Warlord S. M. Stirling and David Drake



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Chapter Twelve


The sun was nearly overhead and a little to their west; Raj squinted into it as he and his command group rode down the front of the Expeditionary Force's position. His personal banner dipped each time he passed a battalion standard, and he saluted; the men raised a rolling cheer that swelled and pulsed in his wake. At each he stopped for a moment.

"It's all very simple now, lads," he said for the tenth time. "They run up to us, we shoot them down. Mind the orders, keep the muzzles down, and everything will go fine. Spirit of Man with you!"

The cheer swelled and then died down again as he galloped back to his post on the west corner of the formation, next to Poplanich's Own. The palisade of the overnight camp was just visible behind, and closer were the light two-wheeled ambulance carts. It was intensely hot in the early afternoon. Insects whirred, and a bellows sound came from the rear, where the dogs lay and panted. The men were down on one knee in orderly rows with their rifles held in the right hand; sweat darkened the blue tunics. The air smelled of it, and dust; on the border of sight to the east, the sea added its tang of salt.

"Here they come," Ehwardo Poplanich said.

"Took their time," Raj replied, looking at his watch: 1300. "Better than an hour."

He looked left and east, along the Civil Government position. It stretched between the two ravines like a huge shallow C; the infantry in the center had had time to dig sketchy fieldworks, throwing up a meter-high ridge of dirt. With the front rank prone and the second rank kneeling that would give them excellent cover if the enemy came close enough to hit anything. The guns were more elaborately protected; each had a man-high bulwark in front of it with a V-shaped cutout for the muzzle, and a sloped earth bank behind it so that it would rise with the recoil and run back into the battery. Three battalions of dismounted cavalry under Hadolfo Zahpata held the seaward flank; the other four were anchoring the right wing, under Raj's personal eye, although that included the still-shaky Cuirassiers and Novy Haifa. There had been time to bring water carts up, as well; water the dogs and men, issue bread, stack spare ammunition close at hand but protected by sandbags. Time to have the priests parade down the front, sprinkling each banner with holy water and censing it with fragrant smoke.

The horizon to the south turned black as the Squadron came on—black edged with winking brightness from their weapons and flags. There was a rumble that seemed to shake the earth, the paws of more than forty thousand dogs pounding the dirt; dust towered into the sky over the barbarian host. They slowed as they approached, less from caution than from the way the terrain was squeezing them down like a wedge. Those in the front were nobles with a reputation for valor, or the desire for it. They were there of their own free will; the Admiral could direct their advance, but not stop it. The Civil Government line looked frail and still by comparison, delicate and structured as a snowflake.

Raj leveled his binoculars. The area in front of his position was bare, except for the poles marked with colored rag that gave the distances.

"Major Dinnalsyn," he said. "Commence firing for effect at four thousand meters on my signal. Don't get fancy; rapid fire at the foremost edge of their formation." The artillery chief nodded.

"Colonel Menyez?" Raj asked.

"Everything in order, General," the infantry commander said. "All sights have been checked, and set initially at nine hundred meters; the men've been drilled in readjusting, and aim-points established. I'd like to have had more firing-range work—the fisc has been shorting ammunition training allowances for years—but they'll do."

"Go to it, then," Raj said.

The three of them slapped fists, with Ehwardo Poplanich joining in a little awkwardly; then the others dispersed to their commands. An aide handed Raj a sandwich of roast beef and mustard; Horace looked over his shoulder at his master and whined plaintively.

"Shut up, you son of a bitch, you were fed this morning," Raj said, then relented and tossed him a scrap. It was only a token to the huge jaws that slammed down on it, but dogs liked to share and have eye contact while they ate. The cavalry mounts were all pretty frisky these days, what with plenty of bones and offal to go with their mash of boiled grain and beans.

Young Ludwig Bellamy spoke; he was watching the Squadron host advance with his hands white-knuckled on the reins, but his voice was calm.

