March to the sea im 2, p.46

March To The Sea im-2, page 46

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series


March To The Sea im-2

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  She stuck her hip into his and rolled him over onto his back with the grip on his chameleon suit.

  "Listen to me, Prince Roger Ramius Sergei Alexander Chiang MacClintock!" she hissed. "I want a promise. You can make it on anything you care to name, but you will make it! And that promise is that as soon as we get somewhere safe, and all the crises are past, you will take me to bed. And take your time at it. And do it well." She picked him up and pounded him lightly on the ground with each phrase. "Do you swear?"

  Roger wrapped his legs around her, pulled her down on top of himself, and kissed her.

  "When we're back on Earth. When all of this is behind us, when we're back in the Imperial Palace, and we can be sure it's not the situation. When I'm sure that I love Nimashet Despreaux more than life itself, and that it's not unbridled lust from all the pain and death and blood. Then I'll take you—as my wife, if I can get away with it, or as a senior partner, if I can't. And I will love you until the day I die. I swear it on my dead."

  She pounded her head into his breastbone.

  "All I want to do is to screw you, you idiot! You're supposed to be telling me you'll love me and marry me to get me to bed—not telling me that to get you into bed I have to marry you. That's my line!"

  "Do you accept?" Roger asked.

  "Of course I do!" she snapped. "I'd have to be an idiot not to. I love you so hard it hurts, and don't think I'll get over that just because we get back to Earth. Hell, I was so far gone I loved you when you were just an overblown, brainless, arrogant prick of a clotheshorse and I damned well should have known better!"

  "Speaking of clotheshorses," he said, fingering the placket of her chameleon suit, "these uniforms could use some work. That's the second thing I'm going to do when we get back to Earth." He looked into her eyes. "So we wait?" he asked in a quieter voice. "You're okay with that?"

  "I wouldn't use the term 'okay,' " she said. " 'Okay' is definitely not the adverb, or whatever. As a matter of fact, if there's a direct opposite of 'okay' for this situation, that's about where I am. I'm not exactly 'bad' with it, I guess, but I'm definitely sort of 'anti-okay.' On the other hand, I'm a big girl. I'll live."

  Roger rolled over, then stood, and pulled her to her feet.

  "You ready to go?"

  "Sure," she answered sharply. "Let's go find something for me to kill before you start looking any better."

  "Okay," Roger said with a smile. "I want you to know, I really do want you. But I don't get any easier with time."

  "I've noticed," the sergeant muttered darkly. "Stubborn as a Mardukan day is long." She shook her head. "I have never had this much trouble getting a man to bed. For that matter, I've never had any trouble getting a man to bed. It was always the other way around."

  "Frustration is good for the soul," Roger said. "Look at what it's done for me!"

  "Yeah," Despreaux said with a sigh. "No wonder you're so dangerous. Ten years?"


  Armand Pahner stood on the walls of Sindi and gazed out over the muddy, trampled fields. Work crews, wagon trains, and infantry pickets marching out to relieve other pickets stretched as far as the eye could see with a helmet visor set to max, but even as he gazed at them, the activities outside the walls weren't what occupied his mind.

  He was thinking about women and children.

  The Boman host traveled with all the (limited) comforts of home, including its women and young . . . and Kny Camsan's ambitions had concentrated over half the total host's dependents right here in the city. In fact, it was that bit of intelligence, discovered by Gunny Jin's LURPs and confirmed by reports from a handful of the primitive woodsmen who continued to linger in the forests, despite the Boman's presence, which had shaped the captain's entire strategy.

  Pahner had given the strictest orders that every one of those dependents was to be taken into custody, and that none of them were to be molested in any way. The biannual "heat" of the Mardukans eliminated, for all practical purposes, the issue of rape from the local art of war, which—given humans' history—he thought was a very good thing. But that didn't necessarily make war nice and sanitary, and the Boman's depredations and the sheer, horrifying scale of the massacres they had perpetrated had left the locals perfectly willing to slaughter their women and children in return and be done with it. K'Vaernians didn't have the expression "nits make lice," but there was general agreement that the only good Boman was a dead Boman, and the age or sex didn't matter.

