March to the sea im 2, p.41

March To The Sea im-2, page 41

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  But his contemplation of the future was interrupted when Trag gave a handclap of negation.

  "I don't think you have that choice," the older chieftain told him, and pounded on a merlon of the granite wall with one false-hand. "If you sit here much longer, looking like you're afraid to face a couple of hundred League shits in the open, you might not have a position by tomorrow."

  "That bad?" the war leader asked his adviser. Trag grunted, and as Camsan turned to look at the warriors around them, he was forced to admit that his ally might have a point. "All right, take the Tarnt'e and go chase them down. There was never a group of cavalry Boman couldn't run into the ground—not even old, worn out Boman," he added with a grunt of laughter, but Trag didn't join his amusement.

  "I don't think that will work either," he said somberly. "If I go out, by the time I get back, you'll have been deposed, and Knitz De'n will have taken your place."

  "But if we do what De'n wants and storm K'Vaern's Cove head on, it will be the death of thousands of them," Camsan said. "Do they want that?"

  "No," the older chieftain said, "but most of them figure it'll be someone else who does the dying. Besides, what they really want, most of them, is to return to their villages. But we made this stupid pact to destroy all the cities of the south, which means they can't go yet, so they want to destroy K'Vaern's Cove and get it over with. They're frustrated, and that's why they want to gut these iron head pukes."

  "Don't they realize that the iron heads wouldn't be riding around out there all by themselves unless they wanted us to come out and chase them? There has to be a reason they want to lure us away from the city, Mnb."

  "Of course there does, and most of our warriors know it. But if they can't burn K'Vaern's Cove to the ground, then killing these Northerners will have to do. They know perfectly well that the Northerners want them to come out from behind the walls, and they don't care. At least it would be an honorable battle. Besides, there's only three or four hundred of them."

  "That's exactly my point," Camsan said. "The Tarnt'e alone would be more than enough to crush them all."

  "That's not the point," Trag replied patiently. "You have forty thousand warriors in this stinking city, all of whom want to kill something . . . and most of whom are starting to think thoughts you'd prefer they didn't. You think they don't know some of the other clans are beginning to mutter about how many of the women and children are here under our 'protection'?"

  Camsan's eyes narrowed, and this time it was Trag who grunted a harsh laugh.

  "Of course they do! Fortunately, most of them think you're only trying to keep the other clan leaders in line, and I think most of them actually admire your ruthlessness. It's what we need in a war leader. But our warriors are Boman, too, and their axes have been unbloodied too long. If you don't give them—all of them—a chance to kill something else, then they're going to start thinking very hard about killing you. Kny, you're one of the finest war leaders ever to think for the clans, and I believe you truly have the chance to accomplish what you and I both know you desire. But you don't pay enough attention to the way our warriors feel, and that's going to get you killed if you keep it up."

  Trag didn't add that it would undoubtedly get him killed right alongside Camsan. Both of them knew it was true, but that didn't invalidate anything he'd just said. More than one Boman war leader had been removed by the clans if he seemed too timid, and the retirement of Boman war leaders was an . . . extremely permanent process.

  "Oh, very well," Camsan said at last. "It's ridiculous to take so many to defeat so few—how many iron heads do the fools think there are to go around?—but you probably have a point. I'll give them their chance to kill something. But if I go out to play chase-the-basik in the woods, can you stay here with your tribe? At least I can trust you not to totally screw up."

  "I can hold the city," the older chieftain agreed. "Besides, I have to admit that I'm a bit old for a civan chase."

  * * *

  Julian updated the situation map on his pad and transferred it to the captain.

  "It's looking pretty good so far, Sir. The main Boman force is headed out the gates now. Only bad news is that we had another batch of barbs head southwest earlier—about two thousand. We don't have any idea where they were going or where they are at the moment."

  Pahner tapped his foot on the barge deck and spat his chewed-up bisti root over the side.

  "Have the cavalry screen echelon to the south. And throw the patrols out a little farther to keep an eye out for the strays. We need to make sure they don't show up at the wrong time."

