Bounder Ch. 05byStultus©
************************* CHAPTER FIVE
"Marc and Torvald," the old veteran tapster ordered with rather disturbing calm, "take a pair of muskets upstairs to the front loft window and keep the front approach swept clear. Target their leaders and any obvious Blackguards officers first. Make every shot count! Brody and Erin, grab another pair of guns and go with them with extra shot and powder and keep the sharpshooters reloaded! They'll charge the door first and if that fails they'll then decide to burn us out. That would be bad, so don't let that happen! Eduard and Mercer, do the same and cover the rear door! Molly and Brecka go with them to reload for them as well. You others, stand ready to guard the doorway when it is breeched. If they break through it'll get ugly and messy in here fast!" The old veteran had been in more than one tight place before and he continued to coolly issue out additional orders to the remaining guards.
The guardsmen and women hastened to their assignments, with most of the rest left downstairs not given any other specific orders took this time to load and prepare for firing all of the remaining collection of assorted battered and mostly obsolete pistols. Another trio of vigiles went to assist Koch in covering the back door, which seemed to possess a sturdier frame and had an iron bar to block it as well.
Upstairs, I could already hear the sounds of regular gunfire, as the best vigiles marksmen focused upon their targets while their assistants reloaded the muskets as swiftly as possible. From the early sound of things and the growing cries of pain and clouds of spent gunpowder, the guardsmen were already having the best of the contest in its early stages.
Now with the sounds of a heavy pole or hunk of timber being used as a battering ram against the weaker front door, I could tell that the old doorframe was unlikely to survive this assault for very long. This problem was not unexpected and the retired vigiles tapster was making his own final preparations.
"When I give the word, unloose the bar!" The old retired sergeant muttered, pounding down the barrel of the weapon with a thick ramrod to force an extra large dose of powder and shot into a rather oversized blunderbuss along with a thumb sized chunk of cotton wadding to hold everything into place. The weapon was an obvious antique, a large heavy arquebus design I'd never seen before, but the old veteran handled the old firearm with familiar skill and not a small amount of obvious affection.
"Ready!" he cried out, and with a sudden tug, the guards at the door quickly withdrew the all-too slender and cracked wooden bar from its mounting bracket. The next crash of the battering ram burst the weakened door fully off of its leather hinges so that it crashed down inside the doorway, leaving the entrance fully open, but the old sergeant was ready.
Stepping forward into the doorway he aimed and fired his massive weapon slowly and precisely, four separate times! It was a repeating weapon, having four distinct barrels that could each be loaded and then in turn rotated into position aligned with the fire chamber. Each thunderous blast cut a swath through the attackers, like a hand-held cannon filled with grapeshot, felling every group of our armored assailants that attempted to charge through the open doorway, each blast creating a larger cloud of lead-filled fire and smoke, and now a growing miasma of blood and flesh that had been vaporized to mist.
Now in a mere matter of moments, the area around the doorway was swept clear and a full dozen of the attacking Blackguard and their hired mercenary soldiers lay fallen in the mouth of the breech, mostly with unspeakably horrible wounds.
Undoubtedly this old repeating weapon was highly illegal and severely religiously proscribed... but that just made it an extra efficient weapon of death and destruction capable of single-handedly repulsing an entire assault, all on its own. Very handy! I decided that a similar sort of model, but with a modern wheellock cocking and firing mechanism would be much more efficient, and worth every piece of gold that the master gunsmith Manuel si'Orly back in Mirabelle would charge me to custom craft it!
Now with the doorway freed of attackers for a moment, it was largely blade work from now on, with the crusty old sergeant taking the position of honor blocking the entrance just inside the door with an equally battered, but undoubtedly razor sharp sword. He was quickly joined on each side by a pair of older senior guardsmen and together they skillfully held the doorway against all comers for longer than anyone could either hope or pray for. The doorway was only wide enough for two attackers to engage this trio of defenders at a time, favoring the defenders.
