March To The Sea im-2, page 3part #2 of Imperial March Series
The first grenades started to fall into the mass, but not even that was enough to turn them. And the only way to kill them was to hit them from the side. It took just a moment for a thought to percolate through his shock, and his sense of guilt for the lives that momentary delay cost would live with him the rest of his life.
"On the packbeasts!" he yelled, grabbing for a dangling strap on the flar-ta he'd been dodging and swinging himself frantically aboard. "Everybody on the packbeasts!"
The stampede hit like a meat and bone avalanche. From his precarious perch, Pahner saw dozens of the Marines go down under the feet and tusks of the giant lizards. But many—most—of the others were scrambling onto the company's mounts.
Even that wasn't the most secure situation, but at least it gave them a fighting chance as the enraged flar-ke charged clear through the company, then turned to charge right back. The good news was that they didn't seem to realize which was the greater danger and directed their fury at the packbeasts rather than the insignificant humans who were actually hurting them, and they slammed into the flar-ta like lethal, ancient locomotives. The thudding of massive impacts and screams and shrieks of animal rage and pain filled the universe, but the company's bead rifles were finally able to come into play in the melee. As one of the giant herbivores charged, massed fire from the Marines perched on its flank would smash into it from the side. They were using ammunition like water, but it was that or die.
The situation was a complete madhouse. The Marines, some surviving afoot, some perched on packbeasts, some even having attained the safety of the treetops, poured fire into the rampaging herd. At the same time, the flar-ke were charging and slashing at the company's packbeasts and the Marines who'd been dismounted.
Pahner spun from side to side, snapping orders for concentrations of fire where he could, then looked up just in time to see Roger come charging into the melee. Where and how the prince had learned to use a flar-ta as a war steed was a complete mystery, but he was the only member of the company who seemed at home in the maelstrom.
He'd apparently picked his target from outside the mass, and he and his mount charged in at full speed. The impact when the galloping Patty hit the larger beast was a carnal earthquake.
The target squealed in agony as the flar-ta's tuskhorns penetrated its side armor and slammed it down to its knees. As the sergeant major poured fire into the flar-ke to either side of them, Roger pumped rounds into the exposed underbelly of Patty's target. Then, using nothing more than words and thumping heels, he backed the packbeast off its victim and charged back out of the mass to wind up for another run.
Pahner slapped Aburia, who was driving his own beast, on the back of her head.
"Get us out of here! Try to line us up for a charge!"
The corporal goaded the beast into a lumbering run, and dismounted Marines dashed in from either side as they cantered through the melee. Pahner snatched them up as they came alongside, snapping orders and passing over his own ammunition.
As he cleared the last embattled pair of behemoths he heard another thunder of flesh headed into the battle. Roger was back.
* * *
"I wish the mahouts were here," Berntsen said as he hacked at a ligament.
"Why?" Cathcart asked. The corporal wiped at his face with the shoulder of his uniform. Everything else was coated in blood.
"They used to do this."
The company had halted in the open area created by the burrowing beasts and set up defenses. With this much meat around, scavengers were bound to come swarming in, but the unit could go no further. The casualties had been brutal . . . again.
The friendly Nepalese, Dokkum, who'd taught them all about mountains, would never see New Tibet again. Ima Hooker would never make another joke about her name. Kameswaran and Cramer, Liszez and Eijken, the list went on and on.
"Tell you one thing," Cathcart said. "Rogo was right the first time. These motherfuckers are bad news."
"Yeah," the private admitted, pulling on the heavy skin of the dead beast. "He was right all along."
* * *
"You were right back on the plateau, Roger," Pahner said, shaking his head over the casualties laid out inside the perimeter. "These are not packbeasts."
"Like the difference between buffaloes," Roger repeated wearily.
He'd just finished sewing up Patty's wounds, using the kit the mahouts had left and a general antibiotic provided by Doc Dobrescu. He'd been forced to do the work himself, because no one else could get near the grumpy beast.
"Cape and water, you mean?" Dobrescu asked, walking up and sitting down on a splintered tree trunk.
"You were saying something about them just before it all fell into the crapper," Pahner said. "I'd never heard of them before."
"You're not from Earth," Roger pointed out. "Of course, most people on Earth never heard of them, either."
"They have in Africa," Dobrescu said with a bitterly ironic chuckle.
"So what are they?" Pahner asked, sitting down himself.
"They're a ton of mean is what they are," Roger said. "You go out after buffalo, and you take your life in your hand. If they scent you, they'll swing around behind and sneak up on you. Before you know it, you're dead."
"I thought buffaloes ate grass."
"That doesn't mean they're friendly," Roger told the captain tiredly. " 'Herbivore' doesn't automatically equate to 'cowardly.' " He gestured at the mounded bodies of the flar-ke. "Capetoads," he snorted.
"What?" Pahner asked. There were a million things to do, but at the moment they were getting done. He was, for once, going to just let the camp run.
"They look like horned toads, but they're nasty as Cape buffalo." Roger shrugged. "Capetoads."
"Works for me," Pahner agreed. He sniffed at the smells coming from the cooking area. "And it appears that we're about to find out what they taste like."
