March to the sea im 2, p.42

March To The Sea im-2, page 42

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  Rastar reined his civan back to a walk, looking over his shoulder at the destruction and agony, and bared his teeth in a hungry, human-style smile. Another small payment on the enormous debt Therdan owed the Boman, he thought viciously, and stood in the human-designed stirrups he and his troopers had adopted.

  "Kiss my ass, you Boman pussies!" he shouted, slapping his rear end. "See you in Therdan—and bring your pocking friends!"

  * * *

  "What in the name of all the demons was that?" Camsan's henchman demanded as the two Boman stopped in stunned disbelief. The war leader had been no more than forty or fifty meters outside the kill zone, and he shook his head, half-deafened by the unexpected fury of the explosions.

  He'd never imagined anything like the torn and mangled pieces of what had been warriors—certainly not that such carnage could be wreaked in an eyeblink! He stared at the wreckage for several moments, then shook himself again as he felt the matching consternation and disbelief of the warriors surrounding him.

  He looked around quickly. The morning had not gone well. He and his warriors had killed perhaps two hundred of the shit-sitter cavalry, but their own losses had easily been fifteen or twenty times as great, and the sheer shock of this last hammer blow only made the pain of their casualties bite deeper. The clans had lost far more men in taking any one of the shit-sitter cities he'd conquered, but losses were expected when storming sheer stone walls. This was something else, and he recognized its potentially deadly effect on his warriors' morale.

  "It was clever of the iron heads," he grated loudly enough to be clearly heard as he made himself walk forward into the blood and torn flesh. "Clever, but only gunpowder, not magic or demons. This is why they wanted us to follow them."

  "Exactly as you did," a subchief accused, and Camsan turned slowly to face him. The war leader said nothing, only looked the subchief in the eye, and then Camsan's battle ax, the ceremonial ax of the paramount war leader, flashed up in a lethal arc and the subchief's head thumped heavily into the bloody mud of the track.

  The silence which followed its impact was profound, and Camsan turned in place, sweeping every warrior in range with his hard gaze.

  "For months you've whined and complained like children deprived of sweets because I would not lead you to battle," he said flatly. "I've warned you again and again that K'Vaern's Cove will be no Sindi—that the Cove's walls are high, and its people cunning. And for warning you, I have been repaid with mutters that I am no fit war leader. I, who took Therdan and crushed the League under our feet. I, who took D'Sley and even fabled Sindi! I, who have led you to triumphs our sires, and their sires, and their sires before them, never dreamed of!

  "And now, when the iron heads rode around the walls shouting insults at you, and you demanded that we go forth and take their horns, you cry like little children because I gave you what you wished. I see that the warriors of the Boman are become women!"

  He felt their sullen resentment, but none dared to meet his iron gaze, and he spat on the ground.

  "There's no magic here, only cunning from our enemies and the foolishness of warriors who can see no response to any challenge but to rush to meet it. Do not blame me for the consequences of your own rashness! And don't think for an instant that any man who questions my decisions and my orders again will not be atul meat before nightfall!"

  He kicked the dead subchief's head contemptuously off of the trail, and glared at all of them, one warrior staring down the shock and defiance of thirty thousand others, and the fiery elixir of his own power as he crushed any challenge to his authority filled him like fine wine. The silence stretched out, singing with tension, until, finally, he grunted in satisfaction at their submission.

  "Now," he went on then, his voice calmer and more businesslike, "it's clear that the iron heads have returned to plague us, and this—" he gestured at the chaos of the ambush site "—proves that the K'Vaernian shit-sitters are supplying them with new weapons. There can be no more than a few thousand iron heads left in all the world after the feasting of our axes in their cities, but it would seem that the K'Vaernians mean to use them to bite at us. No doubt they hope to lure us into traps and ambushes like this one again and again. Perhaps they even believe that they can somehow drive us into leaving the Cove unburned if they strike us often enough.

