retreat quickly, Center's voice advised: your mission is essentially completed, destroy the remaining baggage and pull back to komar.
"Hmmm," Raj said aloud. "This collection of junk," he indicated the transport, "is going to slow us down. We're not here to fight the Colonial army . . . if we dumped it . . ."
"What?"Stanson asked. From their expressions, some of his officers would have liked to say more; one or two let their hands fall to their pistol butts. "That's our loot down there, man!" The 2nd had preferred to keep theirs all under their eyes, rather than taking the trouble to send it off as it came in. Three-quarters of the booty here was theirs.
Raj glanced at his own Companions and officers; the reluctance on their faces matched his. Retreating was one thing, running away another. "Recommendations, gentlemen?"
Gerrin Staenbridge nodded south. "They travel fast. Even with nothing but the artillery, we wouldn't be able to break contact unless they let us." The Colonists were lighter men on slender dogs. "But even if they can match our numbers, we can give them a bloody nose as long as they have to come to us." Colonial weapons had a better rate of fire than the ones used by the Civil Government's forces, but less stopping power and considerably less range.
"Thank you, Senior Lieutenant," Raj said formally. "As long as we can avoid a meeting engagement or a melee, I don't think enemy forces of this size are much of a threat, yes. What we can do—if you concur, Captain Stanson—is to send on all the more mobile transport to El Djem; we burned the buildings, but the stockade's intact and there's water. We'll fall back more slowly, they won't dare try to send a substantial force around us under these circumstances. From El Djem we can either stand them off if they're so foolish as to attack the stockade, or simply repeat the process on a larger scale back to Komar. Agreed?"
Stanson nodded, and his followers relaxed; some of them still looked a little contemptuous of Raj and the 5th, for even suggesting a retreat.
"Why can't we take the offensive?" one asked.
Because it would be stupid,Raj thought. The man was a lieutenant; Evrard Gruder answered him, as the equivalent in the 5th.
"Because it would be . . . futile," he said. "We can't catch them unless they let us, and they could lead us off into the alkali desert and then harry us to death. It's happened to Civil Government forces down here before."
"One company for escort?" Master Sergeant da Cruz said; the officers had approved a course of action, and it was time for implementation.
"By all means. Thiddo?"
The commander of Third Company nodded; his force had the most walking wounded, and they would get less strain and a little extra rest.
"Then I suggest we move, gentlemen," Raj said, looking south. The dust cloud of troops on the march was just barely visible over the glaring white earth, standing against the faded blue of the sky.
* * *
"Range?" Raj asked.
Barton Foley raised his binoculars. They were only five kilometers from El Djem, now; apart from the attack last night on the dug-in camp there had been only minor skirmishing.
"Five-two-zero-zero, meters, sir," he said.
Raj grunted, looking to left and right. The Civil Government force was retreating toward its base in extended order by Company column; nine widely spaced groups, with the four guns trotting along slightly behind the men. The terrain was nearly flat, long gentle swells, covered in coarse dark soil and fist-sized black rocks. At least we're off that damned alkali flat,he thought, licking cracked lips. But it was still hot enough that shimmers and mirage made estimating distance almost impossible, and some of the dogs were whimpering and limping as they put paw to earth. Tongues dangled, panting; some of the men were sacrificing their own water ration to rub the necks of their mounts occasionally, or laying their spare tunics over them as sun blankets. For the rest they rode slumped in the saddle, eyes staring dully ahead and great patches of sweat showing dark on the crystallized salt-deposits that marked their jackets.
Those in the main body could at least be glad they were not on the wings, where clouds of dust showed continuous feint and skirmish. The flank guards were rotated every two hours or so, and it was still brutally draining.
"You're right," Raj replied. Then: "I think they're getting closer again." He raised his own glasses. Brown dogs and red jellabas sprang out at him; the enemy had been coming on in column of march, since they were less apprehensive of a sudden attack. Tewfik's seal-of-Solomon banner in the lead. Raj felt his lips crack and bleed as he snarled at the sight; far too many of Center's scenarios had turned on Tewfik's skills. Was that burly figure under the banner him? It was a little too far to see faces with any clarity, especially with this heat haze, too far even to pick out an eyepatch; Tewfik's was said to have the Seal of Solomon picked out on it in diamonds, and his men believed it carried a curse to his enemies.
