March to the sea im 2, p.47

March To The Sea im-2, page 47

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  "Crap," he snorted. "I think we've been suckered."

  "There's more of them moving off to the right," one of his followers said. "Let's hammer this group before the others get into position."

  "I think we're the ones who're going to be hammered," the subchief said. "But that does seem to be the only option."

  * * *

  Rastar grinned in the human fashion as the Boman burst from the tree line, screaming their tribal war cry. His only worry had been that they might move back into the trees, taking cover from the cavalry's fire, but perhaps the pounding rain explained why they hadn't. Surely, by now, the Boman must have realized that the League troopers' new firearms were remarkably unaffected by precipitation! Still, he supposed the ingrained habits of decades of experience against matchlocks couldn't be overcome in a mere three days.

  "Load up, but hold your fire!" he shouted as he spurred his civan into the clearing. "I want to try something."

  He drew up, turned his civan to present its flank to the barbarian line, and pulled out four of his eight pistols as the Boman charged to get into throwing ax range. His true-hands pointed right and left, to the outside of the charging barbarian line, while the false-hands pointed at its center. He let all four eyes defocus, drew a deep breath, and opened fire.

  The astonished barbarians' charge shattered as all four pistols blazed simultaneously and the accurate, massed fire piled up a line of bodies for the following warriors to stumble over.

  The prince's grin was a snarl through the thick fog of rain-slashed gunsmoke as he spun his civan and galloped back through the positions of his waiting cavalry.

  "Okay," he called, smoking pistols held high, "now you can try!"

  He holstered two weapons and started reloading the other two as the cavalry about him began to fire.

  "Wyatt who?" he grunted.

  * * *

  "Are you going to get all the supplies out?" Roger asked over his helmet com.

  "I sure hope so," Pahner replied with a snort. "Although, we're retaining a good bit more than I'd originally planned. Got to feed these women and children something."

  "I'm surprised the troops are staying in hand so well," Roger said, studying the video feed from the captain's helmet and taking in the orderliness of the city's occupiers.

  "Me, too," Pahner admitted. "I'd assumed at least a twenty-five percent loss rate from AWOLs in the city, but we're at nearly one hundred percent present as of the morning report."

  "That high?" Roger sounded surprised, and Pahner chuckled.

  "Bistem Kar gave them an incentive," the Marine explained. "Before he released the troops to glean, he paraded them in front of the huge piles of stuff from the main storerooms and promised each of them a share on return. Some of them never even left—why go hunting through the city, when you can be handed a bag of gold and silver for staying put?—and the rest came back soon enough."

  "That Kar is one smart cookie," Roger observed with a chuckle.

  "That he is," the captain agreed. "And there's an important lesson here, Roger. Smart allies are worth their weight in gold."

  "So what's the game plan at your end?" the prince asked.

  "Rus's people are recovering from their engineering efforts. As soon as they have, I'm sending half of them back to Tor Flain to man the D'Sley defenses for him and help Fullea cross load the Sindi loot from the river barges and caravans to the seagoing vessels for transit to the Cove. The other half will move over and begin helping to load the barges from this end."

  "And Bistem and Bogess?"

  "I'm putting half of their people on the stores, and the other half on security. We're going to have Boman filtering back from the north soon, and I want a good security screen dug in to deal with them until we're ready."

  "And after that, we wait," Roger said.

  "And after that, we wait," Pahner confirmed.

  * * *

  Kny Camsan's head went up as he heard the firing to the north.

  "Another skirmish, while all the time this group gets smaller and smaller and further and further away," he growled.

  "What else can we do?" one of the subchiefs asked. "We have to run them to ground."

  "Of course we do," the war leader said, "and we can. I have yet to find a group of civan that can outlast the Boman over the long run. But they're scattered all over the landscape, and we've been letting them dictate where we go by chasing directly after them. No more! Tell the warriors to spread out and head back towards the southeast. Instead of chasing them, we'll sweep on a broad front while the other clans join up with us. When our full strength is assembled, we'll be a wall, moving through the jungle, and whenever we encounter one of these accursed groups of theirs, we'll hammer them into the earth!"