Some of the vigiles, like the tapster were completely unarmored and even the on-duty patrollers only possessed their padded vests and jackets for protection. Most of the attackers had stout leather, studded or even scaled armor to ward off sword blows, and this was indeed a distinct advantage. Some of the more obvious Blackguards soldiers were even wearing chain shirts or plate breastplates, but even with the benefit of their armored protection, the quickness and skill of the three veteran guardsmen kept the attackers from breaking through and engaging us in force. At least for a long enough time so that the rest of the defenders could complete their own final preparations. They were selling their lives dear in the hopes that the promised vigiles reinforcements might yet soon come.
Sporadic but accurate musket fire from upstairs promptly cut down the opposing enemy gunners, or at least forced them to fire from a range distant enough to be of more threat to their fellows than to our defending vigiles. Closer at hand, my extremely accurate pistols proved lifesavers when a pair of overly brave and ambitious Blackguards officers charged forward to attempt to clear the doorway with the blaze of their own brandished pistols, but through the growing acrid clouds of gunpowder smoke I spotted their advance and was prepared to aim and fire first. Flerrie and several other patrollers fired their own poor quality and much less accurate pistols at need, providing us with enough point defense to keep the desperate odds manageable, and we discharged our guns in turns, give us of us the necessary time to hastily reload.
I fired and reloaded hurriedly and with much concern for the continued heavy odds against us. We'd apparently killed or disabled all of their gunners and none of the remaining attackers had found the courage to provoke our direct attention by trying to retrieve and fire any of the dropped but still loaded pistols now lying in the doorway. A disciplined charge en-mass to seize and fire them at us, to clear out the ranks of our protective gunners, could have been devastating, especially now as our brave front trio of guardians each began to falter and collapse from the weight of their wounds. If the enemy had made a determined effort right then and there, they could have overwhelmed us and forced complete breech of our ranks while our own pistols were unloaded and impotent. Then their majority of numbers likely would have carried the day in a desperate mass hand-to-hand battle inside the inn, with no quarter offered or asked.
Already my own pair of pistols were now too hot to be safely reloaded any further. The barrels shimmering with the heat of being repeated fired as quickly as possible, and I feared that if I poured fresh powder once more into the barrel that it would instantly ignite right into my own face! Flerrie's larger and heavier pistol was smoking hot as well, but she dared to reload the old matchlock yet one more time without respite, daring the weapon to explode prematurely in her hands, but it tolerated this one last abuse. I felt no such further bravado, and with reluctance set down my pistols upon a bar table and drew my sword and prepared myself to step forward to meet the enemy with poisoned steel, rather than accurate lead.
Fresh vigiles defenders strode forward in front of me to hold the doorway fast and secure and some could not hold their guard there for long, falling quickly and adding yet more split blood to the increasingly soaked wooden floors. The press of the attackers, who still greatly outnumbered us, began to tell and we began to give ground... and more sacrifice of patroller heart's blood, but we could tell that the resolve of the mercenary soldiers was now much in question.
When I thought that our thin line of defenders could not hold for much yet longer, I heard loud cries from our attacker's rear. It seemed that more vigiles guardsmen from the local watch station had now arrived and they were now setting upon our enemy's rear and flanks. They still had the numbers against us, but the advantage was now entirely ours!
"Charge them guards, for I can see them waver with naked fear in their eyes!" The old sergeant cried out, trying to bring himself up from off of the floor while holding both hands against his belly to try and contain a fearsome wound that a broadsword had carved into his vitals. One of his patrollers stopped to pull him away from harm and thrust a bar towel into the gapping cut into his guts and with pressure began to suppress the great flow of blood to a trickle. The rest of us, myself included with bare naked steel still in my hands, charged forward as one to seal this final threatened breach and with cries of determination we brought this last enemy advance to a halt.
We again held the door, with grit and no small amount of determination and skill of arms, which even the superior armor and numbers of our foes was inadequate against. They'd tasted our mettle (and metal) and found their own now to be wanting in the comparison, and our spirits began to soar!
