March To The Sea im-2, page 52part #2 of Imperial March Series
Yet it did matter to him. As he stood there on the battlements beside Roger, Pahner had all the pieces in place to trap and destroy the Boman host. Not simply defeat it, but destroy it, in a massacre which would make today's casualties look like a children's pillow fight. The captain had worked for weeks to plan this operation, driven his Marines and his allies mercilessly to prepare and execute it, and he was determined to drive it through to a conclusion. No doubt many people would have believed that his determination sprang from a desire to stamp out the Boman once and for all, but Roger knew better. That determination sprang, in fact, from a desire to spare all the Boman that he possibly could. It was a recognition that the Boman would never concede defeat until they were made to do so, and that the only way to make them was to crush them militarily, with all the casualties and carnage that entailed. But the only way to prevent Pahner's allies from truly destroying the Boman by massacring the women and children who represented the continuation of the clans, was to force the warriors to admit defeat.
And so, in a way, the only way to save the warriors' families was to kill the warriors themselves, and that was precisely what Armand Pahner was prepared to do.
Kny Camsan turned his face to the North as the gray light of a rainy Mardukan dawn filled the skies. Somewhere up there, young warriors were being born. In the far hills, shamans were placing their infant false-hands on the hilts of knives and slicing the palms of their true-hands to introduce them to the pleasure and the pain of battle. Somewhere, young hunters were tracking atul for their first kill.
Somewhere, life went on.
The ax didn't quite sever his head from his shoulders. That was a bad omen, but it wasn't allowed to delay the ceremony of investment of the new war leader, and Tar Tin, the new paramount war leader of the clans of the Boman, was anointed in the blood of his fallen predecessor, as tradition demanded.
Tar Tin lifted the blood-smeared ceremonial ax over his head and waved it at the far battlements.
"We will destroy the shit-sitters who befoul this land! We will retake the city, retake our women and our children, retake all that booty they would plunder from us! We will destroy this shit-sitter army to the last soul and level K'Vaern's Cove to the very earth and sow it with salt! We shall cleanse these lands so that treacherous shit-sitters across the world tremble at the very name of the Boman and know that treachery against us is the way of death!"
The chieftains and subchiefs assembled around him cheered and brandished their battle axes, and he pointed once more at the battered walls of Sindi.
"Kill the shit-sitters!"
* * *
"They seem upset," Pahner observed.
The captain, Roger, and Julian's entire surviving squad stood in the cellar of a large, demolished house in the northern portion of Sindi. The hurricane of the rocket bombardment had turned this entire part of the city into uneven mounds and hills of rubble, and the flourishes which Rus From's engineers had inflicted, with artful assistance from touches of Gronningen's plasma cannon, only completed the air of devastation. There was absolutely nothing in the area to attract the attention of any Boman warrior, which, of course, was the entire object.
"I think you might say 'upset' was just a bit of an understatement," Roger said judiciously, striving to match the Marine's clinical tone.
"You're probably right," Pahner conceded, "but what really matters is that they seem to have themselves a new commander, and, as Poertena would say, he's a 'pocking idiot.' "
This time, Roger only grunted in agreement. There wasn't much of anything else to say, as the two of them watched their pads display the torrent of red hostile icons streaming towards the breaches left so invitingly in Sindi's walls.
Roger watched them for a few more moments, but his eyes were drawn inexorably towards the clusters of blue icons waiting for them. Those icons represented the rifle and pike battalions who had the hardest job of all, and he wondered what was going through their minds as they hunkered down in their rough fieldworks and waited for the onslaught.
* * *
Krindi Fain was quite certain that it was an enormous honor to be selected as the commander of Bistem Kar's personal bodyguard. With a whole three hours of sleep behind him, he almost felt alive enough to appreciate the honor, as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, there was a downside to his new assignment, as the echoing war cries and the thunder of the Boman's drums brought forcibly to mind.
The general wasn't quite in the most advanced position his troops occupied, but his dugout of rubble and sandbags came close enough to make Fain very, very nervous. Of course, the lieutenant—his "acting" rank had been confirmed before he turned in last night—understood why Kar had to be where he was. After yesterday, the Guard commander enjoyed the total trust—one might almost say adulation—of his troops, and their confidence in their commander had to be absolute for this to work. Which meant they had to know that "the Kren" was there, sticking his own neck into the noose right along with them.
This leadership crap, Fain thought, for far from the first time, was an excellent way to get killed.
"They're coming through about where we figured, General," Gunnery Sergeant Jin announced. The gunny and his LURP teams had been called in during the night and redistributed to put at least one Marine with helmet, pad, and communicator with each regimental commander and Kar. Now the noncom pointed to the pad open on the rickety table at the center of the dugout, and Fain managed—somehow—not to crane his neck in an effort to see the display himself. Not that it would have helped much if he'd been able to see it; unlike Kar and his staff, Fain hadn't learned to read the display icons the others were now peering at so intently.
"They seem to be throwing more of their weight on the west side than we'd anticipated, General," one of Kar's aides pointed out, and the huge K'Vaernian grunted in agreement.
