Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Fifteen


"Here?" Kaltin said, reining in his dog.

"Here," Raj confirmed.

They were a kilometer southwest of the defense line; he turned back briefly, watching the torches flaring along it as the finishing touches were hurriedly completed; some of those were to make the fortifications look rawer and cruder than they were, although the Spirit knew it was rough enough, inexpert hands working in desperate haste. It was chill on the ridge, and the noise was feint, as if echoing from another world. The civilians were back in Sandoral, all except the volunteers in the first-aid stations dug in behind the communications road; after three days of their noise and confusion the position seemed almost empty with only the troops.

"Hmmm," Kaltin said, staring down the opposite slope. "You know," he continued, pointing, "I think that draw there runs all the way to the river."

Raj turned and looked. It was a steep declivity in the plain to their left and east, zigzagging away and down toward the Drangosh.

"I don't think there's much use the enemy can put it to," Raj said. "Pretty thick in there." Tanglewire weed, throttlebush, wild rose, all infested with poisonmouth and stingworms.

"I don't think the enemy could put it to any use at all," Kaltin continued, striking one fist lightly into a palm. "It's definitely pretty thick. Particularly along the edges. You could hide a whole battalion in there."

They all turned and looked at the Companion. "And they'd be right behind where the wogs will put their artillery," he continued; his face was shadowed by the brim of his helmet, but the teeth showed. In Maxiluna's light, they had a slightly reddish cast. Colonist shellfire had killed his brother Evrard, on the retreat from El Djem. "Payback time."

Raj nodded slowly. Worth risking three hundred men, he thought coldly; the 7th Descott Rangers were understrength. Counters on a board, not young men from his homeplace . . . And Kaltin wants to be here, he reminded himself, as they discussed the technicalities, signals and timing.

"All right" A nod. "You'd better start getting them in place, then." That would have to be done to the east, through the ravines. Gruder reined his dog around. "And Kaltin?"

"Yes?"

"Revenge tastes better as dessert than appetizer. I need you afterwards."

Trumpets were calling Parade, fall in down at the fortifications. Oh, Spirit, he thought. The speech.

* * *

" . . . so think of what you're fighting for," Raj continued; the words seemed to lose themselves over the sea of upturned faces. Their immediate superiors would repeat the gist of his address, adding the local flavor appropriate, but the men expected to hear the commander, if they could. They were bunched in a huge semicircle in front of the redoubt where he stood, units jammed in cheek-to-cheek to get as many as possible within hearing distance

"The Settler is coming north, and he's going to keep coming north until somebody stops him—right up to the East Residence, if he can.

"That's what he thinks," he continued. "And his army thinks so, too." Raj paused; his foot was on an ammunition crate, and he leaned forward in a confidential gesture. "I've seen his army—"

There was a murmur at that; for a moment his mind blanked, and he realized what the rumor mill had done with the story of the patrol. Well, well, there's one piece of stupidity that's worked out well. Unless they thought he was a glory hound who'd get them all killed, of course.

"—and it's a big one, a cursed big one. Pretty, too: a lot prettier than us. Smells better, at that." Digging in dry clay for three days did not improve a soldier's turn-out; there was a sound like a stifled chuckle. "They're so fine they think we're dirt beneath their feet; why, it's presumptuous of us to demand an invitation to the same battlefield as those well-dressed gentlemen!"

Very much the way nobly-born cavalry officers thought about common soldiers: no harm in redirecting some of the enlisted men's anger, particularly the infantry's.

"I'll tell you what they think; they're certain they can walk right over us tomorrow and be in Sandoral drinking and fucking by lunchtime. Are we going to show them different?"

The 5th started the cheers, but they spread rapidly; even the Skinners joined in, although Raj doubted they had understood much. Although most of them know enough Sponglish for drink and fuck; they probably think I'm promising them a party. He let the sound build, then spread his arms for silence before they could begin to taper off.

"This is going to be the biggest battle anyone's seen in our lifetime, or our fathers'. Tonight, there are plenty of people in uniform and out—giving prayers of thanks that they're not here. I tell you, in the years to come, rich Messers who're safe and warm in bed tonight will curse the fact that they weren't here, and each will know that they're not as good a man as you. You'll say: 'I was with the Army of the Upper Drangosh, when we sent Jamal yelping downriver with his tail between his legs,' and they'll hide their faces for shame." If you don't end up in a mass grave, or legless cripples begging your bread on the streets, no money for pensions, curse you, Tzetzas.

"And I say I'm proud right now, to call you fellow-soldiers, who I trust to do their duty." And who know I've ordered that any man who withdraws without orders be shot. "I'm not a politician," he continued, "so I'll end the speech with this: the enemy is coming over that hill tomorrow because they want to. When they leave, it'll be because we want them to. Sons of Holy Federation! You are the descendants of the lords of the stars: you fight for your homes, your families, the graves of your ancestors, the temples of the Spirit. To battle! Winner takes all!"

The cheering was more prolonged this time; some of the Descotter units even started to sing, roaring out,

"Goin' ta Black Mountain, wit' me saber an me gun

Cut ye if yer stand—shoot ye if yer run—

Raj jumped down from the parapet of the redoubt. The sound died away as the Sysup-Suffragen of Sandoral walked slowly up to the parapet, Star-headed staff in hand, robes shining salt-white under the moons. There was a universal rustle as the soldiers knelt, and a whisper of awe as four priests bore out a litter on which rested a cube of something far clearer than crystal, taller than a man. For a long instant nothing happened; then there was a glimmer of light in the depths of the material, blue white and dazzling. It grew, cool and soundless, until it seemed a star was supported on the priests' arms, and the watchers had to bow their heads to hide their eyes from it; it shone through closed eyelids, even through the hands some threw before their faces.

Then, equally silently, it died away, with a long drawn out breath from the assembled army, a sigh half of wonder and half of regret: this was the most famous relic outside of East Residence, and a lifetime could go by without nonclerics being allowed a sight of it. There was hardly a sound as the priests turned and paced back toward the city, and the men were dismissed to quarters.

"Barton," Raj said. "A question. Where did you get those phrasings you passed me? You've got a future in literature, if they're your own."

"Oh, mostly from the Fragmentary Codex, sir; very old, written just after the Fall from bits people remembered." Information stored in optical arrays was very little use to people deprived even of electricity. "Mostly in Old Namerique. The references are pretty obscure; who St. Cryssin is and where the Sons of the Griks fought, nobody knows. Pretty words, though."

* * *

Well, that seems to be going better than I expected, Raj thought, blinking against the light of dawn. Jorg Menyez had persuaded him to use a regular infantry battalion to hold the skirmish line on the opposite ridge, when the 7th Rangers had been told off for Kaltin Grader's forlorn hope. Another volley crashed out over the southwestern rise, and the smoke caught the early morning sun, turning orange-white. He scooped a mouthful of the boiled rice from the pot with the flat southern bread. I didn't think infantry could stand like that, he mused. It was unusual, a good omen perhaps.

BAM-BAM-BAM, muffled by distance. Almost as crisp as a cavalry outfit would have managed.

Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack, lighter but much more rapid; Colonial repeaters answering. He cocked his head, listening. A lot of repeaters. Two battalions at least, advancing by companies and dismounting to volley. The firefight had gone on longer than he expected, and . . . yes.

