March to the sea im 2, p.48

March To The Sea im-2, page 48

 part  #2 of  Imperial March Series

 

March To The Sea im-2
 



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  Honal took another breath and squeezed the trigger.

  "Got you, you Boman bastard," he muttered, then chuckled sourly. "You know, much as I love these revolvers, I could wish we had more rifles to go with them!"

  "Some people are never satisfied," Rastar grunted. "We've got a helluva lot higher rate of fire than rifles, and with all these pocking trees, it's not like the bastards are out of range when we see them at all!"

  He got the barrel cleared and closed the cylinder once more. There'd been times during the pursuit when he would have agreed wholeheartedly with Honal, but there simply weren't enough rifles to go around. Dell Mir's simplified cartridge design had allowed the humans to somewhat better Rus From's original estimates on the numbers of rifles which could be supplied with ammunition. Instead of five or six thousand, K'Vaern's Cove had managed to put eight thousand into the field, but that still fell far short of any number the K'Vaernians and their allies would have liked to see. It also meant that virtually the entire production of rifles had gone into the hands of the infantry units, who—if everything worked out the way it was supposed to work—would be doing the majority of the fighting. Rastar's troopers had been issued only four hundred of the new weapons. On the other hand, they'd had six thousand revolvers—virtually the entire production of that weapon.

  They'd also gone through well over two thirds of their total ammunition by now, but Rastar decided not to think about that just at the moment.

  "Oh, I'd never want to trade my revolvers in," Honal told him, eyes searching for another target. "I was just thinking that if we had more rifles, that would mean we also had more riflemen to carry them. Which would be very comforting to me right now."

  "To me, too," Rastar admitted. "But I think there's a fair chance that we'll be seeing them sometime soon."

  "I hope so," Honal said more somberly. "And I think I'm glad about who the Captain chose to send to relieve us. If I had to choose between Bogess, bless his thick head, or Bistem Kar, I'd take Kar any day."

  "I have to agree," Rastar grunted, "but I wish he'd hurry up and get here." The Boman were massing for another attack as he finished reloading his pistols. "It's not like we've got an infinite amount of ammunition."

  "He'll be here soon," Honal said. "Quit fretting."

  * * *

  Krindi Fain clasped all four hands behind him and stepped in front of Lieutenant Fonal. The adviser sergeant turned his back so that the company of forming infantry couldn't see what he was saying and cleared his throat.

  "You need to quit fretting, Lieutenant."

  "Is it that obvious?" the officer asked nervously.

  "Yes," Fain said. "There are many ways to lead well, and twice as many to lead poorly. Looking nervous and uncertain is in the 'twice as many' category."

  "So what do you suggest, Sergeant?"

  "Take a breath, look at your map, and don't rub your horns every few seconds. There's a worn patch forming. Laugh. You can talk to the troops, but only about stuff other than whether or not they're ready. Your best bet is to stand there like a rock and just look as certain as the rainfall. If you go talk to Colonel Tram or General Kar for a moment, then come back and look really relaxed, it would help."

  "But what about getting the company ready? We've got half a platoon missing!"

  "Leave the worrying about that to Sergeant Knever. Either he's the right man for the job, and the company will perform for you when you need it, or you should have replaced him before now. Either way, it's too late to be thinking about changes. And if we have to leave without half a platoon, we leave without them."

  Fonal started to rub a horn once more, then checked the movement.

  "How can you be so calm, Sergeant? There are a lot of Boman out there, and not many of us." The officer leaned closer. "We're going to get slaughtered, in case you hadn't realized it," he hissed.

  The sergeant tilted his head to the side and studied the lieutenant.

  "Would you prefer to round up the missing ranks, Lieutenant?" he asked, wondering what the response would be. He wasn't very surprised, unfortunately.

  "Frankly," Fonal said, squaring his shoulders, "if we're missing half a platoon, I suspect most of the other units in the regiment probably are as well. And it would be a good idea if an officer stayed behind to gather them up and send them forward."

