March to the sea im 2, p.39

March To The Sea im-2, page 39

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  "Excuse me, Sir!" The Diaspran started to scramble to his feet. "I didn't realize you were back there."

  Roger waved all three back down.

  "Continue what you're doing. We don't have time for all that saluting and scraping and bowing. We pull out for D'Sley in three days, and every one of us had better be ready." He turned to the K'Vaernian private in the fox hole. "A few days—a week—and you're going to be in one of these facing real Boman. Barbarians with axes that have no purpose in life but to kill you. Every single time you squeeze that trigger, I want you to keep that in mind. Got it?"

  "Yes, Your Highness," the K'Vaernian said.

  From his looks, the rifleman had been a fisherman until a month and a half ago, with nothing to worry about but whether his boat's nets would bring in enough fish to keep the wolf from the door, or whether a sudden storm would send the boat to the bottom, like so many before it. Now he was faced with radically different stresses, like the possibility that someone he'd never met, and had never hurt, would try to kill him, and the question of whether or not he could kill in return. Roger could see the confusion in his face, and produced a smile.

  "Just keep your aim low, and follow the orders of your officers, Troop," he said with a chuckle. "And if your officers are dead, and your sergeants look white, remember, it's ruin to run. Just lay down and hold your ground and wait for supports, like a soldier."

  "Yes, Sir, Your Highness!"

  Roger pushed himself to his feet, nodded to the other two, and continued down the line with his asi.

  "There was something suspiciously polished about that last statement, 'Your Highness,' " Cord observed, and Roger smiled.

  "More of the Captain's Kipling," he said, "I ran across it in a book at the Academy, but I'd almost completely forgotten about it. It's called 'The Half-Made Recruit.' 'Just take open order, lie down and sit tight, and wait for supports like a soldier. Wait, wait, wait like a soldier. Soldier of the Queen.'"

  "Ah," the shaman said. "A good sentiment for them, then. And it sounds familiar."

  "Really?" the prince looked up at his asi, wondering just how much Kipling Pahner had shared with the old shaman, but refrained from repeating the last stanza of the poem:

  When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

  And the women come out to cut up what remains,

  Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,

  And go to your God like a soldier.

  Go, go, go like a soldier.

  Soldier of the Queen.

  * * *

  Turl Kam copied the posture of the humans around him, standing with his foot and peg not too far apart and all four hands clasped behind his back. The blocks of fresh-minted soldiers striding by were impressive. He had to admit that, yet he wished that he was as inwardly confident as his outward appearance proclaimed.

  "We've poured out money and political capital like water," the one-legged ex-fisherman said. "I've bullied friends, tormented enemies, and lied to everyone but my wife—and the only reason I didn't lie to her was because she agreed with me and was busy helping me lie to everyone else. So tell me one more time that you're going to be able to do something with this army."

  Captain Pahner looked at the ranks of four-armed natives, brand-new harnesses polished, their freshly made pikes, assegais, or rifles gleaming under the bright pewter sky.

  "There are no guarantees in war, Sir. The troops have trained hard in the time they've had, we've picked the best officers we could find, and we've got pretty damn good initial intelligence on the enemy. That puts us in the best position we could realistically expect, but all I can absolutely promise is that we'll try. Hard."

  "Your plan is complex," the chairman grumped. "Too complex."

  "It is," Pahner agreed. "Especially for a green army. But if we're going to take the field with you, we've got to come up with a way to hit them hard and do it fast, and at least there are three bullets in our gun. Any one of them could—probably would—kill the Boman. Certainly we should eliminate them as a threat for the remainder of this year if even one of them works properly. If all three work, then we should eliminate the Boman threat permanently . . . and reduce our own casualties enormously."

  "I suppose that will have to be good enough," the chairman said, sighing.

  "I will tell you this," Pahner said, after a moment. "You, and your society, will never be the same again. Once the genie's out of the bottle, you can't put him back."

  "Excuse me?" Kam looked at the human in perplexity, and Pahner shrugged.