The first companies of the skirmishing battalion came over the hill, trotting briskly to the rear and holding their rifles at the trail, even as another series of volleys rolled out behind them. He raised his binoculars with his left hand as he ate, resting his elbows on the sandbags of the parapet; the redoubt had two, an upper for the guns and a lower for the riflemen of the 5th whom he had chosen to garrison it. None of the retreating men were running in panic, and none were continuing to the rear except for a few carrying comrades too badly hurt to walk.

Excellent, he thought. Aloud, "Da Cruz, mounted parties to retrieve the wounded, please."

"Ser!"

That would take a minute, the dogs were in covered shelters to the rear, with chain leads to staples in the floors of their bunkers. The infantry had rallied just below the crest; he could see officers walking backward with saber and arm outstretched to either side, setting the lines. Their standard-bearers drove the poles of the staffs into the ground and the men dropped, first rank prone and second kneeling. A perfect leapfrog maneuver, the new base of fire remaining motionless while the men who had been rearguard ran over the top of the hill and down the slope to rally in their turn two hundred meters behind the first. The Colonist cavalry came over the rise at a gallop less than fifty meters behind them, already swinging out of the saddle, expecting to pour fire into the backs of fleeing men. Instead they met three hundred rifles, flashing up in rhythmic unison.

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. Hideous perfection, point-blank fire, slender-limbed brown dogs and men in spired helms and red jellabas falling in windrows. And the officers and noncoms would be paying the price of the aggressive courage that lead from the front.

"Oh, lovely timing, lovely," Raj whispered. Who did Menyez send? he wondered. The faces under the helmets looked pale, northwesterners.

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. The Colonist line was too disorganized to return the volley, but individual fire crackled and spat, at ranges where the light carbines were as effective as the Armory rifles. Men dropped, but the firing lines rose only on order and dashed back in rank; Raj focused his glasses and saw one burly peasant-in-uniform lumbering with an officer thrown over one shoulder and his company standard tucked under the other arm. Another rank of Colonists charged over the hill; these had sabers out and plunged forward, hoping to overrun the retreating line before it could get behind the cover of its comrades.

Raj tensed. The retreating men were masking their comrades' rifles, the waiting companies could not fire without hitting their own men. And they would know it, know they were losing the stand-off power of their weapons; they would be able to see the flashing steel and snarling teeth above the infantry's heads. If they ran . . . There was a movement; the prone rank came to one knee, and the kneeling rear rank stood.

"Prepare for fire support mission, left-flank field guns only," Raj said. A runner sped off.

This time the timing was much closer; the dogs were within five strides when the last of the retreating infantrymen dashed through the ranks of the support companies. The front-rank volley smashed out close enough that the blasts singed the hair on the dogs' muzzles; the line of charging Colonists seemed to stagger in mid-leap. Braced bayonets met them, and the rear rank fired over their comrades' heads. Melee for a moment, pistol and saber against rifle and bayonet, and then the men who had been running a moment before were turning, walking back towards the fight as they loaded. A trumpet called from the ridgeline, high and brassy-sweet, and the Colonists reined in their dogs and retreated. Just in time, as the first field guns fired from the flanks of the V formation, airbursting over the retreating cavalry.

"Well done, well done, oh, well done," Raj shouted, hammering his fist into the sandbags beside him, as cheering erupted all down the five-kilometer line of trenches. The Skinners on either side of the redoubt were firing their massive rifles, into the air or at the backs of the retreating Colonists; nearly two kilometers, but they made some hits. Men on dogback were scooping up the wounded, loping to the rear.

"Color-party—" Raj began, then looked down at his right hand, which had squeezed a lump of bread and rice into a ball. "Color party, follow me." He rolled out of the firing slit and trotted to meet the oncoming infantry battalion, with his honor guard and the colors of the 5th Descott behind him.

"Salute!" he barked, drawing his sword with a flourish. The 5th's colors dipped, and the infantry actually formed up to pass in column as they headed back for their section of the line.

Their commander came up; it was Jorg Menyez himself, grinning like an urchin under a covering of powdersmoke. The saber in his right hand had a line of red along the tip.

"Spiritdamned, that was well done, insubordination or no," Raj said, shaking his hand. "You should have delegated that."

"You're one to talk," Jorg replied, and then his smile faded. "It was expensive," he said. "But they needed to see the Messer would stand with them . . . and that they could do it." The 31st Kelden County Foot was mostly recruited from the area around the Menyez estates, Raj knew. "The other line battalions might not have been able to do it . . . but they're closer to being able to, for having seen it."

* * *

"MAMMM! MAAAMMM!" the boy screamed, arching his back on the canvas-covered table. "Mam, help me, mamaaa."

"Hold him, crash your cores," the Renunciate barked.

The first casualties, after yesterday's construction accidents. The first wave of a rising tide. At the foot of the table Zenafir bore down on the leg with both hands, turning her head aside to vomit into the empty wooden tub.

Fatima felt the bones creak in her hand; she had gripped the young soldier's with hers, relying on the weight of her elbows to pin his arm. He was no older than she, and probably handsome when his face was not turned to a gorgon's mask by an agony greater than flesh was meant to bear. The cords in his neck stood out like cables as the priestess-doctor's scalpel probed and sliced.

"Iodine and clamp," she snapped; her acolyte moved up.

"More opium, reverence?" Fatima asked desperately.

"No, damn you, the first dose hasn't taken effect yet." The Arab girl suspected that it was taking effect, just a little, enough to prevent the boy from passing out with shock, but there was no time to waste. "Spirit damn all wars, there's nothing left of this knee but bloody splinters. It'll have to come off at the thigh. Clamp there, idiot. Hold him."

Across the great room with its dozens of tables there were other shrieks; one voice was babbling, we held them, we held them, we held them over and over, as if it was a talisman.

"Needles ready," the priestess said between clenched teeth; they were hooked things like instruments of torture, threaded with catgut. Fatima looked aside and swallowed as the doctor took up the saw; the boy began screaming once more, pulsing in time to the hideous grinding noise. She closed her eyes. That is what the tub is for, she realized. And it was a large one.

* * *

"I thought you were going to assign that," Raj said, as they slipped back into the redoubt.

"I did," Menyez said. He grinned, and the long usually-solemn face looked boyish for a moment, streaked with sweat-channeled dirt. "I assigned it to me."

Raj cursed and looked back through the binoculars propped on the sandbagged vision slit. The Colonial advance-guard showed no signs of wanting to do more than wait on the crest of the ridge and lick their wounds; he could imagine the enemy commander up there, writing up his report and handing it to a courier to take back to Jamal. Not that he could tell much; unless everybody was disobeying his orders, most of the men were sitting on the firing steps with their heads below the parapet, and the guns were all run back.

"Now," he continued, "how many, Jorg?"

Menyez shrugged. "It's raghead-land out there. Carpets of marching wog as far as the eye could reach, Raj. Foot and cavalry and guns; Tewfik's banner is there, too, now. From what I saw before their advance guard hit us, their support elements are making camp about three, four kilometers back. Tewfik's force looks to be about half the size of Jamal's, but more cavalry and light artillery."

