The five troopers jogging by with rock-filled packs held their rifles at arm's length as they chanted in unison; the sergeant behind them was keeping his mount to a slow lope, whistling merrily and occasionally giving a crack of his dogwhip. The punishment detail looked in bitter envy at those whose shortcomings had been in their personal gear or harness rather than their weapons; those lucky bastards were only forced to carry the big tin bowls of soyamash from the cookfires out to the dog lines. Servant's work, generally, but a much milder penalty than running until your lungs burned and your legs turned to rubber and your feet blistered in the riding boots and your arms felt like they were going to drop off . . . and then you did a normal day's work.
After cleaning your gear, of course. Now that the 5th Descott Guards had been two weeks on the move, the number of men caught out by the snap inspections was falling fast.
The rest of the Battalion stood easy by their mounts, grinning at the miscreants or calling an occasional comment. It was no skin off their asses if the new CO was hard-nosed, and they were heading out where mistakes didn't mean a noncom reaming you out, they meant getting seriously fucked. And everyone who was depending on you as well. The dogs, more pragmatic even than their masters, concentrated on the big five-kilo loads of boiled soya flour. There were enough whining complaints at the quality to keep the troopers busy soothing and rubbing ears and scratching ruffs; in East Residence it was easy and cheap to buy bones and offal to add to the ration. A cavalry trooper was supposed to find his own food and his mount's out of his pay, which on the move meant basics only.
"Right, gentlemen," Raj said. The other officers were there, and one or two noncoms he had had his eye on for possible detached duty. A Battalion in garrison was an administrative unit, and had no regular staff . . . and a commander needed men he could rely on, no less than a Vice-Governor. "We're leading off today, but I don't think that will be a problem."
They all looked over to the 2nd's camp, which was barely stirring. A fair number of the troopers were up, many working on their uniforms. The Gendarmerie were beautifully equipped; their jackets and tunics of the best fine-combed bleached wool, boots and harness of supple iridescent sauroid leather from the northern steppes. The neck guards of their helmets were sauroid leather as well, nearly as strong as chain mail and much lighter, and they were reinforced with studs of brass or silver. The officers competed in their men's turnout, of course, so many of the helmets were silvered; one platoon had theirs gilded, and the privilege of wearing plumes was generally granted. The quality of their arms was unsurpassed in all the Civil Government; glass-beaded match rifles with stocks inlaid in flamewood and Torsauroid tooth, drawn-brass cartridges, Kolobassi watered steel sabers and bayonets.
Their dogs were all pedigreed Alsatians from the Governor's private stud; very impressive on the Field of War drill ground, quartering and leaping in unison and passing in line as they did dressage practice five mornings a week. Half the children in the city perched on roofs and trees to watch.
There was an explosion of yips and snarls from their lines; two of the dogs were fighting over their mash bowls, rearing and lunging on their checkreins, snaking heads down for a leg-grip and then rising to wrestle with their forelegs while their teeth clashed. A servant ran up with a bucket of water and pitched it at the combatants; they broke apart, but one snapped at the attendant, managed to grab him by the thigh. A trooper sprang in and began hammering at the dog's head with the butt of his whip; by the time it released the moaning groom, his leg was dangling by a thread. None of them thought that the tourniquet his friends applied would do much good.
Highbreds are like that, sometimes,Raj thought judiciously. Testy.It was the inbreeding. Not all of them, of course: most were like any Alsatians—lazy, happy, puppy-friendly doofus-dogs, very trainable and as likely to lick an enemy as bite him. It was a pity that crosses between the basic breeds produced only sterile mules. Legend said the ancients had fixed them with their unFallen powers.
"No, I don't think they'll be bumping our butts on the road," Kaltin Gruder said. He was not wearing his shimmerstone earring this morning, but his uniform was noticeably more spruce than the others. He finished the hard roll he was gnawing and dusted his hands. "All that brightwork takes a mort of polishing."
"Unlikely," Raj agreed. The 5th's personal servants and camp followers were striking tents and bundling gear, quickly if messily; even hookers who wanted to stay on in the Battalion's rear echelon had realized they could not earn all their keep on their backs under the New Order of Captain Whitehall.
"Well, gentlemen, today we'll do basic fire and movement, by platoon and company, and a Battalion movement from line of march into column as per a meeting engagement in the afternoon."
"Sir?" Gerrin Staenbridge spoke, giving his curly black hair a final vigorous scratch before donning his helmet. "Were you planning on grading?"
