The burning manor house was still smoldering, throwing a pall of acrid-tasting haze across the 5th's encampment. There was a crash as rafters collapsed in the squat four-story tower at the west end, turning it into a giant chimney casting red-shot black billows in the darkening sky of late evening. The long rows of spicebush trees reaching down to the salt marsh were burning, too, smelling like hot cinnamon and cloves; higher up troopers and soldier-servants were ringbarking mastic and terebinth trees, uprooting frankincense bushes and piling them together for burning.
"Pity they burned it before our boys got in," Suzette said. The household were dining at a looted table under a fringed marquee; Captain Stanson sat at the other end, frigidly polite. "The last two had some beautiful things."
Suzette's chamberlain stalked over from the cookfires, haughty in a plundered silver cloth robe and a staff of office. Behind him two servants walked with the care of men carrying a burden not quite heavy enough to be uncomfortable, a huge silver dish of roasted sauroids on a bed of the inevitable boiled rice and dates. The quasireptiles were of a local species that lived in salt marsh, feeding on grubs and rushes; their flesh was white and salty but otherwise remarkably similar to chicken.
"Not surprising," Raj said, ripping off a six-inch drumstick.
Off to one side came the musical ting of hammers on iron; the labor force of the estate were being neck-shackled, in collars on either side of a long chain. Each bent at the small portable anvil as the slaver's smith deftly inserted a soft-iron pin through the clasp of the collar and peened it over with three expert blows. Most of them had been slaves before in any case, this was a commercial enterprise and not a farm. The few surviving free guards and craftsmen were on a separate chain, and the dozen or so Civil Government-born captives were off celebrating their newfound liberty by doing camp chores.
"Ser," M'lewis said, coming up and saluting. "Them ragheads has arrived."
"By all means, send them in," Raj said. Campfires were blossoming, and there was a bleating of sheep being led to the slaughter. The dogs are going to resent going back on a mash diet, Raj thought idly.
you have not entrenched, Center's voice, prompted, inside his ear. He continued chewing stolidly on his drumstick while a ghost-image of men wearily digging trenches and firing-pits overlaid the landscape.
No, he thought. This is a raiding party, not an invasion. There's a whole company out on vedette duty, and the men are camping with the dogs loose-saddled and their boots on. Good scouts and quick reaction are the best protection we can have, and we can't get our job done if we waste three or four hours every day.
No flat-toned words spoke in his mind, surprising him. Instead Stanson spoke. "You're bringing all your people in every night?" he said in a tone of tolerant disapproval, nodding to a two-squad column trotting home, silhouetted against the sunset and the red glow of the burning buildings. The men were hung about with loot like luggage racks, and there was a train of pack goats behind them. Servants on Colonial whippets brought up the rear, laughing and waving the repeater carbines in their hands.
"They're out in groups of ten to twenty all day," Raj said. "Patrolling, as well as scorching the earth, it's a good compromise. Seems to be working quite well, in any event. We'll have to pack it in, soon, since the message got through Ksar Bourgib."
Stanson returned his attention to his plate. Ksar Bourgib had fallen after a day of hard fighting; the 2nd had lost heavily, and the town had burned before it could be plundered. Worst of all, the heliograph had gotten a message out to the east before it was destroyed. The 2nd's commander had ridden into the rendezvous with no more than his artillery, a platoon or so of walking wounded and a huge straggling trail of plunder on captured transport; the rest of his troops were out in penny packets, no more than a pair sometimes, from here all the way back to El Djem.
"Effendi." It was the Colonist delegation under a flag of truce, led by an old man in a green turban and beard, an imam of some sort. Their first tentative bow was to the gorgeously-robed chamberlain, who made scandalized gestures until they realized the dusty officer in the three-day stubble and plain uniform was the Civil Government commander. A long, sonorous, throaty roll of Arabic followed.
"Fanciful greetings and plea for mercy from all of these wogboys," Muzzaf said, pushing aside his plate and unbuckling a brass-clasped ledger book. Suzette handed a key to a servant, and the man dragged a steel trunk from under the table, opening a heavy padlock and throwing back the hasp.