  "Sorry. It's an expression my own people use. What it means is that once a new idea or a new invention is turned loose, it takes on a life of its own, and you can't get rid of it. These weapons won't just go away, and using any new weapon just gets easier and easier . . . especially if they let you kick the shit out of your enemies on the cheap."

  "I suppose so," the chairman said. "But perhaps this will be the last war. Surely we'll learn from this, put away these toys, and become a society devoted to peaceful trade."

  The Marine looked up at the towering Mardukan, and it was his turn to sigh.

  "Let's talk about this after the battle, okay?"

  * * *

  "Bravo Company?" Fain stepped up to the sergeant assembling the riflemen.

  "Yes, Sir," the K'Vaernian NCO said, and snapped to attention.

  The docks behind the group of K'Vaernian riflemen were a picture of frenzied activity. Hundreds of watercraft, from barges barely fit to navigate across the Bay to grain ships that normally plied their trade along the coast, were lined up, disgorging soldiers and cargo. As Fain watched, a column of pikes formed up and marched inland. Beyond them, one of the new bronze "field pieces" was being swayed out of a grain ship's hold and down to the dock, where its limber and team of draft turom were already waiting for it.

  D'Sley's whole lifeblood had been trade. Located in the swamps created by the Tam River as it neared the sea, the city had controlled the estuary of that vital waterway. Since the estuary was relatively shallow, most seacraft had unloaded their cargo on these docks and cross loaded it to barges designed for river trade. Most of the latter had been destroyed or stolen by the Boman, but there had been numerous shipyards and stockpiles of building materials scattered around the city, most of which hadn't been lost, stolen, or burned.

  "Don't call me 'Sir'!" the Diaspran sergeant snapped. "I work for a living. This is your guide. You know where you're supposed to go?"

  "Southwest wall," the K'Vaernian NCO said, and nodded to the D'Sley woman who was to guide them to their positions.

  "You don't have a problem with following a woman, do you?" Fain asked. There damn well would have been problems for a Diaspran unit, and he knew it, but these K'Vaernians didn't seem to mind.

  "Not at all," the K'Vaernian said.

  "Okay, move out when you have eight out of ten of your people. We'll round up the stragglers back here and send them along."

  "We're ready to go now, then," the other NCO said. "Except I don't know where our captain is."

  "He'll be along. Most of the officers are in officer's call at the moment." Fain handed the other sergeant a hastily prepared map. "Here. There's been some damage to the city. This should help, if you get lost. Move out."

  "Yes, Si—Sergeant," the K'Vaernian said as he took the map, then turned to the company of riflemen. "Okay, you maggots! Fall in and get ready to move! Act like you've got a pair!"

  "You're ready?" Fain asked the guide, who kept her eyes on the ground but made a gesture of agreement.

  "Yes, Lord."

  "Don't call me— Oh, never mind. Just don't let anyone bully you, and guide them well, all right?"

  "Yes, Lord," the woman said. "I won't fail you."

  "Don't fail yourself," the Diaspran responded. "Good luck."

  The infantry marched off on the guide's heels, merging with the swarm of pikemen and spearmen funneling into the city, and Fain looked over his shoulder as the first
troop of cavalry pounded past towards the distant, shattered gate. Someone in the next regiment raised a cheer, and the officer at the head of the cantering troop flourished his sword until they were out of sight in the ruined city.

  "And good luck to you, you poor bastards," the sergeant said softly.

  * * *

  Roger looked out at the city through the open flap of the command tent. D'Sley had been much smaller than K'Vaern's Cove, but it had, by all reports, been quite beautiful in its heyday. The construction of the city on a rise in the middle of the tree-filled swamp had run heavily to wood, however, and when the Boman horde washed over its low walls, not even the Mardukan climate had been able to prevent the fires from getting out of hand.

  Some of the piles of corpses near the docks, most of which were, thankfully, done decomposing, showed clear signs of having been heated to the point where bone burned. It must have been a veritable firestorm, so there wasn't much to be found in the way of sights. Just scattered chimneys, blackened stubs of pillars, and the curtain walls. Most of the lumber and shipyards, though, had been outside the walls, fortunately.