"Of course," Raj said. Performance was improving rapidly but unevenly, and you had to know your weak points.
"I think a little sporting proposition would improve the mens' spirits. Hambone and stick, as it were."
"Hmmm." Raj flashed the other man a smile; he was doing better and better, now that he was waking up. Perhaps he would be a Captain himself now, with more ambition or better connections.
"Well, let's say . . . double ration of wine and no sentry go to the winning platoon. And—" he turned to the clump of NCO's. "Master Sergeant, from now on we'll be pitching camp in hollow-square formation, baggage in the center. Establish a crapground for the dogs, as well." The wind was bringing them unmistakable evidence that such had not been done here. "Losing platoon polices it before we pull out." He slapped one fist into the other, tightening his gloves. "To the day's work, gentlemen."
* * *
The 5th Descott was trotting in column of twos down the little farmlane. There was an orchard to their left; to the right, an open flat pasture stretching a hundred and fifty meters. It had been mown for hay recently, and the smell was heady-sweet in the afternoon sun. The field was bordered by a rise, a terrace of the alluvial plain marking an old shoreline of the Hemmar in some age long before men came to Bellevue. It was in heavy forest, oak and wild cherry and pine and native thongtree, tall reddish-ochre things with smooth bark and a cluster of thin whippy branches on top, big sword-shaped leaves set like feathers along the edges of each.
"—to the right, fire mission, wheel-halt."
"Company—" the unit commanders relayed it; the men kept their pace. There was an imperceptible slowing in the manifold thudding of dogs' pads on the dusty dark-brown earth of the lane. Cavalry mounts were bred for intelligence, and most knew the drillbook nearly as well as their riders. The trumpeter called it out as well, brassy and cheerful in the slanting sunlight. Two weeks travel from the Capital had tightened drill considerably.
"Right face, wheel-halt!"
The dogs stopped, sinking their haunches toward the ground and bracing their column-thick forelegs, then whipped around to the right in half their own body lengths. Or tried to; some of the troopers had been a little late or early with the crucial rein signals. There were collisions, the heavy thud sounds of thousand-pound wardogs meeting unexpectedly. Raj had his watch out, the second hand sweeping inexorably as the men jumped from the saddle with barely time enough for the mounts to stop. Many tumbled, shouts of pain and clatter of falling rifles; a shot cracked out, and Master Sergeant da Cruz's lips tightened. Raj did not envy the luckless trooper who had been riding with a round up the spout and, worse, the safety off.
"Ragged, ragged," the noncom cursed as the units formed in a staggered line along nearly a thousand meters of roadway; like two lines of dashes, the rear covering the empty spots in the front. The dogs dropped to their bellies, lying flat while their riders aimed over their backs. "Three minutes, that's ragged,try that with Colonials and we're fucking dead.Ser." The Master Sergeant had less of the nasal twang of Descott in his voice than most of the other ranks; a surprisingly well educated man, if you could get him to talk.
"Well, we're here to give them some polish, aren't we?" Raj said mildly. The exercise was supposed to be a response to a charge from the treeline. The crucial thing was to make the zone of beaten ground as wide as possible, to break the momentum of shock action before the enemy could get home with cold steel. Such a charge was more likely with the western barbarians of the Military Governments, who had what amounted to a religious reverence for edged weapons, but Colonial dragoons would jump you fast enough if they could.
The platoons were sounding off as they came ready; Staenbridge was noting the times on his noteboard. Raj waited until the last hailed in, before he pressed the stem of his watch.
"Call it five minutes," he said. "Down by half from where we were first day out, but not good enough . . . volley fire on the treeline; by platoons, four rounds." He raised his field glasses to his eyes and focused on the edge of the trees, where bushes grew thick between the trunks.
"Battalion, treeline target—" the Master Sergeant's voice carried easily, raised two octaves to pierce the ambient noise and propelled by his deep highlander's chest. The trumpeter duplicated it between phrases, and the noncoms down the battalion front were like multiple echoes.
"Volley fire, four rounds. Load."
A giant rattling click, that lasted far too long. Raj turned his head aside for a moment. The field gun with the 5th was setting up on the crown of the road behind the troops, a few meters to the left of where the command group sat their mounts about the banner. A 75mm rifle, standard issue, with a six-dog team and caisson, a breechloader with chest-high wheels. The crew were in uniforms of a darker blue; they were Area Command troops, detached for this duty. They moved smartly, swinging the long barrel of the cast-steel piece toward the putative target, letting the steel pole trail thump to the dirt. The gunner squatted over the trail and sighted through the opened breech and down the barrel, standard for point-blank work. The shell clanked home just as the riflemen were ready.
