskets. The threat of force from the nobles was no longer able to get the peasants to act after they returned.
Having no other choice, the nobles returned to camp and no longer attacked during the afternoon. Instead, they congregated in the main tent and discussed once more their predicament. Some of them had brought up giving up and returning home. But that suggestion was soon abandoned, as the enemy numbered less than two hundred while they had more than three thousand men left. If they really retreated, they would be utterly humiliated. The dukes of both duchies might use that as an excuse to strip them of their titles and fiefs.
That was the bottom line the nobles weren't willing to give up on no matter what. They resolved to wipe out the enemies in Squirrel Village regardless of the casualties they would incur. Once more they selected more men from their personal guards and formed three clans totalling 700 men and threw in the peasants for good measure. Their final attack force was a unit that numbered up to 1200 men, with the professional soldiers leading the peasants.
To minimise casualties, the nobles decided not to attack during the afternoon and let their troops rest before the scheduled attack during the night. They also decided to send out another clan of soldiers from their personal guards to lead another clan of peasants to the slope at location A after dinner to overwhelm the enemy by attacking on two fronts. They wanted to exploit their numerical advantage the best they could to wipe out the enemy in one fell swoop.
"Chief, we snuck to the enemy's camp and saw that it was heavily guarded. Using the telescope, I saw the enemy resting in camp. Many of them are asleep and few moved about," Moriad reported after he returned with a few others from scouting, and perhaps dealing a sneak attack had they had the opportunity.
Claude stroked his chin. "It seems like they won't be attacking during the afternoon then. I bet they want to mount a night attack given how they're resting now. Since that's the case, let's go there and cause trouble to interrupt their sleep. We'll make sure they get up frequently to take a piss in the middle of their slumber. Mazik, get one tent of men to move the two light-infantry cannons a kilometre ahead. Fire at the enemy camp once you reach the maximum firing range to disturb their sleep.
"If the enemy mobilises all their men to attack, retreat with the two infantry cannons immediately. We'll deal out suppression fire as we retreat. The moment they are within two hundred metres, dump scattershot on them before retreating further. If the enemy attacks in smaller units, continue firing at their camp and let us take care of the pursuing troops, understood?"
It was a risky act. The nobles were camping right opposite location A and were roughly 1.5 kilometres away from location D where Claude and the rest were. Light infantry cannons could fire 700 metres away at most, but their proper effective range was around 600 metres. Claude wanted the cannons to be brought a kilometre towards the enemy camp to cause panic in their ranks and prevent them from resting. Extermination wasn't the goal as there was only so much damage round shots could do. There was also the risk of being unable to safely escape the enemy's full-force counterattack with two infantry cannons.
Moriad led a tent of soldiers to attack the guards of the enemy camp first to see if he could lead some of them out. But as Claude had predicted, the nobles that had suffered heavy losses during the three prior attacks were in no mood to pick that bone with Claude and send a whole mob to retaliate. After losing a few guards, the enemy began to hide behind the wooden log fence of the camp and refused to exit no matter what. There were only a few people attacking them anyway and the enemy wouldn't dare to enter their camp for an attack. They endured it and resolved themselves to pay the Auerans back during the night instead.
Little did they know that an hour later, thunderous booms of cannons firing could be heard. Two fist-sized metal balls smashed into the camp and managed to kill one soldier and wound two other peasants. The fresh blood and the cries of the injured caused great distress in the others within the camp. Many of the peasants were panicking and losing their senses. They screamed and ran around randomly and pushed down everything, or every person, in their way.
The cannonballs dropped into the camp in twos. A few nobles took the risk and peeked out and were so enraged that they almost spat out fresh blood. The enemy had actually moved their cannons to some 600 metres away from their camp and started firing. It was ridiculous! They didn't take the nobles and their army seriously at all! There was no need for a discussion. The nobles ordered their own private soldiers to march out of the camp in an attempt to take their cannons.
The 300 or so soldiers charged out of their camp directly towards the cannons. When the enemy noticed that, they stopped firing immediately and had their workhorses drag their cannons back as they retreated.
The nobles cheered for the soldiers they sent out. The cannons were around a kilometre from the defence line and even with workhorses dragging them back, it would take some time. If their soldiers could run fast enough, they would be able to catch up in ten short minutes and take over the Aueran-made light-infantry field cannons. With those in hand, they wouldn't have to worry about paying that huge a cost to overwhelm the enemy.