"Mmmmm. At a guess, he came straight up the west bank and then swung west as far as he could to cover Jamal's bridgehead. They'll probably put their gunline on the hillcrest for the direct-fire weapons or just behind it. We can't search the reverse slope, much . . . and they'll parlay first. Better bring up those Ministry of Barbarians delegates; pointless, but delay helps us more than them."

Menyez nodded. "Thank you for saluting my men," he added quietly.

"They earned it," he replied. After the other man had left, "And so will we all, before it's over."

"Sir." Captain Dinnalysn, the artillery chief. A middle-class East Residence vowel-stress: a hint of a breathed "h" in the seyor.

Why everyone who'd been in on the fiasco at El Djem wanted another try was beyond him, Raj decided, but useful.

"Yes?"

"Just confirming, sir; the militia gunners"—the part-timers handling the big cast-iron fortress guns—"said they've got those wogboys up on the ridge well within range."

"And you told them, Captain Dinnalsyn?"

"That the first one pulls a lanyard gets tied over the muzzle for the second shot, sir." A thin smile. "Got some of my lads there to do it, too."

"Ser." The nasal rasp of Descott; M'lewis. "Ser, Quartermaster requests confirmation of yer order."

For an instant Raj had to struggle to remember which one, there had been so many, and then a hologram showed him a rifleman's hand scrabbling frantically in an empty bandolier. Normal procedure was for troops to be issued a hundred rounds before action, and for further requisitions to be delivered after signed authorization by an officer or noncom; it was the only way to prevent troops in garrison from selling ammunition for booze money.

"M'lewis, my respects to the Quartermaster and I want opened boxes one to a platoon for all units on the firing line, and I want it now."

"Mmmm, polite er forceful-loike, ser?" Another gold-toothed grin; give M'lewis a job and he got it done, but over-enthusiasm could be a problem, too.

"Polite, as long as he does it."

* * *

The thunder of the drums shook the earth. Raj looked up at the sky; not quite noon yet. The drummers must be just behind the crest of the rise, so tempting to order his heavy guns into action on it . . . but knowledge of his artillery's capacities and locations would be a gift like a visitation by Mohammed for Jamal and Tewfik. They were taking full psychological advantage of it, too; not just the drums, but as each unit came up the noise increased, and it marched over the rise and along it in column, down the entire five-kilometer length of open ground. Cavalry and foot and guns, all looking like they had done a hard day's march, but all looking as if they knew their business, too. Gerrin was taking a steady stream of notes as Foley dictated, leaning into the tripod-mounted telescope.

"I make that . . . one-hundred-six guns, so far," he said. "About half pompoms, a quarter 70's—" much like the Civil Government's 75mm rifles "—and the rest a mixture, fair number of howitzers. Anything heavier, they're not showing."

"I wish they'd stop that damned drumming," Gerrin cursed. "Bad for morale . . . that's a lot of artillery, Raj."

"Well. The game begins . . . Oh, Spirit, what're they doing?"

Raj stepped up onto the parapet again; the redoubt had two, one above for the guns, and this one for the men of the 5th, putting their rifles just at ground level. The Civil Government entrenchments faced up the opposite slope, which meant that any projectile they fired would remain at man-height all the way to the crest, and possibly do damage when it dropped over . . . but it also limited his view somewhat.

"Ser," one of the lookouts on the roof of the redoubt bunker called. "It's the Skinners!"

"What're they doing?"

"Dancin' and singin', ser! In time to them drums." Raj blinked, leaning half-out of the slit to see. The Skinner groups were on both sides of the redoubt; he wouldn't have been surprised to see them out sunning themselves on the sandbagged roofs of their trenches . . . but they were dancing, stamping and leaping in lines that wove in and out of each other, linking arms, whooping out a chorus to the simple thudding of the enemy drums:

"En roul'en, reyoulouran, En roul'en, reeeeboula—"

The song was punctuated by shots fired in the air, or to kick up dirt on the slope near the marching Colonials; every now and then a Skinner would turn his back on the enemy and bend over, flapping up the rear of his breechclout, wiggling and slapping their buttocks at the Muslim host.

Raj put the binoculars down, feeling blank for a second, then coughing to cover the bubble of laughter that forced its way up his throat. The men of the 5th were not trying; one by one they forced their way to a forward position to see, and collapsed hooting to the packed dirt floor of the redoubt. The laughter spread down the line and to the cavalry bunkers just behind it; he could imagine men crowded pleading around their officers for the loan of binoculars. The Colonist high command would be learning just what the Skinners thought of their martial display as well . . .

"It's the first time in my life I've ever wanted to kiss a Skinner," Gerrin wheezed, leaning against the parapet. "So much for morale, for now."

"I'd be jealous if I didn't feel the same way," Foley laughed, wiping his eyes. "You know, that's the most organized thing I've ever seen them do? Oh, shit, wait—isn't that Juluk Peypan, their chief?"

"What?" Raj looked around from the trenches to the ground before them. A lone Skinner was trotting his red-and-white hound out towards the Colonists. "Message to both Skinner groups, no attack!" he barked; the runner hesitated, gripped his amulet and dashed away. Raj raised his binoculars. Yes, no mistaking that zigzag scar on the man's bare chest; he had his feet out of the stirrups, and his monstrous two-meter rifle casually over one shoulder.

Halfway to the enemy, the Skinner broke into a gallop that made the big ears of his mount flop like wings. He rose, stood on one foot, dropped on one side of his dog and bounced to the other, stood on his hands . . . it was a dazzling display of dogsmanship, and it had certainly caught the attention of the marching Colonists, making their neat ranks falter for a second; Raj could imagine their officers' nine-thonged whips flashing. Juluk finished up by standing in the saddle and dropping backwards, then spinning on his back with his legs splayed wide. The long barrel reached out between them and vomited smoke and flame; on the hillcrest, a banner toppled as its bearer's head splashed away from the 15mm sauroid-killing bullet.

That produced a reaction; a pompom swung around and began to spit, shells cracking into the ground around the barbarian chief. He reined in with insolent calm, lighting a pipe and puffing on it, before turning to trot back to the Civil Government lines. Halfway there, he turned in the saddle and extended a clenched fist at the Colonists, shot out the middle finger and pumped the forearm back and forth before clapping heels to his hound.

"The preliminaries are over," Raj said. "Now we'll parlay."

"Salaam aleyikum, amir," Raj said carefully, bowing to Tewfik and touching brow, lips, and chest.

"And upon you, peace, Messer Brigadier Whitehall," the Colonist prince-general replied in accented but fluent Sponglish, extending his hand. Both men ignored the elaborate formalities that were going on where Jamal met the Governor's negotiators; nothing would come of that.

They shook, looking at each other curiously. Odd, thought Raj. Center's shown him to me so many times, yet it's the first glimpse in the flesh.

"You are young for such a command," Tewfik was saying; his hand was hard and callused in the same manner as his opponent's. There were four men behind him, mostly younger than the Colonist's thirty-five; two who looked like well-born Arabs; one who towered and showed a spiked blond beard beneath cold grey eyes; and a black almost as tall and broader. Tewfik's closest retainers, trusted men with high commands, from the richness of their use-worn weapons and the hard set of their faces. They in turn appraised the men behind him; Jorg Menyez, da Cruz, Gerrin Staenbridge, Foley.