  Those qualities did, however, matter to Pahner. Leaving aside the clear proscription in imperial regulations against atrocities, leaving aside even his own personal repugnance for unnecessary slaughter, he needed those dependents. He needed them alive, and in good condition.

  They were bait.

  Normally, the Boman didn't besiege a city the same way a "civilized" army might have. If they failed—or chose not to—overrun its walls with their first, concerted rush, they fell back on their own sort of investment. They didn't call up the engineers to dig trench lines, and they made no effort to batter down walls or tunnel under them. Nor did they encamp outside a city's walls to hold it under a close envelopment. Instead, they just . . . existed, like some vast, slowly swarming sea which had inundated all of the lands about their enemies yet offered no fixed camps which might be assaulted to force them into battle. Their presence, and overwhelming numbers, prevented any organized movement on the part of the besieged city. Anyone trying to break out or escape was caught and overrun. Laborers trying to work the fields were massacred, draft animals were slaughtered or run off. If large forces sortied against them, they avoided their foes until enough barbarians gathered to pull them down and destroy them. If a city was weak enough, they were willing to simply pile up to the wall and assault it, but in general, they took their time and let it fester and rot . . . then assaulted it.

  Part of the reason for that was logistical. The Boman were herdsmen, of a sort, which helped sustain their population levels, but they also depended on large areas for hunting and gathering, like other Mardukan barbarians. Even without the need for hunting, their flocks of meat animals—the closest to "farming" they came—required vast grazing areas. At home, they moved their flocks constantly, allowing the grazing in any one area to recover between visits, and they were generally forced to do exactly the same thing when they went to war, assuming they intended to actually feed their warriors. There was no way they could organize a supply train, so staying put for any extended period wasn't really practical, except for the times—like Sindi—when they were able to capture supplies someone else had stockpiled.

  True, they had chosen to begin this war with a series of frenzied, massive assaults which had suffered huge casualties, but that had been because this time they were working to a comprehensive strategy which had been designed to annihilate all of the southern city-states, not simply to take a single town. They had recognized their need to smash the Northern League quickly, before it could recover from Sindi's treachery and its cities could come to one another's aid as they always had in the past.

  The sheer surprise of their coordinated tactics had done almost as much to defeat the League as anything agents from Sindi might have accomplished, Pahner suspected, although he had no intention of suggesting anything of the sort to Rastar or their other Northern allies. After generations of fighting Boman in the same old way, no one in the League had anticipated such an overwhelming onslaught . . . and neither had the Southern city-states behind it. The terror effect of the League's sudden collapse, coupled with the sheer size of the Boman host and the fact that most of the Southerners, secure in the League's protection, had settled for modest defensive works of their own, had made it relatively simple to storm each successive city in turn, and Camsan had done just that. Sindi had been a tougher nut, but the war leader had made no real effort to restrain his warriors' enthusiasm in Sindi's case. He couldn't have, given the reason the war had been decreed in the first place, but casualties in the storm of Sindi h
ad actually been worse than they had in the attack on Therdan. The Northerners had been far tougher opponents, but Sindi had been much larger, and its authorities had been given sufficient time to prepare before the hurricane howled down upon it.

  But after Sindi, the Boman had reverted to their more normal tactics rather than attempt an extremely unwise storm of K'Vaern's Cove. The only real difference was that their capture of Sindi gave them a powerful, heavily defended forward base, and—coupled with their conquest of the other Southern city-states—enough captured food to stay in place for several months. Eventually, of course, they would eat their captured larders bare and have to begin thinking about more aggressive ways to take the war to the Cove, but until the humans and their Diaspran allies arrived, Camsan's strategy of letting the K'Vaernians rot and deplete their already limited food supplies feeding the floods of refugees had been working quite nicely. It had been almost certain that, assuming he could hold the Boman together as a cohesive force, he could have sat where he was long enough to reduce the Cove to starving near impotence and then poured his warriors over the walls the Guard would be too weakened to defend.