The advancing columns seemed to split, multiplying. He blinked, wiped his red-rimmed eyes on a sleeve harsh with salt and dust, looked again. Deploying,he realized with a chill. Peeling off to either side without pausing, converting the march formation into a two-rank line suitable for . . .
"Attack," he muttered. "They're going to try us before we get to El Djem."
"Foley," he snapped. "Message: to Senior Lieutenant Dinnalsyn." The artillery commander. "My compliments, and I believe the enemy is going to attempt to press home an attack; they won't stop for a few shells, this time. He is to deploy into line on current position"—they were on the uprise of one of the swells, looking across a broad shallow valley at the Colonists—"and open fire for effect at three-point-five k meters, and I'd advise him to have the gunners prepare some point-blank fused shrapnel."
"M'lewis," he continued, "same warning to Captain Stanson, would he please inform his subordinates that under no circumstances are any units to leave position without orders."
"Trumpeter," he went on, as the two kicked their dogs into a fast lope. "Sound—
"Attention to orders."
The battalions continued their steady advance, but there was a ripple like grass under wind—for a moment the sweet scent of the high-plateau rangelands of Descott filled his memory—as they sat in the saddle, and the dogs lifted their heads and raised drooping ears.
"Prepare to countermarch, by Companies—"
Foley's mount had already pulled up by the guns, and Raj could see the tiny stick figure salute and give the message. The field pieces stopped where they were, crews leaping down from teams and caissons; the dogs were unhitched and trotted to the rear, ready to snatch the 75's out of danger but also out of the way. Ammunition limbers were unhitched from the pole trails of the guns; the muzzles jerked up as the trails hit the ground, and the limbers were opened. A Y-shaped rangefinder went up in the center of the battery; breeches swung open, men worked the elevating screws, shells were fused and slammed home.
The Company columns were four men wide; now every one split, like a reed pushed against a knifeblade, a column of twos curling back in reverse direction to left and right from each. The rear men continued in the same direction as before, until they came to the turning point and wheeled. Less than a minute, and the whole force was moving back on its own tracks; he looked over to the right, to the 2nd Gendarmerie, and found they had done the maneuver more smoothly even than the 5th, if that was possible. Parade-ground soldiers,he thought.
They braked to a stop and pulled the rifles out of the scabbards, another long ripple, like reeds in a swamp this time as the muzzles showed slanted across the dogs, the men swinging down.
"Prepare to Receive Cavalry!"
The dogs crouched, laying their bellies to the ground but ready to spring, presenting the least possible target. The men rushed forward the regulation ten paces, front rank going prone, rear kneeling; the bayonets rattled onto their catches, levers worked, the flaps of cartridge cases were clipped back. Raj raised his binoculars again as he clapped heels to Horace's flanks, down to the firing line; thirty-six hundred meters, he estimated, and they had halted in line abreast. Four deep but more widely spaced than Civil Government troops would be; battalion strength, right enough. A quiver, and their scimitars came out, sloped back and resting on their shoulders.
Raj rode out in front of his men, alone but for the standard-bearer and the trumpeter, watching their faces as he cantered down to the middle of the line. Tight-gripped tension, perhaps even a little too much eagerness, after the boredom and anxiety-filled discomfort of the three-day retreat. Looking at the long glitter of enemy steel on the ridge behind his back . . . and thinking of the officer who was the squire back home, of men on either side who would witness and report their honor or their shame. He rose in the stirrups and drew his sword: best keep it short and sweet, but the men expected something to be said. He pitched his voice to carry, knowing that the ends of the line would be getting it by word-of-mouth relay.
"Well, lads," he shouted. "Here we are—we've burned their crops, looted their towns, had their women—and now they want to fight!" He waited four heartbeats. "Just like the ragheads to put it all arse-end first, isn't it?"