"Your warriors must be men of iron, to watch that and not fear," he said, glancing sidelong at the silent ranks of the Civil Government battalions. Nothing moved except the bright silk flags crackling in the breeze from the sea, and dogs shifting restlessly from foot to foot under mounted officers.

Raj grunted bitter laughter through a mouthful, and swallowed.

"The only warriors here," he said, waving backward with the sandwich, "are there"—he indicated the battalion equivalent of Stalwarts and Halvaardi held in reserve for the unlikely event of a hand-to-hand melee—"and there" sweeping across the southern horizon.

The Squadrones had begun to chant, paced by drums and oxhorn trumpets: "Ha-ba-da, ha-ba-da, ha-ba-da."

"My men are not warriors, they're soldiers, Messer Bellamy—and they're about to demonstrate the difference." He finished the sandwich and wiped his mouth. "While the Squadron is doing exactly what I've been trying to get them to do in the week since we landed."

"What else could they do?" the young man asked.

Center offered map displays of alternatives, but Raj knew them well already. Center had always given its human tool the whole truth, the ways that a plan could fail—inevitably more numerous than the ways it could succeed.

"Leave enough men here to pin me and go around," Raj said. "I don't have enough troops to divide my forces; I'd have to backpedal, and then they could do it again and again until I was trapped against the walls of Port Murchison. The Expeditionary Force is big enough to fight a battle with the Squadron—it isn't big enough to occupy any significant area of land. As long as the Admiral keeps a large force in being and hovers around, I'm stuck—we certainly can't charge them at bayonet-point. I desperately need a battle; the Admiral might well defeat me and force me to withdraw by skillfully refusing one. That he isn't even trying shows that Auburn and his principal advisors are all incompetent."

"But . . ." the Squadron noble tugged at his braids. "You killed Conner Auburn—honor demands that the Admiral attack you! The levy won't follow a commander without honor. And the nobles can't run from a smaller force; their men would laugh at them."

"Exactly," Raj replied, with a grin like a carnosauroid.

I hope. The sandwich lay like a lump of molten lead in his stomach; his mind knew what he said was true, but his gut heard fifty thousand voices howling for his blood. The chanting dropped off a little, and the horns sounded in unison. The Squadron array was divided—somewhat—into three successive groups, "Battles" as they called them. The first seemed to gather itself a kilometer or more away. There was a huge metallic ringing as they pounded musket-barrels and swords on each other, and a shout fit to stun the ear of heaven. They charged, the mass of the first Battle stretching like warm toffee over the ground.

"GITTEM, GITTEM!"

Center reeled off ranging figures before his eyes as he watched; he raised one hand. The Squadrones had rocked into a full gallop, a mass of fangs and faces and long flashing swords looming up out of white dust, bellowing deeper than thunder. The glowing-green numbers scrolling over his vision came up to 4100, and his hand slashed down. An aide touched his cigarette to the match-paper of a signal rocket, and it arched over the empty space to the center of the C. There it burst in a green pop. And twenty-seven field guns fired within half a second of each other; a great POUUMMMMPH of noise that hit the lungs from the inside, echoing slightly with the distance between the three artillery redoubts.

With hideous perfection the shells airburst directly over the Squadron line. A thousand men and dogs died fractions of a second later as shrapnel sleeted through the close-packed ranks. The men behind had no chance of avoiding the sudden bloody shambles ahead of them; massive six-deep pileups of dogs and men blossomed, the collisions killing nearly as many as the explosions. The whole galloping mass of Squadrones checked, as if a single beast had stumbled hard.

Raj looked to his right, into the artillery position. The guns had run up the earth ramps the gunners had shoveled behind them; now they hung suspended for a second and rolled forward again to jerk to a halt against wooden chock-blocks. As they did, the gunnery teams jumped in, moving with metronomic precision: breechman to jerk open the lever that swung the block aside, spongeman to swab out the chamber, loader to slam home the next round; even as the breechman swung the crank back up to close the eccentric-screw breechblock, the gun captain was squatting over the trail, sighting. His hands moved and the others spun the elevating screw under the barrel; the muzzle depressed, and the gun captain sprang aside and jerked the lanyard.