"But you were young in El Djem, as well, and you surprised me there." He hesitated. "It was well of you, not to fire on our wounded from the skirmish this morning."

"We're fighting men, there's no need to act like a jackal," Raj replied. "I was rather surprised myself, back in the Valley of Death. How did you get those men there so fast?"

"Is that what you call that battle? Appropriate enough. Well, if the truth be told, I was bringing my riders up for a raid on you, using El Djem as a base," he said, with an engaging grin that lit the serious square face for a moment. Tewfik was running an experienced eye over the positions downslope as he spoke. "Not bad," he continued. "But not good enough, of course. It is unfortunate for you that your Governor can never trust an able man with an army large enough to do much good."

"I think you'll find this one amply large," Raj replied.

"There is no God but God; all things are disposed according to the will of God." From Tewfik it did not seem the automatic formula that it might from another man.

"And the Spirit of Man of the Stars shapes our destinies," Raj replied with equal sincerity. "It seems we have something in common."

Their eyes met, turned to the Settler and the envoys of Governor Barholm.

"Indeed," Tewfik said. "Indeed, young kaphar."

* * *

"You shouldn't have come," Raj whispered into Suzette's ear. It was an hour past midnight, and they sat on the edge of the redoubt wrapped in a single cloak. She huddled closer, running her hands into the too-large sleeves of her uniform jacket. There was nobody else on the flat stretch of sandbags over timbers, except Gerrin and Foley at the far corner, standing hand in hand. That was far enough for verbal privacy, at least.

"I wanted to," she said. "Spirit knows, there's little enough of doing what we want, in this life." Silence for a long moment. "Raj, I told Falhasker the five fougasses on the left were hooked up—"

"What! The right, I said tell him the right—"

"And I told Wenner Reed that it was the five on the right." A pause. "Trust me."

Raj signed. "I do. And if I didn't, we've not got enough time to waste arguing. Not tonight." Softly: "There won't be much time for anything, tomorrow."

* * *

Crack. This time the vicious bark of the pompom's explosion was followed by screams, further down the line. Raj ducked, ears ringing, as dirt blasted through the half-meter space between parapet and roof.

"Shit," he muttered, dusting off his jacket and binoculars. Above him there was a long roar as one of the heavy guns cut loose; they were working a counterbattery shoot at the high-velocity Colonist guns on the ridge, the ones that were pounding his men's firing slits. Diminishing rumble of thunder as the huge weapon ran backward and up the curved wooden ramps behind its wheels; then a gathering return as it rolled back and stopped with a whack of anchor ropes. Ssssshhhhhhhhhhh as the gunners ran water-soaked sponges down the barrel on rams to quench any sparks.

"Reload, contact fuse, full charge," the crew commander was shouting, voice a little shrill. The militia knew their gun well enough, they had been practicing for many years, but they were holy-day soldiers, members of some trade guild or religious cofraternity or whatever who liked to peacock in fancy uniforms once a week, not combat troops. Being shot back at was a new experience; with any luck they would concentrate on the automatic motions they had practiced, using the familiarity to distance themselves from an environment full of fear and uncertainty.

Raj peered up at the enemy line. Smoke was already dense in the valley bottom, the raw burnt-sulphur stink of it clawing at the lining of the throat and making his eyes water. There was more up there, where the enemy guns flashed through the man-made murk, and more still rising and thinning toward a sky where the stars of dawn were just now fading out. Then there was movement behind the guns; a waving ripple, as men marched in column through the artillery positions and down the slopes. He focused his glasses. Dismounted cavalry, they had scimitars at their sides rather than the short chopping-blades the Settler's infantry wore. More and more of them, five battalions at least, they would be the first wave. The guns behind fell silent briefly, muzzles shifting, and then the firing recommenced. All at the left flank of his V, and the columns of marching men were slanting in that direction, too.

"Well, now we know who sold out, don't we?" Suzette said, in a voice as flat as the blued metal of her carbine-barrel; she was speaking loudly, to carry over the continuous roar of gunfire.

"You know, I'm glad it wasn't Falhasker," Raj said. I hate his guts, but he's something of a man, at least.

"Frankly, I don't give much of a damn," Suzette replied.

* * *

Up on the slope two kilometers ahead the attacking columns were spreading out, color-parties marching in place while the men deployed into open line formation. Airbursts slashed the sky above them; tiny stick figures fell or flopped; black pillars sprang out of the earth around them with a brief spark of red fire at their hearts, dirt and metal and pieces of human flying into the air. The lines ignored it all, swinging forward at a uniform jog-trot; even through the bombardment their keening shout was audible. Behind them the upper curves of black hulls showed over the ridgeline, armored cars waiting for the Civil Government artillery to be silenced.

It was going to be a long day.

* * *

"Ser," a voice whispered at Kaltin Gruder's ear.

"What is it, Fitzin?" he said normally. Nobody was going to hear them, not with the roar of artillery along the wog gunline up there on the hill half a kilometer north. He scratched at the ferocious itch of snapperworm bites; he'd be painting those with iodine for a month, thank the Spirit none of them had gotten under his jockcup. The spoiled-honey smell of native vegetation was a choking reek, but it would cover their scent very effectively, even from the most alert enemy dogs.

"Ser, when are we goin' to move?"

Which could be fear, or just eagerness, or both; Kaltin looked back into brush that swallowed vision within meters, down the gully to the flat where the 7th Descott Rangers waited beside their crouching dogs. Taking an occasional sip from their canteens, gnawing hardtack, slapping at the biting, stinging, burrowing life of the gulch. Listening to the guns, knowing they were half a kilometer behind the enemy's line and three from their own. A bit resentful of being led by a stranger, perhaps, but he was here, which would probably count for a good deal.

Raj had mentioned that he had Fitzin Sherrek in mind for a commission; it would be as well to explain, since there was no hurry.

"It's all timing, Fitzin," he said, pointing.

From here they could see the whole rear of the Colonist position, five kilometers or more stretching to the west, bowing south slightly as the ridge over the dry waterbed curved. The field guns and pompoms were on the ridge itself, or just a little back with only their barrels showing; taking protection from the terrain, and low earth berms thrown up in front. Shells were bursting among them, and here and there a tangled mass of burning wood, scattered wrecked metal, stretcher-teams carrying away wounded or dead. Their teams and caissons were well back, men were trotting back and forth humping loads of ammunition. Other guns were behind the slope, stubby-barreled howitzers firing their missiles up at fifty-degree angles.

The enemy infantry were further back yet, kneeling in ranks that stretched down along the road toward the tent-city of their camp. An occasional shell cleared the rise and exploded among the closer of them; men opened out like flowers around the blast-centers, but there was no motion except for the wounded and the stretcher-teams. Every few minutes a trumpet would sound, flags dip, and a new battalion column would surge to its feet and trot toward the hill and over it, more men being fed into the Colonist attack on the left flank of Raj's position. Infantry now, not the dismounted elite whose dogs waited with their reins spiked to the ground.