A roar of laughter, cut short by a downward motion of his saber. "That's Devil Tewfik himself coming, Descotters; a bad one and a mad one. Thinks he's going to nail our heads and our balls to his barn door, he does." Another cry, a jeer this time. "Just remember your drill, lads, and wait for the order, and we'll send them home screaming for their mothers. Show them who you are, what you're made of, and where you come from. Up the 5th! Descott forever!"
They started another cheer as he rode back to his position at the right end of the line:
"Well, gentlemen," he said to the officers gathered there, and nodded to the enemy on the ridgeline opposite. "I don't think they'll wait much longer." For that matter, they had waited too long as it was, giving the Civil Government force time to get settled. "Commence volley fire at 750 meters, if you please." He brought out his amulet, kissed it. "Spirit with you."
"Holy Federation uphold you," they replied. Everyone leaned inward, slapping their fists together in a pyramid of arms, then dispersed to their units.
Raj sat under the banner of the 5th Descott Guards, bullet-tattered and hung with ribbons, and allowed the ice knot of terror under his breastbone to unfold.
Something is wrong here, very fucking wrong.Ahead the strange shrill-sounding trumpets of the Colony sounded, and the line of enemy cavalry began to move. Two thousand paws thumped the ground, crunched through the loose rock that clattered and slid audibly. This is the obvious move, and it's obviously going to fail.Which was not Tewfik's reputation, not at all.
"Either he's stupid, or he's counting on me doing something stupid, or we are all about to be royally buttfucked," he muttered to himself.
"Ser?" the standard-bearer said; he was a veteran of fifty, and a little hard of hearing from too much exposure to the noise level of combat.
"Nothing," he said. The enemy knew the range of a 75 to a hair, and they had positioned to build their charge to full speed before they came under the iron flail. Another glitter and blink as the scimitar blades came down; full gallop now, another line of light as the points of the helmet spikes caught the sun, surging up and down with the motion of the dogs. Their dressing was faultless, which was not easy on terrain as rough as this. Those are good troops,he thought. And disciplined.There were Civil Government units—he probably had a battalion of them on his right—which would flat-out refuse an order to charge against rifles and artillery like this.
POOUMP.The first gun fired, ten meters behind the riflemen. A ripping-canvas sound, then a puff of dirty blackish-grey smoke a little ahead of the enemy line.
"Fire for effect, rapid fire, down ten each!"
POOUMP. POOUMP. POOUMP.The guns fired from right to left, slapping the back of his neck with pillows of hot air. More shellbursts across the enemy line, looking like misses but men and dogs were down, scythed down by a soldier's worst nightmare, artillery striking from above without anything they could do about it except endure and hope. Their ranks closed again with a veteran ripple, closing like thick liquid around the bubbles hammered by the guns, leaving figures writhing or still or scattered in pieces across the barren plain, they were half the distance closer already, and Spirit but it was good to have guns at your back—
Raj's eyes widened. "Foley!" he shouted. "To Stanson, quickly,beware of a feigned retreat." The boy kicked into a gallop. To his right: "Hold your positions under all circumstances, pass it down!" Better to be thought a nervous maiden than a dead fool . . .
Much closer now. He raised the binoculars again; no, no eyepatch . . . yelling faces, glaring eyes, beards. His mouth was dry, but he ignored the canteen at his saddlebow, stroked a hand down Horace's neck; the hound had its ears up, and it was scenting, big woofing intakes of breath with a pause to lick its nose between each. Thick grimy-cotton smoke from the guns drifted slowly over him, the odor of Hell. Barton Foley pulled up beside him in a spurt of gravel.
"Sir—" He paused; there were spots of color high on his cheeks under the ruddy-brown Descotter skin. "Captain Stanson directs me—"
"What did he say?" Fifteen hundred meters, the guns were firing twice a minute, another eight rounds—
"Sir, he said that you should teach your grandmother to suck eggs, and that I—he offered insult, sir."
"He was hatched himself, lad."
"Off to Gerrin, Ensign, and good luck."
Eleven hundred meters. A long stuttering crash from his right, a few more saddles emptied, but didn't they realize they were just pumping out smoke to obscure their aim when it counted, Spirit curse them for fools? A dense cloud was growing in front of the 2nd Gendarmerie's ranks, fairly soon they would be shooting from estimates and glimpses and demons knew they'd be lucky to hit their feet doing that. Thank the Spirit for small mercies, at least the wind was from the northwest and it was not carrying the smoke across the 5th's front. Nine hundred meters. Eight hundred.