There should have been a rolling crash down the line, a separate BAM from each platoon. Instead there was a staccato stuttering kkt-kkkt-kkkt,overlapping bangs. He watched the treeline carefully; the bushes were thrashing as if caught in a high wind, but far too many branches were pattering down from as high as four meters up. Raj's teeth showed beneath the binoculars. Some people were not adjusting their sights properly. Some people were going to be sorry and sore.
PUMPF.The field gun cut loose, adding its long plume of dirty-white smoke to the clouds puffing up along the firing line. The shell burst neatly at the edge of the forest, and a medium-sized pine quivered, swayed and fell outward with slowly gathering momentum.
"Reload." The process was quicker this time. "Volley fire, fire."
The platoons opened up again and this time the sound was more like the BAM-BAM-BAM that it should have been.
Reload . . . fire.Reload . . . fire.The fourth volley was almost acceptably crisp, except that a lone shot rang out several seconds after the rest.
The Master Sergeant made a sound that would have done credit to an angry wardog. "Get me that man's name,"da Cruz shouted into the ringing silence. There were muffled coughs as the slight breeze carried the cloud of powder smoke back across the road; for a few moments it was dense enough to hide the prone men and dogs from the mounted officers.
"We'll have to do better than this," Raj said neutrally.
"Fire in the hole!" called the gunner; his team had rolled the gun back into batter after its recoil. Raj glanced over to him: "Give me an airburst just short of the treeline," he said; that was a real test of skill.
The gunner swung the crank that opened the breech and removed the round; taking a small wrenchlike tool from his belt, he fastened it to the point of the shell and twisted three careful turns. The fuse was dual-purpose. It would explode on contact, or when a perforated brass tube of powder burned past an outlet into the body of the bursting charge. The tool rolled the tube up or down to vary the length of time that took . . . but the speed of combustion was not entirely uniform.
The gunner rammed the shell home and cranked the breach closed, stepped aside and jerked the lanyard. The gun recoiled, rolling almost across the road to the ditch; there was an instant of ripping canvas sound, and a burst of black and off-white ten meters short of the trees. An irregular circle of alfalfa beneath the airburst flattened, ripped by the shredded iron of the shell casing. Raj nodded; some of the troopers winced. Air-burst shrapnel was something you could not guard against, it killed with the impersonal arbitrariness of lightning.
"Hey!" someone shouted. "Sicklefeet!"
Surprised, Raj brought his glasses up again. Yes, sicklefeet, a pack of about twenty breaking out of the trees and halting for a moment, bobbing and tense on their long legs. They were native carnosauroids, about twice the size of a large man, bipeds whose snaky two-meter bodies were balanced by an equal length of tapering tail. They held themselves almost horizontal to the ground, the slender forearms with the grasping claws tucked into their chests. The heads were slender as well, with forward looking vertical-slit eyes, and mouths that split three quarters of the length of the skull to reveal back-curving teeth.
Those were for tearing flesh; the killing tools were on the feet, half-meter rear claws that folded up along the shank of the birdlike leg. When muscle and tendon swung them down they were ready to slice and tear; in the wild steppe country a pack of sicklefeet could bring down a giant grazing sauroid, leaping twice their own height to kick slash wounds man-height and arm-deep. The carnivores milled, opening their mouths to hiss-roar at each other, sounding like a locomotive about to explode. Their mouths were shocking pink, holding only teeth and a tongue fixed all along its underside to the floor of the mouth; it was a mechanism for ramming large chunks of meat down the throat, since the creatures could not chew. The mouth was a striking contrast to the mottled reddish-green and dull blue of their pebbled hides, a color that faded to dull cream on their bellies.
"Sicklefeet, all right," Raj said, spitting on the road. The things were still quite common in Descott County, which was mostly rocky pasture or open mountain forest with scattered pockets of arable land; men had killed off the big grazers that were their natural prey, but sicklefeet were thoroughly opportunistic feeders, and had found human livestock a perfectly acceptable substitute. Or humans; Raj remembered watching one bounding up a near vertical cliff with a crofter's toddler clamped in its jaws and still screaming. They were one reason no male and few women in their native hills went beyond hailing distance of their hearths without a gun.
