March to the sea im 2, p.53

March To The Sea im-2, page 53

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  "Sir, the General might want to move along a bit faster," the lieutenant suggested diffidently.

  "In a moment," Kar replied with an impatient wave.

  "Sir, the General keeps saying that," Fain pointed out. He watched another wave of Boman crest and die less than twenty meters in front of the retreating pikes, and beckoned unobtrusively to Erkum Pol, who sidled closer.

  "I'll retreat when I'm ready to, Lieutenant," Kar rumbled in a deep, repressive tone. "It's not going to do the Regiment's morale any good to see me go scampering off to safety, you know."

  "Sir, with all due respect," Fain said diffidently, "I'm sure the Regiment would be very relieved to know you were out of harm's way. And whether they would or not, Sergeant Julian told me that Captain Pahner wants your butt at the reserve command post before the Boman come across the fucking bridge. That's almost a direct quote, Sir," the lieutenant added in an apologetic but politely firm tone.

  "I said I'll come in a moment," Kar said even more repressively, and Fain shook his head.


  "Yeah, Krindi?"

  "Escort the General across the bridge," the lieutenant said flatly.

  Bistem Kar's head snapped up, and for an instant, his eyes narrowed dangerously. Then they swiveled to Pol, who stood a full head taller than even his own formidable stature, and something like an unwilling chuckle escaped him.

  "All right, Lieutenant," he told Fain wryly. "I'll go. I'll go! Who am I to argue with the mighty Erkum Pol? I don't want to get laid out with a plank!"

  "I wouldn't hit you, General," the private said reproachfully.

  "No doubt," Kar said, laying one hand on the towering Diaspran's upper shoulder, and then gathered up the rest of his command group with his eyes. "Gentlemen, Lieutenant Fain would appreciate it if we'd all step briskly along." He made a shooing gesture with both false-hands and flashed a bare-toothed human-style grin. "No dawdling, now!"

  * * *

  "Press them! Press them!" Tar Tin howled as the final band of shit-sitters retreated onto the bridge. The new war leader was trapped well back from the van of the host, but he could see the Great Bridge from his vantage point atop a collapsed house. And if he couldn't get at the shit-sitter rearguard now, he'd been in the forefront of the warriors who'd overwhelmed the trapped arquebusiers, and his ceremonial battle ax ran red with their blood.

  The battle frenzy hadn't quite claimed him, but he felt the exaltation and the fire blazing in his own blood. They were only Southern shit-sitters, true, yet they'd stood and fought as courageously as any iron head—indeed, as any Boman—and the honor of their deaths filled his soul.

  It had been a good battle, a great one whose grim glory the bards would sing for generations, and despite the host's losses, victory was within their grasp. However courageously the shit-sitter arquebusiers might have died, Tar Tin himself had seen the panic and terror with which the other shit-sitters had fled across the bridge. He knew the signs—he'd seen them often enough on many another battlefield. That was a broken force, one whose leaders would never convince it to stand if he could only hit it again, quickly, before it had time to untangle itself and find its courage once more.

  "Once across the bridge, and the city is ours once more!" he shouted, brandishing his battle ax and waving still more of his warriors into the assault on the stubborn shit-sitter rearguard.

  The host attacked with redoubled fury, but the shit-sitters were fully onto the bridge now, and it was no longer possible to threaten their flanks. The ones armed with those long, dreadful spears thickened their ranks, presenting an impenetrable thicket of needle-sharp points, and withdrew at a slow, steady pace. It was impossible to get to hand strokes with them, but at least the thicker formation also blocked their infernal arquebusiers, and the Boman pressed them harder, showering them with throwing axes. The shit-sitters' raised shields were a roof, rattling under the keen-edged rain of steel, and here and there one of them went down. But there were always other shit-sitters ready to drag the wounded to safety, and the slow, sullen retreat continued without breaking or wavering.

