The castle stood alone and aloof at the top of a hill, surrounded by a hostile army. Four stark, grey walls with a fortified gatehouse at one end, once it had dominated the crossing of two roads — the road that came from the west and ran east to London, and the road from the south that led up to the Midlands and beyond. Now the hill had been sculpted, carved away to make sheer fortifications that bristled with pikes and small cannon and musketeers.
The entire area around the base of the hill was cleared of trees and cover, and this was where the besiegers waited; a ring of tents and sentries, a few artillery pieces poised on their two-wheeled carriages, men dug into earthworks and fortifications of their own. Some of the men paraded with muskets almost as long as their own bodies, but their hearts didn’t seem to be in it. Others just sat in circles around the fires, eating and drinking.
It was a typical scene on a warm May afternoon. This was no sudden insurrection and neither side was in any hurry to engage the other. The King had been at Donnington briefly, but had escaped, and the place had been under siege by Parliament ever since. The men waiting on one side of the castle walls were quite content to starve out the men on the other. Why waste lives throwing yourselves against those fortifications when the laws of nature would eventually do the job for you?
Into this indolent scene marched a train of soldiers like a stick inserted into an anthill.
They were not the first distraction on that lazy day. A few minutes earlier a proudly beaming sentry had hurried into the captain’s tent.
“Caught a spy, sir!”
The captain sighed, reached for his hat and followed the sentry out with less than full enthusiasm.
The alleged spy was waiting in the custody of a pair of men armed with muskets. He was stocky and seemed powerfully built beneath his battered, nondescript travelling clothes. He looked middle-aged, with neatly cropped, red hair. He was looking around with detached interest only a small step removed from boredom.
The captain sighed again.
“And why is this man a spy?”
“He’s foreign, sir!”
“Are you, sir?” The captain addressed the red-haired man directly. Guileless, bright blue eyes looked back at him from beneath a deep brow.
“I am not English,” the man admitted. His accent was guttural and he spoke slowly, as if searching for every word before saying it. “I was on my way to Branheath. That is …”
“I know where Branheath is,” said the captain. It was a small village lying further up the river valley from Newbury, about a mile away. “Do you have a name?”
“I was christened John Donder.”
The captain studied him a moment longer. He was familiar with his men’s enthusiasm for capturing spies — it passed the time, if nothing else — and this John Donder almost certainly was not one. Certainly the King had allied with foreigners against his own people, but surely there were enough native Englishmen to spy for him without recruiting someone so obvious? He would have the man searched, just in case, and let him go.
“Well, Master Donder …” he said, and that was when the soldiers arrived.
They came in a column, boots tramping and scuffing the dry earth of the track. The sight of these polished, grim-looking marchers stirred the besiegers into at least trying to look smart and capable. There was a rough kind of uniform among them, jackets of a ruddy brown-red and thick leather overcoats. Each man had an identical firearm slung over his shoulder and what looked like strips of cloth strung across his chest from shoulder to belt. The strips seemed to be weighted with small brass tubes. At the head of the column was an officer mounted on a horse.
“Wait here,” said the captain, and he walked to meet the new arrivals.
“Good day, sir,” said the man on the horse. He had the round, florid face of a country squire; he looked more accustomed to worrying about the state of the fields than being mounted on a charger and backed up by a small army. “Kindly have your men stand to, ready to attack.”
The captain was clearly unimpressed.
“And who are you, sir?” The officer held up a scroll and slapped it into the captain’s hand.
“Sir Edwin Willoughby,” he said, “here by order of General Fairfax in Newbury. The Lord General thinks it is time to bring the siege of Donnington to a close and he has entrusted me with the task.”
The captain looked more respectfully impressed as he scanned the scroll, but it was grudging. “The Lord General should be aware that fortified locations such as this do not just tumble, sir. It is hardly a high priority in the course of this war.”
“No criticism is intended of you, sir,” said Sir Edwin, “and the affair will prove a valuable exercise for us all. Observe. Sergeant! Have the men fall in!” He turned back to the captain. “We’ll open the proceedings with a small demonstration, and then everyone can join in.”
An amused John Donder sat on an ammunition crate, still under armed guard, and watched the men with grudging approval. The soldiers fell into two parallel lines and a drum began to beat. They marched forward and stopped with the castle on their left.
“Well disciplined,” he thought. He hadn’t realised the English ran to a professional army nowadays. It was something he would have to bear in mind.
At a shouted command the men turned to face the castle, one line in front of the other. They were safely outside musket range — the lines were two hundred yards away — and the castle’s defenders stood on the fortifications and watched with interest.
“Load your weapons!”
There was a rattle of metallic snaps and clicks down the lines. The defenders cheered and waved. They could see these soldiers were new to the siege. Perhaps they thought a fresh commander had taken over and was trying to prove a point.