This time the sound was much longer, as slight differences in the loading speed of the crews told: A stuttering POUM-POUM-POUM that lasted six seconds or so. Half the shells were airburst and half contact-fused explosive, hammering up tall candles of dirt and flesh from the front of the Squadron line. Clouds of smoke were rising from the artillery emplacements as well, bending over to the right as the breeze from the sea blew them away. The crews had settled into a steady implacable rhythm of three rounds per minute, the pace that preserved barrels and broke armies. Raj raised his binoculars again.

"Yesss . . ."

Those overgrown adolescents in floppy hats were as brave as anyone who ever forked a dog, and it was impossible to actually kill fifty-thousand-odd men, even with massed artillery. The dogs were a different matter; they were already nervous and overstressed from being forced into close contact with strangers, and it took long and careful training to accustom the big animals to the sound of artillery. He saw one turning in circles as the pressure of the cheek-levers in its bridle fought against its determination to turn and run. Then it caught the rider's thigh in its half-meter mouth and ripped him screaming out of the saddle, shook him until he struck the ground in two places. The man behind pressed his blunderbuss to its chest and pulled both triggers, but his own frantic mount dropped and rolled over him before rising to dash off with flapping reins and wet-red saddle.

The Squadron formation shredded away from the rear as men still out of range of the guns let their dogs turn; they had little alternative, with thousands of snarling uncontrolled animals fighting their way back to safety against anything that tried to stop them. Oxhorns blew and flags waved from the group to the rear around the Admiral, as the guns hammered retreat into rout. Only the motionless bulk of the second Battle kept the first formation from charging off the field altogether. Down the line of Civil Government troops there were cheers and ripples as men shook their rifles in the air.

But the sound was quickly quelled. "Damn your eagerness!" Ehwardo Poplanich shouted as the noise reached his battalion. "Silence in the ranks!" Then he took another glance to the front. "Sweet merciful Avatars and the Constellation of Saints," he said, when he lowered his glasses. From the point where the Squadron charge had begun, a thousand meters of ground was carpeted with bodies. Many of them were still moving; a heap of them slid aside as a dog burrowed its way from underneath and hopped three-legged back toward the south. The whimpers and moans were strong enough to reach the Civil Government line, and so was the copper-salt stink of blood and feces.

Raj glanced around. Ah. He's never seen a large-scale pitched battle before, he thought. "Sandoral was worse," he said. "More guns, on both sides."

He studied the enemy. It was difficult to make out details through the smoke and dust, but the wind was freshening. Shouting, waving swords, more horn-calls; he saw one man dismount and shoot his own dog as it cowered and whimpered and tried to lick his face. Others were grouping again on foot around the banners of their chieftains, flags with the skulls of dogs or carnosauroids or men, lofting up through the dust. Warrior after warrior snapped the sheath of his sword across his knee, and more were dismounting as they reached the second Battle, servants leading strings of dogs off to the flanks and rear.

"They won't turn as easily next time," he said quietly. "They've been shamed."

Ehwardo lit two cigars; Raj took the other gratefully and dragged the smoke down into his lungs. It took a good half-hour for the enemy to prepare; just getting the riderless dogs out of the way was difficult enough.

"Runner, message to Colonel Dinnalsyn," Raj said thoughtfully. "Have case-shot on hand."

"Here they come," somebody murmured.

"GITTEM, GITTEM."

This time the enemy came in some sort of formation, an irregular blunt wedge. Raj focused and saw them tramping stolidly with their heads held rigidly up and hands clutched on swords and muskets. Must be uncomfortable marching in those boots, he thought; the Squadron model was thigh-high and had a pointed heel, designed strictly for the saddle. They roared as they came, chanting and gradually picking up the pace, trying to work themselves into the famous barbarian frenzy of the Military Governments. A few in the front ranks were already glaze-eyed and frothing, gnawing on their weapons and throwing aside their clothes to run forward naked.