"Tell him the terms are agreeable," Raj said. "And any appropriate circumlocutions." Every ounce of gold or silver is so many tools or days' wages or livestock, he thought. Better to lay waste to the remaining farms, but draining the capital resources of the local landowners was a good second-best.
The eyes of the imam were cool and free of fear, despite the armed men who ringed him. Small sacks of coin were produced, weighed, checked off against names in the ledger; stumbling captives were prodded forward, many weeping with joy as their relatives in the delegation embraced them.
The Komarite's Arabic was fluent; Raj remembered him saying his mother had been a slave-concubine from the Colony. "It is a providence of the Spirit that the Muslims forbid usury," Muzzaf chuckled, transferring the coins to the box and handing the key back to Suzette.
Raj nodded; the Colony was as civilized as the Civil Government, possibly richer, but its banking system was rather primitive by comparison, and largely in the hands of Jews and Christos. A comparable group of gentry back home would have kept most of their cash in paper, letters of credit and such. Nor was it surprising how much they were willing to pay to get the attackers out of their neighborhood; several of these salt-marsh manors had been looted before his men arrived, by the slaves who worked them, and the only things left there for relatives to retrieve would be the makings of a closed-casket funeral.
"We do not grudge the money, Messer Captain," the imam said suddenly, in good Sponglish with the accent of the southern border. Raj looked up sharply. "Such is pleasing to the Merciful, the Beneficent." A slight smile. "And who knows, perhaps someday you will need the gold to ransom yourself. Peace be with you, kaphar."
The delegation had brought spare dogs for the men they ransomed; the whole party trotted off with the white flag flapping in its midst. The sun was nothing more than a glow, less bright than the dying fire consuming the buildings. Sparks drifted skyward, embers against the stars. Raj met Suzette's eyes across the table; they crinkled slightly with that secret smile.
Crack. Raj glanced up. It could have been heated stone, splitting in the ruins as the cool night air descended . . . His body did not believe that, and it was rising and cinching tight his gunbelt. Crack-crack-crack, northward, shots from behind the low bulk of the slave barracks and the line of eucalyptus trees near it, spiteful winking red eyes of muzzle flashes. Shouts and screams followed, the long slave-chains yammering and thrashing and the huge chaotic sprawl of the 2nd's baggage camp erupting into chaos. The 5th's troopers were diving for rifles, some mounted already but uncertain of the direction of the attack. Firing was crackling from the baggage camp, probably the 2nd's people and certainly the servants. A round went through the marquee above him, and it had to be an Armory 11mm from the sound, not the light pistol-calibre bullet from a Colonist carbine.
"Spirit of Man, get your people to fucking cease fire, Stanson!" Raj barked. "Trumpeter, sound stand to!" Just what they needed, a blindsided firefight in the cursed dark, there couldn't be many of the enemy if they'd gotten through the vedettes but friendly fire could kill dozens in a few seconds—and the Companions, his core command group, were mostly out with raiding groups, it was going to be near impossible to get things organized—
"Ul-ul-ull-ull Allahu Akbar!"
Much closer, well within their perimeter, the rapid crackle of Colony repeaters and the sudden clash of metal, something flammable went over on a campfire with a gout of white light. He could see them now, a solid wedge driving straight for his marquee, shooting and slashing at anything in their way.
"M'lewis—" he began, his voice steady and pitched to carry despite the crawling in his stomach: Suzette was here. "Turn out the guard, they're headed this way—"
Too late; they were here. Suzette's chamberlain had come running to see what the trouble was; six of the attackers crowded their dogs around him, lean whippets and greyhounds dancing and snarling as the robed soldiers leaned far over to slash. The man screamed in fear, flailing about him with his staff to win a few seconds more life. The others drove for the group about Raj.
Shove. He knocked the heavy table over with his hip, making a chest-high barricade for the noncombatants. Stanson was on his feet, and whatever his other faults there was nothing wrong with his reflexes or marksmanship. There were two revolvers in holsters strapped to his thighs; he had them both out, firing alternately in a ripple of blasts like a trip hammer, using the muzzle flash of each shot to aim the next, emptying saddles. Out of the corner of his eye he could see M'lewis unsling his rifle and take careful aim. A shot, and a dog went down in a yelping, thrashing tangle that rolled right over its rider. He worked the lever, and then gave a snarl of frustration as it jammed half-open, the fragile wrapped-brass cartridge disintegrating under the pull of the extractor.