"Ready!" repeated down the line, and the front rank's muzzles came up. He thought he could see a slight waver through the ranks of the enemy.
"Pick your targets!"
"By platoons—volley fire—fire!"
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM,eight times repeated as the front-rank platoons fired. Hands opening the levers, flashing back to the bandoliers. Rear rank presenting with a uniform jerk.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.Chaos downrange, dogs falling in heaps, he saw two collide in midair as they tried to leap that barricade of flesh and fall, and thousand-pound bodies would be thrashing, maddened by pain, riders crushed. . .
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.Slowing, nobody on earth could take this . . . clumps of men pushing ahead, if they kept coming the last of them would die before the bayonets.
"Tewfik!" Raj heard himself screaming, barely audible over the hammering crash of volley fire and artillery. "Tewfik, you mad evil wog bastard, you're murdering them, you're murdering good soldiers, call them back, call them back."
Then they were turning back, their own trumpets blowing retreat. Moving fast, too, crouched over in the saddle to lower their target profiles. Leaving a quarter of their numbers scattered down from the ridgeline; another hundred meters of charge and that would have doubled, tripled. The artillery lifted sights to harry them, and—
A trumpet sounded "charge."
Raj grunted as if a fist had struck him in the belly. The 2nd's trumpeter was blowing the simple four-note call again and again, and the men in the white uniforms were obeying. Cheering wildly, some even throwing aside their rifles as they leaped astride their dogs and drew sabers.
"Trumpeter, sound stand fast,"he shouted. The young man gave him a shocked glance. "Stand fast,and now,soldier," he shouted, dragging Horace's head around to face his own ranks. The 5th were on their feet now, too, cheering as madly as the 2nd, waving their rifles in the air and screaming County hunting calls as the enemy fled without order, lashing their dogs as if they intended to keep galloping all the way to the equator and the Zanj Sea.
Raj saw what he had dreaded, men leaving ranks and dashing back for their mounts. A few of those and it would be all of them, beyond holding, blood up to avenge the desert chase and be in at the kill. He drew his pistol and clamped his heels into Horace's ribs; the hound dashed out and to the left, before the 5th's ranks.
"I'll shoot the first man to break ranks!" he shouted, knowing his voice would not carry through the tumult. The trumpeter blew tirelessly at his side, though; the 2nd's was two hundred meters downslope and moving fast, the sound fading. And the muzzle of his pistol was a message in itself; he managed to get in front of the first to leave the firing line. Barely old enough to shave, he saw; one of the draft that had caught up to them on the road, a Descotter but from the northern fringe of the County. Filled with sixteen years' conviction of immortality, and nothing but a few skirmishes in this campaign.
"Back!" he screamed, pushing the weapon into the boy's face. Behind him the officers and noncoms were running down the line, cursing, calling orders, knocking men down with fists and boots and rifle butts. Raj thumbed back the hammer. "I'll shoot you dead, boy."
The young man's eyes lost the berserker-blankness, and his saber wavered and fell. "Back into ranks," Raj snapped.
"Yisser," the young soldier gasped.
"Sound attention to orders,"Raj said. It took three repetitions to get quiet; it helped that the artillery had fallen silent with no clear target except the backs of the 2nd Gendarmerie.
"Officers to me," Raj called; they were already trotting out. He looked over his shoulder; there was a fringe of saber-swinging melee at the edge of the 2nd's charge as it passed the midway point of the swale and started up the slope, the fastest of the Gendarmerie catching up with the Colonists on winded or injured dogs, but the bulk of Tewfik's battalion was drawing ahead, opening a perceptible gap. And they were nearing extreme artillery range from this position.
"All right," he said. "Shift front, space the Companies out to cover what the 2nd had, I want 15 meter gaps between each." To give the survivors of this charge somewhere to ride through and rally, if they could be rallied this side of Komar. Thank the Spirit Suzette's safe in El Djem,he thought briefly. "And I want the dogs moved up to arm's reach behind the firing line," he continued grimly. They glanced at each other; a last-ditch chance to escape, if the line broke. "Let's do it, gentlemen, let's go."