  "You have a very good point, Lieutenant," the Diaspran said. "Could you excuse me for a moment?"

  Fain gestured at Erkum Pol and walked over to the quartet of armored Marines.

  * * *

  Julian was monitoring the commander's briefing. Kar had been handed a difficult tactical problem and not much time to solve it, but he was going about the preparation as professionally as anyone Julian had ever seen. Some of his regimental and battalion commanders, on the other hand, didn't seem all that happy about the mission, so the NCO wasn't feeling particularly happy in turn when someone rapped on his armor to get his attention.

  "Hey, Krindi. How they hanging?"

  "One lower than the other, as usual, Sergeant," the Mardukan answered soberly. "We've got ourselves a little situation over in Delta Company. The company commander just told me he thought it would be better if he stayed behind and rounded up stragglers."

  "Oh, shit," Julian said. "Anybody hear him?"

  "Aside from Erkum and me? I don't think so."

  "Good," Julian said. "I won't have to kill him."

  The Marine thought about it for a moment. The only person who could relieve the commander—and that commander definitely needed to be relieved—was Bistem Kar, but the K'Vaern's Cove Guard commander was far too busy to bother with a single cracked officer.

  "Tell the company commander that, pending confirmation from General Kar, he's temporarily assigned to rear detachment duties. He should report to General Bogess while the rest of the force is in the field."

  "Are we going to be able to get away with this?" Fain asked. "I mean, I agree and everything, but can we get away with it?"

  "I can," the Marine said. "I'll tell Pahner about it, but that's about all I need to do. You don't send an officer out if he can't keep it together in front of the troops. Maybe you make him a troop, but that's for later. And I'll explain it to Kar and the guy's battalion commander when the time comes."

  "Last question," Fain said. "Who takes the company? There's no subordinate officers—just a sergeant seconded from the Guard, and he's running around getting everybody in line and making sure they all have ammo."

  Julian was just as happy that there was no way to see into his armor as he grimaced. After a moment's additional thought he gave an equally unseen shrug.

  "You take it," he said. "Tell the sergeant that you're standing in until a qualified officer can be appointed. I'll get with Kar right after the meeting and tell him what's going on."

  "Joy," Fain said sarcastically. "You know, if I'd known this day was going to come, I'd never have taken that pike from you."

  "If I'd known this day would come, I never would've handed it to you," Julian said with a laugh.

  * * *

  "They're moving out now," Roger said, picking at the food in his bowl. The new cook simply didn't have Matsugae's way with Mardukan chili.

  "That's half the force," Despreaux said, doing a quick count with her own helmet systems. "Who the hell is guarding the store?"

  "There are still seven regiments in and around Sindi, even if two thirds of their personnel are busy humping crates. South of the city? Us. There are six, maybe eight hundred cavalry in the screen from here to the D'Sley swamps, with a few pickets to the east. If anything ugly comes our way, of course, the troops acting as drovers and mahouts will do their best, but they're going to be pretty scattered out. And then there's the crate-humpers back at Sindi."

  "Just getting them into formation would take a couple of hours," Beckley put in. "By the way, I'm glad you two finally kissed and made up."

  "Is that what we did?" Roger asked, regarding the corporal with a crooked e
yebrow.

  "According to the pool it is," Beckley replied with a complacent smile. "Won me almost five thousand credits, when I get home to collect it, too."

  "I thought you looked revoltingly cheerful, you greedy bitch," Despreaux said with a grin.

  "Me? Greedy?" Beckley shook her head mournfully. "You wrong me. I'm just delighted to see that, once again, the course of true love cannot be denied."

  "Let's hope not, at any rate," Roger said, suddenly somber. "It would be nice if something about this trip stayed on course."

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

  "Where in the hell did all this shit-sitter cavalry come from?" Sof Knu demanded, glaring at the ten– or fifteen-man cavalry picket from the undergrowth while rain drizzled down from an ebon sky.

  "It must have been the 'marsh gas' we were chasing," Knitz De'n replied.