"We're waiting until the ragheads are bent over concentrating," Kaltin continued. "All their attention nicely fixed. Raj will tell us when." He grinned, conscious of the slight pain of the scars that made his face ugly when his muscles pulled, but for once he did not mind; his mind was rerunning over and over again the sight of Evrard falling with half his torso gone. "And then we just run right up behind and buttfuck them."

* * *

Thud.

Howitzer shell, Raj thought; they had a tendency to bury themselves deep before they exploded. Much louder up here on the roof of the redoubt, surrounded only by the sandbags and boiler-plate of the observation post, but at least you did not have to hug the ground and cough in the dust it shook down from the timbers above you . . . One plunging shell had opened a crater in the trenchline a half-kilometer to his left; through the binoculars he saw panicked infantry pouring out of the shattered fortification, running toward the rear and throwing down their rifles. The next volley from the bunker of the cavalry battalion behind them tore into their ranks; one more, and they turned and ran back to the trench before a fear greater and more certain than the shells or the attack rolling down the long slope towards them.

The cavalry positions were still volleying, crisp and neatly spaced. Far too many of the infantry positions in the front rank were showing a wild crackle of rapid individual fire through the thickening clouds of smoke, and far too many of the guns there had fallen silent under the hammer from the ridge. He hesitated for a long moment, looking to his right; the infantry there were silent, out of range or blocked by the bulk of the redoubt from bearing on the attack hitting the left of the position. The guns were throwing shot and smoke toward the Colonist positions, but only in long-distance counterbattery fire. He swallowed past a raw throat and thrust head and shoulders through the trapdoor, down into the gun-platform of the redoubt.

WHUMMP. WHUUMP. WHUUMP. The massive fortress guns fired; this time the crews threw buckets of water on the barrels before they spunged, and the metallic steam that sizzled off the glowing metal gave a swamp-sauna tang to air already superheated from the muzzle blasts. The crews were stripped to the waist now, their colorful jackets thrown down and trampled underfoot, bodies striped, powder-black, showing the natural brown where sweat had cut through the clinging grim, splotches of red where boiling droplets had rained back from the guns.

"Dinnalsyn!" Raj shouted. "Gerrin!"

The gunner arrived before the cavalryman; a page full of scribbled calculations was clutched in one hand, and a ranging instrument in the other.

"Sir!"

"We need more fire support on the left flank," Raj yelled. "It's not going to hold. Have the guns switch to cannister at three hundred meters, send a runner—" Dinnalsyn nodded "—and then go yourself, limber up all the mobile guns on the right flank—" the 75's, the breechloading field guns "—and run them over to the left; prepare to receive armored vehicles."

A hesitation; the communications road behind the flanks of the Civil Government position was protected by heaped spoil from the fieldworks, but it had no overhead protection, and the guns would be hammered mercilessly by the Colonist firing line. The counterbattery exchange had gone against the enemy so far despite their numbers, but that was largely because of the superior protection of his guns. In the open, hitched to dogs driven frantic by the noise and smell of death . . .

"Do it, do it now," Raj said. Dinnalsyn nodded and left at a run, calling to his staff.

"Raj?" Gerrin's face.

"Take a look." The other man swarmed up the ladder and looked left.

The Colonist attack was sweeping down the slope toward them. A line would bob erect and dash forward, five seconds, six; then they dove for the earth, their carbines snapping; the men behind leapfrogged them, and the maneuver would be repeated. There was no cover to speak of on the bare scraggly silt of the hill; even the occasional scrub bush had been uprooted while the Army of the Upper Drangosh dug in. Shellfire plowed through the ranks, shrapnel whined and lashed dust from the ground in pocked circles; wounded men rolled into shell craters and were blasted out again in gobbets as fresh explosive fell from the sky. A kilometer to cover under artillery fire, and then another to advance through the killzone of six thousand rifles, and still they came . . .

Raj focused on the crest. More banners marching over in a continuous stream, deploying and surging forward; infantry now, the second wave. One unit wavered when it saw what waited below, the drifts and tumbled windrows of bodies, still or screaming and moving feebly, half-hidden by the patchy cloud of gunsmoke that covered the whole length of ground from dry stream bed to crest. The officers' whips glittered as they whirled, and a pompom slewed to blast a string of craters at their heels; the men hunched their shoulders as if walking into a storm of sleet, and plodded forward.

"Spirit of Man, but those are good troops," Gerrin said, watching the front rank of Colonists dash forward another ten meters.

"No," Suzette said loudly behind them. "I don't want them to be brave. Kill them all." They gave her a glance; the slanted green eyes were fixed, not seeing da Cruz nod agreement beside her.

"Gerrin, the infantry's wavering. Take da Cruz, get down there, get them volleying again." If they did not, half the rifles would overheat and jam, dippers of water or no. Perhaps I should shift Jorg from the right—No, Jamal had enough reserves to launch an attack there, too, he needed someone rock-steady to hold that flank with half their guns pulled out. "Tell them I have absolute confidence in them."

Fifteen minutes, Raj thought as Gerrin and the Master Sergeant dropped through the trapdoors. Kaltin would need that, to get his men into place through that brush.

"Rockets," he barked. The trooper on the other side of the pillbox had a cigar clenched between his teeth; he removed it, blew on the end until the ember glowed and thrust it through the firing slit, touching the wicks of the three signal rockets outside. They shot skyward with a hooosh that was lost in the cannonade, but the crimson bursts would be visible as far as Sandoral and the Colonist encampment behind the ridge.

"Well, that's it, he muttered to himself. All that could be done, had been done. . . .

The beetling shapes of the Colonist armored cars lurched over the crest of the ridge, grinding and sliding down toward him; their engines threw a haze of black fumes above the riveted iron hulls. They were moving to the left, all the enemy formations had done that. If nothing else, it got them out of the path of fire from the Skinners to the right of the redoubt faster . . .

"En boon, mes garz!"

His head turned right, and his helmet clanked on the boiler plate around the slit as he scrambled to see. The right-wing Skinners were on the move, boiling out of their trenches and climbing the roof of the redoubt. Some continued all the way across it, whooping and laughing as they ran to join the band of their fellows to the left of the fort. Others were unwilling to wait that long, or perhaps to fight beside men of hostile clans; they stopped at the edge of the redoubt, standing to brace their long guns on the crossed shooting sticks, or kneeling. One of the armored cars lurched, pinpricks of light flashing from the soft iron armor as the 15mm bullets skidded over its surface or punched through. It stopped, slewing; orange tongues belched out of the firing slits and the pintle mount of the pompom in its bows, and then it blew apart in a globe of orange fire as the fuel from its ruptured tanks sprayed into the flames of the fighting compartment.

Men were falling, too, but the other armored cars continued; a dozen of them rattling down the slope toward him. Wounded Colonists crawled aside, or vanished under the tall metal wheels. The pompoms of the fighting vehicles were beginning to snap out single shots at the Civil Government artillery in the firing line; the guns had shifted to cannister, plowing wedges of lead shot through the Colonist ranks, but no menace to the men behind armor. The front ranks of the enemy advance were more ragged now, remnants of a dozen battalions mixed among those closing to within three hundred meters. Their carbine fire was more effective now, men gaining confidence as they sensed an end to their ordeal. At close range their numbers and magazine rifles would slaughter the Civil Government soldiers, and the trench that protected them now would only serve to hold them in place as targets. Behind them banners slanted as the follow-up waves rose to their feet and ran forward, lines like waves beating toward a storm-locked shore, waves that screamed like files on stone.