  "But we are the Boman! We are the warriors of the North, the power of the wind itself, and we will hammer our enemies into dust! We won't give these iron heads the time to sting us again and again, won't let them choose the moment at which they will attack us. Mnb Trag and his clan hold Sindi behind us, and the K'Vaernians will never risk their own precious hides beyond the safety of their walls. Nor could all the iron heads who still live take the walls against Trag and his warriors. Even the full strength of the K'Vaernians would require a siege to break those defenses, and the iron heads will have no chance even to try if we stay close upon their heels. They know that as well as we do, too, and so they will have spare mounts hidden ahead somewhere. They know us of old, even as we know them, and so they know that without such remounts they will never outdistance the Boman in the long run. They think to leave us behind here, at the beginning of the chase, or to exhaust us until we give up, but their hope is in vain, for we will take the time for a true basik hunt! You wish blood on your axes? Very well, I'll give it to you!"

  He wheeled to the messengers who always attended upon the paramount war leader. Picked runners all, carefully chosen from their own clans and tribes, they waited only for a nod from him to dash off with messages to any of the clan leaders, and he waved them closer.

  "These new toys of the iron heads," he said, careful to put only contempt into the word "toys" and to conceal the shock he himself still felt at their effectiveness, "will be far more dangerous if they're able to choose the time and place to use them against us. So you will go to the leaders of your clans, and you will summon them to the field. We will pursue the iron heads wherever they may go, and the other clans will join us, closing in and driving them like basik before the beaters. Even if still more of them wait out here somewhere, and even if all of them are gathered together in one place, we'll have the numbers and the strength to sweep them aside as if they were so many grains of sand. Let them flee where they will, even unto the ruins of Therdan and Sheffan themselves! There will be no escape, and we will overwhelm them even if they find some worthless fortification to hold against us!

  "Go! Summon the clans, for we have enemies to kill!"

  * * *

  "Christ," Pahner said. "Thirty-two thousand? What did they leave?"

  "Far less than that," Bogess opined. The Diaspran had become Pahner's chief of staff, for all intents and purposes, as his own forces were integrated firmly into the K'Vaernian force structure, and he frowned thoughtfully as he considered the LURPs' report. "Most of the warriors would have insisted on chasing the Northerners. The Boman and the Vasin are enemies of old, with so many scores to settle that no one on either side could possibly count them all up."

  "Jin says there are still some wandering around in the fields," the Marine said, consulting his pad.

  "Looting," Bistem Kar said with a wave. "They'll be gone by the time we land. And we'll be landing out of sight of them, anyway."

  "Something's going to go wrong," Pahner said.

  "Who now is taking council of his fears?" Bogess asked with a grunt of laughter.

  "Not taking council, just worrying," Pahner grumped. "And where the hell did Roger get to?"

  "Start to forget our real job there, Boss?" Julian asked with a grin, and glanced at the heads-up display on his helmet visor. "Reports have him with the forward cavalry screen on the D'Sley-Sindi road. Track, rather."

  "Good," Pahner said. "He's staying back like I told him to." The Marine paused and frowned. "If the report is accurate, anyway."

  * * *

  "Hey, Gunny! How ya doing?" Roger said quietly.

  Jin suppressed his start and turned to look at the princ
e. The dying light of afternoon revealed Roger, lying on his stomach, covered in a gill blanket and with his face coated with camouflage paint while he grinned at the gunny's jump.

  "Any news?" he asked.

  "Jesus, Sir," D'Estrees said. "You scared the shit out of me. You ever heard of giving a poor Marine with a loaded rifle a little warning?"

  "Gotta keep that old situational awareness, Corporal," the unrepentant prince said. "The night will soon be alive with little creepy-crawlies." He turned back to Jin. "So, what's happening?"

  "Rastar says they're well into the chase," Jin replied. "The cavalry's about twelve klicks to the north, with the Boman from Sindi in hot pursuit. And it looks like this Camsan fellow's taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker." The noncom patted the directional shotgun mike on the side of his helmet and grinned. "Gave a hell of a little speech after the claymores turned about two hundred meters worth of scummies into sausage filling, Sir. Sounded to me like he figures he got his dick caught in a drill press and the only way to keep somebody from challenging his position is to go personally nail Rastar's horns up on a wall somewhere."