"First of the Second," he said. That was Kaltin Grader's Company; his younger brother Evrard was the lieutenant.
"Kaltin, my compliments to Lieutenant Gruder, and his men are to take those things out. See to it."
"I'm surprised there are any of the filth in close-settled country like this," Gerrin said.
"So am I," Raj said. "But this pack is leaving soon."
The beasts were milling around, moving in darting-swift bounds; some of them were pointing their bodies at the road and flaring the single broad nostril on the ends of their snouts. One of those was a male, and it lifted the crimson skin ruff around its neck and bugled a challenge. No pack back in the County would do that; they had learned to be afraid of men, although they had a disconcertingly sharp notion of how far a rifle could shoot.
Crack.The pack male leaped straight up, an astonishing fifteen-meter jump, landed spinning and snapping at its flank. Crack-crack-crack,thirty rifles on independent fire, in the hands of men whose livelihoods had depended on guarot. The heavy hollow point bullets hammered at the sauroids, punching fist-sized exit holes that gouted blood a darkish brick color. The pack scattered like glass exploding away from a sledge hammer, but none escaped; sicklefeet were open-country creatures, and their instinct was to run rather than shelter in the bush behind them.
Raj looked up at the sun, westering; the Battalion had made more time on the side roads in the course of its training exercises than the transport column would have all day. They would cut back north and west to intersect it.
"Skin them," he said. Sicklefeet heart and liver were quite tasty, and the tail made acceptable stew. The dogs would be glad of the rest. "Then mount up, and we'll head back."
* * *
Raj looked around; it was young Lieutenant Gruder, looking much like a model of his older brother Kaltin in nine-tenths scale, without the self-assurance.
"Just a second, Lieutenant," Raj said, and turned back to the local landowner who had ridden up to the head of the column just as they were about to pull out. "Excuse me, Messer . . ."
"Minh, Messer Captain," the noble replied. A wave to indicate the estate. "Stevin Trahn Minh, Guardian of Twinford."
"Raj Ammenda Halgern da Luis Whitehall," Raj said, using the older long form common at home.
Trahn's mount was a cream-colored wolfhound, worth half a year of Raj's pay; there was an equivalent amount in the jeweled clasp that held a spray of peacock feathers to the side of his beret, and the buckle on his gun belt. His clothes were almost offensively fashionable, long-sleeved tunic and white-silk roll-necked shirt, baggy trousers, tooled boots. The half-dozen guests behind him were similar, and there was a positive train of attendants.
"I must protest, Messer," Minh was continuing, "over this high-handed violation of the game laws."
"Game laws?" Raj rocked back in his saddle, surprise striking like a physical blow. He had been expecting a complaint of damage to the timber, and a demand for compensation. No problem with that, write out a chit and let this big frog learn what size puddle the Ministry of Finance was. Game laws, though?
"Messer, I grant that the forces of the Civil Government have the right to conduct exercises on my land, but this wanton slaughter of my carnosauroids is inexcusable! The Law clearly states that sport hunting on any Messer's land is his and his alone; these sauroids have been preserved at enormous expense and trouble for the sport of my guests." He waved a hand over his shoulder to indicate the bright-clothed assembly. "Those were the last pack between here and the coast range."
"Slaughter?"Raj asked. "Of sicklefeet?Messer, you mean you were keeping those vermin around deliberately?"Raj looked at him, a tall slender man with a narrow face and eyes so black that the pupil merged with the iris; thirty, and in good hard condition, the way you'd expect an enthusiastic hunter to be. "In Descott County, there's a bounty on them."
"Ah. Descott." There was a freight of meaning in the single syllable, in the hard-edged accent of the Home Counties. "Well, Messer Captain,"—he stressed the honorific as if Raj was a member of the gentry class only by courtesy "—this is Harzon County, don't you know."
A slight tension at his back, as the other officers heard the implied insult to their birth County. Isthis man insane?Raj wondered, forcing back the pounding at his temples. No, he decided, watching the eyes that held no trace of fear or doubt; it was the face of someone who could not imagine contradiction or opposition on his own territory. No doubt this Trahn could drop the purchase price of Hillchapel across a gaming table and laugh at the loss, but it required an arrogance of truly interesting proportions to act this way with three hundred killers at Raj's back. A Descott squire could be stiff-necked enough behind the ramparts of his manor . . . but the biggest landowner in the hills wouldn't have this sort of gall.