The front line of soldiers knelt. The men in the second line stood sideways on to the enemy, one foot forward, and raised their rifles to their shoulders. On the ramparts, one of the defenders turned around and bared his buttocks.
It was not the soft boom of gunpowder and there were no billowing clouds of smoke. The rifles fired with a definite crack, an explosive burst snapping through the air faster than the speed of sound. The volley echoed around the valley and the row of defenders, standing on the first line of the earthworks, collapsed.
An astonished John Donder leapt to his feet.
There was a stunned silence, broken only by:
Another series of those metallic clicks. John Donder realised there was none of the usual business of reloading a musket: power poured down the barrel, ball dropped after it, wadding rammed home. Instead each men just worked a small lever beneath the stock of his gun and raised it to fire again. He stood up, took a step forward, stared as closely as he could at the weapons the men were carrying as if seeing them for the first time.
“Oh my,” he thought.
And then the fortifications erupted in popping clouds of smokes as the defenders returned fire. It was a futile gesture, unless they were hoping that their own weapons had magically increased all of a sudden in range and accuracy, as Parliament’s apparently had.
More defenders collapsed. Some scrambled for the small cannon that were mounted facing the besiegers. They never reached them. Rifle fire cut them down.
The soldiers fired again, and again. The captain and Sir Edwin stood and watched, and John Donder pricked up his ears.
“That’s a remarkable range,” said the captain. “Not the usual gunpowder?”
“Coal dust, believe it or not,” said Sir Edwin. “Crushed to a fine grain, treated with some mysterious essence, and many times more powerful than gunpowder. Look.” He dug into his belt and produced a small brass tube, the length of a man’s longest finger. One end was pointed and a different colour, the dull grey of lead. “We have many hundreds of these. Each one is primed with coal dust, in place of the usual powder, and this …” He tapped the pointed end. “… which is a separate ball.”
“I should like to inspect one of those rifles, if I may.”
“So would I,” John Donder thought. He stood up and began to walk forward, ignoring the sentry’s objections.
“Certainly. Sergeant! Your firearm!”
The sergeant handed his rifle over to Sir Edwin, who worked the small lever beneath the breech. A metal slot opened in the side of the stock. “The cases are inserted in here. Each rifle carries a magazine of five, with a sixth in the breech if necessary.” He fed the case he had been holding into the slot. “After a shot is discharged, the soldier moves the lever, which expels the old case and inserts a new, ready for firing.” He snapped the lever back, and it jammed halfway.
“Indeed …” Sir Edwin was distracted by the gun’s misbehaviour. He waggled the lever back and forth. John Donder saw what was going to happen and started to run.
“Devil take it. They have a tendency to jam and …”
The rifle discharged suddenly, sending up a small crater in the turf next to the captain’s foot. The captain leapt back and Sir Edwin had the grace to look abashed.
“Blast it … hey!”
John Donder snatched the rifle from his hands. His face was livid as he stuck his little finger into the slot and worked out the case that had jammed there. Then he snapped the lever shut.
“They only jam if they are badly treated,” he said curtly. He was twisting the rifle about in his hands, looking at it all from directions, squinting along the barrel. Finally he flicked a small catch next to the trigger guard. “And you should always have this to the left when you are not using them. It stops them from going off.”
Sir Edwin’s eyes blazed. “And who the devil are you, sir?”
John Donder handed the rifle back. “I am a man who knows more about these things than you.”
“His name is …” the captain began. Sir Edwin waved him to silence and looked at John Donder more thoughtfully.
“You’ll be Hollykor too, I’ll be bound?”
John Donder blinked in surprise. “Holl … Holekhor, yes. How did you know?”
Sir Edwin ignored the question. “The Lord General’s Hollykor allies supplied these weapons, so I will forgive your incivility.” He glanced at the castle. “You may wait here. We may have need of you. Captain, I think we’ve softened ’em up enough. Pass the word to prepare to attack.”
John Donder was back on his ammunition crate as the battle began.
The drumbeat began again and the twin rows of riflemen marched forward. They fired from the shoulder again, and again.
The first one of them suddenly crumpled and fell. They had come within range of the muskets at last. Another joined him. They stopped marching and began to fire back at will, choosing their targets carefully. Three or four of them collapsed together as the ground at their feet exploded. Someone the other side of the ramparts had made it to a cannon. Still the riflemen held their line. Admiration for their courage fought a losing battle in John Donder’s mind with disbelief at their stupidity.
He hadn’t meant to be caught up in this at all. He had important business elsewhere and he had given himself a day to get to Branheath and back. He could be spared for that length of time. But as he had walked along the river towards the village he had left nearly thirteen years ago, his nostrils had caught the siege. His sense of smell had always been so much better than that of his English friends. There were at least a couple of hundred men (and they were men; the scent was distinctly male), who obviously had the English wariness of baths that he remembered so well. There was stale sweat, straw, woodsmoke from numerous small fires, and the pungent odour of those animals … what were they called … horses. Sheer sense of curiosity had led him to investigate further, and be hauled up by an over-enthusiastic amateur soldier as a spy.