The Colonist artillery began to fall silent, as their own men masked the Civil Government line.

* * *

"Fire." Kaltin shouted, slashing downward with his sword. Getting the men up here had taken less time than he had expected, but it would not be long before the wogs noticed, even with their attention locked on the other side of the ridge. The Colonist army had a fair assortment of uniforms, but none of their units wore round helmets, blue jackets, maroon pants . . . or carried a banner with a Starburst topping the pole.

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. The 7th Rangers rose from the edge of the scrub and caught the flank of the column surging up toward the ridge.

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. Men running cheering to victory shuddered to a halt, even though safety now lay ahead of them. Shouts turned to screams; the impact of unexpected danger is always greater than that of one a man has steeled himself to face. And they sent in the best troops on this flank first, Kaltin thought coldly, as the rifles barked again. These are the ones they kept back to feed in and give weight to a successful push. Got to keep moving, don't let them realize what's happening.

BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. A gun on the ridge ahead turned and fired toward the Civil Government force which had appeared, impossibly, where no enemy could be.

"Mount!" Kaltin shouted. The 7th scrambled into the saddles of their crouching dogs, slinging the rifles over their shoulders for want of time to scabbard them. Steel hissed free, flashing all along the line.

"Trumpeter, sound charge." Dogs howled, thunder-loud, over the shouts of their riders. "Hell or plunder, dog-brothers—now!"

"UP AND AT 'EM."

* * *

"Now! Commander says now!"

Barton Foley started violently at the hand on his shoulder; he had been standing just behind the forward line as they stepped up onto the parapet and volley-fired to the left. The forward section of the redoubt could rake the whole first rank of the Colonist advance now, they were so close to the Civil Government trenches; shots from the Skinners on the roof were killing three and four men at a time.

He pulled his eyes from the hypnotizing clamor; the other platoon-commanders and noncoms could handle it as well. Barton stepped back with the front rank; the second pushed past him, leveling their rifles as they braced to the firing slits. Foley turned; the two troopers assigned to it were already pumping at the arms of the portable generator with a grinding of iron gears and a rising whine from the clumsy hand-wound armatures. Three scissor-switches were tacked to an improvised board, each of them running back to three copper wires. The wires fanned out, disappearing between sandbags and into the meter depth of dirt that covered each of them.

The young man braced his hand against the wooden handle of the first switch. I hope nothing cut the lines, he thought. I really, really do.

His palm slapped down, and a fat blue spark snapped.

* * *

The explosion from the Colonist gun line was loud enough to carry even over the noise of the battle; a pale sphere of fire rose behind the silent guns and flung things that might have been human into the air. That's an ammunition dump going off, Raj thought, with sudden wild relief. Kaltin. Running figures appeared among the guns, and others among them, on dogback, swords glittering as they cut.

A pompom round from one of the armored cars slapped into the sandbags of the observation post, with enough force to toll against the iron core below. Raj felt something well up from his chest past his neck, white and cold; it cleared his grit-filled eyes, and made the world go sharply clear. He walked to the barred door at the rear of the pillbox and kicked it open.

"Signaller, standard-bearer, follow me," he said, stepping out over the body of a dead Skinner. Live ones raised a whoop to see him, their fire raking the Colonist line. It had reached the edge of the Civil Government's left flank now, and the foremost men in jellabas were sticking the muzzles of their carbines up into the firing slits from the dead ground immediately below, working the levers and firing blind into the trenches. Bayonets probed back for them, and vanished again as the armored cars came forward to pound point-blank. The Colonial attack might yet succeed, simply because the first wave were too busy to notice what was happening.

"Look back, you stupid wog bastards," Raj roared, as he strode to the edge of the blockhouse. Bullets went by with a continuous crack-crack, and the standard bearer fell to his knees with a coughing grunt. Another of the color-party snatched the pole before it could fall and followed. A woman's voice behind him, "Raj, no—"

That didn't matter now. "Behind you, you raghead idiots! Behind you!" His sword chopped toward the Settler's banner on the hill to the south. "Look south, they're behind you."

A few men actually looked up. It was the explosion of the first armored car that really caught their attention, however; it shattered noisily, spattering hot metal and burning fuel along a hundred meters of the trenchline to either side, catching the men it had been supporting. Raj looked north, and saw the second and third of the 75's galloping out from behind the mounds that sheltered the communications road, slowing and wheeling into firing positions level with the cavalry bunkers a few score meters behind the trenchline. One went over from a too-sharp turn, bouncing and flipping end-over-end as the crew flew off in screaming arcs and the dogs twisted in their harness under the inertia of a tonne of moving metal. But the others were firing, belching knives of orange flame over open sights as they came to bear on the Colonial armor. Another armored car blew up, and then another.

A fougasse fired, far to the left. The bursting charge was not large, only ten kilos of powder, but it was enough to spray a huge fan of burning oil and naphtha across the hillside into the faces of the Colonist second wave. The sound was a loud diffuse fffumph, as men ran screaming and burning across the barren earth. Ffumph, as the next went, then fifteen more, spaced at intervals all across the left flank, two hundred meters out. Not many men were actually caught in the flames, but the sight of human torches running back towards them was the last unbearable thing for the follow-up waves; they turned and ran, screaming, shooting or hacking down the officers who tried to stop them. Even then, the Colonials who had made it beyond the line of flame-weapons hesitated. Another armored car went up in a crash, sending a pillar of smoke like nothing else on the battlefield into the sky; the rest began to pull back as.rapidly as they could, and the soldiers followed, throwing down their rifles and running.

"Sound Cavalry, general advance!" Raj shouted. "Get my dog, somebody get my fucking dog! Runner, tell the armored cars to get out of their holes and attack, move it, now."

* * *

The carbine bullet cracked past Kaltin Gruder's ear. A second later his saber punched through the Colonial gunner's stomach with the weight of man and dog behind it; he wrenched it free with a twist, reining in suddenly enough to make the dog rear. Others were surrounding the pompom, tossing their lariats over the breech and snubbing them to their pommels to drag the weapon away.

He wiped a forearm across his eyes, the left; his right was sodden to the elbow. Gunners were running west along the line, back to the intact and uncommitted Colonial right where it waited behind the ridge; units were forming up, wheeling to face what had been their own right wing moments before.

"Lieutenant Ynez," he barked. "Wheel some of those cannon around to bear, here. Fire at the wogs who're running, and pepper the guns too far to reach over west there. I want a three-company firing line, ready to back and volley."

He stood in the stirrups and looked back; the last of the Colonial armored cars was burning halfway up the slope towards him; the Civil Government machines were lurching out of the front of the redoubt, and he could see men swarming out of the trenchline, mounting up before the cavalry bunkers behind it. Clots and masses of Colonial soldiers were streaming across the field, retreating in a diagonal towards the part of the ridge still held by their forces; masking their own guns, he saw with a hammering glee, as smoke belched all along the trenchline and raked the fleeing men. More than enough of them to come straight back and swamp the 7th, but the fight was out of them for this day at least.

