A Place Amid Ashes (2.2)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.

Shaila Dominance – Djose Woods, outside Knyskna.

The trucks stopped and Sgt. Bahir called for everyone to form up on the side of the road. All twenty-four riflemen and women formed up into two squads on a natural ditch by the side of the road. They could see precious little around them.

The skies were cloudy and a dim electric torch attached to the Sgt’s rifle was all the light they were allowed. It was growing cold, and if he could have seen all their faces Leander was sure his comrades would look miserable.

Sgt. Bahir called them to attention again, and pointed his Bundu rifle into the pitch-black behind him.

“March carefully and spread out. When you first see the lights from the enemy camp, regroup quietly, shoot an artillery flare and then begin our assault after the shells fall.”

Leander looked over his shoulder and saw the artillery crews, putting down their mortars on the road. They worked by dim lamp-light, holding up oil lanterns to their mortar’s sights and scopes and adjusting them. A few riflemen and all of the tanks would stay behind to guard them and the trucks. They started to site the woods nearby.

When Sergeant Bahir started move the entire assault squad followed. They climbed the ditch up into the woods, advancing on a wide front. Leander took long, precise steps forward, careful not to trip in sudden depressions or to walk into any trunks in the dark. He stuck by Elena, as he had said he would, and she marched alongside him.

Bonde followed close behind them, and he looked around himself as if with a keener eye than theirs. Perhaps his training taught him something to look out for that Leander did not know. Cold, slightly shaking, and feeling anxious in the dark, Leander tried to betray no undue sounds or sudden movements. He wished he could see better in the dark.

As he advanced Leander scanned from side to side, despite being hardly able to see a few feet in front of his nose, and he kept his submachine gun raised in front of him, moving its barrel along his field of vision as he surveyed. Around him the forest was thick with trees, thin and tall and with bushy crowns but growing in clusters. He was often reaching out with his gun and touching a trunk, and had to then weave around it and several neighbors with great care to keep his feet from catching on roots or slipping on a carpet of leaves, or his face from crashing into wood. Marching, he lost track of time.

The Sergeant’s electric torch pointed out the direction in which they were headed, and gave the formation a center around which to form. Leander and Elena would often find themselves too far from the thin beam, and slowly moved toward it to keep in formation with it. Bonde seemed unconcerned and marched confidently in his own path.

Leander sometimes heard or saw his comrades in the squad, difficult as it was to make them out in the dark. They were spread out wide enough, and part of such a larger formation, that it all seemed very abstract. He was marching with a platoon that was part of a company, and part of a battalion, part of a regiment. Leander imagined that there must have been hundreds of troops treading through the forest just like them, rifles out, a massive spearhead across the Djose. He was emboldened by this vision and felt he had the upper hand, though he did not know the size of the enemy’s formations. To him, company and regiment and division were still confusing and vague words that others had only briefly taught him.

“Up ahead,” Elena said, in a voice just high enough for Leander to hear.

They skirted around a line of trees and bushes and found themselves able to see more clearly than before. Lanterns and bonfires in the Nocht camp cast their light out into the forest, providing dim illumination several meters from the camp.

Elena, Bonde and Leander hid at the edge of the lights, using the trees for cover from the camp, and used portable scopes from their equipment pouches to investigate the clearing ahead. Through the lens Leander could see a large tent camp, likely a branch of a bigger Nocht operating base in the Djose wood. This was their intended target.

There were several men wandering the camp, some in various tents established around the clearing, and others huddled around their fires. Leander counted dozens of men, lounging and waiting, and he knew those were only the ones he could see – more probably lurked in the tents or in parts of the camp blocked from his sight. They were all fairly young looking, pale men with bright eyes and hair, whose faces glistened with sweat by the pyrelight. Leander thought some of them could be Cissean too.

Mysterious objects, probably support weapons, covered in green and brown tarps had been lined up to one side of the camp. Stocks of supply crates littered the site, labeled in Nocht script indecipherable to Leander’s eyes. Some had been pried open and partially unloaded, their contents distributed; the majority, dozens in tall stacks, lay out in the open.

There were mounds dug up, upon which Norgler machine guns and Schnitzer light field guns guarded potential approaches to the camp. Only one of these positions faced Leander’s direction.

More of his comrades stepped out of the shadows and they grouped up at the edge of the wood.

“Put a flare over that Norgler, and then we rush in.” Sgt. Bahir said.

