A response to Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge, to write a story to fit one of the following randomly generated titles–
The Incubus’ Tale
The Manor Above
The Dancer And The Shattered Shell
The Hero Will Not Be Automatic
Ring of Bullets
The Music Box of Manhattan
These Damned Insects
A Cold Opportunity Without The Kingdom
The Apocalypse Ticket
I picked Ring of Bullets, but fudged the 1000 word limit Chuck requested. I am shameless.
This piece is set in the same universe as my Divine Lotus series of novels, just further south and later in time.
Note: this piece depicts combat and military violence, so be warned.
Copyright 2016 Douglas Daniel
Ring of Bullets
“Hold them!,” Haass screamed. “Hold the bastards!”
His order barely cut above the din of firing and the howls of the Temishi. The enemy swordsmen surged against the barricade, screaming in bloodlust, or in agony as a Union bullet found them. The troopers behind the barricade of logs and barrels fired directly into enemy faces, or stabbed with bayonets. As Haass watched one, then two of the soldiers fell, taking sword-thrusts, even as other soldiers shot the men who stabbed them.
“Captain! Captain!” It was Subaltern Skal. The youth practically tumbled down the hill toward Haass. “The Temishi are over the south wall! They’ve broken into the lower barracks!”
Haass stared at him for one instant. Then he grabbed the whistle on its lanyard, put it to his lips, and blew three sharp blasts. “Fall back!” he shouted. “Fall back to the hold-fast!”
The men obeyed, raggedly, in twos and threes. They had go backward, fighting as they went. Those who turned their backs to the Temishi were cut down at once. The barbarians, shrieking, came over the barricade in a living wave. Haass fired once, twice with his revolver, dropping tattooed swordsmen as they clambered over the logs. Then he went back, with his men, up the hill.
Five or six troopers coalesced around him and Skal, and together they laid down enough fire to hold off the Temishi as they retreated. The soldiers furiously worked the bolts of their rifles, firing, loading, firing. Haass empty his revolver, hastily reloaded with a speed-loader from his ammo pouch, and shot a charging Temishi in the face.
They went up the hill, and now the eastern barricade they had quit was smothered in Temishi. The watchtower on the east side of the cantonment, Haass now saw, was ablaze. One of the troopers beside him took a steel-tipped arrow through his chest. He crumpled slowly to the hillside, as if reluctant to admit he was dead.
They went back, and reached the lower door of the hold-fast. “Get in!” Haass cried. The soldiers piled in through the portal. Haass fired again and again, holding back the Temishi, then flung himself inside. Someone slammed the heavy door shut, and bars dropped into place.
Haass picked himself up. The lower floor of the hold-fast was a wide room, stone-floored, with firing apertures around its perimeter. Weak sunshine shone through the northern slits, as the sun approached noon. A stone staircase led up to the roof.
Fifteen or twenty troopers gasped and cursed in the lower room. Some were wounded. Haass said, “Cover the firing loops! Keep the bastards away from the walls.”
Men moved to obey. Haass forced his legs to move, and he ascended the stairs.
He came out on the roof, and the sound of the Temishi horde rang in his ears. He kept low, taking cover behind the crenellated top-wall, and peeking out as he reloaded his pistol.
From here he could see the whole breadth of the pass, from the northern hill to the southern. The knoll on which the hold-fast stood was lodged right in the mouth of the pass– to the west, across the shallow, frigid river whose name he could not remember, the country opened up into what passed for fertile lands in this cold, southern extremity.
Not only was the watch-tower burning, but also the northern and southern blockhouses, flanking the knoll. Haass gritted his teeth; they had not had the time to build a wall to enclose the hold-fast, the tower and the blockhouses. They had been told the Temishi were five or six days march away, on the other side of the mountains, and that there was time. Instead the Temishi had appeared suddenly, not an hour before.
Now the barbarians surged about the hill in their thousands. The lower barracks, the cookhouse and the ammunition hut were all burning, too, the ammo store crackling continuously with exploding ammunition. Temishi danced around the the fires, celebrating the destruction. The only signs of the bulk of Haass’ command were bodies in khaki lying scattered around the post. Here and there Temishi hacked at the corpses, out of spite, or to collect trophies.
At the moment, the Temishi were keeping back from the hold-fast, finishing the destruction of the rest of the post. As Haass watched, other groups of Temishi peeled away from the post, toward the river, with its bridge the Unionists had been unable to destroy. Haass grimaced; the Temishi would be on the division’s rear areas in half a day.
Someone was there with him on the roof– Sergeant Tem. The older man had blood on his face, but seemed otherwise unhurt. He peered out. “Bad enough, ain’t it, Captain.”
“Bad enough,” Haass said, unable to improve on the sergeant’s assessment.
“We should never have come to this forsaken place,” Tem said.
“Not our decision, sergeant,” Haass said. “We’re soldiers, we go where we’re sent.” Despite his words, Haass knew resentment– the Union had no business in this land, except the High Chief’s ambition for an empire. At the moment it seemed a poor excuse to let savages hack good soldiers to pieces.
“We just have to hold them off,” Haass said. “If our riders got through, the brigade could be here by tomorrow morning.”
An arrow skipped off a crenellation close by. Haass and Tem crossed to the other side of the roof, looking out toward the river. The soldiers below now fired at the crowd outside. Even so, despite the firing, Temishi were cautiously making their way up the slope on all sides. They’ll rush us soon.
A commotion among the enemy on the river-side of the post; men parted to let a small group of Temishi carrying long spears through. Two of the spears carried something on their tips, pales lumps. Their passage elicited much cheering among the Temishi.
The spear-carriers came closer, and Haass saw why the Temishi rejoiced. “Pons and Dro,” he muttered. The riders had not made it out.
“So,” Tem said, sounding resigned. “It’s the ring of bullets, after all.”
The pledge. “We’re not there, yet, sergeant,” Haass said. “If we can just….”
There was a roar; the roof shook beneath them, and a cloud of dust and smoke shot up on the other side of the holdfast. “They’ve blown the wall in!” Tem shouted. He raced for the stairs, and Haass followed.
In the room below was swirling smoke, screams and rifles going off in the enclosed space. Temishi poured through a wide gap in the eastern wall. Troopers shot them, struggled with them hand-to-hand, but there were too many of them. Now, however, the Temishi did not strike to kill; they seized soldiers with their bare hands and with nooses, looking to capture.
Ring of bullets…ring of bullets– the pledge, that no Union soldier would let another fall into barbarian hands, to be tortured and slowly flayed in Temishi temples. So, standing midway down the stairs, Haass lifted his pistol and shot Tem in the back of the head. He shot Skal, as the boy crouched weeping against the far wall. He fired and fired, and as he did Haass wept, too, for his men, for the waste, for himself. He would never marry or father children. He would never again see another sunset, or the forests of his home.
Temishi pushed up the stairs toward him. Haass put the muzzle of his pistol to his own temple, but the hammer clicked on a spent cartridge. He flailed with the empty pistol, cracking a skull, laying open a face, but strong hands seized him and bore him down.