"I think—" and something sledgehammered him out of the saddle. But we won, his mind whispered. The ground struck him.

* * *

Barton Foley dashed back to the firing slit as the last of the fougasses fired; one hand went to the back of his neck under the chainmail flap, unconsciously kneading against the tension of suspense. The nearest Colonists were wavering, flinching away from the Skinner's fire as their armored cars reversed and left them.

They're going to run, he decided. If they're pushed. It was calm and rather remote, as his right hand lifted the pistol from its holster. He thumbed back the hammer and braced his left on the sandbags ahead of him; remote, like a description of tactics in one of Gerrin's books.

"Follow me," he said, and levered himself up. The troopers did, with a howl that burst out of the bunker like the cries of wolves.

* * *

"The Merciful, the Beneficent," Fatima whispered to herself, pausing as she came back down the stairs from the upper gallery of the Temple and paused. A bell was ringing, signal that more carriages and wagons had come through the city gates with wounded.

She had washed her upper body and changed her blouse while she fed her son, but the skirt swung sodden and ill-smelling against her legs. The skin all over felt prickly, as if grains of cold sand had been shaken against it; her stomach heaved again, but she clenched her teeth against the taste. The square outside the windows was carpeted with pallets and stretchers and bodies; men were loading the dead onto wagons, rough in their haste because the still-living needed the room. Doctors ran through the outskirts, among the latest wave, making the quick judgments that sorted the incoming. For those too far gone to save, a massive dose of opium for the conscious, and they were taken to the side street of the hopeless cases; worst was when they knew what had happened, and stretched out imploring hands to the priest-physicians as they were carried away. The lightly wounded were left with their field-dressings in the square, to be dealt with as time allowed.

Fatima swallowed, and walked down the last of the stairs toward the table to which she was assigned. The cleanly order of the dawn had vanished, leaving a fetid chaos that had only the minimum structure necessary to keep from completely seizing up. Men with stretchers shouted and cursed as they elbowed past the men and women dragging out the bodies of those who had died on the tables that crowded the great room, or tubs full of shattered pieces of those who lived. Physicians and volunteers called for medicines, water, bandages; wounded men shouted or moaned or wept. The floor was slippery-sticky on the soles of her feet as she descended the last steps into a blast of stench and noise.

Almost, she did not recognize the man on the table; Damans pushed past her for her rest period, staring with a blank stiff expression Fatima recognized from the feel of her own. The patient was chalk-pale with loss of blood, under a natural light brown; an officer, from the pistol holster and epaulets, and young . . .

"Get away from me, you bitches, not my arm, bitches all of you get away get away—" The doctor's aide staggered back, almost dropping the glass full of liquid opium and rum she had been trying to feed to the struggling man.

Fatima moved in and gripped the wounded limb below the elbow joint; the tourniquet was on the upper left forearm, and what had happened to hand and wrist was enough to make her look away even now. Especially as she knew that hand well . . .

"Barton!" she said, leaning over so that he could see her face. The wildness left his eyes, a little. "Barton, you die unless let doctor help. Gerrin left all alone if you die; I left alone. You brave soldier, act like it!"

The straining body slumped back, and the young man closed his eyes with a sigh. Fatima raised his head and gave him the sedative herself.

"Are we retreating?" she asked, distracting him as he drank and the doctor picked up a probe.

"No," he said wearily. "We won. This is victory."

* * *

"Most Sacred Avatars," Raj whispered hoarsely. "It's only an hour past noon."

The others with him sat equally stunned, watching as the Colonials removed their dead and wounded from the slope; Tewfik's envoy had pleaded for it, and the pause was as much to the Civil Government army's advantage.

"How many, do you think?" Dinnalsyn said, passing a canteen.

"Five thousand dead, maybe six," Gerrin Staenbridge said quietly, taking a swig.

"And ours?" Raj said, beginning a motion to wipe the spout on his sleeve; he stopped it as the wet heaviness of the cloth dragged the arm, and took three quick swallows himself. The water was cut one-third with nun, and the burning put a little strength back into his stomach.

The Colonists lay in a long swath down from their starting point, curving away to the left like a wave that shears away from a subsurface breakwater. They were thicker just in front of the trench line, like a frozen surf of death; the miasma rose into the hot afternoon sun, along with the lingering stink of powder and the continuous low moaning of the injured as they waited to be carried back up the hill they had charged over so confidently.

"Eighteen hundred, two thousand, mostly in the counter-attack," Gerrin said.

"Damn Tewfik," Raj nodded. It had almost been a rout, but the Colonist left had not run; they had wheeled about, presenting a front that the Civil Government troops were too few to break; a single push had shown that. He looked out at the still-burning armored cars, a dozen of the Colony's and four of his. "He knew we still couldn't win a battle of maneuver. . . ."

"What do you think he'll do?" Menyez asked. Of all of them he looked the least worn. "His own force wasn't committed for long; they're still fresh."

"So's our right, and they saw Jamal's men run today," Raj said. He looked up; another nine hours of light, but then it would be dark-black for most of the night.

"Dinnalsyn," he continued. "How many enemy guns did we bring back?"

"Twenty, pompoms," the artilleryman said. "Destroyed about the same, but our gun line's going to be weaker tomorrow, too."

"That doesn't matter, if it's strong where it counts," Raj said. "Menyez, pull . . . six . . . no, four battalions out of the right flank, it'd be suspicious if there were more, march them over to the left and have them help with the cleaning up. Then," he continued, "after dark, trickle them back, and every second battalion from the left, too; the least-hurt ones. Dinnalsyn, leave those guns on the left and make like you're digging them in. Then bring them all back to the right, and all the mobile guns originally on the left as well."

They all looked at him; Raj let his hands fall between his knees, watching the smoke of his cigarette trickle up. "We can't be strong everywhere," he said. "They've still got more men, and more weight of metal; and the left was our stronger flank. We'll just have to bet that they won't lead off with the same formations again."

Even for an army as large as the one the Settler had brought up the Drangosh, the losses had been gruesome. Still, those were brave men, well-disciplined; they had proven it today.

"What if Tewfik shifts front, too?" da Cruz asked. Even the veteran noncom was looking a little shaken; nobody in the Civil Government's forces had seen carnage like today's, not in twenty years. The Colonists' had, of course, in the Zanj wars . . .

"He might, I don't think Jamal will," Raj said. "And this is two armies we're facing; I'm betting with the confusion back there, it'll be too much trouble to redirect everything. Jamal will do the straightforward thing, hit us with the other hammer on the other side of the head."

"And if you're wrong?" Menyez said, looking at him curiously.

"We all die," Raj said. The only consolation being I won't see it, he thought.

" . . . will fall and wind will blow—

Lost men die in the mountain snow

Souls break their wings on Heaven's wall

Dark night must come, come to us all—"

Spirit-damned cheerful folksongs the Stalwarts have, Raj thought, leaning his head back against Suzette's knees. The plangent silver strings of her gittar tinkled as she played, singing the ancient songs a nurse from the western tribes had taught her as a child. The troopers seemed to like it; a hundred or so had come from their own fires to listen, here behind the redoubt. Nobody wanted to sleep in the redoubt, if it could be avoided. For that matter, nobody seemed to want to sleep, much. . . . He had been able to get them a hot meal, sent out from Sandoral on wagons, at least. More than the enemy had, from what the prisoners said; evidently they had come north with nothing but hardtack and jerky, enough to see them through into the fertile lands north of the city, but no more. And it would be a cold camp over there, not enough firewood left around here to roast an avocat.