  Tar Tin snarled, for he wanted that rearguard crushed, yet despite his frustration, he was satisfied enough. The shit-sitter rearguard might be retreating in good order, but it was retreating, and rapidly enough that the host would still arrive on the other bank before the rest of their broken army could reform.

  * * *

  "All right, people, let's get into our party dresses," Pahner said, and the squad of Marines around him reached for their helmets.

  Roger reached for his along with them, and reflected that it was just as well that he'd spent so many days marching around the jungle in his own powered armor before the company left Q'Nkok. It had given him the opportunity to thoroughly familiarize himself with the armor's capabilities and limitations. He was still far from competent by the standards of the Imperial Marine Corps, and he knew it, but at least he was confident of his ability to move wearing the stuff.

  The Marines obviously shared his reservations about his other abilities where the armor was concerned, for the plasma cannon with which his armor had originally been armed had been replaced with a bead cannon. The "stutter gun" was a thoroughly lethal piece of hardware, but its current loads, although ruinously effective against unarmored barbarians, would not take out a suit of IMC combat armor. He supposed that he might have felt a little offended by their evident concern over where his fire might go, but all he really felt was relieved.

  All around him, helmets were being affixed, and he watched the HUD come up in his own visor as the helmet sealed to its locking ring. Most of the really power-intensive systems remained on off-line standby, but the armor was live, and a slight shiver ran through his nerves as he reflected upon the destructive power massed in this cellar.

  As Pahner had told Rastar on the day the Northern cavalry first joined forces with the Marines, they had sufficient spares and power for two uses of the armor, and this, the captain decided, was the right place to expend one of them. Roger knew that the Marine had considered using the armor in an open field fight, but the Boman had been too dispersed. The Marines would have exhausted their power packs before they could have covered even a fraction of the host's geographic dispersal.

  Which had been the entire reason Pahner had constructed the elaborate trap called Sindi.

  * * *

  The Marton Regiment passed the midpoint of the Great Bridge. From its central span to the northern bank, the bridge was a solid mass of Boman, pushing and shoving at one another in their determination to reach the hated shit-sitters. It was a terrifying sight, viewed from the south side of the river, and Bogess and Rus From stood watching it with a sort of awed disbelief.

  The bridge was clear between the retreating K'Vaernians and the south bank, and the reinforced regiment was a minuscule force opposed to the thousands upon thousands of barbarian warriors struggling to reach and kill it. The fact that it was exactly what they had planned for and wanted to see didn't make the sight one bit less frightening, and the two Diaspran leaders turned their backs upon it by unspoken mutual consent.

  Instead of watching the grim, steady retreat, they let their eyes sweep over the surprise awaiting the Boman on this side of the river.

  The original architects of Sindi had built a massive, separate gatehouse and bastioned keep to cover the Great Bridge's southern end. Beyond the gatehouse was another square, even larger than the one at the northern end, and beyond that were the first rows of houses and shops. The city's street net was as tangled and convoluted as that of any other Mardukan city, and even the broader boulevards were scarcely anything which might have been called wide open, but the designers had seen no reason to build massive curtain walls along the southern bank of the Tam. The only way an attacker could reach that part of the city was across the Great Bridge itself, so the powerful gatehouse blocking access to and from the bridge was really all the protection the city had required against assault from that direction.
  The current landlords had made a few changes, however. Rus From's engineers had used old fashioned sledgehammers and charges of the black powder liberated from Sindi's own magazines to demolish whole blocks of buildings on the southern side of the square, effectively extending the plaza almost another full kilometer to the south. But if they'd given it more space to the south, they'd compensated by using the rubble produced by their demolition exercises to build stone walls, six meters high and three meters deep across every street and alleyway giving access to the square. Then they'd loopholed the inward-facing wall of every building still standing around the entire perimeter of the square and reinforced most of those walls from the inside with sandbags, for good measure. They'd left two of the main boulevards unblocked on the square's south side to permit the retreat of their own troops, and aside from the Marton Regiment, the entire army had now disappeared through those openings.