The line rippled and split at the seams between companies, the men trotting with rifles at the trail and their dogs' reins in hand. Noncoms were calling dressing as they shifted, checking the setting of the men's sights as they settled into the new positions; he saw men taking the time to pry out jams, or throwing down their rifles and picking up discarded weapons from the 2nd. Presence of mind,he thought, as he loped Horace back to the gunners. The more you fired, the hotter the chamber and the more likely the cartridge was to tear and jam rather than extract smoothly. Many of the veterans were waiting with the lever down and the bolt back.
"Shift position, Lieutenant Dinnalsyn," he said crisply, and pointed to the new line. It was like a string of four dashes across a page; his finger pointed to the middle two companies. "Two guns each behind those, if you please, and no wasted time."
"Yes, sir!" He snapped out the orders, then turned to Raj. "Ah . . . what's happening?"
"Either I'm making myself a laughingstock, or we're about to find out why Tewfik got his reputation," Raj said; he pointed with the blade of his saber to the opposite ridge. The 2nd had managed to form a ragged four-rank formation, and were slowing a little before they plunged over the top and down the reverse slope. "If I'm right, and I pray to the Spirit I'm not, Tewfik's coming over that hillock in about eight minutes, dogs and guns and their little cats, too. Open up as soon as they're in range and fire as fast as you bloody can, that's all I can say."
* * *
"Hold steady, lads!" Raj called, as he cantered down the line. "The creamsuit johnnies will be coming back faster than they left, and the ragheads close behind. Stand to it, and we can still pull it off; run, and we're all buggered, it's that simple."
One man shouted out to him: "We're ready to die game, ser!"
"That's for losers, we're going to win,"Raj replied. There was no cheering or laughter this time, only a grim boulder-stolid readiness. Luck,he prayed. Just a little luck, that's all I need. No more disasters, no more surprises.Probably Tewfik had been surprised when the whole Civil Government force hadn't taken his bait; it had wavered within a cunt hair of happening that way, too. Raj looked at the scattered clumps of Colonist dead with new respect; the enemy commander had calmly sacrificed them to make the bait convincing, nothing less would have worked. He remembered the swath of devastation his men had cut through the El Djem basin. It was unlikely in the extreme that the Colonists would be inclined to mercy.
"We'll just have to win, is all," he murmured, staring at the ridge. Perhaps he was wrong after all—
The sound of massed carbines was lighter than that of Armory rifles, but just as deadly at close range. His mind's eye could paint the picture, the 2nd going over the crestline at a full gallop, the ranks of crimson-uniformed Colonists rising as one. Volleys pouring in, and the carbines held seven rounds in a tube magazine under the barrel . . . He whispered prayers and curses under his breath, but a trained ear was estimating. A lot of carbines, many more than the eight hundred or so rifles the 5th and 2nd had deployed a few minutes before. And a pom-pom-pom sound, Colony artillery. Light quick-firing guns spraying half-kilogram miniature shells from a clip of five. Not as accurate as the 75's, and a lot less weight of shell, but they fired as fast as a carbine. . . . A cloud of smoke was rising from the low swale over the ridge, twin to the one that was drifting and dispersing ahead of him.
"Oh, shit, oh, shit," he murmured to himself. I didn't really believe it was happening,he thought. Not really.A minute before he had been afraid of being wrong, of ending his career with a reputation for cowardice, the man who sat and shook while Stanson's 2nd charged to glory. Now he tasted vomit at the back of his throat, and knew that fear can put a red curtain before the eyes as surely as rage.
What, no advice?he asked Center.
you are the sword of the spirit of man, the dispassionate voice answered. His spine crawled with a different fear, to hear that said of him.there can be no weakness,
The first stragglers of the 2nd shot over the ridge, like melon seeds squeezed between fingers, the ones with the fastest dogs in the rear ranks. Individuals, few of them even carrying their swords and none bothering to look behind; then clots and masses. A few of the last paused to shoot from the saddle behind them, before putting heels to their dogs. Wounded men and animals dropped or staggered out of the chase all the way down the field where the first Colonist attack had come; now you could see the difference between real panic and feigned, and it was obvious.