Of course, they still practiced the vendetta back home, and not just between social equals, either; a sniper behind a rock could vanish into the canyon lands, and who could say it wasn't bandits? There are times I'm glad I come from the backwoods,Raj decided. Lieutenant Gruder's voice broke in again.
"Sir, you should see this." There was something strange in the tone. "We found it when we paunched the last sicklefoot."
Raj turned in the saddle; Horace kept up his curious sniffing at the muzzle of Minh's wolfhound. The other dog was uncertain how to handle it, unwilling to reciprocate and too well-trained to back.
A trooper was riding beside the younger Gruder, his face as green as his commander's. He had a scrap of bloody sauroid hide in his hands, with a lump of something half-digested on it. It took a minute's stare to realize it was a leg; of a child about six, from the size, still wearing the remains of a hide shoe. Home-made, a peasant's moccasin, but with blue beaded flowers on the toe. Raj swallowed, looked from the trooper to Minh.
"Well?" he said.
"I told you, Messer, it was expensive to keep the beasts in the neighborhood." A shrug. "They got two other brats, and chopped up a team of perfectly good plow oxen, and the Spirit of Man of the Stars alone knows how many sheep. Crafty devils, and good sport."
Raj heeled his mount forward, to within hands-reach of the landowner. Horace shouldered into the wolfhound, which tried to push back and rebounded from the bigger dog's weight; the hound's lips were drawn back just enough to show his teeth, and he raised his head to look down on Minh's slender mount. Raj reached out, grabbed the wrist of the hand that had begun to swing the dogwhip towards him.
"Now that, Messer,"the officer said, "was unwise. It might be construed as an assault on a serving officer, highly illegal." The muscles of his forearm tightened; Minh tried to jerk free, found himself in a grip as unyielding as a vise. He looked down, and his eyes widened slightly as he took in the thickness of Raj's wrists; the Descotter was a big man, but they would have been impressive on someone half again his size. The fingers clamped inward, and Raj felt bones bend towards their breaking points.
What? he said inwardly. No disastrous consequences?
none that i can calculate, Center replied dispassionately, act as you think advisable. Minh was snarling himself, white about the lips and sweat beading on his forehead.
"I . . . apologize!" he said tightly. Raj squeezed again, then slacked at the sickening rush of pleasure he felt, as fear invaded the other's eyes for what was probably the first time in decades.
"Accepted, Messer," Raj grated, working his hand. It had been years since he last slipped his tether like that, and he did not like to think about what the consequences had been then. A thought struck him. "Your estate, Messer; it includes a town?" That was a legal term rather than a descriptive one, but it usually meant something bigger than a village.
"Yes," Minh said, with the glazed look of one who cannot believe what is happening to him. "At the ford over the Toluravir." That was a left bank tributary of the Hemmar, and they had to cross in any event, heading south for the passes over the Oxheads and into the border Counties.
"Expect two Battalions and complement, for billeting, sundown tomorrow," he said crisply. Minh's face fell slightly; the soldiers would pay for their supplies, but they would do so in Government script . . . re-claimable in East Residence, two weeks travel away. A banker would take the paper, at a 10% discount. And it would empty storehouses that would otherwise have turned a healthy profit. "Now, if you'll give us the road, Messer?"
* * *
The first thing that Raj noticed as he rode down the expedition's column of march was Suzette stepping down from Captain Stanson's carriage. She waved gaily to him, before turning and extending her hand. Stanson bent over it as she laid fingers on his palm, touching it to his lips; standard courtesy, from an officer to a Messa, a lady of the Messer class. Horace gave a short complaining whuffle-whine as Raj reined in with a brutal jerk at the bridle. Suzette's dog Harbie was tied to the rear hitch of the passenger vehicle on a leading rein.
"Oh, Raj!" his wife said, with a glow. "Messer Stanson so kindly invited me to ride with him and Merta."
"Good evening, Captain Stanson," Raj said shortly. The co-commander of the expedition was leaning back against the curved rear seat of his carriage; the top was down, on this fine spring day. The redheaded girl—Merta,Raj remembered, she had been a seamstress or something of that sort in East Residence—huddled against the other side of the vehicle.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Messer," he continued: a social pleasantry, for which social rather than military rank was appropriate. Stanson looked cool and elegant in his spotless white uniform with the gold trim, slender and tough and pretty as a fangmouth. Raj was acutely conscious of his own state, all the bright-work on his uniform browned with varnish as he had ordered for the 5th, soaked with sweat and sweat-caked dirt besides, smelling of powder and dog. He held out his hand, noticing the rims of black under the nails.
