March to the sea im 2, p.20

March To The Sea im-2, page 20

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  Frightened Mardukan pikemen who knew human expressions, looking over their shoulders for reassurance from their leaders, took one look at Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock and turned instantly back to face their foes, for even the Boman in their fury were less frightening than the face of their human commander.

  * * *

  "Don't mind us!" Honal called out to the nervous Diasprans as their hands shifted on their pikes and their anxious faces turned to the rear. "We're just here as observers, after all! Still, we're glad you're here, too . . . and we definitely prefer for you to stay right where you are."

  The muttered, grunting laughter of a hundred heavily armed cavalry rose hungrily behind him, and the wavering faces turned back to the storm.

  * * *

  Bogess watched the surges of uncertainty ripple through the pike regiments. He was totally confident in the steadiness of his assegai-armed regulars. Despite their earlier losses to the Boman, they had demonstrated their determination often enough even before the humans had taught them their new tactics and discipline. Now they truly believed what the human Pahner had been telling them for weeks—that no organized force of soldiers was ever truly outnumbered by any horde of barbarians.

  Nor did the Diaspran general harbor any fears about Rastar and his cavalry. No one had ever called a Northern cavalryman a coward more than once, and these Northerners had a score to settle with the Boman. Like his own men, they were supremely confident in their own leaders and the humans' tactics, but even if they hadn't been, the only way the Boman would have taken this field from them would be to kill them all.

  But the new regiments . . . They were the complete unknown at the very heart of the "New Model Army." The human Marines had accomplished a miracle Bogess hadn't truly believed was possible just by bringing the ex-Laborers of God this far, but there was only one true test for how any army would stand the stress of battle, and that test was about to be applied.

  Assuming that his regulars, Rastar's cavalry, and the Marines could make the regiments stand in place long enough.

  He looked over at Pahner, who nodded.

  "I'd say it's time, General," the human said, and Bogess gestured to the drummer by his side and looked back out over the field.

  * * *

  The drum command sent an electric shock through the standing ranks of the pike force. The first thunderous rumble brought them to attention, and the second fierce tattoo lowered their forest of pikes into fighting position.

  Suddenly, the charging Boman were faced with a wall of steel and shields, and that thundering charge ground unevenly to a stop just out of throwing ax range. A few individuals came forward and tossed the odd ax at the wall of shields, but the light hatchets rattled off uselessly, demonstrating the efficiency of the simple, ancient design. Insults followed the throwing axes, but the regiments stood in disciplined silence, and the Boman seemed confused by the lack of response. Then one of them, a chieftain of note, to judge by his ritual scars and necklace of horns, came out of the mass and shouted his own incomprehensible diatribe at the motionless wall of pikes.

  * * *

  Roger had had all he could take. He slid the eleven-millimeter into its scabbard, pulled out a whistle, and kneed Patty into a trot.

  "Roger!" Cord called from where he stood at the flar-ta' s side, startled out of his calm assessment of the incipient battle. "Roger, where are you going?"

  "Stay here, asi." For the first time since he'd saved Cord's life, it wasn't a request. It was an order, and he also snapped his fingers abruptly for Dogzard to unload. "I'm going to go teach these barbs a lesson in manners."

  * * *

  "Oh, shit!" Julian said. "Captain!"

  "Roger," Captain Pahner called calmly, calmly. "Where do you think you're going?"

  Even as he spoke, he saw the prince remove his radio-equipped helmet and sling it from the flar-ta's harness.

  "I'm going to kill him," Pahner whispered, maintaining a calm, calm, outward demeanor. "See if I don't."

  * * *

  The ranks in front of the packbeast parted at the shrill whistle to let the behemoth through, and Roger trotted towards the still-shouting chieftain, slowly raising the gait to a canter as the ancient Voitan steel blade whispered from its sheath. His rage against the obstacles of the long journey had gone icy cold. All the world had narrowed to the blade, the flar-ta, and the target.