Defenders were running out of the castle now, down towards the front line. They had seen the way the fight was going. The only way to respond to these strange new weapons, that could fire so accurately and so far and so continuously, was with a sheer mass of single-shot musketry.
Another line of riflemen ran forward to give aid to their fellows. The battle had opened with a single volley but now the rattle of shots was continuous: up and down the valley, through the trees, slapping flatly back from the castle’s stone walls. The smell reached John Donder’s nose: acrid, burnt and gritty. It stung the nose and dried up the mouth.
The besieging cannons opened fire, shooting over the heads of the attackers and pounding the lines between the fortifications and the castle. They gave another round, and then all the attackers, the veterans of the siege and the newly arrived riflemen, charged with a mighty yell, Sir Edwin at their head. The smoke from the musket-fire partially obscured the scene but every now and then John Donder caught glimpses: hand-to-hand fighting poised perilously on the lip of the ramparts; a rifleman using the bayonet on the end of his weapon to impale a defender; another rifleman tumbling as someone slashed at his hamstrings with a sword, to be set upon by two others as he lay squirming and screaming on the ground.
“At last,” John Donder muttered. This was a proper battle. It had defied all reason to see riflemen just standing there, out in the open, no cover, and soaking up fire. You couldn’t take a well-defended position like this with just a handful of superior weapons. You also needed a superior strategy. Enough defenders could hold this place with bows and arrows, slings and stones even, against riflemen who just stood there. But now the battle had reached the stage where orders were too slow: every man had to look after himself, and that is an essential instinct in most people.
Those rifles had been a surprise when they opened fire, but he had supposed the English weren’t stupid and sooner or later someone had to invent the things. The bigger surprise had come when he had taken the gun from Sir Edwin and actually seen it close up. It wasn’t just that English rifles were designed like the ones he knew back home. They were almost identical. The one he had held wasn’t military issue, but it was as good as. The steel of the barrel was dull and slightly scored; the wooden stock and grip showed signs of chipping. It wasn’t factory made. But it was as if someone had reconstructed a standard calibre infantryman’s rifle from memory, using only native English tools.
He hadn’t needed Sir Edwin’s remark about the Hollykor allies to tell him who. Thirteen years ago he had been the only Holekhor his English friends had ever met. Now he had learnt that presumably a whole group of them were the friends of one of the sides in this war. It could make his life much more difficult.
But he was wasting his time here. He had no need and no desire to get involved in this war. He glanced about. Everyone’s attention was on the fighting, even that of his guards. They stood with their backs to him, fingering their muskets while they stared at the battle, obviously itching to join in. And he wasn’t entirely defenceless: if his captors had actually got round to searching him, they would have been in for a surprise. So if he could slip away …
Something massive plummeted out of the smoke, and it resolved into Sir Edwin astride his charger. They reared to a halt before him. Sir Edwin had acquired a rifle of his own from somewhere.
“You! Donder! Get that crate open.”
John Donder was under no obligation at all to obey, but now was not the time to argue. Besides, if he helped Sir Edwin go off to war, perhaps the man would be killed and the problem of his detention here would vanish. So he helped tear the lid off the crate. It was packed with the brass cartridges that Sir Edwin had shown the captain, rows and rows of them, tucked into long cloth strips and imbued with a pleasant oily tang.
“Help me load up,” said Sir Edwin. There was no way to carry the box on the horse, so he helped Sir Edwin string a strip of ammunition around his neck, then another. By the third, Sir Edwin was wilting under the weight and he looked at John Donder with a speculative gleam in his eye. “You look strong,” he said. “You could manage a few yourself.”
“It’s not my war,” said John Donder. Sir Edwin’s eyes narrowed and he hooked a thumb around the strap of his rifle for a moment. But then his face seemed to clear.
“You are right, sir,” he said. “Englishmen fight Englishmen’s wars. But I have need of a porter.”
John Donder took only a moment to think it through. Sir Edwin was not — yet — his enemy and he needed to find out more about the English at war. Perhaps they were not all quite so suicidal as the riflemen.
“Very well,” he said. A minute later he was seated behind Sir Edwin on the horse and galloping into the fray.
John Donder clung on for dear life as the horse carried them around the battlefield in a wide circle. To their right the once simple strategy of taking the castle by rifle fire had deteriorated into a free-for-all, still coyly shrouded in smoke that only occasionally parted to give the odd glimpse of the carnage. The impressions filled John Donder’s mind. The dark shapes of men locked in mortal combat; the stink of gunpowder and rifle smoke that now contaminated every breath to the point where you had to think to notice it; the continuous sound of gunfire that had merged into a constant background crackle.