"Oh, no problem," Stanson said, leaning over from the carriage and shaking it. "We had such a marvelous time discussing the old days. We met each other back when, you know."
"Yes," Raj grated. "I know."
Back when Suzette had been a desperate hanger-on to the fringes of polite society, nobody to bring her out for the first season but an aunt as shabby-genteel as herself. While this young spark had been doing the rounds of the parties and spending his father's rents, and Raj . . . Raj had been dividing his time between the armsman and his tutors and lonely hunts in the high hills, dreaming of winning a commission, glory, something beyond the endless sameness.
"Messer Stanson has very kindly invited us to dinner," Suzette said, a bare hint of wasp-warning in her voice.
"Yes, we can discuss the new draft," Stanson said.
"New draft?" Raj said. God, I'm tired,he thought.
"Yes, the Master of Soldiers, East Residence Area, saw fit to send us along about two hundred odds and sods in the way of reinforcements. Countersigned by the Vice-Governor's office." He produced the personnel order; Suzette's eyes dropped slightly. Anne,Raj knew. "We'll have to decided how to split them up."
"Oh, Helmt,"Suzette said pettishly, using his first name. "I thought you were going to tell me how you arranged for old Ebnzar's barge to sink at the water picnic!" She slapped at his hand lightly with her gloves. "You know you've got more men than you can use; besides, they look so fine, all on those beautiful Alsatians, wouldn't it be a pity to spoil it?"
Stanson smiled genially and patted her hand where it lay on the door of the carriage. "Of course, my dear Suzette, by all means." He raised his eyes to Raj. "You will be able to join us, fellow soldier?"
"Sorry," Raj said with an abrupt jerk of his head. "I'll have to call an officer's meeting, handle the details." With patently forced courtesy: "But by all means, Suzette, don't let me detain you; the meeting should last until 1100 or so. And if we could return the courtesy in a day or two?"
"Done," Stanson said, ignoring the patent insincerity. "Day after tomorrow it is." He turned to Suzette. "And tonight, do wear that fetching tweed riding outfit; quite dashing, my dear."
* * *
"Ser—" da Cruz began.
"I know, I know," Raj said shortly; he had changed and sponge-bathed in an echoing silence as Suzette dressed for her dinner party.
Now he looked about him; it was two hours past sundown, with Miniluna nearly full. Light enough to see the neat tent lines of the 5th, laid out as they were every night, and the mathematical arrangement of their campfires. An axe was falling on wood, somewhere, and some of the men were singing at their evening meal. A mounted squad trotted by, on their way out to night-patrol veddette duty; the duty corporal saluted smartly as he passed, and Raj returned it.
"It's the new draft. We're getting them all."
Master Sergeant da Cruz looked as if he had bitten into an orange and found it half-sour. "They isn't no prizes, ser," he said. "Only 'bout one in two's a Descott man, and a mort of 'em, they looks loik their sergeants was happier for their space 'n their company. And first and fifth companies is so unnerstrength, we put enough in to bring them up they'll be one-third replacements."
Raj nodded. All the companies in the 5th Descott Guards had originally been recruited from the personal retainers of some County nobleman or other; yeoman-tenants and vakaro herdsmen putting on uniform to follow their squire in the Governor's service, as they might have against bandits or raiders or in a feud at home. Over the years brother had followed brother and son father, and throwing strangers into those close-knit unities was asking for trouble. For that matter, moving men around from the other companies to ensure a better mix of old hand and newcomer would be almost as bad.
"I'll discuss it with the company commanders," Raj said. Duty is release from care,he thought to himself, quoting scripture. "But sound out the men, find a few due for promotion who'd be willing to move into the first and fifth companies as corporals, platoon sergeants, that sort of thing." The officers who had been shorting their companies preferred to keep dead noncoms on the strength, since their pay was higher. "Then we can keep those two from being overrun with newbies, at least."
Da Cruz nodded. "Ser." A pause. "There's also a matter of a discipline offense. Seein's yer gave the foraging order, I suggested to Senior Lieut'nat Staenbridge as you'd like to deal with it, beggin' yer pardon for the liberty, ser."
"All right, let's see to it."