When the troops were 200 metres away from their camp, the nobles saw that they were suddenly attacked by musket fire. A tent of men hiding in the bushes shot at the private soldiers and caused five to six unfortunate ones to fall to the ground.
"Ignore them! Continue chasing the cannons!" cried the nobles when they saw their men hesitate. They didn't know whether they should chase down the tent of attackers or not, but their masters ordered them to ignore them. The attackers were only trying to delay the soldiers to let their cannons retreat. If the soldiers turned back, they would've fallen for the enemy's plan.
There were some among the private soldiers who could see what their masters in the camp wanted and called their comrades to continue chasing and ignore the hidden attackers on their flank. But soon, the enemies at their flank reloaded and fired once more at the private soldiers, striking down another eight or so of them.
The nobles in the camp hurriedly sent out a hundred more private soldiers to take care of the tent of attackers. At the very least, they wanted to see them chased far away so that they wouldn't be able to take advantage of the group that didn't stop to attack them. The nobles only retained control over their personal forces as the peasants were still in a state of panic. Had it not been for the wooden fence surrounding the camp, they would've all run off somewhere.
Another tent of soldiers appeared and fired at the nobles' men from the back, causing another seven to eight casualties. The one leading the men ordered his subordinates to ignore the attackers and continue to run for the two cannons. The nobles within the camp gathered yet another hundred soldiers and sent them to chase after the other tent of enemy soldiers.
As they closed their distance with the cannons, the defence line was within sight of the pursuing soldiers of the nobles. When they were within 200 metres, the horses stopped and the enemy started loading gunpowder into the cannon barrels.
"This is bad! The enemy is trying to destroy the cannons! Run quick! Stop them!" cried a sharp-eyed soldier. If too much gunpowder was loaded into the cannon barrel and a wooden cork was stuffed into it to stop it, the cannon could be destroyed by firing it towards the ground. That was something every trained cannoneer knew how to do. It was the simplest method to weld and seal the opening of the barrel completely. However, it required iron nails and the Auerans didn't appear to have any.
Nevertheless, the pursuing soldiers failed to notice it, and thus neglected to see that the cannon barrels were aimed at them. Currently, the Aueran cannoneers put up an exaggerated act of panic. Only the two cannoneers that poured gunpowder into the barrels wore a look of tranquillity. In fact, they were smiling. The gunpowder kegs in their hands were actually empty.
Seeing that the nobles' soldiers were less than a hundred metres away, the cannoneers tossed their gunpowder kegs away and pretended to panic. "Run! The enemy is upon us!"
The cannons are ours! Smiles lit on the faces of the pursuing soldiers. The only thing on their minds was capturing the two cannons and be rewarded by the nobles. Every one of them scrambled towards the cannons and even forgot that they were holding their muskets in hand.
"Fire!" That cry startled the frontmost soldiers out of their frenzy. All they saw was a flash inside the barrels of the two cannons, followed by countless black pellets bursting out of the two holes. Then, multiple spots on their bodies burned and the sound of liquid dripping on the ground could be heard. Those were their last sensations before their consciousness faded to black.
All 134 soldiers of the nobles' private armies were completely wiped out by the two scattershot barrages. The remaining 70-odd soldiers at the rear were completely dumbfounded. They hadn't imagined that the cannons were loaded with scattershot. They had run all that way and fell for the enemy's bait.
Before they snapped out of it, fifty-odd gun-wielding enemies popped up near the cannons and fired. The soldiers that survived the cannon barrage were shot down one after another in a cloud of white smoke the guns emanated.
The nobles in the camp watched as their 300-odd private soldiers were completely wiped out. By then, the cannons had finished loading more scattershot and the Auerans checked on their fallen enemies to see if they were truly dead. Anyone who was found still breathing was given a stab with bayonets to be put out of their misery before they were looted.
The two tents of Aueran sneak attackers being pursued by the 100-odd pursuing noble soldiers ran through the forest in a huge circle and made their way to the two loaded cannons. The remaining soldiers of the nobles saw the ready-to-fire cannons and the other enemies armed with muskets and wisely chose to return to camp instead of charging towards the enemy in a hot-blooded impulse.