Everyone in the squadron scrambled for their flare guns, but Bonde already had his out. He raised it, and aimed over the mound that the Norgler had been mounted on. He fired before anyone else could. Sgt. Bahir called everyone to attention as the flare ascended over the Nocht camp in a bright green flash that discolored the surrounding wood.

Within moments a red and a yellow flash rose skyward from other sides of the camp.

The enemy troops had immediately noticed the flares, and reached for their rifles or ran to their guns, but within moments they were suppressed by Ayvartan shelling.

Heavy mortars set up behind them dropped over a half-dozen shells into the camp from the safety of the truck convoy. Mortar shells crashed around the clearing, smashing the Norgler position in front of Leander and a nearby tent, setting ablaze a stack of crates and sending a group of men near a pyre flying in pieces.  Enemy troops scattered into cover or out in the open away from fragments kicked up by the remaining shells.

Near the back of the camp the shelling grew more inaccurate, but at least one shell hit a box of Nocht ammunition and caused an explosion and a spreading fire that threw the camp into confusion. The time was ripe for the attack to begin.

Sgt. Bahir raised his fist, and the squad charged into the camp.

Leander ran toward the raised Norgler gun mound, hoping to use the raised ruin for cover – it was the only thing close to him. Many of his comrades had instead elected to run headlong toward the tents, across wholly open ground at the edge of the clearing. Leander opened fire with his rasha as he advanced, barely raising it to his shoulder and hardly aiming. His bullets hit nothing but the amount of fire kept several men pinned down behind crates in front of him, and rendered their return fire panicked and ineffective.

Around the camp the Nochtish troops secured weapons and tried to rally, shooting back at the advancing Ayvartans from whatever cover they could scramble for.

Their stray shots hit comrades still in the open, but most of the squad penetrated the camp and took good positions, having shocked the Nocht troops back. Soon the forest was livid with the popping of submachine guns and the cracking of rifles.

There was a sudden explosion in the south, probably an HE shell from a defensive gun, but too far for Leander to do anything about. He felt his sight narrow, and he prayed to the Zigan gods for strong comrades covering his flanks, because his own mind would not let him see anything but forward anymore, and he was losing the lay of the land.

When he reached the wreck of the Norgler position he dropped behind the mound, which covered him fully if he laid on his knees, and took a deep, ragged breath.

Elena and Bonde dropped beside him, firing tentative bursts into the crates ahead as they took cover, hitting no men but suppressing several runners. Bonde gathered the companions in a little huddle and gestured for their guns, and then a thumb behind his back.

Leander and Elena knew what he meant, it was simple enough.

They nodded to one another, held their guns up close and each took a preparatory breath of dirty, smoking air.  As one, the trio rose from cover to shoot, unleashing several bursts downrange at whatever seemed hostile in the embattled camp. Leander tried to brace his barrel over the dirt, but the muzzle climb was considerable for his untrained hands. He could not control the amount fired with each burst either. His bullets flew wildly.

Opposition soon materialized in earnest.

Across from them, three Nocht riflemen huddled near the same troublesome stack of crates that had been repeatedly punished during the advance, and from there they opened fire on Leander and his comrades. The enemy leaned out, fired several rounds from their stripper clips, and returned to cover to work the bolts on their rifles, loading new clips, and then firing again, moving in precise rhythm so that one or two men were always firing and the remainder could reload and prepare in the meantime.

Leander marveled at their discipline, and wondered dimly if their hearts were pumping as hard as his, and if their breaths came as intermittently. Their rifle rounds were more powerful than Leander’s submachine gun ammunition, which was all pistol caliber, and a direct hit would have bit through his plate armor.

But enemy fire either flew over, bit harmlessly into the dust on the mound or stuck into the skeletal remains of the steel Norgler turret in front, crushed by the mortars.

Meanwhile Leander and Elena sprayed lead into the crates, to little effect.

They could not penetrate.

They had a better rate of fire but not the training to know how to leverage this.

Bonde, however, had taken notice of their situation. When he dropped back to reload his submachine gun, he pulled on Leander’s and Elena’s pants sleeves for attention. “Fire long bursts to keep them hidden, and I’ll move forward and shoot them from another angle.” He said, affixing a new drum to his gun. Elena dove back into cover and nodded; Leander tapped his foot while shooting to show that he understood.

Leander took cover again, waited a moment. He and Elena rose to a stand and opened fire on the crates at once. They timed their bursts as best as they could to keep the enemy’s heads down. The Nocht riflemen cowered behind cover, overwhelmed by the dozens of bullets flying their way. While they weathered the storm, Bonde took off from the side of the mound, running in a half-crouch out toward the line of covered objects.