  As Patty neared the Boman lines, he kneed for her to turn, and rolled off her back. Hitting the ground at that speed was risky, but he was far too focused to worry about something as minor as a broken ankle, and it brought him to his target in a full charge.

  The three-meter native was armed with a broad iron battle-ax which had seen long and hard service. The scars on the barbarian's body and the condition of his ax told his story as well as any chanted saga might have. This was a chieftain who'd conquered half a world and smashed the finest fighters in the Western Realms to dust.

  And Prince Roger MacClintock could have cared less.

  The Mardukan was fast. The first, furious slash of the prince's katanalike blade was parried by the heavy iron ax. The razor-sharp steel sword sliced a handspan-thick chunk out of its relatively soft iron, but the blow was blocked.

  The second, backhand blow, was not.

  The Mardukan was as good as dead, with a cut halfway through his torso, but that wasn't enough for the prince. As the body crumpled, slowly, oh so slowly to its knees, the sword whistled back up and around in a perfectly timed slash, driven by all the power of his shoulders and back, that intersected the native's tree trunk-thick neck with the sound of a woodsman's ax in oak. That single, meaty impact was clearly, dreadfully, audible in the sudden hush which had enveloped the entire battlefield. And then the Boman chieftain's head leapt from his shoulders in a geyser of blood and thudded to the ground.

  Roger recovered to a guard position, then looked at the thousands of barbarian warriors standing motionless in the drizzle a mere stone's throw away, and spat. He gave a single flick of his blade, spattering the blood of their late chieftain halfway to their lines, then turned his back on them contemptuously and started back to his own lines in near utter silence . . . which erupted in a sudden, thunderous cheer.

  "I'm still gonna kill him," Pahner muttered through his own forced smile. "Or make him write out 'Arithmetic on the Frontier' until his fingers bleed."

  Beside him, Bogess grunted in laughter.

  * * *

  It took another fifteen minutes for the Boman to work themselves back into a frenzy once more. Other chieftains stepped to the fore and harangued the stolid Diaspran lines. Many of them waved the bloody souvenirs of past conquests at the pikemen, while others spat or urinated in their direction. But the ones who cast nervous glances at Roger, once more sitting atop Patty and glowering at the barbarian swarm, weren't much help to their cause.

  Eventually, the barbarians began to move forward once more, in a creeping, Brownian fashion. A few axes arced out and thudded down, a few warriors charged forward and menaced the pikes, and then, finally, when some magic proximity had been reached, the entire mob flashed over into a howling fury and charged forward, shrieking defiance and hurling axes.

  A storm front of javelins answered them. The New Model Army's javelin supply was severely limited, because there simply hadn't been time—or resources—to manufacture them in anything like the numbers Pahner could have wished for. Not if the artisans of Diaspra were going to provide the pikes and assegai he needed even more desperately, at any rate. There was only a single javelin for each pikeman, and three for each assegai-armed regular, but they did their job. The avalanche of weapons, hurled in a single, massed launch at the shrieking mob, ripped the charge into broken blocks. Given the numerical disparity between the two sides, the effect was actually more psychological than anything else. In absolute terms, the Boman's numbers were more than sufficient to soak up the javelins and close, but the holes torn in the front of the charge proved
to the pikemen that they could kill the barbarians, and the object lesson worked. The pikes held their ground as the enemy charged forward . . . and was stopped again.

  It was deadly simple: there was no way for the Boman to make their way through the thicket of pikes. The weapons were layers deep, jutting through every interstice. Stakes could be pulled up or knocked down, even if that meant stopping long enough for the shit-sitters to try to kill one, but those pikeheads were another thing entirely. Pushing one of them aside was no more than a temporary solution . . . and only left another to drive into an attacker's vitals, anyway. That became horribly obvious very quickly, yet some of the barbarian horde tried anyway. Some even succeeded . . . for a time.

  * * *

  Fain wasn't sure who'd started the chant. It wasn't he, but it was a good chant, as such things went, and it was simple—which was even better. "Ro-Ger!" with a poke of the spear on the "Ger!"

  "Ro-Ger! Ro-Ger!"