The Senior Lieutenants' tents were pitched at the head of their company streets; two-room tents, a bedchamber at the rear just large enough for a cot and an office/sitting chamber collapsible at the front, filled by a collapsible table and a couple of chairs. Staenbridge and his aide were sitting at the table beneath the open flap doing paperwork when Raj arrived; they rose smartly and saluted, fist touching brow and shooting straight up in allegiance to the Stars. A hangdog looking trooper was standing before them, with evidence piled around his feet, and a few other figures were lurking at the edge of the circle of light cast by the lantern on the tentpole. And a full squad lined up with their rifles at port.
Raj returned the salute. "Evening, Gerrin," he said, putting things on an informal basis as for as the officers were concerned.
"Raj," the other man replied. His smile was slight but genuine; they had settled into a truce of wary mutual respect without much liking. In fact, I have asneaking suspicion I'd be much like him if I was stuck at company command level for a while with no prospect of anything else,Raj thought. One thing they did have in common was a like of getting the job done; Staenbridge had just gotten discouraged enough to forget what the job was.With a genuine military task at hand, things were going much better.
"Ensign Foley," Raj continued. Regularizing the boy's rank had seemed the most sensible thing to do. And hell, there were worse ways of learning the trade than as a military apprentice, and his birth was perfectly acceptable. The youth nodded and brought out some papers.
"You have a problem, Gerrin?" Raj continued.
"No," the other man answered. "One of my troopers has a problem. Sergeant?"
"Trooper Antin M'lewis, front and center!" da Cruz barked.
The soldier was rather thin for a Descott man, with a reddish tinge to his bowl-cut black hair, limping a bit on one leg that also sported a rip in its red trouser leg. Piled behind him were two pig carcasses, neatly gutted and with the edible organs inside the body cavity in burlap bags. Another burlap sack beside sagged open, showing onions, dried apples and figs, a loaf of dark-crusted bread and a clay jug. "Yer other sods, too!" Two nondescript soldier's servants; every eight-man squad was officially allowed one in the field, but the ratio was generally exceeded.
"He's in third of the first," Gerrin said. "Salman"—Nkita Salman, the Lieutenant of the first company's third platoon—"is out on veddette duty, so I'm the one that called you." He raised his voice slightly. "Complainants, step forward." A farmer, old enough to be stooped, in his Starday-go-to-church linen shirt and kerchief, with wooden clogs on his feet.
"Yis, m'lud," he said, going down on one knee, then bobbing erect at Gerrin's nod. "Koleman's m'name, lud. Farms on shares for Messer Trahn Minh, I does, n' pays m'crop to his collector at Broken Hill; twenty year've brought m'harvest an' Star Spirit witness never mor'n a stroke a' the rod to warm me back—"
"Yes, yes, goodman," Gerrin said. "Get on with it."
"Yis, m'lud. Out seein' t' the tobaccy wormin', me 'n muh sons an' son-in-law. 'M granson Tuk comes runnin', says there b'trouble at the house. Go there. Find thissere gun-boy—" he jerked a thumb at Trooper M'lewis "leapin' 'n hoppin' around the front door, like. Those other two, the slavies—" the servants, being freedmen, stirred angrily but subsided at the noncom's glare "—drivin' off in a one-dog cart. With m'pigs. Gun-boy jups up an' rides off on his dog. Yis. Askin' muh wife an" daughter what happenin'. Says t'gun-boy rides up, chases 'em into t'house, sets he slavies to slaughterin' t'pigs. That done, talks m'daughter—garmless frikkin' fork—into open door, says he payin'. Grabs her tits. She kicks 'n hollers, muh wife come out, slap a ladlefull 'a hot bran on his leg. Bar t'door agin while he yellin'."
The farmer ducked his head again. "We's law-abidin' folk, m'lud. Pays our taxes and tithes and rent regular, goes to Church ev'r second Starday. Enters our sins at Terminal. Gun-boy there ain't no Messer t' take muh pigs 'r grab muh daughter's tits. Askin' yuh justice, m'lud."
Gerrin blinked, kept his face straight with an effort that Raj, at least, could see. "It seems," he said, "that the women were direct witnesses. Why aren't they here?"
The peasant's jaw dropped. "Ah, t'forks, m'lud? As well bring a chicken to a law-speakin' as a fork."
Raj raised his brows. In Descott, the women would have blown a single-armed intruder in half with a shotgun, and put up his head for the men of the family to find when they got home, and mocked them with it at every rural frolic and meeting for a year and a tenday . . . Well, there was only one Descott County, more the pity; some of the other backwoods areas were almost as tough, though.