"One guess," Dobrescu said, with a grunt of effort as he shoved himself to his feet.
As it turned out, they tasted very much like chicken.
"Now that's something you don't see every day," Julian said tiredly.
"I guess you do around here," Despreaux replied.
The beast looked like nothing so much as a bipedal dinosaur. A large bipedal dinosaur, with short forelimbs and extremely atrophied mid limbs . . . and a rider.
"Cool," Kyrou said. "Horse-ostriches."
The rider reined in in front of the company, said something in a loud voice, and raised a hand for them to stop. The reins, which led to a bridle arrangement much like that for a horse, were held with the false-hands, leaving the upper hands available for things like imperious gestures . . . or weapons, and Kosutic walked forward, holding up her own open hands.
"Ms. O'Casey to the front, please," she called over the company frequency. "I can't get a bit of what this guy is saying."
"On my way," the academic's voice replied, and Kosutic returned her attention to the mounted Mardukan. He was clearly a guardsman of some sort, for he was heavily armed and armored. Not that the arms and armor bore any resemblance at all to the equipment in common use on the far side of the mountains. He also looked like a tough customer who wasn't entirely pleased to see them, and the sergeant major clasped her hands before her in the nearest approximation to a Mardukan gesture of polite greeting a human's mere two arms could achieve.
"Our interpreter is on her way," the Marine said pleasantly in the trade tongue commonly used throughout the Hadur. There was no way in the world that the local was going to understand her, of course, but she hoped the tone and body language would get through, at least.
It seemed to work, for the guardsman gave her a Mardukan nod, lowered his raised hand, and settled back to wait. He still didn't seem overjoyed by her company, but his own body language indicated that he was willing to be patient . . . up to a point, at least.
The sergeant major took advantage of the delay to study her surroundi
The peasants tending those fields had looked up at the commotion, turning from their drudgery for a bit of distraction. They wore dark colored robes that covered them from head to foot. The rough, dark cloth was wet in patches, and as they stopped, several unstoppered water bags and wet themselves down. It was obvious how the locals dealt with the, for humans, pleasant dryness of the plateau.
The plants they were tending were thoroughly unfamiliar, however—some sort of low climbers, staked up on pole-and-string arbors. They were also in flower, and the heavy scent of the millions of flowers drifted across the company like a blanket.
In addition to their odd dress and plants, the locals had the first beasts of burden—other than flar-ta—the humans had seen in their entire time on Marduk. The elephant-sized packbeasts were unsuited to any sort of agricultural use, but some of the local peasants were plowing one of the nearby fields, and instead of the teams of natives which would have been pulling the plows on the far side of the mountains, they were using low, six-limbed beasts clearly related—distantly, at least—to the "horse-ostrich" ridden by the guard.
Kosutic looked away from the natives as Eleanora O'Casey walked up beside her and gave the local a closed-mouth smile and a double hand clap of greeting. The march had toughened the prince's chief of staff to a degree the little academic would have thought flatly impossible before she'd hit Marduk, and she'd become thin and wiry as a gnarly root, with knotlike muscles rippling up and down her forearms.
"We are travelers passing through your land," she said, using the same trade tongue Kosutic had used. "We wish to trade for supplies."
She knew the local wouldn't understand a word, but that was fine. The original, extremely limited Mardukan language kernel in the linguistics program she'd loaded into her toot had acquired a far wider database during their travels. It was much more capable than it had been, and if she could only get him to talk to her a bit, it would quickly begin finding points of commonality.
The guardsman gobbled back at her. His tone was stern, almost truculent, but the words still didn't mean a thing, and she concentrated on looking inoffensive as she nodded to encourage him to continue speaking while she studied him. His primary weapon was a long, slim lance, five or six meters long, with a wicked four-bladed head. The lance's point was oddly elongated, and the chief of staff finally decided that was probably to help it pierce the tough armor of the capetoads. It made sense. The giant herbivores were undoubtedly a major pest in the area.
In addition to the lance, the rider had a long, straight-bladed sword sheathed on his saddle. The weapon would have been the equivalent of a medieval two-handed sword, but since Mardukans were nearly twice the height of humans, this weapon was nearly three meters long.
The last two accouterments were the most startling. First, the rider was armored in chain mail with a back and breast cuirass and armored greaves on thighs, shins, and forearms. The overall covering of armor was in stark contrast to the leather and gabardine apron-armor of the Hadur and Hurtan.
Second—and even more interesting—was the large pistol or short carbine stuck in a holster on the saddle. The weapon was of the crudest possible design, but the workmanship was exquisite. It was clearly made from some sort of blued steel, rather than the simpler iron in near universal use on the far side of the mountains, and the brass of the butt was as pale as summer grass. Nor was it the matchlock arquebus she'd expected. Instead of a length of slow match which had to be lit ahead of time and then used to ignite the weapon's priming, this pistol clearly was fitted with the Mardukan equivalent of what had been called a wheel lock on Earth. No doubt that only made sense for a mounted warrior, but coupled with the armor, it clearly indicated a remarkably advanced metal-working industry.