  "It looks like the city was stripped before being burned," Julian was saying. "There are no signs of grain in the ruins of the granaries, and all the worked materials are gone from the ironworks. All the ore that should be there is, though."

  "So did they use boats, or carry it out by land?" Pahner asked.

  "Land," Rus From said. "The trail to Sindi is badly damaged from heavy traffic, and there are no indications of barge construction. I'd say everything left by land."

  "What's available in the shipyards?" the Marine CO asked, swiveling his head to look at Poertena.

  "Ever't'ing we need," the Pinopan said with a huge grin. "We can get to work shippin' it back home to tee Cove right away."

  "Do it," the captain said, and turned to Fullea Li'it. "How's the transfer going?"

  "Well," the widow answered, consulting a scroll of notes. "All of your infantry regiments are across. The cannon and rockets are all unloaded, and most of the provisions are across. We're cross loading to the barges, and that will be completed by tomorrow."

  "Tor?"

  "We're still pushing the field force through," the Guard's second in command and designated CO for the D'Sley garrison said. "My people will be coming ashore starting tomorrow. Don't worry, Captain. Whatever happens at Sindi, D'Sley is going to stay firmly in our hands."

  "Rastar?"

  "We had to take the long road around the end of the Bay," the pistol-covered Northerner said, taking a sip of wine, "but we're all here. We didn't run into anyone on the way, either, and we'll be ready to move out again in the morning."

  "Get used to long days in the saddle; there are lots more to come," Pahner told him, and looked back to Julian. "The Boman haven't moved?"

  "No, Sir. Not en masse. Parties of them have come and gone from the city, some of them quite large, but the main force there is sitting tight, and those nodal forces of theirs are sitting just as tight on what used to be other cities."

  "I still don't understand that," Bistem Kar admitted candidly. "It's not like them at all."

  "We already knew the bastards had learned not to throw themselves straight at fortified walls at Therdan," Rastar told him with bleak pride. "Obviously, they're sitting in place and waiting for starvation to weaken the Cove before they hit it."

  "Oh, that part we understand," Tor Flain assured him. "They've never been smart and patient enough to try it before, but there can't be much doubt that that's exactly what they're doing. But it's the way they're deployed while they wait that bothers me."

  "There could be several reasons for it, Tor," Bogess suggested. "For one thing, Julian was right about the additional security it offers their women and children."

  Bistem Kar gave a hand-clap of conditional agreement, but he still looked decidedly unhappy, and Pahner didn't really blame him. The comfortable belief that all of the Boman were clustered in and around Sindi had turned out to be somewhat less than accurate once Gunny Jin and his LURPs got into position. Actually, smaller forces of a "mere" ten to fifteen thousand warriors each had been deployed to the sites of several of the other conquered League and non-League city-states . . . all of them on the far side of Sindi from D'Sley. But so far as Jin and his human and Mardukan scouts had been able to determine, those satellite forces had only a relative handful of women and children as supporting camp followers. At least half of all the Boman dependents were packed into Sindi with "only" thirty or forty thousand warriors to keep them company. What was more, the women and children in the city apparently came from every Boman clan and tribe, not just from those of the warriors deployed there.

  "No doubt the sergeant is correct, at least in part," Kar told Bogess after a moment. "Certainly Sindi had the best fortifications of any of the states outside the League, and from all reports, they took the city—and its walls—pretty much intact. So, yes, it probably is the best and most easily defended place from which to protect their families. But Boman clans always stay together, and they trust no one—not even tribes of the same clan—to protect their women and children." He shook his head in a human-style gesture. "We've seen entirely too many innovations from the Boman to make me happy, and this strikes me as another. I would be much happier if I understood precisely what it's intended to accomplish."