  The last five days had been a period of utter frustration. De'n's tribe had arrived on the K'Vaern's Cove road to find absolutely no sign of any iron head cavalry, although there had been some tracks, washing away in the rain. They'd found a few of the damned wood runners and tortured them for information, but most had denied knowing anything, no matter how much they screamed. Finally, one had admitted to seeing some cavalry, but the place he claimed to have seen them was so close to Sindi that De'n had ordered his torturers to give him special attention to punish his lies. But the worthless creature had continued to shriek the same lie over and over again until he died, so the subchief had decided he had no choice but to check it out . . . only to find these damned patrols between him and the city. The only good thing was that the shit-sitters hadn't spotted him in return. Yet.

  "We can sweep them aside easily," Knu said. "Just give the word."

  "The word is given," the subchief growled, pulling out a throwing ax. "As soon as the tribe is assembled, we'll run right over them. And anything else that stands in our way."

  * * *

  "What was that?" Roger looked up from his map and cocked his head.

  "What was what?" Despreaux asked. "I can't hear a thing but the rain."

  "Shots," the prince replied. "To the southwest." He stood up, trying to triangulate the source by turning his head from side to side, but the brief crackle of gunfire had already died.

  "Somebody shooting a damnbeast?" Chim Pri suggested uncertainly.

  "Maybe one of the cavalry pickets," Roger said. He looked out at the rain-soaked, night-dark woods and shivered despite the unending Mardukan warmth. "Chim, saddle up. I want you to head southwest and see what you find. Push skirmishers out front, but find the picket that was shooting if you can, and find out what it was shooting at."

  "No more shots," Turkol Bes pointed out.

  "I know," Roger said wiping the rain out of his face. "And I don't care. I still want to know what they were shooting at."

  "I'm going," Pri said, looking into the water-filled, Stygian blackness. "But if it's trouble, you'd better be ready to follow us up sharpish."

  "We will," Roger assured him, keying his helmet com. "Sergeant Jin?"

  * * *

  "We heard it, too, Sir," the gunnery sergeant said. The majority of the LURP teams had been left out to supplement the cavalry screen. "It was almost due west of us. All we could hear were the shots, but it sounded like one of the screen patrols ran into something heavy."

  "Atul?" the prince asked, and over the radio, Jin could hear Mardukans bellowing what sounded like orders in the background. Clearly, the prince was on the ball.

  "I don't think so, Sir," the NCO said. "I was just about to call it in to Captain Pahner when you called me."

  "Right," Roger said, and Jin could almost hear the wheels turning. "I'm pushing my cavalry down there to see what they find. I'll go ahead and orient the Carnan that way, as well. Call the Captain and give him a situation report. MacClintock out."

  The NCO smiled in the darkness. Whatever was going on in the deep woods seemed to have galvanized the prince, thank God. He truly sounded like himself for the first time since Matsugae's death . . . and that was the first time the gunnery sergeant had ever heard Roger refer to himself unthinkingly as a MacClintock.

  * * *

  Patty burbled unhappily as the mahouts threw on her harness.

  "I know, girl," Roger said, soothingly. He patted her behind her armored ruff. "I know it's dark. Deal with it."

  It was dark—very dark. The double cloud layer had set in with a vengeance, and the moons weren't even up above it. Once they got away from the fires, most of the force would be nearly blind. The cavalry would be depending on their civan to find the way, and many of them would get lost. But the civan would eventually find their way back, at least. The same could not be said for the infantry.

  He looked up to see Bes coming towards him in a way which demonstrated the point. The infantry leader had been reading a map in the tent, and now, in the shadows of the turom assigned to the mobile unit, he was walking with all four arms thrown forward, questing for anything which might loom unseen in his way.

  "Over here, Turkol," Roger said. His own helmet systems, of course, made the area almost daylight-bright . . . which gave him an idea.

  "God of Water, Your Highness," the infantry commander said. "How are we going to find our way through this?"

  "I was just thinking about that," Roger told him. "I think I'll have to break up my Marine squad and let each of them lead a section of the column. We'll move in line until we find out what's happening, and each of the troops will have to hold hands with the men in front of and behind him."