  "Not good," Kar said. "We're on a slim margin. If your 'strays' turn up during the attack, they'll make things difficult."

  "Difficult, but not impossible," Pahner said. "Fog of war. You have to figure that something will go wrong even in the best case, and if that's the worst that happens, I'll be delighted. I'm more worried about them hitting us after the assault, anyway."

  He looked out over the river. It was filled with barges and boats for over a kilometer in every direction as the army of K'Vaern's Cove made its slow way up river.

  "If we get compromised from the north bank, we can land on the south side, where we've got the cavalry screen and the Marine LURPs to cover us. The only part I'm really worried about is the possibility of having this Camsan get word to his detachments too quickly and assemble the main host to come back while we're still landing, and even then the cavalry should slow them up long enough for us to finish landing or retreat."

  "Or to get hit during the transfer," Bogess said quietly.

  "We can break that part of the operation off at almost any time," Pahner replied with a shrug. "As long as Rastar does his job and the screen stays alert, we're golden."

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  "There's something very familiar about this," Honal said. "And I'm getting tired of running away from these fellows."

  "Shut up and spur!" Rastar laughed. The wood line was rapidly approaching, and he hoped everything was in place. If it wasn't, things were about to get interesting.

  Behind them, the Boman host was still pouring out of the city. It was going to take a while to get them all out, even with the three huge gates in Sindi's northern wall, but at least ten or fifteen thousand were already outside the fortifications. Rastar was relieved—and a bit surprised—to see that so many of the bastards were already coming after his troopers. He and Pahner had both expected a relatively small force to be sent out at first, and they'd figured that the rest of the horde would sit still until the original pursuit force suffered a mischief. But the Boman seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, and from the looks of things, at least sixty or seventy percent of all the warriors in Sindi intended to go chasing after a mere three hundred Therdan and Sheffan cavalry. It didn't seem fair.

  "Horns!" Rastar called as they approached the edge of the jungle. The road, such as it was, continued on under the dense trees and tangled lianas, a muddy track that had been the main route to their former homes. In better days, it had seen regular caravans carrying the raw products of the Boman, leather and drugs mainly, to the south, and the return flow of manufactured products—jewelry and the very weapons the cavalry now faced.

  The cavalry responded instantly to the call of the horns, narrowing into a double line as it approached the wood line.

  "I can see the spare mounts," Honal called. "Now to get it stuck in!"

  The two leaders broke to either side of the road, and Rastar dismounted from his wearied civan as the rest of the troopers of his "bait force" thundered past them with a yell.

  "Time to pock them all!" Rastar shouted to them, swinging up into the saddle of a fresh mount.

  "Give 'em hell, Sir!" one of the troopers called back, still headed for where their own remounts waited. "We'll be right behind you!"

  "Up the banners!" Rastar bellowed in a grunt of laughter. "Let's get it stuck in!"

  "Up the banners!" Honal passed on the order in a voice fit to wake a doze
n generations of the dead as he bounded up onto a fresh civan of his own. He drew the first pair of his revolvers and raised them overhead.

  "SHEFFAN!" he howled like a hunting atul-grak, and the voices of four thousand additional heavy cavalry thundered their own deep warcries as they burst out of the edge of the jungle behind him.

  * * *

  "Aha!" Camsan's head came up as the baying voices sliced through the pattering rain and he recognized the standards at the head of the charging force. "That's what this is all about."

  "It's that stupid, gutless prince who led the escape from Therdan when he ran away," one of his henchmen grunted as he, too, recognized the banners. "Good. It's time to finish that line off once and for all."

  The war leader gazed across at the standard of fallen Therdan, coming at him through the rain, and felt considerably less sanguine than the subchief.

  "His uncle wasn't so easy to kill . . . or gutless," he pointed out. "Neither was his father, and I think we're about to get mauled. But you're right—we'll hunt them down at our leisure now. There's not much else to do. Besides, if we don't kill them now, they'll just be back next week."

