"And who ordered this withdrawal?" Raj said coldly.
The Cuirassier captain flushed and braced to attention, staring to the front. "Sir. The withdrawal was spontaneous. I attempted to rally the men—"
"Which was why you ended up in front of most of them?" Raj asked, dangerously mild. "Shut up."
He looked to the front; there were several hundred men immediately ahead of him—
two hundred seventy-four, Center said.
—and more straggling in across the fields. The base was half a kilometer behind him; he could hear the steady throb of drums as it beat to arms. Menyez's own Kelden Foot were moving out from the gate, forming in square and marching smartly to the tap of the drum, out to cover the entrance in case the retreating columns of cavalry came in fast with the Squadron on their heels. The mid-morning sun was bright, bleaching the fields to a yellowish-white and making the clumps of trees almost black by contrast A pillar of dust over most of the southern horizon was growing steadily closer; the air was already dry with it, even though the wind was from the north.
"Captain . . . Hermano Suharto, isn't it? Captain Suharto, right now I'm about convinced that I should have every officer in the 17th Cuirassiers shot, and the unit's enlisted men decimated, for cowardice-in-the-face. So you'd better rally them, right now, and bring them along smartly. Convince me to change my mind, Captain. Work hard at it."
Suharto gave an unanswered salute and rode off to the men; they responded quickly, losing a little of the lost expression as they heard orders. Sergeants began to push them into line, and troopers accreted in their platoons and companies.
"Ehwardo," Raj said, "this looks like a complete balls-up, and we're going to have to pull it out of the pot. Form up for a company advance in line"—that meant a column a hundred and twenty men wide and six deep—"ready for extension, rifles out and a round up the spout.
"Jorg," he went on to Menyez, "I'm not going to let them besiege us if I can help it." Everyone nodded; the position was impregnable, but badly supplied. Once closely invested, the Civil Government army would be swamped if it tried to come out and starved if it did not. "We'll draw up a battle line here." There were two kilometers or more of clear ground to their front, only a few shaws and the odd dip in the ground to provide cover. "Spread the infantry across in a shallow crescent. When the cavalry comes in we'll dismount two battalions on each flank and keep one in reserve."
He pointed. "Anchor your right flank on that," he said, pointing to a deep ravine to their west. "But be careful, use your best—I don't like the look of the ground beyond it"—broken, and largely covered with olives and cork oak. "Left flank over on the ravine opposite." That one was open to the east, but the western bank was higher, a sheer clay wall. "Grammeck, guns in three bastions—left, right, and center. Quickly, Messers, if you please."
"Ser," the bannerman said, leaning forward behind him and pointing. Three riders were coming across the open ground, slanting in from the west.
They pulled up and saluted: A sergeant and two troopers, with the sand-dune and palm-tree shoulder blazon of the 18th Komar overlain with its motto: Dehfenzo Lighon, Defend the Faith.
"Zur," the sergeant said. "Message frum Major Zahpata." He handed it over.
Raj unfolded the paper. Am heavily engaged and my flank is exposed by withdrawal of first column, it said. Request permission to withdraw more quickly as my left is in danger of encirclement.
"Sergeant, verbal reply: inform Major Zahpata that the western and northern Squadron forces have been completely routed. I'm bringing up Poplanich's Own to rally the first column. He's to fall back as slowly as possible and bloody their noses. Understood?"
"Zur!" They swung off, leaning over the necks of their galloping dogs.
"On our way, Ehwardo," Raj said.
"Walk-march . . . trot"
Suzette fell in beside him as they broke into a lope toward the highest and nearest of the dust clouds. "Is it going very badly?" she said. Harbie whined, catching his mistress's anxiety.
"No," he replied, slightly surprised and blinking away one of Center's maps. "It just isn't going according to plan."
* * *
" . . . and I take full responsibility, Sir," Mekkle Thiddo finished.
Raj looked at him, and then at the action ahead. The Slashers and Poplanich's Own were in line on either side of the guns; the steady crashing of their volleys complemented the louder bark of the field pieces. The vast mass of the Squadrones had stopped cold and was withdrawing from the suddenly extended front. Parties of the enemy edged forward on either flank; officers ran down behind the firing line, indicating new aim-points with their drawn sabers.
Raj looked over to his right: the remaining four hundred or so of the Cuirassiers were standing in solid ranks, and Suharto seemed to have them well enough in hand. Dalhouse and the others probably wouldn't stop until their dogs died.
"Runner. C Company is to face right and fire in support," he said. The man dashed off and the outermost of Poplanich's companies came to and stood, shuffling backward and pivoting on the left like a door swinging back to face the Squadron units lapping around them. "Runner, to Senior Captain Suharto. Prepare to see that party of barbs off."
BAM. BAM. BAM. C Company had opened fire, rifles coming up and dropping like the motion of a loom's shuttle.