  "That sounds better than chasing along their back trail day after day," the subchief agreed. "But we're running low on food."

  "We are the Boman," Camsan said dismissively. "The host can go for days without, and when we've run them down, we'll fill our bellies on the meat from their civan and go back to Sindi in triumph."

  "Some of the host have tired of the chase. They're already going back to Sindi."

  "Fine by me," Camsan grunted. "I didn't want to chase these shit-sitters in the first place, but be damned if I'll head back now until I have that Therdan pussy's head on a spear!"

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

  "Armand?"

  Pahner looked up in surprise as Eva Kosutic stepped into his commandeered office in the Despot's Palace of Sindi. He hadn't actually seen her face-to-face since their arrival here. They'd stayed in touch through their coms, of course, but the sergeant major had been buried in her own portion of the preparations for the "Sindi Surprise Party," as most of the army was calling the battle plan, which had kept her busy with the engineers and the artillery corps. It wasn't her physical presence that surprised the captain, though; it was the tone of her voice and her expression. He hadn't seen a grin that huge since well before Bravo Company ever heard of a planet called Marduk.

  "Yes?" he replied, arching his eyebrows, and her grin got even bigger.

  "Just got off the radio with Doc Dobrescu," she said, and laughed. She didn't chuckle—she laughed, with a bright, almost girlish delight that deepened his surprise even further. "He's got some . . . interesting news," she added.

  "Well, would you care to share it with me, or are you just going to stand there with that stupid grin all day?" he asked just a bit tartly, and she laughed again.

  "Sorry, Boss. It's just that I've always known His Evilness had a really perverse sense of humor, and now He's gone and proved it!"

  "And how, if you ever intend to get around to it, has he done that?"

  "You know that little job you gave the Doc? The one that's had him running everything he could get his hands on through the analyzers?"

  "Yesss," Pahner said slowly, leaning further back in the camp chair behind his desk.

  "Well, he just hit pay dirt," the sergeant major told him. "He's found something the nanites can process into the protein supplements we've got to have."

  "He has?" Pahner snapped back upright in the chair.

  "Yep, and you'll never guess where he found it," Kosutic said with another huge grin. Pahner cocked his head demandingly, and she laughed once more. "You remember that poison gland in the coll fish? The one that's absolutely lethal to any Mardukan, no ifs, ands, or buts?" Pahner nodded, and she snorted. "Seems the Doc remembered how Radj Hoomis failed to poison us and said, what the hell, let's check it, too. And when he did—"

  She shrugged, and Pahner stared at her.

  "Let me get this straight," he said slowly. "This deadly poison no one else on Marduk can eat is like . . . like cod liver oil for humans?"

  "Not a bad analogy at all," she agreed with a nod. "From what he's saying, it tastes just as bad—or even worse. But all his tests say it's the real stuff. Of course, it won't work for anyone who doesn't have the full nanite loadout, but when you couple it with apsimons
, the troops—and Roger—are good to go almost indefinitely. And we've got enough regular supplements to keep everyone who doesn't have the full spectrum nanites going for a good year or more, as well. Which is what I meant about His Evilness and His sense of humor."

  "Hmmm?" Pahner was still too busy grappling with how Dobrescu's announcement had changed his constraints to realize what she was saying for several seconds, but then he laughed harshly. "I see what you mean," he said, shaking his head slowly. "We agreed to kick off this entire operation, built the damned army, pissed off every merchant in the Cove, turned K'Vaernian society on its ear, pushed the training, drove everyone into the field, and set up this whole trap just because we were running out of supplements and couldn't afford to wait around. And now we find out we've got all the time in the fucking world!"

  "Absolutely," she agreed with a laugh of her own.

  The two of them stared at one another for almost a full minute without saying another word, and then Pahner sighed.

