Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Nine


Four men are just right for this, Raj thought.

Not a squadron of Poplanich's to clank and clatter in the night, though they were shaping to be good battlefield soldiers. Just himself and da Cruz and two of the Scouts, for quiet work in the dark. One was a cousin of M'lewis's, a little rat-faced man everyone called Cut-Nose, because most of his had been removed with something sharp; the other was a silent hulking brute called Talker from the northeast border of Descott, on the mountainous fringe of Asuaria County. The battalion rolls listed their former occupations as vakaro and sauroid hunter; offhand, he judged Cut-Nose for a sheep-stealer. Talker had the eyes of someone who just liked to kill—people by preference, though sauroids would do at a pinch. If either had come calling back home he'd have had the vakaros whip them off, or hang them for the County's peace. Both rode with an easy slouching seat, reins knotted on their pommels and eyes never still; their rifles they cradled in their arms, and both weapons had rawhide sleeves shrunk onto the forestocks.

And Spirit, but it's good to be doing something myself for a change, he thought.

It was very quiet in the hour before dawn, somehow blacker than deep night. Dew beaded the dogs' coats to the breast as they pushed through a rustling cornfield, chill on the soaked cloth of trouser-legs. Their way led through the last of the coastal plain, foothills heavy with fruit-orchards where springs welled up at the foot of the escarpment. Water rippled in stone-lined ditches beside the road.

Da Cruz reined in beside the general. "'Tis thissaway, ser," he said quietly, nodding at a rutted cart-track that led up the face of the limestone ridge that loomed at a sixty-degree angle on their west.

"This way's quicker."

The holographic map hovered over his vision at every turning, and beneath it he picked out the trail better than his eyesight could have done; somehow Center looked through the darkness even though It had only his vision to use. He remembered the visions It had shown him, of the floating satellites that had been Its eyes before the Fall. They could have looked through absolute darkness or deepest cloud. . . . Not for the first time, he wondered how an angel came to be condemned to the cislunary sphere of Fallen corruption.

The hillsides ran upward in steep scree-clad illex and whipthorn, then leveled off into a plateau; once a herd of wild grazing sauroids fled in honking, hissing confusion and a little later a wild boar held the way against them for an instant.

One of the troopers hissed a little through his teeth at the commander's certainty, and Raj smiled silently to himself. "That way," he said, cutting his palm over the fields.

There are advantages to having a legend, he thought.

* * *

"Cowards!"

Raj let his voice roar out over the patio, as the dogs picked their way in among the broken glass and rubble of the Squadron manor's courtyard. Horace stepped delicately over a Skinner facedown in a pool of vomit, and up the steps, not even looking aside when two Skinner hounds growled and raised their hackles at him. A human leg was hanging by a cord around its ankle from the wrought-iron balcony above the main entrance; judging from the bits and pieces scattered around, they'd hung whoever it was off alive and then used him for target practice until the body fell apart.

"You cowards hide like old women!" Raj shouted again. "Your ancestors die again with shame to see you run from battle!"

Roars and grunts answered him as troll-figures stirred amid the doors and shrubberies. A squat shape appeared on the balcony and jumped down, long gun over one shoulder.

"Eh, sojer-man! Neck-stretcher!" The banter was less friendly than usual. "What you want, eh? Tu peti lahpan hilai kouri ahvent nus coup, you little rabbit, run away before we get skin—mebbe we skin you now, eh?"

"I want you to fight, Juluk," Raj said, leaning over. "Or is killing farmers and drinking all Skinners can do?"

The chief grunted. "No Squadron men here—all run away," he said a little defensively.

Raj lifted one hand from the pommel of the saddle to point behind and to the left, southwest. "There are two thousand Squadron troops there, moving fast to the east—no more than three kilometers away. I ask you again, Shef Juluk Peypan—will you fight, or just sit here drinking while better men do battle?"