The remaining minutes of the battle were nothing but pure carnage, even for the survivors, but we could tell that the Blackguards no longer had the stomach for the fight. As expected, it was the remainder of their hired mercenaries whose morale broke first, and they fled from the combat in considerable disarray. They had taken the worst of the losses and their disorderly retreat caused considerable confusion to the ranks of the remaining Blackguard soldiers behind them, who were then much engaged with the fresh and well-armed guardsmen. Their will to continue this battle was broken as they remained under the slow but steady, and extremely accurate musket fire from our marksmen upstairs, and shortly afterwards they too fled from the field themselves, in rather considerable haste and dishonor.
The enemy no longer had the stomach to face our lead and steel any further and they fled like raw militia recruits before our implacable advance, leaving us in peace to now tend to our handful of dead and our numerous wounded guardsmen and women. Much blood had been spilled upon my behalf, and to their lasting honor every wound was to their front as not a single man or woman had turned to flee or shrink from their near certain mortal fate!
It had been a tremendous victory for the vigiles, and one that the Blackguards would not forget or forgive anytime soon!
In the aftermath of the battle there was little that I could do to aid the wounded, as I have little knowledge and less practical skill with the healing arts, but Flerrie, Koch and I did our best to at least help assist and staunch, clean and bind what injuries we could. One of the youngest uninjured patrollers was sent off to summon the vigiles master-surgeon who had some magical healing talents and deft fingers with a stitching needle and gut, and he was found already in waiting at the nearest guard station, along with a pair of his assistants. From the moment of his arrival his skills were sufficient to preserve each of the remaining wounded, including the old tapster, their retired sergeant Malcome who was a very tough old bird indeed!
Still, the great number of wounds both great and small, not to mention their four dead, cast something of pall over the grandness of their victory against their hated rivals.
I didn't have much trouble convincing Koch to keep his fingers off of the innumerable coin purses of the fallen mercenaries and Blackguards soldiers. The back door he had been guarding had remained secure and he had drawn no blood himself during this battle. Instead it had been quietly suggested and affirmed unanimously by each of the patrollers, that all of the spoils of this battle would be gathered into a fund to be spent for the care of the families of the vigiles who had fallen. One dead watchman had a wife, now a widow with two young children, two others had young children without a provider, and each of the rest without spouses had helped to support their parents. A couple of the purses found on several of the more senior Blackguards officers looked particularly fat and likely rich with heavy gold, but I didn't begrudge the coin going to charity on this evening.
One of the officer's pistols was a wheellock of new and decent quality manufacture, but not a masterwork of the gunsmith art like mine. Still, this was a weapon of very acceptable worth, and I made sure to press it into Flerrie's hands, for her to bear, to replace the inferior older matchlock pistol. I didn't want or need it, and I'd seen more than enough carnage today to caution me to make every possible preparation for the future, and to see that my young follower could better defend herself. I had noted her marksmanship earlier and it appeared that she had good eyes and very acceptable accuracy using her semi-obsolete and rather inherently inaccurate weapon. Armed with a respectable quality wheellock, and some considerable practice, her skills with a firearm could become formidable!
I still felt myself much in her debt, if not just for her own actions earlier today and now again this evening, but also for the sacrifice paid by her fellows on my behalf.
A lot of men and women had shed blood to assist and protect me, albeit under Sir Adrian's direct instructions, but still I felt some moral responsibility for the ghastly ruins of this battlefield, with over fifty men and women now lying dead in the street or inside this once peaceful ale house. I'd never seen so much blood spilled before... not by half! I'm a dishonest thief but not a killer and I was not accustomed to such a sight as this, and I found it greatly disturbing.
We all now shared a bond of blood together, like the battlefield comradeship of warriors, were the vigiles and myself now. We had been companions together by each other's side and we had shared both fear and the joys of final victory together. This was a powerful thing; something primordially honest and true... a naked truth that even my most disreputable inner core of self-interest could not ignore.