No, they definitely weren't in Kansas anymore.
The soldier reached an apparent stopping point in whatever he was saying, jabbed a hand back the way the company had come, and asked a sharp-toned question.
"Sorry," she told him apologetically. "I'm afraid I still can't quite understand you, but I think we're making some progress."
In fact, the software was signaling a partial match, although it was still well short of true recognition or fluency. The local language appeared to be at least partly derivative of the language used by the natives living around the distant spaceport, but that didn't mean much. The software would have gotten the same similarity between Mandarin and Native American. It just showed that this area was divorced from the region—and language families—across the mountains behind the company. Still, she thought she had enough to make a start, at least.
"We come in peace," she repeated, using as many of the local words as possible and substituting those from the original kernel where local ones were unavailable. "We are simple traders." The last word was part of the language the soldier had been using. "Captain Pahner," she called over her radio, "could you have someone bring up a bolt of dianda? I want to show him that we're trading, not raiding. We probably look like an invasion force."
"Got it," Pahner replied, and a moment later Poertena came trotting forward with a bolt of their remaining dianda. The beautifully woven silk-flax had turned out to be an excellent trade good throughout the Hadur region, and she hoped it would be as well received here.
Poertena handed one end of the bolt to Kyrou, and the two of them spread it out, being careful to keep the cloth off the ground. The result was all that O'Casey could have hoped. The guard fell silent, then dropped the reins of his mount to the ground, seated the lance in a holder, and dismounted with the sort of casual grace which always struck a human as profoundly odd in someone the size of a Mardukan.
" . . . this . . . cloth . . . where?" he asked.
"From the area we just came from," O'Casey said, gesturing over her shoulder towards the mountains. "We have a large amount of it to trade, along with other goods."
"Bebi," Poertena said, guessing what would interest their greeter, "go get me one of t'ose swords we gots left from Voitan."
The corporal nodded and disappeared, returning a moment later with the weapon rolled in a chameleon cloth cover. Poertena unrolled it, and the ripple pattern of Damascene steel was clearly recognized by the Mardukan cavalryman, who exclaimed at the beauty of the blade. He glanced at O'Casey for permission, then picked up the weapon at her handclap of agreement. It had a broad, curved blade, somewhere between a saber and a scimitar, and he waved it back and forth, then grunted a word in laughter.
"What'd he say?" Poertena asked. "I t'ink it important."
"I don't know," O'Casey said.
The Mardukan saw their evident confusion and repeated the word, gesturing at the sky and the fields around them, at the mountains, and then at the sword in his true-hand.
"Well," O'Casey said, "two things. We now have the local word for 'beauty' and agree on definitions. I'm pretty sure he just said that it's as beautiful as the sky, as beautiful as the flowers of spring and the soaring mountains."
"Oh." Poertena chuckled. "I t'ink we gonna do okay tradin' here."
"Come meet our leader," Eleanora invited, gesturing for the rider to accompany her, and the guard gave the blade back to Bebi reluctantly as he turned to follow the chief of staff.
"I am Eleanora O'Casey," she said. "I did not catch your name."
"Sen KaKai," the Mardukan said. "A rider of Ran Tai. You apparently understand our language now?"
"We have a remarkable facility for learning other languages after listening for a bit," the chief of staff replied, putting enough of a grunt into her laugh to make it clear she was chuckling.
"So I see, indeed." The guard chuckled in response, but his eyes were busy as he examined the small force of humans. "You are . . . oddly armed," he commented, waving at
"Conditions are very different on the far side of the mountains," O'Casey told him. "But that region isn't our original land, either. We come from very far away, and we were forced to adapt local equipment to our needs. None of these swords and spears are our customary weapons."
"Those would be the guns on your soldiers' backs," the guard guessed.
"Yes," the chief of staff replied briefly. She looked across at the heavily armored cavalryman. "Your armor is closer to what we're familiar with," she said, and he nodded.
"Your equipment is quite unusual," was his only comment, then his gaze sharpened as he saw the bulging skins lashed atop the packbeasts. "Are those sin-ta skins?" he asked in obvious surprise.
"Uh, yes. Or, at least, I imagine they are, although we call the beasts flar-ke, not sin-ta. We were attacked by a herd of them just up the valley." O'Casey paused. "I hope they weren't a . . . uh, protected herd."
"Hardly," Sen Kakai said, his eyes round as he noted the size and numbers of tuskhorns beside the skins. "That herd had just moved into the area. It was one of the reasons I was patrolling up here. I'm sorry about your greeting, by the way. We've been having some problems lately."
"Problems?" the chief of staff asked as they approached the command group. "What sorts?"
"It's been hard, lately," the guardsman replied. "Very hard times."
Eleanora thought about that as the introductions were made all around. She also thought about an ancient Chinese curse which she was beginning to think had been specifically created for Bravo Company. Even if it hadn't been, it was certainly an excellent fit, and speaking simply for herself, she was thoroughly tired of living "in interesting times."
* * *
The caravansary was set on the edge of the main market. The cries of the vendors carried over the walls of the large hotel and stable and all the way to the third-story room the command group occupied.
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