"Doesn't matter in the long run," he said, after a moment. "They still have to come to the bridge if they want to get to the other side. Still, we'd better warn Colonel Tarm to expect more pressure sooner than he anticipated."
"On it," Jin said laconically, and Fain watched his lips move soundlessly as he passed the message to the Marine attached to Colonel Tarm's regimental CP.
"Looks like they're slowing up a little," someone else observed, and the entire command group grunted with laughter which held a certain undeniable edge of tension.
"No doubt they're confused about why no one's shooting at them," Kar said after a moment. "What a pity. Still, they should be running into the expected resistance just about . . . now."
A distant crackle of rifle fire broke out with perfect timing, as if the general's comment had been the cue both sides awaited.
* * *
"Contact," Julian murmured so quietly that Roger was certain the intel sergeant didn't even realize he'd spoken aloud. Not that any of the Marines in the cellar had needed to be told. They were watching their pad displays as the probing tentacles of Boman warriors ran into the first strongpoints and battle was joined.
"What do you make the numbers, Julian?" Pahner asked.
"Hard to say exactly, Sir," the NCO replied, "but I don't see how it can be much more than sixty, sixty-five thousand."
"Did we really whittle them down by forty percent in one day?" Roger wasn't quite able to keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"Probably not," Pahner said. "Oh, we could have come close to that, but it's more likely that they've got a lot of stragglers who are still heading in. They might even have a few chieftains or subchiefs who've decided not to participate in this little party, whatever the new management wants. Still, it's enough to get the job done, don't you think?"
* * *
The leading waves of Boman ran into a blizzard of rifle fire and died.
Rus From's engineers had sited the strongpoints with care. Wherever possible, they'd placed the rubble revetments where sunken lanes through the ruins would inevitably channel the heads of any invadin
The Boman shrieked enraged war cries as their point elements recoiled, but all they did was recoil. The clans had experienced what the new rifles could do the day before, and they were as prepared as anyone could be for the carnage they faced today. No one had ever accused the Boman of cowardice, and their frantic need to rescue their women and children drove them forward even more savagely than usual.
But for all Tar Tin's determination to storm the shit-sitter positions regardless of cost, he wasn't an utter fool, and even if he had been, many of his chiefs and subchiefs were not. They knew that driving directly into the fire zones of their entrenched enemies would invite casualties not even they could endure, and so they drew back and probed, looking for ways to bypass the dug-in defenders and get behind them.
As it turned out, there were many bypass routes. Sindi had been an enormous city, by Mardukan standards, and the full strength of the K'Vaernian army would hardly have sufficed to cover its interior in depth once the walls were lost. There simply weren't enough bodies in Bistem Kar's divisions to do that, which was why he and Pahner had placed his people in nodal positions covering primarily the approaches to the Great Bridge. They'd also paid meticulous care to planning and marking retreat routes through the rubble, complete with two alternates, for every unit. When the Boman managed to begin working their way around a position's flank through the broken stone and wreckage, the infantry manning it simply fell back—promptly—to the next prepared position on its list.
It was a dangerously complicated maneuver, requiring discipline, communication, and perfect timing, and only the army's faith in Bistem Kar and the electronic wizardry of the Marine communication links and remote sensors scattered through the ruins made it possible.
"All right, gentlemen," Kar said, looking around his command group as the last infantry battalion between them and the Boman began to fall back, "it's time we were going, too. Lieutenant Fain, if you please?"
"Yes, Sir!" Fain threw the general a salute he hoped didn't look too relieved and nodded to his top sergeant. The top nodded back, jerked his head at First Platoon, and Delta Company formed up in a ferocious, bayonet-bristling moving perimeter around the command group as it fell back towards its first alternate position.
"We're on our way, Captain," Fain heard Kar telling Pahner over the communicator clipped to the general's harness. "So far, they don't seem to suspect a thing."
* * *
The long morning wore away in a nightmare of thundering rifles, screams, smoke clouds, and carnage. It was impossible for any Boman chieftain to form a clear picture of everything that was happening, but certain essentials were clear enough.
Whatever the shit-sitters had done to Mnb Trag and his warriors when they took the city away from him, it had changed the northern portion of Sindi beyond all recognition. The Boman were hardly city dwellers to begin with, but the tortured wasteland of broken walls and roofs, heaps of rubble, and fallen timbers had obliterated the landmarks many of them had learned to recognize during their months in the city.
Yet in many ways, that actually favored them, for the burned-out shells of buildings and the haphazard heaps of stone helped to conceal and cover them as they probed for ways around the shit-sitter strongpoints. They were taking losses—hideous losses—as they stumbled into one entrenched position after another, but they were also driving the shit-sitters inexorably back. The broken city deprived the shit-sitter riflemen of extended fire lanes and left no place for those deadly pikes to deploy, and the force of Boman numbers gradually forced Bistem Kar's troops back, and back again, and back yet again.
Exactly as Armand Pahner had planned.
* * *
"And now," Bistem Kar murmured, "comes the difficult part."