  Through those previous openings, to be more precise. No sooner had the last "fleeing" infantryman passed through than the engineers had sprung into action once more. The walls of sandbags they'd assembled across the boulevards weren't quite as tall as the stone walls blocking the other streets, but they were just as thick . . . and each of them had embrasures for six of the new "Napoleons" from the cannon foundries of K'Vaern's Cove.

  The general and the cleric regarded those grim preparations one last time, and, almost despite themselves, felt a moment of something very like pity for their enemies.

  * * *

  Krindi Fain heaved a sigh of relief as General Kar and his command group climbed the steep stairs to the top of the bastion and joined Bishop From and General Bogess. He would have been even more relieved if the gates and gate tunnel hadn't taken their own share of damage from the humans' plasma cannon. Although he understood why it was just as important for the defenses on this side of the river to have been "wrecked," it still would have been nice to be able to close a good, sturdy gate of bronze-sheathed ironwood against the shrieking hordes of Boman warriors, especially with the security of both senior Mardukan generals and their chief engineer to worry about.

  He made a quick inspection of his troops' positions and felt a surge of pride. His men had to be at least as nervous as he was, given that they'd been less thoroughly briefed on the plan than he, but every one of them was exactly where he was supposed to be, already laying out his cartridge box. If everything went the way it was supposed to, the rest of the regiment would retreat into the gatehouse bastions along with Fain's own company, and if the main gateway had been blasted to bits, the gates and firing slits protecting the bastions were completely intact. They certainly ought to be able to hold out against anything the Boman could do for hours, at the very least, and that should be ample time . . . assuming the plan worked the way it was supposed to.

  * * *

  "Now! Drive them now!"

  Tar Tin's shout was as hoarse as the scream of a newly branded sorn, but he was hardly alone in that. Every chieftain and subchief was shrieking the same message, goading their warriors on, and the war leader laughed in savage triumph as the host's leading warriors drew closer and closer to the southern gatehouse. Even from his own position on the north bank, the damage that gatehouse had suffered when the shit-sitters seized the city was clearly evident. What should have been an all but impenetrable barrier had been opened like a gutted basik. All they had to do was to drive these last, stubborn shit-sitters through the shattered tunnel and the city would be theirs.

  * * *

  "About now, I think," Captain Armand Pahner murmured as the blue icons of the Marton Regiment crossed the green safety line projected onto his HUD, and his toot transmitted the detonation code over his armor's com.

  The micromolecular detonator had been designed to handle anything from highly sophisticated chemical explosives to small thermonuclear devices. The design team which had produced it had never even considered the possibility that it might be used for something as crude as black powder weapons, and they might have been offended by such a plebeian misuse of their ultrasophisticated brainchild.

  Pahner could not have cared less about that. All he cared about was that it did precisely what he wanted it to do and ignited the quick match fuse running to the five hundred black powder claymore mines emplaced along the west side of the bridge.

  The mines didn't detonate simultaneously. Instead, a rolling wall of fire and smoke raced clear across the bridge from just beyond its midpoint all the way to the northern bank of the river.

  * * *


  Colonel Ni's deep-voiced shout rang out, and every one of his pikemen squatted as if simultaneously stricken by diarrhea. The six hundred or so Boman who'd been outside the claymores' kill zone were too stunned by the cataclysm behind them to react, although there was very little they could have done, anyway. As the squatting pikemen cleared their line of fire, four hundred riflemen and three hundred revolver-armed cavalrymen opened fire at point-blank range. The bridge was so narrow that the K'Vaernians' and Northerners' ranks could be only twenty men across, but they could fire three ranks deep, and as each group of sixty fired, it squatted in turn to clear the fire of the group behind it. The firing sequence began with the cavalrymen; by the time it reached the second group of riflemen, there was not a single living, unwounded Boman on the entire length of the Great Bridge.