The Skinner chief grunted again and leaned on his long rifle, making a motion with one hand. Three of his men leaped to dogback and pounded out of the courtyard; others were moving about, readying gear and kicking their dogs to wakefulness. Then they gathered around the little group of Descotters, staring with the steady hungry gaze feral dogs gave guard-hounds. Barely half an hour passed before the scouts returned, shouting in Paytoiz. An exultant yell went up from the assembled warriors, and a deafening chorus of howls from their hounds. Juluk had been standing with a hunter's patience, both hands on the rifle and one foot crooked behind the opposite knee; now he straightened and unhooked a flask from his belt.

"Today we doan' skin you, sojer-man," he said, holding it up.

Raj took the ceremonial drink, fighting not to cough.

Gah. Juluk had really done him honor; not looted wine or brandy but arak, the date gin spiked with red pepper and gunpowder that was the Skinners' own favorite drink.

"I'll piss out this sauroid-gall on your grave," he replied politely. "Now, can you keep the Squadron troops off my men's flank, while we fight our battle?"

"Hoya-hey!" The chieftain laughed, and the others joined him in a barking chorus. "Six hundred Real Men against only two tens of hundreds of long-hairs?" he chortled, using the Skinner's slang term for any of the western barbarians of the Military Governments. "We chew their bones! We kill them all, take their dogs and cattle and guns, fuck their women, burn their houses! Hoya-hey, it is a good day to die!"

He pulled at one long drooping mustache, leering up at the Civil Government commander. "You come with us, kill long-hairs?" he said. "You got balls enough to fight like Real Man, sojer-boy?"

Raj looked up at the eastern horizon; the sky was paling slightly behind the distant mountains. On the other hand, I can kiss goodbye to any chance of controlling these wild men if I don't, he thought.

"Can you girls fight like me?" he said.

Juluk swung onto his hound. "Fray hums!" he shouted, shaking his rifle in the air. "Hoya-hey, it is a good day to die! Let's go fight!"

Yipping and howling, they poured out of the gate at his heels. Raj and his men heeled their dogs into the same loping stride.

"When we make contact, I'll send you back with the news," Raj said to the senior noncom. They swerved apart a little to avoid a cork-oak tree in the middle of a pasture, then set their mounts at a thorn-hedge beyond, leaning forward into the saddle. Their dogs soared, wurfing slightly and lashing their tails to match the pack-excitement of the Skinners' dogs.

"No ser," da Cruz said in the same stolid tone, as they landed and continued stirrup to stirrup.

Raj looked around at him in surprise. Da Cruz was a long-service man, only two years short of the thirty-five maximum, steady to a fault. He'd bought Casanegri Farm from Squire Dorton back in the County on his last leave, the property he'd thought to retire to as yeoman-tenant. Bought it free and clear and stocked it well, with the prize-money and plunder from the campaign against the Colony, and married a sensible woman of middling years who was managing it until he returned. That had been his private dream, to be a well-respected yeoman freeholder with a good farm.

"Didn't figure you for a fire-eater, Top," he said with deceptive mildness.

"Ser," da Cruz replied; the slick surface of the massive scars on his face caught at the starlight. "Them barbs run me off. Not goin' ter let them see me turn tail again, beggin' yer pardon. Nor leave yer wit' nothin' but those two at yer back."

He jerked a thumb over one shoulder at the two Scout troopers. Raj looked behind him; the two soldiers were a half-dozen meters back. Cut-Nose looked nervously alert as they rode to battle, but Talker . . . his face was still basalt-still, but there was the edge of a smile in his eyes.

"I take your point," he said.

* * *

"Gittem, Gittem!"

The Squadron battle cry sounded over the dry valley. It would have been difficult for Raj to estimate their numbers, if he had not known; they came in clots and bunches, each under the flag of some chief of note and his principal henchmen. They paused as they topped the low ridge and saw the Skinners ambling toward them on the opposite slope, grouping together into larger clumps. Then the clumps slid down into the valley, gathering speed. They howled, shaking their swords or muskets in the air, and they glittered in the dawn sun with metal and jewelry. Raj drew his pistol and pulled back the hammer; from the looks of it they would keep corning right to close quarters.

