June 8th, 1691
Spanish Kongo, near the coast
The Spanish infantry came up the road at their slow march, eighty steps to the minute; they were in no hurry, conserving their strength against the blazing African sun. Why not? The Norwegian expeditionary force was, obviously, entrenching at Luanda, hoping to hold hastily-dug earthworks long enough for their fleet to evacuate. There was certainly no question of a pitched battle. Outside of Jaguar Knights, no army in the world tried to face Spanish infantry in the open on anything like equal terms.
Johann bared his teeth, not liking the thought, but it was true. Even this imperial garrison, troops sent to keep the natives under control in a poor backwater, marched with a precision and alertness he would have loved to see in his own men. The Norwegian army recruited from a far smaller population than that of vast Spain, and the open lands of the American frontier gave its poor better options than following the colours. Worse, the Navy got the pick of such recruits as did arrive. The army was left with the dregs of the dregs, the men too dull or brutal even to work as farm labourers. Of the hundred men in Johann’s company, only two were above 170 centimeters – and one of them was Johann.
Still, size wasn’t everything. The Spaniards thought they had the Norwegians cornered – and though they weren’t, precisely, wrong, they had perhaps forgotten in which circumstances a rat fights best. There was no fighting the elite regiments recruited in the Spanish highlands on equal terms; but an ambush on a narrow road was anything but equal. Johann had even allowed the native auxiliaries to pass, in spite of the immense chaos even his second-rate European troops could inflict on such. He could wipe out every native regiment in the Kongo without much affecting Spanish strength for a pitched battle. The resulting rebellion might flare through the region for a decade, but that would do the Norwegians no good. No, Johann wanted the real thing: Castilians, Catalunyans, Andalucians – the fighting heart of the garrison. A harder target, but a better one as well.
The Spanish regiment’s banner crossed the line Johann had mentally marked for himself, and he nodded to Espen, his second-in-command and the other man in the company taller than 170 centimeters. “Right, it’s time.” Espen nodded back and lit the fuse of his grenade, rising up to fling it down at the Spanish troops with a yell. That was the signal, and scruffy men in half-ragged uniforms – supplies to this distant theater were hit and miss, but being honest, even at the best of times Johann’s men were more likely to sell their uniform buttons than to polish them – rose all around them, bringing their muskets to bear and firing. There was no kind of coordination to the volley, but at twenty paces and with complete surprise it hardly mattered.
“Storm!” Johann shouted, pointing with his sword for a moment and then charging himself. Espen would follow, he knew, so he wasn’t really attacking a Spanish regiment all by himself. Still, it was a vast relief when he heard the answering yells of his men, and the howling of his own natives. Half-naked savages, armed with spears, not even the cheap trade muskets that Spain gave to its auxiliaries and that would blow up after fifty shots; but they’d guided him to this excellent ambush spot, and spears were just what was wanted for the close-up fighting that would follow.
The Spaniards, surprised or not, reacted with professional speed and violence, turning to face their attackers with bayonets at the ready. One man had apparently been marching with a loaded musket, endangering himself and his comrades in violation of all regulation; but his hasty shot hit someone, so perhaps his sergeant would only strip off half his skin, if he lived. Then the ambushers were in among the Spanish, who for all their speed hadn’t had time to form the line of bayonets that would have held their enemies off. Every man had eighteen inches of good Toledo steel in front of him, but the rear ranks hadn’t stepped into the holes left by the Norwegian volley, and so many men were left without someone on their flank. Johann swept aside a bayonet with his sword, then reversed the stroke to slash into the soldier’s throat. The momentum of their downhill charge carried him past the man’s falling body. He shouldered into the next Spaniard, conscious of the need to get through them not just into them; if they got bogged down in fighting here it was all over. He cursed the height, the sheer mass, of the well-fed Castilians; the contrast to his own stunted men was exaggerated by the huge conical caps they wore, and would give them an advantage in this kind of push-and-shove fighting. Still, even with their caps they were not ten feet tall; only six and a half, and the colonial road was narrow, making them march only four abreast. With another slash of his sword he was through them. He ran another ten paces, then stopped and turned. Risky as it was, his company would have to form up and make at least a brief pause before retreating, or he’d lose half of it to panic. “Rally here!” he shouted, spreading his arms to indicate the line. Espen, stopping twenty yards further up the road, took up the shout, and his men began to trickle into line, turning to face the dazed Spaniards. There wouldn’t be all that many men actually dead in the enemy regiment, but it would be an hour, or perhaps two, before it could be got into order and start marching again, and meanwhile it would hold up every man, ammunition cart, and gun behind it.
Some of his men, carried away by the heat of the moment, were stopping to fight it out with their immediate enemies, forgetting that they were outnumbered. That couldn’t be helped. Many of the natives were getting stuck as well, their spears flashing in the sun or dripping red. Those who were willing to take arms against their overlords were the ones with strong grievances, of the sort that made a man forget his own safety when he could finally strike back, if only for a single red minute. Johann shrugged mentally; they couldn’t expect to repeat this close-quarters ambush – the Spanish would keep scouts out, now, which would slow them further – and the spear-armed natives would not be much use in the open field, nor could they be evacuated. If they died taking Spanish soldiers with them, their purpose would be served.
As many men had formed up as were going to; he whistled sharply, cutting through the shouts and screams of pain. “Retreat, double-time!” he ordered. A few stray shots pursued them – impressively fast loading; the fighting hadn’t lasted more than half a minute – but no soldiers, which was a pity. Another company was waiting to cover their retreat, but it seemed they’d have no customers; the famed Spanish discipline would save them some deaths.
Deaths, but not delay; Johann grinned savagely as he ran. The Spanish would move more cautiously after this, would probe the hills for ambush and trap. Every hour was another company marching off a Luanda dock. He would escape this horrible sauna, would return home with his life and with a victory to his name. He looked behind him at where the Spaniards, recovering from their confusion, were mopping up the last natives.
Not today, then; but sooner or later the Spanish Empire must run out of men to hold their natives down. Then there would be blood and fire all across Africa. Today’s work was only a tiny chip in a vast edifice. But with enough chips it would all come tumbling down.
Death to Spain.
Against Spain, merely escaping with our lives is victory; though defeated, the battle lasted long enough for the ships to arrive.