  "Okay," Bes agreed, his eyes starting to adjust at least a little. "The good news is that the Boman don't like to move in the dark, either. And they do it slowly. I'll go get the troops lined up."

  "And I'll get the Marines," Roger said.

  * * *

  "No!" Despreaux snapped. "We're your bodyguard, not seeing-eye Marines!"

  "Sergeant Despreaux, that's an order," the prince said coldly, "and if I bring it to Captain Pahner's attention, which I should not have to do, he'll back me on it. We may very well have a hostile force of unknown size on our flank, and no forces on this side but us. I don't have time to debate with you."

  "Who covers your back, Sir?" the squad leader demanded.

  "Two Marines," Roger answered, "one of whom will not be you. And you won't be leading a group, either, nor will I. That leaves eight. Go get them ready, and have them report to Turkol. We need to have left already."

  Despreaux threw up her hands.

  "All right, all right. I get the picture. Yes, Sir, yes, Sir, three bags full. Just do me one favor, Your Highness."

  "What?"

  "Don't go riding into the middle of a thousand Boman screaming a war chant, okay?"

  Roger snorted. "Okay. And do me one favor back."

  "What?"

  "Don't get yourself killed. I've got plans for you."

  "Okay," the sergeant said. "I'll be going now."

  * * *

  Chim Pri reined in at a small stream and strained to hear. The jungle was always alive with sound, yet this time there was something extra. The rain had stopped, temporarily at least, but a wind was blowing through the treetops. It probably presaged yet another rainstorm, which would be irritating enough, but it was also blowing noisy spatters of water off of leaves and vines. It made hearing difficult, yet there was something else, another rustling half-lost in the background sound, but there.

  He turned around and realized he could barely see two mounts behind him.

  "First three troopers. Move forward and see what that is. And try not to get yourselves killed."

  A trio of civan trotted obediently forward, and he heard one of the all-but-invisible troopers grunting in laughter.

  "Yes, Sir. We'll try real hard not to get killed."

  "You'd better," the cavalry commander said with a grunt of his own. "Anybody who gets killed tonight is going on report!"

  It took only a few moments for the civan to thread their way be
tween the trees. But their approach, quiet as it was, was detected, and the night rang with barbarian warcries from hundreds of lungs.

  "Gods of Fire and Darkness!" Pri snapped. "What in the three hells did we run into?"

  One of the troopers he'd sent forward let loose with all seven shots in one of the newly issued revolvers, and the brilliant lightning bolts of the muzzle flashes showed the cavalry commander dozens of barbarians . . . and probably hundreds more behind them.

  "Spread out!" he shouted. "I need some sort of accurate count!"

  The commander spurred his civan to the south, searching for the tail of the barbarian column as the Boman charged straight into the swirling cavalry of the Basik's Own. Finally, as the shots rose to a crescendo, he decided he'd seen enough.

  "Sound the recall!" he ordered the hornmen, who'd somehow kept up through the woods. "Sound a general retreat. Hopefully, they'll fall back to the infantry."

  He picked the communicator off his breast as he turned to the northeast, wondering how to tell Roger that the entire force was apparently cut off. Behind him, the horns began to sound.

  The enemy was upon them.

  * * *

  "Well, gentlemen, this is what happens when you draw to an inside straight," Pahner said.

  "It might not be that bad," Bogess said. "If it's a small force, we can beat it off."

  "According to Chim Pri, it's at least a thousand or two thousand," the Marine said, "and our last sizable cavalry force—his—is scattered through the woods and all mixed up amongst them. So it's not going to be easy to stop them."

  "Should we stop the loading?" Rus From asked.

  "Not unless we have to," Pahner said. "Pull one regiment off of loading duties just in case, but basically, it's up to Roger now. If he beats them, we'll continue as we're going. If he's forced out of position or flanked, we'll start pulling troops off of loading to form a front facing towards D'Sley." The Marine paused and shook his head. "Did I just say what I think I said?"

 
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