It was three thousand meters from one side of the valley to the other; reaped wheatfields flanked it, but the slopes were too rocky to be tilled. Even the dusty-gray olive trees that spotted it were few and straggly, although the remnants of tumbled stone terraces hinted that cultivation had been more intensive once. The morning sun cast broad shadows from every tree, every low native brush, throwing a blushing pink shade that seemed to foreshadow the blood to come. It was almost a relief to have only himself to fear for, at the beginning of an action; the dry tightness of his stomach and the brittle clarity of sight were less terrible than the knowledge of thousands of other lives dependent on him making the right decisions.

Juluk Peypan knocked the dottle out of his pipe and shouted. Men began sliding out of the saddle in the long loose line of the Skinner warband, scores of them. Their dogs dropped flat, and the warriors stuck the iron butt-spikes of their shooting sticks into the ground. The rest continued on their way at a brisk walk, holding their weapons across their laps with an ease that belied the ponderous weight of iron and brass and wood.

CRACK. The first 15mm rifle spoke, in a long gout of flame and puff of off-white smoke. A Squadron officer dropped fifteen hundred meters away, next to the main banner. Raj leveled his binoculars in time to see the round take off the skull at eye height and the man's head splash away from the lead.

"GITTEM, GITTEM!"

This time a full two thousand throats roared it out, and the whole Squadron host rocked into a gallop, big men on long-limbed dogs pounding through a fresh-raised cloud of dust. More of the huge sauroid-killer guns spoke, and when the dismounted Skinners fired, a man died at every shot. More than died—the thumb-sized bullets ripped off limbs, drove fist-width holes through men's bodies, and splashed their comrades with blood and bone-chips and pulverized flesh. Dead men were torn out of the saddle, and when the bullets struck dogs the big Ridgebacks and Banzenjis went spinning head over heels as if struck by invisible sledgehammers in the hands of giants. The Skinners around Raj hooted and giggled at the sight, grinning and jostling each other like little boys on an outing.

When the Squadron charge reached six hundred meters every Skinner opened fire from the saddle. The noise was stunning, loud as artillery, and a dense bank of smoke hid the front for a moment.

Spirit of Man, Raj swore to himself as the brisk wind tore it away.

The whole great block of Squadron warriors seemed to shudder in mid-step; it was like watching a sandbank eroding under a high-pressure hose. Where two or three in the front rank went down together, the men behind had to leap their dogs over the head-high obstacle or collide and join the writhing tons of man and dogflesh. War cries and the bellowing of dogs on the attack were suddenly swamped by screams of human and canine agony. The Skinners were not quite so accurate firing from the back of a moving dog, but with a massed target, even rounds that missed their first mark often went home. Yet the Squadron men kept the charge coming for a full hundred meters more.

One dismounted giant came forward at a lumbering run, whirling his long sword over his head. A Skinner thumped heels to his dog and rode out to meet him. The first shot smashed the steel out of his hands, sending it pinwheeling end-over-end into the sky in a blurring circle. The Squadron fighter stood stock-still for an instant, looking incredulously at his numb and ringing hands, then leveled the big blunderbuss slung over his back, fumbling with the hammers. Laughing, the Skinner went down on the opposite side of his dog, holding the pommel of the saddle with one foot. Lead balls hummed through the space where he had been, and he bounced back to his seat as if pulled by rubber bands. Then he was at arm's length; something bright flashed as he rode by, and the Squadrone toppled like a felled tree, a sheet of blood running from his throat beneath hairy clutching hands. The Skinner swooped far over and came erect waving a string of silver medallions the dead Squadron warrior had been wearing around his neck, whooping as he rode back.

Spirit, withdraw for the Spirit's sake, Raj thought; but the Squadron men had more courage than sense, it seemed—or perhaps just no command structure to tell them to get out. Instead they were dismounting and going to cover behind dead dogs or rocks or olive trees and bushes, trying to return fire. Skinners darted forward in twos and threes, sometimes firing point-blank; he saw many lope up and spring out of the saddle with knives in both hands, screeching like a powered saw going through rock. But at close range the shotgun blasts of lead balls from the Squadron smoothbores were taking effect. A Skinner ahead of Raj took one such in the face and slumped backward off his dog, his head a mass of red meat and shattered yellow bone. The others ambled on, the good cheer in their voices undiminished, their long guns bellowing with the regularity of triphammers.