  "So he called in the other clans?"

  "That he did, Your Highness, that he did. I just hope Rastar and Honal are half as good as they think they are, 'cause if those bastards ever do catch up with them, it's gonna be ugly."

  "Don't sweat it, Gunny," Roger advised. "As a matter of fact, Rastar is probably at least two thirds as good as he thinks he is. Besides, we only gave him enough claymores for one good ambush. Didn't want him getting too creative on us, after all! So any other little unpleasantries he wants to send the Boman are going to have to come out of his rifles and revolvers, which ought to encourage him not to let them get too close." The prince shook his head. "He'll play tag with them, just like we planned, until we're ready for them to head on home, and it looks like they'll be bringing all their friends with them when they come."

  "Hope so," Jin said, and waved in the direction of Sindi's barely visible walls. "Meanwhile, there's nothing stirring in Sindi Town."

  "Are you out here by yourself, Sir?" D'Estrees asked.

  "I dropped most of the troops about four kilometers back and came forward with half a troop of cavalry. They're back about a half klick."

  "Who's in the group, Sir?" The gunnery sergeant asked. "Just Mardukans?"

  "Four hundred cavalry from Chindar, four hundred or so infantry from the pikes, and Beckley's team. Oh, and Cord and Matsugae."

  "You brought Kostas?" D'Estrees asked. "Don't go getting our cook killed, Sir!"

  "I told him he ought to stay home in the Cove, where it was safe," Roger said with a grin, "but he pointed out that since the army now had real cooks, he could go back to being my valet. 'Just because you're sleeping on the ground doesn't mean we can't keep up appearances.' "

  "Ha, that's Kostas!" Jin said. "How long you going to stay, Sir?"

  "You mean potentially giving away your hide? Not long—I can take a hint. I'll head back to the troops in a minute. I just wanted to look at the city."

  "What're you going to call them?" the corporal asked.

  "The Mardukans?" Roger gave a quiet chuckle. "I don't know. Maybe 'Her Majesty's Own Mardukan Guards'? Whatever I call them, I need to be getting back before they come looking for me."

  "Take care, Your Highness," Jin said. "And for Vishnu's sake, keep your head down and out of the line of fire."

  "Will do, Gunny," the prince said. "See you in Sindi."


  Mnb Trag looked out over the fields in the growing light. Somewhere to the north, he knew, were Camsan and the rest of the clans, perhaps closing in on the presumptuous iron heads even as Trag stood here on the walls of Sindi. It irked him immensely to be left behind, as if he were too old or lazy to go chase cavalry, yet he had to agree with Kny.

  It was never wise to do what your enemy wanted you to do. Presumably that iron head cavalry had known the Boman would chase them, and presumably they'd also known that no heavy cavalry could outrun the Boman indefinitely. So there had to be a trap waiting for the host, and Camsan had been right to be wary.

  Yet Trag knew that he had been correct, too. Trap or no trap, Camsan had no choice but to pursue the Northerners and destroy the challenge to his authority their mere presence represented. And whatever the iron heads had hoped to accomplish, they would fail in the end. No shit-sitter Southern army survived, aside from the relatively tiny force of the K'Vaernian Guard, and the Guard was far too weak to endanger any Boman force in the open field. So, in the end, the trappers must be trapped and destroyed. Judging by the dangerous deviousness of that first ambush, the K'Vaernians had obviously devised new weapons in a desperate attempt to make their League mercenaries more effective, and that undoubtedly meant casualties would be heavier than they ought to have been before the host managed to trap and destroy the iron heads, but their fate was ultimately sealed. And in their destruction, Camsan would add yet another triumph to the matchless string of victories he'd produced for the clans, and so further consolidate his grip upon the power he and Trag both knew lay almost within his grasp. "Barbarian" the shit-sitters called the Boman, and there was truth to the sneer, Trag admitted proudly. But "barbarians" could build empires, too.

  Yet for all his satisfaction, something still felt wrong. He couldn't quite lay hold of what it was that concerned him, but it was there.

  And then, as the light gathered, it became clear what it was.