There must be at least thirty thousand in this wave, Raj thought.

thirty-eight thousand four hundred ± three hundred, Center said.

"GITTEMGITTEMGITTEMGITTEMGITTEMGITTEMGITTEM GITTEM—"

4100 meters.

The general's hand chopped down and the rocket rose. The guns spoke and the Squadrones broke into a run, crouching over in useless but human reflex. Air-bursts blasted circles in the edges of the formation, and explosive rounds hammered into the center of it. Banners fell, and other men caught them up and ran forward; the whole mass of humanity was running forward, more people than the average city in a single block, a thousand men across and thirty deep.

3000 meters.

"Run away, you poor brave silly buggers, run away!" Raj whispered, slowly drawing his saber. "Go home!"

There was a long wave through the enemy as they clambered over the last of the bodies from the first attack and came pounding on across the open ground. The guns were firing faster, as if the teams had caught the contagion of madness. He dropped his binoculars into their case on his belt and fumbled it closed one-handed; there were some things it was better to see no more clearly than you must.

2000 meters.

The giant wedge was more ragged; another two or three thousand down in the last few minutes. Close enough now to see the figures grow from ants to dolls by naked eye, close enough to see contorted mouths and for their roaring almost to drown the shellfire. A quiver ran down the long thin blue line of Civil Government soldiers. Only the guns spoke. The Squadron ranks were packing tighter and tighter as the men on the outside edged in away from the artillery redoubts on either wing.

1500 meters.

"Ready," Raj said, raising his blade. The aide puffed his cheroot and went down on one knee.

1000 meters.

"May the Spirit forgive us," Raj whispered.

900 meters.

"Now," he said in a clear loud voice.

The sword came down in a glittering arc, and Horace danced a half-step sideways. The rocket arched skyward and exploded in a silver dazzle.

Seven thousand men came to one knee and fired. The sound was loud enough to drive needles of pain into the ears.

What happened to the enemy was hidden for an instant by the cloud of flame-shot smoke that erupted from his line. When that parted, he saw that the whole front of the enemy host had vanished; the heavy hollow-point 11mm bullets drove right through bodies and into the men behind. Time seemed suspended, moving in amber honey so slowly he could see the faces of the charging barbarians turn from fury or fear to uncomprehending shock.

Then the second rank of his men stood and fired over the heads of the first. Ahead there were muzzle-flashes and reports along the Squadron front line—what had suddenly become their front line—as men reflexively tried to strike back. Some of the ones in the middle of the formation fired too, into the air or into the backs of the men ahead, as the unreachable death combed them. All of which meant that even if they did get to within a hundred meters of the Civil Government line they would be helpless, since nobody was going to stop for the tedious business of reloading a flintlock in the middle of this.

"They're still coming on," Ehwardo said in disbelief. "All guts, no brains."

Raj stood in the saddle. Directly ahead of him an officer of Poplanich's Own shouted "By half-companies, volley fire!" Others were repeating it all along the line, and a steady column of smoke rose from the riflemen, like a long thin chimney across the face of the battlefield, and a stuttering rattle of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAM underneath it, continuous. Noncoms ran down the lines of the infantry units, pushing rifles down and checking that men were adjusting their sights; most of them were firing blind to verbal direction, into the pall of smoke ahead.

"Oh, the evil, evil bastard," Raj breathed. Behind the engaged Squadron units still more men were dismounting and running forward into the smoke, into the artillery and massed rifle fire. Admiral Auburn was sending in the last Battle. The bulk of the Squadron troops were slowing; exactly the wrong thing to do, but inevitable as terror balanced and fought against courage. The rifle-fire beat on, under the steady roaring of the guns; more and more of the enemy were falling flat and trying to crawl forward, or taking shelter behind bodies.