Those Squadron barbarians could be good soldiers if they had training and decent weapons, he thought. This was a victory, of sorts, but it offended his sense of workmanship to see first-rate material wasted.

The advance continued at a brisk walk; Skinners were dismounting to loot the hundreds of Squadron corpses and to slit throats. A few were taking heads or scalps, ignoring the men firing at them from less than a hundred meters away. At this range the 15mm bullets blasted right through tree trunks to kill the men behind them. . . . Raj heard the sharper crack of Armory rifles from his rear and glanced over a shoulder; Cut-Nose and Talker were firing from the saddle. Ahead a Squadronite slumped down and lay draped across the low branch of the olive tree. Another leaped up from behind a low stone terrace-wall and turned to run. Talker fired again and the barbarian seemed to leap forward with a red splotch on the leather between his shoulder-blades.

Smoke hung over the battlefield like a drifting pall, heavy with the scent of burnt sulfur. A third warrior rose from behind the rocks, leveling his musket. They were close now, close enough to see the pockmarks on the man's face, the polished bronze scales sewn to his leather jacket . . . and for both barrels to be circles, tunnels to hell. The battle had been curiously detached until then, but now Raj felt a raw stab of scrotum-tightening personal fear. He leveled the revolver and fired. The big weapon kicked in his grip, and he let the weight bring the muzzle back down onto the target. Da Cruz was firing beside him; bullets pocked the stone around the kneeling man. The hammers of his flintlock snapped forward. There was a dreamlike slowness to it, a flash of sparks as the flints struck the steel, a puff of smoke from the firing pan, then a world-waiting pause until the gun fired, a jet of sullen red flame and smoke.

TUUNNNgggggg. A slapping blow snapped Raj's head around, throwing him back against the cantle of his saddle, and the chinstrap of his helmet broke. Savage pain lanced down his neck as the vertebrae grated together. Blood spurted from his nose. Whack, and something icy-hot coursed the length of his forearm. A second later two Armory rifles barked behind him and the Squadrone flipped backward, the blunderbuss arching from his outflung hands. Raj reeled in the saddle and forced himself erect; his helmet fell off and he grabbed it by reflex with his free hand, almost dropping it again as the metal bit at his palm. A gouge of bright steel and smeared lead showed across one side of the black enamel, where the bullet had struck glancingly. His arm was untouched, but the sleeve of his uniform tunic floated open almost to the elbow, cut as neatly as though with shears.

"Hunnh."

It was da Cruz. He was slumped over the pommel of his saddle, clutching at his belly; then his eyes rolled back in his head and blood came out of his mouth and nose. Raj reached for his shoulder, but he fell with a boneless finality that told its own story. His dog bent itself in a circle, trying to support the body with its muzzle, then sniffing frantically at the dead man. It flattened to the ground an arm's length away, whimpering.

"Oh, bloody hell," Raj whispered. Da Cruz had been a County man of the old school, and a first-rate professional . . . and he should have died at home on his own land, among his sons. "The bullet doesn't care if you're ready," he repeated to himself, the ancient Army motto.

It had taken only a few seconds for da Cruz to die, but when Raj looked up the battle was over. Such as it was, he thought. The only living Squadron men visible were lashing their dogs into a gallop, or stirring weakly on the ground.

Juluk reined in beside the Civil Government commander; he laughed uproariously at the sight of the bullet-grooved helmet in Raj's hand.

"Mebbe you wheetigo, maybe you one big devil!" he said. "Eh, you want prisoner, man to sell, man to ransom?"

"No," Raj said softly. "Kill them all. No prisoners. And when you're finished, head east—that's where the fighting will be."

He leaned down and closed the dead man's eyes. "You!" he barked. Cut-Nose was rifling the Squadron dead, but Talker showed more interest in those still alive. A neck parted with a wet crunch as the big mountaineer wrenched a head around to look back between its shoulder-blades.

"Ser!" Cut-Nose said, saluting with one hand and stuffing a pouch under the tail of his tunic.