He slid into cover behind what appeared to be a field gun with a tarp over it, and had a perfect flanking angle on the crates. Leander’s weapon dried, as did Elena’s, and the Nocht riflemen leaned out again. But Bonde had them in his sights.

When Elena and Leander dropped into cover, Bonde started shooting, cutting through the riflemen mercilessly. Elena and Leander heard the cries and saw the enemy’s weapons and helmets drop from behind the crates as their bodies fell on the spot.

They had little room to breathe despite this little victory. Battles occurred all around them, shots being traded in every direction. Smoke and dust rose to form a fog of war. Leander found it difficult to maintain awareness of everything happening. Their group, the twenty-five riflemen and women in their truck, had attacked from the east of the camp, but other squads of twenty-five now joined from several directions.

In the distance they dimly heard another crashing rounds of mortar shells, suggesting that their counterparts had begun their own assault from the far west that would pinch the Nocht troops. Leander and Elena ran out from the mound and crouched in front of the crates once occupied by the opposition, pushing the assault forward.

They saw and ignored the enemy bodies, flanked and struck down by Bonde, and established themselves behind the crates with their weapons up and firing anew. Bonde could cover their right flank, and to their left a tent had been knocked half down, and an Ayvartan officer ruffled inside it for documents. They saw Ayvartan assault troops move up from the south, pinning down the remaining Nocht troops and shooting them.

There was one last great crescendo of submachine guns in the nearby area before silence seemed to fall for certain. Sounds of gunfire became distant and the air around the camp stilled. The immediate area looked clear. Sgt. Bahir crawled out of the tent beside Leander and Elena and sat with his back to their crates, catching his breath.

“Found nothing.” He told them. “But this whole place was a big artillery dump. This’ll hurt ’em bad tomorrow.”

Leander nodded solemnly, his head pounding. “Orders, sir?”

“We’re gonna regroup, demolish all of these ammo crates, then push north down that path–”

The Sergeant stopped, and suddenly urged them to keep quiet.

“I hear it.” Elena said in fear, turning her head every which way. “But where–?”

A whirring, rumbling thing approached swiftly, its crunching wheels and engine noises drawing closer upon the camp.

Sgt. Bahir seemed to recognize it and screamed for everyone to disperse.

Within moments the sandbags blocking a path north of the camp collapsed under the eight wheels and sloped, battering face of an armored car, the machine losing no speed as it charged into the camp. A squat, sliding turret atop the back of the car turned its Norgler gun barrel and loosed dozens of bullets every second.

Leander hid without hesitation.

Like a stampeding animal the car drove past his position and charged south through the camp center. Leander peeked his head and watched the machine overrun a fire team shocked dumb behind a low sandbag wall, crushing the four of them under its wheels.

It swung around the edge of the camp, and the Norgler howled, puncturing crates and tents and cutting down soldiers behind their cover with withering fire. Leander saw bullets perforate the tent beside him and fly past, and he recoiled in fear, pushing against the crate with his back and scrabbling with his feet as though he could move the entire stack and protect himself. The bullets bit into the earth around him and kicked up tiny fragments of rock and wisps of dirt that made him terribly nervous.

Elena shook him and grabbed him and tried to keep him still. She finally seized his hand and led him to the other side of the crate, where they huddled over the corpses of the Nocht soldiers Bonde had killed and waited for the car to come for them as it circled around the camp. Hidden from fire again Leander tried to catch his breath, his mind racing and unable to settle on any course of action. Elena kept a nervous watch.

The armored car had hooked around the east side of the camp, covering the path from where they had first approached, and turned its turret right on them. It stopped briefly upon the Norgler mound they had destroyed, one of its front wheels catching in the hole left by the heavy mortar, all the while firing wildly around itself.

Machine gun bullets penetrated the crates, but luckily their silhouettes were hidden, and they were not the only targets, so Elena and Leander went uninjured through the salvo. Bullets flew inaccurately around them, grazing their heads and sides and chipping away their cover; then the gun turned to suppress other threats, leaving them trapped but alive.

“Without bigger guns we’re hopeless!” Leander said.

“We have the mortars.” Elena replied. “Where is the sergeant?”

“I don’t know!” Leander said, clutching his chest in fear.

“He was right here with us when the car attacked!” Elena said.