  The whole force, or at least the regiment he was a tiny part of, was chanting the prince's name. And it seemed to be working. The ferocious Boman, who'd been a source of such terror before the battle, weren't so terrible, after all. What was terrible was killing them.

  Fain's regiment was one of the ones guarding the openings deliberately left in the hedge of stakes. Had he considered it, he might have realized that their position was a form of backhanded compliment, a decision based on the fact that their commanders considered his regiment steady enough to be entrusted with responsibility for holding such an exposed and critical position. At the moment, however, the squad leader wasn't thinking about compliments; he was thinking about how the absence of any stakes in front of them seemed to have drawn the attention of every demon-cursed Boman in creation . . . all of whom were running straight at him.

  Which meant that the only way for him to live was for them to die.

  When the barbarians had first charged forward, that hadn't been a problem. Given his place in the front ranks of his pike company, Fain had been too busy getting his own pike into fighting position and keeping an eye on the rest of his squad to worry about throwing any javelins. That had been the job of the ranks behind them, and of General Bogess' regulars. Despite his own hatred for and fear of the Boman, it had been ghastly to watch the savage storm of javelins rip into them, but at least he hadn't had to throw one. And those of the barbarians who'd survived and kept coming had balked when they first confronted the leveled wall of pikeheads. Clearly, they hadn't had the least notion of how to proceed, but the pressure from behind them had been too great for them to stop and figure out what to do next. That pressure had driven them forward . . . and Fain had been forced to kill them.

  The experience had been far worse than the simulation. The first Boman who'd been spitted on his pike had been young, barely old enough to sire sons. He'd clearly been trying to claw his way to the rear, anything to avoid the wall of pikes. But the young barbarian had lacked the strength to force his way through the seething mass behind him, and that mass had driven him remorselessly onto Fain's spear.

  The Mardukan noncom's true-hands had tightened on his pike shaft like talons, yet they'd seemed weak, so weak, as if the frantic contortions of the shrieking Boman transfixed on the wicked head of his pike must wrench the quivering shaft from them. In that unique, private instant of hell, Krindi Fain was all alone with the young warrior, who dropped his weapons and seized the steel-headed wooden shaft driving into his guts with all four hands and tried desperately to wrench himself off of its agonizing sharpness.

  But then the training came to the fore. Fain put a wall of disbelief up around his senses. The shrieking on the other end of his pike became a teammate, playacting in the background. The frantic shudders transmitted up the spear were just two of his friends, pulling on the ropes that suspended the training dummy. With the spear well and truly stuck in, the squad leader could turn aside and not see the bulging eyes or the lolling tongue as the barely scarred young barbarian gasped out his life on the end of the wickedly sharp spear.

  Then, for the first time in his life, he blessed Julian and all the other Marine bastards who'd trained him. And as he looked around at the other members of his squad, he knew that they all had to do the same, or his own killing would be for nothing.

  "Stick it in!" he shouted. "You just have to get it stuck in!"

  * * *

  Pahner flipped up his visor and nodded.

  "Pikes are like bayonets. They're terror weapons. The Boman can't force themselves onto the pikes to drive forward far enough to reach the pikemen. We're not really killing that many of them, but we have them well and truly stopped."

  "But we will kill many of them if the ones behind keep pushing the ones in front forward," Bogess demurred. "They don't have anywhere else to go, and in time, they'll push the spears down by the sheer weight of dead bodies. And when that happens, they'll walk over the corpses and kill us all."

  "And not everyone can stand it from our side, either," Pahner agreed harshly.

  * * *

  "No!" a private in the front rank cried. "No, no!"

  The Diaspran was shuddering as he dropped his pike and turned to the rear. The dropped weapon, coupled with the way his flight knocked the men to either side of him out of their own positions, opened a momentary gap into which a Boman inserted himself. The warrior was well-nigh crazed with fear, surrounded by a wall of sharp steel and the smell of death, but the only escape from his own terror seemed to be up the suddenly opened path before him.