"Trooper, bury this man—a cairn. Then rejoin Lieutenant M'lewis; he's to rendezvous with me at the camp or on the trail there." He caught the hideous little man's eye. "Understood?"

Cut-Nose went slightly gray under his natural brown. "Yisser!"

* * *

"Ah, suh, tank Spirit yuh here!" the sergeant cried. The infantry picket of the 17th brought their rifles up to salute with a snap.

Raj swung up a hand; the Forty Thieves reined in behind him. He stood in the stirrups and closed his eyes for an instant; yes, firing to the north. Heavy firing, volley fire by Armory rifles. Staenbridge and Gruder were engaged, something more than two or three kilometers up the road toward Port Murchison. The sun was over the eastern horizon now, 0930 hours; but the cavalry were still standing beside their resting dogs, command banners beside the main west gate, nearest the road. A murmur ran through the blocks of men as he and the Scouts plunged past them toward the gate, gravel spurting from beneath their dogs' paws.

"What the Starless Hells of Darkness is going on here!" Raj roared, pulling Horace up on his haunches before Menyez's banner. "I ordered the columns out!"

Most of the battalion commanders were grouped around a map table; he could tell from the set of their shoulders that they had been arguing. Now they were bracing to. Most of them had the grace to look a little shamefaced, or carefully blank. Dalhouse's face was still dark with rage, and Suzette—what in hell is she doing here?—Suzette's hands were clenched on the stock of her Colonist carbine until white moons showed beneath the nails. Her eyes closed and her lips moved in prayer as she saw him; thanks, he supposed. Even young Ludwig Bellamy was there, skulking around the edges of the gathering.

"Colonel Menyez!" he snapped, swinging down to the ground. He checked a half-pace as he saw the others' eyes on him, on the blood and dust smeared across his face and the bullet-rip in his sleeve, the lead-splashed helmet.

"Sir," Menyez said. "Sir, the flanking force?"

Raj made a chopping gesture of dismissal. "Dead. Slaughtered to a man." Somebody offered him a canteen, and he rinsed his mouth and spat. The news was spreading in whispers out from the circle of officers, and cheering broke out from the infantry units for a moment.

"I'm waiting, Messer," Raj went on, dangerously quiet.

Menyez met his eyes squarely, hands folded behind his back. "Disputes arose, sir, over the best course to take, with you out of communication. Major Dalhouse felt that as senior officer he should lead the column assigned to Major Thiddo; Major Buthelezi concurred. Several officers were of the opinion that the force should be kept intact to go to your rescue; Messa Whitehall also forcefully expressed that view. Sir."

Raj stood silent for a moment. Suzette went white around the mouth under his stare.

"My lady Whitehall," he said softly. "Please stand aside for the moment; this is not your place." He made a signal behind him with one hand; the twenty Scout troopers dismounted and formed up behind him. Two swift steps brought him in front of Dalhouse, and he took the waxed mustaches in thumb and forefinger of each hand. The move was swift and utterly unexpected; Dalhouse rose on tiptoe as Raj jerked his hands up toward his face. That left their noses almost touching.

"You refused an order to advance in the face of the enemy, Dalhouse," Raj said. His voice was metallic. "For which the penalty is death."

He released the smaller man. "And I'll have you shot here and now if you question an order again."

Dalhouse took a step back, his hand not quite touching his saber. He cast a quick glance from side to side. Mekkle Thiddo was smiling with relief, no surprise in Raj Whitehall's crony . . . but so was Hadolfo Zahpata of the 18th Komar, who was a professional's professional. And Hingenio Buthelezi was keeping his face to the front and carefully neutral. Dalhouse looked beyond Raj for a moment, and met the eyes of a hulking Scout trooper. The trooper started to smile.

He swallowed and made a stiff salute. "As you command, General."

"Exactly," Raj said. He turned ninety degrees on one heel. "Colonel Menyez, all of you, I am not pleased. This is supposed to be a civilized army, under discipline, not a barbarian warband."