Spirit of Man, Raj thought in awe. They knew it was a feint to draw us out, and they rode straight into the guns anyway.
He sat Horace with his saber-arm down, the steel clicking against the stirrup iron. The fugitives from the ruin of the 2nd's charge were bunching, instinct driving most of them to aim for the gaps in the ordered line of rifles and bright bayonets. Those that didn't were going to be right in the line of fire, which would affect the actions of the 5th only to the extent of wasting some of their ammunition. Raj's attention was focused utterly on the ridge, but he could hear voices coming as if from a distance through an echo chamber: it was surprisingly quiet here, for a few instants.
" . . . remember, dog down, man down. Aim low." Da Cruz.
" . . . an' if yer don't have time t'adjust sights, just aim down another body length." M'lewis, talking to the young trumpeter, who had his rifle out and resting across his saddlebow while the brass horn bumped his chest.
" . . . that's right, lads, keep those pretty backsides to me and the sharp ends at the ragheads; I can restrain myself and they can't." Gerrin Staenbridge, sounding coolly amused.
" . . . first man who turns gits my bay'net in 'is gut." Some nameless noncom, with a warning as old as battles. The first task of command is to make men face death; pride, love, fear, any emotion is grist for the mill.
And Tewfik's army came over the hill. Army was the proper term; they filled it from side to side, four deep, two thousand strong. Moving fast, sliding down the hill like a solid block of crimson and green and bright metal, and how had Tewfik gotten that many men here so fast? Unless somebody had laid a railroad from al-Kebir out into the desert and they would have heard about that, if it was one thing the Civil Government didn't lack it was spies . . . I may be an idiot, but at least I've the comfort of knowing I wasn't killed by an idiot,he thought.
Aloud: "Steady, men, steady. Don't think of it as being outnumbered, think of it as having a real big target selection." Even now that drew some laughter, although a few were near-hysterical giggles. He raised his glasses. "Gerrin."
"That's Tewfik personally, under the main banner, the one with the big gold crescent on top? I'd really feel better about all this if he sort of didn't make it, you know?" It would be one real service to the Spirit of Man and the Civil Government.
"Noted, sir," he drawled, and passed the instructions to his subordinates; they told off marksmen, it was out of the question to direct the whole of the Company's fire on one man. And quite likely it wouldn't work, battle was odd that way.
"Three-two-zero-zero," the man at the artillery rangefinder sang out.
A dog-drawn gun followed the cavalry over the hill, a Colonial one-pounder pompom; then two more, and another, lashing their dogs on like madmen.
"Prepare for counter-battery shoot!" the battery commander said. Raj gritted his teeth; it was necessary, his firing line could not stand being raked by streams of those deadly little shells, not now . . . but that meant the rifles would have to do most of the work.
The earth shook, and the screeching of the Colonists was like needles driven into the ears. A 75 crashed behind him, and the smell of fresh gunsmoke made him realize how raw his throat was. The others opened up, no point in trying for the pompoms until they halted, but the cavalry were a moving target too big to miss. Gaps tore in the line, but the Colonists closed ranks with insolent courage. Fifteen hundred meters. Men in white coats were streaming through the spaces between the companies of the 5th; a few were so ridden by fear of the thing behind them that they tried to gallop directly through the serried ranks of the Descotters. Shots crashed out and bayonets flicked forward like giant knitting needles, and hardly anyone but those involved even noticed.
Nine hundred. Eight hundred. "Fire!"
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.Bodies down all along the front, and the dragon glimmer of the swords was mercifully dulled by the smoke.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.Gaps in the Colonist line, pileups of corpses adding to the obstructions from the first charge.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.The pompoms were slowing, the teams swinging around to bring the slender two-meter barrels to bear on the line of the 5th. The shellbursts lifted instantly from the cavalry, and the dirty-cotton puffs blossomed in the air around the Colonial guns; not very dramatic, but one gun team dissolved into bloodied snarling chaos, turning on its drivers as metal slashed the dogs. The first crack of high-velocity shot went overhead, aiming for the guns.