  "We're trying to figure that out, Sir," Julian told him, "but we haven't been able to get any of our listening devices actually into the city . . . yet. From what the shotgun mikes have picked up from the troops' bull sessions, though, it's pretty clear that this Kny Camsan has a whole bunch of new ideas, and this seems to be one of them. Lot of the troops aren't too crazy about some of his notions, either, but Camsan's the one who took over after Therdan, and he's kicked so much ass since then that he's almost like God. Or he was right after they took Sindi, anyway. It looks like some of the shine may be starting to wear off from the troops' perspective—kind of a 'but what have you done for us lately' sort of attitude."

  The intel NCO gazed down at the map on the table for a few moments, then shrugged.

  "Whatever he's up to, at least we know where the bastard is, and the whole Boman position is still pretty much a holding one. Mostly, they seem to be busy foraging around the cities, and I imagine they'll sit right where they are until they finish eating the countryside bare and don't have any choice but to move on out. In the meantime, though, we know where they are and, so far as we can tell, they don't know where we are.

  "The scout teams report that the maps are fairly accurate," he continued. "There've been some changes—like the damage the roads have taken from the Boman's use, like the track from here to Sindi. But in general, the cavalry should be able to trust them."

  "Good," Pahner said. "Better than I could've hoped. Rus, is the damage to the track going to slow up your work crews' transit?"

  "Not appreciably." The cleric took a bite of apsimon. "They'll be mainly foot traffic, and they can keep to the shoulders if they have to. By the time we're ready for the caravans, we should have all the road repair gangs in place."

  "You need to make the timetable," the Marine said warningly. "If you don't, that whole part of the plan is out the window."

  The cleric shrugged all four shoulders.

  "It's in the hands of the God, quite literally. Heavy storms will prevent us, but other than that, I see no reason to fear. We'll make the schedule, Captain Pahner, unless the God very specifically prevents."

  "Fullea?"

  "We'll be waiting," the D'Sley matron said. "We're already repairing the dock facilities, and things will go much quicker once we get some decent cranes back in action. We'll make our timetable."

  "Rastar?"

  "Hmmm? Oh, timetable. Not a problem. Just a ride in the country."

  "I swear, you're getting as bad as Honal," Roger said with a chuckle.

  "Ah, it's these beautiful pistols you gave me!" the Northerner prince enthused. "With such weapons,
how can we fail?"

  "You're not to become decisively engaged," Pahner warned.

  "Not a chance, Captain," the Northerner promised much more seriously. "We've fought this battle before, and we didn't have any friends waiting for us that time. Don't worry; we aren't planning on leaving our horns on their mantels. Besides, I want to see what cannon do to them, and we won't have any of our own along."

  "Bistem? Bogess?"

  "It will be interesting," the K'Vaernian said. "Very interesting."

  "A masterly understatement, but accurate," the Diaspran agreed.

  "Interesting is fine, but are you ready?" Roger asked. "Some of the units still seem pretty scrambled."

  "They'll be ready by tomorrow morning," Kar assured him, and Tor Flain nodded in agreement.

  "All right," Pahner said, looking at the tent roof. "We'll transfer the bulk of the cavalry tomorrow. Once they're off, we'll embark the infantry. As we're doing all of that, we'll also push out aggressive patrols on this side of the river to screen our advance. Starting tomorrow."

  He gazed up at the roof for a few more seconds, obviously running through a mental checklist, then looked at Roger.

  "One small change," he said. "Roger, I want you to take over the Carnan Battalion of the New Model. That and one troop of cavalry—Rastar, you choose which."

  "Yes, Captain." The Mardukan nodded.

  "They're going to be moving with the infantry. Roger will command the combined force as a strategic reserve. Roger, look at putting turom under all the infantry."

  "If you're thinking of a mobile infantry battalion, civan would be better," Roger said. "Also, aren't we going to need the turom elsewhere?"

  "We'll see. If you can get them on turom in the next three days, they'll go upriver behind the cavalry screen. If you can't, they'll go with the infantry."

  "Yes, Sir," the prince responded.

  "Okay," the captain concluded. "Get as much rest as you can tonight. There won't be much from here on out."

 

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