  * * *

  Sergeant Major Eva Kosutic paced back and forth along the gun line atop the rubble-built wall on the western side of the square. She hadn't been happy about being stuck here in the city while the troops were actually engaged in the field, especially when Roger and his Mobile Force had been fighting for their lives. But she was about to make up for her recent inactivity, she thought, listening to the crashing thunder of the Marton Regiment's volleys with a cold, thin smile.

  "Load with grape," she told the gunners she and her initial cadre of naval artillerists had trained, and her smile turned even colder and thinner as she considered the surprise present they had for the Boman.

  "Beware of Armaghans," she told the distant barbarians softly. "Especially when they bear gifts."

  * * *

  Tar Tin stared in horror at the Great Bridge.

  Half a kilometer of Boman warriors—almost six thousand of them—had been ripped apart and strewn in bloody wreckage all along the northern half of the bridge. No doubt the host had lost many more than that during the fighting across the city, but not in such an eyeblink of time. Not so . . . horrifically. One moment they'd been living warriors, fierce and proud, screaming their war cries as they surged forward to close with their shit-sitter enemies; the next, they were so much shredded meat and blood, blown and splattered across the paved roadway. Blood ran from the bridge's storm drains, not in trickles but in streams that splashed into the river below and dyed it until it looked as if the Tam itself were bleeding to death.

  And even as he stared at the carnage and destruction, even as the shit-sitter rearguard turned and jogged into the shadows of the broken gate tunnel, yet another huge explosion roared through the humid air. He watched the cloud of smoke and dust billowing up from the middle of the center span and hammered the edge of his ceremonial ax on the heaped stone upon which he stood, screaming his fury. The accursed shit-sitters had blown up the bridge behind themselves! Despite the panicked rout of almost their entire army, they were going to escape him because some demon among them had planned even for this contingency!

  Curses and howls of baffled rage rose from thousands of other throats as the rest of the host realized the same thing. Warriors shrieked promises of dire vengeance, promised the gods the slow, lingering death of whatever shit-sitter had planned that ambush and that escape from their wrath.

  But then the dust and smoke began to dissipate, and all of the curses, all of the shouts, faded into a breathless silence as the Great Bridge emerged slowly from the haze once more.

  Tar Tin realized that he was holding his own breath, leaning forward, staring with
hungry eyes as the bridge reemerged, pace by pace. Perhaps, if the gap wasn't too wide they would still be able to get across. Perhaps a temporary span, or—

  A shout of triumph arose—first from one throat, then from a dozen, and finally from thousands. The bridge stood! The shit-sitter explosion had blasted away the raised stone guard walls on both sides, and taken a ragged bite out of the eastern side of the roadbed, but that was all. All!

  "Now you will all die, shit-sitters!" Tar Tin screamed jubilantly. "So clever you were—so brilliant! But nothing stands between you and our axes now!" The paramount war leader of the clans raised his ax of office overhead in both true-hands, and his voice rang out like the trumpet of the war god.

  "Forward the clans! Kill the shit-sitters!"

  * * *

  Armand Pahner inhaled in deep satisfaction as a fresh wave of Boman began thundering out onto the gore-splashed roadway of the bridge. His greatest fear had been that the barbarians would refuse to thrust their heads into the trap awaiting them on the south bank of the river. He'd had no choice but to set up the claymore ambush, because it had been imperative that there be a clean break between the K'Vaernian rearguard and the first ranks of barbarians to cross the bridge. The rearguard had to have time to file through the bastions' gates and bar those openings behind them, because he'd dared not let them into the killing ground with the enemy still in contact. Any force small enough to fit onto the bridge would have been easily outflanked and destroyed once the Boman had room to deploy around them, and the rest of the waiting troops couldn't have fired on the Boman without killing their own rearguard. Not to mention the fact that any premature firing might warn the barbarians of what was coming in time for them to refuse to cooperate. Yet even though he'd had no option but to place the claymores, he'd been more than half afraid that if the ambush worked, the Boman would recoil, refusing to continue their advance lest they run into additional, similar ambushes.


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