More men down, and some of the Colonists were wavering, slowing, a few in the rear ranks reining in their dogs, probably without conscious intent.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.Three hundred meters, and hardly a round was missing; some of Tewfik's men were hit half a dozen times between saddle and ground. Then the great banners of black and green surged forward, the amir throwing himself into the space between the forces to draw his men through the beaten ground by sheer force of will.
"By the Spirit, we're going to do it!" Raj shouted exultantly; they were slowing, half the party around Tewfik was down, the flag fell and the commander himself scooped it off the ground, waving it through the air in a swirling flourish.
A hand pulled Raj around. "Ser!"the standard bearer shrieked into his ear, pointing with his charge.
The slope behind the 5th was scattered with the remnants of the 2nd; some even looked as if they were rallying . . . but another disorganized, blue-clad mass was pounding down the trail from El Djem, and by this time Raj felt expert enough to know panic flight when he saw it.
"Oh, shit," he said with infinite weariness. Suzette, Suzette . . . Tewfik had stolen a march; Tewfik's maps had waterholes where the Civil Government's showed only impassable desert. And El Djem had been virtually undefended, garrisoned with wounded and noncombatants. A small knot of men in blue was well ahead of the rest, with another figure in their midst. Smaller, on a light boned brown-and-black dog with floppy ears.
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. Some of the rearmost Colonists had pulled around and were fleeing, actually running. A clip of pompom shells struck just short of First Company's line. Men fell, silent or screaming; their comrades ignored them, and a 75 shell landed just under the ammunition limber of the pompom a second later. The explosion was noticeable even through the other sounds of combat.
And Suzette was bounding up the slope toward him on her palfrey-hound Harbie.
"Where's Thiddo and the Third Company?" Raj shouted, burying relief. Hell, he was probably going to die within the next hundred seconds or so.
"Thiddo's dead, this is all," Suzette shouted back, wild-eyed and clutching her carbine. There were less than a platoon around her, and most looked barely fit to stay in the saddle, much less fight. One had a flap of cheek hanging down, exposing a red-and-white grin. "Tewfik's men were waiting for us, these cut their way out with me, they're about an hour behind us!"
BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.One last full volley, and the Colonist charge shuddered almost to a halt; almost, and the first of the fugitives struck the 5th's rear, destroying the safety they so desperately sought. The firing line shattered like a glass jar dropped on concrete.
"Sound Fall back and Rally,"Raj ordered, sweeping Suzette behind him with one arm. Tewfik's cavalry were pouring through the gaps, but the very mass of the fugitives from El Djem hindered them, as a runner would be who suddenly plunged into knee-deep water. The ones who had gotten this far were all mounted; their dogs fought, catching the madness of their riders, and each victim took a moment to saber down, if nothing else.
Seconds would determine whether anyone survived at all. "Rally around the guns," Raj was shouting. "Form square!" He saw men turn to run, men of the new drafts. One such made it only two paces before the soldier beside him drove his bayonet through his back . . . and was himself cut down by a Colonist scimitar only a moment later, a great fan-shaped spray of blood bursting out of his mouth.
A group came back in a block, turned, knelt, fired a ragged volley.
"Rally! Rally to the guns!" Raj heard them take it up; more were struggling in from the two companies in the center, men with the ability to see their only chance of survival even now. The slopes around them were scattered with individuals and small groups from the outer two companies, riding for their lives in a spatter like mercury on glass. The whole position on the ridgeline was a mass of struggling men and dogs, jammed in by the pressure from both sides; a ragged circle was beginning to form about the four 75's and the banner of the 5th, men on the outside, a milling sea of dogs who refused to abandon their masters on the inner.
"Load, load cannister," the artillery lieutenant barked. "Out of the way there! Out of the way!" The gun squads manhandled their weapon until its muzzle poked through the thin line of 5th troopers, pointing at a mass of Colonists . . . mostly Colonists. "Fire!"