  Camsan made no effort to coordinate the actual attack. There would have been no point in trying, since Boman warriors in hot pursuit of a foe did not respond well to direction. The two or three thousand arquebusiers had already fallen begrudgingly back from the front ranks, since the rain made their matchlocks effectively useless, but the rest of the host only quickened its pace.

  Camsan was right about what was going to happen to his leading warriors, but not even he realized how bad it was actually going to be. The Boman were old hands at fighting League cavalry, and they should have known better, but they were also individualists who fought as individuals. And, as almost always happened when the enemy ran away from them, they were more concerned with overtaking their fleeing foes before anyone else caught up and stole the honor of the attack from them than they were with maintaining anything remotely like a formation. The first five or six thousand out of the city gates had opened a relatively wide gap between themselves and their fellows as they pounded through the rain after Rastar's troopers, and—as also happened with unhappy frequency—they were about to get reamed when the "fleeing" cavalry turned on them, because none of their fellow clansmen were in range to support them.

  It was all rather depressing to Camsan, who'd spent the last half year fighting an uphill battle to teach his tribesmen at least some modicum of caution and discipline, but it was hardly surprising. And to be fair to his warriors, they knew exactly what was going to happen. But they also knew that the rain would take most of the Northerners' wheel locks out of action, and they still boasted half again the cavalry's numbers. They were going to take losses, but they would also inflict losses, and they should be able to at least keep the enemy occupied and pinned down until their slower compatriots could catch up. Besides, this would be their first opportunity to kill something in almost five months, and they bellowed in hungry anticipation.

  Some of that anticipation turned to surprise moments later, when the charging cavalry opened fire despite the rain. Mounted troops' wheel locks usually worked at least a little better than matchlocks in typical rain conditions, but these cavalry troopers' weapons weren't working "a little" better. They were working a lot better, and Camsan grunted a curse as he watched bullets slam through his warriors. The League cavalry's fire was much heavier than normal, and despite the bounding gait of the bipedal civan, it was also damnably accurate.

  "How the hell are they firing those damned things in the rain?" Camsan demanded as he and the rest of the main body ran after the vanguard, and then snarled a fresh curse as Hirin R'Esa, chieftain of the Ualtha and one of the war leader's staunchest supporters, went down with a fist-sized hole in his chest. "However they're doing it, I'm glad they don't have more of them!"

  "It won't do them much good now," his henchman replied with a feral grin. "They're down to ax range, now."

  * * *

  "What's that prayer Roger taught you?" Rastar grunted as he holstered his smoking revolvers.

  " 'Gods, for what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful,' " Honal shouted back. He grinned in the human way, bare-toothed in the rain, as the troopers around him laughed.

  "Whatever," Rastar muttered as he couched his lance. The rain of axes was tearing holes in his ranks, and he wasn't prepared to take too many casualties in what was really nothing but a giant feint.

  The cavalry slammed into the first rank of the barbarians and carried them away. The Boman were already shocked and disordered by the massed pistol fire. Rastar's troopers had discharged well over twenty thousand rounds of twenty-millimeter fire into them. Firing from the back of a moving civan had never done much for accuracy, but the Boman had been a big target, and the avalanche of pistol bullets had killed almost a third of their front rank outright and wounded even more of them.

  The Northerners' long lances easily took out the rest of the first rank. Snarling, war-trained civan slashed and tore as they rode over the wounded, snapping off arms and even heads with vicious delight, and the Broman howls of anticipation of a moment before became shrieks of raw agony as the survivors of Therdan and Sheffan wreaked bloody revenge. Almost better, at least half of Rastar's troopers managed to recover their lances as they slammed through the front rank, and they used them to good effect on the next, slaughtering the barbarians in front of them. And then the cavalry broke through into the gap between the Broman main body and what had been the vanguard. Two-thirds or more of that vanguard were now corpses, and aside from a few who'd been taken by battle frenzy, most of the survivors were running as hard as they could.