  Which was the whole reason Pahner was out here now. Whether or not the Cove would be fatally weakened before starvation forced the Boman to move themselves, he couldn't wait to see the outcome. He needed to bring the barbarians to decisive battle now, so that he and his Marines could get the heck out of Dodge before their food supplements ran out, and to do that he needed to do two other things. First, he needed to present them with a threat which appeared less formidable than it actually was, and, second, he needed to give them a reason to attack that threat.

  A reason like rescuing all of their women and children.

  The captain didn't much like his own strategy, but it was the only one he could think of which had a chance of working within the time constraints he faced. And if there were things about it that he didn't like, he wasn't the one who had decided to level every city-state north of the Diaspra Plateau and the Nashtor Hills.

  He snorted, once more amused by his own perversity. Here he was, protecting thousands of women and children from massacre at the hands of his own allies, and all he could think about was how despicable of him it was to use them as bait to lure their menfolk into battle. On the other hand, he suspected he was also dwelling upon that thought to avoid considering one that worried him even more, and it was probably time he stopped doing that. He shook his head, then checked the time and decided that he couldn't put it off any longer.

  He drew a deep breath, sent a command to his toot to bring up his communicator, and spoke.


  "Here," the response came back, almost instantly, and the Marine felt his shoulders relax ever so slightly.

  "You sound better," he said. "Are you?"

  "It comes and goes," the prince said over the radio. "I'm tracking again, if that's what you mean. Whose idea was it to send Nimashet?"

  "I felt that you were a bit too exposed," the captain said. "So I augmented Corporal Beckley's team with the rest of the squad. They'll stay with you for the remainder of the operation."

  "I see." There was silence over the com for several seconds while both of them digested a great many things which hadn't been said and probably never would be. "So, how're we doing?"

  "Pretty much on schedule," Pahner replied. "Eva is working with Rus on the preparation of the defenses. That only seemed to make sense, given her involvement with the artillerists. And Bistem and Bogess have their infantry fairly well organized on the approaches to the city, given that we've had to tap each regiment for a labor battalion to help out Rus's engineers."

  "And Rastar?" Roger asked.

  "So far, so good," Pahner told him. "He's having a bit more trouble than we'd hoped he would opening the distance between himself and their main force, and it's pretty obvious that they're trying to catch him between the pursuit from Sindi and forces from the other occupied city-states. So far, they haven't been able to hit him with anything he couldn't handle, and his ammunition supply seems to be in pretty good shape, but his whole diversion looks like turning into one big running battle."

  "Are we going to have to go in after him?"

  "I don't know. I hope not, and so far it looks like we can probably avoid it. But I'm keeping an eye on the situation."

  "Good. And what do you want us to be doing?"

  "Pretty much what you are, Your Highness. From what Beckley and Despreaux told me yesterday evening, you've got your cavalry about where I want it on that southern flank. I'm going to peel the Carnan Battalion back off from Ther's close cover force on the convoys and send it back to you. We'll let the other cavalry cover him; I want those rifles back out there with you."

  "Just to keep my precious hide intact?" Roger asked a bit tartly, and Pahner snorted.

  "I'm sure that's somewhere in the back of my mind," he said, "but it's not foremost. Mainly, I just want to be sure that the anchor at the far end of my line isn't going to come loose if somebody runs into it."

  "I see. Well, in that case, Captain, we're just going to have to see to it that we stay put, aren't we?"

  * * *

  Dna Kol swallowed a bite of parched barleyrice and leaned down to suck water from the stream.

  "If we don't find these damned shit-sitters soon, we head back to the city. I'm out of food and patience," he growled.

  "What are they doing?" one of the warriors asked. "First they head west, like they're going back to wherever they crossed. Now they head east."

  "They're scattering to avoid us," Dna Kol said. "And somewhere, they're gathering again."