  "I wish we'd known sooner," he said slowly. "Kostas would be alive right now if we hadn't had to go back into the field, for one thing. But at the same time, maybe it's for the best. If I'd known about this, I would've been a lot more willing to sit things out and look for other options as the safer way to get Roger home, and if I'd done that, there wouldn't have been a K'Vaern's Cove in another six months."

  "From what we've seen of these Boman bastards since we actually hit the field, I think you're probably right," Kosutic said more somberly, "and I wouldn't like that. I've decided I can really get along with these K'Vaernians, almost as well as with Rastar and his civan boys. So I guess I'm glad we didn't leave them in the lurch, too. And speaking of Rastar," she went on, changing the subject, "just how are he and Honal doing?"

  "Don't know," Pahner admitted, and checked the time on his toot. "They're about due for another check in, but the last time I talked to them, even Honal was starting to sound a little frayed around the edges."

  "Honal? The original Mardukan Hotspur?" Kosutic chuckled. "That'll be the day!"

  * * *

  "It looks like they're spreading out," Honal said. The most recent group of Boman to encounter his troopers were stretched out on the ground, riddled with pistol bullets or spitted on lances and sabers. This time, however, almost a dozen of his own men were down to keep them company on their trip to Hell. "This is the largest bunch we've run into yet."

  "And I think they're closing in on us," Rastar agreed unhappily. "They're getting thicker as we head south."

  The native prince eased himself in the saddle and looked around. It was raining again, which didn't do much for visibility, but he was reasonably confident of his present location. Thanks to the fact that each group to split off from the main force had included at least one trooper with a human communicator, he also knew roughly where all the rest of his men were. The good news was that his entire force should be reformed within the next several hours. The bad news was that the Boman seemed to have figured out roughly where he was headed for his rendezvous.

  "We're not going to be able to make it back to Sindi," Honal said. "Are we?"

  Rastar pulled out a map and grimaced accusingly at it, although it really hadn't told him anything he didn't already know.

  "I don't know," he sighed. "We're so close I hate to give up. I don't doubt that they'll go ahead and head back for Sindi even without us to chase, but if we have to give up on the city, we'll have to head all the way up to the Sumeel Ford, instead, and that means heading up the Tam to the Chandar Fords. We'd be completely out of it. By the time we could cross the river, we might have to head all the way to Nashtor to avoid the Boman."

  "So much for that plan, then," Honal said. "And I don't know that we could make it, anyway. The civan are just about worn out."

  "I know," the prince said. He grimaced again, and keyed his communicator. "I think we need to tell the captain."

  * * *

  Pahner looked at the map and managed not to swear. It wasn't easy. From the reports, there was no way the cavalry on its own was going to break through the Boman who'd swept around to get between it and Sindi. Only a fraction of the total Boman force had managed to bottle them up, but a fraction was all it took, when they'd been outnumbered the whole time by nearly thirty-to-one.

  If he sent them east, on an end run to the fords on the upland plateau, they would be out of play for the entire battle, depriving him of the huge bulk of his cavalry. That probably would have been endurable, given the battle he intended to fight, but it would cost him any real possibility of a pursuit if—when—the Boman broke. Worse, it was almost certain that all or some of the main host would go right on chasing them. Not only would that mean that whatever percentage of the barbarians kept chasing the cavalry would miss the reception he'd so carefully prepared for them here at Sindi, but it was also likely that the Boman would manage to run them down before they could reach safety.

  Yet there were reports of Boman everywhere between Rastar's force and Sindi, not just farther out, where the cavalry was in light contact with the barbarians. Some of them were even starting to hit the guards he'd pushed out from the northern gates of the city, and he had damn all information on their numbers. If he sent out a relief force to rescue Rastar, he risked having it defeated in detail by an enemy whose strength he was unable to accurately evaluate.

  He gazed at the map for several more silent moments, then straightened and turned to his command group.

  "Bistem, you have the most forces present and on security," he said. "Take all the Diaspran forces that aren't broken up as stevedores, add them to First Division, and go relieve the cavalry. Take Julian and his team, as well. We'll worry about power for the armor later."