PAMM.A different sound; a cannister load was a giant shotgun shell, no bursting charge, just hundreds of lead balls. They hummed through the air like a swarm of giant wasps, and a gap opened through the press as if a knife had sliced paper. Another PAMM from the opposite side of the circle; the formation was growing like a crystal in a saturated solution. Individuals were seed crystals, a leather-lunged noncom, an officer, simply someone who didn't want to take the sword in the back. Gerrin Staenbridge came in on a back; on Barton Foley's, although he outweighed the youth by half as much again, although the wound in his side would have made most decide they were carrying a corpse.
"You there," the Ensign shouted. "Get this Messer over a dog!" The troopers obeyed; Foley paused only long enough to shove a hank of rag under Staenbridge's tunic as a pressure bandage and tie his belt to the saddlehorn. "Follow me!" he called, pulling his shotgun from the over-shoulder scabbard. "Those men need help." He pointed to a smaller knot of troopers of the 5th, stalled in a circle of Colonists. The men looked at each other, at the youngster, leveled their rifles and charged.
"Back one step and volley," Raj said. Have to keep the guns or they'll cut us to pieces with the pompoms. Longer we hold out, more will get away. Keep as many dogs as we can. "Back one step and volley. Make it count, make it count, aim damn you." The crash of rifles was ragged, but there were more of them this time. Scimitars clashed on bayonets at the edge of the circle, and it lurched northward one long pace. The gun crews ran their cumbersome weapons forward again; their recoil made them almost as dangerous as the enemies outside, but they plowed furrows through the packed Colonists and left only sausage meat behind; meat that whimpered and twitched.
"Back one step and volley!"
Other voices around the circle took it up, and the formation was beginning to look something like a square as leaders took over, pushing men into line. Suzette and two walking wounded troopers were heaving others too damaged to fight over spare dogs and dodging through the snarling chaos at the center of the formation to snap bridles onto leading lines. A half-dozen figures in the dull-crimson jellabas went down all at once; Foley led his augmented group back into the circle after delivering a point-blank load into the backs of the Arabs between them and their comrades. Raj could see the Colonist officers calling their men back, literally flogging them out of range with their nine-thonged whips. They clumped and rode to the banners of their units, into the dead ground where the cannister could not reach. Comparative silence fell; everyone who could walk or crawl had joined the little group around the standard.
"Keep moving," Raj shouted; it sounded as much a hoarse croak. "Hold your fire!" Tewfik wasted no time; a young Colonist with a white flag rode up on a beautiful snow-white wolfhound. It had been snow-white; now it was speckled with red, and the herald's drawn sword was red to the elbow.
"You can do nothing," he said, in excellent court Sponglish. "My lord the amir, commander of the Forces of the South, Ghazi of the Faith, offers terms of surrender to brave men. You are outnumbered, surrounded, have no water, no supplies, no place to go—"
Raj waited for the men to answer; they did, without delay:
"Go fuck yerself, raghead!"
A flourished bayonet. "Come an' sit yer wog arse on this, pimp!"
"Up the 5th—Descott ferever!"
"Spirit of Man! Spirit of Man!"
From most, a wordless growl that was matched by the riderless dogs in the center. "Keep moving!" Raj said again; he risked a quick drink from the canteen, capped it again. None of the Colonist forces had dispersed, and the two remaining pompoms were out of the line of fire; the Civil Government fugitives in sight were noticeably fewer. A flurry of orders from Tewfik's command post, just out of effective rifle range, and a block of about four hundred formed up and trotted north, giving his group a wide berth.
Raj felt his lips skin back from his teeth. "Tell Tewfik that if he thinks he can overrun us, he's welcome to try," he said. "How many men did he lose today? Twice what we did? Three times? How much burnt-out frontier does he have to hold? And every minute he watches us, more of our comrades escape. Let him come; don't be shy, we'll see to his other eye for him."
The herald bowed and reined about; the wolfhound seemed to float over the baked gravel like a mirage of snow.
"I love you," Suzette said quietly, pulling up beside him.
"I love you, too," Raj replied. "I just wish we'd had longer to do it in." He looked north, to Komar, a week's travel away and as impossibly far as Terra the lost and sacred.
"Let's go, dog-brothers," he said. "Every second man, mount. Keep it ready to about face. At a walk, march."