There were four noblemen's banners among the Squadron flanking party, and about eight hundred men; two of the glittering flags went down under the hail of 11mm rounds. Through the growing haze of smoke and dust, he could see men pitching out of the saddle, and the whole body bent and curved a little away from the fire. The Cuirassiers' banner dipped toward him in acknowledgment and readiness; he waved his arm around his head twice and chopped it forward to the right. A trumpet sounded and the Cuirassiers moved from stand to walk, from walk to trot. The sabers came out with a uniform snap and rested on their shoulders, then forward as they rocked into a gallop and swung wide right to charge; the volley fire continued in their support almost to the moment of impact. The disordered ranks of the Squadrones shattered under the impact of the boot-to-boot charge, only a few of them managing to fire their flintlocks; then the Civil Government soldiers wheeled and galloped back, emptying more saddles.
They cantered back into place, bloodied sabers in their hands, and dressed ranks again. Raj nodded; Senior Captain Suharto was taking his words to heart.
"Runner to Major Zahpata," he said, pulling out his notepad: Major, I expect the Squadron to fall into disorder for a short period. If you can break contact easily, pull back to the left flank of the main position.
"No, Mekkle," he went on, "I'm not relieving you. Quite the contrary—you kept your head when all about were losing theirs, and turned what could have been an unmitigated disaster into a mitigated one." Although when I find Major Dalhouse . . . Thiddo looked stunned; until then he had been a mixture of relief at having someone to take the responsibility off his shoulders, and dread of what his leader would say.
Raj leaned forward and slapped him on the shoulder. "If you'd lost those guns and come barreling into camp with the barbs on your heels . . . well, you didn't. My friend, this is not a business in which elegant plans buy you any yams. The ability to retrieve matters when someone screws up is much more important.
"Now," he said, viewing the field.
They would have to pull back soon; someone on the other side was finally realizing they were in a meeting engagement. The Squadron host was clumping into four main groups—what he could see of it—with the transport train far behind pulling into a classic Military Government-style circular wagon-fort. And dismounted Squadrones were working their way to the east through the patch of broken country that was protecting his left. Fairly soon they'd be through it—and he couldn't afford to be pinned. Raj massaged the back of his neck under the leather and chainmail guard; the day—he glanced up; about 1100 hours, morning rather—had been a real surf-ride. In garrison, we complain about the boredom. But when you consider the alternative . . .
"Sir?" Thiddo asked. "Ah, I expected—"
"You can't," Raj went on, "let yourself get too focused on a plan, Mekkle. Actually things are going rather well. We've lost, oh, two hundred men"—da Cruz's face came before him for a moment, and he pushed it away—"including those who just buggered off, and how many do you think the Squadron's lost? Two thousand? Four? Six?"
They both glanced to the front. It was difficult to tell through the drifting mass of powder smoke, but there was a positive carpet of unmoving figures on the ground out beyond the Civil Government line. Another series of volleys slapped out, hiding the Squadron front for a moment; smoke billowed from the enemy, too far away to do any real damage.
"And more important, they're still coming on the way we want them to. Notice anything about them, Mekkle?"
"Ummm—they do tend to react like a bull stung by a pihkador, sir. Confirms what we were told."
"Hit them in the nose and you can lead them by it," Raj nodded. A trooper came up with a flagstaff; the banner on it was pure white. "I've got something for you to take to the Admiral," he went on, reaching for a bag tied to his saddle "that will concentrate his mind even more. Yes, things are not going badly at all. Trumpeter, call cease fire."
* * *
The soldier arched his back as the Renunciate cut away the remains of his boot. Sticky blood had pooled inside the leather, and it slid out in a gelatinous mass. One of the assistants wilted and began to sag; Fatima cor Staenbridge reached out and shook her sharply.
"Scrub," the nun said; the pants-leg had been slit far back. "Come on, I've got to see what I'm doing here."
The soldier—the boy—was glassy-eyed from opium, but it was dangerous to give too much when shock was involved. Fatima gripped his wrist and hand more firmly and leaned over him, smiling; it seemed to make it easier for them to bear, if someone was looking at them. At least there aren't many. A Descotter trooper with a shot-broken thigh right at the beginning, and a few more ever since; they had even had time to treat some enemy wounded. Not like Sandoral; she remembered the tubfuls of amputated legs and arms at the bottoms of the operating tables . . . just a trickle so far. The word was that the north force was almost to the city. Soon they would be there, under the walls and the cannon. Gerrin and Barton would be there.
The boy with the mangled foot had a shield-shaped shoulder—flash with crossed sabers over a black numeral "5," and the motto Hell o Zpalata above—"Hell or Plunder." The 5th Descott Guards.
"What's your name, soldier?" she asked.
His eyes darted to her, and his teeth showed in something like a smile; they were yellow-white in the muddy shock-molded brown of his face.
"Hylio Carasyn," he gasped.
"You're in the 5th, aren't you?" she said.
"Yis, ma'am," he said. A probe clicked down by the foot of the table, and his hand gripped hers until the bones creaked; it was his saber hand, and he was a strong young man. "Yer t'Major's lady, eh?"
She nodded. "What happened up there?" she said. Allah—Spirit of Man—she prayed silently, remembering Foley on the table, his ruined hand . . . Please, let anyone die but them.