  A small host emerged from the forest on the D'Sley Road—small, but obviously much larger than any force the shit-sitters should possibly have been able to assemble. Block after block of infantry marched forward, moving in regular lines more precise than even those K'Vaern's Cove Guard bastards. He was too old to see what sort of weapons they carried at this range, but there were at least two shit-sitters for every warrior he still had in Sindi, and he had no doubt that they carried scaling ladders in plenty.

  "Where did they come from?" one of his warriors gasped.

  "K'Vaern's Cove," the chieftain answered. "I guess they must have put a sword into the hand of every shit-sitter who could see lightning or hear thunder and just brought them out." He grunted in laughter at the thought of the enemy's obligingness at bringing the soft, gutless—and untrained—city slugs into the sweep of his own ax. Still, it looked as if there were an awful lot of them.

  "We should be able to pile them on the wall like bales of barleyrice," he said, "but it will be a fight to tell the grands about."

  More and more of his fellow tribesmen gathered on the parapet as the regular ranks of shit-sitters assembled just out of bombard range. The groups walked in step, their odd march broken only when they crossed the small bridge over the Stell, and formed in neat blocks on the city's side of the stream.

  "I've never seen spears that long," someone said. "You don't suppose those gutless Wespar were telling the truth when they said . . ."

  The voice trailed off, and Trag grunted a deeper, harsher laugh at the edge of nervousness which had sharpened the remark.

  "I've never put much faith in the lies Wespar pussies who got their asses kicked by a bunch of shit-sitters tell to cover the way they must've fucked up," the chieftain said. "And even if they were telling the truth, how would the same spears have gotten clear to K'Vaern's Cove this quickly?"

  "You're probably right," one of his own tribesmen said, "but those really are awfully long pagee –stickers out there, Mnb."

  "Maybe someone from the water boys told them how to scare the Wespar off," Trag scoffed, "but we aren't Wespar, are we? We're the Tranol'te! And even if we were Wespar, do you really think there's any way they could get something as long as those damned things up scaling ladders?" He laughed more loudly than ever.

  "No, I don't," the tribesman said.

  "Of course you don't," Trag said, and waved dismissively at the small army which had now taken up position in front of the gates on the northern side of the river, close enough that eve
n Trag could see them clearly. "And I don't see any battering rams over there," he went on, "so there isn't really much they can do to us as long as we're not stupid enough to go out and meet them head-on, now is there?"

  "I don't know, Mnb," the tribesman said. "We don't have enough warriors to man the walls. Not the way we ought to, anyway."

  "Doesn't matter," Trag said confidently. "They don't have enough scaling ladders to swamp us, either. We've got more than enough to hold this part of the walls until the end of the world, and they don't have enough time for anything like a proper siege. Kny Camsan is out there behind them, and it won't take him long to realize why the iron heads wanted to lure us out of the city. When he does, he'll come right over them, and that will be the end of K'Vaern's Cove! All we have to do is keep them right where they are until he gets here. So get your warriors moving—we need them here on the walls!"

  Messengers dashed off to summon the warriors of the clan to battle, and Trag leaned on the battlements, watching the shit-sitters. His confidence was genuine, but he was honest enough to admit that he didn't have a clue what the shit-sitters were up to as scores of them began pushing some sort of wagons up behind the blocks of infantry.

  No doubt it was some new fancy trick the K'Vaernians had devised, but no trick was going to get them magically through the massive stone walls of Sindi.

  * * *

  "Move, move, move!"

  Rus From and General Bogess were an eye of calm in a hurricane of effort as the specially trained companies manhandled the wagons into position. Those positions had been very carefully selected and surveyed by the Marine LURPs who'd kept Sindi under constant surveillance while the K'Vaernian army was equipped and trained. As well as both Diasprans had come to know their remarkable human allies, they'd been astonished by the routine, matter-of-fact way in which the Marines had roamed Sindi's environs under cover of night. Everyone knew the Boman barbarians could hear the whine of an insect's wings at seventy paces, yet the humans had penetrated effortlessly to the city's very walls, and their unobtrusively placed stakes had guided each wagon to its preselected position under the Diasprans' watchful eyes.

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