Raj leveled his own pistol, carefully centering the foresight and V on one of the men aiming a cut at M'lewis' head. The recoil was a surprise as it always was when you did it right, and the man pitched backward, his sword making a spinning circle of light as it flew off into the darkness. The little Companion had dropped his rifle and drawn the skinning knife; he rolled under the next attacker's blade and under the belly of the dog. The animal gave a deafening yelp-howl and collapsed as its intestines spilled out of a two-foot slash, and then Raj had troubles enough of his own.
Flickering light, wet white teeth and steel coming for his life; the Colonists had shot their weapons empty on the way. The muzzle of his pistol was almost inside the long wedge gape of one greyhound's muzzle when he fired; the hollow point bullet tore out the back of its palate, through the spine and into the belly of the rider. Another shot, a miss. Another, and a dog was down but the soldier on its back rose and came forward on foot. Raj dodged backward, into the protecting guy ropes of the marquee, leading them away from the overturned table where his wife and Muzzaf fought back-to-back. Stanson was down, and his mistress Merta had thrown herself protectively over his body in a gesture that showed plenty of courage if little sense.
Raj swung himself around a pole and slashed at the muzzle of a whippet. The tip of the blade connected, and the dog bolted into the interior of the marquee; its master's head hit the ridgepole with a bong of wood on steel helmet and he dropped boneless from the saddle. A bound backward put Raj in the clear, and another rider was coming at him. He waited, weight on the balls of his feet and his own teeth showing, then dove forward when the Arab heeled his dog. The butt of the pistol thumped down on the sensitive nose of the Basiji, with the weight arm and shoulder behind it. The dog yelped and jerked back its head involuntarily, and then he was in past its teeth for a moment, by the Colonist's stirrup. Bright and long, the scimitar swept down in an expert overarm cut.
Raj caught it on his own sword, and it slid the length of the steel in a ringing descent, until they locked hilt to hilt. That brought them almost face to face, the Descotter staring into the set eyes of a man who had accepted his own death in order to accomplish a purpose. His left hand rammed the muzzle of the dragoon pistol into the green sash that girdled the enemy soldier's crimson robe. The Arab's eyes flew wide as the bullet hammered into his gut, filled with rage more than pain, and then he slumped away. Raj skipped back again, to get out of range of the dog, but the lean brown animal stopped stock-still, nosed its master's body frantically and then sat, throwing back its head in a mournful howl of grief.
The dismounted Colonist was coming in with his scimitar, a dagger in his left hand. Holding both as if he knew how to use them, and moving fast and smooth. Raj switched into a fencer's stance, right foot and arm advanced; the twin blades poised, and—
—a bullet snapped the Arab's head forward and to the side like the impact of a sledgehammer. His features ballooned, the right side of the skull erupting as the half-ounce pellet of soft lead blasted out an exit wound the size of paired fists over his left eyebrow. Bone fragments and something with the consistency of warm jelly
"Sssir! Are you all right?" Lieutenant Mekkle Thiddo ran up, with half his platoon behind him.
Raj opened his mouth and took the first step toward the overturned table, wiping at the brains on his face and spitting to clear the nauseating soft-boiled-egg feeling from the corner of his mouth.
Not now, for the Spirit's sake! he thought furiously. precisely for the Spirit's sake, in your terminology. observe.
* * *
A column of Colonial scouts waited silently in a gully sheltered by feathery tamarind trees; the forested bank was higher and more steep than the other, and the red-robed soldiers crouched with their dogs at its base. Looking up from their position, Raj's disembodied viewpoint could see the branches and scrub outlined blackly against the moons. There was still the tired-orange light of sunset in the air, but the base of the cliff was in deep shadow.