The soldier was panting, and his eyes slid out of focus. "Barbs," he muttered. "Gunmen, swordsmen. Barbs, thousands, I shot 'im and he—nnnnnnn!"
"Ah, got it," the stern-faced Renunciate said, her arms glistening red to the elbows. The probe held a misshapen piece of lead a little larger than a pea. "Clamp there, move sharp!"
There was a clatter at the door of the tent "Mediko, mediko! More of 'em!"
Young Hylio Carasyn had fainted. Fatima put her hand on the sweat-cold forehead. You don't know any more of what's going on than I do, poor baby, she thought
The doctor looked up. "Get me that damned catgut," she said, frowning. The assistant handed her a curved needle. "Time to close this one up."
* * *
"Took them long enough," Raj grunted, raising his binoculars. He had drawn a little ahead of the group around his banner, messengers, and aides.
The firing had finally stopped, along the front at least. Wind drifted the smoke away; unfortunately, it also showed the true size of the Squadron war-host again, looking all the more terrifying because it had hauled itself together. It would show them how few their enemies in this particular skirmish had been, as well—which might be either good or bad, depending on how bright they were. Raj turned and looked down the ranks. The men were resting stolidly, faces and hands black with burnt powder; a few were taking sips from their canteens and carefully spraying a fine mist into the open breeches of their rifles, then wiping them with the tails of their coats. Hell on maintenance, but you did what you had to when it came down to cases.
"Did we really have to send Mekkle?" Suzette asked.
"It's a favor," Raj said absently. "I'm demonstrating that he's still trusted. Which," he added quietly, lowering the binoculars for a moment, "might not have been necessary if somebody hadn't interfered in the chain of command this morning."
Suzette looked away. "That was a mistake," she said.
"It was. My heart," he went on more softly, "we're partners, I know that. You were concerned . . . but I don't take unnecessary risks. Don't second-guess me on my specialty, or you will get me killed."
She nodded stiffly, and he raised the glasses again. "And it would be an insult to send a man of no rank to treat with the Admiral," he went on.
The group around the Admiral had advanced a little to meet the party of Civil Government troops under the white flag. Admiral Auburn was a tall portly man, with a spray of gray-brown beard covering half his chest, and small sapphires and diamonds on the ends of the leather thongs that fringed his jacket. He glittered as he moved, leaning forward with a hand cupped to his ear. It was like watching a puppet show; the big barbarian reared back in the stirrups, shaking his head. Probably refusing to believe his brother Conner's been defeated and killed, Raj estimated.
Mekkle was handing over the canvas bag. Auburn ripped it open and sat gasping for a moment, while men recoiled all around it and his dead brother stared at him in eternal surprise. Then he dropped the head, fumbled for it as it bounced off his saddle and fell to the ground, rolling. Buried his hands in his beard and began to scream, half-falling as he slid from his dog's back to the object it was sniffing curiously. Screaming and moaning, he rocked back and forth over the head, and one of his hands came free with a handful of hair in it. There was chaos around his banner, as men turned to each other, shouting into faces, waving their weapons. Sections of the Squadron line surged forward; the news spread outward as ripples did from a stone dropped in a pond.
Good man, Raj thought, as Mekkle and the trooper carrying the flag of truce turned and began to canter back to the Civil Government line. Then he stiffened as dozens of weapons leveled behind the envoy.
"Son of a bitch—son of a bitch!" he shouted, as they fired in a flicker of smoke-puffs with red spearhead cores of fire.
The flag of truce went over as the trooper and his dog collapsed. Mekkle slumped forward over the neck of his dog; the animal laid back its ears and ran, howling, one paw flinching every time it struck the ground. Raj and his color-party were galloping forward too; they met the wounded man a hundred meters in front of the Civil Government line. The wounded dog crouched, and Horace sank to the ground beside it, snuffling and licking at the injury. Raj took Thiddo's shoulders, easing him to the earth; Suzette ran up with her medical box, then halted, eyes wide. The shotgun blasts of the Squadron had pulped the muscle off the young officer's back, and the yellow bone of spine and ribs snowed through it, along with loops of gut. The flow of blood was slowing even as they watched.
Raj leaned over the dying man. Thiddo's mouth moved, but nothing came out of it but a spatter of blood that flecked across the general's face. Dust from near-misses spurted around them both as Raj set the dead man's head back on the ground and rose; several of the others flinched slightly as he turned back toward the enemy.
"Get a record of those banners," he said, pointing to the standards of the noblemen grouped around the Admiral. The whole Squadron force seemed to be paralyzed for the moment. "Get a record of every one of them, because afterward I want to identify them."
The Admiral was still kneeling by his brother's head, wailing and beating the ground with his fists; many of the men around him were doing likewise, or gashing their faces with their knives as a sign of mourning. Their howls were nearly as loud as those of their dogs, and as inhuman.
Children, Raj thought. Vicious grown-up children, and nothing but the Army to keep them from wiping out all the adults in the world.
in the universe, Center said. a universe of vicious children for us to school, as we will do in time.
"And now," Raj went on, "Major Thiddo bought us some valuable time. I suggest we use it."