Gerrin turned to him; it was as much a test as a courtesy.
Raj crossed his arms and spoke: "Master Sergeant, this man's service record?"
"Ten year enlistment, seven served," da Cruz said; his voice took on more of an officer-class tone as he recited. "Marksman, first class; watch-stander." A good shot and literate, both accomplishments which meant extra pay. "Gold-of-valor durin' the Stern Isle skirmishes." The trooper's face had relaxed somewhat. "Twice promoted corporal, twice demoted. Strikin' a superior while drunk; theft from a fellow soldier." It fell again, and he looked at Raj out of the corner of his eyes.
Something in the expression and the man's name struck a cord in Raj's memory. "Home parish, soldier?" Softly: "It's a run-the-gauntlet offense to lie at a hearing, soldier."
The man swallowed. "Bufford parish, ser," he said flatly.
Da Cruz smiled openly, and Gerrin put a hand before his face to muffle his snort. "Messer Cap'n, ser!" the trooper burst out. "That's not justice, there's a mort of honest men in Bufford parish!"
"And they stay there, we don't see 'em," da Cruz said.
"No volunteer comments, Master Sergeant," Raj said, remembering the old saying: an ordinary Descotter bandit will steal your sheep and rape your daughter. A Bufford parish man will sell your daughter because the price is better, and be content with raping the sheep instead.
"What's your side of the story, soldier?"
"'Tis all lies and damned lies," M'lewis said passionately; his face shone with conviction. "Bought the food with good siller, ser, I did. Then the woman, she grabbed m' cock and dragged me towards the bushes, and cried rape when her men came home!"
"Let's see your leg, then," Raj said. Motionless for a moment, the soldier gave the peasant a glance that made him flinch, pure feral menace. Then he bent to roll up a pantleg.
"The right leg, M'lewis: the one yer limpin' on, man. Don't waste the Captain's time."
There was a splotched purple burn on the wiry flesh of the soldier's leg.
"Well, that settles it." Raj nodded toward the pile of meat. "Do you know the punishment for unauthorized plundering on Civil Government soil, Trooper M'lewis?"
"Ahh . . ." A hopeful smile, with crooked tobacco-browned teeth. "Stoppage of rum, ser?"
"Messer Captain ser, I'm a freeborn man and a Descott!"
Raj nodded. "For which I'm commuting the offense to one month's pay, and one month's punishment drill, and one month's . . . stoppage of rum." He met the man's eyes: as well lecture a feradog on its obligation to protect the sheep. "And be glad," he continued slowly, "that I don't add attempted rape and absent-without-leave in the face of the enemy. Your record says you've the makings of a good soldier, M'lewis. Don't make me hang you."
Raj looked over at the two servants. "Have them given twenty-four with the lash and a bucket of salt water," he said. They began to wail, struggling as the squad clubbed them down and manhandled them off to execute sentence. Raj raised an eyebrow at Gerrin, who nodded.
"We've got to get this under control," Raj said. "It's not just wrong, it's bad for discipline . . . Master Sergeant, announce it at muster tomorrow: from now on, no private purchases except what sutlers bring in to camp. The Quartermaster is to collect whatever's needed and buy in bulk; only men designated by the Quartermaster to leave camp for purchase of forage."
"Ser!" da Cruz saluted, stamped a heel and marched off.
"Ah, Captain." It was Ensign Foley, looking up from the muster roll he was annotating.
"The 2nd . . . well, the men won't like it, that they're restricted and the 2nd aren't. I think they're, ahh, grumbling." He flushed, looking down at the pen in his hands.
"Good thinking, lad . . . Ensign," Raj said. Gerrin put a prideful arm around the youth's shoulders. "But we'll have to live with it; if you let men be jackals, don't expect them to fight. Looting and rape are their privileges on foreign soil, not among our own people. Otherwise we're bandits. . . ." Raj grinned tiredly. "And I'm perfectly well aware they call me Brass-Ass behind my back. When a soldier stops grumbling, worry: if he's a Descott man and he stops grumbling, watch your back. . . . By the way, speaking of the 2nd, I'm having Stanson over tomorrow for dinner, and I'd appreciate it if you could attend. In fact—" he coughed, embarrassed "—I'd appreciate it if I could borrow your cook, Gerrin."