  "How can they find each other out here in the woods?" the warrior asked. "I don't know where I am. Oh, I could find the city easily enough if I headed in the right direction long enough, but I certainly couldn't tell anyone else how to find me. So how do they know where they are? Or where to go to find the rest of them?"

  "Maps," another of the warriors spat, drawing his head up out of the stream. "Damned shit-sitter maps. They map everything. They'll know where every stream crossing is before they get to it."

  "Which is how they're managing to lead us around by the nose," Kol agreed. "But we'll track them down soon enough . . . and bring the whole host down on them when we do."

  "I could do with some new armor," the first warrior said. He pulled a throwing ax from its belt loop and made a chopping motion. "And I know just how to get some."

  "Let's move," Kol said. "I can smell them. They're near."

  * * *

  Rastar ran another patch through the barrel of one of his revolvers, examined the weapon carefully, and decided he was satisfied. In some ways, the last prince of Therdan missed Captain Pahner's pistol. It held far more rounds than the seven-shot revolvers, its recoil was less, and it was a lot easier to clean. But for all that, he still preferred these new weapons. There was something about the spit of flame and the trailing smoke from gunfire that added a deeper dimension to the battle. And Pahner's pistol had been too much like magic. These pistols were clearly the work of mortal hands, yet they spoke with all the sound and fury of a gunpowder thunderstorm.

  "Time to change civan again," he announced as Honal rode up to him and reined in.

  "I'm not sure I can dismount," his cousin groaned. "I used to think I was tough."

  "I believe you mentioned that yesterday morning," the Northern leader said. He finished loading cartridges into the cylinder, carefully plugged the mouth of each chamber with the heavily greased felt pad which prevented flash-over from detonating all seven rounds at once, and began fitting the copper caps over the nipples at the rear of the cylinder. "Change your mind?"

  "I think I've figured out a translation for that joke that bastard Pahner told us before we set out," Honal said in indirect reply as he slid gracelessly out of the saddle and fell onto his back. The civan delicately stepped away as a groom came up to unsaddle it.

  "Oh?" The prince finished capping the cylinder and
swung it back into place and looked up inquiringly. The humans' toot translations were usually excellent, but they made a hash of jokes . . . which had been obvious in the case of Pahner's statement.

  "You just have to make a terrible pun out of it, and it's really quite funny," the Sheffan cavalry commander said, still laid out flat on the ground. "If, of course, you haven't spent three days at a fairly constant trot. Try it this way: 'A Manual for Cavalry Operations, Forty Kolong a Day, by Princely Arseburns.'"

  "Ah!" The Therdan prince gave a grunting laugh. "Har! That's pretty good, actually. Feel better?"

  "No," his cousin said. "I have princely arseburns. I have armor chafe. I have dry-slime. And I think my legs just fell off."

  "Nope," Rastar said with another grunt. "They're still there. Hey, think of how the civan must feel."

  "Pock the civan," the cavalry commander said with feeling. "When we get back to K'Vaern's Cove, I swear I'm going infantry. If I never see another civan again in my life, it will be too soon. I'm going to personally eat every one of them I've ridden in the last three days. It'll take a couple of seasons, and I think I've already killed two the cooks didn't get gathered up, but I'll get all of the others. I can do it. I have the determination."

  "We have lost quite a few," Rastar said softly. "A lot more than I'd like, in fact. But as long as they hold up for the last run, we're golden."

  "Not necessarily," Honal said, finally sitting up with another groan. "One of my scouts caught a group on our back trail."

  "Now you tell me?"

  "They're a few hours back," Honal told him unrepentantly. "But we do need to ready a reception."

  * * *

  Dna Kol paused at the edge of the clearing. The spot was a regular stopping place on the Sindi-Sheffan caravan trail, an open area created by a thousand years of caravans' cutting undergrowth for firewood, and a medium-sized, fordable stream ran through it. A heavy rain was falling, reducing visibility, but it was still clear that more iron head cavalry than he ever wanted to see again waited on the far side of the clearing.

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