400 meters.

A new sound from the artillery, long PAAAMMM reports as they switched to case-shot. No bursting charge, just a giant shotgun shell with hundreds of half-ounce lead balls ahead of the powder . . . they whistled through the air with a malignant hum, like giant wasps, and where they struck they carved pathways through the packed Squadron fighters, as clean as wedges cut by a giant invisible knife. Raj walked Horace forward between two companies of Poplanich's Own, coughing with the powder-smoke and peering out. The Squadron attack had stalled . . . or rather, it was acting like a stick of butter thrust slowly onto a hot frying pan, melting away at the front despite the pressure thrusting it forward from behind.

A last knot of men ran out of the smoke, grouped around a banner. The Captain to Raj's left barked a command—probably unheard in this racket—and swung his sword. Muzzles turned; the next volley ripped half the men around the flag off their feet. They came on, feet pumping; more fell, until there was only one to scoop the banner out of the dirt and continue with bullets kicking clods out of the dirt all around him. He staggered, red spots blossoming on his chest, came on again, sank to his knees and thrust the iron spike of the flag into the ground and slid down it, arterial blood pouring out of his mouth. Raj sat watching as bullets snapped the flagstaff and the folds dropped over the last man to hold it.

The steel of his saber tapped against Horace's stirrup-iron. Three hundred meters, he thought. I doubt any of them got closer than that.

Behind, through the gaps in the smoke, he could see the Squadron forces disintegrating. They had been locked for a moment as the last ranks trapped those in front when they turned to flee, but shell fire had knocked holes in that wall. Now the last Battle were fleeing as well, some still mounted, individuals and blocks scattering away. Panic spread faster than ripples in water, and in moments scarcely a hundred Squadrones were facing the Civil Government line. Hundreds more died as bullets and shrapnel took them in the back, as they ran sobbing with exhaustion and fear over the bodies of the dead.

"Sound rifles cease fire," Raj called.

It spread down the line, faster than the sea breeze pulled away the dirty cotton blanket of smoke. The guns cracked on, hammering the fleeing enemy.

"Sound prepare for general pursuit," he said; that rolled out too, a complex of drums and bugles.

Down the line of infantry orders barked. Men stood, and there was a ten-thousand-fold glitter as the long bayonets snapped onto the bars and cleaning-rod fasteners beneath the barrels. Banners swayed to the front and drums beat; in a long waving front like sea-surf the infantry advanced at the walk. A staccato rattle of aimed individual fire swept out ahead of it, marksmen and NCOs shooting and reloading as they advanced. Around Raj the cavalry line dissolved as men raced back for their dogs and slid their rifles into the scabbards before the right stirrup: There was a scent of scorched hide over the sulfur stink, as the glowing metal burned the liners; then a massive jingling as twenty-five hundred riders formed by battalions behind him: He heeled Horace forward as the banner of Poplanich's Own moved up to one side.

"Sound the charge!"

At both ends of the Civil Government line sabers slithered free by the thousand, a blinding mirror-brightness.

His sword swept up and then down, pointing to the dispersing mass of the enemy.

"Charge!"

* * *

"Coward! Whelp! You fled, you fled!" the women screamed at the defeated Squadron warriors.

Many of the Squadron levy had brought their households along with them to share the victory, leaving them in the wagon-fort a few kilometers behind the line. Now the women stood on the wagon-beds with their black shawls fluttering, striking clumsily at the fugitives who had made it this far, at their husbands and brothers and sons; they had swords and clubbed muskets in their hands, or stock-whips.

"Coward, coward!"

Some of the wagons were burning, and women threw themselves into the flames. Others cut their children's throats before stabbing themselves, or hanged themselves from the tall wagon-poles with their children at their heels. Raj passed a family strung up thus like obscene fruit; beyond them, inside the great circle of wagons, men who had thrown away their weapons were rolling under the feet of the milling frantic oxen to die. Their bawling covered the screams, an undertone to the roar of flames and the occasional crackle of shots. A field-gun went bouncing by, on its way to some pocket of holdouts.