  The path that led straight to Bail Crom.

  The private blocked the first hack of the Boman's ax with his shield, but the second frantic slash licked over the shield's upper edge. It bit into his lower shoulder, severing the muscles that lifted the lifesaving piece of plywood, and after that, it was all over. Half a dozen pikes stabbed forward to fill the gap, thrusting at the crazed Boman, impaling him even as he hacked and hacked at the body of the private, but the fact that the barbarian joined him in death was lost on the happy-go-lucky Crom.

  "Bail?" Pol called hesitantly. The simpleminded private tried to look around the intervening squad members. "Bail?"

  "Stand your ground, Erkum!" Fain shouted. The humans had a mechanism for sadness and grief. They "cried." The liquid of the God Himself flowed from their eyes in moments like this. Strange that people who did not worship the God should be given such a gift.

  "Stand your ground and get it stuck in, Erkum Pol!"

  * * *

  But not everyone was a Krindi Fain, and not everyone could stand.

  * * *

  "Captain, we've got ourselves a situation here!" Kosutic called.

  Pahner spotted the sergeant major's icon on his HUD and looked off to the left. Some of the brighter Boman had realized that their best chance was to go around the hedge of pikes, since they couldn't get through it. Most of their flanking efforts had been defeated by Bogess' regulars, wielding their assegais with deadly effect. Whether Crassus or Shaka would have approved more strongly of them was difficult to say, but any barbarian who had expected it to be "easy" to get past their shorter weapons quickly discovered that he'd been dead wrong.

  Yet for all their skill, the regulars lacked the standoff reach of the conscripted pikemen. The Boman were paying at three or four to one for each spearman they managed to hack down, but here and there they managed to batter their way through, however extortionate the cost. An isolated squad of regulars suddenly found itself under overwhelming assault and went down under a blizzard of throwing axes and the thundering blows of battle-axes. Its fall opened a brief but deadly hole in the line, and dozens of howling barbarians lunged through it and flung themselves onto the flank of a pike regiment.

  The pikemen, already dazed and bewildered, despite their training, by the howling holocaust of battle, were taken at a deadly disadvantage. It was impossible for them to swing their long, heavy weapons around to confront their attackers in time, and the sudden onslaught was too much for them.
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  They broke.

  The sergeant major's radioed warning turned Pahner's attention to the regiment just as it shattered like crystal under a hammer. The ground was suddenly scattered with the pikemen's shields and weapons. And bodies. As was always the case before the advent of artillery, the majority of casualties were inflicted when one side finally turned its back and tried to run.

  Bogess followed the direction of Pahner's gaze, and then looked at the captain.

  "Cavalry?"

  "Not yet." The laconic Marine shook his head. "Let the armor handle it." He keyed his communicator. "Sergeant Julian, left wing, please."

  * * *

  The four fully functional suits of armor were already moving when the command came in. As they swung past the bastion, it was clear that the Boman were well and truly into the rear areas, and Julian couldn't understand why Pahner was so calm about it.

  The Marines to either side of the breach were down, although it looked like they were only wounded, not dead, and the pike regiments to either side of the breakthrough, stiffened by a reserve of Bogess' regulars, had re-formed to protect their own flanks. But all they could do was hold their ground and cling to their own positions, and the flood of barbarians pouring through the seventy-meter-wide hole swept past the formed units and threatened to fan out and take still other regiments from the rear. And if that happened . . .

  Clearly, it was time to show the locals what "peace through superior firepower" meant.

  The four armored Marines spaced themselves across the salient with the two plasma cannon in the center, since they had the worst secondary effects, and opened fire.

  The ten-millimeter bead cannon were loaded with flechette rounds. Each shot pumped out a half dozen narrow darts with moly-blade edges instead of a single normal bead, and the darts cut through the packed barbarians facing the four armored suits like horizontal buzz saws. Their molecule-wide edges would have cut through chain mail and steel plate, and they shredded the totally unarmored natives effortlessly into so much constituent offal . . . which the plasma cannon flash fried.

 
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