He gave a brief nod, dismissing the matter for the moment. "Now. Major Poplanich, you'll accompany me with Poplanich's Own. Colonel Menyez, I want the highest possible state of alert on the part of the infantry. Majors Thiddo and Zahpata, you have your instructions; move your columns out. In the event of your being driven in on the base, you'll be under Colonel Menyez's orders until I return. And, gentlemen, I expect effective coordination." He looked around, found the white robes of a priest. "Reverend Father, the three-minute battle prayer, if you please."

"Spirit of Man, Spirit of the Stars, make us strong for battle in Thy name—"

* * *

PAMM. PAMM. PAMM.

The sound was muffled in the distance as the battalion column of Poplanich's Own jogged forward. A rattle of shots echoed it, like very loud and slightly blurred rifle shots stuttering one after the other. A faint tinge of sulfur drifted down the wind; so did flocks of winged creatures, skipping from tree to tree and falling again to disappear in the wheat stubble on the rolling fields—skin-winged dactosauroids mostly, and the toothy-mouthed feathered types that were almost birds but could only glide, and behind them true birds of Earth descent.

"What's that, my lord?" Ludwig Bellamy asked nervously, nodding forward at the noise. He was riding to Raj's left, near where Suzette sat her palfrey with the butt of her carbine on one hip. The Squadron turncoat had his sword, but no firearm.

"Cannon," Raj said absently, frowning over the map in his hand. They were nearly to where Staenbridge had planned to set up. Whatever had happened, it was not the slow retreat they anticipated. "Field guns and volley fire." There was a burbling chorus of dull pops behind the crisp sound of the Armory rifles; that was Squadron smoothbores, but there was no need to point it out.

Ehwardo Poplanich lowered his binoculars. "I'd say rifle fire from about four, five companies," he said. "Not in any great hurry, either."

A whistle sounded from ahead, and a Scout came pounding back along the rutted, potholed gravel road. Sunlight flicked across him in bars between the roadside trees as he pulled up.

"Barbs, dead, ser," he said, raising a gloved hand to his helmet-brim. "Looks like some action."

The road rose slightly to an almost imperceptible ridge, marked in the fields to either side by a low fieldstone wall. Metal glinted amid the stubble along the near side of it, thin brass cartridge cases for the Civil Government breechloaders. The column topped the rise, and Raj flung up his hand. Behind him the trumpet sang, walk-march—walk, and then halt. Ahead lay a windrow of bodies, men and dogs lying in layers on the road and spilling off to either side. He counted about a score of men and as many dogs; it always looked like more, when they lay like this. Every man and beast bore multiple wounds, with exit-holes the size of fists where the hollow-point 11mm rounds had punched out. Enough blood had followed to make mud of the dusty surface of the road; the musky stink of it was already growing under the warm sun, and flies swarmed. Dozens more corpses scattered the fields to either side, and the road for a half-thousand meters back.

"Walked right into it," Poplanich said absently.

"That they—" Raj began; he was interrupted by Bellamy, who had spurred closer to the main clump of bodies with a handkerchief held to his face.

"Gawdammit!" the young noble swore in Namerique. "Eh bi gawdammit!" He wheeled his mount, pointing at a richly-dressed corpse. The dead man's face was undamaged, a jowly pug countenance with brown muttonchop whiskers. Ludwig stuttered, then forced himself back into Sponglish:

"That's Conner—Conner Auburn, the Admiral's brother, the Grand Captain of Port Murchison. He's dead."

Ehwardo's mouth shaped a silent whistle. "Very," he said.

Raj rapped his knuckles on the pommel of the saddle; Suzette met his eyes with a quirk of raised eyebrow.

"We may find that convenient," he said, and turned to the Scout trooper. "Arnez—take the head and bag it."

* * *

"They ran," Ludwig Bellamy said, with something halfway between anger and shame in his voice. "They all ran."

He looked depressed. The Squadron bodies littering the road merely looked dead, as if they had been caught and time-frozen in a dozen different postures. Most were lying facedown here, where the pursuit had caught them as they galloped their dogs back down toward Port Murchison much faster than they had marched south. Few of the bodies were of dogs; it had been saber-work here, and the barbarian bodies lay tumbled with great black sprays of blood where the blades had left them. Cuts across the neck were most common; half-severed limbs, and multiple slash-wounds to the shoulders and arms where they had tried to turn in the saddle and defend themselves.