WHUMP. A powder-wagon blew up a thousand meters across the fort, and a globe of orange fire strobed for seconds across retinas in counterpoint to the ringing in ears stunned by the blast.

"Let's get some order here, Spirit-dammit!" he shouted hoarsely, waving the revolver at a clump of cavalry. "Get these people under control!"

They cantered over and began prying two wagons apart, slashing at the hide bindings with their sabers; one trooper looked up as dead feet brushed his head, swore and cut twice to sever the rope. His comrades shouted curses as they heaved and bodies rained down on their heads. Infantry were already at work inside, rounding up the survivors, stunning and binding; when the wagons were heaved apart a column of prisoners came through at a stumbling run, kicked, prodded with bayonets, and whacked along with rifle butts. A blond girl fell almost at Raj's feet; she would have been very pretty, except for the swelling purple bruise across one side of her face. She spat at his feet and stumbled off with the rest, holding a torn blouse across her breasts as a shoulder pushed her.

"You, Captain," Raj said. The officer saluted. "Get more of these wagons dragged apart or we'll lose them all to the fire. Move the oxen out but keep them bunched. And for the merciful Saints' sake, keep the men in hand!"

Ludwig Bellamy was looking white, even in the ruddy light of the fires and the dust-shrouded afternoon sun.

"Your father made the right decision," Raj said, sweeping his pistol in a circle over the scene. His voice was a little louder than need be, even with the level of background noise. "He knew the Squadron was going to lose. This is what defeat is, Messer Bellamy. Avoid it."

Raj heeled Horace into a canter, and the command-group and the Scouts followed, past growing roped-off squares where Squadron prisoners sat under guard with their hands behind their heads. The fires were dying as the soldiers pulled the wagons away; other men were spreading the tilts as groundsheets and piling loot in a rough-sort, separate heaps for fabrics and weapons and whatnot. Many of M'lewis's men were casting longing glances at the wagons—a sack was one of the rare pleasures of a soldier's life—but their Lieutenant was there . . . and Messer Raj had a name for seeing his men right.

He halted as Muzzaf Kerpatik rode up with a platoon of the Slashers: The men dropped back as they halted their mounts nose-to-tail, and Raj leaned forward to listen. The little southerner was not formally a fighting man, but his face was black with powder smoke under his cap and puggaree, and the Komar-made pepperpot pistol stuck through his sash had seen use this day.

"I have the Admiral's wagons under close guard," he said. Leaning closer and speaking in a whisper: "I estimate the value of what we found at two hundred twenty thousand gold FedCreds, Messer Raj—and he escaped with the best of it. Many of his private papers were left, as well."

Even then Raj shaped a silent whistle. Enough to equip and mount the entire Expeditionary Force, and pay it for a year; that was making war support war with a vengeance! So much for Tzetzas, he thought; the Governor would be very well pleased indeed.

"Also, I have these men," he said. Raj looked at the column of prisoners behind the Slashers, roped neck and neck. Ordinary-enough Squadron warriors, from their looks; a few had the rich equipage of high nobles. Then the Slasher Captain rode up; it was Pehdro Belagez, the new commander. He carried a Squadron banner over his shoulder, and swung it down for Raj to see.

"These Ihorantes dogs are the ones who killed our commander under a flag of truce, mi Heneral," he said in a gentle voice, with an almost kittenish tone. "Messer Kerpatik brought us to them as they tried to escape with their sows and spawn, for which the Spirit of Man of the Stars will shine upon him. What is your will concerning them, my General?"

"The families? Slave market."

"And the men?" Belagez asked. The troopers leaned forward in their saddles: Mekkle Thiddo had been a popular commander.

Raj looked at the big burly figures who stood with downcast eyes in their bonds.

"Crucify them," he said.


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