“Sergeant!” Leander shouted. He called out again and again, but there was no response. He didn’t know what to do in this situation – how did a soldier fight a vehicle head-on like this? He thought the second that he tried to move in the open the armored car would reduce him to meat in the blink of an eye. How did anyone survive a fight like this? How did a person of flesh and blood ever possibly stand up to this monster?

“Sergeant Bahir, use the mortars!” Elena cried out, looking desperate herself.

In front of them gunfire paused for an instant.

The Norgler machine gun atop the armored car turned again to face the source of the shouts, the gunner having heard Leander and Elena yelling behind the crates.

A burst of submachine gun fire bounced off the armored turret before it could fire.

“Throw a grenade at the front!” Bonde shouted, ducked behind the tarped weapons.

He leaned out from cover and fired at the turret, his bullets threatening the gunner’s slits but never accurate enough to go through. The turret turned to suppress him, gunfire puncturing the tarp and plinking against the weapons. Bonde survived the volley, crawling between the different tarped weapons while the Norgler tried to perforate them. The line of fire slowly followed him, biting centimeters behind him as he scrambled away.

Leander stood as tall as he could behind the crates while still hiding from the Norgler, and he withdrew his pipe grenade and pulled the catch on its handle.

His hands were shaking and his eyes stung with tears and dirt and even droplets of blood from tiny cuts delivered by fragments.

That moment before the throw felt impossibly long, slow, and terrifying.

He wound his arm and threw the grenade as hard as he could at the front of the armored car. There must have been at least twenty meters between them and the armored car, but the pipe hit the driver’s viewing slit nonetheless, became stuck in it and exploded.

Leander cowered like a child expecting a strike, but his legs were shaking and he did not dive back behind the crates. He saw the blast and the aftermath. The grenade punched a hole in the driver’s compartment, blowing fragments and heat through the openings and mauling the man at the wheel, leaving nothing but smoke and a smear on the seat.

But the explosion cost the car as a whole little integrity.

Though shaken, the turret came alive again.

“Stay down,” Elena warned, her voice quivering. They heard a click as the gun fixed itself on them. Leander could not move, staring down that gun, and even if he could he had nowhere to go that was safe. The crates had taken a beating, and would not last any longer. Elena seemed to want to help him, but he waved his hand stiffly for her to keep down. He had done everything he could, he thought. He grimly awaited the next volley.

Then a red flare rose high over the armored car, illuminating the gunner’s slit.

Leander thought he saw a face, gasping in horror before the shells fell.

With the driver dead the Armored Car could not escape the barrage. Mortar shells pounded into the roof of the vehicle and collapsed the turret, burying the gunner in shredded steel before it could shoot, and crashed into the ground around the vehicle, rattling its wounds. Fuel began to leak from it and the hull caught fire as a result of the violence.

Sergeant Bahir ran out from behind the nearby tent, dropping a flare gun and urging Elena and Leander away from the car, and shouting for Bonde to run.

They fled, while the fire spread over the ruined car and its fuel tank erupted.

Fragments of armor plate and Norgler ammunition flew in every direction as it exploded. Burning chunks of metal and torch-like projectiles flew from the carcass, igniting the shell crates that moments earlier had served so admirably as cover for Leander’s group. Bonde’s line of tarp-covered guns were soon caught in spreading flames.

“Ancestors, what a mess,” Sergeant Bahir shouted, looking over the remaining troops and the ruins of the camp. The survivors of the assault and subsequent battle regrouped away from the fires to quickly take stock of the situation.

Three assault groups had participated in this area, Leander soon found out.

One had been wiped out almost in its entirety – the first squad approaching from the south contended with both a Norgler and a Schnitzer and high-explosive fire from the latter weapon crushed the advancing troops. The south-east squadron, which joined after the battle had commenced, picked up the slack for them; Leander’s east squadron had luckily fought from the most advantageous positions in the camp, and the mortar attacks supporting them scored the most accurate hits on the defenders.

Leander gulped: in retrospect his own side of the attack was terrifying, and he could not even imagine how the survivors of the southern assault squad felt. He peered their way and they seemed a little shaken, but standing, and they willingly joined a new assault group. Would it later return to their minds that they had survived being shot at with explosives?

And what about him? Would he himself vomit with the realization that he stood face to barrel with a Norgler and at any moment could have been cruelly butchered before it?

His eyes were tearing up, his mind distorted.

He wiped his face, and thought of nothing. His mind and emotions came up a blank, as though his soul had been what the Norgler fire suppressed.

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