A thudding and rustling that carried well through the dense clay against which the Colonists huddled, the sound of dogs trotting. One stopped directly above, and there was a crackling as the rider's arms forced an opening in the branches. Words drifted down. They were in Sponglish with the accent of Descott, but Raj's mind seemed to hear them as a foreign tongue; he had to concentrate to render their meaning. The first voice was fainter, further back.
"Yah alia vi' este?" Do you see anything there?
"Danad, seyor." Nothing, sir.
"Benyo. Waymos, allaya." Good; let's go, everyone.
Long silence, while the sun set and the double shadows cast by the moons moved. A crouching figure in a knee-length robe of dull dried-blood red came up the gully from the south, scuttling along in the shadows. One of the waiting soldiers stepped out to meet him and Raj felt a slight shock of recognition. It was the man whose hound had mourned him.
The man Raj had killed.
"Peace be with you, soldier," the man—the commander—said. "What news?" The Arabic was as comprehensible as his mother tongue, more so right now.
"And upon you, peace, lord," the scout replied. "We are inside their outer line of patrols, and this gully will keep us out of view to the edge of their camp. Many small parties of them ride about, some of them jackals in robes from the border villages west of Komar; in the dark we could be mistaken for such. Half their camp is in confusion, the white-coats section; the manor of Youssef Ben Khedda still burns, and the blue-coats camp about it."
"He sits at meat with his fellows and their unveiled whores, lord; they speak with the learned Imam Faysal al-'Aziz, who comes to ransom captives. The platoon which guards him went to escort the Imam into their camp, and I think will ride to see that they leave by the agreed route as well."
The Colonist commander grinned and spat. "Ahh, this is good. Gather about me, warriors of Islam." The others crowded close to hear the low voice. "Brothers, there is no God but God, and nothing is accomplished save by the will of God. If we slay the commander of the unbelievers, this will be a thing of great good; his is the better-ordered band among the invaders and without him perhaps they will be easy meat for the amir. The danger will be great. Who will come with me?"
None of the men hesitated more than a second. The Colonist officer nodded, pride on his face. "Remember that he who falls in battle against the unbelievers is granted forgiveness of sins and attains Paradise." He pulled a notepad from his sash, and a graphite writing stick from the cloth winding about his spired helmet, sketching a map and writing quickly.
"Here," he said, handing them to the scout. "To the commander of the forward column, and with a recommendation that it be shown immediately to the amir himself. Follow us only half the distance; if we kill the unbeliever, I will throw a flare bomb." He touched a wooden casing at his belt. "Report our failure or success, as God wills." The scout's face worked as he prepared a protest. "Those are your orders, Husni az-Zaim, and are so written in that message."
—and time blurred, and they were surging up out of the shallow gully and into the camp, their swift agile dogs leaping tent-ropes and dodging into the dark before the soldiers could react to their passage. Carbines spat at pockets of resistance, and then the swords were out when there was no time to reload. Raj saw the marquee looming, a table overturning; a tall man in blue falling with one arm nearly severed at the shoulder . . .
* * *
"Sir, are you all right?
"Better than I'd have been if that bullet'd gone a handspan to the left," Raj barked, as his surroundings faded back to normal; he wiped a sleeve over his face again, to remove the last of the brains. "Because in that case I'd be bloody dead, wouldn't I?"
Thiddo made an incoherent apology; Raj waved it aside as he wiped and sheathed his sword and snapped out the cylinder of his revolver. Anguished embarrassment was making Thiddo's speech impediment worse; that was unjust, the fight had lasted about forty seconds before relief arrived, not bad time. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm as his fingers handled the tubes of brass and cardboard and lead.
"And somebody shut up that damned dog!" he continued; the Basiji was still howling. Thiddo made a hand signal and several of his men faced left, firing a volley with their muzzles almost touching the animal's side. The nine hundred pounds of it fell with a thud that made the ground shake slightly under their feet; it whimpered, twitched, laid its pointed muzzle across its master's legs, and died. Relative silence fell; there were still shots from the baggage park, shouts, the sound of men and dogs moaning or whimpering in pain, but conversation became possible.
"Sir. Report." Thiddo's voice had a strained sound, as if he were making it obey by an effort of will. "Perimeter is on alert. No further enemy forces within the perimeter. Contact established with First Company on vedette; nothing to report. My men are reestablishing order among the camp followers, sir. Orders, sir?"