He could clearly see that the battle had become bogged down. It had not been so straightforward as Sir Edwin had hoped, perhaps due to the defenders’ perfidious idea of fighting back. The attackers were up on the earth ramparts, but that was as far as they could get. The defence beyond them was just too strong, and close up, there wasn’t the room to bring a rifle to bear before someone came at you with a sword.
Something buzzed past his ear like a maddened insect. It took half a second to work out that it must have been a musket ball. They were within range now.
But Sir Edwin steered his horse into the trees, away from the battle and out of sight of the castle. They ran through the trees parallel to the battlefield and pulled up. The two men jumped down.
“This way,” said Sir Edwin, and he jumped down into a small ditch. It was a small stream, barely a trickle, and following it upstream you found yourself back on the battlefield. They crouched below its banks and splashed through the water, the sound of the fighting hiding the noise as they approached the castle. Finally the banks widened out into a small hollow packed with riflemen.
“Got the ammunition,” Sir Edwin said. He pulled the belts off his shoulders and from John Donder, and his men got busy feeding the brass cases into their rifles. “Now, look.” He poked his head cautiously above the level of the ground and pointed with his rifle.
The fortifications ahead made a jagged line around the castle hill. They drew a strange shape with many straight lines and many points, the idea being that every wall could be defended from at least two sides. Sir Edwin’s small group lay on the ground near one of those points. They were well around the field from the main battle and the point was barely defended.
“We can take those men from here,” said Sir Edwin. “We run forward, get up the walls and take the point before they can rally. When we raise the standard, the others will see us and come to join us. It’s a way in, you see? It’s narrow and can easily be held by us.”
John Donder stared at the fortifications. He could see four … no, five defenders beyond the ramparts. They should have been guarding their position but their attention was clearly on the main battle at the front of the castle. They hadn’t seen Sir Edwin’s group assembling close by. Sir Edwin was showing some tactical sense at last. It was the kind of assessment John Donder would have expected of a junior officer in his first taste of combat, but it was better than marching your men towards entrenched positions.
Sir Edwin and some of the men wormed their forward on their stomachs, each aiming at a defender.
“Fire,” said Sir Edwin, and the shots cracked out. The men in the fortifications fell back and the way ahead was clear.
“Up and at ’em!” Sir Edwin bellowed, and he sprang to his feet and charged the rampart, with his men close behind.
The ramparts erupted in defenders. The guards they had seen had been only a small part of the much larger group waiting below the rim. They seemed to burst out of the ground, wielding muskets, and Sir Edwin’s small group was caught right in the open. The defenders poured down musket fire at their attackers. Sir Edwin was the first to fold, clutching his stomach. He collapsed and tried to push himself to his feet again, but another shot got him and he lay still. His men crumpled around him.
John Donder crouched down in the hollow by the stream and bit his lip. He had seen brave men die before; it never got easier. One of the fallen men lay a few yards away, screaming. It was the mortal, nerve grating sound of real pain. Not fear, pain. A gut wound, perhaps. Or a bullet lodged in the spine. There was another shot from the fortifications, and the screaming abruptly stopped.
And John Donder realised he was alone in the middle of a battlefield, and the attention of the castle’s defenders had been caught. If he broke cover now, they would certainly see him, and even though a musket was an old-fashioned and inaccurate weapon, he could never outrun a ball from one. He and Sir Edwin’s men hadn’t been seen coming up the stream because attention had been elsewhere. If he tried to go back the same way, he almost certainly would be seen and shot at.
“Forzh,” he muttered. He crept forward very slowly on his front to where a clump of grass might just hide his head, and peered up. The defenders were still up on the fortifications, poised, muskets at the ready. He counted … six … seven of them. Forzh again. One of them looked directly at him and he froze, until the man looked away once more.
John Donder glanced over his shoulder at the trees that lined the battlefield. They were perhaps two hundred yards away. If he could get from here to there without being seen …
But he couldn’t. It wasn’t possible. The only alternative was to go the other way: to be seen, deliberately. He drew a breath, waggled his head from side to side until he heard his neck click, flexed his shoulders. Then he stood up.
“Hey!” he shouted, and waved. Muskets swung around to face him, and even as they moved he was dropping back down to the ground and rolling so that he wouldn’t lie where it looked like he had fallen. He curled up into the tightest ball he could as they fired and musket balls whipped through the air around him. Had there been seven shots? Or only six? He couldn’t wait to find out. He leapt to his feet, out of the ditch, and before the defenders could reload he was sprinting away from the battle as fast as his legs could carry him, zigging and zagging as he went. He had never run away from a battle before in his life and it was a curious experience. By the time they were reloaded, he was well out of range and into the trees, on his way to his unfinished business in Branheath.
Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2004. Not to be reproduced without permission.