"Not all of them," Raj said, rising in his stirrups.

They passed through a stretch of fig trees, and on the other side there was a windrow of bodies a hundred meters or so out into the open ground—several hundred of them, some deployed out into the fields. Dactosauroids and gulls were busy crawling over the bodies and squabbling for dainties, and packs of little knee-high carnosauroids burrowing their fanged heads into the soft parts of the bodies. There were plenty of dogs here, caught by case-shot and shrapnel by the tattered look of them.

"Well, Spirit eat their eyes," Ehwardo said. "You thinking what I am?" The road stretched twisting ahead of them, sparsely lined with trees and rising and falling over hills and small valleys. The noise and smoke were closer, now.

"I can hardly believe it," Raj murmured. "They came down the road straggling any old way—hardly two or three hundred of them together in a single bunch. Conner right out ahead like a point-man. Gerrin just deployed, shot them to ribbons, stayed in line abreast across the axis of the road as he advanced. Chased the survivors into the next lot, then repeated the process. Is repeating it."

"Ser!"

Two of the Scouts were waving from fifty meters farther down the road. The officers spurred over, to find a wounded Descotter propped up against a roadside gumtree with his dog standing at stiff-hackled guard. The man had the shoulder-flashes of the 5th, his rifle by his side and a wadded red-soaked bandage around one thigh; a stocky young man of medium height, face gray-brown and sweating, but grinning at the Scouts.

"Bwenya dai to ye, dog-brothers," he said. "Got sum-mat ter drink? Mine's empty." He swigged at the offered canteen. "Ahh, good." One of them jostled his leg slightly as he reached for it again. "Son of a bitch!" The dog barred its teeth and growled. "Down, Jaimy, down."

"Trooper Hesus M'Kallum, isn't it?" Raj said, drawing up.

"Ci, seyor," the soldier said, sketching a salute.

"Report, soldier."

The man seemed a little light-headed with pain, and he laughed until the jiggling moved his leg.

"Scramento! Sorry, Messa. Ser, it warn't nobbut a sauroid-shoot. Them barbs, they come alang loik 't was they were ridin' groomsmen ter a weddin', right at dawn, loik. T'Major, he jist sings out volley fire, an' then we starts gobblin' em loik a dog eatin' a snake headfirst, all alang t'road. Chase 'em till they clumps up, then out a' the saddle and shootin' by platoons an' up comes t'field guns. Not hardly no casualties fer us, 'cept I didn't check an' one were shammin'. Major Staenbridge, he says ter tell ye he 'spects they kin keep goin' right ter the gates a' Port Murchison, ser. Ser, happen ye have some brandy, loik?"

Suzette touched her toe to Harbie's foreleg and the dog crouched; she walked over to the wounded man carrying a pouch from the saddle and knelt at his side.

"Brandy isn't what you need, soldier," she said. The man stiffened and closed his eyes as she slit the field-dressing with a small razor-edged knife and examined the torn flesh carefully, maintaining pressure with a pad of gauze. "Did you use the blessed powder?"

"Yis, m'lady," he gritted. "Hurt summat." Iodine did that.

"It will probably save your leg," she said; the man slumped slightly in relief. "The bone's broken, but it's a clean fracture and the hamstring's not cut. I can feel the ball—close to the surface, right here." She taped a new cover over a fresh bandage. "There'll be an ambulance cart along to take you to the Sisters soon enough, and you'll be fit for duty in six months. Take some of this. Not too much; we don't want you passing out."

"Ye're an angel, m'lady," the man said fervently. "Spirit bless ye an' Messer Raj too!"

The officers looked at each other. "Doesn't really seem to be much for us to do here," Poplanich said mildly, then broke into a broad grin. His hand shooed away some of the swarming flies; the cries of the scavengers, hissing and shrieking, were raucous in the background.

Raj smiled back, for the first time since he returned to camp. "And we're likely to be needed back south," he said. Gerrin's finished off twelve thousand of the enemy. Now we've fifty thousand more coming at us.


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