"Carry on, for the moment," he snapped aloud. Why now? Why didn't you show me that five minutes ago, curse you?
you felt it was unnecessary to entrench, despite my warning. Raj felt himself shaking, the world narrowing to a pinpoint concentration of rage. I could have been bloody killed, and so much for unifying Bellevue!
i have waited a thousand years, the voice said, in the same chill tones, it is necessary to educate you. if the process kills you as well, there will be another, if not in this cycle, then the next.
* * *
Suzette picked up the derringer she had thrown at her feet and walked to meet Raj; that turned into a sprint, and a quick fierce hug. He returned it, as the trigger guard of the carbine she was still holding in her right hand dug into his back. The place where Center's visions had shown his own death was not two meters from where he stood, and he stared at it for a moment over his wife's shoulder, dizzy with the memory of himself falling/might have fallen, arm hanging by a thread . . .
That was Stanson, prone on the ground as a priest-doctor probed at his buttock; the trouser had been cut away, exposing a bullet hole in the great muscle. Next to him Merta sat, having a long shallow saber cut on her back bandaged by another. The priest grunted, twisted the probe expertly and withdrew it, holding up the piece of flattened metal that glinted dully in the lantern light.
"Got it," he announced. "Hmm, pretty small—even for a raghead carbine, more like a small caliber . . . hmmm, better see if there's more." The 2nd's commander, grey-faced and sweating, bit down on a cuff while the probe went back in. Shaking his head, the priest strapped an iodine-soaked dressing over the wound.
"Minor wound, Messer. Couple of weeks and you'll be good as new."
"Shit," Stanson muttered again. He craned his neck up and met Raj's eyes, managing a shaky smile. "I'll never live it down, Whitehall; one minute I'm pistoling them, the next I'm down, shot in the arse, by the Spirit. Didn't see any of them behind me, must have been a ricochet . . ." His gaze met Suzette's. "And then one of them was cutting at me, I think he pulled the first one because it hit Merta. And Lady Whitehall shot him out of the saddle before he could strike again. We owe you a debt, I think."
Suzette smiled, one of her charming Court expressions. "No debts between friends, Helmt," she said coolly. "You must have gotten four or five of them before you were hit . . . and better the buttocks than the spine or kidney."
Stanson shuddered. "Spirit of man, yes, only fifty millimeters difference."
Muzzaf hobbled over, clutching his stomach. "Just winded," he wheezed. "Kicked." From the way he clutched his ribs one or two might be cracked, but you could move with an injury like that. His voice took on more strength. "Those men were in the uniform of regular cavalry," he said.
Raj nodded grimly. "Here's where those irregulars earn their keep," he said. "Muzzaf, find Bani Crodor," the closest they had to a leader. "And get me da Cruz; at first light, we—"
* * *
"Lord," Crodor croaked, then hawked and took a quick swig from his canteen. "We found them."
That was obvious; the irregulars had limped in with an escort from Raj's outlying vedettes, as the huge column of soldiers and plunder finally creaked into motion. There were dogs with empty saddles among them, and others missing altogether; one saddle had a black fletched arrow standing up like a quill, and several of the bordermen were clutching wounds, gunshot and sword. Their dogs had even found climbing the last small hillock where the officers of the 5th and 2nd waited a burden.
Crodor continued. "Ten, perhaps eleven kilometers from here, lord, and coming fast. Their scout screen is Bedouin, with some of the local landowner's retainers perhaps, but we pushed through"—risking death at the hands of vastly superior forces, or capture which would be worse "—and we saw regular cavalry of the Settler, riding in columns of twos. No artillery or wagons that we could see, lord."
Stanson cut in. "How many?" he said, shifting in the saddle. The doctors had packed the wound with sterile gauze at his insistence, and he was mobile enough. It was fiendishly painful, though, and obviously not improving his disposition.
Crodor pulled at his beard. "I cannot say, Messer," he replied. "No less than five hundreds. But there was much dust further back; another five hundred again, it may be. Perhaps more."