Krindi Fain could hardly believe his ears, yet he knew the general was serious. The long, bitter battle had reached the approaches to the Great Bridge. In fact, most of the surviving infantry had already retreated across it. But Kar had retained his own First Division to cover the final withdrawal, and Colonel Ni's regiment had the honor of forming the division's rearguard.
The afternoon was mostly gone, and evening was coming on quickly, but the Boman seemed inexhaustible. The God only knew how many thousands of them had already been killed, but it seemed not to have fazed them in the least. Probably that was because, despite their casualties, they'd been so successful in driving back the K'Vaernian forces. Whatever their losses here in the city had been so far, they were lower than the casualties they'd taken in the jungle the day before, and unlike yesterday, they had a clear meterstick—the ground they'd gained—to prove they were winning.
They had also been killing K'Vaernians, Diasprans, and Northerners. Fain didn't know what total casualties were, but he knew they'd been painful. The worst had been the loss of the entire rifle battalion from the Tonath Regiment when a Boman thrust broke through more quickly than anticipated and cut its carefully planned retreat route. The rest of the regiment had tried desperately to cut its way through to rescue its comrades, but the attempt had failed, and General Kar had ordered the surviving Tonath battalions to fall back. It had taken his direct order—repeated twice—to convince them to break off, and they'd retreated only sullenly even then, but they must have known it was the only thing they could do.
The loss of four hundred riflemen, along with the regimental commander and the human Marine private who'd been his communication link to headquarters, had been more than merely painful, but they were scarcely the only losses the army had suffered. The best estimate currently available was that the defenders had so far lost almost twelve hundred men, almost as many casualties as they'd suffered in the all-day fight in the jungle. Yet severe as those losses might be, they were a mere fraction of the casualties the Boman had taken, and they were also the grim but necessary price the army had to pay to bait Captain Pahner's trap. Coupled with the ground the Boman had recaptured, they "proved" that the "shit-sitters" were being driven back, with no option but to continue to yield ground.
Now the trick was to get the rearguard across the Great Bridge intact and without discouraging the barbarians' enthusiasm for keeping up their attack.
The command group was already at the northern end of the bridge, awaiting Colonel Ni's troops. Captain Pahner had been pressing General Kar to fall back earlier, but the K'Vaernian Guard commander had politely but firmly resisted the human's pressure. He would retreat only with the last of his own troops, and that was the way it was.
Fortunately for Fain's peace of mind, those final troops were falling back rapidly, and the moment of the general's departure was at hand.
The lieutenant looked out over the Great Bridge and shook his head in admiration. The troops retreating across it presented a picture of absolute chaos, obviously jostling and shoving one another in their desperate haste to escape the oncoming Boman. Of course, the effect would probably have been somewhat spoiled for an observer with an eye to detail, because none of those "fleeing" soldiers had thrown away their weapons, which was almost always the first thing troops did when they'd truly been routed. Aside from that minor detail, however, the picture could hardly have been more convincing, and Fain hoped that whoever was in command of the Boman had an excellent view of it.
But the rearguard couldn't afford to present the same picture of confusion, and as Colonel Ni's reinforced regiment came into sight, it was obvious that it wasn't going to.
The northern end of the Great Bridge opened into a large plaza or square, and the Marton Regiment moved slowly but steadily backward across it. Both pike battalions were in line, facing north and three ranks deep to hold the Boman beyond hand-to-hand range. The assegai companies had each been reinforced by a hundred and fif
"Nice, very nice," Kar commented to an aide, and Fain was forced to agree. Which didn't keep him from clearing his own throat pointedly from his position at the general's elbow. The K'Vaernian turned and cocked his head at the lieutenant, and Fain gestured at the bridge.
"Sir, I imagine that Colonel Ni would be just as happy if we would get out of his way and give him room to maneuver his troops."
"My, how tactfully phrased," the towering Guard commander murmured with a grunting chuckle. But he also nodded, much to Fain's relief, and the Diaspran lieutenant muttered a silent prayer of gratitude to the God of Water and nodded to Sergeant Knever once again.
The command group moved out onto the bridge, conspicuously isolated from the rest of the army as the "panicked retreat" of the previous units streamed towards the southern bank of the Tam. Fain would have been considerably happier if the general had kept a bit closer to the troops who'd preceded them across the bridge, but Kar was in no hurry. In fact, he had a distinct tendency to lag behind even his aides-de-camp and his message runners while he watched Ni's troops falling back to the bridgehead. The barbarians seemed determined to prevent this final group of shit-sitters from escaping their vengeance, and groups of them charged forward despite the surf roll of rifle and revolver bullets, screaming their war cries and hurling throwing axes even as they were hammered down. Troopers were going down, as well, most wounded, rather than killed, especially among the pikemen, but the regiment's discipline held, and the Boman were losing at least three for every casualty they inflicted, even now.
Which didn't mean that they couldn't still overwhelm the regiment by sheer weight of numbers, Fain reflected, and dropped back beside Kar once again.
DAVID WEBER SERIES:
Other author's books:
- March To The Sea im-2March to the StarsMarch Upcountry im-1March To The Stars im-3
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