One more time, he had told the men, doing the rounds of the fires. One more time, and they'll break. Nobody could take what we dished out today more than once more. The question was, could his men take it once more?

A burst of firing out of the night brought men rolling to their feet.

"Stand easy," Raj called, hearing it being echoed through the long jewel-chain string of campfires behind the trench line. Not enough firing to be an attack, and he had Skinner and Descotter scouts in plenty on the slope. Suzette followed him as he climbed to the roof of the redoubt and watched the spiteful fire-tongues flickering through the dark, frowning.

"Fucking Tewfik!" Raj said with sudden anger. "Fucking Tewfik!" Shaking his head in admiration.

"What?" Suzette said.

"The fougasses, he's not leaving anything he can to chance either," Raj said. "They're really not as dangerous as a round of cannister, but they've got lots of mental impact. On our men as well as his, seeing them go off would be a big plus. At a guess . . . yes, from where they are . . . he's going for the fougasse detonator lines. Messenger!" A trooper ran up. "Off to the scouts, and tell them to concentrate on the fougasses, don't let the enemy damage them."

"Can you replace the lines?" Suzette asked, standing closer and hugging his arm.

"No," he said, returning the embrace. "But I've got a trick or two like that myself." He looked down into her face, and thought of trying to persuade her to leave again. No, he thought. Useless. Besides, there were limits to a man's unselfishness.

"Meanwhile, I don't much feel like sleeping," he said.

"And we have a whole bunker, all to ourselves. . . ."

* * *

"We're not going to stop them," Menyez said flatly.

Raj looked out the slit of the observation pillbox. It was like one of those horrible recurring dreams, where you die over and over again, never able to vary your actions. The same hammering cannonade back and forth, the same stinking clouds of smoke . . .

Of course, there were differences. The gun lines on both sides had thickened up from yesterday; dawn had shown him most of the remaining tubes on the ridge above shifted over to positions facing the Civil Government's right. Fucking Tewfik, Raj thought with weary irony. That's becoming my motto. Although I'm the one who's getting screwed. The attack had been different, too, faster and a little looser. These were Tewfik's own men, the Colonial Army of the South, and they had been with the prince-general during the Zanj wars in the lands beyond the Colonial Gulf. They had come with the same leapfrog tactics, but sprinting rather than trotting, and their rifle-fire was damnably accurate.

"We wouldn't have held them this long if we hadn't stripped the left flank," Raj said.

"Which won't hold either, not if they come down," Menyez said. The ridge to the left was quiet, but the reformed battalions of the Settler's Army of the North had marched a little past it, and their ranks had held under the light shelling of the muzzle loaders in the Civil Government gun line opposite. The lanky Kelden County man sighed; the battle on the right wing was turning into a short-range firefight, the front lines of Tewfik's riflemen only two hundred and fifty yards from the trenches.

"You can probably get most of the cavalry back to Sandoral," Menyez said, turning to go. He stopped when Raj touched his shoulder.

"Suzette," Raj said, "what was that toast the Brigade ambassador gave, last year?"

She stood beside him. "He fears his fate too much, and his reward is small—"

He finished the words: "—who will not put it to the touch, to win or lose it all," he continued. "Battles are won or lost in the minds of men . . . signaller, the rocket."

A single trail of smoke rose from the redoubt, above the wreathing smoke of ten thousand rifles and two hundred guns. Behind the trenchline cavalrymen jumped up and ran to the captured pompoms, jerked the lanyards. They did not attempt to aim, nor could they have even if the front was not blanketed with heavy smoke. The Colonist weapons had a single clip each . . . and only one target; each had been boresighted on a fougasse that morning, before Dinnalsyn's gunners were called to serve their own weapons. The pompoms hammered . . .

. . . and the flame-arcs erupted, not in a smooth progression but all within fifteen seconds of one another. Men jumped and ran, screaming, struck by a weapon their leader had told them was disarmed. The snapping of carbines faltered for a moment.

"Signaller," Raj called: "All left-flank units, general advance. All cavalry, prepare for pursuit."

"Tewfik's men won't break, we haven't hurt them enough," Menyez protested. Below them came the pig-snarl of armored car engines, and all along the left flank of the Civil Government line men were clambering out of their trenches, forming line for a sweep into the Colonist flanks. "You can't do that, Jamal's men still outnumber us and they'll take us in the rear!"

"No, they won't," Raj said softly. His binoculars were trained on the motionless units on the heights, battalions cut to the strength of companies. A banner wavered and then dropped; he could see the officer behind it pistol the soldier who had thrown it aside, then fly back as a dozen rifles fired with their muzzles pressed almost to his flesh. "They'll run . . . from their own memories. Why do you think I allowed them a truce, yesterday? They spent four hours in hell, then ten picking up the results and burying them."

He drew his pistol; Horace had been led up to the edge of the redoubt, whining with eagerness after a day spent bridle-chained to the floor of a bunker.

* * *

"Fucking Tewfik," Raj said. I've got to stop that. "Damned if I don't like the man," he continued.

One of the 75's beside him on the ridge crashed, and a spout of water flashed up white and black beside the giant bridge. It had been an impressive structure under construction; from the hills above its terminus on the western shore it was even more majestic. A blossom of flame came from the entrenchments on the eastern bank, a slow earthquake rumble that ended in a massive gout of dirt on the plain below. The surface of the road across the Drangosh was red with fleeing Colonist soldiers, most in disorder; the shrinking semicircle around the head of the bridge traded slamming volleys with Civil Government cavalry who had pursued them all day.

"Why—" Menyez began, then withdrew a little distance to cough his lungs free. For this he had been willing to ride a dog, counting a week's illness a small price to pay. "—do you say so?" he continued, face red and flushed.

"Because he wasn't concerned with anything but getting as many of his men out as he could, once there wasn't a chance of turning things around. Not even his baggage train." The 5th guarded that now, with a picked band of Companions about certain heavy chests. Not M'lewis, who was here; there was no point in pushing a man too far. "Too bad for him he has to work for that butcher Jamal," Raj continued, sighing.

I thought victory was supposed to bring triumph, he thought. Maybe I'm just too tired; all I want is Suzette and a bath and bed for a week . . . sleeping the first two days.

"Eh, mun ami!" Juluk Peypan was in high good humor. "Jey ahz un caddaw per tuh!"

A gift? Raj thought. The sun was almost down, the banks of the river in enough shade to make the muzzle-flashes brighter than reflected sunlight; the thousand and one details of administration marched through his mind like weary troops. Oh, well, it's certainly better than defeat, he mused.

"Yes, I gots this for you!" the Skinner continued, grinning from ear to ear as he reached into a bag tied to his saddle.

Jamal's teeth were showing as well, but Raj would have judged the expression one of surprise. It was difficult to tell, since much of one side of the face was missing.


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