  By Rastar's most conservative estimate, his four thousand men must have killed at least that many barbarians, and the shrieks of rage and hatred from the rest of the Boman host were music to his ears. Clearly, he and his troopers had accomplished their main goal; whatever happened now, the barbarians would never stop chasing them. Typical Boman bloody-mindedness would see to that, but it never hurt to make sure they got the hint, and Clande and the rest of the reserve were waiting to do just that . . . assuming that he and Honal could get their men back on the trail before the next wave of barbarians caught up to them. That next wave was larger—much larger—and for all their frenzy, Boman weren't stupid enough to offer him another opportunity like the last one. No, this wave would concentrate mainly on pinning the cavalry while other warriors swept around on their flanks, and that meant it was time to go.

  "Back!" he shouted. "Sound the horns! Back to the forest. Time to run for it!"

  His troopers had already managed the hardest part of the maneuver; they hadn't allowed themselves to be sucked into chasing down the fleeing survivors of their first clash. Now they responded instantly to the horn calls and wheeled once more to thunder back up the muddy road towards the woods.

  "This is where it gets tricky!" Honal shouted beside him.

  "Get to the front. Don't let anything slow us down," Rastar ordered, and Honal nodded acknowledgment and slapped his spurs to his civan. Rastar watched him go and crossed the fingers of his left true-hand in yet another gesture acquired from the humans. Timing, he thought, was everything.

  The cavalry's lead ranks bogged up a bit as they reached the opening in the woods, but they were all veterans who'd been in nearly continuous battle for half a Mardukan year. Their commanders had learned their own trade well and added the benefits of human notions of discipline to their own, and they handled the maneuver with an aplomb that would have been frankly amazing before the long war against the Boman. Troops interleaved with troops, and squadrons formed into columns, until all three thousand-plus surviving riders were pounding at a gallop down the mud-slick track.

  They got themselves sorted out not a moment too soon, for the second wave of Boman had kept right on coming, absorbing the fragments of the first wave as it came. The front ranks of at least twelve thousand howling warriors were f
ewer than fifty meters behind the rearmost trooper, and Rastar—holding his position near the rear of the column—felt a moment of intense anxiety. The barbarians were close enough to keep up a shower of throwing axes, although their accuracy left a great deal to be desired, and the slower pace the civan were forced to adopt as they thundered along in close proximity was allowing the Boman warriors to close the remaining range slowly.

  "This is where some artillery would have been nice," he muttered to himself. But if he didn't have field guns, then he had the next best thing . . . assuming that it worked.

  An ax clanged off of his backplate, and he gave his mount the spurs, leaning forward in the saddle to urge the beast onward. Another handful of his men went down, but only a handful, and the Boman were beginning to slow themselves down in turn as they packed solid in the relatively narrow slot of the track. Which was exactly what Rastar wanted and the humans had planned on.

  The explosions, when they came, were like the end of the world. Rastar had never heard of "directional mines" or "claymores" before the humans came along, but he'd seen them tested in K'Vaern's Cove. It was amazing how murderous such a relatively simple concept could be, but not even the tests he'd observed had prepared him for the reality of what a few score old musket balls packed atop a half-sedant or so of gunpowder could do.

  Clande and his reserves had been busy while Rastar and Honal trolled for Boman, and the trail was lined on either side with the infernal human devices. The troopers had placed one every two meters, and there were almost two hundred of them. The Boman were running three and four abreast as they pursued their enemies, and over six hundred of them were in the kill zone when Clande touched off the fuse and the rolling explosions marched down the trail to envelop them.

  There were, perhaps, a dozen survivors.

  Six hundred, or even six thousand, casualties were scarcely a fleabite against the total numbers of the barbarian host, but not even the Boman were immune to the sheer shock and horror of such heavy losses so instantaneously inflicted. The howling war cries turned to screams and shrieks, and the headlong pursuit slithered to a broken-backed halt amid the bodies and bits of bodies, shattered tree trunks and fallen branches, and the drifting smoke that shrouded the hell-spawned carnage of the ambush.

 

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