  "Yes, Captain," the K'Vaernian commander said. "We won't fail."

  "Make sure you don't," Pahner said, "and don't stint the fire. We've been saving the full power of the rifles for a surprise, and I think it's about time to start showing these bastards how surprising they are."

  "Yes, Captain." The K'Vaernian gave a human-style nod, ducked out of the command tent, and started forward, calling for messengers. Pahner watched him go, then keyed his communicator again.

  "Rastar, I'm sending out a relief force. The K'Vaernians are going to head for your position. Dismount and fight as infantry and push your way through to link up."

  "Yes, Captain," the distant prince said over a background crackle of pistol fire. "The woods are thick enough out here that we've already had to dismount, but we can't keep our flanks secure enough to push forward. I've tried twice, and been badly outflanked each time. If you don't mind, I think I'll wait for the K'Vaernians to draw some of the attention off of us."

  "Do as you see fit," the Marine said with a face of stone. Clearly, it was getting tight in the woods. "The relief column is on the way. However, be aware that if more forces press down on you, I might have to tell them to retreat."

  "Understood," the embattled prince said. "We'll try to cut down the opposition as much as possible. Rastar, out."

  Pahner looked around the fields before the city. The piles of cured leather, sacks of barleyrice, cloth, coal, ores, charcoal, refined metals, and a thousand and one other things vital to K'Vaern's Cove's economy were being slowly reduced by the line of bearers carrying them to the barges, the caravans of packbeasts, and the long line of wagons creaking down the corduroy road. Whatever happened here, the Cove desperately needed those supplies if it was to survive while its trading partners rebuilt themselves from the ruins. Yet every one of the stevedores loading the booty was also a soldier who was as much out of the battle as if he'd been shot through the head.

  He could take some of them off of the loading duty, but that would slow down the loading operation. Which would be fine, if his overall plan worked. But as Rastar's predicament pointedly illustrated, plans had a tendency to spring leaks, and if the master plan collapsed, the Cove would need those supplies worse than ever.

  Finally, he decided t
o take the gamble. The majority of the Boman were on the north side of the river, but they clearly were closing in on the cavalry, which had turned out to be too good as bait. There should be enough pickets covering the northern approaches to the city itself, even after Kar's departure, to hold anything else which might come at them from that direction. The caravan route to D'Sley on the south bank couldn't boast anywhere near the same amount of security, but it was covered by its own thin cavalry screen, and it seemed—so far, at least—to be isolated from the main threat area. If there were any formed Boman on the south side of the river, they couldn't possibly be present in numbers as great as those to the north, and the screen would just have to take them on as they came.

  "Rus, get in the middle of that," he said, gesturing to the lines of Mardukans loading stores, "and see if you can find some way to speed things up."

  "Will do," the engineer said.

  "Come on, Rastar," the captain said quietly. "Keep your ass alive until Bistem can drag your butt home."

  * * *

  Honal swung out the cylinder of his revolver and grunted.

  "I love these things. Where has Pahner been all my life?"

  "Flying between suns, according to the Marines," Rastar said, hammering a stuck bullet out of the barrel of one of his own pistols. The cartridge had succumbed to the eternal humidity, despite its flashplant wrapping, and the damp gunpowder had only sparked enough to drive the slug into the barrel. "I wish he were here at the moment, though. What a screwed-up situation."

  More Boman had trickled up behind the cavalry unit, encircling it. Fortunately, most of the force had reformed before the Boman pinned it, which had at least prevented the detachments from being annihilated in detail. The bad news was that it put them all in one place, which meant that better than three thousand riders and nearly eight thousand civan were trapped in a single pocket which the barbarians could now close in upon. Most of the true war civan were on the perimeter, squatting like ostriches on nests as cover for their riders, and the cavalry had managed to fell trees to simultaneously expand their fire zones and form a crude abattis covering most of their front, but the eddies of barbarians were sweeping inexorably closer.

 

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