But Danelle and Rochelle's justice was already coming with a disturbingly heavy cost!
I made my departure from the Red Standard just before Sir Adrian himself arrived about an hour later to inspect the scene of the battle. This regrettable affray had already been officially declared to be an unfortunate confrontation between the Blackguards and some local bandits operating near the docks. Officially, the Blackguards would be commended and receive the lion's share of the credit for slaying a near two full score of 'bandits', i.e., the unfortunate deceased mercenaries. The actual Blackguards dead were less, being a bit less than a full score in addition, and they had left none of their own wounded behind to be taken as prisoners. The injured had either been assisted away in their escape or one of their fellows had eased their passage into the afterlife with a quick slice of a dagger prior to fleeing themselves.
That was the story that Sir Adrian would confirm and accordingly report to the governor, becoming 'fact'. Neither the Lord Coroner nor his Blackguards could ever admit to instigating an assault upon a group of vigiles, or worse, losing such a battle. This plausible fiction of a valiant street fight against bandits would help to maintain a polite fiction which might keep tensions between the two armed groups tolerable and the likelihood of direct and open street warfare between the Blackguards and the vigiles somewhat less likely in the days and weeks to come.
Would the Lord Coroner's soldiers have some lingering hurt feelings and plan for a subtle revenge at a later suitable opportunity? Without a doubt!
I didn't want to face Sir Adrian yet, not with the blood of some of his finer officers and men morally upon my hands. I needed something positive to deliver in return, and as of now I still had nothing. I needed answers, and more importantly I now wanted to deliver that promised justice more urgently than ever before. At the start, it had just been my injured pride that motivated my efforts, but now I was certain that I owed something of a genuine blood debt now as well. Sir Adrian might not see it that way... his men had merely followed orders to protect a valuable investigator who was engaged in some hazardous, but approved vigiles business. The cost of doing business, he might say. The risks of a street patroller in dangerous times, to be hurt or even be killed in the line of duty in some honorable and noble manner, I supposed.
It still felt like a blood debt to me. I would have felt much more differently about this situation back in Mirabelle, but oddly now the wheel of life seemed to have shifted significantly for me, enough so that I couldn't even pretend to myself that I had been untouched by the sacrifices of blood and sweat the vigiles had made on my behalf.
This was of course quite intolerable... but my odd conflicted feelings about this matter could not be ignored or denied.
Flerrie took her place behind me as I left, without my bidding or requirement for her further immediate company, but I didn't protest. She bore only a very slight scratch on her left arm and her trivial wound didn't seem to hamper her desire to continue to do her duty, as she perceived it, to protect and watch over me for Sir Adrian. It was no surprise that she had already been informed of the current whereabouts of Watch-Constable Auguste, formerly of the Ormsbridge vigiles station. She'd discovered that the dutiful guardsman had been recently reassigned to the Westron Hills station. This was the guard post furthest west outside of the city that could be found. She thought that this probably wasn't a punishment demotion, but the best way to get the simple but honest guardsman far enough away from the city that none of the Blackguards could easily get to him to settle any private accounts. That made a lot of sense to me. Constable Auguste would likely make a very good sergeant or even a lieutenant of the watch someday and Sir Adrian was more than astute enough to protect his potentially valuable assets for the future. The old retired general always seemed to take the long term view of things.
It would take me half of a day's travel to get there, and again back, exhausting most of the day, but I'd still have plenty of time to meet Mumford the following morning not too far outside the eastern gate of the city. I tended to think better on my feet anyway, and this would give me a day of hard thinking while walking back and forth. I wasn't counting on Auguste to give me a tidy solution to the entire problem, gifting it directly into my eager hands, but I wanted his perspective... and more knowledge about my likely enemies. Especially, the 'why' part... the motive for the crimes in the first place, and why my own death was now seen as critical and necessary to the conspirators.